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Success and Grief: What Giuseppe Verdi’s Life Reveals
Giuseppe Verdi, the great Italian composer, was born in 1813 in a small village near Parma, Italy. When he was 12 years old, he was appointed organist in the village church. In 1832, when he was 19 years old, a wealthy merchant friend of Verdi’s father recognized his great talent and offered him a music scholarship in Milan. Verdi, accompanied by his father and a teacher, arrived in Milan in May 1832, but there he was met with great disappointment: he applied to the Milan Conservatory, but after hearing the piano, the school rejected his application.
In the same year, he experienced another blow: his beloved sister Josephine died. And in 1837 another misfortune found him. From his marriage to Marguerite Baretz in 1836, he had a daughter, Virginia, whom he adored. But Virginia died when she was only a few months old. In a distraught state, Verdi isolated himself in his home in Milan and faced enormous hardship: he was unemployed, penniless, and often only able to eat once a day in miserable taverns. As if that was not enough, in 1839 his second child also died – a small son. Verdi’s life became unbearable. In 1840 he received the most tragic blow of all: his beloved wife Margherita Barezzi died. Grief-stricken, Verdi fled Milan to his village of Busseto to find solace.
But the impresario Merelli visited him there and asked if he would like to compose music for a work called Nabuchodonosor. Verdi, of course, refused. He had lost the desire to compose music. However, Merelli insisted, putting the libretto of this work in Verdi’s pocket. He half-heartedly tried to start composing later. But the notes did not appear – or if they did, they were full of sadness, just like the composer’s soul.
However, he completed it in 1841. Rehearsals for the opera Nabuchodonosor, or Nabucco, as it was then called, began at the beginning of 1842. But it immediately became clear that Verdi had composed a masterpiece. Nabucco was first performed at Milan’s La Scala on March 9, 1842. What followed was an unprecedented triumph. The rapturous audience responded with a standing ovation, demanding – with frenzied applause – a repeat of the moving chorus of ‘Va, pensiero, sull’ ali dorate’, which still sends shivers down our spines.
Verdi, now 29, suddenly became famous. People sang the chorus from Nabucco in the streets, while hats and ties with Verdi’s name were sold everywhere. The wealthiest families in Milan opened their homes to him. In the same year (1842), the composer met the famous soprano Josephine Streponi and established a long-term relationship with her, which lasted until her death in 1897.
Over the next nine years, from 1843 to 1851, Verdi composed thirteen operas, which were performed in all the major Italian cities – Milan, Rome, Venice, Naples, Trieste, as well as London – and all were huge successes. The first of these operas was I Lombardi, which was performed at La Scala in Milan on February 11, 1843. Enthusiastic crowds stormed the theater on the day of its premiere, and the success of this opera was similar to that of Nabucco.
The opera Ernani followed in 1844, based on Victor Hugo’s work of the same name. It premiered in Venice on March 9, 1844, to great acclaim. Crowded Venetians lifted Verdi on their shoulders and carried him triumphantly around St. Mark’s Square. With the money he earned from Ernani, Verdi was able to buy a small farm near his village. The opera Joan of Arc (Giovanna d’Arco) followed in 1845 with equally great success. Verdi now had so much money that he bought a mansion in his village of Busseto.
Other achievements were the operas “Attila” in 1846 and “I Masnadieri” (“Bandits”) in 1847. Bandits premiered in London with a special repertoire: Queen Victoria and almost all members of Parliament were present. The opera was a great success and Verdi earned staggering sums of money. He bought a large farm with woods and vineyards near Busceteau and an apartment in Paris, where he occasionally retreated to relax with his companion, Josephine Strepon.
Tensions between Italy and Austria increased during this period, and Verdi composed the opera La Battaglia di Legnano (Battle of Legnano) to stir patriotic feelings. This opera was performed for the first time in Rome in 1849. Tickets for the premiere were sold out. It was another blow. The enraptured audience demanded a replay of the entire fourth act as an encore. Verdi had become a national hero. At the end of the same year, Verdi’s opera Luise Müller, based on Schiller’s tragedy of the same name, was also performed in Naples.
During the next eight years (1851-1859), Verdi composed his extraordinary masterpieces, the operas Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, La Traviata, Les Vêpres Siciliennes, Simon Boccanegra, Un Ballo in Maschera, etc., and he reached his peak. fame. The first of these masterpieces, Rigoletto, he completed in early 1851 and premiered in Venice on March 11 of the same year. All night the voices of gondoliers rang out in the canals of Venice singing “Feather of the Wind,” a song well known even now. After 21 performances in Venice, Rigoletto began to be performed around the world.
In 1851, Verdi also began composing his next masterpiece, the opera Trovatore, which he completed the following year. The premiere took place in Rome in January 1853, again earning great acclaim. Two months later, his third masterpiece – the opera Traviata – premiered in Venice. It was again an instant hit and was even performed in America.
In 1855, Verdi completed the opera Les Vêpres Siciliennes. It premiered at the Paris Opera; In 1856 it was performed at Milan’s La Scala with great success. Its ardent patriotism thrilled Italian souls. In 1857, the opera Simona Bocanegra was performed in Venice, in the same year Verdi composed the opera Un Ballo in Maschera. The last opera was performed in Rome in February 1859 with great success – ticket prices were seven times higher than normal.
Verdi had reached the peak of his career; At the age of 46, he was considered Europe’s greatest composer. In order to succeed, he married in early 1859 the woman he lived with for the last 17 years, Josephine Streponi.
In the following years, Verdi composed many other operas. In 1862 he completed La Forza del Destino (The Force of Destiny), commissioned by the Russian Theater in Petrograd. In March 1867, the opera Don Carlos was performed for the first time in Paris. At the end of 1871, his opera Aida was performed in Cairo. The show lasted more than eight hours – from 19:00 to 03:00
In 1874, he expressed his feelings in his next work, the mournful Messa da Requiem, performed in May 1874 in Milan’s St. Mark’s Church. The following year, the sad da Requiem was a huge success. After conquering all of Italy, it did the same in the rest of Europe, while in London the performance was attended by an incredible chorus of 1,200 voices, prompting critics to write rave reviews.
Verdi, now 62 years old, began to enjoy the pleasures of life. He met a young intellectual, Arrigo Boito, who shared with him the joys of culture, exposing him to new intellectual currents and fashions. In 1876, Verdi conducted his opera Aida in Paris, and soon the opera was given triumphant performances throughout Europe. In 1881, he rewrote his opera Simon Bocanegra, which was performed in its new form the same year with great success.
From 1879 he began composing music for Shakespeare’s Othello, which he finally completed in 1886. The premiere took place at La Scala in 1887. Celebrities from all over Europe came to the show and ticket prices reached unprecedented heights. At the end of the show, the audience’s cheers could be heard for blocks. When Verdi came out of the theater overcome with emotion, people hitched up his carriage horses and dragged them to his hotel themselves. Between 1888 and 1892, Verdi composed another masterpiece – the opera Falstaff, which was again based on Shakespeare’s motifs. Falstaff was performed at La Scala in 1894.
In 1897, Verdi’s beloved companion, his wife Josephine Strepponi, dies. From then on, his health failed, and in 1900 he found himself confined to a wheelchair. In 1901, the great composer, one of the greatest in the world, passed away at the age of 88.
Verdi’s life reveals that sometimes sadness can lead to great success. As you recall, when Verdi was 24, his beloved daughter Virginia died in 1837, and two years later his second child also died. The following year, in 1840, his beloved wife Marguerite Barezzi also died. Grief-stricken, he fled from Milan to his village. But there he was visited by the impresario Merelli and asked to compose music for the opera Nabucco. Verdi refused, but later he began to compose, although he was full of grief. The result was a masterpiece. When Nabucco was executed, it was an unprecedented success. Tribulation had led to triumph. From that moment Verdi became one of the greatest composers in the world.
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