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Giuseppe Verdi

1813 - 1901

Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi ( 9 or 10 October 1813 – 27 January 1901) was an Italian opera composer.

Verdi was born near Busseto to a provincial family of moderate means, and developed a musical education with the help of a local patron. Verdi came to dominate the Italian opera scene after the era of BelliniDonizetti and Rossini, whose works significantly influenced him, becoming one of the pre-eminent opera composers in history.

In his early operas Verdi demonstrated a sympathy with the Risorgimento movement which sought the unification of Italy. He also participated briefly as an elected politician. The chorus "Va, pensiero" from his early opera Nabucco (1842), and similar choruses in later operas, were much in the spirit of the unification movement, and the composer himself became esteemed as a representative of these ideals. 

"Verdi... has bursts of marvellous passion. His passion is brutal, it is true, but it is better to be impassioned in this way than not at all. His music at times exasperates, but it never bores."

Georges Bizet     



Key Works

Nabucco - Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves

Nabucco - "Va pensiero" ( Sacred Arias )

Ernani "Si ridesti il Leon di Castiglia"

Macbeth - arie Lady Macbeth

Verdi’s librettist Piave took some liberties with Shakespeare’s tragedy (the three witches become an entire female chorus), but Verdi’s opera tells the story in a skilful,moving way. Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene is one of Verdi’s finest, with its spectral orchestration for high strings, and its high-lying vocal line that disappears to a mere thread of voice. It was Maria Callas who helped to rediscover the role, and brought Macbeth back into the permanent repertoire.

Macbeth - final

Rigoletto - Quartet - Bella Figlia Dell Amore

Verdi based Rigoletto on Victor Hugo’s play Le roi s’amuse.

ACT ONE (55:00) Rigoletto, the hunchbacked jester to the libertine Duke of Mantua has a daughter, Gilda, whom he does not want to fall into the Duke’s hands, but the Duke has been courting her in secret, disguised as a student. The Duke’s men kidnap Gilda and take her to the palace.
ACT TWO (30:00) Rigoletto comes looking for Gilda, but when he finds her, she has already been disgraced.
ACT THREE (35:00) Rigoletto pays the assassin Sparafucile to murder the Duke, but Sparafucile’s sister, Maddalena, who is in love with the Duke, persuades him to kill someone else instead. Gilda substitutes herself for the Duke, and is fatally wounded. Rigoletto takes the sack with the body, and finds, instead of the Duke, his dying daughter.

Rigoletto - La Donna e mobile

Il Trovatore - Di quella pira

Il Trovatore - Miserere

La Traviata - overture

Verdi courted the disapproval of the Venetian censors when he chose to set Alexandre Dumas’s play, La dame aux camelias. The story is of the courtesan Violetta and her love for Alfredo, which is thwarted by Alfredo’s father Germont, who tells Violetta to leave his son for the sake of his sister. Dying of consumption, Violetta does as he asks, only to be reconciled with her lover and die in his arms.

(b. Roncole, October 9, 1813; d. Milan, January 27, 1901)

Italian composer. He was the preeminent figure in Italian opera during the second half of the 19th century and arguably the greatest dramatist the art of music has yet known. After years of hard work, frequently mingled with frustration, he achieved in middle and later life a stunning series of successes, crafting his finest work when he was well into his 70s.

After he became famous, Verdi liked to say he was just a peasant, but his origins weren’t quite so humble. His father, a small landowner, kept an inn of respectable size in the crossroads settlement of Roncole; his mother, too, came from a family of innkeepers. Verdi grew up amid some of the finest farmland in Italy, under foreign domination, first French and later Austrian. When he was four Verdi’s father found him a tutor from whom he learned, in addition to his ABCs, to play the organ.

From the age of ten, Verdi attended school in Busseto, boarding in town and walking the short distance back to Roncole on Sundays to be with his family and play the organ in the parish church. By the time he was 13, he was committed to music and came into contact with Antonio Barezzi, a well-to-do patron of Busseto’s Philharmonic Society. Verdi lived in the Barezzi home from the time he was 17, and became attached to Barezzi’s daughter Margherita. Encouraged by Barezzi to pursue his music studies in Milan, Verdi left Busseto in 1832, but failed the entrance examination for the Milan Conservatory. He ended up
studying privately with Vincenzo Lavigna, Barezzi footing the considerable bill. Lavigna’s tutelage included study of 18th-century counterpoint and fugue, modeled on Paisiello, as well as free composition in the modern style. During his three years in Milan, Verdi attended many performances at the Teatro alia Scala and smaller theaters.


In 1836 Verdi was named director of Busseto’s Philharmonic Society, and two months later he married Margherita Barezzi. Over the next couple of years they had two children, both of whom died shordy after their first birthdays. In 1839 the composer, now based in Milan, premiered his first opera, Oberto, at La Scala. Margherita died suddenly the next year, probably of encephalitis. The grief-stricken composer threw himself into his work, but the modest success of Oberto was followed by the fiasco of Un giorno di regno (Kingfor a Day), his first attempt at a comedy—such a severe blow that he nearly gave up composing.

Nabucco (1842), Verdi’s first outright triumph, marked the beginning of what he would later refer to as his years as a “galley slave.” Over the next decade—collaborating with several librettists, chiefly Temistocle Solera, Francesco Piave, and Salvatore Cammarano—he cranked out 16 operas. With Ernani, based on a play by Victor Hugo, he began a lifelong quest for literary material of the highest merit to serve as the basis for his work. He would turn again to Hugo for the story behind Rigoletto, and to Friedrich von Schiller for I masnadieri, Giovanna d’Arco, Luisa Miller, and Don Carlo. The raw material for I due Foscari and II corsaro would come from Byron; Voltaire gave him Akira. The source for Macbeth, of course, was Shakespeare, whose work would again figure importantly at the end of Verdi’s career.

At rehearsals for the premiere of Nabucco, Verdi met the soprano Giuseppina Strepponi, who had stepped in at the last
minute to take over the role of Abigaille. The two became an item in the mid-1840s, living together in Paris for two years and, more scandalously, shacking up back in Busseto in 1849. Fed up with gossiping tongues, Verdi bought land in Sant’Agata— a couple of miles outside of town, in the lush Parmesan countryside where his ancestors had been tenant farmers—and began building a villa. From 1851 he and Strepponi lived there; they were secretly married in 1859.

Verdi reached his artistic maturity with Rjgoletto, II TROVATORE (The Troubadour), and La traviata (The Woman Who Strayed), his three back-to-back masterpieces of the early 1850s. Rigoletto marked a breakthrough in his ability to build drama through structure—to limn character and create tension with striking manipulations of standard forms and equally striking juxtapositions of contrasting musical styles. By comparison, II trovatore seems regressive in formal terms, but it unleashed an entirely new kind of power, a kinetic, coiled intensity.

Part of its impact comes from the way it puts the pressure of extremely heated emotion on the standard, closed forms. La traviata, the most intimate of the three, is the only one of Verdi’s operas with a more or less contemporary setting, with situations that dramatically reflect the composer’s growing interest in social questions and their relation to characterization.

Musically, it shows him building on the techniques of characterization mastered in Rigoletto and successfully injecting into the mold of Italian opera the new ideas that were transforming French music at midcentury—subtler and more sophisticated forms for individual numbers than the standard, squarish Italian ones.


Though Verdi had broken the shackles of convention with these works, he remained chained to the galley oars for the rest of the decade. In Les vepres siciliennes (libretto by Eugene Scribe, for the Paris Opera), the influence of French structural models is even more apparent; it also exhibits an expansion of scale that clearly owes something to grand opera. From this point on, Verdi’s works would tend to be louder, more powerfully scored, longer, grander in scope. The next were Simon Boccanegra (1857; libretto by Piave, after Garcia Gutierrez) and Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball; 1859; based on the libretto Scribe had written for Auber’s Gustave III, ou le bal masque). Ballo capped Verdi’s first 20 years as an opera composer with a triumphant demonstration of mastery.

La Traviata - Addio del Passato

Un ballo in maschera - Duet, Act II

Aida - Triumphal March

When Rigoletto was performed in Cairo to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal, the Khedive of Egypt was so impressed that he commissioned Aida to stage in his newly completed opera house. The opera was given its first performance on 24 December, 1871.
ACT ONE (40:00) Aida is an Ethiopian slave to Amneris, daughter of Ramphis the Pharaoh. She is in love with the

Egyptian general Radames who is sent to lead the Egyptian army against Ethiopia.
ACT TWO (40:00) Amneris forces Alda to admit that she loves Radames, who returns victorious and is given Amneris as his bride.

ACT THREE (35:00) Amonasro, Aida’s father, has been captured. He convinces Aida to find out from Radames the plan of his next campaign.

ACT FOUR (35:00) Ramphis discovers this betrayal. Radames is condemned to be walled up alive in a tomb, where Aida joins him.

They die together.

La forza del destino - overture 

Otello - "Ave Maria"

Falstaff - final

Requiem Mass

Verdi wrote his Requiem in 1874 in memory of the great Italian novelist Manzoni. The setting of the Latin Mass for the dead includes many highly operatic effects (like the trombone in “Tuba mirum”). The fiery “Dies irae” is one of his most dramatic choruses.

In his last four decades Verdi would compose just five new operas. During the 1860s, he devoted much time to work on the estate at Sant’Agata, where he instituted modern farming methods, and to politics. At the urging of Count Camillo Cavour—publisher of the newspaper II risorgimento (the Risorgimento was the movement for the unification of Italy)— Verdi served as a deputy in the first Italian parliament from 1861 to 1865. Composing was not neglected: La forza del destino (The Power of Fate; 1862), written for St. Petersburg, proved a work of great power with the most symphonic overture Verdi would ever write; Don Carlo (1867), his second work for the Paris Opera, was not only the greatest of Verdi’s Schiller-inspired works but one of his mightiest creations for the stage, a synthesis of French and Italian opera styles possessing a political and dramatic vision virtually unique in the repertoire.

By the 1870s, Verdi was securely established as Italy’s greatest composer. Famous throughout the world, he had no need to prove himself or, indeed, to make a living writing operas. But a generous commission from the Khedive of Egypt, the equivalent of at least $250,000 today, turned him to the composition of what has remained his most popular work, Aida. It marked Verdi’s most successful transformation of Meyer-beerian grand opera and its scenic formulas into a masterpiece of, among many other touches, color.

There would not be another new opera for almost 16 years, but Verdi kept busy. Shortly after Rossini’s death, in 1868, he had written his publisher, Tito Ricordi, to suggest that a Requiem in Rossini’s memory be compiled as a collaborative effort by Italy’s leading composers. Ricordi had jumped on the idea, and 13 composers were asked to contribute sections of the mass; Verdi’s assignment was the final Libera me. The composite Messa per Rossini stood complete in September 1869, but a performance planned for the first anniversary of
Rossini’s death never occurred. (Indeed, the work was not premiered until 1988.) In 1873 Ricordi returned the score of the Libera me to Verdi. The death that same year of Alessandro Manzoni—author of the novel I promessi sposi (The Betrothed) and one of the towering figures of the Risorgimento—affected Verdi even more deeply than Rossini’s. In response, he decided to reverse engineer a complete Requiem in memory of Manzoni from the Libera me he had fashioned for the earlier mass, using some of its most salient material to build the Dies irae and Requiem aeternam sections of the new work. He devoted the summer of 1873 to completing it, bore the cost of printing the music, and presided over the first performance, at the Church of San Marco in Milan, on May 22, 1874. It is a monumental composition, imaginative and powerfully theatrical—not so much a statement of belief or consolation as a translation of the Latin text’s rich dramatic possibilities into the language of opera.

In 1879 Giulio Ricordi, Tito’s son, arranged a meeting between the aging Verdi and the poet-musician Arrigo Boito, with the aim of tempting the composer back into opera. Thus began one of the most fruitful partnerships the lyric stage has ever known. Initially Boito assisted Verdi in a major revision of Simon Boccanegra, contributing the text for a new Act I finale, a climactic council chamber scene that elicited music of almost unprecedented ferocity. But it was Boito’s libretto for a new opera, based on Shakespeare’s Othello, that really set Verdi on fire. Premiered at La Scala in 1887, Otello represented a stylistic sea change, with newly sustained energy and dramatic tension, and far greater compression (achieved in part because the set pieces are fully integrated into the structure of each act). The action is continuous, as though events are happening in real time. The operatic world was stunned that an artist in his 70s evinced such powers.

And Verdi was not finished. In 1889 he took up a new Shakespeare project, again with Boito, this time a comedy. Completed four years later, Falstaff, based on The Merry Wives of Windsor, was Verdi’s last work for the stage, his most ensemble-dominated opera, and the only comic opera from his mature years. Centering on the figure who is arguably Shakespeare’s richest “character,” Sir John Falstaff, Verdi’s opera is similarly rich in its musical trappings, and shows conclusively that character, not action, is what the greatest opera is about.

Projects of Verdi’s final years included the Casa di Riposo, a musicians’ rest home in Milan. Verdi bought the land, had plans drawn up by Boito’s brother Camillo, and set aside huge sums to build and endow it. He closed out his lifework with Quattro pezzi Sacri (Four Sacred Pieces), written during the 1890s. His wife died at the end of 1897, and Verdi followed just over three years later. At his funeral, on February 26, 1901, Arturo Toscanini conducted a choir of 900 in the chorus “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco; mourners in the thousands lined the streets as the procession made its way through Milan. 

No composer has contributed more great and near-great operas to the repertoire than Verdi. Any one of his works from Nabucco on—a total of 24 operas, not counting revisions—can today be found holding the stage in the world’s opera houses. A dozen rank as absolute masterpieces. In considering Verdi’s work, what stands out is the way it reflects the steady development of his powers as a dramatist and his amazing capacity for self-renewal. In his early efforts he worked straight from librettos he was provided. Once he established himself he took an active role in shaping them, always with a view toward advancing the drama on the stage.

Increasingly, he focused on speed, on cutting away text, getting to the point, often resorting to the equivalent of jump cuts in cinema: his mature works have a pace, velocita, that is striking. The musical language and theatrical style of his early works are an outgrowth of Donizetti’s, augmented by scenic elements of grand opera: climactic tableaux with massed forces, allowing the individuals’ emotions and conflicts to be projected against a backdrop of group sentiment. Later works move with force, with a breathtaking sense of sweep and continuity, the structural seams absorbed within the orchestral fabric. Significantly, this permits a more intense focus on private moments (e.g., in Don Carlo, Aida, Otello).


While Verdi cared passionately about singing and obsessed over the capabilities of the vocalists who would realize his roles, the drama was paramount. Like Mozart, Verdi understood and was able to musically reveal the complexity of emotion. He was a master of gesture, both topical and stylistic, of the delineation of character through formal means. The sentimental bel canto delivery of Germont in La traviata symbolizes the manner of expression one would expect of the “older generation.” In that same opera the changes in Violetta’s attitude and feelings from one act to the next are reflected in the different styles of her delivery— from flighty coloratura of “Sempre libera” in the first act to the weightier spinto of the second and the ethereal tenderness of the third. Other examples include the varying vocal styles of principal characters in 

Otello, what has been called the “energetic, hard, and icy glitter” of Lady Macbeth’s music, and the quartet in Rigoletto—not just four parts harmonizing, but four distinct characters emoting simultaneously.

Verdi had an uncanny ability to shoot for the gallery and hit the heart. In true Aristotelian fashion he created terror and pity on the stage. Masterfully depicting raw feeling, every nerve exposed, he was unique among opera composers in his range of both characterization and emotion. For such theatrical potency his only rival was Shakespeare.

Verdi's grave at the Casa di Riposo, Milan

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