Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi: Biography, Operas & Facts

Instructor: Robert Huntington

Bob has taught music at all levels and holds a Master's degree in Choral Conducting.

Composer Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) dominated Italian opera during the second half of the 19th century. Follow his rise to fame and learn about the important contributions he made to this enduring art form.

Setting the Stage

Long before television, movies, video games, and amusement parks, the chief form of entertainment was opera. Opera developed in Italy around the year 1600 and quickly spread across Europe and eventually the world. By 1700, the city of Venice, with a population of 125,000 at the time, boasted six opera theaters. The insatiable public demand for new works kept composers busy. Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi became part of this long tradition and dominated Italian opera during the second half of the 19th century. He composed 26 operas and elevated this art form to a whole new level.

Giuseppe Verdi
Giuseppe Verdi

Verdi was born near Parma, Italy, and received music lessons from an early age. He played the organ at a local church and composed small works for concerts, worship services, and other events. His talent was recognized by a rich merchant and music lover who helped launch Verdi's career. Verdi studied composition privately for several years and wrote his first opera in 1839. Oberto premiered at Milan's La Scala, one of the world's foremost opera houses at that time. This early success brought several commissions. His next production, however, was a flop. It followed several hard years of personal tragedy during which both of his children and then his wife died. His third work, Nabucco, was a huge success and brought Verdi great fame when it premiered in 1842.

Viva V.E.R.d.I.

The production of Nabucco coincided with Italian political events that proved fortunate for Verdi. Nabucco is about the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar who took the nation of Israel into captivity. The Italian people identified with the ancient Israelites in their struggle for freedom and national identity. The famous 'Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves' would become the unofficial anthem of the Italian nationalist movement. Also, 'Viva Verdi' (Long live Verdi) became a common phrase among the Italian people and it held a double meaning. Literally, it hailed the composer for this opera and its timely story. But it also became a political acronym:

Viva (Long live)

Vittorio (Victor)

Emmanuele, (Emmanuel)

Re (King)

d' (of)

Italia (Italy)

Victor Emmanuel II would eventually become the first king of a united Italy in 1861.

Nabucco
Nabucco

With his reputation firmly established, Verdi produced an astonishing 16 operas between 1842 and 1853. During this time, his compositional style gradually evolved in an effort to focus on dramatic content. In addition to writing memorable melodies, he broke away from operatic devices that would suspend the action. Traditionally, action stopped when singers would converse in dialogue. Instead, Verdi used a technique called parlando, in which sung dialogue was accompanied by the orchestra playing melodic material to help maintain dramatic momentum.

Other operas of note during this period include Macbeth (1847), Rigoletto (1851), Il Trovatore and La Traviata (1853). One of the most memorable scenes in Rigoletto features a quartet sung by the Duke, Maddalena (one of several women in which the Duke has taken interest), Rigoletto (the hunchback court jester), and Gilda (Rigoletto's daughter and another interest of the Duke). The Duke and Maddalena are inside a tavern; Rigoletto and Gilda are outside looking in through a window. The audience is able to see and hear all four singers, and when all four sing simultaneously, it is challenging to untangle who is saying what. However, the emotion and drama portrayed in this scene make for an unforgettable moment.

Mature Operas

Over the next few years, Verdi's compositional output slowed tremendously. From 1855 until 1893, he would compose only eight more operas and a Requiem so theatrical that the Catholic Church deemed it unsuitable for use during worship.

When Aida premiered in 1871, Verdi set new standards for the opera world. He wrote it for a huge orchestra and had the orchestra moved to a pit. He also wrote with a huge cast in mind. The famous 'Triumphal March' from Act II is often presented with live animals, chariots, and on-stage trumpeters. Spectacular sets and costumes help make this an incredible experience for audiences.

Aida poster
Aida poster

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