One of the brilliant trio of Italian operatic composers who flourished during the first half of the Nineteenth Century, the other two being Rossini and Bellini. Donizetti was born at Bergamo, Italy, and studied music at the Conservatory of Naples, under Simon Mayer, going later to Bologna for a course of study under Pilotti and Mattei, who had been Rossini's teacher in counterpoint. The elder Donizetti wished his son to study church music, but he early disappointed his father by declaring his intention of studying opera, and opera alone. Young Donizetti finally entered the army and while his regiment was at Naples he wrote his first opera, Enrico di Borgogna. This was in 1818, and shortly afterward II Falegname made its appearance. The success of this was so great that Donizetti was exempted from further military service to devote himself exclusively to composition. He first gained the notice of the musical world by his opera, Anna Bolena, written for Pasta and Rubini, and produced at Milan in 1830. In this opera, which for several years was looked upon as Donizetti's masterpiece, Lablache, the great singer, made his first great success at the King's Theatre, London, in 1831. It was also given with striking success at Paris. Two years after the production of Anna Bolena, L'Elisir d'Amore, a lively, tuneful piece and a good example of genuine Italian opera buffa, appeared, its first performance oc curing at Naples. It was given in London in 1836. It has always been popular, and Donizetti is said to have written it in fifteen days.
In 1835, Lucia di Lammermoor appeared and was hailed with enthusiasm and delight by the music-loving public. It has remained ever since the most popular of the composer's operas. In it is some of the most beautiful music ever written, and through it the composer secured the post of professor of counterpoint at the Naples Conservatory. La Favorita was first produced in 1841 at the Grand Opera, Paris, and in it as well as in Lucia, Donizetti adapted himself with great cleverness to French requirements. In La Favorita, which was composed in Paris, many operatic singers of renown have appeared with success. At first it failed to please, although it is the most dramatic of all of Donizetti's works. It owed its success in England to the singers, Mme. Grisi and the tenor, Mario, who sang the principal parts in it. In Paris also, Donizetti wrote the merry little opera buffa, Don Pasquale, which has ever been popular. In Donizetti's Daughter of the Regiment, tuneful and full of unaffected gaiety, Jenny Lind, Sontag, Patti and Albani all appeared with success and in more recent years Mme. Marcella Sembrich has been heard in it. Like La Favorita this opera was received at first with only moderate approval.
After visiting Rome, Milan and Venice, the composer brought out Linda di Chamouni, and wrote a Miserere and an Ave Maria for the Court chapel. He shortly afterward received the title of Court composer and chapelmaster at Venice. His next opera was Lucrezia Borgia, which by some is considered his best work. Donizetti took it from Victor Hugo's tragedy of the same name. Lucrezia marks the distance half way between the style of Rossini, imitated by Donizetti for many years, and that of Verdi, which he in some measure anticipated.
In fact, Donizetti took Rossini for his model, and imitated his forms with great skill and success. In the course of twenty-six busy years he wrote sixty-two operas and a mass of other music. His last work, Catarina Cornaro, was produced at Naples in 1844, but was a failure. In 1835, Donizetti's wife had died, after only two years of married life and his loss so preyed upon him that during the last years of his life his mind was clouded and his condition was very sad. Melancholy, dissipation and hard work induced madness and physical paralysis, which finally ended in death. In 1847, Donizetti was taken by friends to his native town, Bergamo, and the following year died there, being buried in the cathedral, next to the tomb of his former teacher, Simon Mayer, whom he had survived only two years. In 1855, seven years after Donizetti's death, a monument to his memory was erected over his grave by his fellow townsmen. In his life he received many honorary tributes from Pope Gregory XVI., and from the Sultan of Turkey. By his critics Donizetti is accused of having catered too much to the frivolous spirit of the time, and to have written only "melodic and harmonious untruths," as one musician expressed it. But his music, nevertheless, has many merits. The cosmopolitan nature of the man is seen in the themes which he chose, and it no doubt helped in his being generally appreciated. It was for a gay, pleasure-loving people that this composer wrote, and he became their idol and one of the brilliant lights of the Italian school of composition. In all his work, there is a graphicness and great individuality, and he did some things that were fine, as the last act of Favorita. In composing, Donizetti never used the piano and never made corrections. The melody of all his operas is highly Italian, and consequently pretty.