Bergamo | Donizetti’s hometown
The birth of Gaetano Donizetti
Gaetano Donizetti, was born in Bergamo on November 29th 1797, fifth child of a deprived family,
Donizetti was born in a house consisting of two rooms, one was a tiny little room where “a ray of light has never penetrated” – as the composer himself wrote in a letter many years later – and another room located underground, with a well in the middle, that served also as food storage.
Bergamo is a city not far from Milan and part of the same metropolitan area, only 30 km away from lakes Como and Iseo and also close to the Alps, which foothills begin right on its north side.
Bergamo rich and interesting history started even before the Romans with the Celts. From the 6th century Bergamo was the seat of one of the most important Lombard duchies of northern Italy, along with Brescia, Trento and Cividale del Friuli.
From the 11th century onward Bergamo became an independent commune, taking part in the Lombard League which defeated Frederick Barbarossa in 1165. After a short conquest by the Malatesta family in 1407 – the signoria then ruling over Rimini and the Romagna Duchy – in 1428 Bergamo fell under the control of the Republic of Venice remaining part of it until its dissolution in 1797.
After the Napoleonic dominion – from 1797 to 1815 – Bergamo was given to the Austrian Empire, until it was freed in 1859 during the Second Italian war of Independence, when it became part of the Kingdom of Italy.
For its remarkable contribution to “Il Risorgimento”, the Italian Independence War, the city is also known as “Città dei Mille”.
The city of Bergamo, when Donizetti was born, wasn’t anymore part of the Venetian Republic, after almost three centuries, having become only a few months earlier part of the Cisalpine Republic led by Napoleon.
Gaetano had an older brother, Giuseppe Donizetti, the first born of the family.
The adventurous life of Giuseppe Donizetti
Giuseppe, who also became a musician and spent most part of his life away from Bergamo, had too an adventurous and quite unique life. He approached the study of music at a very early age, entering a military band in 1808. After Napoleon’s defeat he moved to Sardinia to take on the position of capo musica (head of music) in the new Kingdom of Sardinia.
In 1828 he was offered by the Sultan (Mahmud II) the post of Head of Musical Studies for the Ottoman Empire and therefore moved to Constantinople. The successor of Mahmud II, Sultan Abdul Medjid appointed him nothing less than Pasha, Honorary Colonel of the Ottoman Empire Guards and General Brigadier. Giuseppe spent his last years in Constantinople, where he died in 1856.
Gaetano Donizetti’s childhood
As well as Giuseppe, Gaetano spent only his childhood in Bergamo. He started at a very young age the study of music with an uncle and was later admitted to the charitable institution for poor people established by Johann Simon Mayr (1763-1845), a Bavarian who had moved to Bergamo in 1802 to take on the position of maestro di cappella in the church of S. Maria Maggiore.
Mayr was in fact a famous opera composer, the most respected and important in Italy in the years before the rise of Rossini.
Donizetti attended Mayr’s school from 1806 to 1815, performing with his classmates in church ceremonies and in concerts, as a singer. He was in fact preparing to become a professional singer when Mayr, realizing his gift for composition, organized a fundraising to send the boy to Bologna, to study counterpoint and fugue with teacher Stanislao Mattei, one of the most respected and renowned of his time.
From October 1815 to late 1817 Donizetti specialized in sacred composition but became also increasingly familiar with opera. Returning to Bergamo, he had his first test as a composer: he was asked to write some vocal pieces for the beneficiate – a show, part of the opera season, in which the main singers performed the best of their repertoire, retaining the profits for themselves -.
The songs he wrote for the occasion must have satisfied both the impresario and the public, as Donizetti was then asked to sign his first contract for an opera for the San Luca theatre in Venice: Enrico di Borgogna.
Donizetti’s first opera: Enrico di Borgogna
The libretto for this work was provided by Bartolomeo Merelli (1794-1879) also a student of Mayr’s who later became impresario at La Scala and launched among others, the young Verdi.
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