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 immediately saw political allegory in NABUCCO and its rousing chorus “Va Pensiero.” Verdi’s music became identified with Italian independence; his career was launched. By the mid 1840’s, “Viva Verdi” was a common graffito for Italian nationalists, the composer’s name an acronym for “Vittorio Emanuele, Re D’Italia” (Victor Emanuel, King of Italy).
Verdi drew support during these difficult years from Giuseppina Strepponi, a young soprano. Their relationship caused something of a scandal, for Strepponi was a never-married woman with three children, and she and Verdi lived together openly for twelve years before their marriage on August 29, 1859. Strepponi encouraged and advised Verdi on musical matters during this productive period in his career. These years saw a series...
(The entire section is 540 words.)