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Born in 1813 in the Italian village of Le Roncole near Busseto, Giuseppe Verdi spent his early years studying the organ. By the age of seven, he had become an organist in San Michele Arcangelo. It was there that the young Verdi was an altar boy and, according to myth, his mother saved him from the French in 1814. In 1823, Verdi moved to Busseto and attended the music school run by Antonio Provesi. By the age of 13, he was an assistant conductor of the Busseto Orchestra. After finishing the school, Verdi applied for admission to the Milan Conservatory. He was rejected for admission, although one of the examiners suggested that he “forget about the Conservatory and choose a maestro in the city.” Verdi studied composition in Milan with Vincenzo Lavigna, a composer and the maestro at La Scala. Verdi went back and forth between Milan and Busseto until he was named maestro of the Busseto Philharmonic in March 1836. By May 1836, he had married his childhood sweetheart Margherita Berezzi, his greatest benefactor’s daughter.
Verdi’s first opera, Oberto, was brought to the stage at La Scala in November 1839 and ran for multiple performances. The noted Ricordi firm published Oberto and, based upon his operatic effort, Verdi won a contract for three additional operas. Verdi later declared that with Nabucco, “my musical career really began.” At dress rehearsals for Nabucco in La Scala, carpenters making repairs to the house gradually stopped hammering and, seating themselves on scaffolding and ladders, listened with rapt attention to what the composer considered a lackluster chorus rendering of Va, pensiero. At the close of the number, the workers pounded the woodwork with cries of “Bravo, bravo, viva il maestro!” The opening of Nabucco was a triumph. Verdi was famous, commanding a higher fee than any other composer of his time.
I Lombardi followed Nabucco and won an unprecedented victor over Austrian censors. Verdi’s triumph in retaining the libretto and melodic themes the censors had hoped to ban as “religious” in nature forged the composer’s lifelong reputation as an ideological hero of the Italian people. This would be the first of his many battles with censors for artistic freedom.
Over the next seven years, the composer penned ten additional operas of varied success, gradually making the transition between two distinct eras of Verdi composition. Initially captive of the “bel canto” style and heir to Donizetti’s artistic throne, Verdi continually experimented to produce his own operatic genre in which melodic drama and identifiable musical essence of character took center stage as an equal to vocal purity and elegance.
It was an inspired stroke of boldness about which Verdi commented in explaining the innovative core of his work, Il Trovatore, “I think, if I am not mistaken, that I have done well; but at any rate I have done it in the way that I felt it.” In saying so, he defined his own creative hallmark. Although a musical genius, Verdi composed spontaneously from the heart. A brilliantly schooled musician, he placed emotional sensibility above intellect in all that he wrote. In the process, he created the remarkable marriage of dramatic characterization and vocal power, an indelible artistic signature.
The creation of an operatic tour de force based upon his ingenious artistic formulation assured Verdi’s immortality, beginning in 1851 with Rigoletto, followed soon after by Il Trovatore,
La Traviata and ultimately in 1871, by Aida. Even without the masterpieces that followed – Simon Boccanegra, Un Ballo in Maschera, La Forza del Destino and Don Carlos or his great Requiem Mass – the Maestro could have afforded to rest on his musical achievements and stand unchallenged as the premier operatic composer of any age. In fact, with the success of Aida, Verdi seemed to have abandoned composing altogether, producing no new works for fifteen years.
Fortunately, for posterity, an electrifying libretto, Otello, created by poet Arrigo Boito, brought the composer out of his self-imposed retirement. The opening of Otello in February 1887 attracted an international audience to Milan for a dramatic event which ended only after the citizenry had showered Verdi with gifts and applause throughout twenty curtain calls and towed his carriage to the hotel. Public festivities continued until dawn.
In 1893, with the premiere of Falstaff, Verdi and his adoring audience repeated the entire sequence of events at La Scala – all in honor of a comedy he had vowed as a young man never to write. The maestro finally retreated to his country home in Sant’ Agata with his second wife Giuseppina Strepponi. They spent several peaceful years in retirement until her death in 1897. His wife’s death left Verdi in a state of unbearable grief. He immediately fled Sant’ Agata for the Grand Hotel in Milan and, after four unhappy years, Verdi died in 1901. Verdi’s death left all Italy in mourning. He still is revered throughout the music world as the greatest of operatic composers and, more particularly, in Italy as a patriotic hero and champion of human rights.
Source: Arizona Opera