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Giuseppe Verdi: The 100 most inspiring musicians of all time
(b. Oct. 9/10, 1813, Roncole, near Busseto, duchy of Parma [Italy]—d.
Jan. 27, 1901, Milan, Italy) The leading Italian composer of opera in the 19th century, Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi is noted for operas such as Rigoletto (1851), Il trovatore (1853), La traviata (1853), Don Carlos (1867), Aida (1871), Otello (1887), and Falstaff (1893) and for his Requiem Mass (1874).
Born to a poor family, Verdi showed unusual musical talent at an early age. A local amateur musician named Antonio Barezzi helped him with his education. At Barezzi’s expense Verdi was sent to Milan when he was 18. He stayed there for three years, then served as musical director in Busseto for two years before returning to Milan. By 1840, just as he had established a reputation and begun to make money, he was discouraged by personal tragedies.Within a three-year period his wife and both of his children died.
Verdi overcame his despair by composing Nabucodonoser (composed 1841, first performed 1842; known as Nabucco), based on the biblical Nebuchadnezzar (Nebuchadrezzar II). Nabucco succeeded sensationally, and Verdi at age 28 became the new hero of Italian music. The work sped
across Italy and the whole world of opera; within a decade it had reached as far as St. Petersburg and Buenos Aires, Argentina.
There followed a period (1843–49) during which Verdi drove himself to produce nearly two operas a year. His aim was to make enough money for early retirement as a gentleman farmer at Sant’Agata, close to Roncole, where his orebears had settled. To “produce” an opera meant, at that time, to negotiate with an impresario, secure and edit (often heavily) a libretto, find or approve the singers, compose the music, supervise rehearsals, conduct the first three performances, deal with publishers, and more—
all this while shuttling from one end of Italy to the other in the days before railroads.
Though masterpieces were unlikely to emerge from a schedule like this, Verdi’s next two operas were wildly successful: I Lombardi alla prima crociata (1843; The Lombards on the First Crusade) and Ernani (1844). The latter became the only work of this period to gain a steady place in the
opera repertory worldwide. His other operas had varying receptions.
Verdi drew on a wide range of literature for his works of the 1840s, including Victor Hugo for Ernani, Lord Byron for I due Foscari (1844; The Two Foscari) and Il corsaro (1848; The Corsair), Friedrich von Schiller for Giovanna d’Arco (1845; Joan of Arc), I masnadieri (1847; The Bandits), and Luisa Miller (1849), Voltaire for Alzira (1845), and Zacharias Werner for Attila (1846). Only with Macbeth (1847), however, was Verdi inspired to fashion an opera that is as gripping as it is original and in many ways independent of tradition. Verdi knew the value of this work and revised it in 1865.
By that time he was receiving lucrative commissions from abroad—from London (I masnadieri) and Paris (Jérusalem, a thorough revision of I Lombardi, 1847). La battaglia di Legnano (1849; The Battle of Legnano), a tale of love and jealousy set against the Lombard League’s victory over Frederick Barbarossa in 1176 CE, was Verdi’s response to the Italian unification movement, or Risorgimento, which spilled over into open warfare in 1848, the year of revolutions.
The Middle Years
The prima donna who created Abigaille in Nabucco, Giuseppina Strepponi, who also had helped Verdi as early as 1839 with Oberto, ultimately became his second wife. The new richness and depth of Verdi’s musico-dramatic characterization in these years may have developed out of
his relationship with Strepponi. She is often evoked in connection with the portrayal of Violetta in La traviata (The Fallen Woman). With Strepponi Verdi moved back to Busseto in 1849 and then to Sant’Agata.
In the meantime he had composed three operas that remain his best-known and best-loved: Rigoletto (1851), Il trovatore (1853; The Troubadour), and La traviata (1853). Rigoletto makes an important technical advance toward a coherent presentation of the drama in music, especially in the famous third act; there is less distinction between the recitatives (the parts of the score that carry the plot forward in imitation of speech), which tend toward arioso (melodic, lyric quality), and the arias, which are treated less formally and dovetailed into their surroundings,
sometimes almost unobtrusively.
From 1855 to 1870 Verdi, who had become an international celebrity, devoted himself to providing works for the Opéra at Paris and other theatres conforming to the Parisian operatic standard, which demanded spectacular dramas on subjects of high seriousness in five acts with a ballet. His first essay in the new manner, Les Vêpres siciliennes (1855; The Sicilian Vespers), is a rather cold piece that had only lukewarm success from its premiere on.
Two pieces for Italian theatres, Simon Boccanegra (1857) and Un ballo in maschera (1859; A Masked Ball ), affected to a lesser extent by the impact of the grand operatic style, show the enrichment of Verdi’s power as an interpreter of human character and as a master of orchestral colour.
Boccanegra includes powerful scenes and eates a special windswept atmosphereappropriate to its Genoese pirate protagonist. Much more successful with the public was Ballo, a Romantic version of the assassination of Gustav III of Sweden.
In 1862 Verdi represented Italian musicians at the London Exhibition, for which he composed a cantata to words by the up-and-coming poet and composer Arrigo Boito. In opera the big money came from foreign commissions, and in the same year his next work, La forza del destino (The Force of Destiny), was produced at St. Petersburg.
The epic-style Forza, includes the most extended religious scene in a Verdi opera and his first substantial comic role. Don Carlos (1867) is a setting of another play by Schiller in which religion is portrayed much more harshly, and much more in accordance with Verdi’s lifelong strong anticlerical sentiments, than in Forza; it is regarded by some as Verdi’s masterpiece.
Verdi felt that both operas with foreign commissions required revision for Italian theatres; this he accomplished for Forza in 1869 and Don Carlo (as it is now usually called) in 1884 and 1887. He needed none with the piece in which at last he fashioned a libretto exactly to his needs, Aida.
Commissioned by the khedive of Egypt to celebrate the opening of Cairo’s new Opera House in 1869, Aida premiered there in 1871 and went on to receive worldwide acclaim.
In 1873, while waiting in a Naples hotel for a production of Aida, Verdi wrote a string quartet, the only instrumental composition of his maturity. In the same year, he was moved by the death of the Italian patriot and poet
Alessandro Manzoni to compose a requiem mass in his honour. One of the masterpieces in the oratorio tradition, the Manzoni Requiem is an impressive testimony to what Verdi could do outside the field of opera.
After 1873 the maestro considered himself retired, at long last, from thatworld of opera to which he had been bound for so many years. He settled in at Sant’Agata, where he became a major landholder and a very wealthy man. His unintended and unimagined return to the stage, many years after Aida, was entirely due to the initiative of his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, who proposed that Arrigo Boito should write a libretto based on Shakespeare’s Othello. The Othello project then took shape, very slowly, on and off, until the opera finally opened at La Scala in In his 74th year, Verdi, stimulated by a libretto far superior to anything he had previously set, had produced his tragic masterpiece.
After a rapturous tour with Otello throughout Europe, Verdi once more retreated to Sant’Agata, declaring that he had composed his last opera. Yet Ricordi and Boito managed to intervene one more time. With infinite skill,
Boito converted Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, strengthened with passages adapted from the Henry IV plays, into the perfect comic libretto, Falstaff, which Verdi set to miraculously fresh and mercurial music. This, his last dramatic work, produced at La Scala in 1893, was a
Even after Falstaff, Verdi still interested himself in composition. His list of works ends with sacred music for chorus: a Stabat Mater and a Te Deum published, along with the somewhat earlier and slighter Ave Maria and Laudi alla Vergine Maria, under the title Quattro pezzi sacri (Four Sacred Pieces) in 1898. After a long decline, Verdi’s wife Giuseppina died in 1897, and Verdi himself gradually grew weaker and died four years later.
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The Best of Verdi
Rigoletto – Preludio Rigoletto – “La donna è mobile” (02:22) Rigoletto – “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata” (04:45) Nabucco – Overture (09:22) Nabucco – “Va Pensiero” (19:25) Nabucco – “Gli arredi festivi” (24:07) La Traviata – Preludio Act 1 (30:03) La Traviata – Preludio Act 4 (33:49) La Traviata – “Di provenza il mar, il suol” (37:29)
La Traviata – “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” (41:50) Aida – Overture (45:00) Aida – “Marcia Trionfale” (49:41) Aida – Entrata Atto 2 (50:44) Un Ballo In Maschera – “Morrò, ma prima in grazia” (55:00) La Traviata – “Un dì felice, eterea” (59:51) La Forza del Destino – Overture (1:02:32) La Forza del destino – “Son Pereda son ricco d’onore” (1:09:59)
I Lombardi – Overture (1:12:39) Macbeth – Overture (1:17:15) Macbeth – Balletto Act 3 (1:20:34) Macbeth – Valzer Act 3 (1:23:05) Macbeth – “Che faceste, dite su” (1:26:21) Il Trovatore – “Vedi! Le fosche notturne spoglie” (1:29:53) Il Trovatore – “Il balen del suo sorriso” (1:32:49) Il Trovatore – “Stride la vampa” (1:38:35) Don Carlo – “O don fatale” (1:41:05) I Vespri Siciliani – Overture (1:45:39) Requiem – “Dies Irae” (1:56:14)
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- Erik Satie (composer and pianist) (1866-1925)