Vincenzo Bellini was a master of bel canto. With Rossini and Donizetti, he forms the great trio of pre-Verdian opera composers. In his short but glorious life, he composed around 10 operas that are gems of melody.
Vincenzo Bellini was born into a modest Sicilian family of professional musicians. He was a child prodigy, taught by his father and especially his grandfather, who passed on to him his knowledge and skills in music. He was composing from the age of six and was a popular performer in the nobility's drawing rooms. At 18, he left home for Naples, the Italian city most receptive to new fashions from France and Germany, and honed his talent for composition with Zingarelli. During these years of training, he wrote for all genres - chamber, orchestral, vocal and sacred music - and studied the compositions of Haydn, Weber and Mozart in particular.
The success of his second opera, Bianca e Fernando, at the Teatro di San Carlo opera house in Naples soon led him to La Scala in Milan. He spent several years in Milan and built a career in the renowned theatres of the northern Italian cities of Genoa, Venice and Parma. His operas were sung by the leading singers of the time (La Pasta, La Grisi, Rubini) and brought him success and financial security. And yet Norma met with a very mixed reception!
He left for Paris, the artistic capital of Europe, to expand his horizons. In Paris, he mixed with Liszt, Cherubini, Rossini and Chopin, along with Hugo, Musset, George Sand and Dumas the Elder.
His refined, uncluttered vocal style was recognisably different from that of Rossini or Donizetti. He knew how to place the voice against a light orchestra, which delicately accompanied the vocal line. His domain was tragedy. The dramatic action and the music centred on the female character, his main heroine. His contemporaries very often described his style as "intellectual", but it was admired by Chopin, Verdi and Wagner.
Six landmark dates in the life of Bellini:
• 1819: Bellini moved to Naples to complete his musical education
• 1827: Il Pirata, his first commission for La Scala, was a success in Milan
• 1831: two masterpieces in Milan: La Sonnambula and Norma
• 1833: triumph in London and arrival in Paris
• 1835: his last opera, I Puritani, performed at the Théâtre des Italiens, was a triumph. It had a brilliant cast (La Grisi, Rubini, Tamburini and Lablache)
• 1835: Bellini died an untimely death
Six key works by Bellini:
• 1823: Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra, Naples period
• 1829: La Straniera, premiere at La Scala
• 1830: I Capuletti e i Montecchi, Venice
• 1831: La Sonnambula, premiered with La Pasta in Milan
• 1831: Norma, premiered with La Pasta in Milan
• 1835: I Puritani, Paris