Verdi, Giuseppe

1813-1901

One of the kindest and gentlest of men as well as a distinguished musician; born in the Italian village of Le Roncole, at the foot of the Apennines. Here his musical genius developed under great difficulties. Italy was a French province at the time of his birth and youth and his music in after years was associated with the cause of Italian liberty. His parents were extremely poor, eking out a living from the proceeds of a tiny inn and an adjoining shop. Giuseppe was a quiet little fellow, with rather a melancholy disposition. Probably it was because he was so unobtrusive that he was chosen, at seven years of age, to attend the priest at mass. The story is told that he was so enraptured at hearing the music of the organ that he could not give his attention to the service, thereby bringing down upon himself the wrath of the priest. He pleaded so hard that his father consented to his being taught by M. Baistrocchi, the organist, and also bought him a small spinet upon which to practise. He made such rapid strides that at ten years of age he succeeded Baistrocchi as organist. About this time he went to Busseto to attend school, walking three miles to Le Roncole every Sunday to fulfil his duties as organist, for the munificent salary of eight dollars a year. At the close of his second year at Busseto he was given employment in the warehouse of Antonio Barezzi. Association with him meant much for Verdi, for he was a thorough musician and president of the Philharmonic Society which met at his house. The leader of the society, Giovanni Provesi, was also chapelmaster and organist of the Cathedral. This man soon recognized Verdi's talent and offered to give him lessons in counterpoint for nothing and Barezzi allowed him to practise on his piano. He assisted the master as organist and conductor of the Philharmonic and spent some time in composition. Don Pietro Seletti, a canon of the Cathedral, taught him Latin. The canon wanted to make a priest of him, until he discovered what genius the boy possessed by hearing him improvise one Sunday morning, when he said to him: "Study music as much as you like; I will not advise you to drop it." After three years Provesi declared that Verdi knew all he could teach him, and advised him to enter the Conservatory at Milan. Through the influence of his friends he was granted a pension from a charitable institution, which annually gave four scholarships to assist young men in the study of the arts and sciences. Barezzi loaned him money for board and lodging, and when he reached Milan a nephew of Seletti's, a professor, insisted that he live with him. Verdi presented himself at the Conservatory, at the head of which was Francesco Easily, a learned musician and a pedant of the deepest dye. He found "little evidence of musical talent" in the candidate and refused him admission. Verdi did not despair but applied to Vincenzo Lavigna, a successful theatrical composer. Under him he studied composition and orchestration, receiving daily lessons in harmony, counterpoint and fugue, with a study of Mozart's Giovanni. Two years had passed when news came of the death of Provesi, and Verdi felt compelled to return to Busseto, as his friends had contributed for his instruction, to the end that he become organist there. During this stay at Busscto he lived with his friend, Barezzi, and married his daughter, Margherita. In 1838, with his wife and two little children, he returned to Milan to try his fortune with his opera, Oberto Conte di San Bonifacio. But his erstwhile teacher, Lavigna, had died, and he found himself without friends. In 1833 or 1834, before Verdi's return to Busseto, he had taken the place of the conductor of a Choral Society in Milan, for the performance of Haydn's Creation, and had won much praise for his part. Through the encouragement of this conductor, Masini, he composed the opera, and it was he who now used his influence to get it performed. Through his efforts it was to have been produced at La Scala. The rehearsals had just begun when a principal became seriously ill, and the opera was abandoned. Much disheartened, Verdi was about to return to Busseto, when he was sent for by the impresario, M. Bartolomeo Merelli, who had become interested in the opera. He agreed to produce it, with alterations, and it was successfully performed in 1839. Following this he was engaged by Merelli to write three operas, one every eight months, and he was working upon one of them, Proscritto, when Merelli asked him to lay it aside and compose a comic opera for the autumn. About this time his little son died, followed soon by the little girl, and in a few weeks the young wife died. The three deaths came in less than three months' time and left Verdi desolate and consumed with grief. He struggled with his work, and U Giorno di Regno was produced, but was a complete failure. How could one in such deep sorrow be successful with a comic opera? He insisted upon breaking his contract with Merelli, who, however, told him if he ever again should take up his work to bring his compositions to him.

One evening, months afterward, Verdi chanced to meet Merelli, who was on his way to the theatre. Merelli took him up into his little room and showed him the libretto of Nabucco, and insisted that he take it home with him.