Obscure composers (1)
| Obviously, “obscure” is a very
personal matter. My own definition is a function
of my own ignorance: that is, (1) I had not heard
of these composers until I really started looking,
or (2) I had heard of them, but had not heard
anything they ever composed and had to bluff my
way through snooty music faculty cocktail parties
when their names came up. All of those listed had
something to do with the San Carlo Theater in
Naples, some of them quite prominently, others
less so. It bears mentioning that, at the time
they were writing music, what they composed was
good enough to wind up on the stage of San Carlo;
in other words, they were highly regarded. With
the second part of this series, I shall start with
1737, the year in which the San Carlo Theater
opened and move through in chronological order.
Each installment will deal with more than one
composer. This first installment, however, is only
about Giovanni Pacini and is not in chronological
order. Also, see the entry on “other composers” and
names linked in the text.)
of this material, I rely upon:
The first quarter of the present century possessed a great wealth of composers, and so far as Italy is concerned, it may be regarded as the most fruitful of her modern times… [We remember]…Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini…The reputations against which these men struggled are precisely those which have since disappeared from musical remembrance…We seldom hear the names of such men as Pacini…[but he] was for many years the most popular and prolific composer of Italy…
Saffo is Pacini's best-known opera; it premiered on November 29, 1840. The libretto was by Salvatore Cammerano (1801-52) (who also wrote the libretti for Donizetti's Lucia di Lamermoor and Verdi's Luisa Miller). Saffo has been revived occasionally over the years. It was last performed in Naples in April of 1967 featuring the great Turkish soprano, Leyla Gencer, in the title role of Sappho. The review in the Neapolitan daily, il Mattino, on April 2, 1967, was totally laudatory. The critic, Alfredo Parente, praised the production, singers, the quality of the work, itself, and the skill of maestro Rubino Profeta (1910-1985) (a Neapolitan violinist, composer and eventually artistic director of San Carlo from 1972-74) who had to reconstruct the opera from Pacini's manuscript in the archives of the San Pietro a Maiella conservatory since the published Ricordi scores had not survived damage from WWII. Like most who have written about Pacini (and there are not that many), the critic is puzzled by the fact that this work of "great dignity and originality" comes from one who is an "empty chapter" in Italian music. When he says empty, he means empty; that is, there isn't even negative opinion about Pacini. There is NO opinion. Yet, says the critic, Pacini fits in perfectly, as do Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, between the music of Cherubini (1760-1842) and Verdi in the history of Italian music, and he certainly deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with those three great names —or at least Pacini deserves to be fairly passed or failed in comparison to them; yet, that has not happened. This fertile and original composer has simply "disappeared from musical remembrance."
It is perhaps justifiable “shorthand” to refer to Bellini and Donizetti as “co-founders” of the new sounds of Italian lyric Romanticism that paved the way for Verdi, but if Pacini had stopped composing sometime in the 1840s after a string of success (that started with Saffo), he might, paradoxically, be remembered as part of that group. After all, not even Verdi’s Nabucco (1842) was initially as well-received and as popular as Pacini’s Saffo. Instead, Pacini periodically retired for a few years at a time to take stock. He would wander off to teach composition at a conservatory or give private lessons; then he would stage a come-back. At one point (in the 1830s) he is reported to have said that he had been "surpassed by the divine Bellini," but he overcame that crisis and had a particularly fine decade in the 1840s. Surely, sometime in the early 1850s, he must have had a chance to listen to the music of this young whippersnapper, Giuseppe Verdi, and have heard in only two years (1851 and 1852), Rigoletto, il Trovatore and la Traviata —heard, as it were, the Verdi juggernaut picking up speed right behind him. Even then, Pacini didn't quit; his last real success was Il Saltimbanco in 1858. He wrote music until he died (in December of 1867). His last opera, Berta di Varnol, had premiered in Naples just a few months earlier.
It simply has to be the case that if you write 70-plus operas, some of them will be less memorable than others, but some will be good and some may even be great. In his day, Pacini was judged very highly by his contemporaries, which fact bespeaks at least a claim to greatness. But time and history placed him up against one of history's truly great musical spirits, Verdi. It's something like being a polymath in 1500 and not being Leonardo da Vinci. No one is in second place.
References. If you start pulling music encyclopedias off the shelves, you might find small entries on Pacini, but you might also find no entry at all. The Opera Quarterly (2000) 16 (3), pp. 349-362 contains an essay by Tom Kaufman entitled "Giovanni Pacini, an Old Composer for the New Millennium?". Also, Pacini's memoirs, Le mie memorie artistiche, published originally in 1865 (Florence, pub. C.G. Guidi) are available in facsimile from Arnaldo Forni Editors in Bologne. (There is an English translation; see the update below these notes.)
If you are concerned about the similarity in names such as Puccini, Piccinni, and Pacini. I have checked other (P+vowel+c(c)+in(n)i) combinations. The names Pecini and Poccinni exist, but one is a lawyer and the other a kick-boxer.
—Niccolo de' Lapi, 1873
But Meyerbeer and Wagner and the Verdi of Forza de Destino, of Don Carlos, of Aida, have found a powerful rival, a true titan, in the immense and stupendous finale of the second act.
-La Riforma, October 28, 1873.
—Lorenzino de' Medici, 1857
The Carnival season of 1857-8 opened on Tuesday, the 26th of November, with [Lorenzino de' Medici], a superb opera by Pacini, and one that for a time made me stagger in my Verdi faith...It is so fresh, so original, and combines musical science so well with ear-haunting and simple melody, that it appears to me astonishing that it has not obtained a reputation out of Italy.
-Dwight’s Journal of Music, July 2, 1858.
Mr. Foley also calls my attention to recent performances of Pacini's music: "...his wonderful cantata Edipo Re (Vicenza, 1847), the world premiere of his C-minor Requiem a year ago in Catania, and this year’s revival in Giessen of Maria Regina d’Inghilterra." (Fans of obscurity will note that the performance of the C-minor Requiem was a world premiere. It had never been performed(!); the score was discovered in 1992 languishing in the Naples conservatory.) Mr. Foley also reminds me how difficult it is even to know with any precision exactly how many operas Pacini wrote; the composer's autobiography Le mie memorie artistiche, is not particularly reliable in that regard.
Thus, the mystery of why this deserving composer has "disappeared from musical remembrance" remains a mystery and, in my view, is unlikely to be solved. It might be a strange mixture of the often vicious infighting that goes on in the world of music publishing (these are my own musings and not those of Mr. Foley), antagonism, petty rivalry, even enmity, among rival composers, and Pacini's own lack of zeal in promoting his music. It might have to do, musically, with Pacini's resistance to the "grand" new music of Verdi, not to mention Wagner. Though he was an innovator in some things, he resisted overpowering orchestration and dense harmonies. He was a believer in the power of the simple, beautiful melody. There may also be political considerations. Pacini started to fade from our musical consciousness in the mid-1860s, a time of terrible turmoil in Italy. For part of that decade, southern Italy was under martial law because of lingering resistance from Bourbon sympathizers. Pacini was a southerner. Verdi, on the other hand, was the champion of Italian unity. All of these things taken together may (or may not) help to explain the enigma of Giovanni Pacini. Recent revivals of a few of his works are encouraging.
update - June 10, 2016
I have received this recent update from Pacini enthusiast, Adrian van der Tang. He confirms that Dan Foley [referenced above] no longer maintains a website on Giovanni Pacini, but that he (van der Tang) has started his own! It is at this URL. It is done very well, is clean and nicely organized with links to a lot of downloadable and searchable material on the composer. Have a look.