Gaetano Donizetti

Gaetano Donizetti is one of the most distinct composers of the first half of the 19th century. With just reason his music can be termed classicist and alongside Vincenzo Bellini and Gioacchino Rossini - the two other pre-eminent composers of that time - he is an author whose works have time and again appeared in the repertoire of theatres worldwide. Donizetti stands on the very interface of different musical epochs and in a way neatly brings the classicist period to a close. It is interesting to note that at the time when, for example, Don Pasquale (1842) was engendered, Giuseppe Verdi or Richard Wagner were already composing in a totally different music style. Despite the fact that Donizetti at that time rather represented the traditional music line and was soon to be overshadowed by new trends and a new music style, his Don Pasquale, as well as his music itself, is firmly ensconced in opera history. Gaetano Donizetti was born on November 29, 1797 in Bergamo, northern Italy. A crucial role in his destiny was played by the composer and pedagogue Giovanni Simone Mayr (1762-1845), who in 1806 admitted him to his music school Lezione caritatevoli di musica, where he also provided musical education to several children from the poorest families. Mayr also encouraged Donizetti’s further musical studies, directing him to Padre Stanislao Mattei (1750-1825) in Bologna, under whose tutelage Donizetti studied in 1815-17. Within this period are his numerous first compositional beginnings. Throughout his relatively short life Donizetti was an extremely prolific author - he wrote, in addition to more than seventy operas, a large number of spiritual compositions, songs, orchestral, chamber and piano works, and back then was already famous for his extraordinary pace of composition. From Bologna he returned to Bergamo, where he started to work as an archivist of the library of the Santa Maria Maggiore chapel and, above all, furthered his education with his mentor Mayr. Thanks to him, Donizetti’s first operas gained recognition. In 1818 Venice’s Teatro di San Luca premiered his Enrico di Borgogna, which was the composer’s professional debut on an opera stage. His first true success occurred in 1822 when Rome’s Teatro Argentina presented his Zoraide di Granata, on the basis of which he was commissioned to compose other operas. During his stay in Rome, Donizetti also met his future wife, Virginia Vasselli, daughter of the renowned Roman notary. Following his success in Rome, his main activities over the next sixteen years were connected with Naples, where he was invited to Teatro Nuovo by one of the most prominent theatre impresarios of the time, Domenico Barbaia. Apart from this theatre, Donizetti also composed for stages in other Italian cities (Milan, Genoa, Palermo, Rome, Florence). Belonging to his “Naples period” are his currently most frequently performed works - among them, Anna Bolena (1830), L’elisir d‘amore (1832), Torquato Tasso (1833), Maria Stuarda (1835), Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), Roberto Devereux (1837) and Elisabetha al castello di Kenilworth (1839). The premiere of the opera Anna Bolena in 1830 at Milan’s Teatro Carcano met with tremendous acclaim and for Donizetti meant acknowledgement and admiration on both the Italian and international scene. In Naples he also became director of royal theatres (1828-1838), professor at the conservatoire, where he taught counterpoint and composition, and director of Reale Coleggio di San Pietra and Majella. However, he left Naples chagrined that he had not become director of the conservatoire, and was also afflicted by family tragedy - his wife and son died during childbirth. In the autumn of 1838 Donizetti moved to Paris for good. Falling within this period are his new operas or new versions of operas, among them, Les Martyrs (1840), La fille du régiment (1840), La favorite (1840), Maria Padilla (1841) and Linda di Chamounix (1842), mostly composed in French. From 1840 on he alternated between two of Europe’s leading cultural metropolises - Paris and Vienna. In the Austrian capital he got into close contact with the ruling imperial Habsburg house, who dignified him with the exceptional tribute of entrusting him with the post of court band-master and composer. This status set him up financially and accorded him a high social position. Despite the obligations connected with it, he had sufficient time for his other activities outside Vienna too. Although at that time the trend in opera began gradually turning more towards Romanticism, Donizetti continued to cling to his composition style, as well as comic action. But this by no means resulted in his popularity waning. It is in this very period that, apart from numerous one-act comic works, he composed Don Pasquale, generally considered Donizetti’s masterpiece and the best work from among his comic operas. The final opera Donizetti completed was Dom Sébastien, roi de Portugal with Eugéne Scribe’s French libretto, which had its premiere at Paris Opera in 1843. At approximately that time Donizetti’s health started to deteriorate, and in early 1846 he was hospitalised at the institute for mental patients in Ivry, near Paris. He spent more than a year and a half there until, with the help of his numerous friends, he was released and moved to his native Bergamo. His condition, however, remained grave and on April 8, 1848 he died. Later on, Donizetti’s remains were transported to the Santa Maria Maggiore chapel in Bergamo and he was laid to rest alongside his teacher and lifelong mentor Simone Mayr.


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