His times: Italy succumbed less readily to the excesses and experiments of the Romantic movement than most of her European neighbours, and the result – in a country whose musical life was dominated by opera in the 19th century – was a conservative attitude to the stage in which works tended to be divided into the ‘comic’ and the ‘tragic’ while not stretching far beyond established formulas and aiming for little more than short-term success.
His music: While many of Donizetti’s operas fit that description (he wrote seventy, as well as 100 songs and numerous symphonies, cantatas and chamber works), his music, like Rossini’s, was blessed with glorious melodies and an uncanny theatrical instinct. Many of Donizetti’s harmonies, rhythms and orchestrations – in addition to the detailed architecture of the music – are pulled ‘off-the-shelf’ and replicated from opera to opera. But now and then he surpasses himself when his sometimes primitive instincts deliver moments of inspired sophistication. Donizetti would have been the first to admit that his works – like so many of Verdi’s after him – were attuned to the taste and judgment of the Italian public and deeply rooted in rustic Italian culture.
Himself: Donizetti was born to a poor family, but in the right place and at the right time: the German opera pioneer Johann Simon Mayr had established ‘charitable lessons’ in the town of Bergamo to train poor children as choirboys, and the young Gaetano became one. By his early 30s Donizetti was a celebrated figure, but had contracted syphilis having married the daughter of a prominent Roman lawyer; three of his children died at birth, and his wife with the third of them. He died ill and deranged, having returned to Bergamo in the hope of revival, in April 1848.
We perform Donizetti’s grand opera, Les Martyrs on 4 November 2014. More info.