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Giuseppe Verdi. Portrait by Giovanni Boldini, 1886[1]

Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi (Italian pronunciation: [dʒuˈzɛppːe ˈverdi]; October 9 or 10, 1813 – January 27, 1901) was an Italian Romantic composer, mainly of opera. He was one of the most influential composers of the 19th century. His works are frequently performed in opera houses throughout the world and, transcending the boundaries of the genre, some of his themes have long since taken root in popular culture - such as "La donna è mobile" from Rigoletto, "Va, pensiero" (The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves) from Nabucco, "Libiamo ne' lieti calici" (The Drinking Song) from La traviata and the "Grand March" from Aida. Although his work was sometimes criticized for using a generally diatonic rather than a chromatic musical idiom and having a tendency toward melodrama, Verdi’s masterworks dominate the standard repertoire a century and a half after their composition.


Early life

Giuseppe Verdi in Vanity Fair (1879)

Verdi was born the son of Carlo Giuseppe Verdi and Luigia Uttini in Le Roncole, a village near Busseto, then in the Département Taro which was a part of the First French Empire after the annexation of the Duchy of Parma and Piacenza. The baptismal register, on October 11, lists him as being "born yesterday", but since days were often considered to begin at sunset, this could have meant either 9 or 10 October. The next day, he was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church in Latin as Joseph Fortuninus Franciscus. The day after that (Tuesday), Verdi's father took his newborn the three miles to Busseto, where the baby was recorded as Joseph Fortunin Francois; the clerk wrote in French. "So it happened that for the civil and temporal world Verdi was born a Frenchman."[2]

When he was still a child, Verdi's parents moved from Piacenza to Busseto, where the future composer's education was greatly facilitated by visits to the large library belonging to the local Jesuit school. Also in Busseto, Verdi was given his first lessons in composition.

Verdi went to Milan when he was twenty to continue his studies. He took private lessons in counterpoint while attending operatic performances, as well as concerts of, specifically, German music. Milan's beaumonde association convinced him that he should pursue a career as a theatre composer. During the mid 1830s, he attended the Salotto Maffei salons in Milan, hosted by Clara Maffei.

Returning to Busseto, he became the town music master and, with the support of Antonio Barezzi, a local merchant and music lover who had long supported Verdi's musical ambitions in Milan, Verdi gave his first public performance at Barezzi’s home in 1830.

Because he loved Verdi’s music, Barezzi invited Verdi to be his daughter Margherita's music teacher, and the two soon fell deeply in love. They were married on May 4, 1836 and Margherita gave birth to two children, Virginia Maria Luigia (March 26, 1837 - August 12, 1838) and Icilio Romano (July 11, 1838 - October 22, 1839). Both died in infancy while Verdi was working on his first opera and, shortly afterwards, Margherita died on June 18, 1840. Verdi adored his wife and children, and he was devastated by their deaths.


Initial recognition

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The production by Milan's La Scala of his first opera, Oberto in November 1839 achieved a degree of success, after which Bartolomeo Merelli, La Scala's impresario, offered Verdi a contract for two more works.

It was while he was working on his second opera, Un giorno di regno, that Verdi's wife died. The opera, given in September 1840, was a flop and he fell into despair and vowed to give up musical composition forever. However, Merelli persuaded him to write Nabucco and its opening performance in March 1842 made Verdi famous. Legend has it that it was the words of the famous Va pensiero chorus of the Hebrew slaves that inspired Verdi to write music again.

A large number of operas - 14 in all - followed in the decade after 1843, a period which Verdi was to describe as his "galley years". These included his I Lombardi in 1843, and Ernani in 1844. For some, the most original and important opera that Verdi wrote is Macbeth in 1847. For the first time, Verdi attempted an opera without a love story, breaking a basic convention in 19th century Italian opera.

In 1847, I Lombardi, which was revised and renamed Jerusalem, was produced by the Paris Opera. Due to a number of Parisian conventions that had to be honored (including extensive ballets), it became Verdi's first work in the French Grand opera style.

Middle years

Giuseppina (Peppina) Strepponi
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Sometime in the mid-1840s, after the death of Margherita Barezzi, Verdi began an affair with Giuseppina Strepponi, a soprano in the twilight of her career.[3] Their cohabitation before marriage was regarded as scandalous in some of the places they lived, but Verdi and Giuseppina married on August 29, 1859 at Collonges-sous-Salève, near Geneva[4]. While living in Busseto with Strepponi, Verdi bought an estate two miles from the town in 1848. Initially, his parents lived there, but, after his mother's death in 1851, he made the Villa Verdi at Sant'Agata in Villanova sull'Arda his home until his death.

As the "galley years" were drawing to a close, Verdi created one of his greatest masterpieces, Rigoletto, which premiered in Venice in 1851. Based on a play by Victor Hugo (Le roi s'amuse), the libretto had to undergo substantial revisions in order to satisfy the epoch's censorship, and the composer was on the verge of giving it all up a number of times. The opera quickly became a great success.

With Rigoletto, Verdi sets up his original idea of musical drama as a cocktail of heterogeneous elements, embodying social and cultural complexity, and beginning from a distinctive mixture of comedy and tragedy. Rigoletto's musical range includes band-music such as the first scene or the song La donna è mobile, Italian melody such as the famous quartet "Bella figlia dell'amore", chamber music such as the duet between Rigoletto and Sparafucile and powerful and concise declamatos often based on key-notes like the C and C# notes in Rigoletto and Monterone's upper register.

There followed the second and third of the three major operas of Verdi's "middle period": in 1853 Il Trovatore was produced in Rome and La traviata in Venice. The latter was based on Alexandre Dumas, fils' play The Lady of the Camellias.

Later Compositions

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Between 1855 and 1867, an outpouring of great Verdi operas followed, among them such repertory staples as Un ballo in maschera (1859), La forza del destino (commissioned by the Imperial Theatre of Saint Petersburg for 1861 but not performed until 1862), and a revised version of Macbeth (1865). Other somewhat less often performed include Les vêpres siciliennes (1855) and Don Carlos (1867), both commissioned by the Paris Opera and initially given in French. Today, these latter two operas are most often performed in their revised Italian versions. Simon Boccanegra followed in 1857.

Giuseppe Verdi in 1876 by Etienne Carjat

In 1869, Verdi was asked to compose a section for a requiem mass in memory of Gioachino Rossini and proposed that this requiem should be a collection of sections composed by other Italian contemporaries of Rossini. The requiem was compiled and completed, but it was cancelled at the last minute (and was not performed in Verdi's lifetime). Verdi blamed this on the lack of enthusiasm for the project by the intended conductor, Angelo Mariani, who had been a longtime friend of his. The episode led to a permanent break in their personal relations. The soprano Teresa Stolz (who later had a strong professional - and, perhaps, romantic - relationship with Verdi) was at that time engaged to be married to Mariani, but she left him not long after. Five years later, Verdi reworked his "Libera Me" section of the Rossini Requiem and made it a part of his Requiem Mass, honoring the famous novelist and poet Alessandro Manzoni, who had died in 1873. The complete Requiem was first performed at the cathedral in Milan on May 22, 1874.

Verdi's grand opera, Aida, is sometimes thought to have been commissioned for the celebration of the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, but, according to one major critic,[5] Verdi turned down the Khedive's invitation to write an "ode" for the new opera house he was planning to inaugurate as part of the canal opening festivities. The opera house actually opened with a production of Rigoletto. Later in 1869/70, the organizers again approached Verdi (this time with the idea of writing an opera), but he again turned them down. When they warned him that they would ask Charles Gounod instead and then threatened to engage Richard Wagner's services, Verdi began to show considerable interest, and agreements were signed in June 1870.

Teresa Stolz was associated with both Aida and the Requiem (as well as a number of other Verdi roles). The role of Aida was written for her, and although she did not appear in the world premiere in Cairo in 1871, she created Aida in the European premiere in Milan in February 1872. She was also the soprano soloist in the first and many later performances of the Requiem. It was widely believed that she and Verdi had an affair after she left Angelo Mariani, and a Florence newspaper criticised them for this in five strongly worded articles. Whether there is any truth to the accusation may never be known with any certainty. However, after Giuseppina Strepponi's death, Teresa Stolz became a close companion of Verdi until his own death.

Verdi and Wagner, who were the leaders of their respective schools of music, seemed to resent each other greatly. They never met. Verdi's comments on Wagner and his music are few and hardly benevolent ("He invariably chooses, unnecessarily, the untrodden path, attempting to fly where a rational person would walk with better results"), but at least one of them is kind: upon learning of Wagner's death, Verdi lamented: "Sad, sad, sad! ... a name that will leave a most powerful impression on the history of art."[6] Of Wagner's comments on Verdi, only one is well-known. After listening to Verdi's Requiem, the great German, prolific and eloquent in his comments on some other composers, said, "It would be best not to say anything."

Twilight and death

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During the following years, Verdi worked on revising some of his earlier scores, most notably new versions of Don Carlos, La forza del destino, and Simon Boccanegra.

Otello, based on William Shakespeare's play, with a libretto written by the younger composer of Mefistofele, Arrigo Boito, premiered in Milan in 1887. Its music is "continuous" and cannot easily be divided into separate "numbers" to be performed in concert. Some feel that although masterfully orchestrated, it lacks the melodic lustre so characteristic of Verdi's earlier, great, operas,  while many critics consider it Verdi's greatest tragic opera, containing some of his most beautiful, expressive music and some of his richest characterizations. In addition, it lacks a prelude, something Verdi listeners are not accustomed to. Arturo Toscanini performed as cellist in the orchestra at the world premiere and began his friendship with Verdi (a composer he revered as highly as Beethoven).

Verdi's statue in the Piazza G. Verdi, Busseto

Verdi's last opera, Falstaff, whose libretto was also by Boito, was based on Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor and Victor Hugo's subsequent translation. It was an international success and is one of the supreme comic operas which shows Verdi's genius as a contrapuntist.

In 1894, Verdi composed a short ballet for a French production of Otello, his last purely orchestral composition. Years later, Arturo Toscanini recorded the music for RCA Victor with the NBC Symphony Orchestra which complements the 1947 Toscanini performance of the complete opera.

In 1897, Verdi completed his last composition, a setting of the traditional Latin text Stabat Mater. This was the last of four sacred works that Verdi composed, Quattro Pezzi Sacri, which are often performed together or separately. The first performance of the four works was on April 7, 1898, at the Grande Opéra, Paris. The four works are: Ave Maria for mixed chorus; Stabat Mater for mixed chorus and orchestra; Laudi alla Vergine Maria for female chorus; and Te Deum for double chorus and orchestra.

On 29 July 1900 King Umberto I of Italy was assassinated and that deed horrified the aged composer [7].

While staying at the Grand Hotel et de Milan[8] in Milan, Verdi had a stroke on January 21, 1901. He grew gradually more feeble and died six days later, on January 27, 1901. Arturo Toscanini conducted the vast forces of combined orchestras and choirs composed of musicians from throughout Italy at the state funeral for Verdi in Milan. To date, it remains the largest public assembly of any event in the history of Italy.

Role in the Risorgimento

Giuseppe Verdi, the bust outside of the Teatro Massimo in Palermo, Italy by Antonio Ugo.

Music historians have long perpetuated a myth about the famous Va, pensiero chorus sung in the third act of Nabucco. The myth reports that, when the Va, pensiero chorus was sung in Milan, then belonging to the large part of Italy under Austrian domination, the audience, responding with nationalistic fervor to the exiled slaves' lament for their lost homeland, demanded an encore of the piece. As encores were expressly forbidden by the government at the time, such a gesture would have been extremely significant. However, recent scholarship puts this to rest. Although the audience did indeed demand an encore, it was not for Va, pensiero but rather for the hymn Immenso Jehova, sung by the Hebrew slaves to thank God for saving His people. In light of these new revelations, Verdi's position as the musical figurehead of the Risorgimento has been correspondingly downplayed.[9]

On the other hand, during rehearsals, workmen in the theater stopped what they were doing during Va, pensiero and applauded at the conclusion of this haunting melody[10] while the growth of the "identification of Verdi's music with Italian nationalist politics" is judged to have begun in the summer 1846 in relation to a chorus from Ernani in which the name of one of its characters, "Carlo", was changed to "Pio", a reference to Pope Pius IX's grant of an amnesty to political prisoners.[11]

The myth of Verdi as Risorgimento's composer also led to claims that the slogan "Viva VERDI" was used throughout Italy to secretly call for Vittorio Emanuele Re D'Italia (Victor Emmanuel King of Italy), referring to Victor Emmanuel II, then king of Sardinia.

The Chorus of the Hebrews (the English title for Va, pensiero) has another appearance in Verdi folklore. Prior to his body being driven from the cemetery to the official memorial service and its final resting place at the Casa di Riposo, Arturo Toscanini conducted a chorus of 820 singers in "Va, pensiero". At the Casa, the Miserere from Il trovatore was sung.[12]

Verdi was elected as a member of the Chamber of Deputies in 1861 following a request of Prime Minister Cavour but in 1865 he resigned from the office.[13] In 1874 he was named Senator of the Kingdom by King Victor Emanuel II.


Verdi's predecessors who influenced his music were Rossini, Bellini, Giacomo Meyerbeer and, most notably, Gaetano Donizetti and Saverio Mercadante. With the exception of Otello and Aida, he was free of Wagner's influence. Although respectful of Gounod, Verdi was careful not to learn anything from the Frenchman whom many of Verdi's contemporaries regarded as the greatest living composer. Some strains in Aida suggest at least a superficial familiarity with the works of the Russian composer Mikhail Glinka, whom Franz Liszt, after his tour of the Russian Empire as a pianist, popularized in Western Europe.

Throughout his career, Verdi rarely utilised the high C in his tenor arias, citing the fact that the opportunity to sing that particular note in front of an audience distracts the performer before and after the note appears. However, he did provide high Cs to Duprez in Jérusalem and to Tamberlick in the original version of La forza del destino. The high C often heard in the aria Di quella pira does not appear in Verdi's score.

Although his orchestration is often masterful, Verdi relied heavily on his melodic gift as the ultimate instrument of musical expression. In fact, in many of his passages, and especially in his arias, the harmony is ascetic, with the entire orchestra occasionally sounding as if it were one large accompanying instrument - a giant-sized guitar playing chords. Some critics maintain he paid insufficient attention to the technical aspect of composition, lacking as he did schooling and refinement.[citation needed] Verdi himself once said, "Of all composers, past and present, I am the least learned." He hastened to add, however, "I mean that in all seriousness, and by learning I do not mean knowledge of music."

However, it would be incorrect to assume that Verdi underestimated the expressive power of the orchestra or failed to use it to its full capacity where necessary. Moreover, orchestral and contrapuntal innovation is characteristic of his style: for instance, the strings producing a rapid ascending scale in Monterone's scene in Rigoletto accentuate the drama, and, in the same opera, the chorus humming six closely grouped notes backstage portrays, very effectively, the brief ominous wails of the approaching tempest. Verdi's innovations are so distinctive that other composers do not use them; they remain, to this day, some of Verdi's signatures.

Verdi was one of the first composers who insisted on patiently seeking out plots to suit his particular talents. Working closely with his librettists and well aware that dramatic expression was his forte, he made certain that the initial work upon which the libretto was based was stripped of all "unnecessary" detail and "superfluous" participants, and only characters brimming with passion and scenes rich in drama remained.

Many of his operas, especially the later ones from 1851 onwards, are a staple of the standard repertoire. No composer of Italian opera has managed to match Verdi's popularity, perhaps with the exception of Giacomo Puccini.


Verdi's operas, and their date of première are:

Political Significance

Unlike most of the visual arts, opera was commercially profitable, accessible to most classes of society, and thus an effective means of reaching the nineteenth-century public. Verdi used musical theater to contrast noble ideals with the corrosive effects of power, love of country with the inevitable call for sacrifice and death, and the lure of passion with the need for social order.[14]


Eponyms and other cultural references

The 1986 play After Aida is a play-with-music similar to Amadeus, and is an accurate and learned, yet dramatic and humorous, depiction of Verdi's relationship with his librettist Boito.

Verdi's name literally translates as "Joseph Green" in English [technically, this is incorrect — in Italian, the term verdi is the plural form of "green". So if one were to translate his last name into English, the composer would be known as Joseph Greens]. Musical comedian Victor Borge often referred to the famous composer as "Joe Green" in his act, saying that "Giuseppe Verdi" was merely his "stage name". The same joke-translation is mentioned in Evil Under the Sun by Patrick Redfern to Hercule Poirot, a prank which inadvertedly gives Poirot the answer to the murder.

There are many theatres named after him in Italy.


  1. ^ The famous portrait of Verdi by Giovanni Boldini was the main inspiration of Luchino Visconti in creating the character played by Burt Lancaster in his film Il Gattopardo.
  2. ^ Martin, 3
  3. ^ Roger Parker, "Giuseppe Verdi", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (Accessed 18 May 2008), (subscription access)
  4. ^ Phillips-Matz, pp.394-95
  5. ^ Budden,Volume 3
  6. ^ Schonberg, Harold C. (1997), The Lives of the Great Composers, W. W. Norton & Company, pp. 260, ISBN 0393038572,'s+death+verdi&source=web&ots=nFFimEsWY4&sig=AeMWwyeqH5fLTulrbSfy__7UoDc, retrieved 2008-01-09 
  7. ^ Ernest Newman, Stories of the Great Operas. Philadelphia: The Blakinson Company, 1930, p. 597. Did he feel himself somehow guilty of at least indirectly causing that assassination? For almost 30 operas he composed throughout his long life, at least half dealt with killings, murder and other sort of violent ends of various personage, including assassination plots against kings, leaders, or men in charge in six of them: Attila, Macbeth, Rigoletto, Les vêpres siciliennes, Simon Boccanegra, and Un ballo in maschera.
  8. ^ The hotel's website contains a brief history of the composer's stay and a few photographs of those days
  9. ^ Casini, Claudio, Verdi, Milan: Rusconi, 1982
  10. ^ Phillips-Matz, Mary Jane p.116
  11. ^ Phillips-Matz, Mary Jane, pp. 188-191
  12. ^ Phillips-Matz, p.765
  13. ^ "Giuseppe Verdi politico e deputato, Cavour, il Risorgimento" on (In Italian) Retrieved 2 January 2010
  14. ^ Hunt, Lynn (2009 (3rd edition)). The Making of the West. Bedford/St. Martin's. ISBN 0312465106. 


  • Budden, Julian (1973). The Operas of Verdi, Volume I (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198162618. 
  • Budden, Julian (1973). The Operas of Verdi, Volume II (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198162626. 
  • Budden, J. (1973). The Operas of Verdi, Volume III (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198162634. 
  • Kamien, R. (1997). Music: an appreciation - student brief (3rd ed.). McGraw Hill. ISBN 0070365210. 
  • Gal, H. (1975). Brahms, Wagner, Verdi: Drei Meister, drei Welten. Fischer. ISBN 3100243021. 
  • Martin, G. (1963). Verdi: His Music, Life and Times (1st ed.). Dodd, Mead & Company. ISBN 2001456720. 
  • Parker, Roger (2001). "Giuseppe Verdi". Grove Music Online. Oxford University Press. 
  • Parker, Roger (1992). "The New Grove Dictionary of Opera". in ed. Stanley Sadie. The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. ISBN 0333734327. 
  • Phillips-Matz, Mary Jane (1993). Verdi: A Biography (1st ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 0193132044. 
  • Michels, Ulrich (1992). dtv-Atlas zur Musik: Band Zwei (7th ed.). Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag. ISBN 3423030232. 

Life in and around Busseto

  • Associazione Amici di Verdi (ed.), Con Verdi nella sua terra, Busseto, 1997, (in English)
  • Maestrelli, Maurizio, Guida alla Villa e al Parco (in Italian), publication of Villa Verdi, 2001
  • Mordacci, Alessandra, An Itinerary of the History and Art in the Places of Verdi, Busseto: Busseto Tourist Office, 2001 (in English)
  • Villa Verdi': the Visit and Villa Verdi: The Park; the Villa; the Room (pamphlets in English), publications of the Villa Verdi

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

To copy the truth can be a good thing, but to invent the truth is better.

Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi (c. 1813-10-091901-01-27) was an Italian composer, responsible for many of the greatest operas of the 19th century, including Il trovatore, La traviata, Un ballo in maschera, Don Carlos, Aida and Otello.


  • Tornate all'antico e sarà un progresso.
    • Let us turn to the past: that will be progress.
    • Letter to Francesco Florimo, January 5, 1871, cited from Francesco Florimo Riccardo Wagner ed i wagneristi (Ancona: A. G. Morelli, 1883) p. 108; translation from Charles Osborne (ed. and trans.) Letters of Giuseppe Verdi (London: Victor Gollancz, 1971) p. 169.
  • Io non posso ammettere, né nei cantanti, né nei direttori la facoltà di creare, che come dissi prima, è un principio che conduce all'abisso.
    • I deny that either singers or conductors can "create" or work creatively – this, as I have always said, is a conception that leads to the abyss.
    • Letter to Giulio Ricordi, April 11, 1871, cited from Franco Abbiati Giuseppe Verdi (Milano: Ricordi, 1959) vol. 3, p. 448; translation from Franz Werfel and Paul Stefan (eds.), Edward Downes (trans.) Verdi: The Man in His Letters (New York: L. B. Fischer, 1942) pp. 301-2.
  • Io…verrei che il giovane quando si mette a scrivere, non pensasse mai ad essere né melodista, né realista, né idealista, né avvenirista, né tutti i diavoli che si portion queste pedanterie. La melodia e l’armonia non devono essere che mezzi nella mano dell'artista per fare della Musica, e se verrà un giorno in cui non si parlerà più né di melodia né di armonia né di scuole tedesche, italiane, né di passato né di avvenire ecc. ecc. ecc. allora forse comincierà il regno dell'arte.
    • I wish that every young man when he begins to write music would not concern himself with being a melodist, a harmonist, a realist, an idealist or a futurist or any other such devilish pedantic things. Melody and harmony should be simply tools in the hands of the artist, with which he creates music; and if a day comes when people stop talking about the German school, the Italian school, the past, the future, etc., etc., then art will perhaps come into its own.
    • Letter to Opprandino Arrivabene, July 14, 1875, cited from Julian Budden Le opere di Verdi (Torino: E.D.T., 1986) vol. 2, p. 60; translation from Josiah Fisk and Jeff Nichols (eds.) Composers on Music (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1997) p. 126
  • Copiare il vero può essere una buona cosa, ma inventare il vero è meglio, molto meglio.
    • To copy the truth can be a good thing, but to invent the truth is better, much better.
    • Letter to Cala Maffei, October 20, 1876, cited from James P. Cassaro (ed.) Music, Libraries and the Academy (Middleton, Wisconsin: A-R Editions, 2007) p. 218; translation from the same source.
  • Si rinunci per moda, per smania di novità, per affettazione di scienza, si rinneghi l'arte nostra, il nostro istinto, quel nostro fare sicuro spontaneo naturale sensibile abbagliante di luce, è assurdo e stupido.
    • If we let fashion, love of innovation, and an alleged scientific spirit tempt us to surrender the native quality of our own art, the free natural certainty of our work and perception, our bright golden light, then we are simply being stupid and senseless.
    • Letter to Clarina Maffei, April 20, 1878, cited from Franco Abbiati Giuseppe Verdi (Milano: Ricordi, 1959) vol. 4, p. 79; translation from Franz Werfel and Paul Stefan (eds.), Edward Downes (trans.) Verdi: The Man in His Letters (New York: L. B. Fischer, 1942) p. 345.
  • Gli artisti veramente superiori giudicano senza pregiudizi di scuole, di nazionalità, di tempo. Se gli artisti del Nord e del Sud hanno tendenze diverse, è bene siano diverse.
    • Really superior artists judge without being prejudiced by school, nationality or period. If the artists of north and south exhibit different tendencies, it is good that they are different!
    • Letter to Hans von Bülow, April 14, 1892, cited from Franco Abbiati Giuseppe Verdi (Milano: Ricordi, 1959) vol. 4, p. 440; translation from Charles Osborne (ed. and trans.) Letters of Giuseppe Verdi (London: Victor Gollancz, 1971) p. 249.


  • Avrai tu l'universo, resti l'Italia a me.
    • You may have the universe if I may have Italy.
    • This is from Verdi's Attila, Prologue, sc. 1, but the words are by Verdi's librettist Temistocle Solera; translation from Michael A. Musmanno The Story of the Italians in America (New York: Doubleday, 1965) p. 255.

External links

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Simple English

[[File:|thumbnail|200px|right|Giuseppe Verdi, by Giovanni Boldini, 1886 (National Gallery of Modern Art, Rome).]]

Giuseppe Verdi (b. Roncole near Busseto, 9 or 10 October 1813; died Milan 27 January 1901) was an Italian composer of operas. Verdi and Richard Wagner were the greatest composers of opera in the 19th century although they were completely different from one another. When Verdi was a young man the most famous opera composers in Italy were Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini who wrote in the bel canto tradition. This meant that their operas had beautiful tunes which were written for singers to show off their voices, even if what they sang did not suit the story. During his long life Verdi changed opera so that it did not have to obey old-fashioned rules. He made the drama the most important thing and the music is there to help the drama.


Early years

The small village where Verdi was born lies in the valley of the river Po in the north of Italy. It was a poor district. His father was an innkeeper who had a small farm. The young boy must have been very talented. He was given a spinet which he kept all his life. At the age of 9 he often played the organ for church services in the village when the organist was away.

A few years later he composed music for the amateur orchestra in Busseto. A man called Antonio Barezzi knew many important people and he helped Verdi a lot. Later Verdi married his daughter. Barezzi sent him to Milan so that he could study, but Verdi had not been taught the piano properly and he did not get a place in the music conservatory. He had some private lessons and learned a lot about opera as well as about literature and politics. In 1839 he composed an opera: Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio, which was performed in La Scala, the world-famous opera house in Milan. It is not one of his greatest operas, but it helped him to become well-known and he was asked to write three more operas for La Scala. When his next opera was produced it was not a success: the audience did not like it and they hissed and booed. There was also tragedy in his personal life at this time: his two children and his wife all died.

Early fame

Verdi managed to overcome his unhappiness in 1842 when he produced his opera Nabucco. This was a great success and made him world-famous. He started to work very hard, composing two operas a year. He not only had to write the music but organize all the people to perform it. It was a huge workload. His opera Ernani (1844) was one of the best from this period. In 1847 he had another big success with “Macbeth”. This opera, based on Shakespeare’s famous play, is still one of the best-loved of all operas. He was becoming more amazing.

For centuries Italy had been a collection of several countries, each with their own ruler. In the 1850s there was a lot of political unrest in the country. Verdi often wrote music for large choruses in his operas. The words of these choruses were often about fighting for freedom, and it was often thought that the songs were encouraging people to revolt. The song Va pensiero from his opera Nabucco was about the Hebrew slaves who were captive in Babylon. People chanted it in the streets with the words suitably changed. Verdi became a great national hero. Italy eventually became one country in 1861.

Giuseppina Strepponi was the soprano who sang the part of Abigaille in Nabucco. Verdi fell in love with her. She had lived with another man and had three children so she felt that she was not good enough for Verdi. They eventually married in 1859. She was a great support to him until her death in 1897 although Verdi was not an easy husband to live with. He moved back to Busseto with her. He continued to travel a lot but did not let his wife come with him, leaving her behind in Busseto where she was not happy because many people there did not like her.

Three more famous operas were written at this time: Rigoletto in 1851 and Il trovatore (The Troubadour) and La traviata, both in 1853. These operas have many tunes which became famous. They are full of exciting drama in which the characters are very skilfully described by the music. The music is not divided so clearly into recitative and aria like it had been for two centuries. Instead, the music is developing all the time, the arias run straight into the following music. He had a brilliant sense of drama, but he often had to fight hard to stop producers making changes to what he had written.

Verdi often had trouble with the censors (the officials who decide whether the opera should be allowed to be performed). His opera Rigoletto was based on a story called Le roi s’amuse by Victor Hugo. The attempted murder of a king was not thought to be a suitable subject. Verdi had to change the king into a duke in his story and make some other changes before the opera could be performed. The story of his opera Traviata, based on a novel by Alexandre Dumas fils, was also thought to be immoral. At the first performance the audience laughed because the heroine, who is supposed to be dying of consumption, was very fat. However, the opera soon became enormously popular.

International fame

Verdi had become very famous by now, and was asked to compose for the Opéra in Paris. He had to write operas in the French style: operas with five acts and a ballet based on a serious story. None of the operas he wrote at this time for Paris belong to his best works. He was more inspired when writing for the Italian theatres. Simon Boccanegra has a very complicated plot, but the characters are described beautifully by the music. Un ballo in maschera (The masked ball) was about the murder of King Gustav III of Sweden. Again the censors did not like it and he had to change the story to a setting in Boston which rather spoiled the story. In the 1860s his best works were La Forza del Destino (The Force of Destiny), written for St Petersburg, Don Carlos written for the Paris Opéra, and Aida for the new opera house in Cairo in Egypt. Aida is considered one of his most perfect works. The first performance was not without difficulties: Verdi was having a long argument with the conductor Mariani who refused to go to Cairo to conduct it. The argument was made worse by the newspapers who accused Verdi of taking Mariani’s girlfriend. This caused a great scandal.

Last years

Verdi retired in the 1870s. He was a rich man who owned a lot of land. He gave a lot of money to charities, particularly to one charity for elderly musicians. Even in retirement he was persuaded by his publishers to write two more operas. He became fascinated by Shakespeare and he wrote Otello to a libretto (words) by Arrigo Boito. This was a brilliant libretto and it helped him to write a great masterpiece in which every little detail of the story is beautifully described by the music. His very last opera, Falstaff (1893) is based on Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor. Verdi continued to write a few religious pieces in his old age. He died in 1901.


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