Giuseppe Verdi

Composer Giuseppe Verdi

Creator of several of the world’s most popular operas, Verdi is generally considered the greatest Italian opera composer.

Vital Statistics
October 9 or 10, 1813, in Le Roncole, Lombardy
January 27, 1901, in Milan
Performed As:
During Lifetime:
The Risorgimento, or Italian unification movement, successfully turned Italy into a single national state.
Biographical Outline
  • Beginnings: Born into a middle-class family, Verdi studies composition in secondary school. In 1832, he is rejected from the Milan Conservatory (he is too old, and his piano technique is unorthodox), so he takes private composition lessons in Milan.
  • Opera debut, 1838: Verdi’s first opera, Oberto, Conte di Bonifacio, is performed at the famous Teatro alla Scala in Milan. It is a moderate success and the theater’s impresario signs the composer up for three more operas.
  • Tragedy: Verdi’s wife, Margherita, dies in 1839, just as he is composing his next opera. Their two children had died in infancy in preceding two years.
  • “Galley-slave years” 1842-1853: His third opera, Nabucco (1842), is a major success. His fifth opera, Ernani (1844), based on the popular Victor Hugo play, becomes a huge international hit, and is commonly staged throughout the 19th century. In this 12-year span,Verdi composes and produces no fewer than 17 operas, including some of his most famous works: Macbeth (premiered in Florence, 1847), Rigoletto (Venice, 1851), Il trovatore (Rome, 1853), and La traviata (Venice 1853). Verdi later calls this period his “anni di galera” (years as a galley-slave).
  • Landowner, 1851: Verdi buys a farm at Santa Agata, near his hometown. Over the next decade, Verdi expands and renovates the farmhouse and becomes a major landowner, spending more and more time supervising farm work.
  • International star, 1847-71: Verdi spends some years outside Italy producing his operas: in Paris, for his French grand operas, Les vêpres siciliennes (The Sicilian vespers, 1854-55) and Don Carlos (1866-67), and in Russia on two trips for the premiere of La forza del destino (The force of destiny, 1861). In 1871 Aida, one of his most popular operas, is given a simultaneous premiere in Milan and in Egypt, whose ruler had commissioned it.
  • Requiem Mass, 1874: After the death of Rossini, Verdi organizes a composite setting of the Requiem Mass in his honor, but it is never performed. Instead, Verdi expands his contribution (a setting of the Libera Me text) into a complete Requiem in honor of a writer and Risorgimento icon, Alessandro Manzoni. Verdi tours the work, in 1875, to Paris, London, and Vienna. To this day, it remains a pillar of the choral and orchestral repertory.
  • Last works: With his talented librettist Arrigo Boito, Verdi completes two final operas, Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893). His long composing career comes to a close with the collection of religious works titled Quattro pezzi sacri (Four sacred pieces).
Fun Facts
  • What’s in a name: Verdi’s vocal, highly public support for Italian unification made him an important symbol. “Viva Verdi” was 1850s graffiti code for “Vittorio Emmanuele, Re d’Italia” (Victor Emmanuel, king of Italy), who, in fact, became the first head of state of Italy. For a short time, Verdi was a member of the new Italian parliament.
  • Musical patriot: The chorus “Va pensiero, sull’ ali dorati” (Fly, my thoughts, on golden wings), from the opera Nabucco, has become Italy’s second, unofficial, national anthem.
  • Generoso: Verdi left an extraordinary legacy of philanthropy, including a hospital and a retirement home for musicians (the Casa di Riposo, in Milan), to which his and his second wife Giuseppina’s bodies were moved in 1913. He also paid a stipend to his librettist and friend Francesco Maria Piave, after a stroke incapacitated him.
  • Legal eagle: Verdi was tough in business dealings and led the way for more strictly enforced international copyright law.
  • Micromanager: Verdi’s most frequent librettist, Francesco Piave, wrote the words for 10 of the operas from 1844 to 1861. In these operas, and in several others besides, Verdi dictated the content and layout of the libretto so carefully that he was virtually his own librettist. His letters to Piave are abrupt and often rude.
Recommended Biography
Explore the Music
  • Verdi liked to be direct. His musical means — melodies, forms, and so on — are often surprisingly simple and traditional. Verdi preferred unusual subjects. He was extremely conscious of keeping the action moving, and in his last two operas, especially, he broke down the traditional alteration of action and reflection on which earlier operas were built.
  • Man of the theater: Verdi revised works that didn't meet his exacting standards, or which needed an updating for a new production and cast. Often he was right: here are three operas we normally see in their heavily remade forms: Simon Boccanegra (1857, revised for La Scala, Milan, 1881); Macbeth (1847, revised for Théâtre Lyrique, Paris, 1865); Don Carlo (1867, Italian version for Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 1884).
  • Popularity contest: Three of Verdi's operas (Traviata, Rigoletto, and Aida) are consistently among the most performed operas, each garnering 300 to 400 performances a year worldwide. But a further six of Verdi's 23 operas commonly reach 100 performances a year. These are Nabucco, Macbeth, Trovatore, Un ballo in maschera (premiered in Rome, 1859), Don Carlos, Otello, and Falstaff.
Recommended Websites
  • Begin here, with the four most popular of his 23 operas:
    • Rigoletto
    • Il trovatore
    • La traviata
    • Aida
  • Try two more warhorses:
    • Macbeth
    • Un ballo in maschera
  • Add the late and great:
    • Simon Boccanegra (1881 revision)
    • Otello
    • Falstaff
  • And one more grand opera:
    • Don Carlos
  • Choral and Orchestral
    • Requiem. Verdi’s is a dynamic, dramatic Requiem that fights death: a must-listen for music lovers.