Classical Composer Profile: Giuseppe Verdi
by Betty Fry
Giuseppe Verdi was born in 1813 at La Roncole, a small village near Busseto in the Duchy of Parma, Italy, where his father ran a modest general store which also served as the local tavern.
But ill educated as he was, his father soon recognized the outstanding musical talent in his son and consulted Antonio Barezzi, a Busseto merchant known for his generosity and musical enthusiasms.
With the help of Ferdinand Provesi the cathedral organist, Barezzi assumed responsibility for young Verdi who flourished in his new environment, and by the age of 16 he had started to deputize for Provesi; had a number of his own compositions performed; become a member of the Barezzi household; and was very attracted to their eldest daughter Margherita.
Two years later Barezzi sent him to Milan only to find he was already too old to enter the Conservatorio. However he did become the private student of the chief conductor of La Scala, Vincenzo Lavigna, with whom he worked for three crucial years.
On his return to Busseto in 1834 he failed to obtain the now vacant post of cathedral organist. Instead he took a local teaching job which brought in just enough salary to allow him to marry Margherita Barezzi in 1836.
With his sights now set on the theatre, he moved to Milan in 1839 where his first opera ‘Oberto’, was successfully staged at La Scala later that year; he also met the talented young singer Giuseppina Strepponi; and was offered a contract by La Scala’s manager, Bartolomeo Merelli.
Success seemed within his grasp but now domestic tragedies overtook him. Within less than two years he first lost an infant daughter, his small son also died, and soon afterwards his beloved Margherita.
Distraught with grief, Verdi threw himself into the production of his second opera, but it was not a success.
In his mid sixties Verdi was persuaded to narrate the story of his life to his publisher Giulio Ricordi, who wrote it down as accurately as he could. And it is this narrative that tells how Verdi was saved from the terrible misfortunes that had overwhelmed his life.
He was twenty eight; living in a garret in Milan; and writing no music. One winter night, wandering through the streets with snow falling in big heavy flakes, filled with grief, loneliness, and despair, he unexpectedly met with Merelli.
The story of that chance meeting is too long to tell here, but the end result was ‘Nabucco’.
Offered to him by Merelli that night, it was an inspired choice of libretto, for the delivery of the Jews from slavery exactly matched the mood of the Risorgimento, the revolutionary movement then sweeping Italy.
‘Nabucco’ is the Italian name for ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ the king of Babylon who, as recounted in the Old Testament of the Bible, conquered Judah and enslaved the children of Israel.
In Verdi’s opera, Hebrew slaves gather by the banks of the river Euphrates to lament upon their present sad fate. Their voices rise above the orchestra as they recall the psalms they sang in their beloved homeland, and find renewed hope in their eventual liberation.
This opera created a sensation when it opened in Milan in 1842. The Italian audience saw in the plight of the Israelites echoes of their own situation under Austrian domination.
At his funeral in 1901 the massed crowds sang the song that had come to symbolize Italian freedom. ‘Va, pensiero’ from the ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’, accompanied by a full orchestra, and conducted by a young Arturo Toscannini.
I have it playing now, and can well imagine how perfect that sorrowful singing would have been for the occasion. The wonderful slow melody stirs the emotions, and demonstrates the deep sadness felt by people who are oppressed the world over.
In fact the people of Italy identified many of his operas with the aspirations of the Risorgimento movement, whose activities eventually resulted in an independent and unified Italy under Victor Emmanuel.
They liked the common touch Verdi never lost, and the way many of his operas echoed the patriotic feelings of his day, so that for them he became a national hero.
The period that followed ‘Nabucco’, during which he became rich and famous, was what Verdi called his ‘Years in the galleys’.
The singer Giuseppina Streponi had gone to teach and live in Paris, but in 1847 Verdi joined her there on a prolonged visit to stage his opera ‘Jerusalem’.
For ten years they lived together, defying the conventions of the day, but were eventually married in 1859.
Another lovely piece of music with which the world became familiar when it was sung at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales at London’s Westminster Abbey in 1997, is ‘Libera Me’. This is the final part of Verdi’s dramatic ‘Requim’ for four solo voices, a choir, and a full orchestra.
It opens with a soprano soaring on the word ‘requim’ in a high pure tone over a quiet yet ominous choral accompaniment. Announced by warning phrases on strings she moves into a passionate plea for deliverance from eternal death, ‘libera me’ (deliver me) made all the more striking by thunderous echoes on drums and brass.
Here the ‘Requim’ shows its operatic qualities in that it is almost like one of Verdi’s dramatic death scenes.
Finally the soprano calmly repeats her plea on a single assured note to bring the passage to an end. Again perfect for the funeral of Diana, and helping those who needed to weep to do so.
Verdi wrote tunes that have become instantly recognized all over the world. He also created some of the most dramatically effective music ever heard on the stage.
Whether as a composer of popular music, or as a master of theatrical drama, his work is wonderfully direct and, like the man himself, full of strong and honest dignity. And his music is as acclaimed today as when it was first written.
Who for instance does not know at least the opening bars of ‘La Donna E Mobile’ or has not sung along in the ‘Brindisi’ from ‘Traviata’ as it exhorts one to ‘Drink, drink from the goblet of joy’, which he so generously filled in his lifetime.
Verdi combined the Italian operatic tradition of ‘bel canto’, or ‘beautiful singing’ with a powerful sense of drama. According to some, he was the greatest of all operatic composers. ‘La Traviata’, dating from the middle years of his life, is one of his best loved works.
Towards the end of his life Verdi became something of a philanthropist and involved himself in two charitable projects; a hospital he had endowed near Busseto; and a home near Milan for retired and impoverished musicians, the ‘Casa di Riposo’.
In 1897 Giuseppina died, bringing to an end a partnership that had endured for more than fifty years. Verdi himself died in January 1901.
Although he became very rich he never forgot his humble background, and in many ways remained a man of the people all his life, and through his wonderful music, will never be forgotten.