The Swan of Catania

Vincenzo Bellini was on track to be one of the greatest composers of opera in musical history. Yet his work came to an abrupt and tragic end at the age of just 33…

Young Bellini
Young Bellini

Bellini was born in Catania in 1801, at the time part of the Kingdom of Sicily, the eldest of seven children in a musical family, receiving his first music lessons from his grandfather who had studied at the conservatory in Naples. The young composer began to compose his first pieces when just six years old. 

He was dubbed The Swan of Catania because of the mellifluous long-flowing melodic lines for which he became famous. He was praised and admired by many great names who followed him, including Verdi who raved about his ‘long, long, long melodies …’, Liszt, Chopin and even Wagner were spellbound by his musical skill.

Nicola Antonio Zingarelli
Nicola Antonio Zingarelli

In 1819, he went to Naples to study music at the Conservatorio di San Sebastiano. The artistic director there was the opera composer, Niccolò Zingarelli.His advice to Bellini was: ‘If your compositions “sing”, your music will most certainly please.’

Many of his operas are regularly produced today. Alongside these Bellini also left a string of orchestral and chamber works including 8 symphonies, sonatas, an oboe concerto, two masses and numerous songs. 

The Operas of Bellini

  • 1825 Adelson e Salvini
  • 1826 Bianca e Fernando
  • 1827 Il pirata (The Pirate)
  • 1829 La straniera (The Foreign Woman)
  • 1829 Zaira
  • 1830 I Capuleti e i Montecchi (The Capulets and the Montagues)
  • 1831 La sonnambula (The Sleepwalker)
  • 1831 Norma
  • 1833 Beatrice di Tenda
  • 1835 I puritani (The Puritans)

After his early success with Il Pirati the young composer moved to northern Italy where he had a successful contract with La Fenice in Venice. However, the new management at La Scala, Milan wanted him – so they bought him out of this contract offering a substantial financial incentive to move his allegiance to Milan. Despite claiming: ‘I shall earn almost twice as much…’, Bellini negotiated an even better deal with both the Milanese and the Venetian theatre companies. This led to Norma in 1831 for La Scala (pictured) and Beatrice di Tenda in 1832 for La Fenice.

La Scala Milan
La Scala Milan

However, Bellini had a more pressing deadline – an opera for the beginning of 1831 for Theatro Carcano in Milan. Unfortunately, Bellini experienced the re-occurrence of a gastro-enteric illness which had emerged in Venice due to pressure of work and the bad weather. So he went to stay near Lake Como to fully recover and to focus on the subject for the new opera. His plan was to develop an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s controversial play, Hernani.


But its political subject matter was fraught with problems – there had even been a riot at its premiere. So by January 1831, Bellini wrote: ‘I am no longer composing Ernani because the subject would have had to undergo modifications at the hands of the police.’ 

Bellini announced he was instead working on “La sonnambula, ossia I Due Fidanzati Svizzeri. He actually reworked some of the music from Ernani into the score of La Sonnambula before the premiere performance in Milan on 6 March 1831. His new opera reached new triumphal heights for the composer. Press reactions were universally positive and Russian composer, Mikhail Glinka wrote: ‘the singers themselves wept and carried the audience along with them’.

After its premiere, the opera was performed in London and, in 1825, New York. That year in Paris Bellini wrote what was to become the final masterpiece of his career – I Puritani. 

I puritani
I PURITANI (WNO, Elvira; Rosa Feol ,Lord Arturo Talbo ; Barry Banks, Sir Riccardo Forth; David Kempster, Sir Giorgio; Wojtek Gierlach, Lord Gualtiero; Valton Aidan Smith)

Following its success, Bellini was subsequently awarded two honours: the first as chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by King Louis-Phillipe of France; the second by King Ferdinand II in Naples, awarding him the Order of Francesco I.

Heinrich Heine
Portrait of Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) 1831 (oil on paper on canvas) by Oppenheim, Moritz Daniel (1800-82); 43×34 cm; Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany

But later that year – and rather prophetically –  Bellini met the writer Heinrich Heine at a literary gathering. Over dinner the writer is reported to have remarked: ‘You are a genius, Bellini, but you will pay for your great gift with a premature death. All the great geniuses died very young, like Raphael and like Mozart’. 

And it was a few months later at Puteaux in France where Bellini’s recurring illness finally caused his sudden and tragic death. The central relationship in Bellini’s life seems to have been with Francesco Florimo, originally a student friend at the Conservatory. 

Francesco Florimo
Francesco Florimo

Bellini and Florimo shared a close lifelong and affectionate correspondence. Bellini wrote in 1825 that ‘Your existence is necessary to mine’. After Bellini’s death Florimo became his literary executor and was treated as his spiritual heir.

The imposing statue of Bellini in his home city of Catania in Sicily is a lasting and impressive memorial to this great composer. Inside Catania’s cathedral sits Bellini’s magnificent tomb paid for with funds raised by public subscription and coordinated by Rossini. On its side is an inscription from Amina’s last aria in La sonnambula: ‘Ah! non credea mirarti Sì presto estinto, o fiore (“I did not believe you would fade so soon, oh flower’.

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