This Week in Music History: Vincenzo Bellini dies (1835)

Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark. This week? The premature death of legendary opera composer Vincenzo Bellini, at just 33 years old…


“Strangely enough the death of Paganini was announced at the same time,” says Maximilian, a character in Heinrich Heine’s 1837 novel Florentine Nights.

I did not doubt this in the least, because the old faded Paganini always looked like a dying man, but the death of the young and rosy Bellini seemed incredible. And yet the announcement of the death of the first was simply an error of the press. Paganini is alive and well at Genoa, and Bellini lies in his grave in Paris.

Vincenzo Bellini was just 33 years old when he died of dysentery in a Parisian suburb on September 23, 1835: younger than Chopin (39), Bizet (37) or even Mozart (35) at the time of their deaths. As Heine hints, he had been in the prime of his life, reveling in the astonishing musical gifts that had made him the toast of the operatic world. An apt phrase from his opera La sonnambula is inscribed on his tomb in Sicily: “Ah! non credea mirarti sì presto estinto, o fiore” (“I did not believe you would fade so soon, O flower”).

Yet, eerily, his early death had been predicted—by Heine himself. “You are a genius, Bellini, but you will pay for your great gift with a premature death,” he told the composer earlier in 1835. “All the great geniuses died very young, like Raphael and like Mozart.” An uncanny prediction, almost worthy of its own opera.

But even by the age of 33, Bellini had written several brilliantly distinctive works which exerted considerable influence on Italian opera, and opera further afield. I Capuleti e i Montecchi, La sonnambula, Norma and I puritani and all continued to be performed for decades after Bellini’s death. Beatrice di Tenda has had a more troubled history but still attracts attention today.

An unlikely champion was Richard Wagner. He conducted many of the Italian’s works in the early years of his career, and notably brought Norma to the city of Riga in 1837. Before that performance, he wrote an article for a local newspaper in which he praised Bellini’s “pure melody, his simple, noble, and beautiful cantilena.” An affection for Bellini may have been one of the few points that united Wagner and his contemporary Giuseppe Verdi, who graciously praised his “long, long, long melodies.”

Wagner and Verdi were both only 12 years younger than Bellini, yet they seem to belong to a different age—an age in which the passionate young Bellini, whom Heine called “a sigh in dancing pumps,” was already the stuff of Romantic operatic legend, much like Mozart. It’s impossible to imagine how different 19th-century opera would have been had Bellini not died so young. But we’re lucky still to have those achingly long melodies, and the thrilling stories they told. Not to mention the legendary interpretations they have inspired.

 

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