On this date in 1813, Italy's great 19th-century composer, Giuseppe Verdi, was born to a humble family in Roncole, Italy. He began music lessons with the village church organist at age 7. He was turned away from a conservatory in Milan, but studied privately. His first opera, Oberto, was produced at La Scala in 1839. Many operas would follow, including Rigoletto (1851), Il Trovatore and La Traviata (1852), and Les Vepres Siciliennes (1855), which was criticized by clergy. The composer of Don Carlos (1867), Aida (1870), Otello (1886) and Falstaff (1893) was acclaimed internationally, and regarded by contemporaries as the greatest Italian composer of his century. Verdi's early personal life was marked by family tragedies, including the death of his sister at age 17, the death of his first son, and then of his young first wife, to illness. Verdi avoided writing ecclesiastical music, was an anti-Papist, and a rationalist. He served Parliament from 1861 to 1865 and sympathized with the 19th-century campaigns for freedom. At the end of his successful career, Verdi shared his wealth, endowing the city of Milan with two million lire in 1898 to establish a home for aging musicians.
Verdi’s second wife, Giuseppina Strepponi, called her husband “certainly very little of a believer” (quoted in Verdi: A Biography by Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, 1993). She wrote: “I exhaust myself in speaking to him about the marvels of the heavens, the earth, the sea, etc. It’s a waste of breath! He laughs in my face and freezes me in the midst of my oratorical periods and my divine enthusiasm by saying ‘you’re all crazy,’ and unfortunately he says it with good faith.” Verdi’s wife eventually warmed to his lack of religion, saying, “For some virtuous people, a belief in God is necessary. Others, equally perfect, while observing every precept of the highest moral code, are happier believing in nothing” (quoted in Verdi: A Biography by Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, 1993). Verdi was well-known as an unbeliever and there was no religious service when he died, by his own request: “[My funeral is to be without] any part of the customary formulae,” Verdi wrote in his will (cited by F.T. Garibaldi in Giuseppe Verdi, 1903). Twenty-eight thousand mourners showed up for his secular funeral. D. 1901