Gaetano Donizetti was born in Bergamo in the northern Lombardy region of Italy to a poor family with no formal education or music tradition. This makes his achievements as one of the most celebrated Italian opera composers of the day even more impressive. The key that unlocked the young Donizetti’s potential was the founding of a free music school in 1806 by the influential Johannes Simon Mayr. Donizetti was one of the first scholars at Mayr’s school and he attended until the age of 16. Mayr described Donizetti as a ‘high-spirited student…winning as many rewards as reprimands!’ and considered him to be extremely talented.
Mayr encouraged Donizetti to extend his music education in Bologna, which is where he made his first attempts at composing operas. Mayr also introduced Donizetti to the impresario Zancla in late 1817, for whom he composed his first four ‘apprentice piece’ operas.
The real start to Donizetti’s opera career came in Rome with his first opera success Zoraida di Granata (Teatro Argentina, January 1822) – the result of another introduction by Mayr. Donizetti was noticed by the famous opera impresario Barbaia and was invited to Naples, commissioned to compose two to three operas each year and conduct other composers’ works. Many consider this Naples period as Donizetti’s ‘Rossinian’ stage. No surprise to this, as Rossini had only just left Naples when Donizetti arrived, and his influence as Italy’s most popular and successful opera composer of the day was profound.
In 1828, Donizetti met and married Virginia Vasselli, the daughter of a Roman lawyer. Sadly, all their children died in infancy. Virginia died during a cholera epidemic in 1837 and left Donizetti grief-stricken. There is no doubt that his bereavement fostered a melancholy streak in the music of his later years.
The watershed moment for Donizetti’s career came with the success of Anna Bolena (1830) which played in both London and Paris. More success followed with L’elisir d’amore (1832) and Maria Stuarda (1835). In 1835 Rossini invited Donizetti to Paris where he was exposed to the grand opéra style of Meyerbeer. Donizetti was impressed by the superior musical and theatrical standards in Paris and the much higher remuneration given to composers! He returned to Naples to present Lucia di Lammermoor (September 1835). It was a triumph and is now considered to be a cornerstone of Italian Romanticism. Donizetti even adapted the score for a French version to great international success. With Lucia Donizetti’s pre-eminence among his contemporaries was clearly established.
In 1842 the premiere of Linda di Chamounix and his conducting of Rossini’s Stabat Mater where favourably received, but it was the premiere of Don Pasquale in 1843 at the Théâtre-Italien in Paris that was to become a huge overnight success and generally regarded as Donizetti’s most enduring comic masterpiece.
Sadly, after this operatic triumph Donizetti’s health worsened. By 1844 he was unable to concentrate or compose pieces of any length. He was diagnosed with advanced syphilis and this led to a stint in a sanatorium. In October 1847, his nephew arranged for Donizetti to be moved to his home in Bergamo where friends tended to him until his death 8 April 1848.