Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), the most popular of all opera composers, was born to a poor family in a tiny Italian village.
He began studying music in a nearby town. Busseto, where he was taken into the home of a wealthy patron who later also supported his education in Milan. When he completed his studies, he became municipal music director in Busseto and married his patron's daughter; three years later he returned to Milan with the score of his first opera, Oberto.
Oberto was produced at La Scala (Milan's opera house) in 1839, had a modest success, and brought Verdi a contract for more operas. Then disaster struck: his wife and their two children died. Verdi managed to complete his next opera, but it was a failure and, in despair, he vowed to compose no more.
What changed his mind was a libretto about the ancient Jews exiled from their homeland. Verdi was an ardent nationalist who yearned for a free and united Italy and saw the Jews as a symbol of the oppressed Italians. He quickly composed Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, 1842), which was a huge success. From then on, Verdi and his operas came to symbolize Italian independence. (The cry Viva Verdi also stood for the patriotic slogan "Vittorio Emmanuele, Re D'Italia")
In his late thirties, Verdi composed Rigoletto (1853), and La Traviata (1853). Although the public loved them, critics were often scandalized by their subject matter they seemed to condone rape, suicide, and free love. But Verdi was fiercely independent and himself lived openly with his second wife for ten years before marrying her.
After these successes had made him wealthy, Verdi bought an estate in Busseto; and in 1861 he was elected in the first parliament that convened after Italy had become a nation. In his later years he wrote Aida (1871), Otello (1887), and at the age of seventy-nine his final opera, Falstaff (1893).
Verdi composed not for the musical elite but for a mass public whose main entertainment was opera. He wanted subjects that were 'original, interesting and passionate. Almost all his mature works are serious and end unhappily; they move quickly and involve extremes of hatred, love, jealousy, and fear; and his powerful music underlines the dramatic situations.
Expressive vocal melody is the soul of a Verdi opera. There are many duets, trios, and quartets; and the chorus plays an important rule. Verdi's style became less conventional as he grew older; his later works have greater musical continuity, less difference between aria and recitative, more imaginative orchestration, and richer accompaniments. His last three operas - Aida, Otello, and Falstaff are perhaps his greatest. Falstaff, his final work, is a comic masterpiece which ends with a carefree fugue to the words „All the world's a joke!“
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