(1797-1848).  Born in a windowless cellar in a straggle of houses clinging to the hillside at Bergamo in 1797, a ragged child, Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti (Gaetano Donizetti as we know him) had the near-miraculous good fortune to be taken under the wing of Johann Simon Mayr, Maestro di Cappella of the Lombard city who educated, protected and sent him on for further musical training under the renowned Padre Stanlislao Mattei at Bologna.
  Dazzled by this transformation and at first inclined to devote himself to church music, the youthful Donizetti only tentatively embraced the stage.  Perhaps unbelieving of his fate, he only slowly abandoned the lighter forms - the farces and semi-seria works which initiated his operatic career - but always flaunting quick-wits and ingenuity which drew attentive ears even in the age of Rossini.  Based in Naples from 1822, between 1820 and 1830 he indefatigably attempted every type of opera on offer in the peninsula - sometimes with fleeting success [Zoraida di Granata (1822) and La zingara (1822)], sometimes with abject failure [Chiara e Serafina (1822) and Alfredo il grande (1823)]  but always relentlessly professional and fluent.  Nothing, ever, was left to chance.

   In 1826 he tried his hand at tragedy for the first time [Gabriella di Vergy (staged in 1842 in Naples)];  from 1827 onwards he turned his hand to heroic neo-classical drama [L’esule di Roma (1828)] and  film-script-like travelogue plots [Otto mesi in due ore (1827), Il castello di Kenilworth (1829) and Emilia di Liverpool (1824 revised in 1828)]  capping the decade with gory romantic melodramma [Il Paria (1829) and Imelda de’Lambertazzi (1830)].  Successful comedy also co-existed throughout this long pilgrimage [L’ajo nell’imbarazzo (1824); Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali (1827); and Il giovedi grasso (1829)] so that, unlike most of his rivals, he found himself with every style at his disposal for the rest of his life.  To bring  this whole phase to a climax, to mark the end of this evolution  - sometimes light-hearted,  often painful,  always vivid  - his momentous Anna Bolena of 1830  proved to be a  catalyst,  a  matrix.  Championed by the soprano Giuditta Pasta and Giovanni Rubini, the super-stars of the day, he burst beyond the Italian frontiers to shine on every major stage.  Henceforth Donizetti took the operatic world by storm.

Expansive, good-natured and prodigal he was always at his desk, indifferent or unaware of the jealousies that surrounded him, he wrote two or three high-profile operas a year, together with cantatas, masses and motets, fulfilling every commission. In a flurry of contracts, of libretti, at the hub of all theatrical turmoil, he took on a teaching role at Naples Conservatoire in 1834-5 surrounding himself with pupils who remembered his warmth and generosity for the rest of their lives.  Neapolitan enough to have written some of the most popular songs of the day he remained an outsider, a “foreigner” throughout his stay, an abrasive situation that reached a climax when, his wife dead, his major operas refused a staging in at the S.Carlo owing to their chain of unforgettably brilliant deaths and disasters (the Naples government trying to stem the tide of romantic drama fearing public unrest), he was repeatedly refused the vacant post of Director of the Conservatoire.  Donizetti determined to leave.  Thus, in 1838, Naples lost for good the composer of most of the operas that shone brightest in the decade: L’elisir d’amore (1832),  Parisina (1833), Lucrezia Borgia (1833, [Maria Stuarda (1834) upon whose music Donizetti was obliged to tack a less alarming text], Roberto Devereux (1837), and above all - Lucia di Lammermoor of 1835 - the  one opera that straddled the annals of the day more brilliantly than any other.
  Decamping first to Paris, then to Vienna, where he was given the appointment of Court composer, he intensified his output - writing ever more ambitious scores, the international sophistication of his life colouring both his instrumentation and his expressive vocabulary. To French texts he wrote La Fille du régiment (1840), Les Martyrs (1840), and La Favorite (1840) a grand-slam which left the Paris stage reeling, following this with Don Sébastien roi de Portugal of 1843 which he considered his masterpiece - the last three of which being modish examples of the “grand-opéra” mode  - gigantic block-busters with spectacular settings and an integral ballet;  for Vienna he wrote Linda di Chamounix (1842) and Maria di Rohan  (1843) both of which were soon transferred to Paris in suitably modified editions.  His acute sensitivity to local tastes and command of vernacular style were never more in evidence. 
  For Paris too came his last and most momentous comedy: Don Pasquale of 1843, which not only raised the roof with an unparalleled cast (Grisi, Mario, Tamburini, Lablache) but had the honour of bidding farewell, almost, to the long and irresistible tradition of Italian comic opera.  
  It said farewell too, almost, to the composer himself.  For decades he had suffered from  fevers, headaches, nausea, lightning indispositions for which no real diagnosis was ever made, these accompanied by a fervour of  composition indicative of a cerebral dysrhythmia quite beyond the normal span.  In 1845 he was struck by paralysis, followed by a rapid dementia.  Until his death early in 1848 he remained stubbornly inaccessible.  It has been commonplace to attribute this collapse to a venereal infection despite an unrealistically long gestation, but modern diagnosis with genetic imprinting at its disposal would probably look at the case again in another light.

Donizetti’s life,  from rags to world fame, epitomised the romantic flights of fancy of his day, his intensity, his expressive vocabulary always sustained by an inimitable style and unforgettable melodies, summed-up a human drama inseparable from the splendours and miseries he found around him and within himself.

This biography was most recently edited by...
steven - 14 Jan 2010
maestro - 29 Nov 2009