IN the little hamlet of Le Roncole, at the foot of the Apeninnes, a place that can hardly be found on the map, because it is just a cluster of workmen’s houses, Giuseppe Verdi, one of the greatest operatic composers, was born, October 9, 1813.
There were great wars going on in Europe during that time. When Giuseppe was a year old, the Russian and Austrian soldiers marched through Italy, killing and destroying everywhere. Some of them came to Le Roncole for a few hours. All the women and children ran to the church and locked themselves in for safety. But these savage men had no respect for the house of God. They took the hinges off the doors and rushing in murdered and wounded the helpless ones. Luigia Verdi, with the baby Giuseppe in her arms, escaped, ran up a narrow staircase to the belfry, and hid herself and child among some old lumber. Here she stayed in her hiding place, until the drunken troops were far away from the little village.
The babe Giuseppe was born among very poor, ignorant working people, though his father’s house was one of the best known and most frequented among the cluster of cottages. His parents Carlo Verdi and Luigia his wife, kept a small inn at Le Roncole and also a little shop, where they sold sugar, coffee, matches, spirits, tobacco and clay pipes. Once a week the good Carlo would walk up to Busseto, three miles away, with two empty baskets and would return with them filled with articles for his store, carrying them slung across his strong shoulders.
Giuseppe Verdi who was to produce such streams of beautiful, sparkling music,needing an Act of Parliament to stop them, as once happened,was a very quiet, thoughtful little fellow, always good and obedient; sometimes almost ,sad, and seldom joined in the boisterous games of other children. That serious expression found in all of Verdi’s portraits as a man was even noticeable in the child. The only time he would rouse up, was when a hand organ, would come through the village street; then he would follow it as far as his little legs would carry him, and nothing could keep him in the house, when he heard this music. Intelligent, reserved and quiet, every one loved him.
In 1820, when Giuseppe was seven years old, Carlo Verdi committed a great extravagance for an innkeeper; he bought a spinet for his son, something very unheard of for so poor a man to do.
Little Giuseppe practised very diligently on his spinet. At first he could only play the first five notes of the scale. Next he tried very hard to find out chords, and one day was made perfectly happy at having sounded the major third and fifth of C. But the next day he could not find the chord again, and began to fret and fume and got into such a temper, that he took a hammer and tried to break the spinet in pieces. This made such a commotion that it brought his father into the room. When he saw what the child was doing, he gave a blow on Giuseppe’s ear that brought the little fellow to his senses at once. He saw he could not punish the good spinet because he did not know enough to strike a common chord.
His love of music early showed itself in many ways. One day he was assisting the parish priest at mass in the little church of Le Roncole. At the moment of the elevation of the Host, such sweet harmonies were sounding from the organ, that the child stood perfectly motionless, listening to the beautiful music, all unconscious of every-thing else about him.
“Water,” said the priest to the altar boy. Giuseppe, not hearing him, the priest repeated the call. Still the child, who was listening to the music, did not hear. “Water,” said the priest a third time and gave Giuseppe such a sharp kick that he fell down the steps of the altar, hitting his head on the stone floor, and was taken unconscious into the sacristy.
After this Giuseppe was allowed to have music lessons with Baistrocchi, the organist of the village church. At the end of a year Baistrocchi said there was nothing more he could teach his young pupil, so the lessons came to an end.
Two years later, when old Baistrocchi died, Giuseppe, who was then only ten, was made organist in his place. This pleased his parents very much, but his father felt the boy should be sent to school, where he could learn to read and write and know something of arithmetic. This would have been quite impossible had not Carlo Verdi had a good friend living at Busseto, a shoemaker, named Pugnatta.
Pugnatta agreed to give Giuseppe board and lodging and send him to the best school in the town, all for a small sum of three pence a day. Giuseppe went to Pugnatta’s; and while he was always in his place in school and studied diligently, he still kept his situation as organist of Le Roncole, walking there every Sunday morning and back again to Busseto after the evening service.
His pay as organist was very small, but he also made a little money playing for weddings, christenings and funerals. He also gained a few lire from a collection which it was the habit of artists to make at harvest time, for which he had to trudge from door to door, with a sack upon his back. The poor boy’s life had few comforts, and this custom of collections brought him into much danger. One night while he was walking toward Le Roncole, very tired and hungry, he did not notice he had taken a wrong path, when suddenly, missing his footing, he fell into a deep canal. It was very dark and very cold and his limbs were so stiff he could not use them. Had it not been for an old woman who was passing by the place and heard his cries, the exhausted and chilled boy would have been carried away by the current.
After two years’ schooling, Giuseppe’s father persuaded his friend, Antonio Barezzi of Busseto, from whom he was in the habit of buying wines and supplies for his inn and shop,-to take the lad into his warehouse. That was a happy day for Giuseppe when he went to live with Barezzi, who was an enthusiastic amateur of music. The Philharmonic Society, of which Barezzi was the president, met, rehearsed and gave all its concerts at his house.
Giuseppe, though working hard in the warehouse, also found time to attend all the rehearsals of the Philharmonics, and began the task of copying out separate parts from the score. His earnestness in this work attracted the notice of the conductor, Ferdinando Provesi, who began to take great interest in the boy, and was the first one to understand his talent and advised him to devote himself to music. A Canon in the Cathedral offered to teach him Latin, and tried to make a priest of him, saying, “What do you want to study music for? You have a gift for Latin and it would be much better for you to become a priest. What do you expect from your music? Do you think that some day you will become organist of Busseto? Stuff and nonsense ! That can never be.”
A short time after this, there was a mass at a chapel in Busseto, where the Canon had the service. The organist was unable to attend, and Verdi was called at the last moment to take his place. Very much impressed with the unusually beautiful organ music, the priest, at the close of the service desired to see the organist. His astonishment was great when he saw his scholar whom he had been seeking to turn from the study of music. “Whose music did you play?” he asked. “It was most beautiful.” –
“Why,” timidly answered the boy, “I had no music, I was playing extemporejust as I felt.”
“All, indeed,” replied the Canon ; “well I am a fool and you cannot do better than to study music, take my word for it.”
Under the good Provesi, Verdi studied until he was sixteen- and made such rapid progress that both Provesi and Barezzi felt he must be sent to Milan to study further. The lad had often come to the help of his master, both at the organ and as conductor of the Philharmonic. The records of the society still have several works written by Verdi at that timewhen he was sixteencomposed, copied, taught, rehearsed and conducted by him.
There was an institution in Busseto called the Monte di Pieta, which gave four scholarships of three hundred francs a year, each given for four years to promising young men needing money to study science or art. Through Barezzi one of these scholarships was given to Verdi, it being arranged that he should have six hundred francs a year for two years, instead of three hundred francs for four years. Barezzi himself advanced the money for the music lessons, board and lodging in Milan and the priest gave him a letter of introduction to his nephew, a professor there, who received him with a hearty welcome, and insisted upon his living with him.
Like all large music schools, there were a great many who presented themselves for admittance by scholarship and only one to be chosen. And Verdi did not happen to be that one, Basili not considering his compositions of sufficient worth. This was not because Verdi was really lacking in his music, but because Basili had other plans. This did not in the least discourage Giuseppe, and at the suggestion of Alessando Rolla, who was then conductor of La Scala, he asked Lavigna to give him lessons in composition and orchestration.
Lavigna was a former pupil of the Conservatoire of Naples and an able composer. Verdi showed him some of the same compositions he had shown Basili. After examining them he willingly accepted the young aspirant as a pupil.
Verdi spent most of his evenings at the home of the master, when Lavigna was not at La Scala and there met many artists. One night it chanced that Lavigna, Basili and Verdi were alone, and the two masters were speaking of the deplorable result of a competition for the position of Maitre di Capelle and organist of the Church of San Giovanni di Monza. Out of twenty-eight young men who had taken part in the competition, not one had known how to develop correctly the subject given by Basili for the construction of a fugue. Lavigna, with a bit of mischief in his eyes, began to say to his friend:”It is really a remarkable fact. Well, look at Verdi, who has studied fugue for two short years. I lay a wager he would have done better than your eight and twenty candidates.”
“Really?” replied Basili, in a somewhat vexed tone.
“Certainly. Do you remember your subject? Yes, you do? Well, write it down.”
Basili wrote and Lavigne, giving the theme to Verdi, said:
“Sit down there at the table ,and just begin to work ‘out this subject.”
Then the two friends resumed their conversation, until Verdi, coming to them said simply: “There, it is done.”
Basili took the paper and examined it, showing signs of astonishment as he continued to read. When he came to the conclusion he complimented the lad and said: “But how is it that you have written a double canon on my subject?”
“It is because I found it rather poor and wished to embellish it,” Verdi replied, remembering the reception he had had at the Conservatoire.
In 1833 his old master Provesi died. Verdi felt the loss keenly, for Provesi was the one who first taught him music and who showed him how to work to become an artist. Though he wished to do greater things, he returned to Busseto to fulfill his promise to take Provesi’s place as organist of the Cathedral and conductor of the Philharmonic, rather big positions to fill for a young man of twenty.
And now Verdi fell in love with the beautiful Margherita, the oldest daughter of Barezzi, who did not mind giving his daughter to a poor young man, for Verdi possessed something worth far more than money, and that was great musical talent. The young people were Giuseppe Verdi married in 1836, and the whole Philharmonic Society attended.
About the year 183334 there flourished in Milan a vocal society called the Philharmonic, composed of excellent singers under the leadership of Masini. Soon after Verdi came to the city, the Society was preparing for a performance of Haydn’s “Creation.” Lavigna, with whom the young composer was studying composition, suggested his pupil should attend the rehearsals, to which he gladly agreed. It seems that three Maestri shared the conducting during rehearsals. One day none of them were present at the appointed hour and Masini asked young Verdi to accompany from the full orchestral score, adding, “It will be sufficient if you merely play the bass.” Verdi took his place at the piano without the slightest hesitation. The slender, rather shabby looking stranger was not
calculated to inspire much confidence. How-ever he soon warmed to his work, and after a while grew so excited that he played the accompaniment with the left hand while conducting vigorously with the right. The rehearsal went off splendidly, and many came forward to greet the young conductor, among them were Counts Pompeo Belgiojoso and Remato Borromes. After this proof of his ability, Verdi was appointed to conduct the public performance, which was such a success that it was repeated by general request, and was attended by the highest society.
Soon after this Count Borromes engaged Verdi to write a Cantata for chorus and orchestra, to honor the occasion of a marriage in the family, Verdi did so but was never paid a sou for his work. The next request was from Masini, who urged Verdi to compose an opera for the Teatro Filodramatico, where he was conductor. He handed him a libretto, which with a few alterations here and there became “Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio.” Verdi accepted the offer at once, and being obliged to move to Busseto, where he had been appointed organist, remained there nearly three years, during which time the opera was completed. On returning to Milan he found Masini no longer conductor, and lost all hope of seeing the new opera produced. After long waiting however, the impressario sent for him, and promised to bring out the work the next season, if the composer would make a few changes. Young and as yet unknown, Verdi was quite willing. “Oberto” was produced with a fair amount of success, and repeated several times. On the strength of this propitious beginning, the impressario, Merelli, made the young composer an excellent offerto write three operas, one every eight months, to be performed either in Milan or in Vienna, where he was impressario of both the principal theaters. He promised to pay four thousand lireabout six hundred and seventy dollarsfor each, and share the profits of the copyright. To young Verdi this seemed an excellent chance and he accepted at once. Rossi wrote a libretto, entitled “Proscritto,” and work on the music was about to begin, In the spring of 1840, Merelli hurried from Vienna, saying he needed a comic opera for the autumn season, and wanted work begun on it at once. He produced three librettos, none of them very good. Verdi did not like them, but since there was no time to lose, chose the least offensive and set to work.
The Verdis were living in a small house near the Porta Ticinesa; the family consisted of the composer, his wife and two little sons. Almost as soon as work was begun on the comic opera, Verdi fell ill and was confined to his bed several days. He had quite forgotten that the rent money, which he always liked to have ready on the very day, was due, and he had not sufficient to pay. It was too late to borrow it, but quite unknown to him the wife had taken some of her most valuable trinkets, had gone out and brought back the necessary amount. This sweet act of devotion greatly touched her husband.
And now sudden sorrow swept over the little family. At the beginning of April one of the little boys fell ill. Before the doctors could understand what was the matter, the little fellow breathed his last in the arms of his desperate mother. A few days after this, the other child sickened and died. In June the young wife, unable to bear the strain, passed away and Verdi saw the third coffin leave his door carrying the last of his dear ones. And in the midst of these crushing trials he was expected to compose a comic opera! But he bravely completed his task. “Un Giorno di Regno” naturally proved a dead failure. In the despondency that followed, the composer resolved to give up composition altogether. Merelli scolded him roundly for such a decision, and promised if, some day, he chose to take up his pen again, he would, if given two months’ notice, produce any opera Verdi might write.
At that time the composer was not ready to change his mind. He could not live longer in the house filled with so many sad memories, but moved to a new residence – near the Corsia di Servi. One evening on the street, he ran against Merelli, who was hurrying to the theater. With-out stopping he linked his arm in that of the composer and made him keep pace. The manager was in the depths of woe. He had secured a libretto by Solera, which was “wonderful, marvelous, extraordinary, grand,” but the composer he had engaged did not like it. What was to be done? Verdi bethought him of the libretto “Proscritto,” which Rossi had once written for him, and he had not used. He suggested this to Merelli. Rossi was at once sent for and produced a copy of the libretto. Then Merelli laid the other manuscript before Verdi. “Look, here is Solera’s libretto; such a beautiful subject! Take it home and read it over.” But Verdi refused. “No, no, I am in no humor to read librettos.”
“It won’t hurt you to look at it,” urged Merelli, and thrust it into the coat pocket of the reluctant composer.
On reaching home, Verdi pulled the manuscript out and threw it on the writing table. As he did so a stanza from the book caught his eye; it was almost a paraphrase from the Bible, which had been such a solace to him in his solitary life. He began to read the story and was more and more enthralled by it, yet his resolution to write no more was not altered. However, as the days passed there would be here a line written down, there a melodyuntil at last, almost unconsciously the opera of “Nabucco” came into being.
The opera once finished, Verdi hastened to Merelli, and reminded him of his promise.
The impressario was quite honorable about it, but would not agree to bring the opera out until Easter, for the season of 1841-42, was already arranged. Verdi refused to wait until Easter, as he knew the best singers would not then be available. After many arguments and disputes, it was finally arranged that “Nabucco” should be put on, but without extra outlay for mounting. At the end of February 1842, rehearsals began and on March ninth the first performance took place.
The success of “Nabucco” was remarkable. No such “first night” had been known in La Scala for many years. “I had hoped for success,” said the composer, “but such a success never!”
The next day all Italy talked of Verdi. Donizetti, whose wealth of melodious music swayed the Italians as it did later the English, was so impressed by it that he continually repeated, “It is fine, uncommonly fine.”
With the success of “Nabucco” Verdi’s career as a composer may be said to have begun. In the following year “I Lombardi” was produced, followed by “Ernani.” Then came in quick succession ten more operas, among them “Attila” and “Macbeth.”
In 1847, we find Verdi in London, where on July 2, at Her Majesty’s Theater, “I Masnadieri” was brought out, with a cast including Lablanche, Gardoni, Colletti, and above all Jenny Lind, in a part composed expressly for her. All the artists distinguished themselves; Jenny Lind acted admirably and sang her airs exquisitely, but the opera was not a success. No two critics could agree as to its merits. Verdi left England in disgust and took his music to other cities.
The advantage to Verdi of his trips through Europe and to England is shown in “Rigoletto,” brought out in Vienna in 1851. In this opera his true power manifests itself. The music shows great advance in declamation, which lifts it above the ordinary Italian style of that time. With this opera Verdi’s second period begins. Two years later `”Trovatore” was produced in Rome and had a tremendous success. Each scene brought down thunders of applause, until the very walls resounded and outside people took up the cry, “Long live Verdi, Italy’s greatest composer ! Vive Verdi !” It was given in Paris in 1854, and in London the following year. In 1855, “La Traviata” was produced in Vienna. This work, so filled with delicate, beautiful music, nearly proved a failure, because the consumptive heroine, who expires on the stage, was sung by a prima donna of such extraordinary stoutness that the scene was received with shouts of laughter. After a number of unsuccessful operas, “Un Ballo in Maschera” scored a success in Rome in 1859, and “La Forza del Destino,” written for Petrograd, had a recent revival in New York.
When Rossini passed away, November 13, 1868, Verdi suggested a requiem should be written jointly by the best Italian composers. The work was completed, but was not satisfactory on account of the diversity of styles. It was then proposed that Verdi write the entire work himself. The death of Manzoni soon after this caused the composer to carry out the idea. Thus the great “Manzoni Requiem” came into being.
In 1869, the Khedive of Egypt had a fine opera house built in Cairo, and commissioned Verdi to write an opera having an Egyptian subject, for the opening. The ever popular “Aida” was then composed and brought out in 1871, with great success. This proved to be the beginning of the master’s third period, for he turned from his earlier style which was purely lyric, to one with far more richness of orchestration.
Verdi had now retired to his estate of Sant’ Agata, and it was supposed his career as composer had closed, as he gave his time principally to the care ,of his domain. From time to time it was rumored he was writing another opera. The rumor proved true, for on February 5, 1887, when Verdi was seventy-four years old, “Otello” was produced at La Scala, Milan, amid indescribable enthusiasm. Six years later the musical world was again startled and overjoyed by the production of another Shakespearean opera, “Falstaff,” composed in his eightieth year.
In all, his operas number over thirty, most of them serious, all of them containing much beautiful music.
At Sant Agata the master lived a quiet, retired life. The estate was situated about two miles from Busseto, and was very large, with a great park, a large collection of horses and other live stock. The residence was spacious, and the master’s special bedroom was on the first floor. It was large, light and airy and luxuriously furnished. Here stood a magnificent grand piano, and the composer often rose in the night to jot down the themes which came to him in the silence of the midnight hours. Here “Don Carlos” was written. In one of the upper rooms stood the old spinet that Verdi hacked at as a child.
Verdi was one of the noblest of men as well as one of the greatest of musical composers. He passed away in Milan, January 27, 1901, at the age of eighty-eight.