Gaetano Donizetti : 10 (little) things you (perhaps) do not know about the composer

A tragic ending, a lawsuit against Victor Hugo, and a missing bone from his remains...the life of composer Gaetano Donizetti is as surprising as it is unknown by most! Here are 10 (little) things you (perhaps) do not know about the composer of L'elisir d'amore, Lucia di Lammermoor, and Don Pasquale.

Gaetano Donizetti : 10 (little) things you (perhaps) do not know about the composer
Portrait of italian composer Gaetano Donizetti (1797 - 1848), © Getty

The names Rossini, Bellini, and Verdi are generally more widely known than the name Donizetti. And yet...! No less than his three compatriots, the Italian composer was well and truly part of the musical elite of the 19th century.

Gaetano Donizetti composed more than 70 operas and found himself at the pinnacle of the Bel Canto movement, the style so characteristic of Italian Romanticisim whereby the singing was showcased through opulent airs and impressive vocalisations. 

However, did you know? Donizetti also composed over fifteen symphonies, 18 quartets and several religious works. And this is only a teaser, since there are still 10 (little) things to (re)discover about the prolific Maestro!

The Desert of the Tartars

In The Desert of the Tartars, the writer Dino Buzzati tells the story of lieutenant Giovanni Drogo, desperately awaiting a war that ultimately will never come, a story echoing somewhat the early years of Donizetti's life. Enrolled in the Italian army in order to support his family, he too patiently waited, though contrary to Drogo he waited not for a war but rather the opportunity to earn a living through his music.

So as to avoid boredom at the barracks during the prevailing peace time, Donizetti often composed operas. With the help of his first music professor, Giovanni Simone Mayr, he eventually received several commissions. It was therefore following the success of Enrico di Borgogna, first performed in Venice in 1818, that he was finally able to remove his military uniform and dedicate himself to a new purpose: composition.

Vue aérienne de Bergame, ville natale de Donizetti, située dans le nord de l'Italie près de Milan.
Vue aérienne de Bergame, ville natale de Donizetti, située dans le nord de l'Italie près de Milan. , © Getty / De Agostini

Bellini, Bel Ami

As Italy entered the 19th century, Vincenzo Bellini was a handsome and brilliant young man and a celebrated composer amongst the country's highest ranks of society. Another composer principally dedicated to opera and composing vocal music, he was therefore an obvious rival to Donizetti.

Friends or enemies? Unfortunately for those who enjoy gossip and quarrels, the jealousy between Donizetti and Bellini only resulted in a few anecdotes. In reality, the two composers appreciated one another, and when they first met in Naples in 1822, Bellini is said to have been charmed by the jovial character of his rival.

In 1835, rehearsals of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor were in full swing when he learned of the sudden and violent death of Bellini (only 33 years of age). Profoundly shaken by the news, he locked himself away in his study to compose a Requiem, in honour of his friend.

Fast as lightning

Donizetti could well be a record-holder: he composed 70 operas in less than 30 years! The composer was certainly inspired, but that's not all: he worked fast, very fast. The opera L’élixir d’amour? Composed in 15 days (according to legend). Lucia di Lammermoor ? Only six weeks of work. It's no surprise that the Neopolitans nicknamed him Dozzinetti (dozzina meaning dozen in Italian).

As an adolescent Donizetti was a student at the prestigious Liceo Musicale in Bologna, under the guidance of father Mattei (former teacher of Rossini). Immediately, his creativity as well as his speed astonished all those around him. Before the age of 20 he had already completed three operas. "When a subject is pleasing, the heart speaks, the head races forward, and the hand writes", he later explained in his correspondence; a disconcerting ease, to say the least.

The recipe for a good opera

Ultimately, if Maestro Donizetti was so efficient, it's because he knew precisely the key to a successful opera. A good theatrical libretto, with many pleasing airs one after the other. Add several great voices capable of standing up to the _bel-canto-_style arias by Rossini. Work, and repeat.

Begin your opera with a charming sinfonia then slowly add the choir. Be sure to hold back the entrance of the prima donna, so as to build up the impact of her grand aria. Then, go for it! Bring out the passion, love, jealousy! Finally, depending on the overall plot, add a pinch of humour.

A lawsuit against Victor Hugo

Donizetti's style and vision were not to everybody's taste, notably the eminent author Victor Hugo. After his work Lucrèce Borgia is transformed into an Italian opera and performed in Paris in 1840, the author immediately filed a lawsuit for infringement.

Hugo won the resulting case, resulting in Donizetti having to change the name of his opera from Nizza di Grenade to La Rinnegata, and even changing the set design, including the period of the work, its costumes and its setting.

It was often said that Victor Hugo did not approve of his words being put to music. The truth, however, is more subtle. For Hugo (and his lawyers), the theatrical drama should remain as close to reality as possible, whereas opera, due to its musical nature, could achieve this same ideal: it is an illusion.

Alastair Miles (Alfonso) et Claire Rutter (Lucrezia) dans l'opéra 'Lucrezia Borgia' mis en scène par Mike Figgis pour Le London Coliseum, en 2011.
Alastair Miles (Alfonso) et Claire Rutter (Lucrezia) dans l'opéra 'Lucrezia Borgia' mis en scène par Mike Figgis pour Le London Coliseum, en 2011. , © Getty / Robbie Jack

Laughter is the best medecine

If opera is an illusion, it undoubtedly provided a necessary escape for Donizetti. One of his specialities was the use of humour. L’élixir d’amour (1832), La fille du régiment (1840), Don Pasquale (1843), each one a comedy pitting a grumpy old man against passionate and enamoured lovers

The humour and optimism of these works, however, did not reflect the reality of their composer.  Firstly, an empoverished and difficult childhood forced Donizetti to rely entirely on the unwavering support of the chapel master Mayr and the charitable school of music, without which he would never have made his first steps in composition.

Then followed his illness, most likely syphilis, which he first contracted in Naples in 1829 and whose recurring symptoms he carried till his death in 1848. Finally came the passing of his two young children, as well as the death of his wife Virginia in 1837.

An Italian in Paris

"Donizetti seems to treat us like a conquered country; it is a veritable invasion". A warm and charming welcome on behalf of Hector Berlioz, recounting (in his own fashion) the popularity of the Italian opera in Paris during the 19th century.

Donizetti moved to the French capital shortly after the death of his wife, and quickly became one of the city's most popular composers, due in no small part to the success of his works sung in French: La Fille du régiment (1840), La Favorite (1840), Dom Sébastien (1843).

Though today his name lives on through a street name in the capital's 16th arrondissement, no official homage was give following his death in 1848. However, it is worth noting that the composer's time in Paris ended on a rather sour note, involving his Italian heritage, the French police, and even notable members of the Court of Vienna...

A time of madness

From the early 1840s, Donizetti's health gradually deteriorated. Whilst in Paris during two voyages, the composer slowly lost grip of reality. He dramatically lost weight, and fell into regular fits of dizzying delirium when not in a state of dazed paralysis. With the authorisation from his nephew Andrea, Donizetti was committed for 13 months in a hospital in Ivry.

This led to a grand political affair; The composer's family fought to have him return to Bergamo, in Italy. The French authorities and doctors, however, advised against allowing such a journey. Police were therefore posted at the foot of his building in order to prevent his departure. Were they truly there to ensure the musician's well-being? Or rather to ensure that the illustrious artist gave up the ghost on their soil? A difficult situation only resolved following the intervention of the Court of Vienna, where Donizetti still held the title of Chapel Master, resulting in the "liberation" of the composer.

A grave matter...

Gaetano Donizetti passed away on 8 April 1848 in his hometown of Bergamo. His story, however, does not end there... Firstly buried in the cemetery of his hometown, his remains were excavated in 1875 and transfered to the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. However, during this operation it was discovered that the composer's cranial cap was missing.

An inquiry was launched and the missing piece of the skull was eventually found in a butcher shop and delicatessen. Interestingly, the forensic doctor in charge of the autopsy had in fact kep the composer's cranial cap for further examination. After his death, his belongings were sold off, and a butcher took possession of the cap. He used it as a bowl for his spare change, completely unaware that he possessed a small fragment of the famous Donizetti!

Entrée nord de la basilique Santa Maria Maggiore de Bergame.
Entrée nord de la basilique Santa Maria Maggiore de Bergame., © Getty / De Agostini

Who is to thank? Callas!

After his death, the works of Donizetti were slowly but surely forgotten, but who was to blame? Certainly the changing of public taste and fashion, putting aside the Bel Canto tradition in favour of the more realist verismo style of music. And though the immense success of Giuseppe Verdi also contributed to the shadowing of the works of his contemporaries, the principal reason for the gradual neglect of Donizetti's music was above all the singular nature of his lyrical works.

Each of his operatic roles were written specifically for and tailored to one of the great voices of his generation: Pasta, Malibran, Gilbert Duprez… The composer put his art at the service of his performers and those that, almost a century after his death, sought to bring his music back to life.

In 1957, Maria Callas performed triumphantly at Milan's La Scala in the role of Anna Bolena, marking the beginning of the Donizetti Renaissance: the Maestro's old works were once again performed and several of the greatest voices, including Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballé, Luciano Pavarotti, and more recently Nathalie Dessay and Juan Diego Florez, took it upon themselves to bring new life to the composer's works.

Further information :

  • DE VAN Gilles, Gaetano Donizetti, Bleu Nuit éditions, 2009
  • LABIE Jean-François, L'opéra italien : Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi dans Histoire de la musique occidentale (Jean et Brigitte MASSIN, dir.), Fayard, 1985
  • THANH Philippe, Donizetti, coll. Classica, Actes Sud, 2005