Giuseppe Verdi 

The Early Years



Verdi was born in Italy in the village of Roncole near Busseto in 1813. Mary Jane Phillips-Matz in her long awaited Verdi Biography provides the following information about the birth and birthplace:
The composer Verdi was born during the fair week of the feast of San Donnino, the patron saint of the diocese to which Roncole belongs, but we cannot be sure where or when. For about 140 years everyone has believed that he was born on 10 October in the 'Verdi Birthplace' that was declared a national monument in 1901 . . . [but Verdi said] 'That is not my birthplace. The house where I was born was burned by the Russians.' None the less, he hung a large oil painting of the 'Verdi Birthplace' in the salon of his villa at Sant'Agata. (Phillips-Matz 1993, 12)
Verdi disagrees with history in his accounts of the 'birthplace' and in other events as well.

Verdi's musical education began at an early age, although it is not known exactly when he began formal study. It is known that "he was captivated by music [and] that his parents [early on] decided to give him an instrument of his own, a little spinet . . ." (Phillips-Matz 1993, 18). Verdi studied organ and by age seven he had become an organist at San Michele Arcangelo, the parish church just across from the birthplace. It was there that he served as an altar boy, and San Michele was the church where, according to the famous myth (or fact), his mother saved him in 1814 when French troops invaded the territory.

In 1823 Verdi moved to Busseto, a town within walking distance of Roncole. He in fact did walk that distance to continue playing organ at San Michele. Although a small town, Busseto had a Philharmonic Society and a music school. Verdi attended the music school run by Antonio Provesi. "At age 14, he was teaching Provesi's pupils" (Phillips-Matz 1993, 30). Verdi composed marches and other types of music under Provesi's guidance.

After finishing the four-year music school in Busseto, Verdi applied for admission to the prestigious Milan Conservatory. As has often been stated, he was rejected for admission. Phillips-Matz clears up some of the details of that ordeal of 1832:

Verdi made formal application to the Conservatory on 22 June: . . . and appeared before the examining board one day at the end of June. . . . Verdi appeared with some of his own compositions and a score of a well-known caprice by the Viennese composer Heinrich Herz. He played it as the first part of his examination and composed a four-part fugue for the second part. After eight days Verdi went to see Rolla [one of the examiners], as planned. The old man simply told him not to think any further about the Conservatory, but to 'choose a maestro in the city; I advise either Livigna or Negri'. (Phillips-Matz 1993, 43-44).
Verdi studied composition in Milan with Vincenzo Lavigna, a composer and maestro al cembalo at La Scala. Lavigna instructed Verdi in counterpoint and helped him get to know Milan. After two years Verdi returned to Busseto as members of the Philharmonic campaigned to have him appointed head of the Philharmonic. Things did not work out and Verdi returned to Milan at the end of the year, 1834. Two years later he returned again to Busseto and "Verdi was named maestro di musica on 5 March 1836. . . [and] Verdi and Margherita [Barezzi], or Ghita, as he called her were married on 4 May 1836." (Phillips-Matz 1993, 74-75). They had their first child in 1837, a daughter, and their second, a son in 1838. By 1840 his wife, and both children were dead, and Verdi was alone and without a job (he had resigned his job in Busseto to move to Milan).

Years later in 1879 Verdi described those dark days to his publisher friend, Giulio Ricordi:

But now there began the most terrible series of misfortunes for me. At the beginning of April my little boy fell ill . . . he wasted away in the arms of his mother. A few days later my little daughter sickened in her turn, and this child too was taken from us. During the first days of June, 1840, the third coffin was carried out of my house [his wife had died]. (Werfel 1973, 86)
Verdi was in despair, and he had to complete a comic opera, Un Giorno di Regno. It was not successful like his first opera, Oberto. He persuaded himself that there was no consolation in his art and resolved never to compose again. A member of the management at La Scala, Bartolomeo Merelli, forced a libretto on Verdi. Now continuing with Verdi's description of the events:
He forced the manuscript [of the libretto] in my hands. . . . I rolled it up, took leave of Merelli, and started back to my lodgings. . . . Back home I threw the manuscript on the table with an almost violent gesture, and remained standing before it. In falling, it had opened of itself; without realizing it, my eyes clung to the open page and to one special line: Va, pensiero, sull' ali dorate. I skimmed through the following verses and was so deeply moved by them, the more so since they were almost a paraphrase from the Bible, which I have always loved to read. I read one fragment, I read another. . . . I got up and read the poem not once, but twice, three times, so many times that by morning I can say I knew Solera's libretto by heart from beginning to end. (Werfel 1973, 88-89)
Verdi's story continued, but of course he did compose the opera, his third. Va, pensiero became the famous chorus from Nabucco, and with it the foundation for his fame. "Nabuco established Verdi in the front rank of Italian composers . . . [and] became quite simply the most meaningful opera there was, the opera in which the moods of the risorgimento were voiced most authentically" (Kimbell 1981, 445). The risorgimento was a period in Italian history when foreign-ruled Italy was yearning to become a united nation. Nabucco was a biblical story about Jewish captivity, but Italian patriots, according to the myth, heard in the opera (especially in the chorus Va,pensiero) their own emotions after failings to end the foreign capitivity. "In no other Verdi opera does the nation, as a political and religious institution, occupy the stage so continuously; in no other opera do the individual characters so regularly act as symbols of political and religious realities; in no other opera is the musical language so impregnated with the great popular repertories of march music and hymnody" (Kimbell 1981, 447).

Verdi composed nine operas in the decade of the forties and most had at least one scene that struck a patriotic response. Verdi became a symbol of Italian patriotism and the slogan VIVA VERDI (Verdi being an acronym for Vittorio Emanuele Re D'Italia) was used to symbolize the favorite among Italians to be king of a united Italy.