Biography

Vincenzo Bellini (Catania, 3 November 1801 – Puteaux, Paris, 23 September 1835) was born into a musical family. His grandfather Vincenzo Tobia (b. 1744), from Torricella, a small town in the Abruzzi, had studied at the “Conservatorio di S. Onofrio” in Naples. In 1767-68 Vincenzo Tobia settled in the Sicilian city of Catania where he acquired a reputation as an organist, composer and music teacher; he also cultivated connections with the local aristocracy, in particular with the Prince of Biscari, a scholar, art lover and music patron. Vincenzo Tobia composed several Masses and Oratorios. His son Rosario (b. 1776), who probably studied music with him, was also a musician, although he never earned the fame of his father. On 17 January 1801 Rosario Bellini married Agata Ferlito (b. 1778); by the end of the same year Vincenzo was born, the first of their seven children. Although Agata came from quite a wealthy family of public office holders, the Bellinis always lived in modest conditions. Later, in the years of success, the composer was constantly concerned about the economic security of himself  and his family.

What we know about Vincenzo Bellini’s early years comes from an anonymous manuscript biography (currently preserved at the Museo Belliniano in Catania), probably written many years after the death of the composer by a relative or someone close to the Bellinis. Although this biography has many elements of legend, it seems certain that Bellini showed a precocious interest in music. He began to play the piano aged only five under the guidance of his father, and soon afterward was taught the rudiments of composition by his grandfather (apparently quite normal in a family of artisan musicians, where the profession was transmitted from father to son). There is no evidence that Bellini received a classical education involving study of ancient and modern languages, literature and philosophy from the age of seven (the style, language and content of Bellini’s correspondence allow us to exclude this). As was customary at the time, he probably learned the elements of Italian and Latin grammar from a local ecclesiastic, who also gave him some instruction in rhetoric, necessary to write both sacred and profane vocal music. The first known composition by Bellini is a setting of “Gallus cantavit”, which has survived in manuscript form, probably written at the age of six, followed by a quantity of sacred music accompanied by organ or orchestra. The oldest known date for Bellini’s early works is 1810; around that year he was writing vocal chamber music, ariettas and romances for voice and piano or orchestra that began to attract attention in Catania society, where Bellini was introduced by his grandfather.

Thanks to the reputation of Vincenzo Tobia and the intervention of local notables, in 1819 Bellini was awarded a scholarship by the Decurionato (Municipal government) of Catania enabling him to study at the Conservatory of Naples. Bellini left for Naples in June 1819; by September, although he was above the maximum age for entry, he had been granted free tuition and been made a “maestrino” responsible for coaching the youngest students. In 1824 he was promoted to “primo maestrino” [head pupil teacher]. Bellini studied harmony, counterpoint and singing with the senior exponents of the Neapolitan tradition: first Giovanni Furno, then in 1821 Giacomo Tritto, and finally from 1822 the director of the conservatory Nicola Zingarelli. From them Bellini learned the style of the late seventeenth-century Neapolitan Opera, that of Cimarosa and Paisiello, whose Nina, o sia La pazza per amore (1789) he would always have considered an ideal model. There is also evidences that Bellini studied the scores of instrumental works by Haydn and Mozart still preserved in  the library of the “Conservatorio S. Pietro a Majella” in Naples.

In Naples Bellini could listen to the works of Rossini (who at that time dominated the Neapolitan theaters, although he was regarded as the corrupter of the true Italian tradition by the old  guard in the Conservatory who tried to prevent students imitating him). La vestale by Spontini also made a significant impact on him, as did the most recent works by Mayr, Mercadante, Pacini and Donizetti.

The years he spent in Naples are the least known in Bellini’s life.  A fellow-student, Francesco Florimo, became a life-long friend: he was Bellini’s first correspondent and, after his death, the guardian of his memory and main architect of the “romanticized” image of the composer. During the 1820 revolution calling for a Constitution, the two young friends joined the secret society known as the Carboneria; soon discovered, they did not suffer any consequences.

Bellini’s early love for  a young piano student, Maddalena Fumaroli, the daughter of a magistrate, was later presented in an excessively sentimental light. Bellini had hoped to marry her, but the project was opposed by her father. This episode might be read as one of Bellini’s attempts to fit into high society (others would follow in Catania Milan and Paris).

Most of Bellini’s student works were sacred and instrumental music, but he also gained a reputation for vocal chamber music. His first printed work, the arietta “Dolente imimagine di Fille mia”, appeared in 1824; and that same year he received a commissioned for a wedding cantata.

On completing his studies in 1825 Bellini presented his first opera, Adelson e Salvini, an opera semiseria performed by students in the small theater of the Conservatory. In conformity with a practice still common at that time in Naples, this opera included spoken dialogue and a buffo rôle written in Neapolitan dialect. Its success led the impresario Domenico Barbaja to commission  an opera seria  from Bellini for the Teatro San Carlo. Originally called Bianca e Fernando, it was premiered on May 30, 1826 under the title Bianca e Gernando (since the name of the heir to the throne was Ferdinando, the original title was presumably deemed politically incorrect). The cast included three principal singers who would play an important role in Bellini’s future career: soprano Henriette Meric Lalande, tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini (called in at the last moment to replace the celebrated Rossinian tenor Giovanni David, for whom Bellini wrote the rôle of Fernando), and bass Luigi Lablache. Its success brought hopes of reviving Adelson e Salvini with a professional staging. Between 1826 and 1828 Bellini revised his first work, reducing it from three acts to two, composing recitatives in place of the original spoken dialogue, and adapting an Italian text for the buffo role, but the project came to nothing. However, Barbaja, who was in partnership with the impresarios of the Teatro alla Scala, decided to launch Bellini in Milan and proposed that he should be engaged for the Autumn Season 1827, when the company of San Carlo was to present Giovanni Pacini’s most recent works in Milan.

Bellini’s third opera, Il pirata, was premiered at La Scala on October 27, 1827 with great success, also thanks to the excellent cast of singers which included Méric-Lalande, Rubini and the bass Antonio Tamburini. This represented a decisive moment in Bellini’s career, in many respects: Il pirata was his first collaboration with the librettist Felice Romani, who wrote the libretti for all of Bellini’s subsequent operas, except his last. His success introduced him into Milanese society, where he came into direct competition with such established composers as Donizetti and Pacini. It was the beginning of long-lasting relationships with people who played an important role in the world of opera, such as the soprano Giuditta Pasta and the publisher Giovanni Ricordi, who thereafter published all his operas. In fact Bellini’s fame soon spread throughout Italy and abroad, and in 1828 Il pirata was performed in Vienna.

From 1827 to 1833, Bellini resided mainly in Milan, where he worked on new and old operas and also on a project which was never completed, delivering about one opera at year.

In 1828 he presented a new version of Bianca e Fernando, with the libretto modified by Felice Romani. The opera was performed in Genoa on Feburary 7, by soprano Adelaide Tosi, David and Tamburini. During his stay in Genoa, Bellini began a love affair with Giuditta Cantù, wife of landowner and silk manufacturer Ferdinando Turina. Amidst much suspicion and jealousy, the affair lasted until the musician left Italy. Bellini kept his friend Florimo constantly informed on the developments of his love-affair in a long series of letters (although it has been said that Florimo burned the ones he considered overly compromising). The letters clearly indicate that, while undoubtedly in love with the woman, Bellini considered the affair primarily as a way to consolidate his entrance into Milanese society. The composer would often stay in Giuditta’s house while her husband apparently ignored the liaison. Although this was well known in Milan, they were as discreet as possible, always seeking to avoid a scandal.

On February 14, 1829, Bellini presented his fourth opera, La straniera, at La Scala. Its success  surpassed even that of Il pirata; the opera sparked a critical debate on the style of Bellini, who began to be seen as an innovator compared to Rossini.

In the meantime, Bellini had accepted an invitation to compose an opera for the opening of the new Teatro Regio of Parma in spring 1829. The commission proved problematic from the outset. Bellini refused to set the proposed libretto, Cesare in Egitto, considering it “Vecchio come Noè [as old as Noah]” and quite out of step with modern taste, which was rather oriented toward Romanticism. Since the librettist was the influential theatrical censor of the town, the lawyer Luigi Torrigiani, this meant that Bellini had got off on the wrong foot with the highly traditionalist audience in Parma. After the premiere of La straniera Bellini and Felice Romani agreed to take Voltaire’s Zaïre as the subject for the new opera.  Romani wrote the libretto in March and April 1829 and Bellini set the verses to music as soon as he received them. Zaira was given its first performance in Parma on May 16, to a chilly reception.  After just a few further performances it disappeared for good: this was the only failure in Bellini’s entire career. However, he was by no means dissatisfied with the music, and later reused it extensively.

In summer 1829 we know that Bellini was decorated by the new king of the Kingdom of the Two  Sicilies, Ferdinando II. Early in 1830 he presented Il pirata in Venice, where he was expecting a commission for the next Carnival. When a planned new opera by Giovanni Pacini fell through Bellini was asked for a replacement by the Teatro La Fenice. In great haste Romani revised the libretto of I Capuleti e i Montecchi he had written in 1825 for Nicola Vaccaj. The opera was composed in one month, but its premiere on March 11 1830 was a success, and I Capuleti e i Montecchi has remained one of the most popular operas in the repertoire.

In May 1830 Bellini suffered a severe amoebic infection of the intestine, which five years later led to his death. In the summer he recovered at the Turinas villa by Lake Como where he started to work on a new subject based on Victor Hugo’s very recent play Hernani. By the fall, the subject had been discarded for fear of censorship in favor of La Sonnambula, a ballet by Eugène Scribe with music by Ferdinando Hérold. The choice was undoubtedly influenced by his close friend Giuditta Pasta, for whose vocal and dramatic skills Bellini wrote the leading rôle. Scheduled for February 1831 at the Teatro Carcano in Milan, the premiere of La sonnambula was postponed to March 6 as  both Romani and Bellini failed to meet their deadlines. Meanwhile the curiosity of the public was excited by the prospect of comparison with Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, first produced in the same theater at the beginning of that season and featuring the same singers, Pasta and Rubini.

La sonnambula renewed the triumph of Il Pirata and La straniera and paved the way for subsequent work, commissioned for the opening of the 1831-32 Carnival season at La Scala, with Giuditta Pasta as prima donna, and the tenor Domenico Donzelli – - whom Bellini had yet to meet. Once again, the subject was chosen with an eye to Giuditta Pasta and based on a recent French play, Norma, ou l’Infanticide by Alexandre Soumet, performed in Paris in March 1831. The libretto of Norma was produced in no hurry that summer, with the poet and musician collaborating closely and the latter imposing many changes. The music was composed in the Autumn, and rehearsals were more thorough than usual. By the first performance on December 26 1831 at La Scala, the singers were exhausted. The opera was received rather coolly, although it was not a “fiasco”, as Bellini wrote to Florimo – - in a letter which is almost certainly fake. In fact, in subsequent performances its success increased, and Norma was soon recognized as one of the masterpieces of its composer as well as of its time.

At the beginning of 1832, shortly after the premiere of Norma, Bellini went on a long trip to the South of Italy, taking him first to Naples, then to Sicily. In all the places  he visited Bellini was welcomed with celebrations, honours, and performances of his music. In August he was in Bergamo for a new production of Norma, and it was presumably on this occasion that he made some changes in the score. Meanwhile Bellini signed a contract with the impresario Alessandro Lanari for a new opera for La Fenice during the Carnival 1832-33, with Pasta as prima donna. The choice of the subject, Cristina di Svezia, came late and Romani only began work on the libretto at the beginning of October. In November Bellini decided to change the subject, at the request of Pasta, who had very much liked the ballet Beatrice di Tenda. The sudden change displeased Romani, who delayed writing the libretto, so that the premiere had to be postponed. The consequent violent quarrel between poet and composer, reported in the press, made the Venetian audience ill disposed towards Beatrice di Tenda at its premiere which took place on March 16, 1833. Notwithstanding, Bellini considered his new opera “non indegna delle sue sorelle [not unworthy of her sisters]”, thereby responding to accusations of reusing ideas from preceding works.

During the same period, Bellini began to consider making his name on the international stage. In February 1833 he signed a contract to direct three of his operas at the King’s Theatre, London, where he arrived late in April. While Il pirata, Norma and I Capuleti e i Montecchi, sung by Pasta, Méric Lalande and Donzelli aroused little interest, La sonnambula had considerable success at the Drury Lane Theatre, sung in English by Maria Malibran. At the end of August Bellini moved to Paris, where he sought out Rossini — whom he had met in Milan — then artistic director of the Théâtre-Italien. During the  first months in Paris Bellini managed only to stage his older works Il pirata and I Capuleti e i Montecchi. His efforts to obtain commissions from the Opéra or the Opéra-comique were in vain, both for his exorbitant demands and for the difficulty of writing an opera in French, in which Bellini was not proficient.

In winter 1833-34 Bellini frequented Parisian society, to which he was introduced by Giuditta Pasta, and some Italian aristocrats in exile. He met musicians and men of letters including Hiller, Chopin, Liszt and Heine, and listened to some of Beethoven’s symphonies for the first time at the concerts of the Conservatoire. Notwithstanding, in Paris, Bellini remained quite isolated, more noted for his good looks (the contrast between the tall, blonde figure and the Southern languor made its impression) than for his music or ideas. He made friends above all with a Jewish merchant of London, Salomon Levy and his mistress, a singer or dancer called Mademoiselle Olivier. Levy rented Bellini a house in Puteaux, half an hour from Paris, where the composer spent the summer in 1834 and 1835.

In April 1834 Bellini finally received the hoped for commission from the Théâtre-Italien, for I Puritani. The libretto, based on the historical play Têtes rondes et Cavaliers by J.A.F.P. Ancelot and Saintine (1833), was entrusted to Count Carlo Pepoli, a political exile of solid literary culture but having no  experience of musical theatre. The gestation of the new libretto was particularly difficult; Bellini had to intervene repeatedly to get verse and situations to match his intentions. The composition of the music also took a long time; on Rossini’s advice Bellini focused on the orchestration so as to cater for the tastes of the Parisian audience. I Puritani, with Grisi, Rubini, Tamburini and Lablache was first performed on January 24, 1835 and was a triumphant success. Bellini also prepared a second version of the opera to suit the voices of Maria Malibran and Gilbert Duprez, who were to sing it at the San Carlo Theatre in Naples, but the score did not arrive in time and the performance did not take place.

The success of I Puritani in Paris brought a revived interest in Bellini, rekindling his hopes of a commission from the Opéra. Bellini also hoped to write again for Italy; after the disappointing experience with Pepoli he tried to re-establish a friendship and collaboration with Romani. Most of 1835 passed in the quest for new subjects and alos marriage plans: Bellini was on the lookout for a submissive girl with a good dowry, allowing him to live without financial worries. Early in September, however, the intestinal infection returned. As his condition worsened, and perhaps fearing cholera, the Parisian friends who were looking after the composer abandoned him. Bellini died on September 23, in Puteaux, where his corpse was found in the afternoon by a friend. The news of Bellini’s death was received with great emotion. Rossini took it upon himself to settle Bellini’s estate and send to the family the effects left by the composer; he also organized a solemn funeral ceremony held on October 2 at Les Invalides, attended by all the musicians in Paris. Bellini’s embalmed body was buried in the Père-Lachaise Cemetery and later moved to Catania in 1876.

Throughout the 19th century the fame of Bellini was wide spread. His works were considered the epitome of the Italian singing style, second only to Rossini; as a creator of memorable melodies Bellini was admired, among the others, by Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner and Verdi. The only reservations concerned his skills in harmony and instrumentation. However, starting from the fertile terrain of his premature death and provenance from an “exotic” land (as Sicily appeared to the 19th century imagination), a process of mythologizing has created an image of Bellini as a naive, almost divinely inspired creator. This image, unchanged for most of the 20th century, has now been essentially reversed thanks to a dual process over the last 50 years: on one hand the activity of great, stylistically aware performers (sopranos such as Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Renata Scotto, Montserrat Caballé, Mariella Devia; tenors such as Alfredo Kraus, Luciano Pavarotti, Juan Diego Flórez; conductors such as Richard Bonynge and Riccardo Muti); on the other hand the historical, philological and stylistic researches of scholars including Francesco Pastura, Friedrich Lippmann, Pierluigi Petrobelli, John Rosselli, Philip Gossett and many others. The results have merged into a radically new vision of Bellini.

As a result of this intensive performative as well as musicological action, great operas such as Il pirata, La straniera, I Capuleti e i Montecchi and Beatrice di Tenda have taken their places in the repertoire alongside the undisputed masterpieces La sonnambula, Norma and I Puritani. Knowledge of Bellini’s early works, chamber songs and sacred as well as instrumental music has revealed aspects of unsuspected interest, revealing an artist fully aware of his purposes and the means to achieve them, consciously aiming at a personal musical and dramatic style as well as the refinement of his technique. This process has called into question the long-standing image of Bellini as a mainly “lyrical” composer  whose greatness lay exclusively in his melodic gifts – which are indeed great. What emerges is the image of an all-round man of the theater, one of the best dramatists in the history of musical theater.

Fabrizio Della Seta