10 June 2017

Arrigo Boito – writer and composer

Death of a patriot who fought for Venice

Arrigo Boito met Verdi in Paris
Arrigo Boito met Verdi in Paris
Arrigo Boito, who wrote both the music and libretto for his opera, Mefistofele, died on this day in 1918 in Milan.

Of all the operas based on Goethe’s Faust, Boito’s Mefistofele is considered the most faithful to the play and his libretto is regarded as being of particularly high quality.

Boito was born in Padua in 1842, the son of an Italian painter of miniatures and a Polish countess. He attended the Milan Conservatory and travelled to Paris on a scholarship.

It was there he met Giuseppe Verdi, for whom he wrote the text of the Hymn of the Nations in 1862.

He fought under the direction of Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1866 in the seven weeks of the Third Italian War of Independence, against Austria, after which Venice was ceded to Italy.

While working on Mefistofele, Boito published articles, influenced by the composer Richard Wagner, in which he vigorously attacked Italian music and musicians.

Verdi was deeply offended by his words and by 1868, when Mefistofele was produced in Milan, Boito’s opinions had provoked so much hostility there was nearly a riot.

The opera was withdrawn after two performances, but a revised version, produced in 1875, still survives.

Boito and Verdi in 1892
Boito and Verdi in 1892
Influenced by Beethoven and Wagner, the opera was unconventional. Boito’s second opera, Nerone, was completed after his death by Vincenzo Tommasini and Arturo Toscanini and produced in Milan in 1924.

Boito and Verdi were reconciled in 1873 and Boito revised the libretto for Simon Boccanegra. He also produced a libretto for both Otello and Falstaff.

He wrote the libretto for Amilcare Ponchielli’s La Giocondo in 1876 and also produced a volume of poetry and several novels. 

Boito received the honorary degree of Doctor of Music from the University of Cambridge in 1893.

After his death in 1918, he was interred at the Cimitero Monumentale in Milan.

A memorial concert was given in his honour at La Scala in 1948 when the orchestra was conducted by Arturo Toscanini. This concert has since been issued on CD.

The Scrovegni Chapel features the brilliant frescoes by Giotto
The Scrovegni Chapel features the brilliant frescoes by Giotto
Travel tip:

Padua in the Veneto, where Boito was born, is one of the most important centres for art in Italy and home to the country’s second oldest university. Padua has become acknowledged as the birthplace of modern art because of the Scrovegni Chapel, the inside of which is covered with frescoes by Giotto, an artistic genius who was the first to paint people with realistic facial expressions showing emotion. His scenes depicting the lives of Mary and Joseph, painted between 1303 and 1305, are considered his greatest achievement. At Palazzo Bo, where Padua’s university was founded in 1222, you can still see the original lectern used by Galileo and the world’s first anatomy theatre, where dissections were secretly carried out from 1594.

Travel tip:

La Scala in Milan has a fascinating museum that displays costumes and memorabilia from the history of opera. The entrance is in Largo Ghiringhelli, just off Piazza della Scala. It is open every day except the Italian Bank Holidays and a few days when it is closed in December. Opening hours are from 9.00 to 12.30 and 1.30 to 5.30 pm.

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