Music with Ease > 19th Century Italian Opera > Life of Verdi
The Life of Giuseppe Verdi
Born in1813, within a few months of Wagner, Giuseppe Verdi survived Wagner for eighteen years, and when he died in January 1901, at the long age of eighty-seven, he was living a life free from care and full of happiness in a magnificent villa only a few miles from his birthplace. He went to his rest crowned with honours, the most striking phenomenon that the history of opera has to record. For Verdi had met with a modest operatic success before he was long out of his teens; and after sixty years of almost continuous labour, he startled the art world with a consummate masterpiece, "Falstaff," written, with all the verve and vitality of youth, when he was eighty.
It required a strong character to live the life that Verdi lived; to preserve at the end of eighty-seven years that freshness of interest, that intensity of purpose, that industry which characterised him almost up to the last. The explanation may be partly found in his humble origin, his simple upbringing, and the ascetic regularity of his adult existence. His father kept a little inn and grocery shop in the village of Roncole, in the Duchy of Parma. The boys musical predilections soon appeared, and he was sent to study with the village organist. When only eleven, he succeeded his teacher in the post -- at a salary of thirty-six francs a year! He had a hundred francs when he left six years later, but he was then walking every Sunday and festival day from Busseto, three miles distant, whither he had gone for his general education. Many years afterwards his name was found scratched on the organ-case, and traces of it are still piously preserved.
There is a pretty story connected with the spinnet which his father bought for him from one of the priests. When examined by his Italian biographer, it was found to contain a manuscript note stating that one Stefano Cavaletti had repaired it and added the pedal without charge, "in consideration of the good disposition which the young Giuseppe Verdi shows in learning to play on the said instrument, which quite suffices me." There is a still prettier story of how Verdi got first a patron and then a wife.
At Busseto there lived a musical amateur, a distiller named Barezzi. He took a fancy to young Verdi, opened his home to him in his warehouse, and allowed him the treat of practicing on a piano fresh from Vienna. Barezzi had a daughter who played. The usual results followed -- the pair fell in love with each other, and were married in 1835. It was a happy, but also, alas! a short union. Two children were born. Both died in 1840, and, within a few weeks after the last was taken, the mother died.
Verdi was so poor at this time that he had to pawn his wifes trinkets for the rent. He had just accepted an engagement to write a comic opera, and he went on with it while his heart was breaking. We can hardly wonder that the opera was a failure; and it is significant that the composer attempted nothing in lighter vein until his "Falstaff" of the last years. Touching pictures have been drawn of him at this date, sitting moody and silent for a whole year and more, writing nothing, seeing nobody, and declaring that life was not worth living. But youth gets over most things, and in time Verdi spurred himself up to renewed effort.
It should have been said that three years before his marriage he had made an unsuccessful application for entry as a student at the Milan Conservatoire. The precise cause of his rejection has never been made clear, and, at any rate, he did as well for himself as a private student. It was in 1838 that he took up his permanent residence in Milan, and next year he produced his first opera, now totally forgotten, at the Scala Theatre. He used to say that his musical career really began with the production in 1842 of "Nabucco," an opera on the not very promising subject of Nebuchadnezzar, but that, too, has been overtaken by oblivion, despite Donizettis verdict, "Its fine! uncommonly fine!"
It was, however, followed directly by two operas which are still occasionally staged -- "I Lombardi" in 1843, and "Ernani" in 1844. At both the rival London opera-houses the latter was for long the most admired and the most frequently played of all his works. But the operas by which Verdi first made a name in the wide world of music were the trio which, with "Aida," have been selected for attention in these pages, namely, "Il Trovatore," "La Traviata," and "Rigoletto." Their individual story is told in the respective sections.
For the rest, there is little more to say of Verdis career except that from this time onwards he was world famous, and that operas from his pen were ordered in quick succession. By the time that "Aida" was written (in 1871) he had completely changed his style. The earliest of his works were of the traditional Italian school, with its conventional plot, its artificial arrangement of solo and chorus, and its tawdry orchestration, like a glorified guitar. Later, about 1849, he adopted a second style when the orchestra began to be treated as something more than mere pegs for showing off the vocal powers of the artistes. Touches of high dramatic power also began to be observed. To this period belongs "Rigoletto." Then, still drawing towards a loftier and more truly dramatic style, he reached the fulness of his third period, beginning with "Aida," and ending with "Othello" (1887) and "Falstaff" (1893). In these Shakespearean masterpieces he left the domain of catching melody altogether: the continuity of the modern school is in them, and the music is dramatic rather than merely tuneful. All critics dwell with emphasis on these changes from a meretricious to an earnest style, and pay homage to Verdi for having of his own accord adopted them. Beginning by writing down to his public, he "ended by drawing his public upward to a higher domain of art, and by arresting the decay which seemed to have settled like a blight upon the opera in Italy."
Verdi worked almost up to the end. It is even said that he would have produced a successor to "Falstaff" but for the awful task of writing so many notes. The fount of inspiration was unexhausted, but the mere manual labour required to give it a tangible existence vexed and tired this musical hero of eighty-seven. He maintained the simplicity and regularity of his life. As far back as 1849 he had bought the fine country estate of St. Agata, near Roncole, and there he lived in almost complete seclusion, his only companions being a couple of huge Pyrenean hounds. In a sense he never recovered from the accumulated calamaties of his youth. Naturally reserved, he had "eaten his bread with tears," and remained all his days unmoved by the flood-tide of success; a grave, taciturn, dignified, impenetrable figure, coldly magnanimous in speech though generous in action.
He was a life Senator but took no part in politics, though he once said that he would have given all his operas to be able to make a single speech. Apart from music, his interests were mainly agricultural. He had married a second time, the soprano Giuseppina Strepponi, who sang in his early "Nabucco," and she predeceased him by three years. He amassed a big fortune, something like £120,000, and, having no family, left it all to the home for aged and indigent musicians which he had already founded in Milan.
A word or two might be added about Verdis visits to England. He came first in 1847 to superintend the production of a forgotten opera, "I Masnadieri," in which Jenny Lind and the famous Lablache sang. Queen Victoria (who always liked Verdis music) and the Prince Consort were present, and the house was packed. But critics severely condemned the music, and the work ultimately proved a dead failure. Verdi was disgusted, and shook the dust of England off his feet, never to return save for a couple of flying visits -- the one in 1862, the other in 1875, when he conducted his "Requiem" at the Royal Albert Hall. He might well have forgiven Englands early indifference, for nowhere else did his more popular operas create a greater furore or remain longer the "rage."