xxxxxThe Italian Giuseppe Verdi gained both recognition as an opera composer and fame as a national hero with his Nabucco of 1842, the telling of an ancient event which, based on a Jewish struggle for freedom, inspired the Italian people in their own struggle against their Austrian masters. Today, however, Verdi is especially remembered for three works which began the process of transforming opera into an integrated musical drama: Rigoletto of 1851, and Il Trovatore (The Troubador) and La Traviata (The Fallen Woman) of 1853. And this process of throwing off the remnants of traditional Italian opera, with its rigid format and stilted librettos, was continued in his Aida - an opera written for Egypt’s new opera house in Cairo - and was virtually completed in his two late works, Otello and Falstaff. Over the years Verdi’s operas have remained the most frequently produced, due in large part to their dramatic content, their superb orchestration, and their feast of memorable melodies. He was followed by another great Italian composer, Giocomo Puccini, famous above all for his La Bohème of 1896 (Vc).

GIUSEPPE VERDI  1813 - 1901  (G3c, G4, W4, Va, Vb, Vc)

xxxxxGiuseppe Verdi, one of the greatest composers of Italian romantic opera, is remembered today for a number of brilliant works, all of which played an important part in transforming opera into an integrated musical drama. Foremost amongst these were Nabucco, Don Carlo, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, La Traviata, Aida, and the masterpieces of his later years, Otello and Falstaff.

xxxxxHe was born during the Napoleonic Wars in Le Roncole, a village near Parma, and as a boy went to school and studied music in the neighbouring town of Busseto. There his musical talent was recognised and encouraged by a local amateur musician, a merchant named Antonio Barezzi. At the age of nineteen, having failed to gain entrance to the Milan Conservatory, he became a pupil of the composer Vincenzo Lavigna - then on the staff of La Scala, Milan - before returning to Busseto in 1835 to become musical director to the commune. It was then that he tried his hand at opera. His first work, Oberto, met with some success when performed at La Scala in 1839, and, as a result, he gained further commissions. Meanwhile, however, personal tragedy intervened. His wife (he had married in 1836) and two young children died within the space of two years, and he decided to give up writing opera altogether. Had he not been persuaded by the director at La Scala to write Nabucco, Italy might well have lost one of its greatest composers, and the world a feast of music and drama.

xxxxxNabucco, produced in 1842, was a phenomenal success and made Verdi’s name in Italy. Centred around the Babylonian captivity of the 6th century BC, when large numbers of Jews were exiled and held captive in Babylonia, it struck a patriotic chord with the Italian people, they themselves beginning their own struggle to overthrow their Austrian masters. His next two works I Lombardi of 1843 and Ernani, performed the following year, were also well received, but though other works followed, it was not until eight years later with his Rigoletto that he achieved like success, and on a much wider scale. This, together with Il Trovatore (The Troubador) and La Traviata (The Fallen Woman), both produced in 1853, brought him international fame, and a reputation that has survived to this day. These three works, each making their own particular demands upon dramatic content and orchestration, remain among the world’s best loved operas. By now, Verdi had clearly thrown off the remnants of traditional Italian opera - the rigid format, the stilted librettos and the pre-occupation with the needs of virtuoso singers. These operas were unified musical dramas, enhanced by a sequence of memorable melodies.


xxxxxBy the mid-1850s he was an international figure, receiving commissions from Paris, London, and as far afield as St. Petersburg. To this period belongs La Forza del destino (The Force of Destiny), Don Carlo, and one of his most popular and enduring operas Aida, commissioned by the Khedive of Egypt and first performed in Cairo’s new opera house in 1871. And along with his reputation as a composer went his fame as a man and hero of the Italian people. Following his triumph with Nabucco and the patriotic sentiments displayed in a number of his later works - for example, Don Carlo - his name became literally a byword of the national movement, spelling out the slogan “Vittorio Emanuele, king of Italy” - Vittorio Emanuele, Re DItalia. It was not surprising that he was elected to the country’s first parliament after unification in 1861, though he stayed only for a short time, resigning following the death of minister Cavour that same year.

xxxxxAfter the premier of Aida in Cairo in 1871, and seemingly at the height of his career, Verdi chose to go into semi-retirement. He and his second wife, the singer Giuseppina Strepponi, whom he had married in 1859, went to live on his estate near Busseto. Once again, however, he was lured back to the theatre, this time to produce, technically at least, two of his finest works, both from the plays of Shakespeare: the highly dramatic Otello, first performed in 1887, and Falstaff, one of the world’s great comic operas - perhaps the greatest of all time - produced in 1893. They proved a fitting climax to a highly successful career.

xxxxxIn assessing Verdi’s worth and contribution, it is perhaps sufficient to say that, over the years, his operas have remained the most frequently produced. Aida and La Traviata, for example, are still performed in theatres across the globe. His music is known above all for its delightful, impassioned melodies, whilst the quality of his production, improving over the years, integrated as never before the musical score with the drama unfolding on stage, a technique perfected in Otello. In essence, it was a unity of music and drama which, at the very same time, the composer Richard Wagner was creating in his musical dramas in Germany.

xxxxxBy developing and substantially broadening the changes introduced by his fellow composers and countrymen Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini, Verdi became not only the most important figure in the development of Italian opera during the 19th century, but also a composer of international renown whose works have long stood the test of time. He was to be followed by another great opera composer from Italy, Giacomo Puccini, famous above all for his La Bohème of 1896 (Vc).

xxxxxAmong Verdi’s non operatic works was his Inno delli nazioni (Hymn of the Nations), composed in 1862, when he represented Italian musicians at the International Exhibition, held in London that year. Also worthy of note was his String Quartet in E minor of 1873, and his dramatic Requiem Mass, composed in 1874 in memory of the Italian novelist Alessandro Manzoni.

xxxxxIncidentally, it was the beautiful and moving chorus in Nabucco - in which the Jews pray for deliverance from captivity - that particularly inspired the Italian public in their struggle to overthrow their own captors, the Austrians. It also marked the beginning of Verdi’s troubles with the Austrian censors. ……

xxxxx…… Apart from operas based on plays by Shakespeare, Verdi based Ernani and Rigoletto on works by the French writer Victor Hugo, his La Traviata on The Lady of the Camellias by Alexandre Dumas the younger, and his Don Carlo on the tragedy of that name by the German dramatist Friedrich von Schiller. ……


xxxxx…… His opera I Vespri siciliani (The Sicilian Vespers) of 1855 was based on an incident in 1282 (E1) when the Sicilians rose up against their French masters. The theme did not escape the notice of the Italian public, nor the censors. ……

xxxxx…… Verdi marked every new opera by planting a tree at his farm at Sant’ Agata in central Italy. For La Traviata he chose a weeping willow. ……

xxxxx…… The story goes that when Verdi was an altar boy he was kicked by the priest for being late. In response Verdi cursed him and asked God to strike him with lightning. Later - we are not told how long - the priest was actually killed by lightning, together with two choristers sitting where Verdi himself usually sat!



Verdi: by the Italian portrait painter Giovanni Boldini (1842-1931), 1886 – Galleria Nazionale d’Art Moderna, Roma. Glinka: lithograph by the American artist Chase Emerson (1874-1922), contained in The Lure of Music by the American music critic Olin Downes (1886-1955), published in 1922.

xxxxxIt was in 1836, when Verdi was working on his first opera, Oberto, that the Russian composer Mickhail Glinka (1804-1857), gave the opening performance of his patriotic opera A Life for the Tsar. This proved a landmark in the history of Russian music because, for the first time, it was a work based on a Russian folk story and inspired by Russian folk music, a truly national opera. His second opera, Ruslan and Ludmila, produced in 1842, was not so successful, mainly because of its oriental setting. Glinka, a wealthy man, travelled widely throughout Europe during his career. It was during a stay in Italy in the early 1830s that he became influenced by the works of the Italian composers Bellini and Donizetti and conceived the idea of writing a Russian opera. And it was while in Spain that he came to love the country’s music and dance and was inspired to write his Aragonese Jota and his Summer Night in Madrid. Other works included the fantasia Kamarinskaya, some chamber music, 40 piano pieces and about 85 songs. The first Russian composer to gain an international reputation, he is regarded today as the father of Russian music in practically all its forms. By adapting Russian melodies to Western harmonies, and improving the role and quality of orchestration, he influenced many Russian composers, including Modest Mussorgsky, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Alexander Borodin, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Igor Stravinsky.


Mikhail Glinka

xxxxxIt was in 1836, when Verdi was working on his first opera, Oberto, that the Russian composer Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) gave the opening performance of his patriotic opera A Life for the Tsar in the presence of the then Tsar, Nicholas I. A work in ample praise of the Romanov dynasty, it proved a landmark in the history of Russian music. It followed the traditional format of Italian opera, but, that apart, it was firmly based on a Russian folk story, and totally inspired by Russian folk music. Not surprisingly this national opera, the first of its kind, was an immediate success

xxxxxHis second opera, Ruslan and Ludmila, produced in 1842 and taking as its theme a poem by the Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin, was not so successful. Some of its music was drawn from Russian folk tunes, but, in accord with the fairytale setting, he also introduced oriental music, and this found little favour with the imperial court or the public at large. And in this work he made greater use of the set pieces characteristic of the Italian style. However, the lively Overture to this sparkling fairy tale has remained ever popular.

xxxxxGlinka was born in 1804, the son of a rich landowner. He was educated at St. Petersburg - where he was taught music by the Irish-born pianist and composer John Field - and then for a time was employed in the Ministry of Communications. In 1828, however, having shown some aptitude at the piano and violin - and not being over keen on hard work - he decided on a more leisurely musical career. Over the next six years he studied music in Milan, Vienna and Berlin. It was while in Italy that he came to know the works of Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti and, given his love of Russian folk music, conceived the idea of writing a Russian opera. On his return home in 1835 he began work on his A Life for the Tsar and became famous overnight.

xxxxxRuslan and Ludmila, his less successful opera, was delayed somewhat because of a breakdown in his marriage. After it was produced in 1842, he took to travelling again, going first to Paris. Here in 1845 he attended the first performance of Russian music to be played in Western Europe: excerpts from his own operas, conducted among others by the French composer Hector Berlioz. He then spent two years in Spain during which time his love of the country’s music and dance inspired his two overtures, the Aragonese Jota and Summer Night in Madrid. He eventually returned to Russia in 1853 but, following the end of the Crimean War in 1856, he paid a visit to Berlin. It was there that he died in February 1857.

xxxxxApart from his works for the stage, Glinka’s orchestral pieces included the instrumental fantasia Kamarinskaya, and notable within his chamber music were his string quartet in F Major and his trio for clarinet, bassoon and piano. He also composed some 40 piano pieces and around 85 songs, many of them before 1835.

xxxxxGlinka, the first Russian composer to gain an international reputation, is regarded today as the “Father of Russian Music” in practically all its forms. By breaking away from the prevailing Italian influence, adapting Russian melodies to Western harmonies, and improving the role and quality of orchestration, he influenced a long line of Russian composers, including Modest Mussorgsky, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Aleksandr Borodin, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Igor Stravinsky.

xxxxxIncidentally, as a wealthy man Glinka could and did lead a life of comparative ease. An amiable character, he enjoyed a good social life, and travelled widely for his own pleasure. Described as a “dilettante of genius”, his memoirs were not published until 1887, thirty years after his death.