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Vincenzo Bellini was one of the most successful opera composers of the early 19 th century. His operas highlighted the fashionable bel canto singing style.
Bellini was born in 1801 in Catania, Sicily to a musical family. Both his father and grandfather were organists and composers. Before Bellini had had the chance to receive formal training he had already begun composing. His first compositions date from the year 1807, one year before he received training from his grandfather.
It is also rumoured, that at just 18 months old, Bellini sang an aria by Fioravanti. An account found at the Museo Belliniano in Catania also reports that Bellini took over his grandfather’s conducting at the church services when he was just three and played the piano at a superb level by the age of five. Though all of these events certainly occurred, they seem quite exaggerated. Before entering the conservatory, Bellini composed many songs and sacred music, which was performed locally.
Bellini began his formal studies at the Real Collegio di Musica, San Sebastiano, now the Naples Conservatory, in 1819, where he studied with Giovanni Furno, Giacomo Tritto and Niccolò Zingarelli. He studied not only harmony and counterpoint, but he also studied composition of wordless solfeggio, a requirement from Zingarelli, though none of these survive. He progressed rapidly in his six years at the school and by his second year he was granted a scholarship. Bellini excelled, becoming aprimo maestrino teacher in 1824. Also while in Naples, he must have had the chance to hear Rossini’s works, as his forms and melodic construction imitated those ofGioachino Rossini <>.
His first opera, Adelson e Salvini (1825) was chosen for the school’s opera performance in 1825, and performed by an all-male cast every Sunday throughout the year, but it was never heard outside the conservatory. The opera has many opera buffoqualities and a folk-like vocal style, perhaps influenced by Paisiello.
From Adelson e Salvini, Bellini was able to recycle material for five more operas. His next opera,Bianca e Gernando (1826) was a commission from the San Carlo Opera in Naples. Though originally namedBiance e Fernando, it was renamed to avoid any confusion with the former king of Naples. This opera varied greatly from his previous opera, belonging to theopera seria style.
Its success led to a second commission, Il pirate (1827) the following year, beginning a long term partnership with the leading theatre poet and librettist Felice Romani.Il Pirata was premiered at La Scala in Milan in 1827, establishing Bellini as a top opera composer. The opera is centered on a pirate who tries to win back his former lover, who is unhappily married to a nobleman. The work ends with the typical ‘mad scene’ featuring the heroine.
Though many composers composed four operas a year, Bellini insisted on quality versus quantity. He found that his best work was done if he completed just one opera per year. To compensate for his small output, he charge much higher prices for his masterpieces. Bellini was an exception, as he was able to live on his earnings from his opera compositions alone, though evidence suggests he lived quite frugally.
Under pressure to compose more works, he broke his rule and hastily composed an extra opera,Zaira (1829) in 1829, which was a fiasco. The opera was written for the inauguration of the Teatro Ducale at Parma, though it was never produced again. ThoughZaira was an absolute failure, he was able to use much of the material from the opera in his next opera.
Bellini gracefully bounced back from his failure with the opera I Capuleti e i Montecchi (1830), based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In 1831, Bellini managed to compose two highly successful operas,La sonnambula (1831) and Norma (1831). ThoughNorma, a tragedy set in ancient Gaul, was not well-received, many critics both then and now consider it to be one of his greatest masterpieces. Bellini himself was most fond of this opera. Of all the famous arias, ‘Casta diva’ fromNorma is one of the most well-known in all of the vocal repertoire. La sonnambulais an opera semiseria, meaning that it is a serious opera, but has a happy ending. Due to its popularity, an English version was produced.
For Bellini’s next opera, Beatrice di Tenda (1833), he received the libretto too late from Romani, resulting in a rift between the two that was never repaired. The opera was premiered at La Fenice in Venice in 1833.
During that summer, Bellini spent his time in London directing his operas before moving to Paris, where he received a commission with Rossini’s help. This became his final opera,I puritani (1935), which was premiered in the same year in Paris. For this opera, Bellini used the exiled Italian poet Count Carlo Pepoli. Bellini was relieved that this opera was well received, as his last two operas had not been. However, he was rather disappointed with the libretto and stated that he would never again work with anyone other than Romani.
Bellini’s operas are most famous for their vocal melodies, subtle orchestration and dramatic effects. He preferred to use the virtuoso singers to express the drama of the works, instead of placing all the dramatic effect in the orchestra. His vocal melodies had the ability not only to tell a story, but define the characters. Bellini was not an innovator, as he valued the ideals of Haydn and Mozart. Yet, his ability to match the word with the music was unmatched. Bellini’s operas were sung by the greatest musicians of his time.
Bellini died at the age of 33 from intestinal inflammation, having written only nine operas. He was an international celebrity and was widely mourned. Romani also deeply regretted that they never made amends.
Many later composers such as Wagner, Chopin and Liszt regarded his work very highly, most specifically his ability to unite words and music.Verdi <> once complimented Bellini, stating, ‘long, long melodies of which [Bellini] alone knew the secret’.
Images courtesy of Naxos, Bibliolore, Gocce di Note and public domain