1. His date of birth is unclear. Scholars have found references on October 11th that state Giuseppe Verdi was “born yesterday,” but because the ways days were counted at that time could vary—sometimes a new day was counted as beginning at sunset rather than at midnight—this could mean either October 9th or 10th.
2. He was a strong negotiator. Unlike many of his predecessors, Verdi negotiated his fees with theaters directly rather than using an agent, and often made sure specific casting information was included in the contract as well. For his 1871 opera Aida, for example, he reportedly received 400 scudi — a sum apparently so exorbitant he asked it be kept a secret.
3. He adored Shakespeare. Verdi composed three operas based on the bard’s works—Macbeth (1847), Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893)—and had his sights set on adapting King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet as well. Unfortunately these projects finished as many great ideas do: at the back of a drawer.
I prefer Shakespeare to all the other dramatists, not excepting the Greeks. — Verdi
4. He was denied entry to the Milan Conservatory at age eighteen. This early brush with rejection didn’t deter young Verdi, however, and he went on to compose his first operas just a few years later.
5. His name will forever go down in the annals of Italian history. In politically-divided nineteenth-century Italy, Verdi’s name took on special significance as the rallying cry of Italian patriots, who expressed their support for the constitutional monarchy with the acronym, “Viva Verdi” (“Viva Vittorio Emanuele Re Di Italia“).
6. He could be… difficult. Editors, directors, performers, conductors: no one was safe from Verdi’s infamous wrath! The demanding (dare we say tyrannical?) composer wanted his works performed exactly as written and paid close attention to every last detail.
Once, after criticizing La Scala’s director Bartolomeo Merelli for not having done everything in his power to make Giovanna d’Arco a success, Verdi swore he would never again allow another of his works to be performed there… a grudge he ended up holding for over forty years! The next work to grace the celebrated stage was the premiere of Othello in 1887.
7. Once, after an extremely difficult period marred by personal loss (the deaths of his wife and two young daughters) and professional failure (the disastrous premiere of Un giorno di regno), Verdi went a full year and a half without composing a new work. He later claimed that he had completely renounced opera during this period, although whether that’s the truth or Verdi’s dramatic flair for storytelling remains to be seen. The first work he completed after this pause? The now-legendary Nabucco.
8. He had a strong rivalry with another legendary opera composer: Richard Wagner. Born in the same year, Verdi and Wagner embody two completely different (some might even say irreconcilable!) visions of music. The philosophical German had trouble understanding his Italian counterpart’s taste for drama and luxuriance, while Verdi, in response, took up the role defender of the Italian lyrical tradition.
Insipid action that moves more slowly than a train stopping at every station.
— Verdi, on Wagner’s Die Walküre
Nevertheless, upon Wagner’s death, Verdi’s admiration for his rival was evident. He wrote, “Let’s not talk about it. A great individual has disappeared! A name that has left a most powerful mark on the history of art.”
9. His death was mourned by Italian nation. Early 1901 found Verdi in poor health at the Grand Hotel in Milan as the entire nation anxiously awaited updates on his condition. Upon his death on January 27th, a period of national mourning was officially declared. Hundreds of thousands of people accompanied his funeral procession, which also featured a musical tribute: 900 choristers and the orchestra of La Scala, led by Toscanini, performing beloved “Va, pensiero” chorus from Nabucco. Here Zubin Mehta leads an emotional performance of the chorus on the 100th anniversary of Verdi’s death in 2001:
10. The chorus above from Nabucco cemented his status as the maestro del coro (“master of the chorus”), a nickname that lives on today over a century and a half later.