Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901)

Giuseppe Verdi is arguably the best known Italian opera composer and was, along with Wagner, the most important opera composer of the 19th Century. Although he had some lessons in counterpoint, he was largely self-taught as a composer. His music is known for its strong melodies and highly emotional expressiveness.

Verdi’s operas drew on many works of literature from acclaimed authors such as Alexandre Dumas fils (La Traviata), Victor Hugo (Ernani and Rigoletto), and William Shakespeare (MacBeth, Otello, and Falstaff). After moving to Milan at the age of 20, the famous opera house La Scala produced his first opera, Oberto, and commissioned two more. The third, Nabucco (“Nebuchednezzar”) featured the famous “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves”. It was a great success and established his reputation throughout Europe. Subsequent operas included Rigoletto, (which included the song “La donna è mobile”), Il Trovatore (with its “Anvil” chorus), and La Traviata (and its famed “Drinking Song”). La Traviata became his most popular work and is one of the most frequently performed operas in the world. Some of his final operas include La Forza del Destino, Aïda, (commissioned by the Eypgtian goverment to celebrate the opening of the Suez canal), Otello, and Falstaff.

Although primarily known as an opera composer, Verdi composed a string quartet and a handful of sacred choral works, most notably the Requiem Mass, written to commemorate the death of the Italian writer, Alessandro Manzoni. His final works were a collection of four sacred choral pieces (Quattro Pezzi Sacri), based on traditional Catholic texts, including the “Ave Maria,” “Stabat Mater” and “Te Deum”.

Verdi was one of the most famous Italians of his time and was active politically and helped the nationalist push for independence and unification of Italy as a country. He served in some government posts and included political and social themes in his music. He also served as an early mentor to the young Arturo Toscanini. Toscanini played in the orchestra at the premiere of Otello and later led the choir and orchestra at Verdi’s funeral. Verdi was always concerned with the socio-economic conditions around him. He helped found a hospital near his home in Milan and later built and endowed “Casa Verdi,” a retirement home for poor musicians and singers that is still in operation today. Verdi and his wife are buried there and he provided for its operation by leaving the royalties from his works to the house. In a letter to a friend, Verdi said:

“Of all my works, that which pleases me the most is the Casa that I had built in Milan to shelter elderly singers who have not been favoured by fortune, or who when they were young did not have the virtue of saving their money. Poor and dear companions of my life!”

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Suggested Reading:

Mary Jane Phillips-Matz. Verdi: A Biography.