Born on November 3rd 1801 in Catania, Sicily, Vincenzo Salvatore Carmelo Francesco Bellini was the eldest of seven children born into a musical family. The house where he was born is now a museum. His father, Don Rosario Bellini and grandfather, Vincenzo Tobia Bellini, were both organists and music teachers. At the age of two, with his father teaching him to play the piano and his grandfather teaching him musical composition, the young Vincenzo quickly became a child prodigy. By the time he was five years old he could sing complicated arias and was a very accomplished pianist. He began composing music before he had begun his formal education and it is believed he composed his first pieces at the age of six.
The house where Bellini was born in Catania - Photo: G Dallorto
In 1819 he entered the Royal College of Music of San Sebastiano (now known as the Naples Conservatory) and progressed so rapidly that he was offered free tuition. By 1824 he was a highly respected teacher and had written his first opera, Adelson e Salvini, which was performed in February 1825. Shortly after this he was given a commission to write an opera for the San Carlo Opera, the result of which was the completion of Bianca e Gernando in 1826. After the success of this opera he was commissioned nine months later to write an opera for La Scala. Moving to Milan he wrote Il Pirata which was first performed on 27th October 1827 and firmly established Bellini as an internationally acclaimed composer.
Bellini - Portrait by Pietro Lucchini
Vicenzo Bellini wrote only a few operas, firmly believing that quality was better than quantity and charged high prices for his works. However, his next opera, Zaira, which was written for the inauguration of the Teatro Ducale in Parma, was a complete failure and was never performed again. He quickly recovered from this setback and in 1830 produced his opera, Capuleti e i Montecchi, which was based on the play Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.
This successful opera was quickly followed in 1831 by Bellini's two most famous operas, La Sonnambula and Norma. Norma, believed to be one of his finest operas, was not well received initially but has since become know as a masterpiece. The aria 'Casta diva' is now one of the most famous and recognised pieces of opera.
Following the success of these two operas, Bellini's next work was Beatrice di Tenda which was premiered at La Fenice in Venice in 1833. This opera was a failure and whether due to this, or other unknown reasons, Vicenzo Bellini left Italy and spent several months in London directing performances of his operas. He subsequently moved to Paris where he composed his final opera, I puritani, which was premiered and well received on 24th January 1835.
The following September, still only 33 years old and at the height of his career, Vicenzo Bellini died on the 23rd of the month in the town of Puteaux near Paris. His cause of death was put down to severe dysentery due to an intenstinal complaint.
Throughout his short life Bellini had several lady friends and relationships but never married and had no children. His tomb is now inside the Cathedral of Catania in Sicily.
Tomb of Bellini in Catania Cathedral - Photo: Berthold Werner
Vincenzo Salvatore Carmelo Francesco Bellini was one of the most important Italian composers with a reputation for fine craftsmanship and an ability to forge an intricate relationship between the music and the words of an opera. His vocal melodies were both pure and sensual and it is said that in order to perform one of his operas the singers must have extremely agile voices.
Vicenzo Bellini wrote various musical pieces and songs but his main compositions were operas, of which he wrote nine:
Adelson e Salvini - 1824
Bianca e Gernando - 1826
Il pirata - 1827
Zaira - 1829
Capuleti e i Montecchi - 1830
La Sonnambula - 1831
Norma - 1831
Beatrice di Tenda
I Puritani - 1835