here - Institute for LifeLong Learning for New Mexicans

Donizetti grew up in modest circumstances in Bergamo, a Northern Italian city
sophisticated enough to have citizens and institutions who recognized his talent. He was
taught by Johann Simon Mayr (b.1763), a well-prepared, professional musician who
later supported and mentored Donizetti until his death in 1845. Northern Italy was an
Austrian province at the time and Mayr brought with him from Germany the rich
symphonic and chamber music heritage of Hadyn and Beethoven that was not the norm
in Italian music. In fact Donizetti composed sixteen string quartets before 1821 and a
few afterward and it would be fascinating to hear what they sound like.
Mayr was a well-known opera composer who wrote numerous works between 1794
and 1813 that were performed throughout Europe. Donizetti's early attempts at opera –
the non plus ultra of ambitious Italian music resulted from Mayr turning down
commissions and directing them toward his student.
Like Verdi’s career two decades later, Donizetti's fate was determined by some major
patrons. Antonio Vasselli became a life-long friend, and his family “adopted” Donizetti.
And the latter married Virginia, the daughter of the house and began to raise a family.
The marriage was deferred until Donizetti could demonstrate enough financial stability
to support his wife in an acceptable manner. He worked diligently to achieve this goal
and was patient about the impending marriage; however his personal life was unchaste.
His robust sexuality led to a syphilitic infection that he eventually spread to his wife,
resulting in miscarriages, still-births and children who died in early infancy.
When Donizetti began to compose, Italian opera was dominated by Rossini (18011868) and all aspiring composers dreamed of following in his footsteps. Donizetti was
one of a few successful composers to do so as was Vincenzo Bellini (1801 – 1835).
These two talented and ambitious musicians competed with each other and together
worked their way from Rossini's style into one that had less rigid form and more
dramatic expression.
While Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini are the “big three” of bel canto opera, the
dominant style of the first half of the nineteenth century, they had different musical
experiences. Rossini had a meteroic career from which he retired in 1830, although he
lived for another 30 years as an eminence grise in Paris. Bellini died young, so his
output was relatively small but high in quality; much of it remains in the repertory
Donizetti wrote 70 operas; a small number are war horses, others are
occasionally performed, but most are unknown even to the most avid of opera
While Lucia, Don Pasquale, The Elixir of Love and Daughter of the Regiment are well
known and several others occasionally performed (Anna Bolena, Lucrecia Borgia,
Roberto Devereux, Poliuto, Belisario, Linda di Chamounix), the vast majority cannot be
found on either CD or DVD and are rarely heard.
Donizetti grew up when Rossini's brilliant way with melody and rhythm were
expressed in comedies that are still popular today and whose tragedies were well
received in his own day and occasionally revived now. Rossini’s work established
among the audiences and impresarios of the time expectations about the types of arias
they would hear and their order in the opera. Along with these “formulas” were the allpowerful singers, often paid five to ten times what the composer received, who made
demands and expected composers to tailor the music to their voices. Donizetti's first
decade of work clearly fit in this tradition.
After some early successes in Northern Italy (thanks to Mayr’s help) Donizetti set his
sights on having a national career. A work from this period is Alahor in Granata,
produced in 1826. We shall see that he learned the lessons or Rossini well and produced
an opera full of dramatic moments and star turns, especially for the prima donna. At this
time he had a year-long contract with the Teatro Carolina in Palermo and thereafter
signed a contract with the famous impresario, Domenico Barbaia (1778 - 1841) in
Naples. The contract stipulated four operas in three years at 200 ducats a month, and it
was significant enough to permit his marriage to Virginia in Rome on June 1, 1828. His
career now advanced very rapidly. In 1829 he was appointed Music Director of all the
Naples Royal theaters, a job he held until 1838. These were also the years of Bellini’s
early successes, so there seemed to be two bright stars on the horizon just at the time that
Rossini retired.
Donizetti was able to pursue his ambition for ever more dramatic operas. The
breakthrough was Anna Bolena and Lucrezia Borgia of 1833. His fees continued to
grow and he was able to hire the best singers of the time. (Normally the impresario of
each opera house hired a company of singers who sang all the operas commissioned for
that season. Sometimes composers had a say in who was hired and always wanted to
control the hiring process.) During this period he also wrote The Elixir of Love, a
comedy still produced in opera houses around the world. His artistic growth was
matched at this time by Bellini’s La Sonnambula and I Capuleti et I Montecchi. The two
men were now recognized as the best opera composers in Italy.
Paris was the capital of the opera world. It had the largest and most technologically
advanced theaters and the most sophisticated audiences and critics. A new kind of opera
developed there – large scale productions with huge orchestra and chorus, four or five
acts, and a ballet. Rossini ran the Theatre Italien there, a house that specialized in Italian
opera with Italian singers and produced works by both Donizetti and Bellini, who
composed in the new “grand” style, including the latter’s final work I Puritani. Both
were honored by being inducted into the Legion d’honneur – indicating that they were
leaders in their field.
For Donizetti, this opportunity lead to Lucia di Lammermoor, 1835, one of his all time
famous operas. A less famous work of the period, but sung by the soprano who created
Lucia the year before was Pia de’ Tolomei , written for La Fenice opera house in Venice
and based on a contemporary play telling a gruesome story set in the Italian early
Renaissance. The following year it was repeated successfully with the lead taken by
Giuseppina Strepponi, the future wife of Giuseppe Verdi.
While Donizetti’s professional life was advancing, his personal life was tragic, with a
son born in 1837 who immediately died, a wife in increasingly poor health leading to her
death at the age of 28.
Even though two of his most famous comedies, The Daughter of the Regiment and
Don Pasquale, come from the second half of his career, starting in the late 30s on
Donizetti turned more insistently to tragedies. The reason was not just a reflection of his
personal life, but also a major change that took place in his professional situation. An
important opportunity opened up in Naples as a search was on for a new head of the
Conservatory there. He was actively in the running but was passed over for Mercadante,
a native son. (Because Donizetti was born in Bergamo, he was considered a foreigner in
Naples). He had also planned a major premiere in Naples for Poliuto, a new opera and
was bringing a very famous French tenor, Alphonse Nourrit, for his first performance in
Italy. However, because of the religious subject, the conservative censors in Naples
cancelled the opera. This was apparently the straw that broke the camel’s back, and
Donizetti did something he had probably been anticipating anyway, he moved to Paris.
Poliuto premiered in Paris under a new title, Les Martyrs, in 1838, and was a major
success. In fact Donizetti became a musical phenomenon in Paris. He revised previous
works, created new ones; in one year he produced seven different operas at three
theaters. His creativity and capabilities were almost beyond belief, and he aroused
strong jealousy among composers who were having trouble getting even one opera
produced in a year, including Berlioz. In the late 30s, Donizetti had three operas that
were among the most popular of the age: La Favorite (a new opera), Lucrezia Borgia,
and Lucia.
Since his earliest days he had connections to the musical establishment in Vienna.
Remember that the northern Italy of his upbringing was an Austrian province, and many
of the cultural officials in all areas, including music, were known both in Italy and the
Austrian capital. Toward the end of this career, he received commissions and honors
there. One of his last operas Linda di Chamounix was written for Vienna. Based on a
French contemporary play and composed quickly, following his watchwords of “ brevity
and clarity”, it was a tremendous success and is still in the repertory.
He also was appointed to a mainly symbolic but very well paid position as
Kapellmeister to the Viennese royal court in 1842.
While this late period of his creative life demonstrated an incredibly capacity for work
and accomplishment, including the writing of perhaps his most popular comedy, Don
Pasquale, he eventually succumbed to illness. The last five years of his life were spent
in ever worsening stages of syphilis, which eventually killed him.