Giuseppe Verdi began his education before he was four. Despite giving the impression that he came from a peasant background, he benefited hugely from an ambitious, middle-class father, who arranged music lessons and many other opportunities for him. Aged ten, he moved to Busseto to further his education and from 1831, he lodged at the home of Antonio Barezzi, a successful merchant and keen amateur musician, where he gave singing and piano lessons to Barezzi's daughter Margherita. Barezzi sponsored his further musical studies in Milan before Verdi returned to Busseto in 1836 as maestro di musica. In the same year, he married Margherita, and they had two children, who tragically died in infancy. His wife died soon after, leaving Verdi distraught. With his personal life shattered and his professional life disrupted by grief, he turned his focus to composing opera.
Verdi's first opera, Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio, achieved modest success in Milan in 1839, after which he was commissioned to write three operas for La Scala. The first, Un giorno di regno, was a flop, but his follow-up, Nabucco, was such a sensation that Verdi had a stream of new commissions. Verdi travelled to Venice, Milan, Rome, Naples, Florence, Trieste, Paris, and London to supervise stagings and took control of his artistic legacy by accompanying his opera scores with books of stage directions. In 1847, Verdi went to Paris to supervise the production of his opera, Jérusalem and ended up living there for two years, with the soprano Giuseppina Stepponi, who would be his partner until his death.
By the time La traviata was first performed in 1853, Verdi was the most frequently performed Italian opera composer in Europe. He could command large fees for his work, demand the best singers, and choose the best venues in which to premiere his operas. Verdi's early outpouring of operatic works had enabled him to develop his own approach, away from the norm. Although he did not throw away the rule book entirely, he changed what was needed in order to fulfil his own vision. He composed with specific singers' voices in mind to best suit their roles, and continued to base most of his operas on successful plays and novels.
During the late 1850s, however, Verdi showed signs of frustration with writing for the theatre. His rate of production slowed considerably: he completed only six operas in 16 years and did not composer at all from 1858 to 1861. He finished Aida in 1871 only reluctantly to fulfil his commission and then wrote no new operas for 16 years, until 1887, when he wrote Otello. A profoundly serious man, Verdi wrote his final opera, Falstaff, in 1893 at the age of 80 – a brilliant comedy that was unveiled in a flood of publicity.
It is impossible to overestimate Verdi's popularity and influence both during and after his lifetime. More than 120 years after his death, the works of Giuseppe Verdi form a major part of today's opera repertoire. At his funeral in 1901, conductor Arturo Toscanini conducted a vast assembly of musicians from all over Italy at the state funeral. His death was declared an occasion for national mourning, with many thousands of mourners conducting a sombre procession through Milan, accompanied by "Va pensiero" from Nabucco. It remains the largest public gathering in the history of Italy.