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Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi (October 10, 1813 - January 27, 1901) is to date the most influential composer of the Italian School of Opera. His greatest works (i.e. Rigoletto, La Traviata, Aida), known for their abundance of expressive melody, are frequently performed in opera houses throughout the world and, transcending the boundaries of the genre, some of his themes have long since taken root in popular culture (La donna è mobile, from Rigoletto). Oftentimes scoffed at by the critics, in his lifetime and today, as catering to the tastes of the common folk, overly simple in chromatic texture and shamelessly melodramatic, Verdi's masterpieces dominate the standard repertoire a century and a half after their composition.
Verdi was born in 1813 (the same year as Richard Wagner, his most important rival and the leading composer of the German School of Opera) in Le Roncole, near Busetto (the Duchy of Parma). His father was an innkeeper. When he was still a child, Verdi's parents moved to Busetto, where the future composer's education was greatly facilitated by his visits to the large library belonging to the local Jesuit school. Also in Busetto, Verdi received his first lessons in composition from Ferdinando Provesi, who was in charge of the local philharmonic society.
In Milan, where Verdi went to continue his studies when he was twenty, the Conservatory of Music did not accept him, citing the fact that he was two years over the age limit. Verdi took private lessons in counterpoint while attending operatic performances in Milan, as well as lesser concerts of, specifically, Viennese music. Association with Milan's beaumonde convinced him he should pursue a career as a theatre composer.
Returning to Busetto, he became town music master and, in 1836, married Margherita Barezzi. Their two children died in infancy.
The production of his first opera, Oberto, by Milan's La Scala, achieved a degree of success, after which Bartolomeo Merelli, an impresario with La Scala, offered Verdi a contract for two more works. This resulted in Un giorno di regno and Nabucco. His wife died while he was working on the former, which flopped at the premiere. However, Nabucco, produced in 1842, made Verdi famous. A number of operas followed shortly, I Lombardi and Ernani among them, premiering in various Italian cities.
In 1847, I Lombardi, revised and renamed (Jerusalem), was produced by the Paris Opera and, due to a number of Parisian conventions that had to be honored, became Verdi's first work in the grand-opera style.
At the age of thirty-eight, Verdi began an affair with Giuseppina Strepponi, a soprano in the twilight of her career, whom he married eleven years later (their cohabitation before marriage was regarded as scandalous in some of the places they lived). She soon retired and Verdi, remembering Gioacchino Rossini's example, decided to retire as well. He was well-off, famous, and in love. It may have been Giuseppina herself who convinced him to continue his career. The result was the first of the truly great Verdi operas: Rigoletto. Based on a play by Victor Hugo, the libretto had to undergo substantive revisions in order to satisfy the epoch's censorship, and the composer was on the verge of giving it all up a number of times before finally everything fell into place. The opera was produced in Venice in 1851 and soon became a great success.
Rigoletto is, arguably, the greatest opera yet written. In it, Verdi's artistic generosity is at its highest. Unspeakably beautiful melodies are tossed right and left, passages of celestial beauty scattered like pearls and never repeated, numerous arias, duets, trios and a quartet follow one another in an unceasing celebration of musical genius; passions vibrate; comedy and tragedy merge seamlessly.
La Traviata, Verdi's next great opera, was composed and produced two years later. It is based on Alexandre Dumas, fils' play The Lady of the Camellias.
A number of operas followed, among them such repertoire staples as Les vêpres siciliennes (commissioned by the Paris Opera), Il Trovatore, Un ballo in maschera, La forza del destino (commissioned by the Imperial Theatre of St. Petersburg), and a second version of Macbeth.
In 1869, Verdi composed a Requiem Mass in memory of Gioacchino Rossini.
Verdi's final great opera, Aida, was commissioned from him for the celebration of the opening of the Suez Canal. According to some sources, when the organizers approached Verdi, he turned them down. They warned him they would ask Charles Gounod instead. Verdi agreed that they should. Only when they threatened to engage Richard Wagner's services did Verdi begin to show some considerable interest.
In fact, the two composers, who were the leaders of their respective schools of music, seemed to resent each other greatly. They never met. Verdi's comments on Wagner and his music are few and hardly benevolent ("He invariably chooses, unnecessarily, the untrodden path, attempting to fly where a rational person would walk with better results"), but at least one of them is kind: upon learning of Wagner's death, Verdi lamented: "Sad! Sad! Sad! ... a name that leaves a most powerful mark on the history of our art." Of Wagner's comments on Verdi, only one is well-known. After listening to Verdi's Requiem, the great German, prolific and eloquent in his comments on some other composers, said, "It would be best not to say anything."
Aida premiered in Cairo in 1871 and was an instant success.
The next dozen years Verdi worked sparingly if at all, slowly revising some of his earlier scores.
Otello, based on William Shakespeare's play, premiered in Milan in 1887. Its music is "continuous" and cannot easily be divided into separate "numbers" to be performed in concert. Although masterfully orchestrated, it lacks the melodic lustre so characteristic of Verdi's earlier, great, operas.
Verdi's last opera, Falstaff, whose libretto, by Arrigo Boito, was based on Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor and subsequent Victor Hugo's translation, was a moderate success: mainly, the audiences wished to express their gratitude to the old composer. The score is chiefly algebraic and contains none of Verdi's former melodic genius.
Verdi died in 1901. Thus, he may have heard, or perused the scores of, Giacomo Puccini's La bohème and Tosca, Ruggiero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, Petr Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades, but, unfortunately, what he thought of these operas, penned by his immediate and fairly worthy successors, remains a mystery.
Verdi's operas are a staple of the standard repertoire.
Verdi's role in the Risorgimento
In the 1840s, the popularity of Verdi's music coincided with the Risorgimento, the campaign for a unified Italian nation. The wild success of Nabucco in particular put Verdi's name and music in the minds of many Italians at the time. They perceived in Verdi's works a sadness that reflected their own unhappiness with the status quo, and a vibrant strain conjuring romantic visions of Italian unification. Verdi's songs were especially resonant in Milan, then under Austrian occupation.
In particular, Nabucco's "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves", the tender lament of captives in Babylonia, was an immense success, and reportedly could be heard sung in the streets of Milan in 1843. Also known as Va' Pensiero from its first line, the song has been proposed from time to time as the Italian national anthem. It begins:
Fly, thought, on wings of gold;
go settle upon the slopes and the hills
where the sweet airs of our
native soil smell soft and mild!
...Oh, my country, so lovely and lost!
Oh remembrance so dear yet unhappy!
Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate;
va, ti posa sui clivi, sui colli
ove olezzano tepide e molli
l'aure dolci del suolo natal!
...Oh, mia patria sì bella e perduta!
Oh, membranza sì cara e fatal!
Full lyrics can be found here:  and a recording (MP3 format) here: .
Milan was still under Austrian occupation and was beginning to consider supporting Victor Emmanuel's effort in Italian reunification, as it afterwards did. Clandestine partisans started therefore plotting to have the then-King of Sardinia conquer Milan. Due to severe Austrian censorship, this campaign was given a codename: "Viva VERDI." Verdi was a secret acronym for Vittorio Emanuele Re D'Italia (Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy). This enabled nationalists to freely shout their support for Victor Emmanuel, while outsiders assumed they were fans of the composer. Giuseppe Verdi was aware of this use of his name and is supposed to have consented.
Other references to political events have been seen in Verdi's I Lombardi.
Verdi's predecessors who influenced his music were Rossini, Bellini, Giacomo Meyerbeer and, most notably, Gaetano Donizetti. With the possible exception of Otello, he was free of Wagner's influence. Although respectful of Gounod, Verdi was careful not to learn anything from the Frenchman whom many of Verdi's contemporaries regarded as the greatest living composer. Some strains in Aida suggest at least a superficial familiarity with the works of the Russian composer Mikhail Glinka, whom Franz Liszt, after his tour of the Russian Empire as a pianist, popularized in Western Europe.
Throughout his career, Verdi refused to use the high C in his tenor arias, citing the fact that the opportunity to sing that particular note in front of an audience distracts the performer before and after the note comes on.
Although his orchestration is often masterful, Verdi relied heavily on his melodic gift as the ultimate instrument of musical expression. In fact, in many of his passages, and especially in his arias, the harmony is ascetic, with the entire orchestra occasionally sounding as if it were one large accompanying instrument - a giant-sized guitar playing chords. Some critics maintain he paid insufficient attention to the technical aspect of composition, lacking as he did schooling and refinement. Verdi himself once said, "Of all composers, past and present, I am the least learned." He hastened to add, however, "I mean that in all seriousness, and by learning I do not mean knowledge of music."
However, it would be incorrect to assume that Verdi underestimated the expressive power of the orchestra or failed to use it to its full capacity where necessary. Moreover, orchestral and contrapuntal innovation (for instance, the strings doing the rapid ascending scale in Monterone's scene in Rigoletto to accentuate the drama, or, also in Rigoletto, the choir humming six closely grouped notes backstage to portray, very effectively, the brief ominous wails of the approaching tempest) is characteristic of his style; so much so that other composers dare not make use of the numerous instantly recognizable devices he invented; they remain, to this day, Verdi's signature tricks.
Verdi was one of the first composers who insisted on patiently seeking out plots to suit their particular talents. Working closely with his librettists and well aware that dramatic expression was his forte, he made certain that the initial work upon which the libretto was based was stripped of all "unnecessary" detail and "superfluous" participants, and only characters brimming with passion and scenes rich in drama remained.