In an inconspicuous old stone house in the upper town area of Bergamo, Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti sees the light of day as the fifth of six children. In reality there isn’t much light, however, since the family lives at Borgo Canale no. 10, then located outside the city walls, in two windowless basement rooms. His mother is a seamstress, his father the caretaker of a pawnshop, and as it so often happens, the boy’s beautiful voice is what opens the doors for him to the world of music. At the age of eight he becomes a choirboy and meets his most important teacher, Simone Mayr.
Donizetti thus accomplishes a meteoric rise from the humblest origins to the highest operatic heights – after Bellini’s death and before the rise of Verdi, the master of bel canto is the decisive figure in the world of Italian opera. And still today, a handful of his operas form part of the core repertoire of every international opera house.
However, the fact that there are over seventy Donizetti operas in total, as well as a long list of symphonies, songs, and sacred and chamber music, is certainly less well-known. Which means there is still plenty to be discovered ...
Born on November 29, 1797 in Borgo Canale. He thus shares his year of birth with Franz Schubert and Heinrich Heine
1806 he receives a scholarship from the Lezioni Caritatevoli, where he enjoys nine years of thorough musical training that he concludes in Bologna
1817 his father summons him back to Bergamo; Gaetano eludes him by becoming a soldier and enlisting in Venice. Here he writes his first operas; the success of his third, Zoraide di Granata, frees him from military service
In the 1820s he composes (mostly for the impresario Barbaia) 19 operas for Rome, Naples, and Genoa
1828 marries Virginia Vaselli, whom he infects with syphilis. Their three children all die after a few days, and Virginia succumbs to cholera 10 years after the marriage
In the 1830s, first major successes with Anna Bolena, L´elisir d´amore (which he writes in only ten days), Lucrezia Borgia, and Lucia di Lammermoor
1834 settles in Naples, professor and later director of the conservatory
1840 Donizetti moves to Paris and begins writing in French (La favorite, La fille du régiment). He soon commutes between Paris and Vienna, where he is appointed court composer after the success of Linda de Chamounix
1843 his health deteriorates; the late complications of syphilis also affect him mentally. He spends three months in a mental asylum and dies in 1848 in his hometown of Bergamo
Did you know?
Gaetano Donizetti has a difficult relationship with his parents, forbidding them from attending his premieres and not even inviting them to his wedding
Donizetti’s brothers were also supported by Simone Mayr, and his brother Giuseppe even rises to the post of music director of the Sultan of Istanbul
Donizetti is an unbelievably hard worker who completes all his commissions and composes entire operas in an incredibly short time. His contemporaries and pupils describe Donizetti as a friendly, good-natured, and supportive person who is a complete stranger to all the intrigues surrounding him
When asked which of his operas he thought was the best, he answered: “How could I say? A father always prefers his crippled child, and I have so many of them.”
After Donizetti’s death, his body is carried through the city; he is followed by several bands, hundreds of torchbearers, and thousands of admirers
1875 Donizetti’s brothers raise a monument to the composer. When they dig up his mortal remains to bring them to the monument, the skull is missing. The head is found, exhibited in the Donizetti museum, and finally buried in 1951
When the young Verdi expresses to Donizetti his admiration, Donizetti replies: “My heyday is over and someone else must take my place. I am happy to give it over to someone of Verdi’s talent.”