In 1813, France and Austria were at war, and much of northern Italy was their battleground. In 1814, Cossack mercenaries in pursuit of Napoleon’s army pillaged Le Roncole, the village near Busseto in the province of Parma, Italy, where Giuseppe Verdi was born. Legend has it that Luigia Verdi hid herself and her year-old son in the church belfry in order to escape the general slaughter. Such was the atmosphere of Verdi’s early years, vividly evoked in Charles Osborne’s VERDI: A LIFE IN THE THEATRE.

Italy did not exist as a national entity until 1870. It is easy to see how the gifted and intensely proud young Verdi would be drawn to patriotic themes in many of his works. Logically and by necessity, Verdi felt compelled to do more than write music. It had to be theatre music, for this could serve larger purposes. Success, however, did not come easily. Verdi was rejected for study at the Milan Conservatorium and forced to study privately. His first opera, OBERTO DI SAN BONIFACIO, though given at La Scala, in 1839 and published by Giovanni Ricordi, had only modest popular success. A second, UN GIORNO DI REGNO, was a failure.

Tragedy simultaneously struck Verdi’s personal life. His son and daughter died in April, 1840, of an undiagnosed illness, and in mid-June his wife Margerita died of acute encephalitis. In despair, Verdi set to work on an unpromising libretto, a biblical setting on the Babylonian Captivity of the Jews. Audiences...

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