“I adored and adore this art; and when I am alone and wrestling with my notes,
then my heart pounds, tears stream from my eyes,
and the emotions and pleasures are beyond description.”
– Verdi, 1869
Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi dominated the world of Italian opera from his first considerable success in 1842 with Nabucco until his final Shakespearean operas Otello, staged at La Scala, Milan in 1887, and Falstaff, mounted at the same opera house in 1893.
During his lifetime, this most beloved of all opera composers, wrote 26 operas, not including revisions, as well as numerous other compositions. The best known of these operas are Nabucco, Macbeth, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, La Traviata, Aida, Falstaff, Otello, Rigoletto, Les Vêpres Sicilennes (The Sicilian Vespers), Simon Boccanegra, Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball), La Forza del Destino (The Force of Destiny), and Don Carlos.
Verdi made opera into more realistic theatre than the bel canto composers such as Donizetti, had produced. He demanded more emotion and better acting from his singers and discouraged vocal acrobatics. The orchestration, sentiments, and passions of Italian Romanticism can be clearly seen in his operas which offer dramatic, passionate characters taken from real life, characters involved in desperate struggles and displaying heightened passions. He dealt with heroism and loyalty, jealousy and greed, love and hate, and devotion and patriotism
Although a musical genius, Verdi composed spontaneously from the heart. He placed emotional sensibility about intellect in all that he wrote. In the process, he created a remarkable marriage of dramatic characterization and vocal power, an indelible artistic signature.
His career coincided with the rise of Italian nationalism and the unification of the country, causes with which he was openly associated and which were incorporated into his music. He became a great Italian patriotic hero and champion of human rights, and throughout his career, had many battles with censors of artistic freedom.
When Nabucco had its premiere in 1842, the Italian peninsula was a chopped-up collection of weak political units dominated by Austria, France, and Spain. The Italian people longed for a unified state and Verdi’s music became a symbol of their nationalistic fervour.
Several of Verdi’s operas told stories about wrestling freedom from oppression. In Nabucco, Ernani, Il Due Foscari and Battaglia di Legnano the audience heard echoes of their own patriotic ardour. As well, the letters of Verdi’s name formed an acronym for Italy’s would-be king – Vittorio Emanuele Re D’Italia (Vittorio Emmanuele, King of Italy). The cry “Viva, Verdi!” – at first an artistic accolade – became a passionate expression of the Italian spirit. It appeared on fences and walls, it rang out in opera halls where Verdi’s works were performed, and it was bellowed in the streets by supporters of the Risorgimento (Reunification).
“Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate,” a chorus sung in Nabucco by captive Israelites dreaming of their homeland even became the Italian version of “God Bless America” – not the national anthem, but its more popular equivalent.
“Of all composers, past and present, I am the least learned.
I mean that in all seriousness, and by learning I do not mean knowledge of music.”
– Verdi, 1869