Childhood & Early Years
Vincenzo Salvatore Carmelo Francesco Bellini was born on 3 November 1801, in Catania, then a part of the Kingdom of Sicily. His father, Rosario Bellini, was an organist, composer and a music teacher. His mother’s name was Agata Bellini. He was the eldest of his parents’ seven children.
According to legends, he could sing an aria by Valentino Fioravanti when he was one and a half years old. Although this might be an exaggeration, there is no doubt that he was born a prodigy and started studying piano with his father at the age of three.
At the age of six, he started studying composition with his paternal grandfather, Vincenzo Tobia Bellini, an organist and composer for a local nobleman called Prince Biscari. Around the same time, he is believed to have set a Tantum ergo for performance in church.
For a period of time in the 1810s, he lived in his grandfather’s house, having regular music lessons with him. During this period, he wrote several compositions, among which nine were Versetti da cantarsi il Venerdi Santo. He also completed several orchestral pieces, quickly gaining appreciation in Catania.
By 1818, he was ready for further studies, which meant shifting to Naples and enter its music conservatory. Since his family was not wealthy enough to support him, he petitioned the city fathers for a four-year stipend, which was unanimously granted in May.
In July 1818, he left for Naples to study at Conservatorio di San Sebastiano with letters of recommendations from Catania, also submitting ten pieces of his music. Although by then he had passed the normal age of admission, he was granted entry into the conservatory because of them.
Initially, he was admitted into the beginners’ class, but very quickly moved up through formal petition. The students had to follow a strict routine that started at 5:15 am and ended at 10 pm. With Niccolò Antonio Zingarelli as its director, the general atmosphere of the conservatory was very conservative.
The curriculum at the conservatory focused mainly on the works of the Neapolitan masters like Alessandro Scarlatti and Italian classical era composers like Pergolesi and Paisiello. They were also taught the works of Haydn and Mozart, completely shunning the works of modern composers like Gioachino Rossini.
At the conservatory, Vincenzo Bellini began studying harmony and accompaniment with Giovanni Furno and counterpoint with Giacomo Tritto. In January 1820, on passing his examination in theory, he secured an annual scholarship which enabled him to spend his stipend on his family.
One of the conditions of the scholarship was that he would have to write music for Catania. In January 1821, he sent a ‘Messa di gloria’, thus fulfilling his obligation. It was successfully performed in October.
In 1822-23, he began to study with Niccolò Antonio Zingarelli. The older man quickly realized Bellini’s potential and told him that if he wanted to succeed as a composer he must create melody with his heart and then set it to music as simply as he could.
Possibly in January 1824, Bellini passed his examination, earning good grades. Thereafter, he was made a primo maestrino, a position that required him to teach younger students. It also enabled him to have his own room and to visit operas on Thursdays and Sundays.
Among the operas he saw, ‘Semiramide’ by Rossini impressed him most. He now started experimenting with music, very soon developing a style that combined both older and newer ideas. Many of his works of this period were sacred music.
In 1825, he graduated from the conservatory, writing an opera titled ‘Adelson e Salvini’. The work was based on François-Thomas de Baculard d’Arnaud’s novel, ‘Épreuves du Sentiment’. Performed by his student colleagues in the conservatory’s teatrino, it earned him great appreciation and also a commission to write another opera.
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In 1825, soon after his graduation, Vincenzo Bellini began his career, writing ‘Bianca e Fernando’, based on a play by Carlo Roti, for a royal event. The work was commissioned by the impresario of Naples’ Teatro di San Carlo. Niccolò Antonio Zingarelli also played a significant part in securing this honor.
The opera, initially presented as ‘Bianca e Gernando’ due to royal intervention, was premiered on 30 May 1826. It was hugely successful and the king broke the tradition by applauding the work.
In February-March 1827, Domenico Barbaja, an Italian best known as an opera impresario, offered Bellini a commission to write another opera, which was to be presented in the autumn of 1827 at La Scala in Milan. Accepting the offer, Bellini next moved to Milan, living there from 1827 to 1833.
In Milan, Vincenzo Bellani was introduced to Felice Romani, an Italian poet and librettist. Under Romani’s suggestion, he composed ‘Il pirata’. Romani also wrote the libretto, thus beginning a long lasting professional partnership that lasted until 1832.
‘Il pirata’, premiered on 17 October, 1827, was an immediate success and by the time the season ended on 2 December, it had been performed fifteen times to full houses in Milan. Its success led to further commissions, including one from Bartolomeo Merelli.
In January 1828, Bartolomeo Merelli asked Bellini to write a new opera, which would be performed on 7 April in Genoa. As his troupe was to visit Vienna in February and Naples in May, he was not sure his singers would be free and therefore, he was initially hesitant.
In February 1828, he accepted Merelli’s offer, and as there was no time to write a new opera, he decided to revive and rework ‘Bianca e Fernando’. Very soon, Romani began to reconstruct the libretto while Bellini set it to new music, altering it to suit the voices of new singers.
‘Bianca e Fernando’ was premiered in Genoa on 7 April, 1828, earning both popular and critical applaud. Thereafter, he remained in Genoa till 30 April and then returned to Milan, where in June, he signed a contract to write a new opera for the carnival season.
In the autumn of 1828, Bellini started his work on ‘La straniera’ on a libretto, written by Romani. For this work, he received a fee of one thousands ducati. Meanwhile, ‘Il pirata’ was successfully performed in Venice and Naples, making him a cosmopolitan composer.
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On 14 February 1829, ‘La straniera’ was premiered at the Teatroalla Scala in Milan to a resounding success. But his fifth opera ‘Zaira’, based on Voltaire's 1732 tragedy, ‘Zaïre’, was a setback. Premiered on 16 May 1829 at Nuovo Teatro Ducale, Parma, it attracted very little attention.
After the failure of ‘Zaira’, Vincenzo Bellini did not receive any offer until the autumn of 1829. Meanwhile, he decided to reconstruct ‘Il pirata’ and while he was busy doing that, he received an offer to write a new opera for the 1830 carnival season in Venice from Alessandro Lanari.
After the contract was signed in January 1830, Bellini and Romani began working at a frantic speed, premiering his sixth opera, ‘I Capuleti e iMontecchi,’ on 11 March 1830, at Teatro La Fenice, Venice. It was an immediate success, quickly regaining Bellini’s position. He now had multiple offers.
On returning to Milan, Bellini fell ill, possibly from amoebic dysentery. Regaining his health, he first began to work on Victor Hugo’s ‘Hernaani’, later discarding it to take up Romani’s libretto, ‘La sonnambula’. Premiered on 6 March, 1831 at Teatro Carcano, Milan, the opera was a huge success.
His next opera, ‘Norma’, premiered at La Scala in Milan on 26 December 1831, was equally successful. Considered a masterpiece, it was given thirty-two performances in Milan, later being performed in various other places with equal success.
On 5 January 1832, Bellini left Milan for Naples and then moved around for a while before reaching Rome on 30 April. Here, he is believed to have written a one-act opera, ‘Ilfued it sara’, for a private performance. But nothing else is known about it.
Bellini’s next opera was ‘Beatrice di Tenda.’ But by the time they had started working on it, Romani had over-committed himself and therefore, he was late in producing the libretto. Finally, the opera was premiered on 16 March 1833 in Venice. The delay caused a break between the two.
London & Paris
In April 1833, Vincenzo Bellini traveled to London. Staying there until August, he successfully directed a number of his operas, earning high praise both from the local press and the audience. During this period, he also found himself in a social whirl, being invited in number of social occasions.
In middle of August 1833, he returned to Paris, quickly entering the fashionable world, meeting the cream of the society, which not only included the royalty, but also renowned writers and musicians. Thus, he had little musical activities.
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In January 1834, he signed a contract for a new opera for Théâtre-Italien and began to look for a suitable subject, ultimately choosing ‘I puritani’. The libretto was written by Count Carlo Pepoli and since this was their first collaboration, there were many hiccups, which caused considerable tension.
On 24 January 1835, ‘I puritani’ was premiered in Théâtre-Italien in Paris, quickly becoming “the rage of Paris”, running for 17 performances before the season closed on 31 March. Very soon, it began to be performed in other cities, including London. Little did anybody realize that this would be Bellini’s last opera.
Family & Personal Life
Although Vincenzo Bellini had liaisons with various ladies, he never got married.
Bellini had been a chronic sufferer of amoebic dysentery since long. In August 1835, while he was still in Paris, he was once again inflicted with the disease and by September, it became very severe. On 23 September 1835, he died from an acute inflammation of the colon and an abscess in the liver.
Initially, he was buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris and a monument was erected over his resting place in 1839. Later in 1876, forty years after his death, his remains were removed to his birth place, Catania, with great ceremony.
His memorabilia and scores now remain preserved in the Museo Belliniano, located in the Gravina Cruyllas Palace in Catania. In the 1980s and 1990s, he was commemorated on the front of the Banca d'Italia 5,000 lire banknotes, with a scene from his opera ‘Norma’ depicted at its back.