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Obscure composers (1)


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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.)

(For much of this material, I rely upon:

  • "The San Carlo Chronicles" by Guido Pannain in Il Teatro di San Carlo, pub. Ente autonomo del Teatro di San Carlo, June 1951, printed by Montanino, Naples;
  • Cento anni di vita del Teatro di San Carlo, 1848-1948, ed. by Felice de Filippis pub.  Ente autonomo del Teatro di San Carlo, 1948, printed by Montanino, Naples;
  • Cronache del Teatro di San Carlo, 1948-68. Ricordi. Milan.)


Giovanni Pacini

—the strange case of an "empty chapter" in Italian music.



Giovanni Pacini
(1796-1867) was born in Sicily, but I think I can sneak him into Naples since (1) many of his works were premiered at San Carlo; (2) he was the musical director of San Carlo for two years in the 1820s; and (3) once upon a time “Naples” meant the kingdom of Naples, including Sicily. Besides, obscure composers fascinate me.


I hesitate to use the word “obscure” for someone who wrote upwards of 70 operas (!) and who for a period of at least 20 years (1825-45) was overshadowed in Italian music only by his contemporary, Rossini. Not even Bellini and Donizetti got as much “air time” as Pacini. This passage from the New York Times of June 22, 1858, is instructive (it is a review written on the revival of Pacini’s opera Saffo (Sapho) at the Academy of Music in New York City the day before):


There follows a review of the performance of Saffo (good) and of the work itself (“…we have few modern works that contain so many evidences of rare and cultivated gifts…[of]…profound drama, unusual melodic gracefulness and great originality and vigor…”). From the date of the review, the critic was comparing Pacini favorably to Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and even Verdi. Not at all shabby, and certainly not a recipe for obscurity, but history does what it does, sometimes not kindly.


Pacini attended the music conservatory in Bologna. His first real success was Adelaide e Comingio in 1817. He moved to Rome in 1820 and kept composing, squeezing in an affair with Princess Pauline Borghese, Napoleon's sister! He then moved to Naples, helped out Rossini with three arias for the latter's Matilde di Shabran (1821), and ran San Carlo for two years. Pacini's operas that premiered in Naples (at San Carlo unless otherwise indicated, below) were:
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…
  • Alessandro nelle Indie (September 29, 1824);
  • Amazilia (July 6, 1825);
  • L'ultimo giorno di Pompei (November 19, 1825);
  • Niobe (November 19, 1826);
  • Margherita regina d'Inghilterra (November 19, 1827);
  • I fidanzati, ossia Il contestabile di Chester (November 19, 1829);
  • Gli elvezi, ovvero Corrado di Tochemburgo (January 12, 1833);
  • Fernando duca di Valenza (May 30, 1833);
  • Irene, o L'assedio di Messina (November 30, 1833);
  • Saffo (November 29, 1840);
  • L'uomo del mistero (November 9, 1841 Teatro Nuovo);
  • La fidanzata corsa (December 10, 1842);
  • Luisetta, ossia La cantatrice del molo di Napoli (December 13, 1843 Teatro Nuovo);
  • Stella di Napoli (December 11, 1845);
  • Merope (November 25, 1847);
  • L'orfana svizzera (1848, Teatro Fondo);
  • Zaffira, o La riconciliazione (November 15, 1851 Teatro Nuovo);
  • Malvina di Scozia (December 27, 1851);
  • Romilda di Provenza (December 8, 1853);
  • Margherita Pusterla (February 25, 1856);
  • Berta di Varnol (April 6, 1867 ).

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."

Perhaps the answer lies in the time-line. Rossini quit writing opera in 1829 (he lived another 40 years!); Bellini died in 1835 at the tragically young age of 34. Donizetti died in 1848. All three of them are "pre-Verdi," (although there is a brief overlap between Donizetti's last and Verdi's first works). None of them is seen historically as being in competition with Verdi, who composed from 1840 to 1900. Pacini, on the other hand composed from 1815 to 1867, which puts him in direct comparison with Verdi, a composer so stunningly creative and prolific that not only is he number 1 in Italian opera for entire decades, but as the Latin phrase has it: "ubi maior, minor cessat"—roughly, no one is in second place!


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.


update: March 2013  and Feb 2016 -

I was delighted to receive correspondence from Dan Foley, who used to run a Pacini fan site. (It seems to have disappeared.) He has for a number of years been obsessed (his word!) with —and puzzled by— the mystery of Pacini's obscurity. Mr. Foley included a few critical reactions to Pacini's music at the time the music was new. I include two of them here below:


—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.

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