Gaetano Donizetti

Copyright Michael D. Robbins 2005


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Gaetano Donizetti—Opera Composer

November 29, 1797, Bergamo, Italy, 7:30 PM, LMT. (Source; Speculative from Marc Penfield) Died, April 8, 1846, Bergamo, Lombardy, Austrian Empire.

Ascendant, Cancer, with Saturn in Cancer, H12; MC, Aries with Moon conjunct Jupiter in Aries; Sun and Mercury in Sagittarius; Venus in Capricorn; Mars in Libra; Uranus in Virgo;  Neptune in Scorpio; Pluto in Aquarius



My heyday is over, and another must take my place. The world wants something new. Others have ceded their places to us and we must cede ours to still others... I am more than happy to give mine to people of talent like Verdi.


Gaetano DonizettiDomenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti (November 29, 1797, Bergamo, Lombardy, Italy – April 8, 1848, Bergamo) was an Italian opera composer. His most famous work is Lucia di Lammermoor (1835). Donizetti, along with Vincenzo Bellini and Gioacchino Rossini, was a leading composer of bel canto opera.

He was born in Bergamo in 1797 into a very poor family with no tradition of music. His father was the caretaker of the town pawnshop, and Gaetano was the youngest of the three sons. However, he began some musical learning with Giovanni Simone Mayr, a priest at Bergamo's principal church (and also himself a composer of successful operas). Donizetti was not an especial success as a choirboy, but in 1806 he was one of the first pupils to be enrolled at the Lezioni Caritatevoli school, founded by Simon Mayr, in Bergamo through a full scholarship. He received a detailed training in the arts of fugue and counterpoint, and it was here that he launched his operatic career.

After writing rather minor compositions under the commission of Paolo Zanca, Donizetti wrote his fourth opera, Zoraïda di Granata. This work impressed Domenico Barbaia, a prominent theatre manager, and Donizetti was offered a contract to compose in Naples. Writing in Rome and Milan in addition to Naples, Donizetti achieved some success (his 31 operas written in the space of just 12 years were usually popular successes, but the critics were often unimpressed), but was not well known internationally until 1830, when his Anna Bolena was premiered in Milan. He almost instantly became famous throughout Europe. L'elisir d'amore, a comedy produced in 1832, came soon after, and is deemed one of the masterpieces of the opera comique, as is his Don Pasquale, written in 1843.

Shortly after L'elisir d'amore, Donizetti composed Lucia di Lammermoor, his most famous tragic opera and one of the high points of the bel canto tradition, reaching stature similar to Bellini's Norma. After the success of Lucrezia Borgia (1833) consolidated his reputation, Donizetti followed the paths of both Rossini and Bellini by visiting Paris, but his opera Marino Falerio suffered by comparison with Bellini's I puritani, and he returned to Naples to produce his already-mentioned masterpiece, Lucia di Lammermoor. As Donizetti's fame grew, so did his engagements, as he was further hired to write in both France and Italy. In 1838, he moved to Paris after the Italian censor objected to the production of Poliuto (on the grounds that such a sacred subject was inappropriate for the stage); there he wrote La fille du régiment, which became another success.

Donizetti's wife, Virginia Vasselli, gave birth to three children, none of whom survived. Within a year of his parents' deaths, his wife died from cholera. By 1843, Donizetti exhibited symptoms of syphilis and what is today known as bipolar disorder. After being institutionalized in 1845, he was sent to Paris, where he could be cared for. After visits from friends, most notably Giuseppe Verdi, Donizetti was sent back to Bergamo, his hometown, where he died in 1848, after several years in the grip of hopeless insanity.

Donizetti is best known for his operatic works, but he also wrote music in a number of other forms, including some church music, a number of string quartets, and some orchestral works. He is also the younger brother of Giuseppe Donizetti, who had become, in 1828, Instructor General of the Imperial Ottoman Music at the court of Sultan Mahmud II (1808-1839).

Critical reputation
Donizetti's vocal style enriched the bel canto tradition which Gioacchino Rossini and Vincenzo Bellini had made popular. These three composers are generally accepted as the primary exemplars of early 19th century bel canto writing. During his life, and for a considerable period after his death Donizetti's works were held in vast popular acclaim, but by the beginning of the 20th century they had been almost completely overshadowed by the heavier masterpieces of Wagner, Puccini, and Verdi, perhaps due to the technical-demand bel canto singing requires. However, since the 1950s a growing interest in the bel canto repertoire has lead to more frequent performances of Donizetti's operas, and Lucia di Lammermoor, La fille du régiment, Don Pasquale and L'elisir d'amore have assumed more or less constant places in the standard repertory.

Donizetti composed about 75 operas, 16 symphonies, 19 string quartets, 193 songs, 45 duets, 3 oratorios, 28 ca
Gaetano Donizetti
Gaetano Donizetti was born November 29, 1797 in Bergamo, Italy. He, Bellini and Rossini were the three great masters of the opera style known as bel canto . Bel canto operas had set numbers of separate arias and ensembles that featured particularly florid vocal writing designed to show off the human voice to maximum effect. These works demanded great virtuosity from the singers and served as star vehicles for leading operatic performers. Donizetti dominated the Italian opera scene during the years between Bellini's death and Verdi's rise to fame after Nabucco .

Donizetti's musical talents were apparent at an early age, and he was admitted to the Lezioni Caritatevoli school on full scholarship when he was nine years old. The school was founded by Simon Mayr, who had a significant influence upon Donizetti's musical development and helped the young composer launch his professional career. Mayr sent Donizetti to Padre Stanislao Mattei, the teacher of Rossini, for further compositional instruction. Mayr also partially paid for the lessons with Mattei and arranged for Bartolomeo Merelli to write the librettos for Donizetti's early stage works.

Between 1817 and 1821, Donizetti received several commissions from Paolo Zanca. His first staged opera was Enrico di Borgogna in 1818. He wrote several other works during this period, including chamber and church music as well as opera. It was the success of his fourth opera, Zoraide di Grenata, that caught the attention of Domenico Barbaia, the most important theater manager of his time. Barbaia offered Donizetti a contract. The young composer accepted it and moved to Naples, which was Barbaia's primary business location. For the next eight years Donizetti wrote works for Rome and Milan as well as Naples, with mixed success. It was not until 1830, with the performances of Anna Bolena in Milan, that Donizetti achieved international fame.

Donizetti was a prolific composer, writing both comic and serious operas as well as solo vocal music. Throughout his career he battled with the powerful Italian censors to put his works on stage. Two of his best-known comedies, L'elisir d'amore (1832) and Don Pasquale (1843), are considered masterpieces of comic opera and continue to hold their places in the standard performing repertoire. Perhaps his most famous serious opera is Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), although Anna Bolena has enjoyed considerable success in this century through the efforts of such artists as Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland. Donizetti was well acquainted with the greatest singers of his day, and he created many of the roles in his operas for their specific vocal talents.

As Donizetti's fame grew, he was able to accept of variety of engagements, writing operas for Paris as well as the famous opera houses of Italy. He relocated to Paris in 1838. It was there that he composed La fille du régimentrégiment in 1840, which is still frequently performed. Donizetti was also appointed music director for the Italian opera season at the Kärntnertortheater in Vienna, a position secured for him by Mirelli, the librettist for his early works.

Donizetti was a friendly and sincere man, supportive of fellow composers and other artists, and loyal to his long-time mentor Mayr. Unfortunately, he endured great tragedy in his personal life. Donizetti had met his wife Virginia Vasselli while he was in Rome in the 1820's and married her in 1828. They had three children, none of whom survived. His parents died in the mid 1830s. A year after his parents' death, his wife succumbed to a cholera epidemic. Donizetti himself suffered from cerebro-spinal syphilis. Symptoms of his illness became evident as early as 1843; by 1845 his condition deteriorated to the point that he was institutionalized for almost a year and a half. His friend from Vienna, Baron Lannoy, interceded with Donizetti's nephew to have the composer moved to a Paris apartment where he could be cared for and receive visitors. Verdi came to see him there and was deeply saddened by his colleague's condition. Friends in Bergamo finally arranged for Donizetti to be brought back to his home town, where he stayed at Baroness Scotti's palace until his death in 1848.

Donizetti was reputed to have great facility and could compose very quickly. His favorite librettist was Salvadore Cammarano, with whom he first collaborated on Lucia di Lammermoor . Donizetti often assisted in writing the librettos for his operas. He completed 65 operas during his career; L'elisir d'amore , Don Pasquale , and Lucia di Lammermoor are generally considered the outstanding examples of his work. His compositional style proved influential for future Italian opera composers, most notably Verdi.


Donizetti's Life

His early life
Born in a windowless cellar in a straggle of houses clinging to the hillside at Bergamo in 1797, a ragged child, Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti (Gaetano Donizetti as we know him) had the near-miraculous good fortune to be taken under the wing of Johann Simon Mayr, Maestro di Cappella of the Lombard city who educated, protected and sent him on for further musical training under the renowned Padre Stanlislao Mattei at Bologna.

Dazzled by this transformation and at first inclined to devote himself to church music, the youthful Donizetti only tentatively embraced the stage. Perhaps unbelieving of his fate, he only slowly abandoned the lighter forms - the farces and semi-seria works which initiated his operatic career - but always flaunting quick-wits and ingenuity which drew attentive ears even in the age of Rossini. Based in Naples from 1822, between 1820 and 1830 he indefatigably attempted every type of opera on offer in the peninsula - sometimes with fleeting success [Zoraida di Granata (1822) and La zingara (1822)], sometimes with abject failure [Chiara e Serafina (1822) and Alfredo il grande (1823)] but always relentlessly professional and fluent. Nothing, ever, was left to chance.

Achieving success in Italy
In 1826 he tried his hand at tragedy for the first time [Gabriella di Vergy (staged in 1842 in Naples)]; from 1827 onwards he turned his hand to heroic neo-classical drama [L’esule di Roma (1828)] and film-script-like travelogue plots [Otto mesi in due ore (1827), Il castello di Kenilworth (1829) and Emilia di Liverpool (1824 revised in 1828)] capping the decade with gory romantic melodramma [Il Paria (1829) and Imelda de’Lambertazzi (1830)]. Successful comedy also co-existed throughout this long pilgrimage [L’ajo nell’imbarazzo (1824); Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali (1827); and Il giovedi grasso (1829)] so that, unlike most of his rivals, he found himself with every style at his disposal for the rest of his life. To bring this whole phase to a climax, to mark the end of this evolution - sometimes light-hearted, often painful, always vivid - his momentous Anna Bolena of 1830 proved to be a catalyst, a matrix. Championed by the soprano Giuditta Pasta and Giovanni Rubini, the super-stars of the day, he burst beyond the Italian frontiers to shine on every major stage. Henceforth Donizetti took the operatic world by storm.

Expansive, good-natured and prodigal he was always at his desk, indifferent or unaware of the jealousies that surrounded him, he wrote two or three high-profile operas a year, together with cantatas, masses and motets, fulfilling every commission. In a flurry of contracts, of libretti, at the hub of all theatrical turmoil, he took on a teaching role at Naples Conservatoire in 1834-5 surrounding himself with pupils who remembered his warmth and generosity for the rest of their lives. Neapolitan enough to have written some of the most popular songs of the day he remained an outsider, a “foreigner” throughout his stay, an abrasive situation that reached a climax when, his wife dead, his major operas refused a staging in at the S.Carlo owing to their chain of unforgettably brilliant deaths and disasters (the Naples government trying to stem the tide of romantic drama fearing public unrest), he was repeatedly refused the vacant post of Director of the Conservatoire. Donizetti determined to leave. Thus, in 1838, Naples lost for good the composer of most of the operas that shone brightest in the decade: L’elisir d’amore (1832), Parisina (1833), Lucrezia Borgia (1833, [Maria Stuarda (1834) upon whose music Donizetti was obliged to tack a less alarming text], Roberto Devereux (1837), and above all - Lucia di Lammermoor of 1835 - the one opera that straddled the annals of the day more brilliantly than any other.

His international career
Decamping first to Paris, then to Vienna, where he was given the appointment of Court composer, he intensified his output - writing ever more ambitious scores, the international sophistication of his life colouring both his instrumentation and his expressive vocabulary. To French texts he wrote La Fille du régiment (1840), Les Martyrs (1840), and La Favorite (1840) a grand-slam which left the Paris stage reeling, following this with Don Sébastien roi de Portugal of 1843 which he considered his masterpiece - the last three of which being modish examples of the “grand-opéra” mode - gigantic block-busters with spectacular settings and an integral ballet; for Vienna he wrote Linda di Chamounix (1842) and Maria di Rohan (1843) both of which were soon transferred to Paris in suitably modified editions. His acute sensitivity to local tastes and command of vernacular style were never more in evidence.

His illness and death
For Paris too came his last and most momentous comedy: Don Pasquale of 1843, which not only raised the roof with an unparalleled cast (Grisi, Mario, Tamburini, Lablache) but had the honour of bidding farewell, almost, to the long and irresistible tradition of Italian comic opera.

It said farewell too, almost, to the composer himself. For decades he had suffered from fevers, headaches, nausea, lightning indispositions for which no real diagnosis was ever made, these accompanied by a fervour of composition indicative of a cerebral dysrhythmia quite beyond the normal span. In 1845 he was struck by paralysis, followed by a rapid dementia. Until his death early in 1848 he remained stubbornly inaccessible. It has been commonplace to attribute this collapse to a venereal infection despite an unrealistically long gestation, but modern diagnosis with genetic imprinting at its disposal would probably look at the case again in another light.

Donizetti’s life, from rags to world fame, epitomised the romantic flights of fancy of his day, his intensity, his expressive vocabulary always sustained by an inimitable style and unforgettable melodies, summed-up a human drama inseparable from the splendours and miseries he found around him and within himself.


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