Today, October 10, 2016, marks the 203rd birthday of Giuseppe Verdi. Many of his works are staples of the repertoire to this day, including La traviata, Aida, Rigoletto, and his majestic Requiem. Lauded as one of the greatest opera composers of all time, Verdi rose from modest means to the heights of wealth and fame through diligence, hard work, and shrewdness.
The Young Verdi
Verdi was born in a village near Busseto in northern Italy. Like many children of his day, Verdi’s first experience with music was the local church organ. His father fostered this early interest, enrolling him in organ lessons, providing him with an instrument on which to practice, and eventually sending him to study music at the age of twelve. Even in his earliest years, Verdi was a prolific composer, foreshadowing a will to create that would be with him the rest of his life.
In his twenties, Verdi experienced a period of extreme personal hardship. Unable to find work in Milan, he returned home and married the daughter of his patron, Margherita Barezzi, with whom he had two children, Virginia Maria Luigia and Icilio Romano; both children died in their infancy. In 1837, Verdi’s first opera, Oberto, garnered the interest of the public and earned him a contract for three additional works. Unfortunately, this victory was short-lived. Before the completion of his second opera, his wife contracted encephalitis and passed away. The opera, Un giorno di regno, was a complete failure and sent Verdi into a depression. These turbulent years made a strong impression on the 26-year-old composer; he became stubborn and private, nearly giving up composition as a result. Fortunately his luck was about to change.
Rise to Prominence
Verdi’s next opera, Nabucco, was completed in late 1841 and was received to high praise by audiences all over the world. From that point on he worked at breakneck pace, producing over 20 operas in the next sixteen years. With each successful premiere, Verdi demanded a higher price from his next commission, ultimately earning enough to buy several properties in the area. It was at this time that Verdi began a relationship with Soprano Giuseppina Strepponi, who had previously sung in performances of Nabucco and Un giorno di regno. Although they grew increasingly attached to one another, they did not marry for many years, a fact which incurred scorn from the community, especially once they moved in together to his estate at Sant’Agata.
In the early years of their relationship, Strepponi became a source of inspiration for Verdi’s operas. For the first time his works featured leading women whose sexual histories, a point of conflict for the couple, caused misery for themselves and those closest to them. The most celebrated of these works, La traviata, solidified Verdi’s role as the premiere opera composer of his generation.
Verdi’s Politics and Later Works
In the 1840s and 50s, Italy had not yet unified into a single nation, but rather consisted of several city-states operating interdependently; a popular movement of the time, the Risorgimento, resolved to unify these states underneath a single king, Victor Emmanuel of Sardinia. Verdi’s earlier works are often identified with this movement, especially “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco, but he was never explicit with his support. This changed with the commission of La battaglia di Legnano, in 1848 whose message unquestionably supported the cause of unification. In 1859 Verdi was elected to serve in provincial council, but due to his withdrawn nature he never felt comfortable in the role and left office after only two years.
Over the next few decades, Verdi was in high demand across all of Europe. He declined nearly every commission, accepting only the most enticing offers, preferring instead to spend his time tending to and remodeling his estate. He did complete a number of works in these later years including Aida, Otello, and his Requiem. Falstaff, his last major opera, was premiered February 9, 1893, with tickets selling at nearly 30 times higher than the going rate. The opera was a tremendous success, and the applause reportedly lasted for over an hour, a fitting end to the career of the master of Italian opera.
For 34 years MidAmerica Productions has produced opera, choral and instrumental performances in Carnegie Hall and other historical concert venues. To have your choral group perform a work by Verdi in Carnegie Hall, or to attend a performance, go to www.midamerica-music.com or call us at (212) 239-0205.