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Gaetano Donizetti

1797 - 1848

Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti (29 November 1797 – 8 April 1848) was an Italian composer. Along with Gioachino Rossini and Vincenzo Bellini, Donizetti was a leading composer of the bel canto opera style during the first half of the nineteenth century.

Donizetti was born in Bergamo in Lombardy. Although he did not come from a musical background, at an early age he was taken under the wing of composer Simon Mayr who had enrolled him by means of a full scholarship in a school which he had set up. There he received detailed training in the arts of fugue and counterpoint. Mayr was also instrumental in obtaining a place for the young man at the Bologna Academy, where, at the age of 19, he wrote his first one-act opera, the comedy Il Pigmalione, which may not have ever been performed during his lifetime.

The opera composer and conductor Johann Mayr recognized the talent m the spirited young Donizetti. He took him from an impoverished and unmusical background in the streets of his birthplace, Bergamo, in northern Italy, to give him a thorough musical education. As he neared adulthood Donizetti studied for two years in Bologna with Padre Mattel, the renowned counterpoint teacher. Although benefiting musically, Donizetti found the old priest somewhat dour, and he reserved his lifelong affection exclusively for his original teacher.

Relations between Donizetti and his Neapolitan patrons became strained in the 1830s. Donizetti broke his contract in 1832 and. although a new one was drawn up in 1834, the authorities in Naples objected to his next opera, Maria Stuarda, and the consequent rapid revision ruined the first production. Then, in 1837, Virginia, his beloved wife since 1828, died of cholera. His new work, Poliuto. was banned for depicting the martyrdom of a saint, and so a grieving, dispirited Donizetti finally left Naples for Paris.

The Parisians greeted him warmly, mounting productions of his works in four of the city's theatres, much to the disgust of Berlioz and other French composers. Donizetti responded with the composition of a number of his best operas, culminating in his last great work, the three-act comic masterpiece Don Pasquale, first produced in Milan in 1843.

By then he had secured the position of Kapellmeister to the Hapsburg Court in Vienna, but had also begun to suffer worsening symptoms of a syphilitic illness that attacked his nervous system. By the end of 1843 he was incapable of further composition, and Parisian doctors declared him insane the following year. Through the persistent efforts of his nephew he was eventually taken back to his native Bergamo, where friends cared for him until his death.


Verdi learned much from Donizetti, and Puccini was also to benefit from the example of Donizetti's gift for melodic invention and the use of unusual instruments (such as the glass harmonica in Lucia di Lammermooi) to characterize scenes. Berlioz, too, admired Donizetti, in spite of the fact that his works monopolized opera in Paris for a decade.

"A new and very happy hope is rising for the Italian musical theatre. The young Maestro Gaetano Donizetti... has launched himself strongly in his truly serious opera, Zoraida. Unanimous, sincere, universal was the applause he justly collected from the capacity audience...."

Notizie del giorno on the music of Donizetti


Key Works

Anna Bolena (mad scene pt.1)

Concertino for Cor anglais and orchestra 

Concertino per clarinetto

Anna Bolena - overture

L'Elisir D'amore - overture

Ranking alongside the comedies of Rossini, The Elixir of Love is one of the most enduring comic creations of the bel canto era. Felice Romani wrote the libretto, based on a text by Eugene Scribe, itself based on Silvio Malaperta play II filtro (The Philtre). L’elisir d’amove was first performed at the Teatro Canobbiana, Milan, in 1832. 

It is still one of Donizetti’s most popular operas, and is regularly performed at opera houses all over the world.
ACT ONE (70:00) Nemorino is in love with the prosperous Adina, but vies for her attention with the gallant Sergeant Belcore, a recruiting officer stationed in their village. Doctor Dulcamara offers Nemorino a love potion that will make him irresistible, but it is in fact nothing more than red wine.

ACT TWO (55:00) Tipsy and emboldened, Nemorino tries to court Adina, but is rebuffed. However, she has noticed his kind-heartedness, and sheds a tear that prompts his beautiful aria, “Una furtiva lagrima”, notorious among tenors for its high register and quiet opening phrase. As Adina comes to realize that she has loved Nemorino all along, the quack doctor mistakenly believes that his potion actually works.

L'elisir d'amore - Una Furtiva Lagrima

Mary Stuart - finale

Based on Friedrich von Schiller’s tragic play Maria Stuart, Donizetti’s opera is set in England in 1567. Elizabeth has imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots, but is jealous of Mary’s love for her own favourite, the Earl of Leicester. Leicester persuades
Elizabeth to meet Mary, who begs for mercy. Elizabeth rejects her plea, and Mary turns on Elizabeth. Elizabeth signs Mary’s death warrant and makes Leicester witness her execution.

Lucia di Lammermoor - Air de la folie

This opera is Donizetti’s masterpiece. It is based on The Bride of Lammermoor, a novel by Sir Walter Scott. Donizetti used extraordinary orchestral effects (including a glass harmonica in the original scoring of Lucia’s mad scene, later replaced by a flute), but the opera is most remarkable for his scoring for coloratura soprano in Lucia’s scenes and arias. After years of neglect, the opera has returned to the repertoire in the last 50 years and is now as popular as it was when it was first composed.

ACT ONE (45:00) Scotland, the late 16th century. Lucia Ashton is in love with the family’s enemy, Edgardo Ravenswood. Ldgardo returns her love and, despite I.ucia’s fear of her brother Enrico’s wrath, the couple exchange rings.

ACT TWO (40:00) Enrico forges a letter which persuades Lucia of Edgardo’s unfaithfulness; in her distress, Lucia agrees to marry Arturo Bucklaw, an tilly of her brother.

ACT THREE (50:00) Driven mad b y her grief at losing Edgardo, Lucia murders Arturo and appears in a bloodstained nightgown in one of the most famous mad scenes in all opera. The music, evoking Lucia’s wandering mind, returns to themes from earlier in the opera, highlighting her former happiness. Lucia kills herself, and Edgardo, heartbroken at the news, stabs himself to death.

Maria di Rudenz - finale

La Fille du régiment - overture

La Favorite -"Spirto gentil"

Don Pasquale - "So anch'io la virtù magica"

Written for the four great bel canto singers of the Theatre-Italien, this late opera buffa tells the tangled tale of Don Pasquale’s intrigue to disinherit his rebellious nephew Ernesto while Dr Malatesta schemes to marry Ernesto to the widow Norina.

Donizetti as a schoolboy in Bergamo

Donizetti returned to Bergamo in 1817 and worked swiftly on a variety of compositions, often completing one in a single day. The string quartets of this period show him as a prodigiously gifted apprentice. It was in his eventual output of some 70 operas, however, that he showed his true mastery.

In 1818 he evaded conscription with an exemption bought by a wealthy admirer and took employment in Venice, where his first opera was produced that year. His first significant success came with Zoraida di Granata in Rome in 1822, the commission having been passed on to him by his old teacher Mayr. This secured a series of commissions from Naples including, in 1826, a contract for four operas a year. With poor librettos, however, no masterpieces resulted.

The year 1830 was a good one for Donizetti. His Anna Bolena brought him international fame for the first time, and Rossini's retirement from opera composition gave him supremacy in the field for the next decade. From Rossini he inherited the characteristic bel canto (melodic singing) style — often featuring coloratura passages — and his own rapid craftsmanship enabled him to complete the enduring comedy L'elisir d 'amore m 1832 in less than a month. The price of this facility, however, was a lack of consistent dramatic power. This was true even m the more serious Lucia di Lammermoor of 1835, based on a novel by Sir Walter Scott and containing the famous "Mad Scene." Nevertheless, its sextet provides a moving and masterful climax to what is probably his greatest work.

Gaetano Donizetti (Portrait by Giuseppe Rillosi)

Gaetano Donizetti
(portrait by 
Ponziano Loverini)

Donizetti's tomb in Bergamo

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