Giuseppe Verdi dominated Italian opera for 50 years, and his operas are performed throughout the world today. Verdi for Kids offers young readers an accessible, behind-the-scenes peek into the exciting world of opera and traces Verdi’s path to fame, delving into the great composer’s childhood, musical training, family tragedies, and professional setbacks and successes. Kids also learn about the Italians’ passion for opera and Italy’s tumultuous past, key political figures, and cultural pastimes. Aspiring sopranos, baritones, musicians, conductors, and stage directors will learn about opera jobs and production, what happens at rehearsal, and music terms and vocabulary, gaining an understanding of opera’s rich tradition.
Offering a time line, glossary, and list of additional resources, Verdi for Kids is an engaging resource for students, parents, and teachers. Fun hands-on activities illuminate both the music concepts introduced and the times in which Verdi lived.
About the Author
Helen Bauer is the author of Young People’s Guide to Classical Music. A classically trained musician and former piano, music theory, and reading teacher, she worked with Leonard Bernstein on his nationally televised Young People’s Concerts and performed at Carnegie Hall.
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Verdi for Kids
His Life and Music with 21 Activities
By Helen Bauer
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2013 Helen Bauer
All rights reserved.
A Quiet Child
"If music is central to a person's life, it can be something very special and life-affirming."
— Luciano Pavarotti, opera singer
* * *
Surrounded by farms, the tiny village of Roncole is situated in the northern province of Parma in Italy. Located about 65 miles southeast of the bustling city of Milan, it is guarded by the Apennine Mountains on the south and west and the rushing waters of the River Po to the north. Nestled in the flat, fertile Po Valley, three miles from the market town of Busseto, the village has been renamed Roncole Verdi in honor of its most famous resident, who was born there on October 9, 1813. The next day the infant was baptized in the parish church of Saint Michael the Archangel. He was given the name Giuseppe Fortunio Francesco, but the birth registrar recorded his name using the French version of Joseph Fortunin François.
Giuseppe's parents had married in 1805. His family lived in the village inn, which sat on a crossroads in the middle of Roncole. The modest building also contained a general store. His father, Carlo, was the innkeeper who ran the tavern and oversaw the grocery store. The tavern and grocery were separated from the rooms the family occupied on the first and second floors of the house.
While most of the people in the village were illiterate, Carlo could read and write as well as keep accounting records. Luigia Uttini, Giuseppe's gentle and pretty mother, came from a family that had settled in the medieval town of Piacenza on the banks of the River Po. Her father was also an innkeeper; after her marriage she helped in the grocery store and earned some extra money by selling the yarn that she spun. The couple had been married for eight years before their first child was born. His birth was a cause for celebration and a source of joy for the family.
A baby girl, Giuseppa Francesca, was born three years after Giuseppe. She liked to follow him around. Her brother was a shy and quiet child, slender with grey eyes and thick brown hair. He did not like the loud, rough play of the other boys in his village. Giuseppe would not join in their wrestling matches or hoop rolling games.
During the first few years of Giuseppe's childhood life in Italy was difficult because a war was being fought. When Giuseppe was born the country of Italy did not exist. The land was divided into several small states, each one under the domination of a foreign power. Each state had its own dialect of the Italian language and its own paper money and coins. Passports were required to travel from one state to another.
In 1796 the French army, under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte, had invaded and gained control of northern Italy from Milan to Venice. The same year Verdi's parents married, Napoleon had been crowned as the king of Italy. Within a few years the French took over the entire peninsula. (That is why the record of Verdi's birth was written in French instead of Italian.)
French soldiers were stationed throughout the land while battles raged between them and their foes. The story was often told in Roncole that in 1814, during one of these battles, a frightened Luigia ran to the nearby church to find sanctuary (safety). When the soldiers barged into the church Luigia managed to scramble up the steep steps into the bell tower and hide with her young son. From this time forward, young Giuseppe's life would be intertwined with the Italian people's struggle to gain control of their own country.
But even war on their own soil could not intrude on Italian culture; the people retained their religion, language, and customs. For the residents of Roncole life revolved around hard work, family, the Catholic church, good food, and great music.
Off to School
Giuseppe Began attending a school run by the local priests when he was four. The priests taught their students how to read and write, plus some Italian grammar, arithmetic, and catechism (the basic principles of the Catholic religion).
One of Giuseppe's first teachers, Don Biastrocchi, was not a clergyman but the organist at the church of Saint Michael the Archangel. The organist accompanied the congregation during their singing of hymns. Biastrocchi was the first person to recognize that the youngster had musical talent and offered to give him lessons on the church organ. He also told Giuseppe's parents that their son had a great gift.
In 1820, when Giuseppe was seven, his parents were able to buy him a broken-down spinet (a harpsichord with strings that were plucked by points of leather on the ends of leather hammers). These old-fashioned and outdated instruments had been replaced by the more modern piano, but even a harpsichord was an unusual acquisition for a family with a limited income in the 19th century. People who came to Carlo and Luigia's tavern remarked that their son must be extremely talented for them to make such an extravagant purchase.
Carlo asked Stefano Cavaletti, a harpsichord maker, to repair the instrument. Cavaletti fixed the broken hammers and any other worn-out parts. After he made the repairs Cavaletti wrote a note, which he left hidden inside the spinet, stating that he had repaired it free of charge because of "the good disposition of the boy Giuseppe Verdi for learning to play the instrument, which is itself reward enough for me for my trouble." Giuseppe understood this gift represented sacrifice and love from his parents. He treasured the instrument and kept it for the rest of his life.
Young Giuseppe progressed so quickly that after a year of lessotns the organist announced that he was finished teaching the child. Biastrocchi was an older man who was ready to retire; he had the boy play the organ during church services fairly often. Two years later, when Giuseppe was 10 years old, his teacher passed away. The boy was asked to continue as the organist in the place of worship in which he had been baptized. He also sang in the choir and served as an altar boy (an assistant to the clergy) in this church.
One time Giuseppe was not paying attention during a church service. The priest tried to get the young altar boy's attention, the story goes, but he did not seem to notice. This made the priest so angry he walked over to the boy and kicked him hard. Giuseppe tumbled down the steps, striking his head before he passed out unconscious on the floor of the church. After regaining his awareness, Giuseppe looked at the priest and said, "May God strike you down." In 1828, a number of years later, lightning hit another nearby church in which this priest was officiating. The lightning strike actually killed the priest along with several members of the congregation who were attending the service. Superstitious local residents repeated the story of "Verdi's Curse" for many years.
On to Busseto
Because Their son was an attentive and hardworking student, Giuseppe's parents wanted him to continue his education. There were no opportunities for that in their village, so Carlo and Luigia made the decision to send their son away. He would not have to go too far, however. In 1823 Giuseppe left Roncole and moved to Busseto to attend a ginnasio (secondary school). The larger town of Busseto could offer him much more.
Since Giuseppe could not walk the three miles back to his home every day, his family arranged for him to live in the home of a family friend, a cobbler whom everyone called Pugnatta. The cobbler charged only 30 centesimi (about 3 cents) for each day that he provided a place to sleep and food for the boy. On Sundays and holidays Giuseppe would hike back to Roncole to see his family and play the organ at Saint Michael the Archangel. Many people noticed that in good weather the boy made the trip barefoot to spare his shoes. Another often-told anecdote from Verdi's childhood recounts how one Sunday evening the extremely tired youngster fell into a water-filled ditch as he was returning to Busseto. Luckily, an elderly woman heard his cries and pulled him out.
A prominent resident of Busseto, Antonio Barezzi was a well-to-do owner of a distillery (a place where liquor is manufactured). In addition he was a wholesale grocer from whom Giuseppe's father, Carlo, bought supplies for his home and business. For years Carlo had walked from Roncole to Busseto once a week to pick up his order of supplies. The men had many conversations and knew each other well. Barezzi was an amateur musician who played several instruments including the flute and the violin. He also was the founder and president of the local amateur orchestra, the Busseto Philharmonic Society.
Music in 19th-century Italy revolved around the opera house, the town orchestra and band, the music school, and church music. Many inhabitants of each town who considered themselves to be amateur musicians taught music, played church instruments, and sang in the choir. Some also were involved in the band or orchestra that performed at concerts and events. Local orchestras were often allotted funds by the municipalities to supplement the money they received from patrons or earned through ticket sales or private performances. As opera was extremely popular with the Italian public, opera houses had been erected in almost every large city in Italy. Most small towns could not afford to build an opera house but they often had their own opera society.
Busseto did not have a theater or an opera house, so the rehearsals and performances of the Busseto Philharmonic Society took place in a spacious room in Barezzi's large house. The members of this orchestra performed several concerts each year and provided the musicians for public events. Many residents of Busseto had a family member in the orchestra. Barezzi was well liked among the people of this town for his support and leadership role.
The composer Ferdinando Provesi was a friend of Barezzi's. Provesi was the music director of the Busseto Philharmonic Society and director of the municipal music school. He was also the organist at the cathedral of San Bartolomeo. Barezzi asked Provesi to teach his protégé, and after hearing the boy perform, Provesi offered to provide these lessons free of charge. Giuseppe started his lessons in music composition and harmony with a man who was considered to be a master of counterpoint.
Provesi was an excellent teacher. He had Giuseppe compose church music, marches, and many types of instrumental music. The young composer wrote hundreds of pieces during this time; unfortunately, he did not keep most of them. Looking back on those days Verdi summed up:
From the ages of thirteen to eighteen I wrote a mixed assortment of pieces: marches for the band by the hundred, perhaps as many sinfonie [symphonies] that were used in church, in the theater and at concerts, five or six concertos and sets of variations for pianoforte, which I played myself at concerts, many serenades, cantatas (arias, duets and many trio), and various pieces of church music, of which I only remember a Stabat mater [a Latin hymn].
At the age of 13 Giuseppe gave his first concert on the school organ. One year later he was composing for Busseto Philharmonic Society concerts. When he was 16 he applied for a position as the organist at a church in another town not far from Busseto but did not get the job.
In 1828, when his student graduated from the ginnasio, Provesi offered him a position in his music school. Giuseppe remained in Bus-seto continuing his music lessons and teaching for three more years. When Provesi was unwell his student took over his duties for the church. Verdi was also writing pieces for the Busseto orchestra, which performed them almost as soon as the ink was dry. The residents who attended these concerts praised his works.
When Giuseppe was 17, Antonio Barezzi became a true patron to the young composer, taking him into his home and family while supplying the funds that allowed him to pursue his education. Giuseppe was treated as one of the members of the household. With four daughters and two sons of their own, Barezzi and his wife, Maria, offered more than room and board to the young man. Giuseppe's best friend, Giovanni, was one of their sons. Their lively, auburn-haired daughter Margherita, seven months younger than Giuseppe, would also become an important person in his life. The newest member of the household gave Margherita piano and voice lessons. A few years later, as they got to know each other, the young couple fell in love.
A Stroke of Luck
Two Years later, Provesi announced that he had finished teaching young Verdi; he further advised that it was time for him to attend a music conservatory or a university. Giuseppe knew that his parents could not afford to pay for these expensive institutions. He was disheartened by the prospect that he would have to return to Roncole and work in his father's tavern.
Barezzi searched for a way to allow Giuseppe to continue his music education. Perhaps the patron could find a scholarship or some type of employment that would let the young man earn enough to support himself and study at the same time. Meanwhile, Barezzi urged his protégé to remain in Busseto until this problem could be worked out.
The Busseto Philharmonic Society arranged a concert of Verdi's music. All the important people in the city were invited to attend. His teacher and his patron were thrilled by the opportunity to sit in the audience and listen to the beautiful music. Everyone agreed that this young composer had terrific talent. Giuseppe was equally pleased by the response to his music. He was sorry to be leaving Busseto but looking forward to the future.
Giuseppe's father presented an application to the Monte di Pietà, a local charity, requesting funds for a scholarship to pay for Verdi to attend the Milan Conservatory of Music. In February 1832 the charity granted the request and said that a scholarship of 300 lire would be available the following year. Filled with delight, Carlo wrote to thank the officer of the charity who had sent this good news.
Since this scholarship money would not be accessible until 1833, Barezzi promised to advance Giuseppe the funds that would be needed for his first year of study. What luck! The hopeful student packed his belongings and traveled to Milan to take the audition required for admission to the conservatory.CHAPTER 2
Turning Disappointment into Success
"I adore art ... when I am alone with my notes, my heart pounds and the tears stream from my eyes, and my emotion and my joys are too much to bear."
— Giuseppe Verdi
* * *
Verdi arrived in Milan in June 1832. Milan was the capital of the Austrian-ruled province of Lombardy-Venice and the cultural center of northern Italy. Before he could audition for a spot as a student at the conservatory, Verdi had to fill out an application and hand in some of his compositions for the entrance committee to examine. These included a fugue that they had required he compose using a subject they provided. At his audition he had to play the piano to demonstrate his musical talent. Finally, the forms completed and the audition over, Verdi anxiously waited for a response from the conservatory.
When no letter arrived from the school, Verdi started to worry. He decided to go and talk to Alessandro Rolla, one of the professors at the conservatory who had been on the entrance committee. Provesi had provided him with a letter of introduction that he was to give to this violin professor. The professor gave Verdi the awful news that his application had been turned down. He further counseled the young man to give up his plan to attend the school and instead to look for a private teacher. Verdi was devastated by the news.
Later Verdi learned more details of this decision. First of all, the officials at the school had believed that, at 19, Verdi was too old; other students entering the conservatory were usually younger. Their second reason was that since he was not from the Lombardy area where the school was located, they viewed him as a foreigner and therefore refused him entrance to their conservatory. The committee had a rule that students from other states could not attend and saw no reason to change it for this young man. Lastly, one of the piano teachers had not liked the way he held his hands while performing on the instrument; therefore, the committee had found that his piano technique was unorthodox.
The reasons given for this rejection struck the young man like sharp needles piercing his heart. He kept the rejection letter for the rest of his days; it was a painful reminder of a dreadful time in his life.
An Alternate Path
Verdi Knew that he had to inform his family, his patron, and his former teacher about his rejection. Barezzi, always seeking solutions, agreed with the professor's suggestion. He would pay for private music lessons. They found a teacher who had wonderful credentials: the composer and concertmaster (first violinist and leader of the orchestra) Vincenzo Lavigna was available and willing to teach Verdi. He had looked at Verdi's compositions and found it strange that the conservatory had turned down such a promising musician.
Excerpted from Verdi for Kids by Helen Bauer. Copyright © 2013 Helen Bauer. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
ContentsFOREWORD BY DEBORAH VOIGT,
NOTE TO READERS,
INTRODUCTION Italian Opera — A History of Splendor and Beauty,
1 A Quiet Child 1813-1831,
2 Turning Disappointment Into Success 1832-1840,
3 A New Beginning 1841-1846,
4 Cries For Liberty 1847-1853,
5 A Love Story 1853-1859,
6 Viva V.E.R.D.I. 1860-1869,
7 Alia 1870-1879,
8 Finale — Great Music and Good Works 1880-1901,
Recommended Recordings, DVDs, and Websites,
What People are Saying About This
“A good choice for young musicians.” —School Library Journal
“This will be particularly useful for parents and classroom teachers hoping to make the study of great music more interesting.” —Kirkus Reviews