I was born underground in Borgo Canale. We would walk down a stair to a basement where no shade of light ever entered. And I took wing like an owl…
In 1802 the composer Johann Simon Mayr (1763-1845) moved definitely to Bergamo, and was appointed maestro di cappella at Santa Maria Maggiore. He was born in Bavaria, an educated man with philanthropic visions, and he had studied music in Italy for many years: at first in Bergamo with Carlo Lenzi (1735-1805), maestro in the Basilica, then mostly in Venice with Ferdinando Bertoni (1725-1813), maestro di cappella in St Mark’s Basilica. In Venice, Mayr had made his debut as a composer: in 1791 with the oratorio “Jacob a Labano fugiens” (“Jacob’s Flight from Laban”) which was executed at the Conservatorio dei Mendicanti, and in 1794 at the Fenice Theater with the opera seria Saffo.
At the beginning of the 19th century Mayr was an internationally known opera composer.
In march 1805 Mayr suggested to the administrators of Santa Maria Maggiore to open a music school, in order to accommodate 12 students coming from a poor family background every year. They would have the opportunity to learn how to sing and how to play harpsichord or violin.
They would study grammar, arithmetic, history, geography, mythology, and poetry as well. The project was approved and the “Lezioni Caritatevoli di Musica” began in spring 1806 in Contrada Santa Grata 18 (today Via Arena 18). Mayr, Francesco Salari (1751-1828: singing), Antonio Gonzales (1764-1830: harpsichord), Antonio Capuzzi (1755-1818: violin) have taught there.
It was the second free public school to have opened in Italy, after the Liceo Filarmonico in Bologna (1804).
The Donizettis moved in Piazza Nova 35 (today Piazza Mascheroni 8), in a small house now demolished (in 1815 they were already living in Contrada Santa Grata 130, now Via Arena 3). In April 1806, both Giuseppe and Gaetano Donizetti applied to be admitted to the Lezioni Caritatevoli promoted by Mayr, which were about to begin for the first year. One of their uncles had given basic lessons of music to Giuseppe. The first born Donizetti was rejected because he was out of age range, while the young Gaetano was admitted to sing and harpsichord classes. His vocal abilities were not promising, but the boy soon made progress.
Since 1809 he had exhibited in various public recitals, both as a chorister and as solo.
In 1806 Giuseppe Donizetti joined the Napoleonic army as flautist in the 7th regiment. He followed Napoleon during his exile to Elba: in 1815 he married a local girl in Portoferraio. In October 1815, he joined the army of the Kingdom of Sardinia as head musician of the regiment. In 1828 he was sent to Constantinople in order to teach and spread the occidental music style in the Ottoman empire, as part of a project of modernization promoted by the sultan Mahmud II (1808-39). Giuseppe Donizetti stayed in Constantinople throughout his life: he was appointed Pasha by sultan Abdul Medijd because of his great ability as a teacher, organizer and director.
Just like his older brothers Giuseppe and Francesco, Gaetano began his career in the music field.
He was a singer (bass), and during carnival 1814 he exhibited at the Teatro Sociale in Bergamo, with two operas by Mayr in program. Between autumn 1814 and summer 1815 he exhibited in variouis vocal-instrumental concerts at the Teatro Riccardi in Bergamo (today Teatro Donizetti), during the masses in Santa Maria Maggiore and probably in Cremona and in Novara as well.
The career as a singer was not for him. However, he showed a natural inclination to composition, as proved by some of his early works which were destined to private reproduction (one of which published in Milan by Ricordi) or to church functions.
Donizetti was resolute to keep on studying music: indeed, he was “crazy for music”, as Giuseppe wrote in approval of his brother’s tenacity.
As suggested by Mayr, Gaetano continued studies at the Liceo Filarmonico in Bologna under the guide of the famous Stanislao Mattei (1750-1825). He was recommended by Mayr and secured funding by the Congregazione di Carità and by some supporters in Bergamo, Mayr had his pupil close to heart: “nature has not provided him with a refined voice, but he has a strong propensity, talent and inclination to composition”. Donizetti stayed in Bologna until December 1817, he achieved excellent grades and appreciation in town.
Nel carnevale 1818 alcuni brani vocali di Donizetti sono eseguiti al Teatro Sociale di Bergamo Alta nel corso della stagione d’opera. Il successo gli frutta la prima scrittura teatrale, al Teatro S. Luca di Venezia. Il 14 novembre 1818 Donizetti vi debutta con l’«opera semiseria spettacolosa» Enrico di Borgogna: l’esito è soddisfacente.
Poco dopo, sullo stesso palcoscenico presenta anche la farsa Una follia, che ottiene maggior successo. Nelle stagioni successive la sua carriera prosegue a Mantova e a Venezia, ma in teatri di secondo piano e in generi d’opera ugualmente meno importanti rispetto a quello serio, cioè il semiserio e il buffo.
Donizetti gained success during carnival 1822 thanks to “Zoraida di Granata” at the Teatro Argentina in Rome. The work was so successful that he could enter the theatres in Naples: he made his debut at the Nuovo with “La Zingara” (“The Gypsy Girl” May 1822) gaining enthusiasm, and the following year at the San Carlo with “Alfredo il Grande” (Alfred the Great). The debut at the Scala in Milano was not as positive, with “Chiara e Serafina” (“Chiara and Serafina” October 1822).
Donizetti was now prominent. The melodramma giocoso “L’aio nell’imbarazzo” (“The Tutor Embarassed”) had a wide circulation (carnival 1824, Teatro Valle di Roma). During his stay in Rome he had met the Vassellis. The firstborn Antonio was a close friend of him and the younger sister, Virginia (1808-37), would become his wife in 1828.
After his stay in Palermo (1825-26), since 1827 Donizetti had stayed and worked in Naples. He was the director of the Teatro Nuovo and then of the Teatro Reali (since 1829), where he could put on stage his works and teach composition at the Conservatory (since 1834).
It’s in Milan though, that he composed the works that made him enter the European scene: “Anna Bolena” (Carcano, carnival 1831), “L’elisir d’amore” (“The Elixir of Love” Canobbiana, May 1832). In that same period, he wrote “Parisina” (Florence, March 1833), “Lucrezia Borgia” (Milan, carnival 1834), “Maria Stuarda” (“Mary Stuart” Naples 1834, though forbidden), “Marino Faliero” (Paris, March 1835), “Lucia di Lammermoor” (Naples, September 1835), “Belisario” (“Belisarius” Venice, February 1836), “Roberto Devereux” (Naples, October 1837), “Poliuto” (Naples 1838, forbidden).
In the summer of 1837 Donizetti’s wife died in childbirth (neither the new-born survived) and the following year the Borbonic censorship forbade Poliuto. Disappointed for not being nominated director of the Conservatory, Donizetti decided to move to Paris. There, he wrote La fille du regiment (Opéracomique, February 1840), Les martyrs (Opéra, April 1840: revision of Poliuto), La favorite (Opéra, December 1840).
Thanks to the success of Linda di Chamounix (May 1842) in Vienna, he was appointed maestro di cappella e di camera of the Hapsburgic court. Donizetti divided his time between the two capitals: in Paris he wrote Don Pasquale e Dom Sébastien (January and November 1843), in Vienna Maria di Rohan (June 1843).
Since 1843 Donizetti had exhibited the symptoms of a brain disease which had slowly worsened. His condition definitely deteriorated in the summer of 1845, in Paris.
Hs nephew Andrea, sent by Giuseppe, came to visit him.
In February 1846 Donizetti was hospitalized in an institute for the mentally ill, close to Paris. Afterwards, he was lodged in a single apartment, in town.
In September 1847 he was finally repatriated: the noble family Basoni in Bergamo had agreed to host him in their palace in the upper town of Bergamo. There, surrounded by friends and loved ones, Donizetti spent his last months without ever regaining mental sanity.
He died on the 8th of April 1848.