Giuseppe Verdi was born into a poor family near Parma in Italy.
When he showed early musical promise, his father made sacrifices
to buy him a second-hand spinet, on which Verdi learnt the basics
At the age of 12 Verdi became the local organist; despite
talent as a composer, however, he was denied entrance to the Milan
Conservatoire in favour of better-trained young musicians.
Undeterred by this rejection, Verdi persisted and was rewarded
when a patron enabled him to study privately in Milan. At 20 Verdi
was by all accounts badly dressed, with a wasted figure and a face
that could have been chiselled from a block of wood; nonetheless,
his patron's daughter, to whom he was giving singing and piano
lessons, fell in love with him. The two were married in 1836.
Verdi had by this time penned his first opera, Oberto;
with the help of friends it was produced at La Scala opera house.
Its moderate success led to a commission to write three more. The
first, a comedy, was a failure. Nabucco soon followed and
was an instant success. Its plot, concerning the conflict between
Assyrians and Jews, immediately tired the imaginations of the
Italian audience. They empathized with the plight of the Jews,
similarities with their own struggle against Austrian
oppression, and the famous Slaves' chorus "Va pensiero",
was encored at its premiere despite a rule to the contrary. The
production of Nabucco took place during a time of great
emotional upheaval for Verdi: in quick succession he lost his two
children and then his wife. Only the support of friends got him
through what was the most difficult period of his life. The
opera's success helped restore a temporary lack of faith in
himself, and Verdi threw himself into his work, striving for new
heights of achievement.
Italian opera up to this time had been dominated by Rossini,
Donizetti, and Bellini, whose approach allowed singers to
demonstrate their talents in showpiece arias. Verdi was more
concerned with the dramatic aspects of opera. In fact he asked for
a "rough, hoarse, and gloomy voice, with something diabolical
about it" for the role of Lady Macbeth in Macbeth (1847),
rather than the soprano already chosen, who could merely sing "to
After Macbeth three of Verdi's most famous operas
followed: Rigoletto in 1851, La traviata in 1853 —
both using libretti by Francesco Mana Piave, with whom Verdi
collaborated on nine operas — and Il trovatore, also in
1853. La traviata treats the theme of selfless love,
whereas the other two are highly emotional operas centring on the
darker side of human nature and involving hatred, murder, torture,
dishonour, and seduction. More operas followed, showing further
maturing of style and enlargement of vision: Les vepres
siciliennies was written for Paris, Un ballo in maschera
for Romе, La forza del destino for St Petersburg,
Don Carlo again for Pans, and Aida for Cairo. Verdi
spent more time travelling; in London he met Giuseppa Strepponi,
whom he married in 1859.
For 15 years after Aida in 1871 Verdi wrote no more
operas; but in 1874 his masterly Requiem, written to
commemorate his friend the poet and novelist Manzoni, was first
performed in Milan. The mixture of religious devotion with highly
dramatic music may have offended the purists, but this choral work
was nonetheless another triumph.
By now in his seventies, Verdi composed his two last operas,
Otello and Falstaff, performed m 1887 and 1893
respectively. Both were unqualified successes. Verdi was nervous
about the reception that would be accorded Falstaff,
perhaps mindful of the failure of his earlier comedy. But this
time he had a brilliant librettist in Arrigo Boito, and Verdi drew
on a lifetime's experience to create an opera in which plot,
orchestra, music, and singers are perfectly balanced.
Verdi died in Milan in 1901 at the grand age of 87.
Two-hundred-thousand people watched his funeral procession pass
by, and although he had requested that no music be played, a
member of the crowd began to sing "'Va pensiero" and the refrain
was taken up by the multitude.