A Giuseppe Verdi Biography
Discover the legendary life behind the music hailed as some of the greatest operatic work of all time with this concise and complete Giuseppe Verdi Biography.
Verdi Biography Part I: Birth, Childhood, and Early Influences (1813-1835)
From the moment of Verdi’s birth, it has been difficult to separate hard fact from romantic myth regarding the people, places, and events of his life. Even Verdi’s birthday and birthplace have been contested in recent manifestations of the Verdi biography. We do know that Giuseppe Verdi was born Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco to his father, Carlo Verdi and mother, Luigia Uttini and that he was born on either October 9 or October 10, 1813 in the village of Le Roncole, in the Parma region of Italy. The child was brought forth into turbulent times—with Parma staggering under the thumb of Napoleon’s armies—and so, Verdi’s name appears on the birth register as Joseph Fortunin François. A story has circulated widely that tells us shortly after Verdi was born, Cossack troops invaded Le Roncole, and Verdi’s mother was forced to take her infant son and flee to the church where she hid as the village crumbled around them. This tale has been contested as just another exaggeration of what was probably a relatively uneventful childhood, and it may never be known whether or not there is any truth to it. Just as Verdi’s biography may have been self-embellished with the near-tragedy surrounding his birth, so might have been his childhood. For years, Verdi maintained that his parents were destitute and illiterate peasants. In truth, his father was a landowner and innkeeper, and, while largely uncultured, was not illiterate. His mother was a spinner. For decades, a plaque has hung at a certain tavern in Le Roncole, identifying the inn as the official birthplace of Verdi. New evidence, however, has suggested that Verdi’s parents did not move to that particular inn until Verdi was seventeen years old and no longer living at home! Amidst all the controversy surrounding his birth, birthplace, and various fables of his childhood, we do know for certain how Verdi came to music, and no Verdi biography would be complete without a discussion of his precocious musical leanings. It is said that Verdi was enraptured by the sound of the church organ, and to encourage his interest, his father bought him a beat-up old spinet when the young maestro was seven years old. The instrument was repaired when Verdi was around nine by a harpsichord maker named Cavalletti who charged no money, thanks to “the good disposition of young Giuseppe Verdi for learning to play this instrument.” Verdi’s “good disposition” as a student of music led him to attend Ferdinando Provesi’s music school in nearby Busetto in 1823, and in 1825 he was made assistant conductor of the Busetto orchestra. He left Provesi’s school at the age of twenty, having been taught the fundamentals of composition and instrumental proficiency, and found a benefactor in Antonio Barezzi. Verdi’s dream was to enter the Conservatory in Milan, but when he arrived there, he was told he was two years over the age limit. Rather than return home, Verdi pursued his studies independently, taking three years worth of counterpoint lessons from Vincenzo Lavigna, an ex-La Scala harpsichordist. It was in Milan that Verdi discovered opera, and he eagerly absorbed as many performances as he could attend, thus laying the groundwork for a future in theater music.
Verdi Biography Part II: Marriage, Tragedy, and First Operas (1836-1847)
The newly enlightened Verdi returned to Busetto where he took up the post of town music master and began giving music lessons to Barezzi’s daughter, Margherita. Of course, Verdi and his protege fell deeply in love, and in May of 1836, they were married. It was in this initial period of wedded bliss, at the tender age of twenty three, that Verdi began to compose his first opera. It is rumored that the work was initially entitled Rochester and that the title was later changed to Oberto. Another popular theory states that Rochester was an unfinished first attempt whose storyline was integrated into Oberto. Tragedy struck just as Verdi, encouraged by the relative success of Oberto, began work on his second opera, Un Giorno de Regno (A One-Day Reign). His infant son died suddenly of an unexplained illness followed shortly by his infant daughter. Months later, Margherita was struck with encephalitis and passed away shortly afterwards. Un Giorno which was, ironically, a comic opera, was a complete flop. With his entire family taken from him within a few short months and a failed opera hanging over his head, Verdi vowed to end his career before it had even begun. He was convinced by the impressario at La Scala to give it one more try with Nabucco, a libretto entailing the story of the Israelite plight at the hands of the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. The opening night of Nabucco was nothing short of a triumph. The Italians, who were living under Austrian rule, found a new hope in their native son, and Nabucco marked the beginning of Verdi’s eternal fame.
Verdi Biography Part III: A Scandalous Romance, The Masterpieces, and Viva Verdi! (1847-1871)
Following Nabucco’s wild success, Verdi spent the next decade writing prolifically and battling the artistic censorship of the Austrian rule. The fight against censorship was not the only rebellion Verdi became known for during this period. Around 1851, when he was 38, Verdi became romantically involved with Giuseppina Strepponi, a soprano who had been the jewel of many of his operas, from Nabucco onward. He and Giuseppina lived together (a highly scandalous practice in the eyes of many) for nearly nine years before finally marrying in 1857. It was around the time of his blossoming romance with Giuseppina that Verdi wrote and premiered Rigoletto—one of his greatest masterpieces. Rigoletto ushered in a new era for Verdi’s music as he created one masterwork after another: Il Trovatore, La Traviata, and La forza del destino, to name a few. By this time, Verdi had become so famous, it was said that a letter addressed simply to “G. Verdi, Italy” would make it into the composer’s postbox. Verdi’s glorious music alone would have been enough to turn him into a veritable rock star of the era, but it was his unyielding nationalistic pride that made him a true icon to the Italian people, not only musically, but politically. At the close of each performance of a Verdi opera, the house shook with shouts of “Viva Verdi!” The shouting would continue until the crowd was forced from the building at which point, they would take to the streets, still shouting again and again into the night “Viva Verdi!” They weren’t merely wishing long life on their national hero. “Viva Verdi” had become a secret code for the anti-Austrian current that was surging through the Italian people. What they were actually shouting was “Viva V.E.R.D.I.”, or “Long live Vittorio Emanuele, King of Italy.”
Verdi Biography Part IV: The Latter Works and Retirment (1871-1901)
The death of another Italian operatic giant, Rossini, brought about a brief departure from opera for Verdi as he worked to compose a portion of a requiem to honor Rossini’s memory. This eventually led to the completion of an entire Requiem which premiered in May, 1874. Before the Requiem, however, Verdi worked on and premiered Aida, a huge tour de force that proved, not surprisingly, to be an instant success. After Aida, Verdi turned his attentions once again to non-operatic music, composing a string quartet. A lengthy period of relative inactivity was followed by several revisions of prior operas, a new opera, Otello, and his final opera, Falstaff, which premiered in 1893. After Falstaff had run its course, Verdi escaped to a home in the country with his beloved Giuseppina where they dwelt in happy retirement until Giuseppina’s death four years later. Grief-stricken, Verdi died four years later from a massive stroke, but not before he’d taken the time to construct a retirement home for aging musicians—an accomplishment he hailed as his “most beautiful work.”