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Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848)


ambidextrous donizettiWith Rossini and Bellini, Donizetti is one of the important names in early 19th-century Italian opera and a founder of Italian Romanticism. He was born in Bergamo. After initial musical studies, he was commissioned to write two short works that were performed in Venice in 1818. He also wrote sacred music and several string quartets. One work, Zoraid di Granata, composed in 1821 and performed in Rome caught the ear of Domenico Barbaja, Neapolitan impresario, who invited him to compose for Naples, a city where Rossini was already active and thriving and where Bellini was just starting out.

Donizetti moved to Naples in 1822 and stayed for 16 years. Today, a plaque on his home in Naples quite ignores his operas and reminds us that he was the composer of Ti voglio bene assaje, the winner in 1835 of the first Festival of Piedigrotta for the Neapolitan popular song. The piece is still a mainstay of that repertoire. It is typical of his approach to his work, in general, that he would write music at the drop of a hat—early comic operas, later serious melodrama, and, here, even popular songs. (Interestingly, as the illustration shows, he was often in such a hurry to write music that he availed himself of his rather unusual form of ambidexterity—writing with both hands at the same time!)

He composed La zingara in 1822 and at least 5 other operas before 1830, including works for La Scala in Milan. He spent a year in Palermo in 1826 and then returned to Naples where he became the director of the Teatro Nuovo. He became the director of the Royal Theaters in Naples in 1828 and held that post for 10 years.

Donizetti was a prolific and fast composer, turning out 30 operas before he can be said to have "made it" with Anna Bolena in 1830. A partial list of his more well-known works, still very much part of the operatic repertoire, includes Elisir d'Amore (1832); Lucrezia Borgia (1833); Lucia di Lammermoor (1835); La figlia del regimento (1840); and Don Pasquale (1843). Much of his work in Naples in the 1830s was subject to typical censorship by the absolutist Bourbon monarchy, particularly allergic to undue violence or allusions to royalty and unhappy endings—particularly restrictive in an art form that was well on its way to a reputation for thriving on tragedy. Lucrezia Borgia was, in fact, banned in Naples. He left Naples in 1838, at least partly due to the restrictive atmosphere. He moved to Paris and then to Vienna where he became court composer to the Austrian emperor. By the early 1840s, Donizetti was seriously ill with syphilis. He moved back to his hometown of Bergamo in 1848 and died there. 

Musically, like other composers of his generation, he was a product of the influence of the Neapolitan comic opera. Yet, Romanticism had arrived and there is no doubt that Donizetti is one of its founders, particularly when the hallmarks of Romanticism —human passion and struggle—were freed from the confines of censorship. He had what would become the Romantic flair for slow, plaintive melody, typified, say, by "Una furtiva lacrima" from Elisir d'Amore (still one of the best-loved of all operatic arias), yet, untypically, never at the expense of the text. He was known for bickering with his librettists over their choice of words. He had somewhat of a professional rivalry with his contemporary, Bellini, and, perhaps, in historical terms, can also be said to have overshadowed the great Italian influence of the early 1800s, Rossini, who became less and less active as the century became more and more Romantic. 

With historical hindsight, it is interesting to read music reviews from, say, 1850, that wondered whether the young upstart, Verdi, would ever amount to another Donizetti. The year of Donizetti's death, 1848, was also the year of the great wave of revolutions that swept Europe, demanding a corresponding artistic expression more emotional and turbulent than even Donizetti could have imagined.

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