Italian Historical Society of America


 Composers

 Music is one of the foundations of every civilization. Italian composers have added significantly to the musical heritage of the West.  Here are some of the many who have contributed to our profound musical heritage.


Biographies presented in this page:
  Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848)
  Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945)
  Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840)
  Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)
  Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)
  Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)



  Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848)

One of the most prolific Italian composers of opera, at eight years old Donizetti entered Lezioni Caritatevoli di Musica, a music school in Bergamo (region of Lombardia) started by composer Simone Mayr who was maestro di cappella of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. In 1815, Donizetti was sent to Bologna to study under Stanislao Mattei at the Liceo Filarmonico. Mattei was a pupil of Giovanni Battista Martini, who was famous for his musical accomplishments throughout Europe and tutor to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

After one year at Liceo Filarmonico, Donizetti wrote his first opera, Il Pigmalione (which did not première until 1960 at the Teatro Donizetti in Bergamo). His first staged opera was the following year, but it was the 1822 Rome debut of Zoraïda di Granata that first earned him public recognition. He followed with a series of operas, among them Lucia di Lammermoor, Anna Bolena, and L'elisir d'amore. Donizetti moved to Paris in 1838, staying until 1847 when he returned to Bergamo. While in Paris he composed the well-known Don Pasquale, and his five-act Dom Sébastien. He died in 1848 and his remains – and those of his mentor Simone Mayr – are in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore.

Donizetti composed many of the major roles in his operas for leading singers of that time, writing his music to be sung bel canto, a style that emphasizes melodic, fluid tones.
Written by Janice Mancuso

Here are some other relevant websites:
Gaetano Donizetti Biography and Compositions
A Prolific and Brilliant Opera Composer

Placeholder Picture



  Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945)


Most noted for his 1890 one-act opera Cavalleria rusticana (Rustic Chivalry), which introduced verismo (realism) in opera, Mascagni composed 15 operas of diverse styles. He was born in Livorno (region of Tuscany) and took an interest in music in his early teens. He studied music at the Instituto Musicale di Livorno against his father’s wishes – Mascagni’s mother died when he was 10 – and by the time he was 16, he had composed several works. In 1881, his first cantata was performed at the Instituto and won a musical contest in Milan. A year later, Mascagni entered the Milan Conservatory (Conservatorio di Milano). Mascagni stayed at the Conservatorio until 1885, not completing his studies, but composing several songs and piano music; and toured as a conductor for several operetta companies. The following year, he became director of a new philharmonic society.

In 1890 Cavalleria rusticana, Mascagni’s first opera, won a music contest and premièred at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome. The opera, composed from a short story set in a small peasant village in Sicily, became an instant success and within one year was performed throughout the world, with two debuts in New York on the same day. Over the next ten years, Mascagni composed seven operas – two premièred at La Scala, the others throughout Italy – and numerous songs; and he began a worldwide tour. In 1927, he settled in Rome and lived there until he died.
Written by Janice Mancuso

Here are some other relevant websites:

Pietro Mascagni Biography and Compositions
Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni – The Opera Guide
Pietro Mascagni – Ave Maria


Placeholder Picture




  Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840)



Considered the greatest violinist ever, Paganini showed his talents at an early age, first with the mandolin and then through his performances and studies with several respected music teachers. In 1795, Paganini studied under Alessandro Rolla, an expert in viola and violin techniques. It is noted that through the flexibility of his hands and his long fingers, Paganini would develop his unusual style that included wide left-hand stretches; double stops (playing two notes at once); and pizzicato (plucking the strings). He also used scordatura (mistuning), ricochet bowing (bouncing the bow against the strings), and a variety of other bowing techniques.

By 1800, Paganini was touring Italy, performing many concerts, most of the time as a soloist. When playing with an orchestra, during rehearsal he would not play his entire piece. Paganini nicknamed his violin, made by Joseph Guarnerius del Gesù, Il Cannone (the cannon), for its vigorous sound. During his career, he had a replica made. After his death, both were left to the city of Genoa where they are on display. To keep it tuned, the violin is played periodically, and the winner of the Paganini Competition – an event that honors the master and assists aspiring violinists – also plays it.

In 1813, Paganini moved to Milan, and performed at La Scala, and throughout Tuscany. He debuted in Vienna in 1828, and in London and Paris in 1831. With his health deteriorating, Paganini returned to Italy in 1834, and died in 1840. During his career he wrote 24 caprices (fast and intense solo violin pieces), sonatas, concerti, and quartets.
Written by Janice Mancuso 

Here are some other relevant websites:
Niccolò Paganini Biography and Compositions
Nicolò Paganini: His Music and the Viola
Nicolò Paganini Discography


Placeholder Picture



  Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)


With an inherent passion, Puccini followed his ancestors in pursuing a musical career. His father Michele, a noted teacher, organist, and composer, died when Puccini was not yet six years old. Puccini studied under his uncle, and played the organ at churches in his hometown of Lucca (region of Tuscany). In 1874, at 16, he entered the Istituto Musicale Pacini, and became a student of Carlo Angeloni, who had been a student of Puccini’s father, Michele. Under the influence of Angeloni, Puccini became interested in opera, attended a performance of Aida in Pisa in 1876, and decided to make opera the focus of his career. Puccini received his diploma from the Istituto in 1880 and entered the Milan Conservatory (Conservatorio di Milano).

In Milan, he made important musical and financial contacts, and at the end of his studies there in 1883 he entered a contest, composing a one-act opera. He did not win, but the opera, Le Willis, was well received, and Puccini was offered a contract to compose another opera. While it was not as successful as his first, his third opera, Manon Lescaut, premièred in Torino in 1893 and was staged with great success. Three years later Puccini composed La bohème, followed by Tosca in 1900, and Madama Butterfly in 1904. Today, all three are among the top ten operas most performed in North America. Puccini wrote three more operas, and started another, but died of complications from surgery before completing Turandot.
Written by Janice Mancuso

Here are some other relevant websites:
Giacomo Puccini Biography and Compositions
Giacomo Puccini [Full Biography]
Giacomo Puccini Profile


Placeholder Picture

  Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)


Born in Pesaro (Region of Marche), Rossini learned about music at a young age from his parents – both musicians – and wrote his first opera at 14, and his second, a comedy, four years later. He received contracts to write additional operas, with a première at La Scala in 1812. The following year Tancredi debuted in Venice to wide success, leading Rossini to compose another 24 operas in 10 years. During this time he became the musical director of Teatro San Carlo in Naples, writing serious operas for performances there, and comedies for other opera houses.

Two of his most well known operas were written for Naples, Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra and Otello, a turning point in musical drama. His operas for Naples contained longer ensembles and an active chorus, with more emphasis on the orchestras; and no overtures. Among his lighthearted operas La Cenerentola (Cinderella) and Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber if Seville) are his most popular – both are listed in the top 20 operas performed in North America.

By 1824, Rossini was in Paris as director of Théâtre Italien and composed several operas including Guillaume Tell (William Tell), his last opera – written in 1829 – and considered his best. The opera was written in less than two weeks and is an intricate blend of rich orchestration, numerous ensembles, elaborate processions, and intricate ballets. He returned to Italy, married his second wife in 1846, and went back to Paris in 1855, living there until his death in 1868. His remains were moved to the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence. Throughout his career, Rossini wrote numerous cantatas, instrumentals, and sacred music.
More information
Written by Janice Mancuso
 
Here are some other relevant websites:
Gioachino Rossini Biography and Compositions
Gioachino Rossini [Full Biography]
Rossini Opera Festival

Placeholder Picture

  Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

Showing an interest in music by the time he was seven – his first instrument was a spinet – at 12, Verdi studied in Brusseto (near Parma) under Ferdinando Provesi, music teacher, organist, and director of the local Philharmonic Society. As his assistant, Verdi played the organ, wrote and composed music, and conducted rehearsals. After Provesi’s death, Verdi applied to the Milan Conservatory, but was not admitted. Most sources state that Verdi was over the age limit, and others add that his style was already established. (Interesting side note: The Milan Conservatory [Conservatorio di Milano] is now also known as the Conservatorio di Musica “Giuseppe Verdi.”) Verdi was advised to seek private lessons with Vincenzo Lavigna, a composer with connections to La Scala. During his stay in Milan, Verdi attended and studied operas and plays and joined the Philharmonic Society.

Verdi returned to Brusseto in 1836, married, took over most of Provesi’s duties, and wrote his first opera, Oberto, which was performed in 1839 at La Scala. He received a contract to write several more operas – the first being a comedy – but by following year, his two children and wife had died, and Verdi’s work was affected. In 1842, his opera Nabucco premièred with great success, and Verdi’s career as a composer of opera was established. In 14 years, he wrote 15 operas, among them Ernani, Macbeth, Rigoletto, Il trovatore, and La traviata.

In 1868, Verdi wrote a symphony, that was to be part of a collection from various composers of a requiem, for Gioachino Rossini, but the collective piece was not completed. Several years later Verdi composed a Requiem of his own, in honor of poet and author Alessandro Manzoni, who died in 1873.

One of Verdi’s most well known operas, Aida, was composed in 1871. Like many of his other operas it is considered a standard, and in 1998 the score was rewritten to appeal to a wider audience.
Written by Janice Mancuso 

Here are some other relevant websites:
Giuseppe Verdi Biography and Compositions
Giuseppe Verdi [Opera 101]

Placeholder Picture