Giuseppe Verdi was born in October 1813 in a village near Busetto, Italy where his parents kept an inn and sold groceries. There is no record of any musical connections in his family, but Verdi showed musical talent from an early age. He learned to play the organ at the local church and when he was sixteen he became assistant to the organist in the church at Busetto. He applied to study at the Milan Conservatory, supported by offers of financial support from the community of Busetto, but failed the selection process. The reason for this failure is not consistently reported in the references, some saying he was too old at nineteen and some that he was judged unsuitable, but whatever the reason this must rank highly in the history of selection mistakes.
Support from his home community in Busetto allowed Verdi to study privately in Milan, and he took lessons with Vincenzo Lavigna, composer and former harpsichordist at La Scala. Whilst studying in Milan, Verdi had the opportunity to hear the latest opera and Viennese music (which was popular in Milan in those times) and this was a defining period in his musical development. He had an offer of work as organist, but in 1836 returned to Busetto as town musical director and married Margherita Barezzi (sadly their two children died in infancy and Margherita died three years after the wedding.)
Whilst working in working in Bussetto, as town musical director, Verdi tried to get his opera performed in Milan or Parma but he was unsuccessful and so, in 1839, he resigned his job and moved with his family to Milan to seek his fortune. He was soon rewarded by having his opera 'Oberto' accepted for performance at La Scala. Although this work is not performed today, it was moderately successful, and on the strength of this success, Verdi gained a contract for two more operas, the first of which, 'Il Giorno di Regno', failed completely. However, the second, 'Nabucco', which premiered in March 1842, was very successful and carried Verdi's reputation as a composer of opera throughout Italy and across the musical world.
Verdi had a long and productive career as a composer of opera, starting in his mid twenties and continuing until he was eighty. Over more than fifty years his work showed progressive development, from the vigorous and tuneful, but harmonically simple opera of his youth, to the sophisticated masterpieces written in his middle years and old age.
In the ten years which followed the success of Nabucco in 1842, Verdi wrote sixteen operas, a series which culminated in three of his best known works: 'Rigoletto' (1851) 'Il Trovatori' (1853) and 'La Traviata' (1853). From 1853, the pace of his work slackened and following the premiere of 'Aida' in 1871 he stopped writing for eight years. Then, in 1879, aged seventy three, the master of opera took up the challenge of writing 'Otello', an opera based on Shakespeare's play, and he spent seven years perfecting a work which broke new ground in Italian opera. Undoubtedly influenced by contemporary Wagner, he wrote 'Otello' in a style where each act is a musical whole construct, like a symphony, rather than a collection of set pieces. In 1893, aged eighty, Verdi produced 'Falstaff, a work having the wit and joy of life expected from a composer half his age.
Verdi lived in Italy in turbulent times, when the people were struggling for freedom from Austrian rule, reimposed after Napoleon's fall, and for national unity under an Italian monarch. With their stirring melodies and heroic plots, Verdi's operas resonated with the public mood. The success of opera 'Nabucco' as a theatrical piece was reinforced by the connection the public saw between the plot and the situation in Italy at that time. The theme of the Jews in captivity in Babylon, yearning for their liberation, was seen as an allegory matching their own situation. Verdi's name was scrawled onto walls, the letters of his name being generally understood as code for 'Vittorio Emmanuele Re d'Italie' (Vittorio Emmanuel King of Italy) There were explicitly political themes and overtones in his work, but much of the opera of this period had political content, and it should not be thought that he was a leading revolutionary, but more a strong sympathiser with the Italian nationalist cause. When the Italian state was established he entered formal politics, first as a representative of Busseto in the provincial parliament and later as a member of the Italian national parliament.
Verdi was a popular national figure in Italy, right up to his death from a stroke aged eighty seven in January 1901. A very large crowd lined the streets at his funeral in Milan, at which he was remembered for his efforts in the struggle for a united Italy, his charitable work and his great contribution to opera over more than half a century.
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