Born in Catania, at the time part of the Kingdom of Sicily, the eldest of seven children in the family, he became a child Prodigy within a highly musical family. His grandfather, Vincenzo Tobia Bellini, had studied at the conservatory in Naples and, in Catania from 1767 forward, had been an organist and Teacher, as had Vincenzo's Father, Rosario.
The Conservatorio di San Sebastiano (as it had been named when the original Real Collegio di Musica, established in 1806 and then renamed as such in 1808) had moved to more spacious facilities close to the church of Gesù Novo and the building formerly occupied by the nuns of San Sabastiano, was run by the government and there, students, who wore a semi-military uniform, were obliged to live under a tight daily regimen of classes in principal subjects, in singing and instrumental coaching, plus basic education. Their days were long, going from early morning mass at 5:15 am to finally ending by 10 pm. Although beyond the normal age for admission, Bellini had submitted ten pieces of music for consideration; these clearly demonstrated his talent, although he did need to do remedial work to correct some of his faulty technique.
After 1816, Bellini began living with his grandfather, from whom he received his first music lessons. Soon after, the young Composer began to write compositions. Among them were the nine Versetti da cantarsi il Venerdi Santo, eight of which were based on texts by Metastasio.
By 1818, Bellini had independently completed several additional orchestral pieces. He was ready for further study. For well-off students, this would include moving to Naples. While his family wasn't wealthy enough to support that lifestyle, Bellini's growing reputation could not be overlooked. His break came when Stefano Notabartolo, the duca di San Martino e Montalbo and his Duchess, became the new intendente of the province of Catania. They encouraged the young man to petition the city fathers for a stipend to support his musical studies. This was successfully achieved in May 1819 with unanimous agreement for a four-year pension to allow him to study at the Real Collegio di Musica di San Sebastiano in Naples. Thus, he left Catania in July carrying letters of introduction to several powerful individuals, including Giovanni Carafa who was the intendente of the Real Collegio as well as being in charge of the city's royal theatres. The young Bellini was to live in Naples for the following eight years.
The focus of study was on the masters of the Neapolitan school and the orchestral works of Haydn and Mozart, with the emphasis put upon the Italian classical era composers such as Pergolesi and Paisiello, rather than the "modern-day" approaches of composers such as Rossini. The young student's first Teacher was Giovanni Furno, with whom "he studied exercises in harmony and accompaniment"; another, from whom he learned counterpoint, was the Composer of over 50 operas, Giacomo Tritto, but whom he found to be "old fashioned and doctrinaire". However, the artistic Director of the school was the opera Composer, Niccolò Antonio Zingarelli. By 1822/23, Bellini had become a member of a class which he taught: the older man appears to have recognised Bellini's potential and treated his student like a son, giving him some firm advice:
With that achievement behind him, it is believed that the young Bellini, who had been away from home for six years, set out for Catania to visit his family. However, some sources attribute the visit to 1824, others to 1825. However, it is known that he was back in Naples by the summer or early autumn of 1825 in order to fulfill a contract to write an opera for the San Carlo or one of the other royal theatres, the Teatro Fondo.
The two men addressed each in very affectionate terms. Bellini wrote in 1825 that "Your existence is necessary to mine". Some biographers think this marked a homosexual relationship, but it is unclear whether things ever became physical. Once Bellini left Naples for Milan, however, the two men seldom saw one another; their last meeting was in Naples in late 1832, when Bellini was there with Giuditta Turina, before the pair departed for Milan via Florence. Florimo's published recollections—written fifty years after the events they recall—may be flawed. In later years, Bellini declared that Florimo "was the only friend in whom [I] could find comfort". After Bellini's death Florimo became his literary executor and was treated as his spiritual heir.
However, the title Bianca e Fernando had to be changed, because Ferdinando was the name of the heir to the throne, and no form of it could be used on a royal stage. After some delays caused by King Francesco I forcing postponement, the opera—now named Bianca e Gernando—was given its premiere performance at the Teatro di San Carlo on 30 May 1826, Prince Ferdinando's name day.
The premiere, given on 17 October 1827, was "an immediate and then an increasing, success. By Sunday, December 2, when the season ended, it had been sung to fifteen full houses". For Rubini, "it marked the defining performance for the tenor", and the newspaper reviews which followed all agreed with the composer's own assessment.
The one significant relationship which Bellini had after 1828 was the five-year relationship with Giuditta Turina, a young married woman with whom he began a passionate affair when both were in Genoa in April 1828 for the production of Bianca e Fernando. Their relationship lasted until Bellini went to Paris. Perhaps because her marriage was irrevocable and not based on love, and because the lovers were discreet, her husband, Fernandino, and his family seem to have tacitly permitted the relationship. Bellini’s letters to his friend Florimo indicate his satisfaction with the nature of the liaison, particularly because it kept him from having to marry—and thus becoming distracted from his work.
When planning the subject of his next opera after La Scala's Il pirata, Bellini had been invited to write an opera for Parma's inauguration of the new Teatro Ducale in early 1829. In the initial contract, Bellini was given power over who was to write the libretto and, after meeting the Composer and prima donna, the Parman librettist Luigi Torrigiani's work had been rejected. The aspiring librettist laid a complaint against Bellini in a report to Parma's Grand Chamberlain in December 1828 (which was ignored). In it, the aggrieved librettist sums up Bellini's tastes in Romantic drama as follows:
As Weinstock notes, when the Italians arrived in London by 27 April, Bellini was a known factor, many of his operas having already been given over the previous few years. His name is listed as an attendee in the Morning Chronicle of 29 April at a performance of Rossini's La cenerentola, along with those of Maria Malibran, Felix Mendelssohn, Nicolo Paganini, as well as Pasta, Rubini, and other visiting Italian Singers. His operas which had been presented in London included Il pirata (with Henriette Méric-Lalande in April 1830) followed by La sonnambula (with Pasta) and La straniera (with Giuditta Grisi).
With La sonnambula successfully behind them, Bellini and Romani began to consider the subject of the opera for which they had been contracted by the Crivelli group for a December 1831 premiere at La Scala and which would mark Giuditta Pasta's debut at that house. By the summer, they had decided upon Norma, ossia L'Infanticidio which was based on the play of the same name, Norma, or The Infanticide by Alex Andre Soumet which was being performed in Paris at around that time and which Pasta would have seen.
When returning to Naples, the couple reached Rome on 30 April. There is speculation that, when there, Bellini composed a one-act opera, Il fu ed it sara (The Past and the Present) for a private performance (which was supposedly not given until 1832), but little further information—nor any of the music—has been forthcoming. It appears that the couple (along with Giuditta's brother) left for Florence on or around 20 May traveling by private coach and that he attended what he described as "a quite unrecognisable" performance of La sonnumbula at the Teatro della Pergola. In the same letter, Bellini informed his publisher that:
However, in May 1833 while he was in London, a significant change in Bellini's relationship with Giuditta followed from the discovery by her husband of a compromising letter from Bellini. The result was that he decided to seek a legal separation and have her removed from his house. For Bellini, it meant the possibility of taking on responsibility for her, and he had no interest in doing that, having cooled in his feelings for her. When he wrote to Florimo from Paris the following year, he clearly stated that "I constantly am being threatened from Milan with Giuditta's coming to Paris", at which point he says he'll leave that city if that were to happen. Then he continues: "I no longer want to be put in the position of renewing a relationship that made me suffer great troubles". Ultimately, he resisted any long-term emotional commitment, and never married.
During the final preparations in 1834 for the staging of Puritani and up to its delay into 1835, Bellini had concluded an agreement with Naples to present three operas there—including the re-writing of parts of the music for Malibran—beginning in the following January. All that went by the wayside when the revised score failed to arrive on time, and performances were abandoned and the contract scrapped. Thus, during March, Bellini did nothing, but did attend the final performance of Puritani on 31st. On 1 April, he wrote a very lengthy letter to Ferlito laying out the entire history of his life in Paris to date, as well as reviving the old jealousies about Donizetti and Rossini's so-called "enmity" toward him. He ended by mentioning that "my Future plans are to be able to arrange a contract with the French Grand Opéra and remain in Paris, making it my home for the present. Additionally, he discusses the prospect of marriage to a young woman who "is not rich, but she has an uncle and aunt who are: if they will give her 200,000 francs, I'll marry her", but remarks that he is in no hurry.
Of the many tributes which poured forth following Bellini's death, one stands out. It was written by Felice Romani and published in Turin on 1 October 1835. In it, he stated:
The general impression given by reports in the press was that, overall, the music was weak, although some numbers and the trio were liked. However, for the most part, the Singers were applauded, even if the Composer received little. The opera received eight performances, followed by some poorly received ones in Florence in 1836, and then it disappeared until 1976.
The rather superstitious Bellini was horrified. Also, Heine's literary portrait of Bellini, which became part of his unfinished novel Florentinische Nächte (Florentine Nights) published in 1837, emphasized the less-appealing aspects of the composer's personality, summing up a description of him as "a sigh in dancing pumps".
However, Turina maintained contact with Florimo throughout her life, although [nothing] was heard from her after his death until she wrote a sad-but-friendly letter to Florimo Florimo returned the friendship and, as Galatopoulos notes, "the death of Bellini was a mutual loss and Florimo needed Giuditta as much as she needed him" so that the two corresponded for years and Florimo visited her in Milan "at least once, in 1858". She died on 1 December 1871.
On 27 September and 3 October, Rossini wrote to Santocanale in Palermo providing very detailed accounts of all that he had done immediately following Bellini's death as well as what had taken place on 2 October. Initially, Rossini regarded burial in Père Lachaise cemetery as a short-term arrangement, not knowing where the final resting place would turn out to be. Despite attempts over many years to have Bellini's remains transferred to Catania, that did not take place until 1876, when the casket containing his remains was taken to the cathedral in Catania and reburied.
Bellini arrived in Catania on 3 March to a civic welcome. He was greeted by the city's authorities and citizens who also feted him at a concert the following evening. This included excerpts from La sonnambula and Il pirata at the Teatro Communale, now replaced by the Teatro Massimo Bellini which was opened in 1890 and named in Bellini's honour. After a month, Bellini and Florimo left for Palermo where, once again, there was a "royal welcome" and where he made the acquaintance of Filippo Santocanale and his wife. Although weather delayed their departure for Naples, they continued to spend an enjoyable time there, but Bellini was anxious to return to Naples before Easter and to be with Giuditta Turina, who had remained in that city. They reached Naples on 25 April where he was reunited with Turina.
The following fifteen songs were published as a collection, Composizioni da Camera, by Casa Ricordi in 1935 on the centenary of Bellini's death.
In 1999, the Italian music publisher Casa Ricordi, in collaboration with the Teatro Massimo Bellini in Catania, embarked on a project to publish critical editions of the complete works of Bellini.
However, the group led by Duke Litta failed to come to terms with the Crivelli-Lanari-Barbaja group which continued to manage both La Scala and La Fenice. As a result, in the April–May 1830 period, Bellini was able to negotiate a contract with both the Litta group—which was planning performances in a smaller Milan house, the Teatro Carcano—and with the Crivelli group to obtain a contract for an opera for the autumn of 1831 and another for the 1832 Carnival season. These were to become Norma for La Scala and Beatrice di Tenda for La Fenice.
Today, the Museo Belliniano, housed in the Gravina Cruyllas Palace in Catania—Bellini's birthplace—preserves memorabilia and scores. He was commemorated on the front of the Banca d'Italia 5,000 lire banknote in the 1980s and 90s (before Italy switched to the Euro) with the back showing a scene from the opera Norma.
Later that year, Bellini prepared a version of Capuleti for La Scala which was given on 26 December, lowering Giulietta’s part for the mezzo-soprano Amalia Schütz Oldosi.