Gaetano Donizetti, despite composing almost 70 operas, of which many are well-loved and frequently performed, the journey of his career could be compared to the lives portrayed in some of the great inspirational sports movies. A genre of film that celebrates the underdog, working towards achieving the seemingly impossible task. A recent favourite of mine was “McFarland USA” (Great suggestion Dad). I really enjoyed this film and found the story very motivating for a Sunday afternoon.
Donizetti was born in 1797 in the outskirts of Bergamo, Italy. He was the fifth of six children, and the family lived in a cramped, windowless cellar in Borgo Canale. (If you are interested, the humble home of Donizetti is now a historical site, which you can visit). In Donald Macleod’s podcast, he suggests that Donizetti’s father had said “It is impossible that you will compose.” However, despite this unsupportive relationship and the lack of financial support to pursue music lessons, at the age of eight Donizetti secured a place as a chorister at the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. It was here that he met a more positive role model, Johann Simon Mayr, who was the musical director of the church. Mayr persuaded the local authorities to set up a free school to train the choristers, allowing the talented boys to pursue their musical education even after their voices would break. Unfortunately, Donizetti at the timid age of nine was almost kicked out of the school for his lack of vocal talent. Luckily Mayr recognised his musical potential and persuaded the local authorities to let him stay. In 1811, this memory from Donizetti’s childhood would inspire him to produce a comedic composition “il piccolo compositore di musica” for the school’s summer showcase. The plot focuses on a little composer pleading and presenting why he should be able to stay at the school. Sound Familiar?
Here is a snippet of me singing ‘Me voglio fa’ ‘na casa’ composed by Donizetti.
To progress his talents further, in 1815 Mayr encouraged Donizetti and helped him to secure a place to study music at the Liceo Filarmonico in Bologna. Fun Fact: Rossini also studied music at this school.
Donizetti’s first professional commission lead him to create “Enrico di Borgogna” in 1818, which was premiered in Venice. Sadly, the performance flopped, and the composer returned to Bergamo. Shortly after his arrival, trouble was brewing! At this time of a divided Italy, Milan was under Austrian occupation and in 1820 the authorities ordered their young men to take arms. Donizetti reached out to Marianna Pezzoli-Grattaroli, a highly successful businesswoman from Bergamo, to whom the composer had dedicated several chamber music scores to. Thanks to the generosity of Marianna Pezzoli-Grattaroli, Donizetti was able to buy his exemption from military service. This gesture was greeted with dedicated study and Donizetti gradually established himself as a prolific and successful composer both locally and further afield.
However, Donizetti would encounter great sadness in his personal life. Donizetti was happily married to Virginia Vaselli, but sadly none of their three children survived. In 1830 Donizetti’s parents passed away, and one year later his wife did as well. This monumental misfortune and loneliness did not stop Donizetti from achieving international recognition for his opera Anna Bolena in 1830. The success of this opera would act as a catalyst and in the next eight years, he completed 25 operas working ever harder. It was during this period that he wrote some of his most popular works: L’elisir d’amore (1832), Lucia di Lammermoor and Maria Stuarda (both 1835). After a move to Paris in 1838, the composer’s successes grew to include La Fille du régiment (1840) and Don Pasquale (1843).
Donizetti was a pivotal pillar figure in the development of opera, and I hope his story motivates you this coming week. To give you a taster of his musical world, please listen to “Me voglio fa’ na casa” with the translation below. I now find the text even more interesting, as I can imagine the composer looking back on his subterranean and humble beginnings, which might have inspired this childish dream of building a house out of peacock feathers and precious stones.