Domenico Donizetti

Portrait of Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti

Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti was an Italian composer, best known for his 60 plus operas. He was born on 29th November 1797 in Bergamo, Lombardy, Italy and died on 8th April 1848 in Bergamo, Italy aged 50.

Major Works

“Anna Bolena” (1830)
“L’Elisir d’Amore” (1832)
“Parisina” (1833)
“Lucia da Lammermoor” (1835)
“La Fille du Regiment” (1840)

Biography Timeline

Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti was born on 29th November 1797 in Bergamo, Cisalpine Republic, Italy. His father Andrea was the caretaker of the monte di pieta (municipal pawnshop). Gaetano was the youngest of three sons and in 1802 he began studying music with Giovanni Simone Mayr, the Bavarian musical director of St Maria Maggiore church in Bergamo who was also a successful opera composer.

1805: Mayr founds the Lezioni Caritatevoli school in Bergamo (now the Conservatorio Gaetano Donizettii) to provide musical training for choirboys.

1807: His father attempts to enrol two of his sons in the new school but only Gaetano was the right age.

1810: Donizetti is accepted by the local Academia Carrara art school but it is not known whether he attends classes.

1811: The music school at Santa Maria Maggiore puts on their annual play in September and he is cast in the lead role of “Il piccolo Compositore di Musica” (The Little Music Composer).

1815: He travels to Bologna to study at the Liceo Filarmonico with the help of Mayr where he learns fugue and counterpoint under Padre Stanislao Mattei. The Marchese Francesco Sampieri finds him lodgings.

1817: His first student opera is “Il Pigmalione”. He returns to Bergamo later in the year where he writes string quartets and piano pieces.

1818: His first professional success is “Enrico di Borgogna” which is premiered in Venice at the Teatro San Luca on 14th November. The work is not a success in no small part due to the late withdrawal of the soprano Adelaide Catalani.

1819: He works on some sacred and instrumental music in at the end of the year he writes the opera buffa “Il Falegname di Livonia, o Pietro il Grande, Czar delle Russie” (The Livonian Carpenter, or Peter the Great, Tsar of the Russias) which is performed in Venice in December.

1821: In October he moves to Rome where he produces “Zoraida di Granata” (Zoraida the Grenade) at the Teatro Argentina which has its opening night on 28th January 1822 after numerous problems are overcome. It is his first major success.

1822: He moves to Naples where the two-act opera “La Zingara” (The Gypsy Girl) is premiered at the Teatro Nuovo on 12th May. Six weeks later he performs “La Lettera Anonima” (The Anonymous Letter) and in August “Chiara e Serafina, o II Pirati” (Chiara and Serafina, or The Pirates).

1823: He writes a cantata and an opera seria “Alfredo il Grande” for the San Carlo theatre and an opera buffa for the Teatro Nuovo in Naples and also works on the revised version of “Zoraida di Granata” for Rome. 

1824: He writes “Lajo Nell’Imbarazzo” (The Tutor Embarrassed) for Rome’s Teatro Valle and the premiere takes place on 4th February and is greeted with enthusiasm. In Naples he performs “Emilia di Liverpool” but it only runs for seven performances.

1827: In January the premiere of “Alahor” is held.  He performs the one-act opera “Elvida” to celebrate the birthday of Queen Maria of the Two Sicilies. He signs a new in contract in Naples committing himself to composing four new operas a year beginning with “Otto Mesi in Due Ore, Ossia Gli Esiliati in Siberia” (Eight Months in Two Hours or The Exiles in Siberia). In May he becomes engaged to Virginia Vasselli, the 18-year-old daughter of his friends in Rome.

1828: He marries Virginia in July and they set up home in Naples and writes “Gianni di Calais”.

1830: His next opera “Anna Bolena” (Anne Boleyn) is a big hit with the public when it premieres in Milan in December at the Teatro Carcano. It is later taken to other parts of Europe and is performed in the United States giving him international fame.

1831: The comic opera “Francesca di Foix” is performed in Naples in May and the farce “La Romanziera e l’Uomo Nero” in July. Meanwhile in Milan “Le Concenienze ed Inconvenienze Teatrali” (Conventions and Inconveniences of the Stage) is given in Milan in April.

1832: His famous “L’Elisir d’Amore” (The Elixir of Love) is premiered and “Fausta” and “Ugo, Conte di Parigi”(Hugo, Count of Paris) are given in January and march respectively.

1833: “Lucrezia Borgia” is premiered at La Scala Milan. In Rome he performs “Il Furioso all’Isola di San Domingo” (The Madman on the Island of San Domingo) in January and “Torquato Tasso” in September. “Otto Mesi in Due Ore” is given in Livorno and “Parisina” in Florence during March.

1835: His “Marino Faliero” is performed in Paris at the Theatre Italien in March at the behest of Gioachino Rossini, however, it suffers by comparison to Vincenzo Bellini’s “I Puritani” which was produced a few weeks before. In May he asks the Neapolitan censors to approve his new work based on Walter Scott’s novel “The Bride of Lammermoor”. The Teatro di San Carlo is on the verge of bankruptcy and rehearsals for the new opera do not begin until August. The bel canto opera “Lucia di Lammermoor” is premiered on 26th September and is an instant success. In December he performs “Maria Stuarda” (Mary Stuart) based on the play by Friedrich Schiller.

1836: He performs “Belisario” at La Fenice in Venice but then decides he will have greater freedom and more money working in Paris.

1837: “Lucia di Lammermoor” premieres in Paris and “Robert Devereux” is given at the San Carlo in Naples. His wife Virginia dies after the stillbirth of their son which affects him deeply. None of his three children survived birth, possibly due to his syphilis.

1838: He moves permanently to Paris after the King of Naples bans his “Poliuto” due to its Christian theme which is deemed sacrilegious for the theatre. “Lucrezia Borgia” is withdrawn due to objections by Victor Hugo. He then writes “La Fille du Regiment“(The Daughter of the Regiment) his first opera with a libretto in French.

1840: “La Fille du Régiment” receives its premiere“Poliuto” becomes “Les Martyrs” in Paris in April and “La Favorite” is performed on 2nd December.

1841: His pupil Bartolomeo Merelli, is now director of La Scala and the Kärnthnerthor Theatre, in Vienna and commissions “Maria Padilla” for Milan.

1842: He is offered the position of Music Director at the court of Vienna and he splits his time between Paris and Vienna. He dedicates “Linda di Chamounix” to the empress Maria Anna in Vienna in March. Just before he leaves, he conducts the premiere of Rossini’s “Stabat Mater” in Bologna and the two men meet for the first time.

1843: He produces “Don Pasquale” on 3rd January and finally “Dom Sébastien Roi de Portugal” (Dom Sebastian King of Portugal) at the Paris Opera in November but is now suffering from headaches and declining mental capacity.

1844: He tries to break his contract with San Carlo in Naples but this is not accepted and he finishes “Caterina Cornaro, Ossia La Regina di Cipro” (Caterina Cornaro or The Queen of Cyprus). When it appears in May it is not successful with the public. He produces “Maria di Rohan” in June and returns to Paris.

1845: He is becoming more aware of his failing health and mental state. He leaves Vienna for the last time on 10th July and in August he is diagnosed with cerebro-spinal syphilis and severe mental illness. Doctors recommend that the Italian climate would better suit him. However, he does work on “Gemma di Vergy” for Paris which is premiered on 16th December.

1846: He is taken to a hospital outside Paris by his Nephew Andrea as he is confirmed mentally ill by several doctors. They refuse Andrea’s request fro him to be taken back to Bergamo. 

1847: Finally, on 7th September he is allowed to leave by coach with Andrea after diplomatic interventions from Austrian officials to the French. He thinks he is going to Vienna. His nephew goes with him on the long journey to Bergamo. 

1848: He is now paralysed and unable to speak and on 1st April a further decline means he is unable to take in food.

Gaetano Donizetti died on the afternoon of 8th April 1848 in Bergamo, Italy of neurosyphilis. He was buried in Valtesse Cemetery in Bergamo but in 1875 was moved inside the Basilica de Santa Maria Maggiore in the city and placed near Simon Mayr. 

Further Information

List of operas by Donizetti.