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Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857-1919)                                                     contains audio

There 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?!

Alas, 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 Cavalleria Rusticana. Pagliacci premiered 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.

Leoncavallo 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—about the early days of the Hohenzollern dynasty —premiered in Berlin with the Kaiser present. The opera went belly-up even before the Hohenzollern dynasty did.

Between 1909 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 Savonarola and Cesare Borgia. There is no evidence that he ever even came close to finishing those. The entire trilogy was to have borne the title Crepuscolo (meaning “Twilight,” a play on the Italian title—Crepuscolo degli Dei—of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung—Twilight of the Gods).

An 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 Seville1, 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.

Leoncavallo 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 starts:             

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


Roughly (very!)

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."

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