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Great Italian and French Composers By George T. Ferris Characters: 8428

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

The future author of "Norma" and "La Sonnambula," Bellini, took his first lessons in music from his father, an organist at Catania.*

* Bellini was born in 1802, nine years after his

contemporary and rival, Donizetti, and died in 1835,

thirteen years before.

He was sent to the Naples Conservatory by the generosity of a noble patron, and there was the fellow-pupil of Mercadante, a composer who blazed into a temporary lustre which threatened to outshine his fellows, but is now forgotten except by the antiquarian and the lover of church music. Bellini's early works, for he composed three before he was twenty, so pleased Barbaja, the manager of the San Carlo and La Scala, that he intrusted the youth with the libretto of "Il Pirata," to be composed for representation at Florence. The tenor part was written for the great singer, Rubini, whose name has no peer among artists, since male sopranos were abolished by the outraged moral sense of society. Rubini retired to the country with Bellini, and studied, as they were produced, the simple touching airs with which he so delighted the public on the stage.

La Scala rang with plaudits when the opera was produced, and Bellini's career was assured. "I Capuletti" was his next successful opera, performed at Venice in 1829, but it never became popular out of Italy.

The significant period of Bellini's life was in the year 1831, which produced "La Sonnambula," to be followed by "Norma" the next season. Both these were written for and introduced before the Neapolitan public. In these works he reached his highest development, and by them he is best known to fame. The opera-story of "La Sonnambula," by Romani, an accomplished writer and scholar, is one of the most artistic and effective ever put into the hands of a composer. M. Scribe had already used the plot both as the subject of a vaudeville and a chorégraphie drama; but in Romani's hands it became a symmetrical story full of poetry and beauty. The music of this opera, throbbing with pure melody and simple emotion, as natural and fresh as a bed of wild flowers, went to the heart of the universal public, learned and unlearned; and, in spite of its scientific faults, it will never cease to delight future generations, as long as hearts beat and eyes are moistened with human tenderness and sympathy. And yet, of this work an English critic wrote, on its first London presentation:

"Bellini has soared too high; there is nothing of grandeur, no touch of true pathos in the common-place workings of his mind. He cannot reach the opera semiseria; he should confine his powers to the musical drama, the one-act opera buffa." But the history of art-criticism is replete with such instances.

"Norma" was also a grand triumph for the young composer from the outset, especially as the lofty character of the Druid priestess was sung by that unapproachable lyric tragedienne, the Siddons of the opera, Madame Pasta. Bellini is said to have had this queen of dramatic song in his mind in writing the opera, and right nobly did she vindicate his judgment, for no European audience afterward but was thrilled and carried away by her masterpiece of acting and singing in this part.

Bellini himself considered "Norma" his chef d'oeuvre. A beautiful Parisienne attempted to extract from his reluctant lips his preference of his own works. The lady finally overcame his evasions by the query: "But if you were out at sea, and should be shipwrecked-" "Ah!" he cried, without allowing her to finish. "I would leave all the rest and try to save 'Norma.'"

"I Puritani" was composed for and performed at Paris in 1834, by that splendid quartette of artists, Grisi, Rubini, Tamburini, and Lablache. Bellini compelled the singers to execute after his style. While Rubini was rehearsing the tenor part, the composer cried out in rage: "You put no life into your music. Show some feeling. Don't you know what love is?" Then changing his tone: "Don't you know your voice is a goldmine that has not been fully explored? You are an excellent artist, but that is not sufficient. You must forget yourself and represent Gualtiero. Let's try again." The tenor, stung by the admonition, then gave th

e part magnificently. After the success of "I Puritani," the composer received the Cross of the Legion of Honor, an honor then not often bestowed. The "Puritani" season is still remembered, it is said, with peculiar pleasure by the older connoisseurs of Paris and London, as the enthusiasm awakened in musical circles has rarely been equaled.

Bellini had placed himself under contract to write two new works immediately, one for Paris, the other for Naples, and retired to the villa of a friend at Puteaux to insure the more complete seclusion. Here, while pursuing his art with almost sleepless ardor, he was attacked by his fatal malady, intestinal fever.

"From his youth up," says his biographer Mould, "Vincenzo's eagerness in his art was such as to keep him at the piano night and day, till he was obliged forcibly to leave it. The ruling passion accompanied him through his short life, and by the assiduity with which he pursued it brought on the dysentery which closed his brilliant career, peopling his last hours with the figures of those to whom his works owed so much of their success."

During the moments of delirium which preceded his death, he was constantly speaking of Lablache, Tamburini, and Grisi; and one of his last recognizable impressions was that he was present at a brilliant representation of his last opera at the Salle Favart. His earthly career closed September 23, 1835, at the age of thirty-one.

On the eve of his interment, the Théatre Italien reopened with the "Puritani." It was an occasion full of solemn gloom. Both the musicians and audience broke from time to time into sobs. Tamburini, in particular, was so oppressed by the death of his young friend that his vocalization, generally so perfect, was often at fault, while the faces of Grisi, Rubini, and Lablache too plainly showed their aching hearts.

Rossini, Cherubini, Paer, and Carafa had charge of the funeral, and M. Habeneck, chef d'orchestre of the Académie Royale, of the music. The next remarkable piece on the funeral programme was a Lacrymosa for four voices without accompaniment, in which the text of the Latin hymn was united to the beautiful tenor melody in the third act of the "Puritani." This was executed by Rubini, Ivanoff, Tamburini, and Lablache. The services were performed at the Church of the Invalides, and the remains were interred in Père Lachaise.

Rossini had ever shown great love for Bellini, and Rosario Bellini, the stricken father, wrote to him a touching letter, in which, after speaking of his grief and despair, the old man said:

"You always encouraged the object of my eternal regret in his labors; you took him under your protection, you neglected nothing that could increase his glory and his welfare. After my son's death, what have you not done to honor my son's name and render it dear to posterity? I learned this from the newspapers; and I am penetrated with gratitude for your excessive kindness as well as for that of a number of distinguished artists, which also I shall never forget. Pray, sir, be my interpreter, and tell these artists that the father and family of Bellini, as well as of our compatriots of Catania, will cherish an imperishable recollection of this generous conduct. I shall never cease to remember how much you did for my son. I shall make known everywhere, in the midst of my tears, what an affectionate heart belongs to the great Rossini, and how kind, hospitable, and full of feeling are the artists of France."

Bellini was affable, sincere, honest, and affectionate. Nature gave him a beautiful and ingenuous face, noble features, large, clear blue eyes, and abundant light hair. His countenance instantly won on the regards of all that met him. His disposition was melancholy; a secret depression often crept over his most cheerful hours. We are told there was a tender romance in his earlier life. The father of the lady he loved, a Neapolitan judge, refused his suit on account of his inferior social position. When Bellini became famous the judge wished to make amends, but Bellini's pride interfered. Soon after the young lady, who loved him unalterably, died, and it was said the composer never recovered from the shock.

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