Verdi’s first set of songs was published as Sei Romanze (1838), before the premature death of his two young children, his resignation from the post of maestro di musica of Busseto and his departure for Milan. The collection consists of four settings of minor poets from Italy, in addition to two translations from Goethe’s poems. Strophic design with elegant Bellinian melodies were evident in ‘More lo stanco poeta’, ‘In solitaria stanza’ and ‘Perduta ho la pace’. The last one was better known by Schubert’s ‘Gretchen um Spinnrade’. Verdi’s setting shared the same key (D minor) of Schubert’s setting, and surprisingly restrained in emotion. However, the melody bears a full-bodied characteristic which is unmistakably Italian. The rest of the set are marked by more ‘operatic’ approach. Ominous tremolos and declamatory singing expressed the wrath and disparaging despair of the jilted lover in ‘Non t’accostare all’urna’ and ‘Nell’orror di notte oscura’. Taken again from Goethe’s Faust, and previously set by Schubert, Schumann and Wagner, ‘Deh, pietoso, oh Addolorata’ is fashioned as a miniature scena and aria by Verdi. The through-composed structure, with changes in both piano texture and tempo, aptly depicts the tortured soul who begs the Madonna’s pity.
The following year marked a turning point in Verdi’s career, the success of his first opera, Oberto, encouraged Bartolomeo Merelli, impresario at La Scala, to offer Verdi a contract for three more operas. Determined to make his break into the Milanese opera circuit, Verdi devoted most of time to opera and produced only two songs. The ballade-like ‘Le seduzione’ (1839) tells the story of innocence lost, ending in the seduced maiden’s tragic death at child birth. It shares the same Bellinian features found in the lyrical numbers among the six romances. ‘L’esule’ (1839), on the other hand, is overtly operatic in form and content. The long introduction leads to a recitative in B-flat major. The cantabile in D minor expresses the longing and sadness of the exile. The subsequent Allegro and Moderato in F major resembles the cabaletta in operas. The sudden surge of energy depicts the exile’s desire for death and reuniting with his beloved mother.
With the unprecedented success of the premiere Nabucco in 1840, Verdi went on to write 16 operas in the 11 years, averaging one in every nine months. The “galley years” came to a close with the première of La traviata in March 1853. Verdi was now an honored guest among Italy’s salons, and the composer’s songs were created as album leaves, dedicated to delight his patrons. The composer’s new found fame also put him in touch with renowned librettist and poets, including Andrei Maffei and Felice Romani. These changes were reflected in his second set of Sei Romanze (1845). There was a remarkable change in style: the piano took on a new independence from the vocal line, the musical idiom was lighter and more diverse in character, and there was a greater demand on the singer’s virtuosity. The set comprises of the lighter, more popular styles in some of the settings. ‘La zingara’ paints an optimistic picture of the gypsy life. The comic caricature of the chimney sweep in ‘Lo spazzacamino’ makes it a favorite recital encore. The ebullient setting ‘Brindisi’ served as a prototype of the drinking songs in La traviata and Otello. Elegance and restraint define the tone in ‘Il tramonto’ and ‘Il mistero’. The hushed sextuplet figuration in the piano part was cleverly adapted to depict the shimmering rays in the former, and the rumbling currents at the depths of the lake in the latter. Last but not least, Verdi’s more experimental spirit was found in ‘Ad una stella’, where the free modulations contrast sharply with the ethereal outer sections in A-flat major. The 1840s also saw Verdi’s rise to international fame. In 1847, Verdi left Italy on an expedition to supervise the premières of I masnadieri in London and Jérusalem in Paris. The international engagements led to the setting of ‘Il povertto’, a text by Manfredo Maggioni, the chief librettist of the London Royal Italian Opera.
The pace of Verdi’s operatic production slowed considerably after La traviata. The 18 years that followed saw only six new works: Les vêpres siciliennes, Simon Boccanegra, Un ballo in maschera, La forza del destino, Don Carlos and Aida. From 1861 to 1865, Verdi entered briefly into politics as a deputy in the Italian parliament. To commemorate Rossini’s death in 1868, Verdi wrote the ‘Libera me’, which was eventually incorporated into his own Requiem Mass six years later. Verdi’s compassion for fellow artists found yet another example in his ‘Stornello’ (1869). A lively piece modeled after Tuscan song, it was Verdi’s contribution to an album dedicated to the librettist Francesco Maria Piave, who had suffered a stroke and his family plagued by poor finances.