Giuseppe Verdi

1813–1901

Romantic

Giuseppe Verdi was an Italian hero. Most Italians could hum his opera tunes. During his lifetime, Italy was struggling to knit all its areas together into one independent country. When Italians wanted a man called Victor Emmanuel to be king of this country, they noticed that VERDI could stand for his name – they shouted out: ‘Viva Verdi!’ meaning ‘Viva Vittorio Emanuele, Re DItalia!’ (‘Long Live Emmanuel, King of Italy!’). The ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ from Verdi’s Nabucco became a kind of anthem to keep people strong and determined.

While Italy had Verdi, Germany had Wagner: they were opposites. Wagner’s operas are huge, non-stop works, where one number melts into the next and little themes are buried in the music. He also controlled everything, even staging and lighting. Verdi’s operas are more straight-forward: the singing appeals quickly to your ears, with lively tunes, easy excitement and satisfying drama. These days both composers are seen as giants of opera.

Verdi dominated Italian opera, from his first one in 1842, Nabucco, to his last in 1893, Falstaff. He wrote 28 of them; many are still staged all over the world. Most famous are Rigoletto, Aida, Il trovatore and La traviata. Tragedy was his thing: love doesn’t go smoothly, and people often come to a horrible end, dying from poison or stabbing or killing themselves. But somehow it’s like a cartoon, where you can enjoy all the drama and go away without being upset!

Verdi also wrote a famous Requiem, which is a choral piece encouraging eternal rest for dead people. Like his operas, it is full of drama – especially in the wild ‘Dies irae’ (‘Day of wrath’), where whoever plays the bass drum has a fabulous time.

As an old man, Verdi enjoyed farming at his house, Villa Verdi. He was good at it. Everyone thought he’d given up writing music, but then he wrote two final masterpieces, both based on Shakespeare: Otello and Falstaff. After so much tragedy, he decided it was time to cheer up: Falstaff is a comedy. ‘I have at last the right to laugh a little,’ he said!

Giuseppe Verdi, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Verdi is ready for your ears…

Aida: Grand March

This invigorating trumpet tune is typical Verdi: once you know it, you want to sing along loudly! Give it a try!

Performers: Ireland National Symphony Orchestra; Rico Saccani

Taken from Naxos 8.552121-22

Rigoletto, Act III: La donna è mobile (‘Woman is flighty’)

This catchy tune from Verdi became so popular that even gondoliers used to sing it on their gondolas in Venice. Verdi knew he’d written a good one, even before it was performed. He was right!

Performers: Yordy Ramiro, tenor; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Alexander Rahbari

Taken from Naxos 8.552121-22

Nabucco, Act III: Va, pensiero, ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’

This great tune from Verdi’s early opera, Nabucco, became a popular anthem for Italy as the country was trying to become united.

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Chorus; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Oliver Dohnányi

Taken from Naxos 8.552121-22

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 Verdi wrote an opera about a hunchback who accidentally kills his own beloved daughter. Which opera is it?

a. La traviata
b. Il trovatore
c. Rigoletto

 Which Verdi opera includes a march of elephants?

a. Falstaff
b. Aida
c. Nabucco

 Verdi, in his spare time, was successful as what?

a. A farmer
b. A priest
c. A plumber

 What kind of opera was Verdi’s Falstaff?

a. Bel canto
b. Comedy
c. Tragedy

 Which great composer was writing German opera at the same time as Verdi was writing Italian opera?

a. Mozart
b. Rossini
c. Wagner


Key Facts...

Key Facts…
  1. In English, Verdi’s name would be Joseph Green. ‘Giuseppe’ is the Italian version of ‘Joseph’ and ‘Verdi’ means ‘Green’.
  2. Verdi struggled to gain recognition until he wrote Nabucco with its famous ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’. After that he was very popular.
  3. Verdi wrote mostly operas, but his Requiem is famous.
  4. Although Verdi and Wagner were different, both specialised in tragic opera and then, late in life, wrote one comedy!
  5. When Verdi died he had become so famous that the crowd for his funeral was said to be the biggest public gathering in Italy’s history.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Operas


Rigoletto (excerpts)

Rigoletto was premiered in 1851; the music is so good that it became famous and is still heard often today. The libretto (the words that are sung) are by Francesco Maria Piave and based on a French play by Victor Hugo. Poor old Rigoletto is the Duke’s hunchback jester and has a beautiful daughter called Gilda. She falls in love with the Duke, who is not a nice man. Rigoletto wants revenge and hires someone to kill him, but Gilda loves the Duke so much that she manages to trick the assassin into killing her instead, so that she saves the Duke’s life. When the assassin brings Rigoletto the body in a sack, he opens it to find his own daughter. It is a tragedy. Here are six extracts from it. In track 1, the Duke explains that he wants to get to know as many women as possible and not be tied to just one. In track 2, Rigoletto compares the way he hurts people with his words to an assassin who kills people. He remembers a curse made by an old Count and says how much he dislikes the Duke’s servants. In track 3, Gilda sings of her love for a man called Gualtier Maldé – but this was a fake name that the Duke gave to her, hiding his real identity. It is really Duke she has fallen for. In track 4, Gilda carries on thinking about her love for him. In track 5, Rigoletto has realized that Gilda is with the Duke and it was the courtiers who helped it to happen. In desperation, he tries to open the doors to the room she is being held in: the courtiers hold him back, and he begs them to understand. Track 6, ‘La donna è mobile’, is a famous aria sung by the Duke about how women change their minds about things!

Performers: Yordy Ramiro, tenor; (Duke); Eduard Tumagian, baritone (Rigoletto); Alida Ferrarini, soprano (Gilda); Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Alexander Rahbari

Taken from Naxos 8.552121-22


Il trovatore (‘The Troubadour’) (excerpts)

Il trovatore, premiered in 1853, is based on a play by a Spanish writer, Antonio García Gutiérrez. Of course the words of an opera are very important, and they always need someone apart from the composer to make the ‘libretto’ – the words that are sung. So Verdi asked a man called Salvadore Cammarano. He did most of it, but then died before finishing. A young poet completed it, and eventually one of the most famous and popular operas was born. It is set in Spain, in the 15th century. The story – a tragedy – is complicated, involving a troubadour (troubadours were poets in medieval times), gypsies, love, revenge, death… and many dramatic moments. But the big thing is the music, which made the opera a winner from the moment it was first performed. Here is a selection. In track 1, the gypsies welcome the dawn, before the old gypsy Azucena recalls the scene of her mother’s death at the steak. This is known as the ‘Anvil Chorus’ – the gypsies can be heard striking their anvils (listen from 1.02; at 1.30 they give them a really good wallop!). In track 2, the Count recalls, with fierce love in his heart, the light of Leonora’s smile. In track 3, Manrico (the son of the old gypsy) sings of the strength that he finds in the love of Leonora. In track 4, Manrico sets off to rescue Azucena, because the Count has sentenced her to death at the steak, accusing her of spying. In track 5, Manrico is imprisoned in the Count’s palace. Leonora stands below the tower, hoping to rescue him, and sings that love will bring comfort to him.

Performers: Daniela Longhi, soprano (Leonora); Maurizio Frusoni, tenor (Manrico); Roberto Servile, baritone (Count di Luna); Budapest Festival Chorus; Hungarian State Opera Orchestra; Will Humburg

Taken from Naxos 8.552121-22


La traviata ‘The Fallen Woman’ (excerpts)

La traviata is a tragic opera, based on a French story called La Dame aux camellias (‘The Lady of the Camelias’) by Alexandre Dumas the younger (the son of the man who wrote The Three Muskateers). It was turned into an opera libretto by Francesco Maria Piave and the opera was premiered in 1853 in Venice. Violetta (‘La Traviata’) lives a carefree life surrounded by admirers, but when she falls in love with Alfredo, she decides to stick with just him. Unfortunately, Alfredo’s father demands she break off their relationship. She does as he says, without telling Alfredo why. Alfredo is so angry that he makes her look stupid in front of lots of people. She then dies of tuberculosis and Alfredo is terribly upset. It’s amazing that stories of such disaster could inspire really feel-good music! Here are some extracts. Track 1 is a ‘drinking song’ – a lively song that encourages the drinking of wine – and it is introduced by Alfredo at a party. In track 2, Violetta thinks that maybe she loves Alfredo, but in track 3 she puts such an idea out of her mind. In track 4, Alfredo sings about his happiness with Violetta (which is soon to end). In track 5, Alfredo’s father, Giorgio, reminds him where his home is, now that Violetta has gone – but Alfredo wants to go and find her.

Performers: Monika Krause, soprano (Violetta); Yordy Ramiro, tenor (Alfredo); Georg Tichy, baritone (Giorgio); Slovak Philharmonic Chorus; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Alexander Rahbari

Taken from Naxos 8.552121-22


Aida (excerpts)

Aida was first performed at the new Opera House in Cairo, Egypt, in 1871. Set in ancient Egypt, the story is about Aida, an Ethiopian princess imprisoned by Egyptians. Radamès, Egypt’s army commander, is torn between his love for the princess and loyalty to Egypt – enemy of Ethiopia. It doesn’t turn out well and the two of them end up dying together in a vault. It is all told with great music. It is very impressive seeing the opera live in the opera house, with all the scenery. Here are five tracks. In track 1, Radamès sings the praises of his beloved, the captured princess Aida. In track 2, Aida is worried about her lover winning against her own people, as he leaves to lead the Egyptian army against the Ethiopians. Track 3 is a triumphant chorus: Radamès has returned, victorious – he beat Aida’s father, the Ethiopian king Amonasro. Tracks 4 and 5 are just for orchestra: cheerful music to end Act II. The famous march is played by trumpets: the battle was won!

Performers: Maria Dragoni, soprano (Aida); Kristjan Johannsson, tenor (Radamès); RTE Philharmonic Choir; RTE Chamber Choir; Culwick Choral Society; Bray Choral Society; Dublin County Choir; Dun Laoghaire Choral Society; Cantabile Singers; Goethe Institut Choir; Musica Sacra; Phoenix Singers; National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland; Rico Saccani

Taken from Naxos 8.552121-22


Falstaff (excerpt)

Verdi wrote so many tragic operas, where everything goes wrong and people end up dying. Then suddenly, when he was nearly 80, he decided he’d had enough of misery. It was time for some fun! He said this to Arrigo Boito, a librettist who had produced many librettos for him. So Boito went away and started turning Shakespeare’s comic play The Merry Wives of Windsor into an opera libretto. Verdi loved it. The opera was premiered in Milan in 1893. It is set in Windsor, England, during the reign of King Henry IV. Falstaff – a big, boastful knight – makes a naughty plan to sort out his money troubles, which involves fooling women. But they’re not fooled! Instead they teach him a lesson… In this extract, Falstaff sends messages with his page, and has a go at Bardolph and Pistol – his partners in crime. Even though it’s in Italian, you can tell that Falstaff is a big character!

Performers: Domenico Trimarchi, baritone (Falstaff); Hungarian State Opera Orchestra; Will Humburg

Taken from Naxos 8.552121-22


La forza del destino (‘The Power of Fate’): Overture

This strong, dramatic overture to Verdi’s opera La forza del destino (‘The Power of Fate’) is often performed on its own in concerts, without the rest of the opera. The three loud brass notes at the start, played twice, mean ‘Fate’. They sound quite threatening. There is a lovely flute tune at 0.47, though there is still a hint of trouble underneath in the string instruments’ reply to it. The whole overture is an entertaining mixture of music from the opera, and ends with the whole orchestra at top volume, complete with crashing cymbals. La forza del destino was first performed in St Petersburg, Russia, in 1862.

Performers: Hungarian State Opera Orchestra; Pier Giorgio Morandi

Taken from Naxos 8.554077

Other Works


Messa da Requiem (Requiem Mass) (excerpts)

Verdi’s setting of the Catholic Requiem Mass – a Mass that encourages eternal rest for dead people – is a great religious masterpiece. Verdi wrote it in memory of an Italian author called Alessandro Manzoni, and still today it is one of the choral works performed most often by choirs. Because Verdi was so used to writing opera, the music in his Requiem is passionate, expressive and – at times – incredibly exciting. Here are four extracts from it. The ‘Dies irae’ (track 1), meaning ‘Day of wrath’, is completely wild! Just listen to the four ‘thwacks’ on the bass drum after the strings have rushed from top to bottom at 0.12! It moves straight on to the ‘Tuba mirum’ (track 2). The words mean ‘The trumpet, casting a wondrous sound’ – so understandably Verdi chooses trumpets to begin it. They build into a dramatic fanfare, before the tenor voices come in, followed by the high sopranos. The ‘Ingemisco’ (‘I sigh, like the guilty one’) has a tenor solo: it sounds a bit like an opera aria, with a lovely tune beginning at 0.36. There’s another trumpet fanfare to begin the ‘Sanctus’ (track 4). It then sets off in a lighter way, moving along swiftly, as the singers sing the Latin words for ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts’. It builds to a grand finish!

Performers: César Hernández, tenor; Hungarian State Opera Chorus; Hungarian State Opera Orchestra; Pier Giorgio Morandi

Taken from Naxos 8.550944-45


String Quartet in E minor

The 60-year-old Verdi, famous and successful, was in Naples in 1873 for a production of Aida. But the soprano soloist became ill and the production was delayed. So he decided to spend his free time on writing a string quartet, for two violins, viola and cello. Unlike many other composers, Verdi composed operas nearly all the time – so it is interesting to find him writing something so different. He had it performed privately to small group in his house. He didn’t seem to mind, or even know, whether it was any good or not! He could have given it all the stormy drama of his operas, but in fact much of it is quite light and bouncy.

Performers: Ensō Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.573108