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Gaetano Donizetti

1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

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GAETANO DONIZETTI (1798-1848), Italian musical composer, was born at Bergamo in 1798, the son of a government official of limited means. Originally destined for the bar, he showed at an early age a strong taste for art. At first, strangely enough, he mistook architecture for his vocation, and only of ter an unsuccessful trial in that direction did he discover his real talent. He entered the conservatoire of his native city, where he studied under Simon Mayr, the fertile operatic composer. His second master was Mattei, the head master of the celebrated music school of Bologna, where Donizetti resided for three years. After his return to Bergamo the young composer determined to devote himself to dramatic music, but his father insisted upon his giving lessons with a view to immediate gain. The disputes arising from this cause ultimately led to Donizetti's enlisting in the army. But this desperate step proved beneficial against all expectation. The regiment was quartered at Venice, and here the young composer's first dramatic attempt, an opera called Enrico cornte di Borgogna, saw the light in 1818.

The success of this work, and of a second opera brought out in the following year, established Donizetti's reputation. He obtained his discharge from the army, and henceforth his operas followed each other in rapid and uninterrupted succession at the rate of three or four a year. Although he had to contend successively with two such dangerous rivals as Rossini and Bellini, he succeeded in taking firm hold of the public, and the brilliant reception accorded to his Anna Bolena at Milan carried his name beyond the limits of his own country. In 1835 Donizetti went for the first time to Paris, where, however, his Marino Faliero failed to hold its own against Bellini's Puritani, then recently produced at the Theatre Italien. The disappointed composer went to Naples, where the enormous success of his Lucia di Lammermoor consoled him for his failure in Paris. For Naples he wrote a number of works, none of which is worth notice. In 1840 the censorship refused to pass his Poliuto, an Italian version of Corneille's Polyeucte, in consequence of which the disgusted composer once more left his country for Paris. Here he produced at the Opera Comique his most popular opera, La Fille du regiment, but again with little success. It was not till after the work had made the round of the theatres of Germany and Italy that the Parisians reconsidered their unfavourable verdict. A serious opera, Les Martyrs, produced about the same time with the Daughter of the Regiment, was equally unsuccessful, and it was reserved to La Favorita, generally considered as Donizetti's masterpiece, to break the evil spell. His next important work, Linda di Chamounix, was written for Vienna, where it was received most favourably in 1842, and the same success accompanied the production of Don Pasquale after Donizetti's return to Paris in 1843. Soon after this event the first signs of a fatal disease, caused to a great extent by overwork, began to show themselves. The utter failure of Don Sebastian, a large opera produced soon after Don Pasquale, is said to have hastened the catastrophe. A paralytic stroke in 1844 deprived Donizetti of his reason; for four years he lingered on in a state of mental and physical prostration. A visit to his country was proposed as a last resource, but he reached his native place only to die there on the 1st of April 1848.

The sum total of his operas amounts to sixty-four. The large number of his works accounts for many of their chief defects. His rapidity of working made all revision impossible. It is said that he once wrote the instrumentation of a whole opera within thirty hours, a time hardly sufficient, one would think, to put the notes on paper. And yet it may be doubted whether more elaboration would have essentially improved his work; for the last act of the Favorita, infinitely superior to the preceding ones, is also said to have been the product of a single night.

There is a strange parallelism observable in the lives of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti. They had no sooner established their reputations on the Italian stage than they left their own country for Paris, at that time the centre of the musical world. All three settled in France, and all three were anxious to adapt the style of their music to the taste and artistic traditions of their adopted country. The difference which exists between Rossini's Tell and his Semiramide may, although in a less striking degree, be noticed between Donizetti's Fille du regiment and one of his earlier Italian operas. But here the parallel ends. As regards artistic genius Donizetti can by no means be compared with his illustrious countrymen. He has little of Bellini's melancholy sweetness, less of Rossini's sparkle, and is all but devoid of spontaneous dramatic impulse. For these shortcomings he atones by a considerable though by no means extraordinary store of fluent melody, and by his rare skill in writing for the voice. The duet in the last act of the Favorita and the ensemble in Lucia following upon the signing of the contract, are masterpieces of concerted music in the Italian style. These advantages, together with considerable power of humorous delineation, as evinced in Don Pasquale and L'Elisir d'amore, must account for the unimpaired vitality of many of his works on the stage.

Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Gaetano Donizetti'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica.​encyclopedias/​eng/​bri/​g/gaetano-donizetti.html. 1910.