History of Music – Italian Opera During 19th Century

THE strongest personality of the Italian composers (though by no means the loveliest), at the beginning of the nineteenth century, was that of Gasparo Spontini (1774-1851). He was born of peasant stock in the Roman states and educated at Naples, where his boyish successes were made. In 1803 he went to Paris, where he composed several operas with very poor success. Nevertheless, having full confidence in his own powers, he was not discouraged, and in 18o4 his one-act opera of ” Milton ” was performed successfully at the Théatre Feydeau. He had already begun his “La Vestale,” which was brought out in 1807, and immediately achieved a remarkable success. Spontini was appointed ” Compositeur Particulaire ” to the Empress Josephine, in spite of which an oratorio of his was hissed from the stage in Holy Week of the same year that his ” Vestale” had been so favorably received. The popularity of ” The Vestal ” continued to grow, so that it had been performed more than 200 times in Paris before 1824. In Italy and Germany, where its career began, in 1811, its popularity was similar. His next opera was “Fernand Cortez,” (1809), afterward materially improved. These two works mark the highest point reached by Spontini. They are brilliant, martial, vigorous and spectacular, and the legitimate predecessors of the Meyerbeer grand operas. Spontini’s smaller works failed, and in 1819 negotiations were concluded with King William III, who had been impressed with “La Vestale” when he had visited Paris, whereby for twenty years Spontini was made ” director general ” of the opera in Berlin. In this position he produced a number of other works, the best being “Nurmahal” (1822), “Alcidor” (1825) and “Agnes von Hohenstaufen” (1829). Spontini was a vigorous director, but unprincipled, vain and narrow. Nevertheless, at his concerts he produced the fifth and seventh symphonies of Beethoven for the first time in Berlin, as well as parts of the great Bach mass in B minor, and much other great music. Opposition to his tyranny culminated in 1842 by his dismission from the directorship, Meyerbeer being his successor. His popularity paled from the production of Weber’s “Der Freischhtz” in 1821. Spontini died in his native town of Majolitat.

The Italian composer most famous in the earlier part of the century was Gioacchino Antonio Rossini (1792-1868), a native of Pesaro, a small town on the Adriatic. After a short course at the Conservatory of Verona, the boy commenced to compose, and no less than thirteen short pieces preceded his first really popular opera, Tancredi,” which was produced at La Fenice, in Venice, in 1813. The success of this work led to many others, among which the best known are “The Italian in Algiers, ” “The Turk in Italy,” and (in 1816) no less than five operas in one year “Torvaldo e Dorliska,” “The Barber of Seville,” “La Gazetta” and “Ocello,” his first serious opera. He composed with the utmost facility. “The Barber,” one of the most successful operas ever performed, and the one of Rossini’s works which bids fair to outlast the rest, was composed and mounted within a month. For this work he received eighty pounds sterling. It was not at first successful. In 1823 he brought out “Semiramide,” which was only moderately successful at first. The next turn in Rossini’s fortune found him in London, where he had accepted an engagement with the manager of King’s Theater, and here he produced a number of his former works with moderate success. Rossini himself appeared upon the stage and sang the solos in a cantata which he had composed in honor of the King, George IV. He turned many honest pennies during his London engagement by acting as accompanist at private soirées for a fee of L50. At the end of five months he found himself in possession of L 7,000, with which he made a graceful retreat to Paris, where he accepted the musical direction of the Theatre Italienne, at the salary of £800 per year. This was in 1826. After the expiration of his engagement at this theater several of his works were produced at the Grand Opera, among which were the “Siege of Corinth ” and “Moise ” (March 27, 1827). This work, which is given in England as an oratorio, was a revised edition of his opera of “Mose,” which he had written for Naples five years before. The most taking number in it is the famous prayer, which has been played and sung in every form possible for a popular melody. The operatic career of Rossini ended in 1829 with the production of his opera of “William Tell,” at the Paris Académie, with a brilliant cast. In this work he forswears florid writing, and makes a serious effort at dramatic characterization. The opera is extremely melodious, and a very great advance over any of his former productions. Having now accumulated a fortune, he retired from the stage and lived the remainder of his life near Paris in elegant leisure, composing a solemn mass and a few other sacred works, but no other operas.

In reviewing the career of this singularly gifted Italian melodist, it is impossible to resist the conclusion that his talents were worthy of a nobler development. Among his sacred works the “Stabat Mater” is the most popular. It contains some very beautiful_ chromatic writing, and is really an art work of distinguished merit. His latest work was the “Messe Solemnelle”(1864). Rossini was fond of good living, very witty in conversation, and his house was frequented by the most brilliant wits and the best artists of the thirty years between “William Tell ” and his death.

Upon the whole, the most brilliant master of Italian opera during this period was Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848), who was born at Bergamo and educated at Naples. His first opera was produced in Vienna in 1818, but his first complete success was ” Anna Bolena,” which was written for Milan in 1830, the principal parts having been taken by Pasta and Rubini. Soon after this followed “L’Elisir d’Amore” (1 832), ” Lucia di Lammermoor” (Naples, 1835), “Lucrezia Borgia” (1834), ” Belisario ” (1836), “Poliuto” (1838), “La Fille du Regiment” (1840), “La Favorita,” “Linda di Chamounix” (1842), “Don Pasquale” (1843). Besides these well known works there were many others, the total number reaching sixty-three, brought out in various Italian theaters and in Paris. Donizetti’s traits as a composer are pleasant melody, effective concerted pieces (as, for instance, the sextette in “Lucia,” which is perhaps the best concerted piece in Italian opera), and a good constructive ability. Like Rossini he was a writer of florid music, and. ” Lucia ” remains one of the favorite numbers of coloratur singers to the present day, which, considering that more than fifty years have intervened since it was composed, is a great compliment.

Vincenzo Bellini (1802—1835) was horn at Catania, in Switzerland, the son of an organist. He was educated at Naples under Zingarelli, his first opera having been composed in 1826, while he was still a member of the Conservatory. It was “Bianca e Fernando,” produced at San Carlos. His next work, “Il Pirato,” was written for La Scala in Milan, the tenor part having been especially designed for the celebrated Rubini. Among the other successful operas of this composer were ” I Capuletti e Montecchi” (in 1830), “La Sonnambula” (1831, at La Scala), ” Norma” and ” I Puritani.” It was this latter work which contains a brilliant duet for two basses, “Suona la Tromba,” of which Rossini wrote from Paris to a friend at Milan, ” It is unnecessary for me to write of the duet for two basses. You must have heard it.” Bellini was essentially a melodist, a lyric composer of ideallic naiveté. Of dramatic power he had very little. His orchestration is simple, although frequently very sonorous. If be had lived to the age of Donizetti or of Rossini it is not impossible that much greater works would have emanated from his pen, for in his next great successor we have an example of such a growth under conditions less favorable than those promised in Bellini’s case.

The most vigorous of all the Italian composers of this epoch is Giuseppe Verdi, who was born at Roncole, October 9, 1813, and died at Saint Agata, Jan. 27, 1901. The boy was of a quiet, melancholy character, with one passion — music; and when he was seven years of age his father purchased a spinet for his practice. When he was ten years old he was appointed organist of the Church in his native town. At this time his necessary expenditures amounted to about $22 per year, and his salary as organist $7.20, which after many urgent appeals was increased to $8. In addition he had certain perquisites from weddings and funerals, amounting to about $10 per year. In this way he continued until he was sixteen, having by this time become conductor of a philharmonic society, and the composer of quite a number of works, at the little town of Busseto. He went to Milan, where he was refused admission to the Conservatory on the ground of his showing no special aptitude for music. Nevertheless, he persevered in his chosen vocation, receiving lessons of Rolla, the conductor of La Scala. He studied diligently for two years, Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” being a part of his daily exercise. After this he returned for five years to his country life, and by the time he was twenty-five he was back again in Milan, in the hope of securing the performance of his opera, “Oberto.” This for quite a long time he was unable to do, but at length in 1839 it was performed at la Scala. The moderate success of this work secured him an engagement to produce an opera every eight months for Milan or Vienna. But his first work, a comic opera which the managers demanded, “Un Giorno di Regno,” was a dead failure, and disgusted the composer to such a point that he declared that he would never write again. At this time Verdi was the victim of most severe affliction. In addition to poverty, within the space of about two months he experienced the loss of his two children and of his wife, to whom he was devotedly attached. After living some time in Milan, he received a copy of the libretto, ” Il Proscritto,” and in 1842 it was performed. It was well staged, and achieved an unqualified success. Then followed ” I Lombardi” (1843), “Ernani ” (1844), “‘Due Foscari (1844), ” Atilla ” (1846), ” Macbeth” (1847), “Rigoletto” (1851), “Il Trovatore” (1853), “La Traviata” (1853), “Les Vepres Siciliennes” (1855), “Un Ballo in Maschera” (1859), “La Forza del Destino ” (1862), “Don Carlos” (1867), “Aida” (1871), “Otello” (1887). In addition to these works he has written a great ” Requiem Mass,” and many smaller works. Besides the operas above mentioned there were several others now mostly forgotten, the total number being twenty-nine; and there is not one of them that does not contain more or less of striking melody, with effective concerted pieces and choruses. Verdi’s melody was much more vigorous than that of either of his predecessors. In ” Trovatore” there are ten or twelve numbers which have become famous in the barrel-organ repertory. His instrumentation was very full and sonorous, and his dramatic instinct excellent. We do not find the long roulades and ornamental passages according to the taste of his predecessors, but instead of them, clear, sharp, concise, manly melodies — unfortunately, however, they are. so near the line of the vulgar that only a refined treatment on the part of the singer can save them for poetry and beauty.

Beginning with “Aida,” a very important change can be seen in Verdi’s style. By the time this work was undertaken the Wagnerian theories were attracting general attention, and it was impossible that a man of Verdi’s intellectual force should have failed to be affected by them. “Aida” is much more refined and dramatically truthful than any of those before it. As the composer was now an old man nothing farther was expected from his pen. Nevertheless, in “Otello,” he has given the world a masterpiece of a still higher order, the music throughout being subservient to the story, while the dramatic handling of the work is masterly in the extreme. For this he was in part indebted to his librettist, the distinguished poet and composer, Signor Arrigo Boito. The strangest thing in regard to Verdi is that at the present writing (1891) he is engaged upon a comic opera, ” Falstaff,” a subject which he says has interested him for about forty years, without time to undertake. This opera was produced in 1893 at Milan, and it has since been given all over the world. It is highly esteemed.

During all his mature and later life Verdi was held in the greatest honor throughout Italy, and in dying he left his large fortune to establish a home for indigent old musicians, at Milan.

One of the most earnest among Italian composers is Arrigo Boito (1842—0000) whose opera ” Mefistofile” was produced at Milan in 1868. Boito has written three other operas, “Hero and Leander,” “Nero” and “Oreste” which still await production. He is also a distinguished poet, and supplied librettos for his own operas, Verdi’s “Otello” and “Falstaff,” and several operas by other composers. Among the more notable of the later Italian composers, are Amilcare Ponchielli (1834-1866), whose best works were: “I Promessi Sposi” (1872), “La Gioconda” (1876), his master work, and “Marion Delorme” (1885 ).

Antonio Carlo Gomes (1839-1896), born in Brazil, attained considerable fame by his “Il Guarany” (1870), “Maria Tudor” (1877), “Lo Schiavo (1889), very successful, and several others which did not make an effect.

In 1890, a young and utterly unknown composer, Pietro Mascagni (1863-0000), sprang to a sudden eminence through his successful competition for the prize offered by the impressario and publisher, Sonzogno, for a one-act opera, the successful work being “Cavelleria Rusticana.” His later works, “L’Amico Fritz” (1891), “Gugliemo Ratcliff” (1895) and Iris” (1898) did not materially enlarge his reputation. His great lacks are structural ability and musical depth.

If possible, an even greater success was made in 1892 by Ruggiero Leoncavallo (1858—0000) pianist and man of letters, by his highly impassioned work, “I Pagliacci,” which has made for itself a distinguished position among modern works. He projected an Italian Trilogy, in which the typical characters were to be the Medici, Savonarola, and Cesare Borgia. Only the first has as yet appeared (1893). In 1904 Leoncavallo was invited by Kaiser Wilhelm II to compose music to his own libretto entitled “Roland of Berlin.” This work was produced with great scenic magnificence in Berlin, December, 1904. His “La Boheme,” has been more successfully set by another composer.

Giacomo Puccini (1858-0000), a pupil of Ponchielli, has produced several operas of which the most successful are: “Edgar” (1889), “Manan Lascaut” (1893), and “La Boheme ” (1896). The latter has made a more genuine foreign success than any Italian opera of recent years. His latest work is “Madame Butterfly” (1905).