Gaetano Donizetti

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Gaetano Donizetti (Portrait by Giuseppe Rillosi)

Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti (Italian: [doˈmeːniko ɡaeˈtaːno maˈria donidˈdzetti]; born 29 November 1797 – died 8 April 1848) was an Italian composer from Bergamo, Lombardy.

Donizetti came from a non-musical background but, at an early age, he was taken under the wing of composer Simon Mayr[1] who had set up the Lezioni Caritatevoli and had enrolled him by means of a full scholarship. There he received detailed training in the arts of fugue and counterpoint, and it was from there that Mayr was instrumental in obtaining a place for the young man at the Bologna Academy. In Bologna, at the age of 19,[2] he wrote his first one-act opera, the comedy Il Pigmalione, although it does not appear to have been performed during his lifetime.[3]

Through his life, Donizetti wrote about 70 operas, but an offer in 1822 from Domenico Barbaja, the impresario of the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, which followed the composer's ninth opera, led to his move to that city and the composition of 28 operas which were given their premieres at that house or in one of the city's smaller houses including the Teatro Nuovo or the Teatro del Fondo. This continued until the production of Caterina Cornaro in January 1844.[4] In all, Naples presented 51 of Donizetti's operas.[4]

During this period, success came primarily with the comic operas, the serious ones failing to attract significant audiences.[5] However, the situation changed with the appearance in 1830 of the serious opera, Anna Bolena which was the first to make a major impact on the Italian and international opera scene and, at the same time, to shift the balance for the composer away from success with only comedic operas.[5] However, even after 1830, his best-known works did also include comedies such as L'elisir d'amore (1832) and Don Pasquale (1843). But significant historical dramas did appear and became successful, sometimes outside Naples before reaching that city. Most significantly, they included Lucia di Lammermoor (the first to be written by librettist Salvadore Cammarano) in 1835, as well as "one of [his] most successful Neapolitan operas",[6] Roberto Devereux in 1837. Up to that point, all of his operas had been written to Italian librettos.

However, moving to Paris in 1838, Donizetti set his operas to French texts; these include La favorite and La fille du régiment and were first performed in that city from 1840 onward. It appears that much of the attraction of moving to Paris was not just for larger fees and prestige, but his chafing against the censorial limitations which existed in Italy, thus giving him a much greater freedom to choose subject matter.[7] By 1845 severe illness caused him to be moved back to Bergamo to die in 1848.

Along with Gioachino Rossini and Vincenzo Bellini, he was a leading composer of bel canto opera during the first fifty years of the Nineteenth Century.

Early life and musical education in Bergamo and Bologna[edit]

The youngest of three sons, Donizetti was born in 1797 in Bergamo's Borgo Canale quarter located just outside the city walls. His family was very poor and had no tradition of music, his father Andrea being the caretaker of the town pawnshop. Simone Mayr, a German composer of internationally successful operas, had become maestro di cappella at Bergamo's principal church in 1802. He founded the Lezioni Caritatevoli school in Bergamo in 1805 for the purpose of providing musical training, including classes in literature, beyond what choirboys ordinarily received up until the time that their voices broke. In 1807, Andrea Donizetti attempted to enroll both his sons, but the elder, Giuseppe (then 18), was considered too old. Gaetano (then 9) was accepted.[8]

While not especially successful as a choirboy during the first three trial months of 1807, there being some concern about a diffetto di gola (throat defect), Mayr was soon reporting that Gaetano "surpasses all the others in musical progress".[9] Mayr was able to persuade the authorities that the young boy's talents were worthy of keeping him in the school, and he remained there for nine years, until 1815.

However, as William Ashbrook notes, in 1809 he was threatened with having to leave because his voice was changing. In 1810 he applied for and was accepted by the local art school, the Academia Carrara, but it is unknown whether he attended classes. Then, in 1811, Mayr once again intervened. Having written both libretto and music for a "pasticcio-farsa", Il piccolo compositore di musica, as the final concert of the academic year, he cast five young students, among them his young pupil Donizetti, as "the little composer". As Ashbrook notes, this "was nothing less than Mayr's argument that Donizetti be allowed to continue his musical studies".[10] The piece was performed on 13 September 1811 and included the composer character stating the following:

"Ah, by Bacchus, with this aria / I'll have universal applause. / They'll will say to me, “Bravo, Maestro! / I, with a sufficiently modest air, / Will go around with my head bent... / I’ll have eulogies in the newspaper / I know how to make myself immortal." [11]

In reply to the chiding which, in the drama, comes from the other four characters in the piece because of the "little composer" 's boasts, the "composer" responds with:

I have a vast mind, swift talent, ready fantasy—and I'm a thunderbolt at composing"[11]

The performance included a waltz which Donizetti played and for which he receives credit in the libretto.[12] All five young men were given opportunites to show off their musical knowledge.

The following two years were somewhat precarious for the young Donizetti: the 16-year old created quite a reputation for what he did do, which is regularly to fail to attend classes, and also for what he did instead, making something of a spectacle of himself in the town.[13]

Donizetti as a young man

However, in spite of all this, Mayr not only persuaded Gaetano's parents to allow him to continue studies, but also secured funding from the Congregazione di Carità in Bergamo for two years of scholarships. In addition, he provided the young musician with letters of recommendation to both the publisher Giovanni Ricordi as well as to the Marchese Francesco Sampieri in Bologna (who would find him suitable lodging) and where, at the Liceo Musicale, he was given the opportunity to study musical structure under the renowned Padre Stanislao Mattei.[13]

In Bologna, he would justify the faith which Mayr had placed in him. In 1816 he wrote what Allitt describes as "his initial exercises in operatic style",[14] the opera Il pigmalione, as well as composing portions of Olympiade and L'ira d'Achille in 1817, these two being no more than "suggest[ing] the work of a student".[14] Encouraged by Mayr to return to Bergamo in 1817, he began his "quartet years" as well as composing piano pieces and most likely being part of quartets where he would have played and heard music of other composers.[14] In addition, he began seeking employment.

Career as a composer[edit]

Gaetano Donizetti, from lithography by Joseph Kriehuber (1842)

After some minor compositions under the commission of Paolo Zancla, Donizetti wrote his ninth opera, Zoraida di Granata. This work impressed Domenico Barbaia, the prominent theatre manager who was the Intendant of the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. Donizetti was offered a contract to compose for that house and, also writing for Rome and Milan, he achieved some popular success in the 1820s, although critics were often unimpressed.[citation needed] It was not until 1830 that he became well known internationally, when his Anna Bolena was premiered in Milan, and this brought him instant fame throughout Europe.

L'elisir d'amore, a comedy produced in 1832, came soon after, and is deemed to be one of the masterpieces of 19th-century opera buffa (as is his Don Pasquale, written for Paris in 1843). Shortly after L'elisir d'amore, Donizetti composed Lucia di Lammermoor, based on The Bride of Lammermoor, the novel by Sir Walter Scott. This became his most famous opera, and one of the high points of the bel canto tradition, reaching a stature similar to that of Bellini's Norma.

from Donizetti's opera La fille du régiment, performed by Atelier Vocal des Herbiers

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After the success of Lucrezia Borgia in 1833, his reputation was consolidated and Donizetti followed the paths of both Rossini and Bellini by visiting Paris, where his Marin Faliero was presented at the Théâtre-Italien in 1835 but suffered by comparison with Bellini's I puritani which appeared at the same time.

He returned to Naples to produce his already-mentioned masterpiece, Lucia di Lammermoor and, as Donizetti's fame grew, so did his engagements, as he was further offered commissions by both the Paris Opéra and Venice's La Fenice for which he wrote Belisario. In October 1838, he moved to Paris vowing never to have to deal with the San Carlo anymore after the King of Naples banned the production of Poliuto on the grounds that such a sacred subject was inappropriate for the stage.

In Paris, Poliuto was set to a new libretto by Eugene Scribe as Les martyrs, his first grand opera in the French tradition. Before leaving that city in June 1840, he oversaw the translation of Lucia into Lucie de Lammermoor and wrote La fille du régiment, his first opera written specifically to a French libretto. This became another success.

As a conductor, he led the premiere of Rossini's Stabat Mater.

Donizetti's wife, Virginia Vasselli, gave birth to three children, none of whom survived. Within a year of his parents' deaths, on 30 July 1837 his wife died from cholera. By 1843, Donizetti was exhibiting symptoms of syphilis and probable bipolar disorder. After being institutionalized in 1845, he was sent to Paris, where he could be cared for. After visits from friends, including Giuseppe Verdi, Donizetti was taken back to Bergamo, his hometown. After several years in the grip of insanity, he died in 1848 in the house of a noble family, the Scotti. Donizetti was buried in the cemetery of Valtesse but in the late 19th century his body was transferred to Bergamo's Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore near the grave of his teacher Simon Mayr.

He was the younger brother of Giuseppe Donizetti, who had become, in 1828, Instructor General of the Imperial Ottoman Music at the court of Sultan Mahmud II (1808–1839).

Donizetti's compositions[edit]

Donizetti, a prolific composer, is best known for his operatic works, but he also wrote music in a number of other forms, including some church music, a number of string quartets, and some orchestral pieces. Altogether, he composed about 75 operas, 16 symphonies, 19 string quartets, 193 songs, 45 duets, 3 oratorios, 28 cantatas, instrumental concertos, sonatas, and other chamber pieces.

Operas: See List of operas by Donizetti
Choral works
Ave Maria Grande Offertorio Il sospiro Messa da Requiem Messa di Gloria e Credo Miserere (Psalm 50)
Orchestral works
Allegro for Strings in C major Larghetto, tema e variazioni in E flat major Sinfonia Concertante in D major (1818) Sinfonia for Winds in G minor (1817) Sinfonia in A major Sinfonia in C major Sinfonia in D major Sinfonia in D minor
Concertino for Clarinet in B flat major Concertino for English Horn in G major (1816) Concertino in C minor for flute and chamber orchestra (1819) Concertino for Flute and Orchestra in C major Concertino for Flute and Orchestra in D major Concertino for Oboe in F major Concertino for Violin and Cello in D minor Concerto for Violin and Cello in D minor
Concerto for 2 Clarinets "Maria Padilla"
Chamber works
Andante sostenuto for Oboe and Harp in F minor Introduction for Strings in D major Larghetto and Allegro for Violin and Harp in G minor Largo/Moderato for Cello and Piano in G minor Nocturnes (4) for Winds and Strings Sonata for Flute and Harp Sonata for Flute and Piano in C major Sonata for Oboe and Piano in F major
Quintet for Guitar and Strings no 2 in C major Study for Clarinet no 1 in B flat major Trio for Flute, Bassoon and Piano in F major
Quartets for Strings
String Quartet in D major No. 3 in C minor: 2nd movement, Adagio ma non troppo No. 4 in D major No. 5 in E minor No,5 in E minor: Larghetto No. 6 in G minor No. 7 in F minor No. 8 in B flat major
No. 9 in D minor No. 11 in C major No. 12 in C major No. 13 in A major No. 14 in D major No. 15 in F major No. 16 in B minor No 17 in D major
No. 18 in E minor No. 18 in E minor: Allegro
Piano works
Adagio and Allegro in G major Allegro in C major Allegro in F minor Fugue in G minor Grand Waltz in A major Larghetto in A minor "Una furtiva lagrima" Larghetto in C major Pastorale in E major
Presto in F minor Sinfonia in A major Sinfonia No. 1 in C major Sinfonia No. 1 in D major Sinfonia No. 2 in C major Sinfonia No. 2 in D major Sonata in C major Sonata in F major
Sonata in G major Variations in E major Variations in G major Waltz in A major Waltz in C major Waltz in C major "The Invitation"


  • "Donizetti, when asked which of his own operas he thought the best, spontaneously replied, 'How can I say which? A father always has a preference for a crippled child, and I have so many.'" [15]



  1. ^ Allitt 1991, p. 9
  2. ^ Osborne 1994, p. 139
  3. ^ Weinstock 1963, p. 13
  4. ^ a b Black 1982, p. 1
  5. ^ a b Black 1982, pp. 50—51
  6. ^ Black 1982, p. 52
  7. ^ Ashbrook & Hibberd 2001, p. 225
  8. ^ Weinstock 1963, pp. 5—6
  9. ^ Mayr to the school administrators, in Weinstock, p. 6
  10. ^ Ashbrook 1982, pp. 8—9
  11. ^ a b The words from Mayr's libretto, as spoken by Donizetti, 1811, quoted in Weinstock 1963, p. 8
  12. ^ Ashbrook 1982, p. 9
  13. ^ a b Ashbrook 1982, pp. 9—11
  14. ^ a b c Allitt 1991, pp. 9—11
  15. ^ Engel 1886, p. ??

Cited sources

  • Allitt, John Stewart (1991), Donizetti – in the light of romanticism and the teaching of Johann Simon Mayr, Shaftesbury, Dorset, UK: Element Books. Also see Allitt's website
  • Ashbrook, William (1982), Donizetti and his Operas, Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.
  • Ashbrook, William; Sarah Hibberd (2001), in Holden, Amanda (Ed.), The New Penguin Opera Guide, New York: Penguin Putnam. ISBN 0-140-29312-4.
  • Black, John (1982), Donizetti's Operas in Naples 1822–1848, London: The Donizetti Society
  • Engel, Louis (1886), From Mozart to Mario: Reminiscences of Half a Century vols. 1 ad 2., London, Richard Bentley.
  • Osborne, Charles, (1994), The Bel Canto Operas of Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini, Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press. ISBN 0931340713
  • Weinstock, Herbert (1963), Donizetti and the World of Opera in Italy, Paris and Vienna in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century, New York: Random House.

Other sources

  • Allitt, John Stewart (2003), Gaetano Donizetti – Pensiero, musica, opere scelte, Milano: Edizione Villadiseriane
  • Ashbrook, Wiliam and Budden, Julian (1980), "[Article title unknown]", The New Grove Masters of Italian Opera, London: Papermac. pp. 93–154
  • Ashbrook, William (with John Black); Julian Budden (1998), "Gaetano Donizetti" in Stanley Sadie (Ed.), The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Vol. One. London: MacMillan Publishers, Inc. ISBN 0-333-73432-7 ISBN 1-56159-228-5
  • Ashbrook, Wiliam and Budden, Julian (2001), "[Article title unk.]" in Sadie, Stanley (Ed.), The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Volume 7, London: Macmillan Publishers Ltd. pp. 761–796.
  • Bini, Annalisa and Jeremy Commons (1997), Le prime rappresentazioni delle opere di Donizetti nella stampa coeva, Milan: Skira.
  • Cassaro, James P. (2000), Gaetano Donizetti – A Guide to Research, New York: Garland Publishing.
  • Donati-Petténi, Giuliano (1930), Donizetti, Milano: Fratelli Treves Editori. (In Italian)
  • Gossett, Philip (1985), "Anna Bolena" and the Artistic Maturity of Gaetano Donizetti, Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-313205-2
  • Kantner, Leopold M (Ed.), Donizetti in Wien, papers from a symposium in various languages. Primo Ottocento, available from Edition Praesens. ISBN 3-7069-0006-8 / ISSN 156,00-8921).
  • Keller, Marcello Sorce (1978), "Gaetano Donizetti: un bergamasco compositore di canzoni napoletane", Studi Donizettiani, Vol. III, pp. 100–107.
  • Keller, Marcello Sorce (1984), "Io te voglio bene assaje: a Famous Neapolitan Song Traditionally Attributed to Gaetano Donizetti", The Music Review, Vol. XLV, No. 3—4, pp. 251–264. Also published as: Io te voglio bene assaje: una famosa canzone napoletana tradizionalmente attribuita a Gaetano Donizetti, La Nuova Rivista Musicale Italiana, 1985, No. 4, pp. 642–653.
  • Minden, Pieter (Ed.); Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) (1999), Scarsa Mercè Saranno. Duett für Alt und Tenor mit Klavierbegleitung [Partitur]. Mit dem Faksimile des Autographs von 1815. Tübingen : Noûs-Verlag. 18 pp., [13] fol.; ISBN 3-924249-25-3. [Caesar vs. Cleopatra.]
  • Saracino, Egidio (Ed.) (1993), Tutti I libretti di Donizetti, Garzanti Editore.
  • Zavadini, Guuido (1948), Donizetti: Vita – Musiche- Epistolario, Bergamo.

External links[edit]

Sheet music