In the 14th century, Italy’s music swept Europe. The country was an innovator in medieval music—St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan in the 4th century, introduced to the church the custom of singing liturgical chants. In the 12th century, Guido d’Arezzo developed the basis of the musical notation that we use today. Blind Francesco Landini introduced sophisticated, varied rhythms. And in the mid–16th century, the first violin appeared. Cremona lutists became the international standard bearers of fine instrument craftsmanship, and local son Stradivari, who learned his craft under the great master Amati, achieved a standard in violin design never improved upon.
Poets, who wanted a closer relationship between word and music, got their wish by the late 16th century. Until then, music had been but an incidental element in various entertainments, but a group in Florence wanted to adapt Greek drama, which they believed had been sung throughout, to a new kind of “musical drama.” It came to be called “opera,” a new form that caught on fast. The first great composer of opera was Monteverdi, of Orfeo fame, who’s enjoying a new popularity today. Monteverdi managed to “translate human suffering into sound,” lighting the way for succeeding generations of Italian composers.
Since Venice opened the first public opera house in 1637, it has continued to promote both operatic composers and productions. Venice’s preeminent composer in the early 18th century was Antonio Vivaldi, who wrote more than 40 operas. The prolific Scarlatti (known mainly for his instrumental music) was also a composer of opera, turning out more than 100 in an exuberant rococo style. It’s also possible that Scarlatti played some of his music on Bartolomeo Cristofori’s 1709 invention the pianoforte, forerunner of the modern piano.
Italy has produced many fine composers, but Giuseppe Verdi was the unquestioned operatic master of the 19th century. Verdi, son of an innkeeper, understood dramatic form and wrote exquisite melodies, and his musicianship was unsurpassed. He achieved success early on with his third opera, Nabucco, a huge hit, then turned out Rigiletto, Il Trovatore, Un Ballo in Maschera, and Ai[um]da—works that remain popular today. His powers continued unchecked as he grew older, maturing musically with such works as Don Carlo and his great Otello (written when the master was 73). At 80, he astonished the musical world with Falstaff, a masterpiece in opera buffa form, unlike anything he’d composed before.
Opera buffa was Italy’s most popular operatic form in the early 19th century, works of comedy with more surface than depth in which, unlike grand opera, individual musical numbers alternate with spoken dialogue. Opera buffahad its origins in the wisecracking comedians who had long entertained at fairs. Rossinis charming The Barber of Seville and Donizettis Daughter of the Regiment are examples of the form.
Rossini and Donizetti were also significant contributors to grand opera in the early and mid–19th century. Puccini came along a bit later, and his lyrical La Bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly continue to please crowds. Well known to today’s international audiences is American-born Gian-Carlo Menotti, composer of Amahl and the Night Visitors.

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