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Vincenzo Bellini
(1801-35)


A small, delightful square near the Naples Music Conservatory is named for this early giant of Italian Romanticism and attests to his importance in the cultural life of the city. Bellini was from Sicily and was born into a musical family, his father having studied at the Conservatory in Naples. There is abundant lore about Bellini's early display of musical ability, including conducting at aged three, playing the piano expertly at five, and composing at six.

In 1819 he was granted a scholarship to study at the Royal Conservatory in Naples, a recent consolidation (under Murat's reign in Naples) of four separate church-run  music schools. The atmosphere of the conservatory was somewhat conservative, more in keeping with the line of recent, prominent Neapolitan composers such as Paisiello and Cimarosa, rather than with the more dynamic style of Rossini, who was the resident composer for Neapolitan music theaters from 1815-22. Nevertheless, it would be impossible to expect Rossini to have had no influence on young composers of the day; if Bellini is at the forefront of early Italian Romanticism, at least part of his creativity can be seen as a constant reaction to the music of Rossini. 

After graduation from the conservatory, Bellini's first commercial effort was in 1826 with Bianca e Ferdinando, retitled Bianca e Gernando to avoid allusion to the recently deceased Ferdinand I of Naples. (Such piddling, political interference in culture was becoming more and more typical in the Kingdom of Naples of the time and is one of the reasons that Verdi, later, complained that Naples had become an absolutist backwater.) There is, even in early Rossini, a trend to the unadorned, simple melody that is the hallmark of Italian lyric Romanticism — melodies that attracted the adjective "philosophical" to describe them by critics of the day. Upon closer analysis, such melodies seem natural in opera because they use lyrics well, making them conform to the natural cadences of speech. (Verdi once referred to "Bellini's long, long, long melodies." He meant it as a compliment.) 

Bellini left Naples in 1827 to live and work in Milan at La Scala. Much of what we know of his life comes from a biography and an edition of his letters, both by Francesco Florimo, a classmate in Naples and a lifelong friend. (Florimo lived until 1888, through both musical and political revolutions, long enough to hear Verdi and Wagner at the height of their powers and long enough to see his native Kingdom of Naples absorbed into greater Italy.) 

Bellini's important musical contributions come in the period after leaving Naples. These include: Il pirata (1827); La straniera (1829); La sonnambula (1831); Norma (1831); I puritani (1835). They were all successful and established Bellini as one of those unusual composers who was able to live just from writing opera. 

Bellini lived the last years of his life in the company of his mistress, Guidetta Turnia of Genova. She was young, rich, and married. Their exact relationship is unclear since Bellini's biographer, Florimo, chose to destroy the relevant correspondence. Bellini died in Paris at the age of 34.

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