Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner, the two men who dominated and occupied opposite poles in the development of opera in Europe from the 1840s to the 1890s, were both born in the same year. Wagner was seen as the man of the future, Verdi as a reactionary, yet Verdi also advanced the form of opera into a more seamless kind of continuous drama, rather than a succession of set pieces broken up by recitatives.
Verdi's timing was excellent. His operas began to appear in 1840, not too long after the retirement of Rossini and the death of Bellini, and his fame began to peak at about the time Donizetti's health began to fade, all of which left a vacuum of genius-level Italian opera composers.
Furthermore, even his name was well-timed. Much of Italy was dominated by Austria. After Verdi's name began to be known (and his hymn of captive Hebrews in Nabucco was correctly perceived as a disguised plea for Italian independence), Italian patriots would write "VERDI" as a graffito on a wall. If caught, they would insist they were fans of the new composer, but every Italian knew the letters were also an acronym of the Italian words for "Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy" and thus a plea for a unified, independent Italian state under the rule of the King of Naples.
Although Verdi liked to promote the idea that he sprang from impoverished, peasant beginnings, his families on both sides were small landowners and tradesmen. Even though he wrote "they put a miserable spinet under my hands, and some time later I began to write notes; that is all," the truth is that his talent was so early recognized that he began studies with the local organist at the age of three. And while there was a spinet, it must have been a pretty good one, because he kept it all of his life. When he was only eight, a local piano technician repaired and refurbished it for free, inscribing the inner lid with a memorial of this gift made in view of Verdi's eagerness to play it. He was well trained, but in 1832 was rejected as an applicant to the Milan Conservatory in part because of his lack of skill and training in counterpoint (other reasons were the institution's overcrowding and his age of four years over the usual entrance age of 14). Verdi underwent private studies involving intensive study of contrapuntal techniques of canon and fugue.
He gained some minor municipal music posts in the 1830s, and in 1838 published a set of songs, followed soon by a modestly successful first opera, Oberto. Verdi then turned to comedy. The opera, Un Giorno di Regno, was a flop, which Verdi immediately withdrew after the first performance. He was so depressed at his failure that he vowed to write no more. Fortunately, some friends prevailed upon him to read a new libretto, Nabucononosor, a title which was soon shortened to Nabucco. (Both are Italian versions of the name of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar.) The libretto's biblical background and its yearning for freedom were irresistible to Verdi. He created a triumph; its 57 performances in the autumn season at La Scala alone is a record for that illustrious house that has never been equaled.
Verdi's fame and fortune continued to grow throughout the 1840s. Mostly, his operatic production shows a consistent increase in dramatic values, musical aptness, and all those intangibles of technique and inspiration that we call "genius," although there are a few stumbles such as Aroldo and Stifellio. By around 1847 what musicologists consider the "apprentice" phase of his career ended; Macbeth is generally considered the transitional work to his next phase, in which his personal style emerges fully. From this point, Verdi also begins to break away from the formal techniques that had sufficed for Rossini or Donizetti. At this point, operas were successions of arias, duets, and other ensembles, and choruses, all separated by recitatives (semi-spoken passages, often with simple chordal accompaniment in the strings) where most of the plot is advanced. Through this so-called second period, Verdi begins merging the parts of the opera into one another, so that there are fewer full stops of the music. (At the same time, Wagner was pursuing the same ideal of making the music more continuous, using a more revolutionary technique he sometimes called "endless melody.") This phase of Verdi's career lasts until around 1855; although the dividing line after which the period of "full maturity" begins is a matter of opinion, it is reasonable to place the line somewhere between Traviata and Un Ballo in Maschera (i.e., 1855-1857). This period lasts until 1871 when, after the composition of Aida, Verdi announced his retirement. For 16 years the small number of works he produced were in other forms, such as the unique String Quartet in F minor (1973) and the great Requiem of 1874.
After the Requiem, Verdi's pen was still for a dozen years, aside from one choral piece, Pater Noster. But around 1880 Verdi read a proposed libretto by Arrigo Boito -- himself a pretty fair operatic composer -- adapting Shakespeare, Rovi