Giuseppe Verdi was born in the village of La Roncole near Parma. His early musical talent led him first to Busetto to study and then to Milan Conservatory.
It was his second opera, 'Nabucco' that brought him to the attention of critics and the public, and the chorus 'Va Pensiero' became an Italian rallying call to freedom. Verdi himself had a keen interest in politics and yearned for a unified Italy.
In a highly productive career he wrote a total of 38 operas. 'Rigoletto' , 'Il Trovatore', 'La Traviata', 'Simon Boccanegra', 'Don Carlos', 'Aida' , 'Otello' and 'Falstaff' are perhaps the most famous.
Verdi was a master of both melody and drama and by the end of his life was a feted celebrity. He remained, however, an intensely private man who liked nothing more than to retreat to his country house and pursue his many works of charity.
His work remains the mainstay for opera companies throughout the world.
Giacomo Puccini is often regarded as one of the most popular and accessible of all opera composers. For that reason, in the years following his death, his work was looked on as populist, slightly vulgar entertainment for the masses.
Today, however, we can see how his control of the orchestra and masterful grasp of drama make him one of the true opera greats.
Puccini's early life in Lucca was comfortable and content. His family had, for generations, been linked to the cathedral as musicians and organists.
A performance of Verdi's 'Aida' in nearby Pisa, convinced the young Puccini his future lay in opera. He went on to study in Milan, and his international success was sealed when Toscanini conducted the première of 'La Boheme'.
Puccini's pleasures outside the music world included gambling, womanising, shooting and fast cars - a lifestyle made possible by the success of his four most famous works, 'La Boheme', 'Madame Butterfly', 'Tosca' and 'Turandot'.
All are still performed to rapturous audiences throughout the world, but even in his lesser-known earlier pieces, you will always find an exquisite melody.
Mozart was such an extraordinary composer, already writing masterpieces in his teens and producing so many before his death at the age of 35. His piano playing was astounding and his 27 piano concertos are some of his most wonderful works. These, together with 41 symphonies, numerous operas and so many chamber works, show how much he composed.
His father was a gifted musician and took his son, a child prodigy, on tours around Europe where he performed at many royal courts. In fact, Mozart was frighteningly precocious, having composed three operas before he was twelve!
Indeed, Mozart’s great love was opera and he developed a special talent for writing for voice and orchestra. His operas are greatly contrasted in their plots, their characters and their music. Comic opera, serious opera and German Singspiel, all feature in his output.
‘The Magic Flute’ has fun combined with solemnity whilst ‘Don Giovanni’ concerns the dramatic story of a dissolute rake and ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ contains two love stories set against social revolution. All show Mozart’s ability to handle real drama. The melodies are very beautiful but within them there is poignancy, joy and sadness.
Georges Bizet (1838-1875) was a master of orchestral colour, witnessed not just in Carmen but early in his career with his Symphony in C and in his incidental music to Alphonse Daudet's play L'Arlésienne which was arranged later into two suites. He orchestrated five movements from his ‘Jeux d’enfants’ (Children’s Games) originally for piano duet. One of his other operas, another exotic work, ‘The Pearl Fishers’ is set in Ceylon and is famous for a wonderful duet for tenor and baritone.
Bizet was an amazing young talent, reading music by the age of four and playing the piano to remarkable standard by the age of six and being admitted to the Paris conservatoire when he was ten.
Bizet was a really individual voice in opera in an age dominated by Verdi and Wagner and his opera Carmen is in many ways the first verismo opera, though preceding that movement by two decades!
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