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Giuseppe Verdi and the Overture to “Les Vespres Siciliennes”

     Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi (October 10, 1813 –January 27, 1901) was an Italian Romantic composer, mainly of opera.  Verdi was born the son of Carlo Giuseppe Verdi and Luigia Uttini in Le Roncole, a village near Busseto, then in the Département Taro which was a part of the First French Empire after the annexation of the Duchy of Parma and Piacenza. The baptismal register, on  October 11 lists him as being “born yesterday”, but since days were often considered to begin at sunset, this could have meant either October 9 or 10. The next day, he was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church in Latin as Joseph Fortuninus Franciscus. The day after that (Tuesday), Verdi’s father took his newborn the three miles to Busseto, where the baby was recorded as Joseph Fortunin François; the clerk wrote in French.

     When he was still a child, Verdi’s parents moved from Le Roncole to Busseto, where the future composer’s education was greatly facilitated by visits to the large library belonging to the local Jesuit school. Also in Busseto, Verdi was given his first lessons in composition.  Verdi went to Milan when he was twenty to continue his studies. He took private lessons in counterpoint while attending operatic performances, as well as concerts of, specifically, German music. Milan’s beaumonde association convinced him that he should pursue a career as a theatre composer. During the mid-1830s, he attended the Salotto Maffei salons in Milan, hosted by Clara Maffei.

     Returning to Busseto, he became the town music master and, with the support of Antonio Barezzi, a local merchant and music lover who had long supported Verdi’s musical ambitions in Milan, Verdi gave his first public performance at Barezzi’s home in 1830.  Because he loved Verdi’s music, Barezzi invited Verdi to be his daughter Margherita’s music teacher, and the two soon fell deeply in love. They were married on May 4, 1836 and Margherita gave birth to two children, Virginia Maria Luigia (March 26, 1837 –August 12, 1838) and Icilio Romano (July 11, 1838 –October 22, 1839). Both died in infancy while Verdi was working on his first opera and, shortly afterwards, Margherita died of encephalitis on June 18, 1840, aged only 26.  The production by Milan’s La Scala of his first opera, Oberto in November 1839 achieved a degree of success, after which Bartolomeo Merelli, La Scala’s impresario, offered Verdi a contract for three more works.

     His second opera, Un giorno di regno, given in September of 1840, was a flop and he fell into despair and vowed to give up musical composition forever. However, Merelli persuaded him to write Nabucco and its opening performance in March pf 1842 made Verdi famous.  A large number of operas – fourteen in all – followed in the decade after 1843, a period which Verdi was to describe as his “galley years.”  These included his I Lombardi in 1843, Ernani in 1844, and Macbeth in 1847.   In 1847, I Lombardi, which was revised and renamed Jérusalem, was produced by the Paris Opera.  As the “galley years” were drawing to a close, Verdi created one of his greatest masterpieces, Rigoletto, which premiered in Venice in 1851. There followed the second and third of the three major operas of Verdi’s “middle period”: in 1853 Il trovatore was produced in Rome and La traviata in Venice.

     Between 1855 and 1867, an outpouring of great Verdi operas followed, among them such repertory staples as Un ballo in maschera (1859); La forza del destino, commissioned by the Imperial Theatre of Saint Petersburg for 1861 but not performed until 1862; and a revised version of Macbeth (1865). Other somewhat less often performed include Les vêpres siciliennes (1855) and Don Carlos (1867), both commissioned by the Paris Opera and initially given in French. Today, these latter two operas are most often performed in their revised Italian versions. Simon Boccanegra followed in 1857.  Verdi and Giuseppina Strepponi, a soprano in the twilight of her career, married on August 29, 1859, at Collonges-sous-Salève, in the Kingdom of Piemonte, near Geneva.  While living in Busseto with Strepponi, Verdi bought an estate two miles from the town and he made the Villa Verdi at Sant’Agata in Villanova sull’Arda his home until his death.

     In 1869, Verdi was asked to compose a section for a requiem mass in memory of Gioachino Rossini and proposed that this requiem should be a collection of sections composed by other Italian contemporaries of Rossini. The requiem was compiled and completed, but it was cancelled at the last minute. Five years later, Verdi reworked his “Libera Me” section of the Rossini Requiem and made it a part of his Requiem Mass, honoring the famous novelist and poet Alessandro Manzoni, who had died in 1873. The complete Requiem was first performed at the cathedral in Milan on May 22, 1874.  Verdi’s grand opera, Aida, was given its world premiere in Cairo in 1871.  After Giuseppina Strepponi’s death, Teresa Stolz became a close companion of Verdi until his own death.

     During the following years, Verdi worked on revising some of his earlier scores, most notably new versions of Don Carlos, La forza del destino, and Simon BoccanegraOtello, based on William Shakespeare’s play, with a libretto written by the younger composer of Mefistofele, Arrigo Boito, premiered in Milan in 1887.  Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff, whose libretto was also by Boito, was based on Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV, Part 1 via Victor Hugo’s subsequent translation. It was an international success and is one of the supreme comic operas which shows Verdi’s genius as a contrapuntist.  In 1894, Verdi composed a short ballet for a French production of Otello, his last purely orchestral composition.

     In 1897, Verdi completed his last composition, a setting of the traditional Latin text Stabat Mater. This was the last of four sacred works that Verdi composed, Quattro Pezzi Sacri, which can be performed together or separately. They were not conceived as a unit and, in fact, Verdi did not want the Ave Maria published as he considered it an exercise. The first performance of the four works was on April 7, 1898, at the Opéra, Paris. The four works are: Ave Maria for mixed chorus; Stabat Mater for mixed chorus and orchestra; Laudi alla Vergine Maria for female chorus; and Te Deum for double chorus and orchestra.  While staying at the Grand Hotel et de Milan in Milan, Verdi suffered a stroke on January 21, 1901. He gradually grew more feeble and died nearly a week later, on January 27. Arturo Toscanini conducted the vast forces of combined orchestras and choirs composed of musicians from throughout Italy at Verdi’s funeral service in Milan.

     Works by Verdi in my collection include the following:

                Aida: Overture and Excerpts (incl. Triumphal Chorus, Grand March, and Ballet Music from Act II, Scene 2). 

                Attila: Overture. 

                Don Carlos: Scene and Duet, Act 1. 

                Ernani: Surta e la notte…Ernani, involami, Act 1.

                Falstaff: Ehi paggio, Act 1. 

                The Force of Destiny: Overture; Pace, pace, mio Dio, Act IV; and Solenne in quest’ora, Act III.

                I Masnadieri: Overture. 

                Il Trovatore:  Excerpts, including the Anvil Chorus. 

                Joan of Arc: Overture.

                La Battaglia de Legnano: Overture. 

                La Traviata: Prelude to Act 1; Prelude to Act III; and Excerpts includingUn Di Felice Eterea, Annina! Donde Vieni, Libiamo, Libiamo Ne Lieti Calici, and Lunge Da Lei…De Miei Bollenti Spirti. 

                Luisa Miller: Overture; Quando le sere al placido, Act II; snf Oh! Fede Negar Potessi Agli Occhi Miei! 

                Macbeth: Chorus of the Scottish Exiles (Patria oppressa), Act IV. 

                Nabucco: Overture and Chrous of the Hebrew Slaves (Va pensiero), Act III. 

                Otello: Fuoco di gioia, Act 1; and Mia madre aveva una povera ancella, Act IV.

                Rigoletto:  Excerpts including Della Mia Bella…Questa O Quella, and Paartite…Crudele! 

                The Sicilian Vespers: Overture.

                Un Ballo in Maschera: Overture; D’amor sull’ali rosee, Act IV; snf  Forse La Soglia Attinse.

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