Verdi, Giuseppe


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.

Verdi had resolved never to compose again, but a line in the libretto caught his fancy, and almost in spite of himself he read it through two or three times. Then, from day to day, appropriate strains of music would come to him, and so he hesitatingly wrote the score. Merelli produced it in 1842, during the carnival before Lent. Nabucco was a real triumph, and with it Verdi's career began. Its success was surpassed the next year by I Lombardi, which became Italy's most popular composition. In 1844 Ernani was produced at the Fenice Theatre in Venice. It was an enormous success, and Verdi's popularity was assured.

Since the fall of Napoleon Lombardy had been under the control of the Austrians. Verdi's operas breathed patriotism, and as a result he was the idol of his countrymen. The authorities watched his librettos closely and many had to be cut down and changed. Following Ernani, he was in great demand, and during the next few years he wrote many operas. In 1844 I Due Foscari was produced in Rome, and the next year Giovanni d'Arco came out in Milan, the overture of which alone survives. Later in the year Alzira was given at La Scala and was a failure. In 1848 Attila was produced in Venice and it was more fortunate. It, with Ernani, gave him European fame. Attila was followed the next year by Macbeth, and, had the libretto been better, this might have been a masterpiece. The music was the best he had written up to that time. It was given at the Pergola of Florence and was only moderately successful, owing to the lack of a tenor part During the same year he was engaged to write an opera by Lumley, of Her Majesty's Theatre, London. I Masnadieri, based upon Schiller's Robbers, was produced there with the idol of London, Jenny Lind, in the leading part. The English differed much in temperament from the Italians; Verdi's defects were seen, and the opera was a failure. Lumley wished him to remain and succeed Costa as conductor; but, owing partly to his failure and because he was under contract to write two operas for the publisher, Lucca, he started upon his homeward journey. Arriving in Paris, where I Lombardi was being rehearsed in a revised version, he remained until after its production in November under the title of Jerusalem. Retiring to Passy he wrote two operas, II Corsaro and La Battaglia di Legnano. Both were failures. After the production of the latter Verdi returned to Paris, but the terrible outbreak of cholera forced him to leave hurriedly. While in Paris he had written his opera, Luisa Miller, which was given successfully in Naples in 1849. Near the close of the following year his next work, Stiffelio, was performed at Trieste, and its failure seems to have been complete. When, seven years later, it was altered and given under the title of Arnoldo, it was fairly successful. During this year he married Signora Strepponi, the beautiful singer, who had helped many of his operas to be successful. He had now composed sixteen operas, of which Ernani, I Lombardi, and Luisa Miller alone survive.   He had endeared himself to the Italian people by the spirit of patriotism embodied in his works. The Austrian police would not allow a conspiracy to bp acted upon the stage, and many of his plots had to be changed. In 1851 Verdi's   second period began. This year Rigoletto, founded on Victor Hugo's Le Roi s'amuse and composed in forty days, was performed at Venice. It was an immediate success and was soon given in all parts of Europe. This production marks an era in the history of Italian Opera in that the aria takes the place of the declamatory monologue. The next two operas appeared within a few months of each other, after the lapse of nearly two years, II Trovatore in Rome, and La raviata in Venice. The former scored a success, but the latter failed, owing to a peculiar circumstance. The role of Violetta was taken by Signora Donatello, who was a very large woman, and when, in the third act, the doctor pronounced her dying of consumption, the audience was convulsed with laughter. Later it was successful and became one of the most frequently performed of Verdi's works. These three operas were the best and the last of the Italian Opera School as developed through Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti. Before this time Verdi's popularity had been chiefly confined to Italy; it now spread, even to France and England. One result was an invitation to write an opera for the Paris Imperial Academy of Music. Going to Paris he composed Les Vepres Siciliennes, which was produced in 1855 and was a great triumph. During this year he made a flying trip to London, where II Trovatore was being performed. Returning to Italy, Simon Boccanegra was composed, but proved a failure when produced in Venice in 1857. Verdi's next work was Un Ballo in Maschera, given in Rome, and is one of the greatest successes of his career. Some of the music has a lightness, grace and brilliancy not found before this time in his works. A commission from the Imperial Opera House at St. Petersburg brought forth La Forza del Destino in 1862. The same year occurred the World's Fair, in London, and four of the most famous composers were commissioned to write odes for the inauguration. Sterndale Bennett represented England; Auber, France; Meyerbeer, Germany, and Verdi, Italy. His production was the cantata, Inno delle Nazioni. The finale is on a grand scale and combined English, French and Italian national airs. Verdi was one of thirteen Italian composers who combined to write a requiem in memory of Rossini. For the second French Exhibition, in 1867, he composed Don Carlos. The Khedive of Egypt, wishing to enhance the glory of his theatre, specially requested a work from Verdi, who responded with Aida. It was performed in 1871 and was his most brilliant and original opera up to that time. Three years later he composed the splendid requiem on the death of Manzoni, to whom he had been strongly attached. Aside from operas, Verdi had composed a string quartet, a Pater Noster for two sopranos, contralto, tenor and bass, and an Ave Maria for soprano and strings. After the requiem Verdi retired for many years to the quiet life of his villa, Sant' Agato, near Busseto, where he devoted himself to his garden and farm. He was fond of animals, particularly horses. He was charitable, giving to the needy, and when the people of Busseto wanted a theatre he gave 10,000 francs toward it. He was kind to young musicians, but seldom talked of himself or his works. He had an iron constitution, and energy of character; was tall, agile and vigorous. The quiet of these years was broken in 1881, when a revised version of Simon Boccanegra was given at Milan. Verdi called upon the famous poet-composer, Arrigo Boito, to overhaul the libretto completely, and this time the opera was a great success. During the retirement which followed this production rumors of a new opera were circulating. These were eventually verified by the magnificent Otello, given in Milan, 1887. Its success was overwhelming; the verdict of the critics and musicians assembled from all over the world was unanimous. Verdi was feted as never composer had been feted before. Surely it would now seem that he could afford to rest on his laurels. But in his old age this musician, who never felt old, began on a work which is full of inspiration, beauty and youth. It is pure comedy throughout. Falstaff, given at La Scala, in Milan, 1893, electrified the musical world. It seems to breathe the spirit of youth, and Verdi said he thoroughly enjoyed writing it. In this, his farewell to the world, he has, like Rembrandt in his last portrait, taken leave of it with a smile on his face. The librettos for Otello and Falstaff were furnished by Boito and are the two finest in existence. These two works embody all the best features of the modern school of music, without losing touch with the great masters of the past. Verdi was no innovator; he did not change systems, but turned his genius to developing existing materials to the highest conceivable pitch of beauty and completeness.

Verdi is known to have refused the offer, in 1871, to succeed Mercadante as director of the Conservatory at Naples. He was a member of the Academic des Beaux Arts, Paris, succeeding Meyerbeer. He was elected deputy to the new kingdom of Parma, and was a member of the Italian Parliament, though he resigned after two or three years. In 1875 he was made senator by King Victor Emmanuel. Through all these honors he remained a simple gentleman. His wife died late in 1897, and was buried in the House of Rest, near Milan, a home for aged artists, founded by Verdi as a love-offering to her. He died in 1901 and is buried beside his wife.