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Giuseppe Verdi - Italy's shining light

28 May 2020
Man in trench coat surrounded by 3 figures in clown figures.

Romantic ideas dominated the 19th century and many great composers arose to satisfy the thriving public's ears. Among these was Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), who lived in northern Italy. Although he had also written a version of the Requiem Mass, a string quartet and several other songs, Verdi remains known for his Italian operas.

Unlike many other composers of the time, Verdi was not born into a family of musicians; his father ran an inn in a nearby small town and his mother worked as a spinner. Though Verdi never had extreme musical influence, his craving for that aspect of life became strong. As a boy, Verdi displayed this talent and love for music by playing the church organ and conducting the town band in Busseto. One of the town's merchants took him into his home, and later sent him to Milan to study but he soon returned to his hometown to marry.

Verdi's perfect life rapidly fell apart. Before his fifth wedding anniversary, Verdi faced trauma: the triple tragedy of the death of his two children and his wife Margherita, followed by the catastrophic failure of his second opera Un giorno di regno. Depression overcame Verdi and he was unable to concentrate on his work.

Thankfully, Verdi was forced to read the libretto of Nabucco, the opera which brought him to fame and ignited his career once again. After he accomplished this major success, he was able to complete 15 others within the following 11 years, which included Rigoletto, Il trovatore and La traviata. Following the sensationally popular La traviata Verdi’s pace slowed as he focussed on larger works, including Les vêpres siciliennes and Don Carlos for the Paris Opéra. After Aida, a massive work commissioned to celebrate the opening of the Cairo Opera House, Verdi apparently retired.

Nearly ten years later, Verdi’s publisher Giulio Ricordi enticed him back to composition by proposing a collaboration with the young composer and librettist Arrigo Boito. A revised Simon Boccanegra was followed by two last, great operas, based on works by Shakespeare, Verdi’s favourite playwright: Otello and Falstaff.

Verdi's personal letters reveal a man of uncompromising integrity. He was intimately involved with every stage of his operas’ creation, often writing nearly as much of the libretto as his chosen librettist. Editors, directors, performers, conductors; no one was safe from Verdi's infamous wrath. From Les vepres siciliennes onward, his publisher Ricordi issued production books - disposizioni sceniche - which record exactly how his operas were to be staged.

Verdi died in Milan in 1901 and a solemn procession accompanied his remains from their first, temporary burial ground to a permanent resting place in the Casa di Riposa per Musicisti (Home for Retired Musicians) he himself had created some years earlier. Some 300,000 people crammed the streets of Milan (more than half the city's population). As the procession left the cemetery, Va, pensiero, the lament for a lost homeland that Verdi had written 60 years earlier, for Nabucco, was sung by a chorus of 800 voices, conducted by Toscanini, and when the cortège reached the Casa di Riposa, it was greeted by the Miserere from Il trovatore.

There we have it, the story of Verdi - the King of skilful melody and theatrical effect.