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Music

Marking 200 years since Verdi's birth

Verdi is almost peerless when it comes to Italian composers. The world honors his rich musical legacy this week in conjunction with the master composer's 200th birthday.

Two hundred years ago, on October 10, 1813, Giuseppe Verdi was born in a village called Le Roncole in northern Italy. Today, many of his enchanting operas are standards on the playbills of the world's most renowned opera houses.

A solitary boy at the organ

His parents were relatively simple people, who owned a small amount of land and an inn, but had little interest in the arts. That didn't stop Verdi from devoting himself passionately to music at an early age. A shy and serious child, he played seldom with others, preferring to spend time alone or get lessons on the organ from the village school teacher in a little local church called San Michele.

When Giuseppe started secondary school in 1823, he had to move to the neighboring town Busseto. After his former teacher died in the same year, the 10-year-old boy took pride in making the 5-kilometer (3-mile) walk back to the San Michele square on every Sunday and holiday to take his seat at the organ.

A monument to Verdi in Busseto (c) picture-alliance/Bildagentur Online

A monument to Verdi in Busseto

Early defeats and set-backs

In 1832, the qualifying examination for a conservatory in Milan led to a harsh disappointment for Verdi - one that he never forgot. He failed the exam for lacking proficiency at the piano.

Thereafter, he got his first professional private lessons with Vincenzo Lavigna, and the result within just a few years was decidedly positive. In 1834, he was made the official organist in Busseto, and in 1836, the town's music director.

Change, then tragedy also came in Verdi's private life. He married Margherita Barezzi, the daughter of his long-time patron. The couple had two children. However, both of them along with his wife died within a very short time of one another.

His family catastrophe was followed by a sobering moment professionally. Verdi's early opera "Un giorno di regno," written in the comic style of Rossini, drew heavy boos from the audience at Milan's La Scala opera house.

At 27, Verdi felt hopeless and saw few possibilities for his life going forward. But he persevered. Eventually, he overcame his depression and threw himself into his work. His efforts during the following decades resulted in a total of nearly 30 operas, along with a world-famous requiem and a highly esteemed string quartet.

In 1858, the musician and composer married a second time, this time Guiseppina Strepponi, a former singer. They spent most of their time secluded in his country house in Sant' Agata.

Holger Noltze Photo: Marc Tirl

Verdi expert Holger Noltze

Reformer

To claim that Verdi re-invented Italian opera in the 19th century from the ground up would be wrong. His earliest attempts at writing opera owe much to the style of singing known as belcanto. Verdi clearly worked in the tradition of Gioachino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini, all Italian composers of significant stature.

But the 19th century maestro did introduce change to the genre. "Musically, he upped really all of the factors toward intensifying expression, in order to be able to put truths on the opera stage in a brand new way," says Verdi biographer Holger Noltze, who believes the composer's rendering of truth through music, dramaturgy and staging represents his unique contribution.

Political music

Particularly in the operas from 1840 to 1850, but also in Verdi's late musical dramas, an unmistakable and sweeping political sensibility manifests itself. The opera "Nabucco," his big breakthrough in 1842 with its "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves," offers perhaps the best example.

On the surface, it's the story of the Jewish people's struggle for freedom from the Babylonians. But Holger Noltze sees another narrative at work: "The opera is connected with the Italian unification movement. The Hebrews are, of course, the Biblical Hebrews, but everyone knew they were the Italians under Austrian rule."

Robed singers perform on stage in Verdi's Nabucco dpa/lmv

One rendering of the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Verdi's "Nabucco"

Verdi's career high point came in the narrow period of two years from 1851 to 1853 when he wrote the operas "Rigoletto," "Il Trovatore" and, finally, "La Traviata." Here he mastered an intensified form of expression and created true musical dramas. But Verdi's "Aida" from 1871 as well as the late works beginning in 1881 are considered theatrical total works of art.

Casa Verdi

More than just the Italian master's musical theater survives him, though.

Verdi created his own memorial in 1884, six years before his death, when he founded a home for seniors in Milan, the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti - a facility that still operates.

The idea behind it was to create a place for aged singers or musicians that was as comfortable - and musical - as possible. Verdi's remains, along with those of Guiseppina Strepponi, are buried there.

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