Dr. Thomas Swan is a writer and scientist from England with a love for classical music.
Classical Music in Italy
Many of Italy's most famous composers wrote their best work in the form of operas (i.e., their compositions included singing and acting parts). Opera originated in Italy in the 16th century and has remained a fundamental and popular component of Italian classical music until the present day.
Several earlier Italian composers, such as Vilvaldi, also used the violin prolifically in their work, resulting in uplifting, lively, and melodic pieces. Present day familiarity with their work can be attributed to popular music being melody-oriented.
Later composers, such as Verdi and Puccini, also wrote melodies into their works that are instantly recognizable over a century later, and this immortal legacy is a testament to their irrepressible talent.
Below are biographies for six of the most famous Italian composers from history, with videos to present some of their most enduring and recognizable pieces.
1. Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643)
Claudio Monteverdi is best known for his books of madrigals and for writing one of the first great operas, L'Orfeo. He was a trailblazer with a central place in the history of classical music, having led the transformation from early Renaissance styles into the Baroque period.
Monteverdi was born in Cremona and learned about music as a choir boy in a Catholic Cathedral. The "Maestro" who conducted the services taught him to play and, by the age of 15, Monteverdi was publishing his own pieces.
As a young adult, Monteverdi worked for various aristocrats as a singer and musician before becoming a court conductor at the age of 32. By then, Monteverdi was a distinguished composer and he moved to Venice to become the Maestro at St. Mark's Basilica.
Monteverdi had a long career at St. Marks and was ordained as a Catholic priest before succumbing to illness, aged 76. By the end of his career, he had written several "madrigal books."
Madrigals require at least two voices either signing in harmony or with distinct vocal parts. Monteverdi wrote some of the most beautiful madrigals (see video above) and was a forerunner in the development of opera.
2. Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741)
Virtuoso violinist, Antonio Vivaldi, is best known for his succession of violin concertos entitled, The Four Seasons, although he also wrote over forty operas. Vivaldi was known as the "Red Priest" for his flame colored hair. His music was exuberant and melodic and left a lasting impression on later composers, including Johann Sebastian Bach.
Vivaldi was born in Venice where his father taught him the violin from an early age. It is likely that the Maestro at St. Mark's Basilica taught him the fundamentals of composition. Indeed, he was writing his own orchestral work by the age of 13.
Legend states that Vivaldi was born during an earthquake, causing his superstitious mother to declare his future lay with the clergy. As a result, the 15-year-old Vivaldi began training to become a priest and was ordained at 25. However, his poor health spared him many priestly duties, allowing him to concentrate on music.
Vivaldi became the Maestro at a Catholic orphanage shortly after being ordained, where he taught the violin and became their musical director. Vivaldi found this life comfortable and spent almost three decades composing his best work there.
Eventually, he moved to the royal court of Charles VI in Vienna, although the emperor died shortly after his arrival and Vivaldi found himself unemployed. He died soon after from an infection, aged 63. Vivaldi's music became immensely popular in his later years and immediately after his death, before becoming quite obscure until a 20th century resurgence.
3. Niccolò Paganini (1782–1840)
Another great Italian violinist was Niccolo Paganini, who is best known for his Caprice No. 24 (see video below). This piece inspired many other great works, such as Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
Paganini was born in Genoa to a father who was a trader and mandolin musician. His father taught him the mandolin from an early age. Paganini's incredible talent became abundantly clear when his violin teachers kept finding themselves out of their depth. As a result, he was successively referred to better teachers.
Paganini played concerts with his father before being appointed "first violinist" with the Lucca orchestra at the age of 18. By this time, he was known as an eccentric womanizer and gambler.
When Napoleon invaded Italy in 1805, Paganini joined the royal court of Napoleon's sister, who had been given Lucca as a gift. He spent four years there before embarking on a tour of Italy. At the age of 46, Paganini was funded to tour every major European city, establishing him on the international stage.
Paganini retired from performing six years later due to health concerns. As well as his excessive lifestyle, he had suffered from syphilis, tuberculosis, and depression. During retirement, Paganini focused on teaching and publishing his work. However, after two years, he set up a failed casino in Paris, which forced him to to sell his work and instruments. His health quickly declined and he died aged 57.
4. Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868)
Best known for his operas, including La Cenerentola, William Tell, and The Barber of Seville (see video below), Gioachino Rossini was born in Pesaro, Italy. His father played the horn and taught him music from before the age of six.
Rossini learned the harpsichord between the ages of 7 and 10, although he was a rebellious child who was difficult to supervise. He studied under a local composer and gained a position as a soloist in a Church choir. By 12 years of age, he was writing his own compositions and laying the foundations for his later operas.
Rossini's devotion to Mozart and Haydn influenced his work more than his teachers ever could. Aged 18, he became an instant success when his first opera was well received in Venice.
By the time he was 21, Rossini was already receiving international acclaim for the opera, Tancredi. The success may have overwhelmed him, as the following years were punctuated by several relative failures.
After these failures, Rossini returned stronger than ever when The Barber of Seville was produced in 1816. Despite it being his greatest work, it has been claimed that he wrote the opera in less than 3 weeks.
Rossini went on to become the most successful opera composer in history. However, his last opera, William Tell (see video above), was released 40 years before his death from pneumonia at the age of 76. These long decades of retirement saw him withdraw from public life, although he continued to compose during these years.
5. Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901)
Perhaps the most famous Italian composer of them all was Giuseppe Verdi. He is best known for his operas, including Rigoletto, Nabucco, La Traviata, and Aida. Some of the most recognizable music of all time is included in these works (see videos below).
Verdi was born in a small village near Busseto. His education benefited from the Jesuit library in the town, where he also received early lessons in composition. He went on to study in Milan, where he showed an interest in German music.
After graduating, Verdi returned to Busetto to become the town's musical director. It was here that Verdi met his first wife, although the marriage was destined to be a tragic one as his two children died in infancy, with his wife dying soon after.
The tragedy of Verdi's family contributed to the failure of his second opera, which almost caused him to quit music altogether. Luckily he was convinced otherwise, and his next opera, Nabucco, was the triumphant result. It premiered in 1842 to rapturous acclaim, bringing fame and fortune.
Several more operas followed including Macbeth in 1847, Rigoletto in 1851, Aida in 1871, and Falstaff in 1893. At the age of 87, Verdi died after suffering a stroke while in Milan.
Verdi was prolific throughout his life, working well into his eighties. According to his critics, Verdi lacked refinement for the technical aspects of composition, which owed to his insufficient education in the art.
The modest Verdi acknowledged that he was the least learned of all composers. However, apart from possibly Puccini, his success and legacy are unrivaled.
6. Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924)
The most recent great of Italian opera was Giacomo Puccini, who is best known for Madama Butterfly, Turandot, and Tosca. The opera Turandot includes an aria called "Nessun Dorma," which has famously been performed by Luciano Pavarotti (see video below).
Puccini was born into a musical family in Lucca in which the previous three generations had worked as Maestros in the San Martino cathedral. Puccini's father died when he was six and he spent his early years singing in the choir and deputizing as an organist. Family connections to the Catholic Church and the Italian royal family meant that Puccini received the best education.
Puccini's first opera, Le Villi, premiered in 1864 to favorable reviews. However, his second opera was a relative failure that was only rescued by the success of his third, Manon Lescaut. His career flourished from then on, with Tosca and Madama Butterfly soon following. Puccini's last opera was Turandot, from which "Nessun Dorma" stands alone as one of the greatest pieces of music ever written.
Puccini died from throat cancer in 1924, which was probably caused by his addiction to cigars. The news of Puccini's death broke during a performance of La Boheme in Rome. Allegedly, the orchestra stopped midway through to play Chopin's "Funeral March" to the grief-stricken audience.
Discover More European Classical Music
- German Composers of Classical Music
The lives and works of Beethoven, Bach, Wagner, and others greats from history.
- Austrian Composers of Classical Music
Biographies and videos to showcase the music of Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Strauss, and Mahler.
- Russian Composers of Classical Music
The lives and music of Borodin, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, and other famous Russian composers of classical music.
- Composers from Eastern Europe
The lives and works of Chopin, Liszt, and other eastern European composers who diversified classical music with traditional folk melodies.
© 2013 Thomas Swan
John Viola from Madaba on March 09, 2015:
You seem to be well read and have researched your subjects but I do wonder why you lumped all of these under "Classical Music"? Did you not want to take the time to explain the difference between baroque, romantic, classical, modern...
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on October 14, 2013:
I would say he's as famous as Paganini is, so he could have gone in. I suppose it's a subjective ranking, but I think this is a fair reflection on who the most popular one's are.
Mklow1 on October 11, 2013:
Since reading this Hub, I actually went through my music library out of curiosity and viewed some of my favorite songs of a Pavarotti Collection I have. I realized that a few of my favorite songs were by a composer called Gaetano Donizetti. I am not sure how famous he is, but I like his music.
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on October 11, 2013:
Cheers GoForTheJuggler. Given we're both fans of Qotsa as well, I guess we're both connoisseurs of quality music!
Joshua Patrick from Texas on October 09, 2013:
Huge Vivaldi fan - La Folia and Winter being my favorites. Classical music was my first love, and it will always have a special place in my heart. Voted up and across!
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on August 27, 2013:
My pleasure Mklow. Thanks for commenting.
Mklow1 on August 24, 2013:
Wonderful article. Now I have some new music to listen to. Thank you for introducing me to some new composers.
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on August 20, 2013:
Thanks LastRoseofSummer2! I only recently found that clip, and I was as stunned by it as you were. It's one of the most evocative pieces of music I've ever heard.
LastRoseofSummer2 from Arizona on August 20, 2013:
I don't usually like Monteverdi, but that clip you have on here is absolutely beautiful! Great article.