Gaetano Donizetti

Opera Composer Gaetano Donizetti

Wrote two of the all-time-greatest Italian opera hits, and several more that are widely loved. He was an important influence on Verdi.

Vital Statistics
November 29, 1797, Bergamo, Italy
April 8, 1848, Bergamo
Performed As:
Pianist, organist
During Lifetime:
The Congress of Vienna (1815) officially ends the Napoleonic Wars, redrawing the political map of Europe. Italy is divided: Northern Italy (where Donizetti was born) is ruled by the Austrian Empire; a large swath of the middle of the peninsula is ruled directly by papal authorities from Rome; and the lower third, called the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, is ruled by a king who is related to the Spanish royal house.
Biographical Outline
  • Seeker, 1797-1817: Donizetti is born in a windowless, cellar apartment, to working-class parents who discourage their son’s musical interests. But he is taken under the wing of Simone Mayr, a Bavarian opera composer who is also music director (maestro di cappella) of Bergamo’s cathedral. Mayr later arranges for the young man’s study at the famous music school in Bologna, run by an old-style taskmaster, Padre Stanislao Mattei (who also taught Rossini).
  • Journeyman, 1817-26: With recommendations from Mayr, Donizetti is invited to compose his first operas. At the same time, he produces church music and a few string quartets. In 1821, in Rome, he has his first big operatic success with Zoraide di Granata. An important commission for Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, Chiara e Serafina (1822), falls flat, however. In 1822, he settles in Naples and makes slow headway on the opera circuit.
  • Workaholic, 1827-30: After a year stuck at the opera house in Palermo, Donizetti signs a three-year contract with the impresario of Neapolitan theaters, Domenico Barbaja, for four (count ’em, four) operas a year. He also manages to compose a few operas for theaters outside Naples. In 1828, he becomes director of the Neapolitan theaters, a position he holds for 10 years. With this financial security, Donizetti marries Virginia Vasselli in 1828.
  • Breakthrough, 1830-38: Anna Bolena, Donizetti’s 31st opera, premieres at Milan’s Teatro Carcano and blazes through Paris and London and several other European capitals. Offers pour in, and Donizetti actually increases his working pace, traveling constantly, composing 25 operas over the next six and a half years, and meanwhile doing revisions for revivals as well as supervising performances and publication of his operas. He now works with the best singers of the era, and composes a series of hits, including L’elisir d’amore (The elixir of love, 1832) and Lucia di Lammermoor (1835). Tragedy shadows this professional success, however: Virginia dies in childbirth in 1837; the child is stillborn. Donizetti never recovers from the blow.
  • Paris, 1838-43: In 1838, Donizetti moves to Paris, possibly because censors in the Naples theaters had banned a number of his operas, and perhaps because he had been passed over for two important positions in Naples. Donizetti dominates the Parisian opera scene with productions of his Italian operas, the grand operas Les martyrs and La favorite (both 1840) and the French comic opera La fille du regiment (The daughter of the regiment, 1840). Other prestigious commissions come from Italy: Donizetti writes Maria Padilla (1842) for the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, and Linda di Chamounix (1842) for the court theater in Vienna. He conducts the premiere of Rossini’s Stabat mater (1842) and accepts the prestigious post of court kapellmeister in Vienna, which involves only light duties.
  • Illness and death, 1843-48: Donizetti is slowed by symptoms of syphilis and in 1846 he is moved to an asylum by doctors and the chief (prefect) of police. He is eventually moved back to Bergamo, at the insistence of friends, and dies in the palace of the Baroness Rosa Rota-Basoni. In 1875, his remains are reinterred in Bergamo’s cathedral, Santa Maria Maggiore.
Fun Facts
  • Unassuming: Donizetti was a pleasant guy, full of good humor and energy, and mostly indifferent to the professional jealousies and squabbles of the Italian opera world. Some of his students at the Naples Conservatory remembered him as warm and friendly. He was also tall and relatively handsome.
  • Life in the fast lane: While most Italian opera composers slowed down or even retired once they became successful and earned high fees, Donizetti thrived on his absurdly overcrowded schedule. His letters of the 1830s are like telegrams in which he jovially recounts his activities and commitments. He famously wrote The Elixir of Love in a little over a week. Only in the 1840s, afflicted with syphilis, did he refuse commissions.
  • Showdown, Paris, 1836: After the success of Lucia di Lammermoor, Donizetti was invited to compose an opera for Paris’ Italian Theater the next year. Vincenzo Bellini, the highest-paid Italian opera composer of the time and its reigning king, was also invited, setting up a musical duel of sorts. Rossini, who had helped arrange for the commissions, also aided each composer with advice and influence. In the event, Bellini clearly “won” the competition with his I puritani, but Donizetti’s Marino Faliero did well enough and, characteristically, there were no hard feelings on Donizetti’s part.
  • Bandsman brother: Gaetano’s older brother, Giuseppe, led military bands and eventually became the supreme director of military music for the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire.
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Explore the Music

It goes without saying that Donizetti’s melodic genius and ability to characterize in music are the attributes that keep his music in the contemporary operatic repertoire. He had a superior dramatic sense, liked to keep things moving, and used the baritone voice in striking ways, all of which rubbed off on the young Verdi.

  • Favorites: Both Lucia di Lammermoor and L’elisir d’amore (The elixir of love) are among the 25 most frequently performed operas in the world every year. His last two comic operas, La fille du regiment (The daughter of the regiment) and Don Pasquale (1843), are also favorites of opera companies.
  • Four more great ones: Although rarely performed, Lucrezia Borgia (1833), Maria Stuarda (1835), Anna Bolena, and Roberto Devereaux (1837) should be on your list, if you like Lucia.
  • Anatomy of a cadenza: The mad scene in Lucia, in which the heroine enters with blood on her nightgown having just stabbed her bridegroom, is the highlight of the opera for many operagoers. But part of it — the extended cadenza, accompanied by flute or glass harmonica — isn’t by Donizetti! Indeed, it isn’t even from the first half of the 19th century, as scholars had assumed. In fact, as Romana Margherita Pugliese shows, the cadenza was written for the famous soprano Nellie Melba for an 1889 performance, and was probably written for her by her teacher, Mathilde Marchesi. Its success made it indispensable to later sopranos taking on the role.
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