is a considerable list of composers known
primarily for only one piece of music, even though they
wrote many. Claude Joseph Roget de Lisle comes to mind
immediately; he was the composer of the stirring
national anthem of France, La Marseillaise.
Another is Julius Ernst Wilhelm Fučík,
known in his day as “The Bohemian Sousa”; in our day,
however, only his “circus march,” Entrance
of the Gladiators (or Thunder and
Blazes) is what most people know of his some 300
marches, polkas and waltzes. Also, well-known to
concert goers (and those who remember Sergeant
Preston of the Yukon!) is the lovely overture to
the opera Donna Diana by Emil
Nikolaus von Rezniček, about which most people say,
“What? Is there really a whole opera
by that name?" (Yes, and Emil also composed a dozen
other operas, five symphonies, a violin concerto, a
ballet, and five string quartets.) And what to say
about James Pierpont? His one hold on
distinction (besides being the uncle of robber-baron
James Pierpont Morgan) is that he wrote Jingle
Bells—and wouldn’t you like to have the royalties
on that one?!
Neapolitan composer Ruggiero Leoncavallo is on that
list. He studied at the San
Pietro a Maiella music conservatory in Naples and
then wandered in England, France, Holland, Germany—even
as far afield as Egypt—as an itinerant teacher of voice
and piano as well as a pianist in the popular cafés chantants
of the day. He came of age just in time to get in on the
new music of verismo—realism, the likes
of Bizet’s Carmen or Mascagni’s Cavalleria
Rusticana, but he made only a
single lasting contribution:Pagliacci (Clowns or Buffoons). It is
still one of the most popular works in the repertoire
and so short that it forms an inevitable double-bill
with Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana.
in 1892 in Milan and was greeted with great enthusiasm.
The most famous aria, Vesti la giubba, was later
recorded by Enrico Caruso
and was the first recording to sell one million copies.
It remains extremely popular today.
wrote other operas—i Medici (1893), Chatterton
(1896), Zazà(1900), and
Der Roland von Berlin
(1904), but none of those remain in the
standard repertoire, especially not the one with the
German title! It was commissioned by Kaiser Wilhelm
II, himself, an ardent Leoncavallo fan. Indeed, the
work is about the early days of the Hohenzollern
dynasty and premiered in Berlin with the Kaiser
present. The opera went belly-up even before the
Hohenzollern dynasty did.
and his death, Leoncavallo wrote a number of other
operas, operettas and songs, which today are totally
obscure. He never did return to his youthful ambition to
compose an operatic trilogy about the Italian
Renaissance. Actually, he did finish the first part,
I Medici, produced as a stand-alone piece
(see above). The other parts were to be called
unfortunate destiny for any musician is to be the
composer of “the other one” —that is, of a version of a
more famous work by another composer. There are two
great examples of this in Italian opera: one is Paisiello’s Barber of
still played occasionally as an historical curiosity but
totally overshadowed, to put it mildly, by Rossini’s
later work of that name; the other is Leoncavallo’s La
Bohème. It premiered in 1897, less than a year
after Puccini’s work. Critics and public passed judgment
on the two operas immediately. It wasn’t even close. At
least one treatment of the life of Puccini I have seen
on Italian TV has the two composers engaged in a nasty
rivalry. I have no idea if there is any truth to that,
but Leoncavallo actually wrote part of the libretto for
Puccini’s Manon Lascaut; it is hard to
imagine him doing that for a bitter rival.2 Interestingly,
Leoncavallo (like Wagner and a few others) was the
librettist for all of his own operas and was considered
a great one.
wrote a beautiful song, Mattinata, which remains
popular. He composed it in 1903 at the request of a
recording company; Enrico Caruso then recorded it,
accompanied by Leoncavallo, himself, at the piano. You
have heard the song somewhere, sometime. Everyone
has. Leoncavallo wrote both music and lyrics. The
title means “Morning,” and the Italian text
L'aurora di bianco vestita
Già l'uscio dischiude al gran sol;
Di già con le rosee sue dita
Carezza de' fiori lo stuol!
link to audio excerpt of Mattinata, perf. Andrea Bocelli
The dawn garbed in white
opens the portal for the grand sun
and caresses the meadows
of flowers with her rose fingers.
It is very literary, even containing a reference to Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn.” Who knows if that was not part of Leoncavallo’s problem? —too many interests. A number of sources, indeed, try to deal with the “flash in the pan” aspect in his life. They come to no conclusion, except to point out that the composer was not obsessed with music to the exclusion of all else. The reason he was a fine librettist, for example, is that his literary interests took him to Bologna after his music studies in Naples so he could attend the university there, particularly the literature classes held by the greatest Italian poet of the day and Nobel laureate, Giosuè Carducci. Or maybe there is no reason; maybe Leoncavallo's genius caught fire once and only once in his life. He then produced a magnificent work for which he will be remembered. That's still not too bad.
1. There are at least 11 versions of The Barber of Seville. Here is a list.2. There is, however, evidence of at least some amusing rivalry. There exists a letter (cited in "A Little-Known Letter by Berlioz and Unpublished Letters by Cherubini, Leoncavallo, and Hugo Wolf" by Artur Holde in The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Jul., 1951), pp. 340-353) from Leoncavallo to French composer, Jules Massenet, in which Leoncavallo asks about getting permission from Edmond Rostand to set Rostand's 1897 play, Cyrano de Bergerac, to music before Puccini got hold of it! As it turns out, Rostand wasn't interested, saying that "...there is already enough music in my work."