Giuseppe Verdi was born at Le Roncole, near Busseto (Parma) on October 9th or 10th, 1813; his father was an innkeeper, his mother a spinner. The young boy soon showed his talent for music, as evidenced by the phrases written on his spinet by the harpsichord maker Cavalletti, who in 1821 repaired the instrument for free, "seeing the good disposition of young Giuseppe Verdi for learning to play this instrument". His education in the arts and humanities was enriched in the large library of the Jesuit school in Busseto, still in use today.
The foundations of musical composition and instrumental playing were given to him by Ferdinando Provesi, maestro of the local Philharmonic society, but his advanced training took place in Milan. He was not admitted to the Conservatory of Music (he was over the age limit), so he studied counterpoint for three years with Vincenzo Lavigna, who had been harpsichordist at the Scala Theatre; in the meantime, he frequented the theatres in Milan, getting to know the operatic repertoire of his time. In the Milan still under the influence of Austrian domination, he also heard classical Viennese music, especially string quartets. His introduction into aristocratic Milanese society and contacts with the theatre directed him toward his destiny as a young composer: rather than dedicate himself to sacred music as a choir-master or to instrumental composition, he worked almost exclusively with theatrical music.
His first opera, originally called Rochester (1837), the fruit of a protracted elaboration, was eventually transformed into Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio, which was performed at the Scala Theatre for the first time on November 17th, 1839, with moderate success. The impresario of Milan's most important theatre, Bartolomeo Merelli, offered him a contract for two more operas: Un giorno di regno (Il finto Stanislao), a comic opera, performed only once (September 5th, 1840), and Nabucco, which premièred on March 9th, 1842, finally revealing Verdi's true talent in all its glory. This model of grandiose drama, where the plot is laid out in sweeping strokes, was repeated in Verdi's next opera, I Lombardi alla prima crociata (Milan, Scala, February 11th, 1843), and then Ernani, where the dramatic experience emerges as a conflict of passions between the various characters. This style was further developed in I due Foscari (Rome, Argentina Theatre, November 3rd, 1844) and refined in Alzira (Naples, San Carlo, August 12th, 1845). These operas from Verdi's early period are all individually characteristic because each one explores a different aspect of the dramatic/musical experience. Thus, in Giovanna d'Arco, from Schiller's tragedy (Milan, Scala, February 15th, 1845), the supernatural element plays a determining role in the story, once again cut in grandiose swaths; while in Attila (Venice, La Fenice, March 17th, 1846) the experimentation consisted both in its spectacular staging as well as the complex organisation of each act of the score. With Macbeth (Florence, La Pergola Theatre, March 14th, 1847), Verdi for the first time took on a Shakespearean subject, emphasising especially the dramatic ties between crucial moments of the story with exclusively musical elements.
By the age of thirty-four Verdi was already internationally famous: his operas were performed in all the theatres in the world, and new ones were commissioned by the most important Italian opera houses. But Verdi was not one to rest on his laurels: The transformation of I Lombardi into Jérusalem (Paris, Opéra, November 26th, 1847) was his first encounter with the challenge (but also with the impressive means at his disposal) of French grand opéra, an experience carried over to La battaglia di Legnano (Rome, Argentina Theatre, January 27th, 1849), in which individual conflicts and patriotic aspirations, generated by the contemporaneous explosion of risorgimental movements, alternate throughout the musical score. In Luisa Miller (Naples, San Carlo, December 8th, 1849) on another Schiller subject, the conflict shifts through various social levels as well, with innocence succumbing in the end. With Stiffelio (Trieste, Teatro Grande, November 16th, 1850), the bourgeois setting of a religious sect brings to light the conflict between individual sentiments and the duty imposed by a spiritual office. In Rigoletto (Venice, La Fenice, March 11th, 1851), Verdi's art reached its highest pinnacle in a perfectly linked chain of dramatic events (thanks also to Victor Hugo's model which Verdi carefully followed), illustrated with equal musical perfection: the court jester's revenge for the libertine duke's outrageous behaviour toward his daughter comes to fall back horribly onto him during the terrible unleashing of nature's fury in a storm. La traviata (La Fenice, Venice, March 6th, 1853) was also built on individual human dimensions, in this case a heroine, a courtesan who offers herself in sacrifice to the hypocritical conventions of the society in which she lives. In both these operas the action is linear and develops in an increasingly intense rhythm, but the action in Il Trovatore (Rome, Apollo Theatre, January 19th, 1853) is different. Taken from a play of the same name by Garcìa Gutiérrez, the motivations that determine the movement of the plot are continually side-stepped; the dramatic action is constantly sublimed in the musical gesture, resulting in a form of theatrical purity for which no other examples or models exist.
Verdi once more took up the challenge of grand opéra with Les Vêpres siciliennes (Paris, Opéra, June 13th, 1855), for the first time having to deal with declamation in French, with a plot that once again put individuals into conflict with the aspirations and sentiments of an entire nation. Besides the translation of Il Trovatore to Le Trouvère and the anaemic transformation (to satisfy the censors) of Stiffelio in Aroldo, Verdi continued to experiment with new ways to express political themes and contrasts with Simon Boccanegra (Venice, La Fenice, March 12th, 1857). But the conflict in Un ballo in maschera (Rome, Apollo Theatre, February 17th, 1859) was to be found ingrained in each of the principle characters, represented by the constant shifting of symmetries, situations and disguises represented by the continuing variations in the rhythmic structure at the base of the entire musical score. A similar experimental structure sustains La forza del destino (St. Petersburg, Imperial Theatre, November 10th, 1862), where once again the improbable vicissitudes and suffering of individual characters stand out against the collective indifference.
With his return to the French stage, Verdi rewrote Macbeth (Paris, Théâtre Lyrique, April 21st, 1865) and composed Don Carlos (Paris, Opéra, March 11th, 1867), where the grandiose staging required for this type of opera had to be moulded around Verdi's most complex dramatic situation yet: the conflicts of each individual and among individuals are connected between them in a spiralling whirlpool, in which the liberal political concepts of the Marchese di Posa clash head on with the absolute ones of Filippo, while over all reigns the power of the Church personified by the Grande Inquisitore.
Verdi, who had been elected deputy to the first Italian parliament and who, at Cavour's request, had composed a national hymn for the inauguration of the Universal Exposition in London in 1862, was alarmed by Italians' lack of feeling of being part of their new nation. He constantly tried to present models in which a common cultural heritage could be recognised: when Rossini died (October 13th, 1868), he proposed a Requiem Mass, a collective homage of Italian composers to their illustrious colleague (1869), and during his revision of La forza del destino, he wrote a symphony modelled on Rossini's overture for Guglielmo Tell.
The creation of Aida (Cairo, Opera Theatre, December 24th, 1871), intended by Ismail Pascia to be Egypt's "national" opera, led to an original and very Italian interpretation of the spectacular and dramatic prerequisites of grand opéra: once again in this opera the conflict between political power and the individual leads to the annihilation of the latter through a kaleidoscopic alternation of stylistic, musical and theatrical events.
Instrumental music from north of the Alps was becoming well known in Italy, encouraging Verdi to write a Quartet (Naples, April 1st, 1873) to show that he knew how to fight the "enemy" with its own arms; at the death of Alessandro Manzoni, he decided to compose a Requiem himself, including music he had already written as the last movement in the collective Mass for Rossini: he also retained the textual articulation and the alternation of sonorities of that earlier work.
But this Requiem, a further political message which identified the person to whom it is dedicated as the country's greatest literary glory and Palestrina as his historical model for many key moments in the score, was a solitary, totally subjective meditation on the mystery of death, constantly frustrated in its urge toward transcendency which is perceived as improbable.
After a lengthy period of apparent inactivity, Verdi set to work on a radical revision of Simon Boccanegra (1880-81), an event that marked the beginning of his collaboration with Arrigo Boito, and the transformation of Don Carlos from a grand opéra in five acts to an Italian opera (Milan, Scala, January 10th, 1884).
With Otello (Milan, Scala, February 5th, 1887), Verdi once again proposed the drama of the individual, the protagonist, who struggles and succumbs in the fight between the absolute abstraction of good - Desdemona - and evil - Jago. Although the musical and dramatic flow is fairly constant in this opera, static nuclei reminiscent of the closed musical forms of the past are still to be found. Only in Falstaff, Verdi's last operatic work, did the action become transformed into a purely intellectual game, accompanied by an equally limpid, refined movement of musical symmetries.
Verdi's artistic production concluded with the composition of three sacred pieces, a Stabat Mater and a Te Deum for chorus and orchestra with a prayer to the Virgin in between, from the last canto of the Divine Comedy, for four solo female voices; later, an Ave Maria for a cappella chorus, composed previously, was added on at the beginning. Here too, as in the Requiem, aspirations to transcendency alternate with a pessimistic vision of human reality, the only one in which Verdi truly believed. He had a retirement home for old musicians built in Milan, which he defined as "my most beautiful work".
Verdi's death on January 27th, 1901, marked the end of an era in Italian life, but the apotheosis of his funeral coincided with the beginning of the ever increasing fame of his works, alive and well today as never before on the stages of the entire world.
© Copyrigth Pierluigi Petrobelli