The Life and Work of Giuseppe Verdi
Updated: May 1, 2021
This orchestral piece was most likely given its first performance in the small town of Busseto in northern Italy on 27 February, 1838. It was composed and conducted by the town's 24 year old music director, a young man called Giuseppe Verdi.
Of course we know Giuseppe Verdi as the greatest of all Italian opera composers. But that night in Busseto in 1838, young Verdi was struggling to make a name for himself, and he felt as if he was wasting the most valuable years of his life in a provincial backwater.
Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi wasn't born in Busseto. He was born - on 9 or 10 October 1813 - in an even smaller place, the village of Roncole, 6 km south east of Busseto. In later life Verdi made out that he was born in the poorest of circumstances but this was stretching the truth a bit. His father, Carlo Verdi, was an innkeeper according to the composer's baptismal records, while the same documents describe his mother, Luigia Verdi (née Uttini) as a spinner. His parents were very much involved in the commerce of their village. Carlo Verdi, especially, was very keen for his son to be well-educated and to have the best possible start in life. In Roncole young Verdi studied with the local priests and that training certainly included music.
When Giuseppe was 10 the family moved to Busseto and the boy entered the school there. He was taught music by Francesco Provesi, who directed music at the town's main church, its music school and its Philharmonic Society. The evidence reveals that Verdi had a sustained and well-directed formal education, quite a cry from his later claims that he was completely self-taught.
In his teens young Giuseppe threw himself into every possible music experience a small town like Busseto could offer. He composed and performed, at church and in concerts. In 1831, the year he turned 18, he moved into the house of Antonio Barezzi, a Busseto merchant and amateur musician. Verdi gave music lessons to Barezzi's daughter Margherita, who was a few months younger than he, and the two soon fell in love.
There was no opera in a small town like Busseto and Verdi was keen to immerse himself in the larger world of Italian musical theatre. The most important operatic centre in northern Italy was then - and still is now - Milan, only 100 km to the north west. It was to Milan that the ambitious young Verdi turned his attention.
In 1832 Carlo Verdi set to work applying to a local charity for a scholarship to enable his son to study at the Milan Conservatory. The application was successful but there were no funds available until 1833. Antonio Barezzi offered to underwrite Verdi's studies for the first year in Milan until the scholarship was available, so off to the great city he went.
Verdi's application to study at the Milan Conservatory was refused on the grounds that he was too old and that he had faulty piano technique. He was stung by the rejection and was bitter about it for the rest of his life; in the short term, Barezzi agreed to provide extra funds for enable the young musician to study privately in Milan. He began studies with Vincenzo Lavigna, who had been a former senior musician at the great opera house of La Scala.
In Milan, Verdi made the most of every opportunity to network, to develop his knowledge of repertoire, and to develop his composing skills. His studies with Lavigna covered strict formal counterpoint and much else, and all up he spent four years under his tuition.
In mid-1835 it was felt that Verdi had learned all he could from Lavigna, but with no other prospects at hand, he returned to Busseto. Provesi had died in 1833 but his church duties had already been given to another musician. Verdi, though, took up the secular part of the position as music director of the Philharmonic Society. He composed many small orchestral works for the organisation, including the music referred to at the start of this post, and this piece, an Adagio for trumpet and orchestra. He was to remain in this post for another three years. He worked hard, but felt life was passing him by.
In 1836, Verdi married Margherita Barezzi and in the same year took the brave step of composing his first opera, called Rocester. Attempts to have Rocester performed in Parma were unsuccessful and over the next year or so we reworked the piece substantially. The new version was called Oberto, Count of San Bonifacio. It's clear that Verdi's mind was turning more and more to returning to Milan.
In 1837 Verdi and his wife had their first child, a daughter called Virginia, and the following year their second child, a son called Icilio Romano, was born. A month after the boy was born, though, Virginia died, aged only 17 months.
After nearly three years in his post in Busseto, Verdi decided to resign and move back to Milan. In early 1839 he and Margherita left Busseto for Milan, but tragedy struck again later in the year in when their son Icilio also died, aged only 15 months.
Amazingly, with a year of arriving in Milan, in November of 1839, Oberto, Verdi's first opera, had its premiere - and at La Scala, no less. The 26 year old Verdi scored a moderate success. [listen]
The success of Oberto led to La Scala offering Verdi a contract for three more operas over the next two years. He set to work on his second opera, a comedy called Un giorno di regno (“King for a Day”) but in June of 1840 he was dealt a huge blow when his wife Margherita died. He continued to work but the La Scala premiere of his comedy only three months after his bereavement was a complete disaster. He sank into a despondency which made him consider giving up composition entirely, and it was a year and a half before his next opera was performed.
Verdi later claimed that working on his third opera inspired him to resume his career as a composer and indeed, the new piece was a huge success when it was first performed. With its story of national pride based on the exile of the Jews in the Bible, Nabucco touched a nerve with the public, many of whom longed for an independent Italy free of Austrian domination. (The title is an abbreviation of "Nabucodonosor", the Italian version of the name of the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar.) With the premiere of Nabucco at La Scala in March 1842, Verdi's career was catapulted into orbit. [listen]
Nabucco's success was unprecedented - it had 57 performances - and this opened doors for Verdi in Milan. He was 29 but felt his provincial origins strongly. His drive and revitalised appetite for hard work clearly made its mark, and one of the important connections he made in Milan at this time was with the Countess Clara Maffei, whose salon he attended often. It was at this time that he also made the acquaintance of the celebrity soprano Giuseppina Strepponi. Strepponi had sung in Oberto and Nabucco (she created the role of Abigaille in the latter) and was famous for her performances in operas by Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini. She would continue to sing around Italy for the next few years before her retirement in 1846 due to vocal strain. But more importantly Strepponi and Verdi soon became lovers and she would remain Verdi's companion for more than fifty years.
The year after the premiere of Nabucco, 1843, was the start of a decade Verdi later called his "galley years". After Nabucco, he produced 16 operas in 11 years, an enormous amount of work in itself. But add to this two further considerations: firstly, these 16 operas were performed in no less than eight different cities, from London to Trieste. And secondly, Verdi was present to oversee the rehearsals and premieres of all but one of these operas. He travelled a great deal and was often composing a new opera while revising, rehearsing and performing the previous one.
And Verdi's manner of composition was extremely hands-on. As much as possible he insisted on being involved in the selection of the subject matter, the selection of the librettist, and the selection of the cast. He often required changes to the texts he was given to set and rarely accepted a libretto's first draft. As his fame and reputation increased he was able to have more clout in these matters; he needed to have total control over anything that would affect the final result.
In 1843 Verdi's next opera, I Lombardi alla prima crociata (“The Lombards on the First Crusade”), was premiered at La Scala. This tends to repeat the formula of Nabucco but with a much less-dominating leading soprano role. [listen] Verdi's first four operas, all performed at La Scala, were enough for other operatic centres to want a new opera from him as well. He had within four years gone from an unknown to being wanted by everyone.
Two new Verdi operas were premiered in 1844. In March he produced a new opera for the first time outside of Milan, with the premiere of Ernani in Venice. Ernani steps back from the grand, national spectacle of its two predecessors and focuses more on personal drama. What's more, in the third act Verdi broke new ground in terms of musical structure, anticipating by decades the more "through-composed" style he is usually said to have embraced only in his final two operas. Ernani is an important milestone in Verdi's career. [listen]
Verdi's second premiere of 1844 was in Rome. I due Foscari (“The Two Foscari”) had only a modest success at its premiere in November of that year, and in later years the composer himself disparaged it as being monotonous. But it must be said that the piece had many performances in the three decades or so following its initial season. These included seasons at the Italian Theatre in Paris, and two concurrent seasons in different theatres in London. Both Paris and London would soon have Verdi premieres of their own, and I due Foscari doubtless paved the way. [listen]
1845 also saw two new Verdi operas premiered. In February Giovanna d'Arco (“Joan of Arc”) was performed back at La Scala [listen], while the following August Verdi had his first premiere in Naples with the creation of Alzira. These early operas are not part of the regular repertoire today and are usually performed, if at all, as curiosities or as part of larger Verdi commemorations. Consequently, they have the reputation of being thoughtlessly-constructed and churned out to a formula.
The evidence points to exactly the opposite. Verdi was busy in the galley years - madly so - but part of this was due to his insistence on detail, on dramatic integrity and on experimenting with the operatic form to see how it could be made better. All the early operas contain evidence of his never-ending quest for dramatic integrity and power.
The only "problem" with Verdi's early operas is that they aren't the miraculous masterpieces the later operas are; they've always suffered from this unavoidable comparison. The fact remains, though, that there is much in the early Verdi operas to recommend them, even if they don't rise to the level of Aida, Otello, or Falstaff.
In the Prologue of Alzira, for example, Verdi makes what starts out to be a conventional sounding aria and extends it into a major scene in which the emotions swing wildly, with the music never settling into a regular form but always shifting with the content of the text. [listen]
In 1846 Verdi had only one premiere, that of Attila, which saw him return to Venice. Attila starts out in the grand "national" style of Nabucco and I Lombardi, but as the plot progresses it focuses more on individuals. This might reflect the fact that Attila had two libresttists: the early scenes were written by Temistocle Solera (who contributed to Verdi's grand style), while the later parts were written by Francesco Maria Piave. But it might also reflect Verdi's attempts to take a grand subject like Attila the Hun and yet find real, human emotions and situations in it. [listen]
Lest 1846 be regarded as a quiet year for Verdi, with only one premiere, 1847 certainly compensated, in having three new Verdi operas open in three different countries.
Macbeth was given its first performance at the Teatro Pergola in Florence in March of 1847. Verdi was fascinated by Shakespeare and he would of course return to Shakespeare for his last two operas half a century later. What remained uncomposed, but occasionally considered, was an operatic treatment of King Lear. Not even Verdi felt up to that.
Macbeth, though, is remarkable and considered by many as one of Verdi's major turning points. Here his use of orchestral detail to create special dramatic colour reaches a new high, and the use of harmony for dramatic purposes is also a striking feature of the score. Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene is one of the great challenges of the dramatic soprano repertoire, and the witches' music is vivid and bristling with energy. [listen]
After the successful premiere of Macbeth in Florence, Verdi left on an extended tour to oversee two more premieres much further afield. London saw the first performance of I masnadieri (“The Robbers”) in July of 1847, after which Verdi went to Paris for the premiere of his first opera to a French text, Jérusalem. Masnadieri was devised a vehicle for the famous Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, something reflected in the fact that hers was the only female role in the opera. [listen]
Verdi was not given enough time to compose a completely new work for Paris so he decided to revise an earlier opera. Jérusalem was an adaptation of I Lombardi from 1843, but far from being a simple French translation of the earlier work, Jérusalem contains much that is new, including a refashioned plot, and - as was required for the Paris Opéra - ballet music. [listen]
Verdi and Giuseppina Strepponi, though still unmarried, set up house in Paris, which remained the composer's base for some two years. His next opera, Il Corsaro (“The Corsair”) was premiered in Trieste in October 1848, but for once the composer was not present. This may have contributed to the opera's failure. [listen]
Though still based in Paris, Verdi travelled to Rome in January of 1849 to supervise the premiere of his next opera La battaglia di Legnano (“The Battle of Legnano”). This opera, buying right into the patriotic fervour engendered by the revolutionary events of 1848 across Europe, seems to meld the grand French style with Verdi's need to express real human emotion. [listen] Perhaps returning to the Italian peninsula after his time in Paris made him realise how much he missed his homeland, because in the middle of the year he and Giuseppina returned to Italy to live in Verdi's home town of Busseto. (It was home territory for Giuseppina too; she was born in Lodi which is between Busseto and Milan.) The Parisians seem not to have minded that the couple were living together while unmarried; the same could not be said for the inhabitants of this small Italian town. Some scandal was caused by Busseto's most famous son returning to live with a woman to whom he was not married, but the notoriously independent and non-conformist composer had little time for the niceties of religious or social sensitivities.
In December of 1849 Verdi's fifteenth opera was premiered in Naples. Luisa Miller breaks new ground in the sense that it is less clearly-definable as a genre. Mixing lighter and more serious elements it pays homage to the style of Donizetti and the genre of opera semiseria.
Luisa Miller contains a wonderful duet for two basses which seems to hint at the great duet for Philip and the Inquisitor in Don Carlo, still many years off in Verdi's life. [listen]
Less than a year later, Verdi's next opera, Stiffelio, was premiered in Trieste, this time with the composer present to keep an eye on things after the failure of Il Corsaro in the same city. Stiffelio had problems there, too, because it confronted its audiences with things they found hard to grasp. The story of a married Protestant clergyman who regards it as his Christian duty to forgive marital infidelity was not the normal stuff of Italian opera. The censors also thought it blasphemous to have the New Testament quoted in a church, even if it was a pretend church onstage. These stumbling blocks are a shame, because Stiffelio has much to recommend it both in its music and in the humanity of its drama. One of the highlights is Lina's darkly agonised recitative and aria which opens the second act. A guilt-ridden soliloquy set in a graveyard, it suggests the greatness of Amelia's mighty scene in Un ballo in maschera, also some years in the future at this stage. [listen]
Stiffelio marks the end of the the operas usually categorised these days as Verdi's "early" works, but it doesn't mark the end of the galley years for the hard-working composer. The galley years ended with three more operas, but these three operas are usually set apart as being different, which indeed they are. These are among not only Verdi's greatest achievements but they must surely rank among the most popular and most regularly-performed operas ever.
Only five months after the premiere of Stiffelio in Trieste, Verdi was in nearby Venice to oversee the production of his next opera, Rigoletto. Rigoletto was subject to severe censorship restrictions on numerous grounds, but Verdi managed to overturn nearly every obstacle set in his way. In so doing he produced a powerful heart-rending and above all human drama which has been at the centre of the operatic canon ever since. [listen]
Later in 1851, Verdi and Giuseppina moved a little further away from the disapproving gossip of Busseto and took up residence at the farm of Sant'Agata. This was to be their permanent home base.
No new Verdi works were premiered in 1852, but the year was taken up with the composition of his next two operas. Despite being very different from each other, and from Rigoletto, these next two works joined Rigoletto in being known as Verdi's three "middle period" masterpieces. Il trovatore (“The Troubadour”) was premiered in Rome in January of 1853 [listen], while La traviata (“The Wayward Woman”) was first performed only two months later in Venice. Traviata was, infamously, a failure on its opening night. The Venetian audience was not prepared to be confronted with a story so close to their own reality: a courtesan living, unmarried, with a man she was supporting. Verdi too admitted there were shortcomings with the score, and perhaps in his cast. Its later revival - in another Venice theatre and with a different leading lady - saw it achieve the popularity it has never lost. [listen]
La traviata was Verdi's nineteenth opera. 19 operas in 15 years is an incredible achievement, and he was still just 40 years old.
This dramatic music marks the start of the second half of Verdi's career. By 1853 he was regarded as the leading composer of Italian opera, not bad for someone who had started his life in a small northern Italian town and who been rejected as a student by the Milan Conservatoire.
The disastrous premiere of Traviata in Venice in 1853 marks the end of what Verdi himself called his "galley years", creating one, two, sometimes three new operas a year for a decade. Now Verdi's life changed. His production of new operas slowed considerably. He was more secure financially and he was often irritated by the demands of the operatic world. More than once he contemplated giving up composing entirely and devoting himself to his lover, Giuseppina Strepponi, and his farm at Sant' Agata.
Clearly the troubles over Traviata had been part of the reason he decided to spend two more years in Paris (ironically, the setting for the opera), where he had spent considerable time before. This led to a commission from the Paris Opéra to compose a completely new piece for them. In 1847 he'd substantially revised his fourth opera, I Lombardi, to create a new French work for Paris known as Jérusalem. But this time he was to compose a new French opera in the grand manner exclusively for Paris.
The new piece, Les Vêpres Siciliennes (“The Sicilian Vespers”), was mostly written in 1854. It was a massive undertaking, and hugely difficult for all sorts of reasons. Verdi hated the libretto, the fossilised formal requirements of the Paris Opéra irked him no end, and he felt very much like a fish out of water. The rehearsals dragged on for months and months, the soprano disappeared for a while, Verdi considered giving up and going home... It was all a mess.
Considering all this, it was amazing that the piece, once it finally premiered in Paris in June 1855, was a huge success with both the public and the critics; in its first season it had 50 performances. Its subsequent history though, has been chequered and despite various attempts to make the story of Italians massacring the French more palatable, the opera (in its Italian version of I vespri siciliani) never really caught on back in Italy.
The link at the start of Part Two of this post was to the overture to the original French version. This is the end of the third act, showing Verdi's take on the dramatic French style demanded of him in Paris. [listen]
History has not been kind to Verdi's first French grand opera. In his book on the Verdi operas, Charles Osborne said, "Verdi's dislike of the sprawled lifelessness of Scribe's libretto and of its inane offensiveness was hardly likely to lead to the composition of a masterpiece. But the more one looks at and listens to [the work], the more frustrated one feels at the thought of so much splendid music married not only to so impossible a text but also to so unviable a form as that of the five-act French grand opera." Arrigo Boito, though, who not only knew Verdi but was of course the librettist for his last two operas, wrote of The Sicilian Vespers in these terms: "It would take a long time to enumerate all the graces and the strength of this solemn opera, for one would have to stop and admire every piece".
After staying in Paris for a few months after the premiere of The Sicilian Vespers, Verdi and Giuseppina returned to Italy at the end of 1855. He had several projects to deal with. One of these was adapting Stiffelio in order to make it more acceptable to the censors and the general public. The other was going to Venice to supervise the successful revival of La traviata at the Fenice opera house. While in Venice, the Fenice offered him a contract for a new opera.
The new opera, Simon Boccanegra, was worked on during 1856, during which time Verdi travelled to London and Paris. In Paris he supervised the French premiere of Il trovatore, which of course required him to compose new ballet music to suit the French taste. Boccanegra was premiered in Venice in March 1857.
The new opera failed with the public but ignited the interest of the critics - there's one for the books! - and Verdi always had a soft spot for the piece; he couldn't understand why it wasn't a popular success. Much later in his life, in 1881, he was persuaded to look again at Boccanegra and revised it. As it now stands, Simon Boccanegra is one of the great Verdi scores. It has less of the profusion of memorable tunes that we find in Rigoletto, Trovatore or Traviata. But Verdi here responded to an intensely dramatic story with music which is dramatic first, and tuneful second. He'd turned another corner. [listen]
With Boccanegra premiered in Venice in March 1857, Verdi's next premiere was of the revised version of Stiffelio. Given in Rimini at the end of 1857, the work was substantially altered and a new ending added. This new version, called Aroldo, has much to recommend it, especially the new ending, and is different enough from Stiffelio to be able to be viewed as a separate work in its own right.
Verdi often had trouble with the censors, as much for political reasons as moral ones. In our own liberal times we tend to forget that plays and operas had to be deemed acceptable by the authorities before they could be presented publicly. In the days before mass media, the theatre was a powerful means of disseminating ideas, and if these ideas were contrary to those in power, then trouble could result. Mozart had difficulty getting his operatic version of Figaro approved, given that the original Beaumarchais play was banned in Vienna at the time. Even Handel had to submit the texts of his oratorios - the oratorios, even those based on the Bible - to the Government censors in London before he could perform them.
Given the domination of the Austrian Empire over much of northern Italy in the early 19th century, Italians were understandably keen to voice their nationalist sentiments as much as their Austrian overlords were keen for such sentiments to be repressed. When Verdi came to write his next opera, he came up against a huge wall of censorial opposition to his plan to show on stage the historical assassination of a reigning monarch.
The true story of the 1792 assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden had already been turned into a French opera libretto, and it was this that Verdi wanted to adapt for his own use. The opera, Un ballo in maschera (“A Masked Ball”) [listen], was the cause of huge legal wranglings over the libretto, so sensitive was it regarded by the authorities. Eventually the work was banned unless the original Swedish setting and characters were changed, and Verdi had no choice but to agree to it being reset in the United States, with the murder of a mythical British governor in Boston. It was in the American setting that the work was given its premiere in Rome in February 1859. [listen]
After the anguished period leading up to the premiere, Verdi must have been relieved that the A Masked Ball was received well. This was the occasion when someone noticed that Verdi's name could be used as an acrostic, with the letters V.E.R.D.I. standing for Vittorio Emanuele, Re d'Italia (Victor Emanuel, King of Italy). In other words, "Viva Verdi!" became a rallying cry for those seeking a unified and independent Italian nation. But politics aside, Ballo is one of the great Verdi operas, full of drama and melody wedded in a perfectly balanced score. Sadly, though, the composer never got the chance to perform it with the Swedish setting and characters. The opera is often given today in the original setting with the Swedish character names restored.
After the premiere of Ballo, Verdi didn't compose for about three years. He and Giuseppina were secretly married in August of that year, and he also became active in Italian politics. In February 1861, he was elected to the first parliament of the newly-unified Italy, after long resisting pressure to put himself forward as a candidate. He eventually extricated himself from political life, though, and contemplated a return to opera. He accepted a commission to write a new work for the Imperial Theatre in St Petersburg (Italian opera had been popular in Russia since the 18th century) and the new opera, La forza del destino (“The Force of Destiny”) was premiered there in November 1862. [listen]
Despite the success of Forza in Russia, Verdi himself wasn't completely satisfied with the work and revised it. The revised version is the one usually performed today, but regardless of this, Forza is one of the major achievements of the Verdi canon, a dark, powerful drama with dark, powerful music.
In 1865 Verdi revised another of his early operas for performance in Paris; this time it was Macbeth. The following year, finding winters at their farm in Sant' Agata too brutal, the Verdis set up a winter residence in Genoa. Another commission for a grand opera for Paris soon followed, and Verdi accepted. The couple spent nearly a year in Paris in 1866/67 preparing for the premiere of one of Verdi's largest and most complex scores, the original French version of Don Carlos.
In its original version for Paris, premiered in March 1867, Don Carlos had five acts. Verdi revised the work in Italian, as Don Carlo, several times over the next few years and there are Italian-language versions in five acts and in four. Each of these versions has its supporters and detractors and all have some sort of currency today. What is undeniable that in any form, Don Carlos or Carlo is a magnificent work on a huge scale. [listen]
One city's name, so prominent in Part One of this post, has not yet been mentioned in Part Two, namely Milan. Verdi's first opera, and many others, had been premiered at La Scala, but in the late 1840s his connection with Milan unravelled. His last opera to have been premiered there was Giovanna d'Arco in 1845. He visited Milan in 1848 but for the following 20 years he had had virtually no connection with the city that was once the centre of his career.
Now, in 1868 he re-established contact with La Scala, and with the city of Milan generally. A revised version of La forza del destino was given at La Scala in February 1869, and it was at this time that Verdi hatched the plan for a number of Italian composers to band together and write a Requiem Mass for Rossini (Italy’s most famous opera composer of the generation before Verdi), who had died in 1868. The music was composed but disputes over the location of the performance (Verdi wanted it to be in Bologna) and other matters led to the project's cancellation. The score was forgotten until it was rediscovered in 1970; the first performance of this multi-composer piece was given in 1988. Read more about it here. [listen]
Verdi's contribution to the Mass for Rossini was the final Libera me, which he revised as the final movement of his own Requiem five years later. But before that he received a commission to compose a new opera for - of all places - Cairo. Verdi's Egyptian opera, Aida, was the result, but contrary to popular belief Aida was not written to commemorate the opening of the Suez Canal. Nor was it used to open the new Cairo opera house (Verdi's Rigoletto had fulfilled that honour). But Aida was certainly written for the new building and premiered there in December 1871. The cast (and I imagine most of the orchestra) were Italians, and the event was a huge success. Verdi didn't go to Cairo but stayed in Milan, rehearsing the cast for the Italian premiere at La Scala, which took place two months later.
Aida was a huge hit and has never been out of the repertoire, a status completely deserved in my opinion. Rarely has the anguish of a love triangle ever been played out so powerfully in music. [listen]
After the Milan premiere of Aida in February 1872, Verdi was busy in Naples supervising rehearsals of both Don Carlo and Aida. The leading soprano in both productions, Teresa Stolz, became ill during the preparations for Aida, and while activities were postponed, the ever-industrious composer filled in the time by composing a beautiful string quartet in E minor. [listen]
Teresa Stolz looms large in Verdi's life from this point on. Scholars are strongly divided whether or not she and Verdi were lovers. There is much gossip, and some letters now known to be forgeries, but little hard evidence. Stolz was certainly close to Verdi, and on good terms with Giuseppina, right up to Giuseppina's death. If Stolz and Verdi were lovers then it would almost certainly have been with the approval - or at least resigned acceptance - of Giuseppina. And more immediate to Verdi's career in the early 1870s, Teresa Stolz sang the soprano solo in his next major work, the Messa da Requiem.
Written to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of the patriotic Italian poet Alessandro Manzoni, Verdi's own complete setting of the Requiem was premiered in Milan in May 1874 - in the church of San Marco - conducted by the composer. (I visited the church when I was in Milan some years ago and was amazed to find that it's not terribly large. The piece must have been deafening in there.) While the mezzo soprano soloist has the lion's share of the solo work (and the choral and orchestral writing is overwhelmingly magnificent), Stolz had centre stage in the last movement, the Libera me, which reworks, and expands the music Verdi had written for the unrealised Rossini Requiem project. [listen]
Verdi's Requiem is of course one of the central works of the choral repertoire; it has been since day one. After the Milan premiere it was taken on a tour of Europe where it triumphed everywhere it was heard. Of course it's a concert work, not intended for liturgical performance, but it's no less sacred - and no less theatrical - for that. It is what it is: music written on the grandest scale imaginable by the supreme Italian dramatic composer. I love it deeply.
When Verdi conducted the premiere of the Requiem he was 60. After the tour he had no plans to write another opera and he divided his life between that of a gentleman farmer at Sant' Agata and travelling to supervise revivals of his operas in various cities. He’d become comfortably well off and could have lived off his various royalties and fees; had he ended his career with Aida and the Requiem we would still adore him today. But as he grew older and remained in good health, plans were hatched to encourage him to compose again.
Various suggestions were subtly made by his publisher and others; the bait which worked was Shakespeare. He'd long contemplated King Lear as an operatic subject but had never felt able to carry it out; the emotional scope of the play was too daunting.
But after meeting the young Italian composer and librettist Arrigo Boito, he was persuaded. Boito would write the text and Verdi would compose one more opera, and Shakespeare was the source. In 1879 they started Otello (Italian for Othello). More than seven years later, in February 1887, Otello was triumphantly premiered at La Scala. How could it not be a success? What opera had ever opened like this? [listen]
Verdi was 73 by the time Otello was premiered. The miracle of invention, the power, the completely fresh approach to writing music drama, took everyone by surprise. He was never, even in his earliest years, content to repeat a formula. His constant battles with librettists and censors show his obsession with dramatic truth and immediacy. Otello was in many ways the culmination of his life's work.
Or it would have been had he not managed to top even that. In 1890, the year he turned 77, he decided to tackle one more operatic project and of all things, it was a comedy. Shakespeare again was the source, and Boito again was the librettist. Verdi hadn't attempted a comedy since the failure of his second opera half a century earlier in 1840. Now, with Falstaff, his 28th opera, Boito and the composer drew on one of Shakespeare's finest comic characters and took their material from The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV.
Falstaff was premiered at La Scala in February 1893, eight months before the composer turned 80. It is an undisputed masterpiece from start to finish, full of the joy of life and the wisdom of years. It also shows not one ounce of diminution in Verdi's technique or powers of invention. If anything, his skills were better than eve
Four and a half years after the premiere of Falstaff, Verdi's companion and wife Giuseppina died. They had been together for half a century and Verdi felt her loss deeply. In 1900 he left the farm at Sant' Agata and moved to Milan. He died there on 27 January 1901 at the age of 87. Italy's mourning was immediate, nation-wide and very genuine.
There is no way an article like this can do justice to the unique contribution of Giuseppe Verdi to musical art, but I hope it's given some sort of context to his better-known works, and perhaps also given you some leads for further exploration. I've been privileged to have conducted seasons of four Verdi operas - Il trovatore, La traviata, Un Ballo in Maschera, and Aida - all for the State Opera of South Australia. These rank among the greatest and most thrilling experiences of my career. To me, Verdi knows what I need to hear even before I do, and when I hear it I think there's nothing else which could possibly have taken its place. You don't encounter a mind like that every day.
Falstaff ends with one of the most amazing things Verdi ever wrote: a fugue for the entire cast on a text which ends, "He who laughs last, laughs best". There's no better way to end than that. [listen]
This article is based on a pair of Keys To Music programs first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in April, 2013.