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Great Italian and French Composers By George T. Ferris Characters: 7256

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Luigi Gaspardo Pacifico Spontini, born of peasant parents at Majolati, Italy, November 14, 1774, displayed his musical passion at an early age. Designed for holy orders from childhood, his priestly tutors could not make him study; but he delighted in the service of the church, with its or^an and choir effects, for here his true vocation asserted itself. He was wont, too, to hide in the belfry, and revel in the roaring orchestra of metal, when the chimes were rung. On one occasion a stroke of lightning precipitated him from his dangerous perch to the floor below, and the history of music nearly lost one of its great lights. The bias of his nature was intractable, and he was at last permitted to study music, at first under the charge of his uncle Joseph, the cure of Jesi, and finally at the Naples Conservatory, where he was entered at the age of sixteen.

His first opera, "I Puntigli delle Donne," was composed at the age of twenty-one, and performed at Rome, where it was kindly received. The French invasion unsettled the affairs of Italy, and Spontini wandered somewhat aimlessly, unable to exercise his talents to advantage till he went to Paris in 1803, where he found a large number of brother Italian musicians, and a cordial reception, though himself an obscure and untried youth. He produced several minor works on the French stage, noticeably among them the one-act opera of "Milton," in which he stepped boldly out of his Italian mannerism, and entered on that path afterward pursued with such brilliancy and boldness. Yet, though his talents began to be recognized, life was a trying struggle, and it is doubtful if he could have overcome the difficulties in his way when he was ready to produce "La Vestale," had he not enlisted the sympathies of the Empress Josephine, who loved music, and played the part of patroness as gracefully as she did all others.

By Napoleon's order "La Vestale" was rehearsed against the wish of the manager and critics of the Academy of Music, and produced December 15, 1807. Previous to this some parts of it had been performed privately at the Tuileries, and the Emperor had said: "M. Spontini, your opera abounds in fine airs and effective duets. The march to the place of execution is admirable. You will certainly have the great success you so well deserve." The imperial prediction was justified by consecutive performances of one hundred nights. His next work, "Fernand Cortez," sustained the impression of genius earned for him by its predecessor. The scene of the revolt is pronounced by competent critics to be one of the finest dramatic conceptions in operatic music.

In 1809 Spontini married the niece of Erard, the great pianoforte-maker, and was called to the direction of the Italian opera; but he retained this position only two years, from the disagreeable conditions he had to contend with, and the cabals that were formed against him. The year 1814 witnessed the production of "Pelage," and two years later "Les Dieux Rivaux" was composed, in conjunction with Persuis, Berton, and Kreutzer; but neither work attracted much attention. The opera of "Olympic," worked out on the plan of "La Vestale" and "Cortez," was produced in 1819. Spontini was embittered by its poor success, for he had built many hopes on it, and wrought long and patiently. That he was not in his best vein, and like many other men of genius was not always able to estimate justly his own work, is undeniable; for Spontini, contrary to the opinion of his contemporaries and of posterity, regarded this as his best opera. His acceptance of the Prussian King's offer to become mu

sical director at Berlin was the result of his chagrin. Here he remained for twenty years. "Olympic" succeeded better at Berlin, though the boisterousness of the music seems to have called out some sharp strictures even among the Berlinese, whose penchant for noisy operatic effects was then as now a butt for the satire of the musical wits. Apropos of the long run of "Olympic" at Berlin, an amusing anecdote is told on the authority of Castel-Blaze. A wealthy amateur had become deaf, and suffered much from his deprivation of the enjoyment of his favorite art. After trying many physicians, he was treated in a novel fashion by his latest doctor. "Come with me to the opera this evening," wrote down the doctor. "What's the use? I can't hear a note," was the impatient rejoinder. "Never mind," said the other; "come, and you will see something at all events." So the twain repaired to the theatre to hear Spontini's "Olympie." All went well till one of the overwhelming finales, which happened to be played that evening more fortissimo than usual. The patient turned around beaming with delight, exclaiming, "Doctor, I can hear." As there was no reply, the happy patient again said, "Doctor, I tell you, you have cured me." A blank stare alone met him, and he found that the doctor was as deaf as a post, having fallen a victim to his own prescription. The German wits had a similar joke afterward at Halévy's expense. The "Punch" of Vienna said that Halévy made the brass play so loudly that the French horn was actually blown quite straight.

Among the works produced at Berlin were "Nurmahal," in 1825; "Alcidor," the same year; and in 1829, "Agnes von Hohenstaufen." Various other new works were given from time to time, but none achieved more than a brief hearing. Spontini's stiff-necked and arrogant will kept him in continual trouble, and the Berlin press aimed its arrows at him with incessant virulence: a war which the composer fed by his bitter and witty rejoinders, for he was an adept in the art of invective. Had he not been singularly adroit, he would have been obliged to leave his post. But he gloried in the disturbance he created, and was proof against the assaults of his numerous enemies, made so largely by his having come of the French school, then as now an all-sufficient cause of Teutonic dislike. Spontini's unbending intolerance, however, at last undermined his musical supremacy, so long held good with an iron hand; and an intrigue headed by Count Brühl, intendant of the Royal Theatre, at last obliged him to resign after a rule of a score of years. His influence on the lyric theatre of Berlin, however, had been valuable, and he had the glory of forming singers among the Prussians, who until his time had thought more of cornet-playing than of beautiful and true vocalization. The Prussian King allowed him on his departure a pension of 16,000 francs.

When Spontini returned to Paris, though he was appointed member of the Academy of Fine Arts, he was received with some coldness by the musical world. He had no little difficulty in getting a production of his operas; only the Conservatory remained faithful to him, and in their hall large audiences gathered to hear compositions to which the opera-house denied its stage. New idols attracted the public, and Spontini, though burdened with all the orders of Europe, was obliged to rest in the traditions of his earlier career. A passionate desire to see his native land before death made him leave Paris in 1850, and he went to Majolati, the town of his birth, where he died after a residence of a few months. His cradle was his tomb.

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