Music History 102

The Romantic Era

Giuseppe Verdi

portrait of Giuseppe Verdi

Born: Le Roncole, near Busseto, Duchy of Parma, October 9, 1813

Died: Milan, January 27, 1901

As a young man, Verdi composed operas much in the style of the earlier Italian Bel canto works (the operas of Donizetti being the most influential), Verdi continued to grow and develop his dramatic and musical talent throughout his life, and eventually wrote operas which are still considered today to be among the very finest in the entire Italian operatic repertoire. Beginning with the conventions of the bel canto style of the early part of the century, Verdi continually developed these forms and structures, and was able to create highly individual and dramatic works of art through his continued experimentation with harmony and orchestration. Of his thirty or so works for the operatic stage, virtually half of them are in the standard repertory of every opera company today.

After a series of successes and setbacks, Verdi hit his stride in his “middle period” with the composition of such masterpieces as Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, and La Traviata. Many of the the arias from these operas are infused with much dramatic melody and Italian passion, and have become extremely well-known melodies. Such is the case with the popular “La donna è mobile” from Rigoletto. However, it is in the ensembles of his operas that Verdi’s art is seen at its best, whether it be for dramatic effect as in the “Miserere” from Il Trovatore, or in the grand operatic tradition of the “Triumphal March” from Act I of Aïda.

painting of La Scala Opera House

After the premiere of Aïda in 1871, Verdi intended to retire to his farm and compose no more. With the death of national Italian poet Alessandro Manzoni in 1874, Verdi responded with the composition of his Messa da Requiem, which some critics still call “Verdi’s greatest opera” because of its passionate and intensely dramatic writing. In his last years, Verdi worked closely with Arrigo Boito, a poet and composer of operas himself, in the construction of the librettos, or texts, of what would become his final two operas. Both based on Shakespearean subjects, the results are widely regarded as Verdi’s greatest triumphs, the tragedy of Otello and the rollicking comedy based on “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” Falstaff.

When Verdi died in 1901 he was admired, revered, and acknowledged as probably the greatest composer Italy had ever produced. His works had almost completely monopolized the Italian operatic scene for most of the nineteenth century, and many lesser composers rushed to fill the void left by his death. Many composed in a style reminiscent of Verdi’s final operas (particularly Otello), a style that was to influence the emerging verismo school of Italian opera and which led directly to the works of Giacomo Puccini.

Music History 102: a Guide to Western Composers and their music
Designed, compiled and created by

Robert Sherrane