The opera composer and conductor Johann Mayr
recognized the talent m the spirited young Donizetti. He took him
from an impoverished and unmusical background in the streets of
his birthplace, Bergamo, in northern Italy, to give him a thorough
musical education. As he neared adulthood Donizetti studied for
two years in Bologna with Padre Mattel, the renowned counterpoint
teacher. Although benefiting musically, Donizetti found the old
priest somewhat dour, and he reserved his lifelong affection
exclusively for his original teacher.
Donizetti returned to Bergamo in 1817 and worked
swiftly on a variety of compositions, often completing one in a
single day. The string quartets of this period show him as a
prodigiously gifted apprentice. It was in his eventual output of
some 70 operas, however, that he showed his true mastery.
In 1818 he evaded conscription with an exemption
bought by a wealthy admirer and took employment in Venice, where
his first opera was produced that year. His first significant
success came with Zoraida di Granata in Rome in 1822, the
commission having been passed on to him by his old teacher Mayr.
This secured a series of commissions from Naples including, in
1826, a contract for four operas a year. With poor librettos,
however, no masterpieces resulted.
The year 1830 was a good one for Donizetti. His
Anna Bolena brought him international fame for the first
time, and Rossini's retirement from opera composition gave him
supremacy in the field for the next decade. From Rossini he
inherited the characteristic bel canto (melodic singing)
style — often featuring coloratura passages — and his own rapid
craftsmanship enabled him to complete the enduring comedy
L'elisir d 'amore m 1832 in less than a month. The price of
this facility, however, was a lack of consistent dramatic power.
This was true even m the more serious Lucia di Lammermoor
of 1835, based on a novel by Sir Walter Scott and containing the
famous "Mad Scene." Nevertheless, its sextet provides a moving and
masterful climax to what is probably his greatest work.
Relations between Donizetti and his Neapolitan
patrons became strained in the 1830s. Donizetti broke his contract
in 1832 and. although a new one was drawn up in 1834, the
authorities in Naples objected to his next opera, Maria Stuarda,
and the consequent rapid revision ruined the first production.
Then, in 1837, Virginia, his beloved wife since 1 828, died of
cholera. His new work, Poliuto. was banned for depicting
the martyrdom of a saint, and so a grieving, dispirited Donizetti
finally left Naples for Paris.
The Parisians greeted him warmly, mounting
productions of his works in four of the city's theatres, much to
the disgust of Berlioz and other French composers. Donizetti
responded with the composition of a number of his best operas,
culminating in his last great work, the three-act comic
masterpiece Don Pasquale, first produced in Milan in 1843.
By then he had secured the position of
Kapellmeister to the Hapsburg Court in Vienna, but had also begun
to suffer worsening symptoms of a syphilitic illness that attacked
his nervous system. By the end of 1843 he was incapable of further
composition, and Parisian doctors declared him insane the
following year. Through the persistent efforts of his nephew he
was eventually taken back to his native Bergamo, where friends
cared for him until his death.