Famous Italian Composers of Classical Music
Many of Italy's most famous composers wrote their best work in the form of operas. Indeed, opera originated in Italy in the 16th century and has remained a fundamental and popular facet of Italian classical music until the present day.
Below are biographies for six of the most famous Italian composers from history. Videos are used to present some of their most enduring pieces. Verdi, Puccini, and many others wrote melodies into their works that are instantly recognizable centuries later, and this immortal legacy is testament to their irrepressible talent. Please comment if you believe another composer or composition deserves to be mentioned.
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. In the history of classical music, he began the transformation from early Renaissance styles to the Baroque period, and is known as a revolutionary for his development of the art.
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.
In his early adulthood, 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. Here, he was ordained as a Catholic priest before succumbing to illness, aged 76.
By the end of his career, Monteverdi had written a number of `madrigal books'. Madrigals require at least 2 voices signing in harmony or with distinct vocal parts. Monteverdi wrote some of the most beautiful madrigals (see video), as well as being a forerunner in the development of opera.
Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741)
Virtuoso violinist, Antonio Vivaldi, is best known for his succession of violin concertos entitled, The Four Seasons, though he also wrote over forty operas. He 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, Vivaldi 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 aged 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. 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 chose to move to the royal court of Charles VI in Vienna, though the emperor died shortly after his arrival, and Vivaldi found himself unemployed. He died soon after from an infection, aged 63.
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 J. S. Bach. His music became immensely popular in his later years and immediately after his death, though it became quite obscure until a 20th century resurgence.
Niccolò Paganini (1782–1840)
Another great Italian violinist was Niccolo Paganini, who is best known for his Caprice No. 24. 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, and Paganini later switched to the violin. His incredible talent became abundantly clear when his teachers kept finding themselves out of their depth. As a result, he was sequentially referred to better teachers.
Paganini played concerts with his father before being appointed first violinist in the Lucca orchestra at the age of 18. By this time, he was known as an eccentric womanizer and gambler. When Napoleon invaded 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 touring Italy to enhance his reputation. At the age of 46, Paganini was funded to tour every major European city, establishing himself on the international stage.
Paganini effectively retired six years later due to health concerns. As well as leading an excessive lifestyle, he had suffered from syphilis, tuberculosis, and depression during his career. During retirement, Paganini focused on teaching and publishing his work. However, after only two years, he decided to set up a casino in Paris. It failed immediately causing Paganini to sell his work and instruments to recover financially. His health quickly declined and he died aged 57.
Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868)
Best known for his operas, `La Cenerentola' and `The Barber of Seville', 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, though he was a rebellious child who was difficult to supervise. Nevertheless, 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 inspired his work more than his teachers ever could, and his style reflected these earlier composers. The 18 year old Rossini became an instant success when his first opera was well received in Venice. By the time he was 21, he was already receiving international acclaim for the opera, Tancredi. The success may have overwhelmed him, as the next few years were punctuated by a number of relative failures.
Nevertheless, Rossini returned stronger than ever when the Barber of Seville was produced in 1816. It is claimed that he wrote the opera in less than 3 weeks, though it became his greatest work. He went on to become the most successful opera composer in history until his death from pneumonia at the age of 76.
Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901)
Perhaps the most famous Italian composer of them all, Giuseppe Verdi 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).
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. Verdi went on to study in Milan, where he showed an interest in German music. He later returned to Busetto to become the town's musical director. It was here that Verdi met his first wife, though the marriage was destined to be a tragic one as his two children died in infancy, with his wife dying soon after.
The tragedy contributed to the failure of Verdi's second opera, which almost caused him to quit music altogether. Luckily he was convinced otherwise, and the 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 suffered a stroke while in Milan, and died.
Verdi was prolific all through his life, working well into his 80's. 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.
Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924)
Another great of Italian opera is Giacomo Puccini, who is best known for Madama Butterfly, Turandot, and Tosca. Turandot includes the aria called `Nessun Dorma', which has been famously performed by Luciano Pavarotti (see video).
Puccini was born into a famous musical family in Lucca. The previous three generations had worked as Maestros in the San Martino cathedral. However, as Puccini's father died when he was six, 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 allowed Puccini to receive 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.
Famous Italian Composers
Many of the best Italian composers used the violin prolifically in their work, resulting in uplifting, lively, and melodic pieces. Present day familiarity with much of their work can be attributed to popular music being melody-oriented. Regardless of the style of composition, Italy has produced many of the greatest operas of all time, and as such, many of the greatest composers.
© 2013 Thomas Swan