Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Getting Back to Work!

Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi (1813-1901) in 1887

On February 5, 1887 – 137 years ago today – Giuseppe Verdi’s 25th and second-to-last opera, Otello, received its premiere at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan.  The premiere was the single greatest triumph in Verdi’s sensational career.  But it was a premiere – and an opera – that was a long time coming.


He was born on October 10, 1813, in the sticks: in the tiny village of Le Roncole, in the northern Italian province of Parma.  

Verdi’s first opera, Oberto, received its premiere at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan in November 1839, when Verdi was 26 years old.  Oberto was a modest success – it received 13 performances – and based on its success, the management at La Scala offered Verdi a contract to compose three more operas.  Verdi had begun his second opera – a comedy called A King for a Day – when catastrophe struck: he lost his wife and two young children to disease during a horrific, 20-month span between 1839 and 1840.  Rendered nearly insane by the deaths, Verdi nevertheless battled through his grief and managed to complete A King for a Day.  The opera received its premiere on September 5, 1840; it was booed off the stage and its run was cancelled on the spot after that one performance.  For Verdi, the experience was excruciatingly painful, and it’s one he never forgot.  Twenty years later, still mad as hell, Verdi wrote:

“[The audience] abused the opera of a poor, sick young man, harassed by the pressure of the schedule and heartsick and torn by horrible misfortune!  Oh, if the audience then had – I do not say applauded, but had borne that opera in silence – I would not have had the words to thank them.  Today, I accept the public; I accept its whistles, on the condition that I am not asked to give back anything in exchange for its applause.”

Verdi in 1839, as painted by Giuseppe Molentini
Verdi in 1839, as painted by Giuseppe Molentini

From that night in September of 1840 to the end of his life, over sixty years later, Verdi’s personal relationship with the public was set in his own mind, and, as far as Verdi was concerned, it was not an affectionate relationship.  He later wrote that as a result of the fiasco:

“At 26, I knew what ‘the public’ meant.  From then on, successes have never made the blood rush to my head, and fiascos have never discouraged me.  If I went on with this unfortunate career, it was because at 26 it was too late for me to do anything else.”

Verdi was a tough, taciturn, straight-talking, no-nonsense man to begin with.  The loss of his family and the failure of A King for a Day made him doubly (triply? quadruply?) so.  Still, with the help and support of La Scala’s director, Bartolomeo Merelli, Verdi continued to battle through his grief over his family and rage over the fiasco that was A King for a Day to compose his third opera, entitled Nabucco.  Nabucco, which received its premiereon March 9, 1842 (also at La Scala) was a smash hit from which Verdi never looked back.  

Verdi in 1842, at the age of 29
Verdi in 1842, at the age of 29

The Galley Slave

No composer ever worked harder than did Giuseppe Verdi.  In the 14 years between 1839 and 1853, he composed nineteen operas.  Verdi called these his “galley slave years” because he worked like one: 16 to 18 hours a day, always under deadline, endlessly harried by librettists, producers, singers, critics, and conductors; always emotionally depressed and physically ill with some bug or another.

According to Verdi, he hated the whole stinkin’ opera trip, and as early as 1845 – at the age of just 32 – he was already thinking about retiring.  On November 5, 1845, he wrote to a friend in Rome:

“Thanks for remembering your poor friend, condemned to continually scribbling notes.  God save the ears of every good Christian from having to listen to them!  How am I, physically and spiritually?  Physically I am well, but my mind is black, always black, and will be so until I have finished with this career that I hate.” 

Retirement at Last!

Verdi in 1842, at the age of 29
Verdi in 1842, at the age of 29

As it turned out, it wasn’t until late 1875 that the now 62-year-old Verdi, still in his prime and at the top of his game, dropped his thunderbolt and did the unthinkable: he informed his nearest and dearest – his second wife, his friends, and his publisher – that as a composer he was through.  After 24 operas and one Requiem, Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi was done, finito. When his great friend Clarina Maffei told him that he had a moral obligation to compose, Verdi wrote:

“Are you serious about my moral obligation to compose? No, you’re joking, since you know as well as I that the account is settled.”

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