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Ludwig van Beethoven


Norma / Maria Callas, Ludwig, Corelli, Zaccaria, Teatro alla Scala, Serafin [BOX SET]


The Life of Bellini by John Rosselli


La Sonnambula


Vincenzo Bellini

In a compositional career even shorter than that of Mozart, Vincenzo Bellini gave the world some of its best-loved opera arias.  Sopranos from Maria Callas to Joan Sutherland to Renée Fleming have regularly performed such bel canto standards as Norma’s great aria “Casta diva."  During the first half of the twentieth century, however, the operas to which these arias belong were neglected.  In the 1950s, however, Maria Callas began her meteoric rise to the top.  Because she frequently made her debut in a new city with a production of a Bellini opera (Norma was a particular favorite), the fortunes of Bellini’s operas rose with her.

Catania and Naples

Vincenzo Bellini was born on November 3, 1801, in the Sicilian city of Catania.  His grandfather, Vincenzo Tobia Bellini, was employed as the composer and organist for a local nobleman, Prince Biscari, and his father was also a composer.  Early biographical documents describe the young Bellini as a child prodigy: he was able to sing an aria before he was two years old and to conduct at three.  

Though these details may have been exaggerated as part of a posthumous romanticization of Bellini’s life, it is certain that he was a musically gifted child.  He probably began to play the piano and compose around the age of six, and is reported to have set a Tantum ergo for performance in church at six or seven.  His grandfather was his first music instructor, and by the time he was a teenager, he was creating a stir in Catania.  The city ultimately awarded him a four-year scholarship so that he could study in Naples, at the Real Collegio di Musica.

When he arrived at this conservatory in 1819, he was at first placed in the beginning-level classes, but through a formal petition he was able to move up.  He also received a second scholarship through this petition.  During his student years, Bellini seems to have won his teachers’ respect, though he and his friend Francesco Florimo were harshly reprimanded for joining the Carbonari, a secret society responsible for instigating the 1820 revolution.  

The general atmosphere of the school was conservative, with the faculty shunning the music of the wildly popular Rossini in favor of the older, less elaborate style of Paisiello.  An avid operagoer in Naples, Bellini was exposed to much new music, and developed a style that combined both the older and the newer compositional ideas.  Many of his early works were sacred compositions, but his most successful student work was the opera he completed upon graduation in 1825, Adelson e Salvini.  Based on an eighteenth-century French novel by François-Thomas de Baculard d’Arnaud, it was performed by Bellini’s student colleagues in the conservatory’s small theater.  Since the students were all men, some of the female parts were apparently sung in falsetto.  

The popularity of Adelson e Salvini won Bellini a commission for an opera to be performed at the San Carlo theater in Naples.  This opera, Bianca e Fernando, was written for a royal event, though its title had to be changed to Bianca e Gernando in order to mollify concerns about the coincidental use of the new king’s name (Ferdinand I).  The opera, which premiered on May 30, 1826, received a very positive reception.  

Bellini remained in Naples for another year, leaving in the spring of 1827 in order to fulfill a contract at La Scala in Milan.  Shortly before he departed Naples, he seems to have fallen in love with a young woman named Maddalena Fumaroli, but, unable to secure permission from her father to marry her, he left with a somewhat broken heart.  They exchanged letters for a while, but Bellini appears to have lost interest by 1828.  After leaving Naples he did, however, maintain a lifelong correspondence with his friend Francesco Florimo.



At La Scala Bellini met the librettist Felice Romani who was assigned to the composer’s first project, Il pirata.  Romani became Bellini’s primary creative partner, providing the libretti for all of Bellini’s operas, save the last.  Though Romani was known to treat composers poorly, he evidently had great respect for Bellini, even acceding to Bellini’s requests for revisions.  It took Bellini six months to write Il pirata, but the time it took was worthwhile, as the opera was a sensation.  After its Milanese debut, it received performances in Naples and Vienna, establishing Bellini as a cosmopolitan success.  He was handsomely paid for his next commissions and was able to make his living composing only operas. 

1829 saw the opening of his second opera for La Scala, La straniera, which was also lauded.  In this opera, Bellini’s unique style came to the attention of music critics, who noted his largely un-decorated vocal melodies and his use of arioso at points where recitative might have been expected.  These compositional devices were termed canto declamato (declaimed singing), and became hallmarks of Bellini’s writing.  Bellini made these creative choices for purposes of expressive effect, valuing clear communication of word and emotion over conventional musical forms.  Such choices firmly distinguished him from Rossini and his disciples, establishing Bellini as an inventive and original new voice in the world of opera.

As Bellini’s success gained him entrance to Milanese society, he acquired numerous friends and patrons.  Among his new acquaintances were Francesco and Marianna Pollini, older musicians who became substitute parents to Bellini during his years in Milan.  Additionally, he spent time with the internationally-renowned soprano Giuditta Pasta and her husband.  In 1828, Bellini was introduced to Giuditta Turina, a young married woman with whom he began a passionate affair.  Perhaps because her marriage was irrevocable, but not based on love, and because the lovers were discreet, her husband and his family seem to have tacitly permitted the relationship.  Bellini’s letters to his friend Florimo indicate his satisfaction with the nature of the liaison, particularly in that it kept him from having to marry, and thus distracting him from his work.

Bellini’s next opera was commissioned before La straniera had premiered and was requested for the opening of the Nuovo Teatro Ducale in Parma.  This opening was set to take place in May 1829, but composition lagged due to lengthy quarrels over the subject (eventually Voltaire’s Zaïre).  Moreover, as Romani wrote in the preface to his libretto, the end product was hastily put together.  These issues, and public awareness of them, led to a poor reception at the opera’s debut.  Bellini was not deterred by this failure, and, in any event, it led indirectly to another success. 

While he was in Venice in 1830 revising Il pirata for the singer Giuditta Grisi, he was asked to provide the La Fenice theater with a last-minute replacement for an opera that had not materialized.  Within about a month, Bellini had secured a pre-existing libretto from Romani, written new music, and plugged in quite a bit of recycled material from Zaira.  The new production, I Capuleti ed i Montecchi (based loosely on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet), met with acclaim in Venice.

Following the opera at La Fenice, Bellini returned to Milan and fell ill, most likely with the first episode of the amoebic dysentery that eventually led to his death.  The Pollinis nursed him through the illness, and in 1831 he began composing a work for the Teatro Carcano in Milan.  Though the opera was initially intended to be a version of Victor Hugo’s Hernani, unknown circumstances brought about a change, and the idea was discarded in favor of a gentler subject, and thus La sonnambula was written.  Giuditta Pasta sang the leading role, and the first performance, in March 1831, was a triumph.  His next opera opened later that year.  On December 26, Pasta debuted as the tragic heroine in Norma, and despite a rocky opening night, the opera quickly spread to stages across Europe.

Pasta suggested that Bellini choose Beatrice di Tenda for his next subject, which he did, but this opera did not fare as well as its predecessor.  Delays in Romani’s work on the libretto reached such an extent that police intervention was required, and a bitter dialogue in letters from Romani and an anonymous supporter of Bellini appeared in Milanese and Venetian newspapers.  Ultimately the opera met with a tepid reception at La Fenice in March 1833.  Bellini’s collaboration with Romani came to an end, though it appears that they had reconciled and started planning further work shortly before Bellini’s death.

Travels to London and Paris

Sometime in 1833, Bellini’s relationship with Giuditta Turina deteriorated.  Her husband came across letters from Bellini, and with the discovery of this written evidence, he ceased to tolerate her indiscretions.  The legal separation he obtained forced her to return to her family.   Turina however expressed her desire to be with Bellini, and the composer’s reaction was to break things off for good.
During this period he traveled extensively (perhaps in part to avoid the awkwardness of being near Turina), spending time in Naples and returning to his family in Sicily.  In 1834 he visited London to oversee the production of his operas, but the trip was disappointing both in terms of how the works were received and his compensation for them.  Happily, Bellini fared better in Paris.  Though he never managed a contract with the French-language opera house, he did secure one at the Théâtre Italien in 1834.  This arrangement resulted in I puritani Il pirata, La sonnambula, and I Capuleti ed i Montecchi were staged there as well. 

The artistic director of the Théâtre Italien was none other than Rossini, and Bellini pursued a friendship with the older composer.  Rossini admired Bellini’s writing in some ways, but expressed concerns regarding its simplicity upon seeing Il pirata in 1829.  For Rossini the music was mature and emotionally rich, but too “philosophical” at the expense of orchestral color and variety.  However, the two got along well enough in Paris, Bellini looking up to Rossini as a near father figure. And, in the end, Bellini was forced to focus more on his orchestration, as Rossini wished, when he realized that a French audience would be more interested in musical range than in the Italian text.

Many of Bellini’s associations from Italy continued in Paris, as friends such as Giuditta Pasta spent professional or leisure time there.  During this time, Bellini entertained thoughts of marriage for the sake of security, first with an English friend of Pasta, and upon her refusal, with Pasta’s young daughter Clelia.  While the Pastas had a few years earlier encouraged these thoughts, they now rejected the idea out of hand, and after one more attempted and failed match, nothing further is known of his plans. 

The demands of his work and social life escalated to the point that he briefly became ill again, and decided to retreat, at least temporarily, to a Paris neighbor’s second house in Puteaux, outside the city.  Despite Bellini’s exhaustion, I puritani opened on January 25, 1835, and quickly became a phenomenon.  It earned Bellini an invitation to the court of the French king and queen (Louis-Philippe and Marie Amalie, daughter of Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies), as well as the status of Knight of the Legion of Honor.

Starting in September 1835, Bellini suffered from progressively deteriorating health.  He finally died of amoebic dysentery on September 23.  He was at first buried in Paris, but his body was later removed with great ceremony and taken to Catania in 1876.  By this point he was a figure of such mythological stature that many mourners, forty years after his death, sought to obtain relics from the body.  To this day, Bellini’s operas are still performed regularly by opera companies around the world.


Smart, Mary Ann, Friedrich Lippmann, and Simon Maguire: ‘Bellini, Vincenzo’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 4 December 2005), <>

Rosselli, John.  The Life of Bellini.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.