Portrait of Giuseppe Verdi (1813 - 1901)
Portrait of Giuseppe Verdi (1813 - 1901) © Getty

Giuseppe Verdi : 10 (little) things you (perhaps) do not know about the famous opera composer

Prolific composer (28 operas to his name), popular both socially and politically, Giuseppe Verdi marked not only Italian history but was also an important figure in the Italian unification. Here are 10 (little) things you (perhaps) do not know about the composer of La Traviata, Aida, and Rigoletto.

The name Verdi immediately brings to mind a Romantic-era Italy, grand operas, La Traviata, and of course the famous choral passage "Va, Pensiero", still sung by the Italian people today, almost as a second national anthem...

Giuseppe Verdi is undoubtedly master of 19th-century Italian opera. He was however also a worthy businessman, successful farmer, and a public figure concerned with the great issues of his time, such as the unification of the Italian peninsula, as well as the everyday living conditions of his fellow citizens.

If Verdi is only synonymous (for now) with Aida, La Traviata, or Rigoletto, here are 10 (small) things to learn about the maestro!

9th or 10th, make your mind up!

According to the registers of his hometown, Giuseppe Verdi was born on 10 October 1813, in the hamlet of Le Roncole. The composer, however, continuously refuted this information: "My mother always told me I was born at nine in the evening on the ninth day of October, 1814", wrote the composer at the age of 63 (or 62?), having recently requested a copy of his birth certificate...

Though this may seem anecdotal, it is a perfect example of the composer's obstinate character. Giuseppe Verdi was a determined and stubborn man! Values criticised by many of his contemporaries but which nonetheless allow him to fulfull his ambitions and overcome various personal hardships.

A fairytale (within reason)

Giuseppe Verdi was not born with a silver spoon in mouth, but rather mouthfuls of polenta shared with his small family. His father, Carlo Verdi,  managed a small hostel in the hamlet of Le Roncole near Parma, and his mother Luigia Verdi was a spinstress by trade.

Maison natale de Verdi, à Roncole, dans la province italienne de Parme.
Maison natale de Verdi, à Roncole, dans la province italienne de Parme. © Getty  /  De Agostini

Peppino, Verdi's nickname as a child, was not destined for great things... Nonetheless, his parents were determined that he receive a solid education. He was therefore sent to the local school, managed by the priest of Le Roncole, where he learned to read and write. At the age of ten, he was sent to boarding school in Busseto, the closest village, to continue his education.

Though Giuseppe Verdi came from a modest and rural background, a fact he often enjoyed recalling, his family was far from helpless. Well-regarded by the community, the young Giuseppe gathered the sympathy of numerous patrons and guardians...

Rejected from the Milan Conservatoire

Peppino was quickly fascinated by music, be it by the organ during mass or when musicians came to stay at the family hostel. His parents decided therefore to give the little Peppino a spinetta (small harpsichord), a rare and precious gift for a small country boy at the tame. Verdi trained long and hard and was eventually employed, at the age of 12, as the church organist.

La spinette reçue en 1821 par le jeune Verdi, exposée aujourd'hui au Théâtre de la Scala.
La spinette reçue en 1821 par le jeune Verdi, exposée aujourd'hui au Théâtre de la Scala.  © Getty  /  De Agostini / G. Dagli Orti

Several years later, he joined the music academy of Ferdinando Provesi, conductor and chapel master of Busseto. Verdi rapidly became known as the local prodigy, whose talents were the talk of town, eventually catching the attention of a rich baker, Antonio Barezzi.

Barezzi and Provesi decided to send their protégé to Milan, so that he may receive a higher musical education. However, Verdi encountered his first major failure: his application to the conservatoire is rejected. One of the jury members even went so far as to qualify Verdi's potential as "mediocre"...

True, at 18 years old Verdi was already over the candidate age limit, and he came from a foreign province (one must not forget that in 1832 Italy was not yet unified), but he came from a town where none doubted his exceptional musical talents. Verdi would never forgive the Milanese conservatoire for this painful rejection.

Saved by Nabucco

Despite this setback, it was out of the question for Verdi to give up his musical ambitions. He became the student of the professor Vincenzo Lavigna, and began gradually making a reputation for himself within the Milanese musical circle, though nothing more than a reputation would come of this...

Difficult years indeed for the young Verdi, whose sole income came from the financial support of his patrons and benefactors. He eventually married in 1836 the daughter of one of his benefactors, Margherita Barezzi, and fathered two children with her before even turning 25.

Portrait de Margherita Barezzi, première femme de Verdi.
Portrait de Margherita Barezzi, première femme de Verdi.  © Getty  /  De Agostini

Difficult times lay ahead for Verdi, in particular filled with grief... his two children were taken from himwhilst still in their infancy and his wife, Margherita, died of encephalitis in June 1840. It was with moderate relief, therefore, that the grief-stricken Verdi learned of the success of his third opera Nabucco

First performed in 1842 at Milan's La Scala, the opera is nothing short of revolutionary, placing Verdi firmly alongside the most respected Italian maestri. In Nabucco, whose famous chorus of Hebrew slaves Va, Pensiero is a firm staple of Italian culture, the on-stage intrigue is not that of the passions of the soul: it is also political. The words freedom and homeland feature heavily in the libretto. At a time rife with political trouble, Verdi's opera was not without reference to the political demands of the Italian people...

Political symbol

Following the success of Nabucco, nothing is capable of stopping Verdi's creative genius. Ernani (1844), Macbeth (1847), Luisa Miller (1849), Rigoletto (1851), La Traviata (1853)... he completed sixteen operas in less than ten years. And though these works were immensely popular, their catchy melodies sung all over the country by the masses, it was their subject that caught above all else the public's attention, politically charged and dealing with social topics in an Italy where opera was the principal art-form and where each town had its own opera theatre.

Verdi never sought to hide his patriotism, nor his support of the unification of Italy. He chose his libretti specifically to echo his own ideals. For example, in Rome in 1849, days before the declaration of the Republic, his opera La Battaglia di Legnano is performed for the first time: depicting the victory of the Lombard League over the German army, the text of the choral opening states: "Viva l’Italia ! Sacro un patto stringe i figli suoi ! (Long live Italy ! A sacred pact unites its children!")

Business is business

It was necessary for those who worked with Verdi to expect fierce negotiations... "It is out of the question that I accept anything under such a price", he once wrote during an exchange with the director of La Fenice in Venice, in the early 1840s. Similarly, having received a contract from the latter, he wrote: "I see several questionable issues, [...] I will make a few changes that, naturally, you are free to accept or reject."

It is worth noting that Verdi never held theater directors and music editors close to heart. His quarrels in particualr with La Scala and la Fenice were frequent and notorious. The composer wished to control every aspect of his productions and did not tolerate any alteration regarding his work, in the score or the libretto.

However, the composer's operas were increasinly performed over and over all throughout the country, and even abroad. It was not uncommon that the performers, conductors or artistic directors added their own "personal touches" to the original work: some removed specific airs, others modified texts from the libretto... Verdi was outraged, claiming it disrespectful of his work, and would on occasion travel so far as Saint-Petersburg to ensure the correct and faithful performance of his work.

On-and-off composer

In the early 1840s, Verdi's close entourage were not surprised to see him suddenly "disappear", removed completely from the musical circle... It was generally following the premiere of every grand opera that he felt the need to do so. For example, after the immense success of his Bal Masqué in 1859, Verdi wrote to his friend Zarlatti: "I wouldn't know how to pick up a pen to manufacture notes." Milanese journalists even began announcing his definite retirement!

"I have adored and still adore this art, and when I'm struggling on my own with my notes my heart pounds, tears well from my eyes and I'm moved and delighted beyond telling, but if I think that these poor notes of mine have to be thrown to unintelligent creatures, to a publisher who sells them for the enterntainment or the contempt of the masses, then I no longer love anything!"

When he was not travelling or working in Milan, Verdi would stay at Sant’Agata, an agricultural property he pruchased near his native hamlet. The composer would take great pleasure in regularly working the land, caring for the animals, participating in hunts, and planting various types of trees. Sant’Agata was his refuge, in which it was forbidden to perform even a single note of his music. He would live there almost as a recluse, accompanied by his second wife Giuseppina Strepponi, a singer whose scandalous reputation generated much gossip in the nearby village...

Verdi, dans son jardin de Sant'Agata.
Verdi, dans son jardin de Sant'Agata. © Getty  /  De Agostini Picture Library

Verdi the politician

Giuseppe Verdi was increasingly sick and tired of the banal rituals and never-ending flatteries to which he was regularly subjected. Being democratically elected into the Turin Parliament in 1861 brought him a far greater satisfaction and honour than being called back 32 times on stage at La Scala at a premiere of his work, or the naming of a theater in Busseto in his honour. Though Verdi never underestimated the importance of art in society (quite the contrary), he had little interest in the opinion of critics, or the theater-going public in general.

However, Verdi did not find a greater sense of legitimacy in parliament, convinced that his only contribution was his name rather than any real political knowledge. Nonetheless, he was a devoted and committed member of parliament, fighting notably for the unification, agricultural development, as well as a better access for all Italians to musical education.

Two projects in particular brought great pride to the composer: the construction of a hospital in 1888, for the two hundred agricultural workers on his domain, and a retirement home built the following year, for old and penniless musicians.

La Casa Verdi accueille aujourd'hui près de 80 musiciens retraités, dans le même bâtiment voulu par le compositeur et construit par l'architecte Camillo Boito à la fin du XIXe.
La Casa Verdi accueille aujourd'hui près de 80 musiciens retraités, dans le même bâtiment voulu par le compositeur et construit par l'architecte Camillo Boito à la fin du XIXe.  © Getty  /  Fototeca Storica Nazionale.

The fantasy of King Lear

Politics aside, Verdi had one great ambition, namely to put to music and produce William Shakespeare's King Lear. As can be seen by his operas Macbeth, Otello, and Falstaff, all directly inspired by the works of Shakespeare, Verdi was a fervent admirer of the English playwright; so much so in fact that no version of Verdi's King Lear was ever deemed by the composer worthy of Shakespeare's original work.

"If we were to choose King Lear _(editor's note: for the premiere of a work at the Paris Opera in 1865), we must remain faithful to Shakespeare and rigorously follow his intentions. Such a great poet was he that any change we make would remove the originality and character so strong in him_."

The fact that Verdi never completed his opera King Lear is proof of his demanding nature, as well as his taste for theater and well-written texts. There was no insult for the composer greater than not respecting the vision of the artist and the nature of a work.  Thus, as the crowds mocked the enamoured and suffering lovers during the first performance of La Traviata in Venice, Verdi was filled with dismay: "Is it my fault or the fault of the singers? Time will tell", he wrote to his pupil Muzio, disappointed in not having lived up to the novel that inspired him so, La Dame aux Camélias by d’Alexandre Dumas, fils

L'histoire donnera raison à Verdi, et non aux interprètes de la première... La reprise de La Traviata, un an après sa création, sera un immense succès, et l'opéra fait depuis la gloire de grandes interprètes telles que Maria Callas.
L'histoire donnera raison à Verdi, et non aux interprètes de la première... La reprise de La Traviata, un an après sa création, sera un immense succès, et l'opéra fait depuis la gloire de grandes interprètes telles que Maria Callas. © Getty  /  Express

A funeral fit for a king

Verdi was often annoyed at having his privacy invaded, and could not understand the interest one could have in anything other than one's work. He who wished for a simple and modest funeral servcice was, ironically, the subject of veritable national tragedy when his deteriorating health was made public in January 1901.

In Milan, crowds gathered at his window where he was treated, traffic was diverted, and a news bulletin concerning his health was posted every hour at the foot of the building. He died on 27 January 1901. Almost two thousand people followed the funeral procession, amongst whom several illustrious artistic and political figures (Puccini, Leoncavallo...) and a guard of honour. A tribute worthy of Head of state...

Funérailles de Giuseppe Verdi à Milan, le 30 janvier 1901, dessin de Fortunino Matania, publié dans Lillustrazione Italiana en février 1901.
Funérailles de Giuseppe Verdi à Milan, le 30 janvier 1901, dessin de Fortunino Matania, publié dans Lillustrazione Italiana en février 1901. © Getty  /  De Agostini / Biblioteca Ambrosiana

By Nathalie Moller