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Great Italian and French Composers By George T. Ferris Characters: 15671

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


An ardent disciple of Wagner sums up his ideas of the mania for the Rossini music, which possessed Europe for fifteen years, in the following: "Rossini, the most gifted and spoiled of her sons [speaking of Italy] sallied forth with an innumerable army of Bacchantic melodies to conquer the world, the Messiah of joy, the breaker of thought and sorrow. Europe, by this time, had tired of the empty pomp of French declamation. It lent but too willing an ear to the new gospel, and eagerly quaffed the intoxicating potion, which Rossini poured out in inexhaustible streams." This very well expresses the delight of all the countries of Europe in music which for a long time almost monopolized the stage.

The charge of being a mere tune-spinner, the denial of invention, depth, and character, have been common watchwords in the mouths of critics wedded to other schools. But Rossini's place in music stands unshaken by all assaults. The vivacity of his style, the freshness of his melodies, the richness of his combinations, made all the Italian music that preceded him pale and colorless. No other writer revels in such luxury of beauty, and delights the ear with such a succession of delicious surprises in melody.

Henry Chorley, in his "Thirty Years' Musical Recollections," rebukes the bigotry which sees nothing good but in its own kind: "I have never been able to understand why this [referring to the Rossinian richness of melody] should be contemned as necessarily false and meretricious-why the poet may not be allowed the benefit of his own period and time-why a lover of architecture is to be compelled to swear by the Dom at Bamberg, or by the Cathedral at Monreale-that he must abhor and denounce Michel Angelo's church or the Baths of Diocletian at Rome-why the person who enjoys 'Il Barbiere' is to be denounced as frivolously faithless to Mozart's 'Figaro'-and as incapable of comprehending 'Fidelio,' because the last act of 'Otello' and the second of 'Guillaume Tell' transport him into as great an enjoyment of its kind as do the duet in the cemetery between 'Don Juan' and 'Leporello' and the 'Prisoners' Chorus.' How much good, genial pleasure has not the world lost in music, owing to the pitting of styles one against the other! Your true traveler will be all the more alive to the beauty of Nuremberg because he has looked out over the 'Golden Shell' at Palermo; nor delight in Rhine and Danube the less because he has seen the glow of a southern sunset over the broken bridge at Avignon."

As grand and true as are many of the essential elements in the Wagner school of musical composition, the bitterness and narrowness of spite with which its upholders have pursued the memory of Rossini is equally offensive and unwarrantable. Rossini, indeed, did not revolutionize the forms of opera as transmitted to him by his predecessors, but he reformed and perfected them in various notable ways. Both in comic and serious opera, music owes much to Rossini. He substituted genuine singing for the endless recitative of which the Italian opera before him largely consisted; he brought the bass and baritone voices to the front, banished the pianoforte from the orchestra, and laid down the principle that the singer should deliver the notes written for him without additions of his own. He gave the chorus a much more important part than before, and elaborated the concerted music, especially in the finales, to a degree of artistic beauty before unknown in the Italian opera. Above all, he made the operatic orchestra what it is to-day. Every new instrument that was invented Rossini found a place for in his brilliant scores, and thereby incurred the warmest indignation of all writers of the old school. Before him the orchestras had consisted largely of strings, but Rossini added an equally imposing clement of the brasses and reeds. True, Mozart had forestalled Rossini in many if not all these innovations, a fact which the Italian cheerfully admitted; for, with the simple frankness characteristic of the man, he always spoke of his obligations to and his admiration of the great German. To an admirer who was one day burning incense before him, Rossini said, in the spirit of Cimarosa quoted elsewhere: "My 'Barber' is only a bright farce, but in Mozart's 'Marriage of Figaro' you have the finest possible masterpiece of musical comedy."

With all concessions made to Mozart as the founder of the forms of modern opera, an equally high place must be given to Rossini for the vigor and audacity with which he made these available, and impressed them on all his contemporaries and successors. Though Rossini's self-love was flattered by constant adulation, his expressions of respect and admiration for such composers as Mozart, Gluck, Beethoven, and Cherubini display what a catholic and generous nature he possessed. The judgment of Ambros, a severe critic, whose bias was against Rossini, shows what admiration was wrung from him by the last opera of the composer: "Of all that particularly characterizes Rossini's early operas nothing is discoverable in 'Tell;' there is none of his usual mannerism; but, on the contrary, unusual richness of form and careful finish of detail, combined with grandeur of outline. Meretricious embellishment, shakes, runs, and cadences are carefully avoided in this work, which is natural and characteristic throughout; even the melodies have not the stamp and style of Rossini's earlier times, but only their graceful charm and lively coloring."

Rossini must be allowed to be unequaled in genuine comic opera, and to have attained a distinct greatness in serious opera, to be the most comprehensive and at the same time the most national composer of Italy, to be, in short, the Mozart of his country. After all has been admitted and regretted-that he gave too little attention to musical science; that he often neglected to infuse into his work the depth and passion of which it was easily capable; that he placed too high a value on merely brilliant effects ad captandum vulgus-there remains the fact that his operas embody a mass of imperishable music, which will live with the art itself. Musicians of every country now admit his wondrous grace, his fertility and freshness of invention, his matchless treatment of the voice, his effectiveness in arrangement of the orchestra. He can never be made a model, for his genius had too much spontaneity and individuality of color. But he impressed and modified music hardly less than Gluck, whose tastes and methods were entirely antagonistic to his own. That he should have retired from the exercise of his art while in the full flower of his genius is a perplexing fact. No stranger story is recorded in the annals of art with respect to a genius who filled the world with his glory, and then chose to vanish, "not unseen." On finishing his crowning stroke of genius and skill in "William Tell," he might have said with Shakespeare's enchanter, Prospero:

".... But this magic I here abjure; and when I have required

Some heavenly music (which even now I do)

To work mine end upon their senses that

This airy charm is for, I'll break my staff-

Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,

And, deeper than did ever plummet sound, I'll drown my book."

A bright English critic, whose style is as charming as his judgments are good, says, in his study of the Donizetti music: "I find myself thinking of his music as I do of Domenichino's pictures of 'St. Agnes' and the 'Rosario' in the Bologna gallery, of the 'Diana' in the Borghese Palace at Rome, as pictures equable and skillful in the treatment of their subjects, neither devoid of beauty of form nor of color, but which make neither the pulse quiver nor the eye wet; and then such a sweeping judgment is arrested by a work like the 'St. Jerome' in th

e Vatican, from which a spirit comes forth so strong and so exalted, that the beholder, however trained to examine, and compare, and collect, finds himself raised above all recollections of manner by the sudden ascent of talent into the higher world of genius. Essentially a second-rate composer,* Donizetti struck out some first-rate things in a happy hour, such as the last act of 'La Favorita.'"

* Mr. Chorley probably means "second-rate" as compared with

the few very great names, which can be easily counted on the

fingers.

Both Donizetti and Bellini, though far inferior to their master in richness of resources, in creative faculty and instinct for what may be called dramatic expression in pure musical form, were disciples of Rossini in their ideas and methods of work. Milton sang of Shakespeare-

"Sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy's child,

"Warbles his native wood-notes wild!"

In a similar spirit, many learned critics have written of Rossini, and if it can be said of him in a musical sense that he had "little Latin and less Greek," still more true is it of the two popular composers whose works have filled so large a space in the opera-house of the last thirty years, for their scores are singularly thin, measured by the standard of advanced musical science. Specially may this be said of Bellini, in many respects the greater of the two. There is scarcely to be found in music a more signal example to show that a marked individuality may rest on a narrow base. In justice to him, however, it may be said that his early death prevented him from doing full justice to his powers, for he had in him the material out of which the great artist is made. Let us first sketch the career of Donizetti, the author of sixty-four operas, besides a mass of other music, such as cantatas, ariettas, duets, church music, etc., in the short space of twenty-six years.

Gàetano Donizetti was born at Bergamo, September 25, 1798, his father being a man of moderate fortune.*

* Admirers of the author of "Don Pasquale" and "Lucia" may

be interested in knowing that Donizetti was of Scotch

descent. His grandfather was a native of Perthshire, named

Izett. The young Scot was beguiled by the fascinating tongue

of a recruiting-sergeant into his Britannic majesty's

service, and was taken prisoner by General La Hoche during

the latter's invasion of Ireland. Already tired of a

private's life, he accepted the situation, and was induced

to become the French general's private secretary.

Subsequently he drifted to Italy, and married an Italian

lady of some rank, denationalizing his own name into

Donizetti. The Scottish predilections of our composer show

themselves in the music of "Don Pasquale," noticeably in

"Com' e gentil;" and the score of "Lucia" is strongly

flavored by Scottish sympathy and minstrelsy.

Receiving a good classical education, the young G?etano had three careers open before him: the bar, to which the will of his father inclined; architecture, indicated by his talent for drawing; and music, to which he was powerfully impelled by his own inclinations. His father sent him, at the age of seventeen, to Bologna to benefit by the instruction of Padre Mattel, who had also been Rossini's master. The young man showed no disposition for the heights of musical science as demanded by religious composition, and, much to his father's disgust, avowed his determination to write dramatic music. Paternal anger, for the elder Donizetti seems to have had a strain of Scotch obstinacy and austerity, made the youth enlist as a soldier, thinking to find time for musical work in the leisure of barrack-life. His first opera, "Enrico di Borgogna," was so highly admired by the Venetian manager, to whom, it was offered, that he induced friends of his to release young Donizetti from his military servitude. He now pursued musical composition with a facility and industry which astonished even the Italians, familiar with feats of improvisation. In ten years twenty-eight operas were produced. Such names as "Olivo e Pasquale," "La Convenienze Teatrali," "Il Borgomaestro di Saardam," "Gianni di Calais," "L'Esule di Roma," "Il Castello di Kenilworth," "Imelda di Lambertazzi," have no musical significance, except as belonging to a catalogue of forgotten titles. Donizetti was so poorly paid that need drove him to rapid composition, which could not wait for the true afflatus.

It was not till 1831 that the evidence of a strong individuality was given, for hitherto he had shown little more than a slavish imitation of Rossini. "Anna Bolena" was produced at Milan and gained him great credit, and even now, though it is rarely sung even in Italy, it is much respected as a work of art as well as of promise. It was first interpreted by Pasta and Rubini, and Lablache won his earliest London triumph in it. "Marino Faliero" was composed for Paris in 1835, and "L'Elisir d'Amore," one of the most graceful and pleasing of Donizetti's works, for Milan in 1832. "Lucia di Lammermoor," based on Walter Scott's novel, was given to the public in 1835, and has remained the most popular of the composer's operas. Edgardo was written for the great French tenor, Duprez, Lucia for Persiani.

Donizetti's kindness of heart was illustrated by the interesting circumstances of his saving an obscure Neapolitan theatre from ruin. Hearing that it was on the verge of suspension and the performers in great distress, the composer sought them out and supplied their immediate wants. The manager said a new work from the pen of Donizetti would be his salvation. "You shall have one within a week," was the answer.

Lacking a subject, he himself rearranged an old French vaudeville, and within the week the libretto was written, the music composed, the parts learned, the opera performed, and the theatre saved. There could be no greater proof of his generosity of heart and his versatility of talent. In these days of bitter quarreling over the rights of authors in their works, it may be amusing to know that Victor Hugo contested the rights of Italian librettists to borrow their plots from French plays. When "Lucrezia Borgia," composed for Milan in 1834, was produced at Paris in 1840, the French poet instituted a suit for an infringement of copyright. He gained his action, and "Lucrezia Borgia" became "La Rinegata," Pope Alexander the Sixth's Italians being metamorphosed into Turks.*

* Victor Hugo did the same thing with Verdi's "Ernani," and

other French authors followed with legal actions. The matter

was finally arranged on condition of an indemnity being paid

to the original French dramatists. The principle involved

had been established nearly two centuries before. In a

privilege granted to St. Amant in 1653 for the publication

of his "Mo?se Sauvé," it was forbidden to extract from that

epic materials for a play or poem. The descendants of

Beaumarchais fought for the same concession, and not very

long ago it was decided that the translators and arrangers

of "Le Nozze di Figaro" for the Théatre Lyrique must share

their receipts with the living representatives of the author

of "Le Mariage de Figaro."

"Lucrezia Borgia," which, though based on one of the most dramatic of stories and full of beautiful music, is not dramatically treated by the composer, seems to mark the distance about half way between the styles of Rossini and Verdi. In it there is but little recitative, and in the treatment of the chorus we find the method which Verdi afterward came to use exclusively. When Donizetti revisited Paris in 1840 he produced in rapid succession "I Martiri," "La Fille du Regiment," and "La Favorita." In the second of these works Jenny Lind, Sontag, and Alboni won bright triumphs at a subsequent period.

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