Giuseppe Verdi was born in the town of Roncole on October 10, 1813. His family owned some land and worked as taverners. He began studying music with his church organist at the age of seven. His lessons continued with an organist in Busseto until he traveled to Milan to enter the conservatory. Ironically, he was not admitted, though the school would later change its name to the Conservatorio di musica “Giuseppe Verdi” di Milano. Instead, young Verdi began lessons with Vincenzo Lavigna who composed, and had played in the orchestra at La Scala. Again, Verdi suffered rejection in 1835, this time for a position as “maestro di cappella” in Monza. In 1836 he married and started a family. Tragically, his two young children died, one after the other, followed by the death of his wife. Verdi was terribly distraught and threw himself headlong into composing Nabucco.
Nabucco gave Italian separatists an anthem in “Va, pensiero,” which was based on the Babylonian Captivity in the Book of Psalms. In it, the Hebrews sing of their grief and yearning for their homeland.
“Viva Verdi” became the cheer of Italian patriots who were struggling to end foreign domination in Italy. “Viva Verdi” provided an acronym for the man who would become the first King of a unified Italy:
Victor Emmanuel, Re D‘Italia.
Verdi became a beloved symbol for the “risorgimento,” or Italian unification.
Giuseppina Strepponi sang the role of Abigail in Nabucco. She starred in a number of Verdi’s early operas. She excelled in the Italian bel canto roles. Donizetti wrote Adelia for her. She starred in a number of operas by Donizetti, Rossini and Bellini. She and Verdi were married in 1859, and shared a long life together.
Verdi adored Shakespeare. When he received a commission from the Teatro alla pegola in Florence, he leaped at the opportunity to write one of his favorite roles for baritone Felice Varesi. Macbeth was premiered in March of 1847.
Here’s an illustration of the famous quartet from Rigoletto, which Verdi unveiled in Venice in March of 1851. The quartet interweaves the Duke’s seduction of the assassin’s sister, Rigoletto’s attempt to persuade Gilda of the Duke’s infidelity, and Gilda’s own agony—it’s masterful writing from Verdi. He was so sure he had a hit with Rigoletto, he withheld the music from “La donna è mobile” from rehearsals so that it couldn’t be leaked to the public. He was right, of course; after the premiere, the Venetians were singing it in the streets.
Aida premiered in Cairo on Christmas Eve, 1871. Costumes were designed by Auguste Mariette; sets were by Auguste Rubé and by Philippe Chaperon of the Paris Opera.