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
was born, October 9, 1813.
There were great wars going on in Europe
during that time. When
was a year old, the Russian and Austrian soldiers marched through
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
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
child among some old lumber. Here she stayed in her hiding place, until
drunken troops were far away from the little village.
The babe Giuseppe was born among very
poor, ignorant working people,
his father's house was one of the best known and most frequented among
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
coffee, matches, spirits, tobacco and clay pipes. Once a week the good
Carlo would walk up to Busseto, three miles away, with two empty
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;
almost sad, and seldom joined in the boisterous games of other
That serious expression found in all of Verdi's portraits as a man was
noticeable in the child. The only time he would rouse up, was when a
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
house, when he heard this music. Intelligent, reserved and quiet, every
In 1820, when Giuseppe was seven years
old, Carlo Verdi committed a
extravagance for an innkeeper; he bought a spinet for his son,
very unheard of for so poor a man to do.
Little Giuseppe practised very
diligently on his spinet. At first he
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
major third and fifth of C. But the next day he could not find the
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
child was doing, he gave a blow on Giuseppe's ear that brought the
fellow to his senses at once. He saw he could not punish the good
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.
the moment of the elevation of the Host, such sweet harmonies were
from the organ, that the child stood perfectly motionless, listening to
beautiful music, all unconscious of everything else about him.
"Water," said the priest to the altar
boy. Giuseppe, not hearing him,
priest repeated the call. Still the child, who was listening to the
did not hear. "Water," said the priest a third time and gave Giuseppe
a sharp kick that he fell down the steps of the altar, hitting his head
the stone floor, and was taken unconscious into the sacristy.
After this Giuseppe was allowed to have
music lessons with Baistrocchi,
organist of the village church. At the end of a year Baistrocchi said
was nothing more he could teach his young pupil, so the lessons came to
Two years later, when old Baistrocchi
died, Giuseppe, who was then only
ten, was made organist in his place. This pleased his parents very
but his father felt the boy should be sent to school, where he could
to read and write and know something of arithmetic. This would have
quite impossible had not Carlo Verdi had a good friend living at
shoemaker, named Pugnatta.
Pugnatta agreed to give Giuseppe board
and lodging and send him to the
school in the town, all for a small sum of three pence a day. Giuseppe
to Pugnatta's; and while he was always in his place in school and
diligently, he still kept his situation as organist of Le Roncole,
there every Sunday morning and back again to Busseto after the evening
His pay as organist was very small, but
he also made a little money
for weddings, christenings and funerals. He also gained a few lire from
collection which it was the habit of artists to make at harvest time,
which he had to trudge from door to door, with a sack upon his back.
poor boy's life had few comforts, and this custom of collections
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,
suddenly, missing his footing, he fell into a deep canal. It was very
and very cold and his limbs were so stiff he could not use them. Had it
been for an old woman who was passing by the place and heard his cries,
exhausted and chilled boy would have been carried away by the current.
After two years' schooling, Giuseppe's
father persuaded his friend,
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
enthusiastic amateur of music. The Philharmonic Society, of which
was the president, met, rehearsed and gave all its concerts at his
Giuseppe, though working hard in the
warehouse, also found time to
all the rehearsals of the Philharmonics, and began the task of copying
separate parts from the score. His earnestness in this work attracted
the notice of the conductor, Ferdinando Provesi, who began to take
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
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
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
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
called at the last moment to take his place. Very much impressed with
unusually beautiful organ music, the priest, at the close of the
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.
music did you play?" he asked. "It was most beautiful."
"Why," timidly answered the boy, "I had
no music, I was playing
extempore—just as I felt."
"Ah, indeed," replied the Canon; "well I
am a fool and you cannot do
than to study music, take my word for it."
Under the good Provesi, Verdi studied
until he was sixteen and made
rapid progress that both Provesi and Barezzi felt he must be sent to
to study further. The lad had often come to the help of his master,
the organ and as conductor of the Philharmonic. The records of the
still have several works written by Verdi at that time—when he was
sixteen—composed, copied, taught, rehearsed and conducted by him.
There was an institution in Busseto
called the Monte di Pietà,
four scholarships of three hundred francs a year, each given for four
years to promising young men needing money to study science or art.
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
a letter of introduction to his nephew, a professor there, who received
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
the least discourage Giuseppe, and at the suggestion of Alessando
who was then conductor of La Scala, he asked Lavigna to give him
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
Verdi spent most of his evenings at the
home of the master, when
was not at La Scala and there met many artists. One night it chanced
Lavigna, Basili and Verdi were alone, and the two masters were speaking
of the deplorable result of a competition for the position of
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
have done better than your eight and twenty candidates."
"Really?" replied Basili, in a somewhat
"Certainly. Do you remember your
subject? Yes, you do? Well, write it
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
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
"It is because I found it rather poor
and wished to embellish it,"
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
man, for Verdi possessed something worth far more than money, and that
great musical talent. The young people were married in 1836, and the
Philharmonic Society attended.
About the year 1833-34 there flourished
in Milan a vocal society called
Philharmonic, composed of excellent singers under the leadership of
Masini. Soon after Verdi came to the city, the Society was preparing
a performance of Haydn's "Creation." Lavigna, with whom the young
was studying composition, suggested his pupil should attend the
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
The slender, rather shabby looking stranger was not calculated to
much confidence. However he soon warmed to his work, and after a while
grew so excited that he played the accompaniment with the left hand
conducting vigorously with the right. The rehearsal went off
and many came forward to greet the young conductor, among them were
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
Soon after this Count Borromes engaged
Verdi to write a Cantata for
and orchestra, to honor the occasion of a marriage in the family. Verdi
so but was never paid a sou for his work. The next request was from
who urged Verdi to compose an opera for the Teatro Filodramatico, where
was conductor. He handed him a libretto, which with a few alterations
and there became "Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio." Verdi accepted the
at once, and being obliged to move to Busseto, where he had been
organist, remained there nearly three years, during which time the
was completed. On returning to Milan he found Masini no longer
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
the next season, if the composer would make a few changes. Young and as
unknown, Verdi was quite willing. "Oberto" was produced with a fair
of success, and repeated several times. On the strength of this
beginning, the impressario, Merelli, made the young composer an
offer—to 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 lire—about six
hundred and seventy dollars—for each, and share the profits of the
copyright. To young Verdi this seemed an excellent chance and he
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
work begun on it at once. He produced three librettos, none of them
good. Verdi did not like them, but since there was no time to lose,
the least offensive and set to work.
The Verdis were living in a small house
near the Porta Ticinesa; the
consisted of the composer, his wife and two little sons. Almost as soon
work was begun on the comic opera, Verdi fell ill and was confined to
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
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
what was the matter, the little fellow breathed his last in the arms of
desperate mother. A few days after this, the other child sickened and
In June the young wife, unable to bear the strain, passed away and
saw the third coffin leave his door carrying the last of his dear ones.
in the midst of these crushing trials he was expected to compose a
opera! But he bravely completed his task. "Un Giorno di Regno"
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
again, he would, if given two months' notice, produce any opera Verdi
At that time the composer was not ready
to change his mind. He could
live longer in the house filled with so many sad memories, but moved to
new residence near the Corsia di Servi. One evening on the street, he
ran against Merelli, who was hurrying to the theater. Without stopping
linked his arm in that of the composer and made him keep pace. The
was in the depths of woe. He had secured a libretto by Solera, which
"wonderful, marvelous, extraordinary, grand," but the composer he had
engaged did not like it. What was to be done? Verdi bethought him of
libretto "Proscritto," which Rossi had once written for him, and he had
used. He suggested this to Merelli. Rossi was at once sent for and
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
"It won't hurt you to look at it," urged
Merelli, and thrust it into
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
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,
a melody—until at last, almost unconsciously the opera of "Nabucco"
The opera once finished, Verdi hastened
to Merelli, and reminded him of
promise. The impressario was quite honorable about it, but would not
to bring the opera out until Easter, for the season of 1841-42, was
arranged. Verdi refused to wait until Easter, as he knew the best
would not then be available. After many arguments and disputes, it was
finally arranged that "Nabucco" should be put on, but without extra
for mounting. At the end of February 1842, rehearsals began and on
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
With the success of "Nabucco" Verdi's
career as a composer may be said
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
Gardoni, Colletti, and above all Jenny Lind, in a part composed
for her. All the artists distinguished themselves; Jenny Lind acted
admirably and sang her airs exquisitely, but the opera was not a
No two critics could agree as to its merits. Verdi left England in
and took his music to other cities.
The advantage to Verdi of his trips
through Europe and to England is
in "Rigoletto," brought out in Vienna in 1851. In this opera his true
manifests itself. The music shows great advance in declamation, which
it above the ordinary Italian style of that time. With this opera
second period begins. Two years later "Trovatore" was produced in Rome
had a tremendous success. Each scene brought down thunders of applause,
until the very walls resounded and outside people took up the cry,
live Verdi, Italy's greatest composer! Vive Verdi!" It was given in
in 1854, and in London the following year. In 1855, "La Traviata" was
produced in Vienna. This work, so filled with delicate, beautiful
nearly proved a failure, because the consumptive heroine, who expires
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
It was then proposed that Verdi write the entire work himself. The
Manzoni soon after this caused the composer to carry out the idea. Thus
great "Manzoni Requiem" came into being.
In 1869, the Khedive of Egypt had a fine
opera house built in Cairo,
commissioned Verdi to write an opera having an Egyptian subject, for
opening. The ever popular "Aida" was then composed and brought out in
with great success. This proved to be the beginning of the master's
period, for he turned from his earlier style which was purely lyric, to
with far more richness of orchestration.
Verdi had now retired to his estate of
Sant'Agata, and it was supposed
career as composer had closed, as he gave his time principally to the
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
"Falstaff," composed in his eightieth year. In all, his operas number
thirty, most of them serious, all of them containing much beautiful
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
spacious, and the master's special bedroom was on the first floor. It
large, light and airy and luxuriously furnished. Here stood a
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
Carlos" was written. In one of the upper rooms stood the old spinet
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