Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco was born at Roncole di Busseto, in the Duchy of Parma, the 10th of October 1813, the son of Luigia Uttini, a spinner, and Carlo Verdi, landlord of an inn.
Carlo came from a family of farmers in the Piacenza area. He had put aside some money and opened a modest tavern in Roncole
where he divided his time between his role as a landlord and working in the fields. From an early age Giuseppe had music lessons from the church organist and practised on an old spinet that his father had given him. These musical studies were carried on in an irregular manner until Antonio Barezzi
, intervened. He was a rich local tradesman, businessman, and music lover. President of the local music Society he was fond of the Verdi family and young Giuseppe in particular. He welcomed Giuseppe into his own home and paid for his regular academic studies.
Verdi acquired experience in the church at Busseto, but already the little village was becoming rather confined for him. Helped by Barezzi he decided to enrol at the Milan Conservatory, which would later named after him. However he was unable to pass the entrance exam because of “an incorrect position of the hand while playing and having exceeded the age limit”. He was 18 years old. However he didn’t give in, and thanks to a grant from the Monte della Pieta in Busseto and further economic assistance from Barezzi he began to frequent the world of La Scala, taking private lessons from the harpsichordist, Vincenzo Lavigna, and attending performances.
The beginnings of a career
In 1836 he went back to Busseto having won the post of music teacher and in the same year he married the daughter of his benefactor Margherita Barezzi
, with whom he had two children: Virginia and Icilio. The steady employment and salary however turned out to be an obstacle to fulfilling his Milanese dreams and Verdi decided to give up everything and return to Milan, this time with his family.
1839 saw the production of his first opera, Oberto Conte di San Bonifacio
at the Teatro alla Scala
It enjoyed a modest success which however was darkened by the death of his children and then of Margherita to whom Verdi was bound with deep sentiment. In those tragic days the maestro managed to complete the commission for a comic opera Un giorno di regno
which turned out to be a dreadful fiasco. Verdi declared that he would never write music again.
The “prison years”
It would be a libretto, a story that worked, that was to make him change his mind. An impresario at la Scala, Bartolomeo Merelli, made him read Nabucco
. In a short space of time the opera was ready and it triumphed (1842). The chorus of was so popular that it was even sung and played in the streets. In the same year Verdi met two women who were to become extremely important in his life: the first was the soprano and pianist Giuseppina Strepponi
, destined to become his companion and later his second wife, while the second, Countess Clarina Maffei, ensured that the doors of the salons of Milanese high society were opened to him.
Now began years of extremely hard and unceasing work with continuous commissions and little time available in which to complete them. Verdi called this period his “prison years”. From 1842-1848 he composed to an incredibly tight schedule. I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata
(1843) was another success however it was heavily censored by the Austrian governor because, like Nabucco it could be interpreted in the light of the Italian patriotism. This success was followed by Ernani
(1844), I due foscari
(1847), I Masnadieri
(1847) and Luisa Miller
(1849). In this period the much talked-about relationship with Giuseppina Strepponi was consolidated, and after Giovanna d’Arco
(1845) Verdi moved away from la Scala and settled in Paris. For the Paris Opèra he transformed I Lombardi
(1847) in order not only to meet the demands of French Grand Opera but also to make the most of its impressive resources.
The Popular Trilogy: a success “born in Emilia”
In 1849 he returned to Busseto with Giuseppina. Their relationship was controversial, the soprano had two children from a previous relationship but their situation was finally formalised in 1859 when they were married. In 1851 the Villa of Sant ‘Agata at Villanuova d’Arda was completed and Verdi and Giuseppina went to live there definitively. The house was surrounded by a large park which Verdi himself looked after. In these years in the calm of life on the plains of the river Po, Verdi wrote his popular trilogy: Rigoletto
(1851), Il Trovatore
(1853), e La Traviata
(1853), which achieved clamorous success.
The years of political and social activity
In 1861 Verdi was persuaded to enter politics at the behest of Cavour. First he was elected as a deputy to the first Italian parliament, then in 1874 he was nominated senator. In these years he composed La forza del destino
(1862), and in 1865 he rewrote Macbeth
for the French theatre, and composed Don Carlos
for the Paris Opera in 1867. in 1862 he composed Inno delle Nazioni
( Anthem for the Nations) for the Universal Exhibition of London with a text by Boito. With Aida
(1871), commissioned by Ismail Pasha as an Egyptian “national” opera, Verdi reinterpreted the spectacular demands of grand opera from an Italian perspective. The Messa da requiem
was written in 1873 and was conceived for the death of Alexander Manzoni. In 1869, the second version of La forza del destino
signified a definitive return to la Scala. He formed an intense friendship with Teresa Stolz, the first and greatest interpreter of Aida, a friendship that was soon to became rather more intimate. Verdi also found the time to devote himself to the well-being of those in need. In 1888 he inaugurated a hospital at Villanova D’Arda which he had financed in its entirety, and in 1880 he bought the land where his Retirement Home for Musicians would be built. The home still exists today and he described it as his “most beautiful work of art”. However the home would only be opened after his death since Verdi had no wish to be thanked for his generosity.
Farewell to the theatre
In 1887, at the age of 80, Verdi wrote Otello
returning to Shakespeare for his source. In 1893 he gave his farewell to the theatre with his only comic opera Falstaff
Four years later Giuseppina Strepponi died. In this late period he composed four sacred pieces
which were published in 1898 Stabat Mater, Laudi alla Vergine
e Te Deum
Verdi died on 27 January 1901. He was staying at Grand Hotel et De Milan, where he often spent the winter months. He had unexpected turn and died after six days of agony during which the streets of Milan were covered with straw so that the sound of the horseshoes would not disturb the last days of the great maestro. His funerals were held as he requested, without pomp or music, with the simplicity that had accompanied him throughout his life and a silent crowd followed the coffin. One month later the bodies of Verdi and Giuseppina Strepponi were taken to Verdi’s Home for Retired Musicians. With Arturo Toscanini leading the orchestra of La Scala and a choir of 900 voices lining the steps, “Va Pensiero” from Nabbucco was sung as a final salute from the entire Italian nation to the “Swan of Busseto”.