Vincenzo Bellini, born November 3, 1801, in Catania, Sicily [Italy], is the died operatic composer with a gift for creating vocal melody at once pure in style and sensuous in expression. His influence is reflected not only in later operatic compositions, including the early works of Richard Wagner, but also in the instrumental music of Chopin and Liszt.
Born into a family of musicians, Bellini produced his first works while still a student at the Naples Conservatory, where he had been sent by his father, an organist. Bellini gained the patronage of an important impresario, who commissioned Bianca e Fernando for the Naples opera. The success of this early work led to other commissions. Il pirata (1827), written for La Scala, the opera house at Milan, earned him an international reputation. Bellini was fortunate in having as librettist the best Italian theatre poet of the day, Felice Romani, with whom he collaborated in his next six operas. The most important of these were I Capuleti e i Montecchi (1830), based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet; La sonnambula (1831; The Sleepwalker); and Norma (1831). La sonnambula, an opera semiseria (serious but with a happy ending), became very popular, even in England, where an English version appeared. Bellini’s masterpiece, Norma, a tragedy set in ancient Gaul, achieved lasting success despite an initial failure.
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Bellini lived briefly in London in 1833 and then went to Paris. There, composer Gioachino Rossini’s influence secured for him a commission to write an opera for the Théâtre-Italien. The result was I puritani (1835), the last of Bellini’s nine operas; although handicapped by an inept libretto, it is in many ways his most ambitious and beautiful work.
Bellini’s fame was closely bound up with the bel canto style of the great singers of his day. He was not a reformer; his ideals were those of Haydn and Mozart, and he strove for clarity, elegance of form and melody, and a close union of words and music. Yet with perseverance he corrected some of the grosser abuses of opera then current. While he subordinated the orchestra accompaniment to the singers and placed upon their voices the responsibility for dramatic expression, his harmony was more enterprising than that of his contemporary Gaetano Donizetti, and his handling of the orchestra in introductions and interludes was far from perfunctory. It is, however, for the individual charm and elegance of his luminous vocal melody that Bellini is remembered.