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Music Friday: Giuseppe Verdi

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Photograph of composer Guiseppe Verdi

Giuseppe Verdi was born on October 9, 1813. Verdi was a composer of opera, and many of his works are among the most beloved operas in the repertoire. He had an unusually long career as a composer, spanning almost sixty years.

Verdi was a child prodigy, hired as the organist for his local church at the age of 8. In his teens, he began studying music and writing what he later described as "a motley assortment of pieces." His formal music education ended when he was sixteen when his teacher said there was nothing more to teach him.

Verdi's first opera, Oberto, premiered in Milan in 1839; it was a moderate success, encouraging enough for La Scala, one of the world's major opera houses, to commission two more operas. His second opera, Un giorno di regno, was a comedy, and it was received so poorly that La Scala canceled the remaining scheduled performances after the premiere.

Verdi would not attempt another comic opera until the very end of his career. In fact, he was so discouraged that he briefly considered giving up composing entirely. Only briefly, though; over the next decade, he wrote more than a dozen operas, culminating with three masterworks—Rigoletto in 1851, and Il trovatore and La traviata in 1853.

His rate of composition slowed dramatically, with only six new operas in the next 18 years. This was in part due to his involvement in Italian politics. He became involved in the movement to unify the many small states on the Italian peninsula. His earlier work was scoured for possible political messages; the chorus "Va, pensiero" from the 1842 opera Nabucco, in which a group of Hebrew slaves laments the homeland they have lost, was frequently cited. Even Verdi's own name became adopted as a political slogan, with "Viva Verdi" used as shorthand for "Viva Vittorio Emanuele, Re D'Italia" (Viva Victor Emanual, King of Italy), a rallying cry for one of many would-be unifiers. Scholars and critics continue to debate whether or not Verdi actually intended to put any such messages into his operas.

poster from the Opera Aida

The 1850s and 1860s may have been relatively slow years for Verdi, but there was no decline in quality; operas from this period include Un ballo in maschera and La forza del destino. And in 1871, Aida premiered in Cairo, Egypt; it was commissioned by the Egyptian government for the opening of a new opera house. (The theater had actually opened two years earlier; Aida's premiere was delayed because the scenery and costumes could not be gotten out of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War.)

In 1874, Verdi premiered his best known non-operatic work, a Requiem Mass written in memory of the Italian poet Alessandro Manzoni. The Verdi Requiem is a large work, roughly 90 minutes long, and uses all of the dramatic skill Verdi had developed in writing his operas, with some critics finding it too operatic for a sacred work. It is now one of the most frequently performed choral works.

After the Requiem, it seems that Verdi had withdrawn into retirement. He gave no interviews, made very few public appearances, and did not involve himself with new productions of his operas. But in 1879, he secretly began work on Otello, an adaptation of Shakespeare. As word began to spread, opera houses throughout Europe competed for Verdi's attention, hoping to host the premiere of what might well be his final work. Verdi returned to familiar territory, and premiered the opera in Milan at La Scala in 1887.

For his final opera, Verdi returned to a comic subject for the first time since the early disappointment of Un giorno di regno. "After having relentlessly massacred so many heroes and heroines," he wrote, "I have at last the right to laugh a little." He chose another Shakespearean adaptation, and Falstaff premiered in 1893. Ticket prices for the event were 30 times higher than usual, and Verdi received an hour-long ovation at the end of the opera.

Verdi's final major composition was the Quattro pezzi sacri (Four Sacred Pieces), choral works he had written at various times during his final decade, which were published as a set in 1898.

Verdi died on January 27, 1901, a week after suffering a stroke. An estimated 300,000 mourners attended a public funeral in Milan, at which Arturo Toscannini conducted 800 singers, who performed "Va, pensiero."