Composer. A titan of 19th Century music and the most important Italian opera composer of his era, he was considered a master of theatrical effect and in evoking human passions through music. Many of his melodies are still familiar worldwide. Born in Roncole, Parma, he showed an early aptitude for music and at age seven was studying with the organist at the local church. At 16 he became assistant organist of the main church in the nearby town of Busseto, where he attracted the attention of the merchant Antonio Barezzi. In 1831 Barezzi sponsored Verdi's application to attend the Conservatory in Milan. When he was rejected as being too old and inadequately trained, he was allowed to remain in the city for private study with composer Vincenzo Lavigna. After a period (1835 to 1838) as a provincial music master in Busseto - during which time he married the daughter of his patron, Margherita Barezzi - he returned to Milan to seek his fortune writing music for the stage. His first opera, "Oberto" (1839), was a modest success at La Scala, but these early years were marred by personal tragedy. His two children died in infancy and Margherita was carried off by illness in 1840. The grief-stricken composer tried to back out of a commission for a comic opera, "Un giorno di regno", but was held to his contract; its 1840 premiere was a fiasco that nearly put him off from comic opera for good. His third opera, "Nabucco" (1842), with its famous "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves" ("Va, pensiero"), was an international triumph that at once established Verdi's reputation. Featured in the original cast was soprano Giuseppina Strepponi, who became Verdi's friend, companion, and eventually (in 1859) his second wife. Verdi would later call the next 15 years his "years in the galleys", when he wrote 20 operas and supervised their production with mounting success in the leading cities of Italy, in Paris and in London. A stern businessman and authoritarian taskmaster, he was nicknamed "The Bear of Busseto" and drove singers and publishers to distraction with his demands. His fame and acumen paid off soon enough: in 1848 he purchased a large estate at Sant Agata, two miles outside of Busseto, and this became his primary residence. Verdi had strong nationalist convictions and was a passionate believer in individual liberty. The political overtones of some of his early operas - especially "Nabucco", "I Lombardi" (1843), and "Ernani" (1844) - and his frequent conflicts with government censorship made him a symbol of Italy's struggle for independence from Austria in the mid-1800s. The revolutionary events of 1848 and 1849 prompted Verdi to write a patriotic opera, "La battaglia di Legnano" (1849), which he premiered in Rome on the eve of the short-lived Roman Republic. During Italy's Second War of Independence (1859) he helped supply guns to Garibaldi's army, and his name was used as an anagram in the rebellious slogan "Viva VERDI", standing for "Vittorio Emmanuele, Re D'Italia" ("Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy"). But privately he admitted he was "neither soldier nor statesman". In 1861 he successfully ran for the first National Parliament only because the Count of Cavour persuaded him that his presence would "add luster" to that body; and he accepted appointment as Senator in 1875 after being assured his duties would be minimal. His noblest act of nationalism was honoring the memory of Italian author and patriot Alessandro Manzoni with his magnificent "Requiem" (1874). In 1859, Verdi informed associates that he was retiring to lead the life of a gentleman farmer at Sant Agata. He still had five more operatic masterpieces in his pen, but they had to be coaxed out of him by extraordinary commissions and unusual circumstances. "La Forza de Destino" (1862) was written for the Imperial Opera of St. Petersburg, Russia; "Don Carlos" (1867) was set to a French text for the Paris Opera; the beloved "Aida" (1871) was first performed by the Cairo Opera in Egypt. Intensely private about his personal affairs - he often gave nosy journalists misleading information and showed would-be biographers the door - Verdi set the rumor mills churning in the early 1870s over his mysterious relationship with soprano Teresa Stolz, the first great Aida. We will probably never know the reality of the Verdi-Strepponi-Stolz triangle, if one existed, but this much is certain: Stolz remained friends of the Verdis for the rest of their lives, and after Strepponi's death in 1897 she became the aged composer's last companion. Meanwhile, having penned a String Quartet in E minor (1873) and the "Requiem", Verdi returned to composition in the 1880s after much gentle nudging from his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, and the gifted librettist Arrigo Boito. He collaborated with Boito on the Shakespeare adaptations "Otello" (1887) and "Falstaff" (1893). The music world was astonished by the vitality of these works, premiered when Verdi was 73 and 79 respectively; "Falstaff" was only his second comedy and more than made up for the youthful failure of "Un giorno di regno". A lifelong agnostic, if not an atheist, Verdi capped his career with a set of beautiful religious choral works, published in 1898 as "Four Sacred Pieces". He died at 87 following a stroke at his winter residence, the Grand Hotel in Milan. His funeral marked a day of national mourning. Verdi was originally buried next to Strepponi in Milan's Cimitero Monumentale. One month later their remains were moved to the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, a charitable retirement home for musicians that Verdi had established shortly before his death. Verdi's monolithic stature in 19th Century Italian music is not only by virtue of his genius. When he debuted with "Oberto" in 1839, opera in his country was about to enter a long stagnant period. Rossini had retired and Bellini was dead; Donizetti had a few more productive years before madness overtook him. This left the field to lesser lights such as Mercadante and Pacini, who had ideas of "reforming" the genre but lacked the originality to pull it off. Verdi alone revitalized the decaying bel canto tradition and brought it to its culmination. From the start the drama was always the most important element for him. He was very choosy about material and bullied his librettists (notably the faithful, long-suffering Francesco Maria Piave) into giving him only situations that would keep audience attention riveted. Several of his operas have plots taken from Shakespeare, Hugo, Schiller, and Byron. "New subjects, new forms", was his motto, and he strove to give each opera he wrote its own unique character and color. He mastered his craft as he went along and the works of the 1840s show deepening expression and a steady refinement of technique. "Macbeth" (1847), his first Shakespeare setting, and "Luisa Miller" (1849) were leaps forward to the three masterpieces that would have assured Verdi a place among music's all-time greats had he written nothing else: "Rigoletto" (1851), "Il Trovatore" (1853), and "La Traviata" (1853). He never stopped growing as an artist. Having exhausted the dramatic possibilities of the Italian style - though it would always remain the basis for his own - he turned to French grand opera for "The Sicilian Vespers" (1855), "Simon Boccanegra" (1857, revised 1881), "Un ballo in maschera" (1859), "La Forza de Destino", "Don Carlos", and "Aida". The later French lyric opera also had an effect. As Europe's most popular opera composer, Verdi was naturally put into a position as arch-rival to Richard Wagner. Wagner dismissed Italian opera of his time as "Donizetti & Co." and pointedly never mentioned Verdi's name in his writings. For his part Verdi refused to engage Wagnerians who painted him as a reactionary and kept an open mind about the German master's music; at the end of his life he called the second act of "Tristan und Isolde" "one of the sublimest creations of the human spirit". A possible Wagner influence on his last two operas is still a matter of debate. Verdi wrote them for himself and in a wholly personal manner, neither backward-looking nor beholden to contemporary trends. "Otello" and "Falstaff" are majestic peaks that stand above their time and place. The Wagnerians did their damage, however, and for some time after Verdi's death he was underrated by historians outside of Italy. Critical reevaluation of Verdi's 28 operas began, fittingly enough, in Germany in the 1920s, while the popularity of the warhorses among them continued unabated. Today several of his works remain repertory staples and he is performed more frequently than any other opera composer.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards