Vincenzo Salvatore Carmelo Francesco Bellini (November 3, 1801–September 23, 1835) was one of the most important composers of Italian opera in his time with a gift for creating vocal melody at once pure in style and sensuous in expression, who was known for his long-flowing melodic lines for which he was named “the Swan of Catania.” Born on November 3, 1801, at Catania, at the time part of the Kingdom of Sicily, now part of Italy, the eldest of seven children in a family already steeped in music–his father Rosario and grandfather Vincenzo were both career musicians–he became a child prodigy and began composing before receiving any formal music education. Living with his grandfather after 1816 and learning from him, the young composer began to produce some pieces of music, among them the nine Versetti da cantarsi il Venerdi Santo, eight of which were based on texts by Metastasio.
With several other orchestral pieces completed, by 1818 Bellini was ready for further study and logically, this would have to be in Naples. However, family support was limited, but the new intendente of the province of Catania, who came from Palermo, Stefano Notabartolo, the duca di San Martino e Montalbo and his duchess, encouraged the young man to petition the city fathers for a stipend to support his musical studies. This was successfully achieved in May 1819 with unanimous agreement for a four-year pension to allow him to study at the Real Collegio di Musica di San Sebastiano in Naples, now the Naples Conservatory. Thus, he left Catania in July carrying letters of introduction to several powerful individuals, including Giovanni Carafa who was the intendente of the Real Collegio as well as being in charge of the city’s royal theatres.
The young Bellini was to live in Naples for the following eight years. He produced his first major works while still a student at the Naples Conservatory. When Bellini entered the Royal College, he started off in elementary classes, but he progressed rapidly and was granted free tuition by 1820. After this, in the following January fulfilled his obligation to write music for Catania—a condition of his scholarship—and sent a Messa di gloria which was performed the following October. The artistic director of the school was the opera composer, Niccolò Antonio Zingarelli. By 1822/23, Bellini had become a member of a class which he taught, and the older man appears to have recognized Bellini’s potential. Vincenzo soon developed into a teacher, becoming a primo maestrino in 1824, a post which required him to tutor younger students. His first opera, Adelson e Salvini, was chosen to be performed by the conservatory’s students.
While in Naples he gained the patronage of an important impresario, Domenico Barbaja of the San Carlo Opera, who commissioned Bianca e Fernando (1826) for the Naples opera, the success of which led to other commissions. Il pirata (1827), written for La Scala, the opera house at Milan, earned him an international reputation. Bellini spent 1827 to 1833 mostly in Milan. He was fortunate in having as librettist the best Italian theater poet of the day, Felice Romani, with whom he collaborated in his next six operas. As Bellini gained experience and recognition, he settled into a working method that stressed quality instead of quantity. He composed fewer operas, for which he commanded higher prices. He was not, however, immune to the pressures of production. For La straniera (February 1829), Bellini received a fee which was sufficient for him to be able to make his living solely by composing music, and this new work became an even greater success than Il pirata, though his opera Zaira (1829), written with Romani for the inauguration of the Teatro Ducale at Parma, was hurriedly completed; the opera was a notable failure and was never produced again.
However, the most important of the Bellini-Romani collaborations were I Capuleti e i Montecchi (1830), based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, with which he rebounded; La sonnambula (1831; The Sleepwalker), an opera semiseria–serious but with a happy ending; and Norma (1831), a tragedy set in ancient Gaul which achieved lasting success despite an initial failure. The latter’s aria “Casta diva” is one of the evergreens of the classical vocal repertory. These two operas were followed by a less successful composition, Beatrice di Tenda. This opera was premiered at La Fenice, Venice, on March 16, 1833, a month later than scheduled; the failure led to the falling out of Bellini and Romani.
Bellini lived briefly in London in 1833 directing performances of his operas and then went to Paris. There, composer Gioachino Rossini’s influence secured for him a commission to write an opera for the Théâtre-Italien. The result was I puritani (1835), the last of Bellini’s nine operas; although handicapped by an inept libretto, it is in many ways his most ambitious and beautiful work. The libretto for this particular opera was written by the exiled Italian poet Count Carlo Pepoli. Unlike Bellini’s previous two operas, I puritani was enthusiastically received. At the height of his career and only 33 years old, Bellini died on September 23, 1835, in Puteaux, a small town near Paris, of a chronic intestinal ailment which resulted in an acute inflammation of the colon, compounded by an abscess in the liver.
Bellini’s fame was closely bound up with the bel canto style of the great singers of his day. He was not a reformer; his ideals were those of Haydn and Mozart, and he strove for clarity, elegance of form and melody, and a close union of words and music. While he subordinated the orchestra accompaniment to the singers and placed upon their voices the responsibility for dramatic expression, his harmony was more enterprising than that of his contemporary Gaetano Donizetti, and his handling of the orchestra in introductions and interludes was far from perfunctory. It is, however, for the individual charm and elegance of his luminous vocal melody that Bellini is remembered. His influence is reflected not only in later operatic compositions, including the early works of Richard Wagner, but also in the instrumental music of Chopin and Liszt.
The following works by Vincenzo Bellini are contained in my collection:
Concerto in EbM for Oboe and Strings.
I Capuleti ei Montecchi: Di Capellio, Generosi Amici.
I Puritani: La Mia Canzon D’Amore; Cavaliere; Son Salvo, Alfin Son Salvo; Vieni Fra Queste Braccia; and Crediasi Misera.
—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources