1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Verdi, Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco
VERDI, GIUSEPPE FORTUNINO FRANCESCO (1813-1901), Italian composer, was born on the 10th of October 1813 at Le Roncole, a poor village near the city of Busseto. His parents kept a little inn, combined with a kind of village shop. Verdi received some instruction from the village organist, but his musical education really began with his entrance into the house of business of Antonio Barezzi, a merchant of Busseto. Barezzi was a thorough musician, and under his auspices Verdi was speedily introduced to such musical society as Busseto could boast. He studied under Giovanni Provesi, who was maestro di cappella of the cathedral and conductor of the municipal orchestra, for which Verdi wrote many marches and other instrumental pieces. These compositions are now the principal treasures of the library of Busseto. Among them is Verdi's first symphony, which was written at the age of fifteen and performed in 1828. In 1832 Verdi went to Milan to complete his studies. He was rejected by the authorities of the Conservatorio, but remained in Milan as a pupil of Vincenzo Lavigna, with whom he worked until the death of Provesi in 1833 recalled him to Busseto. A clerical intrigue prevented him from succeeding his old master as cathedral organist, but he was appointed conductor of the municipal orchestra, and organist of the church of San Bartolomeo. After three years in Busseto, Verdi returned to Milan, where his first opera, Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio, was produced in 1839. His next work, a comic opera, known variously as Un Giorno di Regno and Il Finto Stanislao, was written in peculiarly distressing circumstances, the composer having had the misfortune to lose his wife and two children in the course of two months. Un Giorno di Regno was a complete failure, and Verdi, stung by disappointment, made up his mind to write no more for the stage. He kept his word for a year, but was then persuaded by Merelli, the impresario of La Scala, to look at a libretto by Solera. The poem took his fancy, in a short time the music was written, and in 1842 the production of Nabucodonosor placed Verdi in the front rank of living Italian composers. The success of Nabucodonosor was surpassed by that of its two successors, I Lombardi (1843) and Ernani (1844), the latter of which was the first of Verdi's operas to find its way to England. With Ernani Verdi became the most popular composer in Europe, and the incessant demands made upon him reacted upon his style. For several years after the production of Ernani he wrote nothing which has survived to our time—nothing which deserved to survive. In Macbeth (1847) there are passages of some power, and passages too which indicate an approaching transition to a less conventional method of expression. In Luisa Miller (1849) also there is a noticeable increase of refinement in style, which contrasts favourably with the melodramatic vulgarity of his earlier manner.
It was unfortunate that I Masnadieri, which was written for the English stage and produced under Lumley's management at Her Majesty's Theatre in 1847, should have been one of the worst of the many bad works which Verdi composed at this period of his career. Not the presence of the composer, who travelled to England to conduct the first performance, nor the genius of Jenny Lind, who sang the part of the heroine, could redeem it from failure. In 1851 Verdi won one of the greatest triumphs of his career with Rigoletto, a triumph which was fully sustained by the production two years later of Il Trovatore and La Traviata. In these works Verdi reached the culminating point of what may be called his second manner. His development had been steady though gradual, and it is only necessary to compare the treatment of voice and orchestra in Rigoletto with that in Ernani to realize how quickly his talent had developed during these seven years. The popularity of Rigoletto, II Trovatore and La Traviata was enormous, and consolidated Verdi's fame outside the frontiers of Italy. In 1855 he received a commission to write an opera for the Paris Opera, to be produced during the Universal Exhibition. He wrote Les Vepres Siciliennes, a work which though temporarily successful has not retained its popularity. It contains some fine music, but suffers from the composer's perhaps unconscious attempt to adopt the grandiose manner of French opera. Of the works written during the next ten years only Un Ballo in Maschera (1859) has maintained a fitful hold upon public attention. La Forza del Destino (1862) and Don Carlos, the latter of which was written for the Paris Exhibition of 1867, have the faults incident to works written during a period of transition. At this point in his career Verdi was preparing to emancipate himself from the fetters of conventionality which had hitherto hindered his development. In these two works there are indications of an aspiration towards a freer method of expression, which harmonize ill with the more conventional style of the composer's earlier years. In Aida, an opera upon an Egyptian subject, written in response to an invitation from Ismail Pasha, and produced at Cairo in 1871, Verdi entered upon the third period of his career. In this work he broke definitely with the operatic tradition which he had inherited from Donizetti, in favour of a method of utterance, which, though perhaps affected in some degree by the influence of Wagner, still retains the main characteristics of Italian music. In Aida the treatment of the orchestra is throughout masterly, and shows a richness of resource which those who knew only Verdi's earlier works scarcely suspected him of possessing; nevertheless, the human voice was still the centre of Verdi's system. Verdi kept thoroughly abreast of modern musical development, but his artistic sense prevented him from falling into the excesses of the German school. In the Requiem, which was written in 1874 to commemorate the death of Manzoni, Verdi applied his newly found system to sacred music. His Requiem was bitterly assailed by pedants and purists, partly on the ground of its defiance of obsolete rules of musical grammar and partly because of its theatrical treatment of sacred subjects, but by saner and more sympathetic critics, of whom Brahms was not the least enthusiastic, it has been accepted as a work of genius. There are passages in it with which Protestant feeling can scarcely sympathize, but its passionate intensity and dramatic force, and the extraordinary musical beauty with which it abounds, amply atone for what to some may seem errors of taste. In 1881 a revised version of Simon Boccanegra, an earlier work which had not been successful, was produced at Milan. The libretto had been in part rewritten by Arrigo Boito, and Verdi wrote a great deal of new music for the revival, which was eminently successful. After this it was generally supposed that Verdi, who had reached an advanced age, had finally relinquished composition, but after a lapse of some years it became known that he was at work upon a new opera, and in 1887 Otello was produced at Milan. The libretto, a masterly condensation of Shakespeare's Othello, was the work of Boito. Otello recalls Aida in the general outlines of its structure, but voices and orchestra are treated with greater freedom than in the earlier work, and there is a conspicuous absence of set airs. In so far as regards the essential qualities of the music, Otello is an immense advance upon anything Verdi had previously written. It has a dramatic force and a power of characterization for which it would be vain to look in his earlier work, and which are all the more remarkable as appearing for the first time in this high degree of development in a work written in extreme old age. All that has been said of Otello may be repeated of Falstaff, which was produced in 1893, when the composer was in his eightieth year, with the addition that the later work contains, besides the dramatic power and musical skill of the earlier work, a fund of delicate and fanciful humour which recalls the gayest mood of Mozart. The libretto of Falstaff, which is the work of Boito, is an adaptation of The Merry Wives of Windsor, with the addition of a few passages from Henry IV. After the production of Falsiaff, Verdi wrote nothing for the stage. In 1808 he produced four sacred pieces, settings of the Ave Maria, Laudi alia Virgine (words from Dante's Paradiso), the Stabat Mater and the Te Deum, the first two for voices alone, the last two for voices and orchestra. In these pieces Verdi abandoned to a certain extent the theatrical manner of the Requiem for one more restrained and more in keeping with ecclesiastical traditions. In imaginative power and musical beauty these pieces yield to none of Verdi's works. With the exception of these and the Requiem, Verdi has written little save for the stage. Among his minor works may be mentioned a string quartet, composed in 1873, a hymn written for the opening of the International Exhibition of 1862, two sets of songs, a Paternoster for five-part chorus, and an Ave Maria for soprano solo, with string accompaniment. The venerable composer died at Milan on the 27th of January 1901.
(R. A. S.)