When Rossini arrived in Paris he was almost immediately appointed director of the Italian Opera by the Duc de Lauriston. With this and the Academie he remained connected till the revolution of 1830. "Le Siege de Corinthe," adapted from his old work, "Maometto II.," was the first opera presented to the Parisian public, and, though admired, did not become a favorite. The French amour propre was a little stung when it was made known that Rossini had simply modified and reshaped one of his early and immature productions as his first attempt at composition in French opera. His other works for the French stage were "Il Viaggio a Rheims," "Le Comte Ory," and "Guillaume Tell."
The last-named opera, which will ever be Rossini's crown of glory as a composer, was written with his usual rapidity while visiting the chateau of M. Aguado, a country-seat some distance from Paris. This work, one of the half-dozen greatest ever written, was first produced at the Academie Royale on August 3, 1829. In its early form of libretto it had a run of fifty-six representations, and was then withdrawn from the stage; and the work of remodeling from five to three acts, and other improvements in the dramatic framework, was thoroughly carried out. In its new form the opera blazed into an unprecedented popularity, for of the greatness of the music there had never been but one judgment. Fetis, the eminent critic, writing of it immediately on its production, said, "The work displays a new man in an old one, and proves that it is in vain to measure the action of genius," and follows with, "This production opens a new career to Rossini," a prophecy unfortunately not to be realized, for Rossini was soon to retire from the field in which he had made such a remarkable career, while yet in the very prime of his powers.
"Guillaume Tell" is full of melody, alike in the solos and the massive choral and ballet music. It runs in rich streams through every part of the composition. The overture is better known to the general public than the opera itself, and is one of the great works of musical art. The opening andante in triple time for the five violoncelli and double basses at once carries the hearer to the regions of the upper Alps, where amid the eternal snows Nature sleeps in a peaceful dream. We perceive the coming of the sunlight, and the hazy atmosphere clearing away before the newborn day. In the next movement the solitude is all dispelled. The raindrops fall thick and heavy, and a thunderstorm bursts. But the fury is soon spent, and the clouds clear away. The shepherds are astir, and from the mountain-sides come the peculiar notes of the "Ranz des Vaches" from their pipes. Suddenly all is changed again.
Trumpets call to arms, and with the mustering battalions the music marks the quickstep, as the shepherd patriots march to meet the Austrian chivalry. A brilliant use of the violins and reeds depicts the exultation of the victors on their return, and closes one of the grandest sound-paintings in music.
The original cast of "Guillaume Tell" included the great singers then in Paris, and these were so delighted with the music, that the morning after the first production they assembled on the terrace before his house and performed selections from it in his honor.
With this last great effort Rossini, at the age of thirty-seven, may be said to have retired from the field of music, though his life was prolonged for forty years. True, he composed the "Stabat Mater" and the "Messe Solennelle," but neither of these added to the reputation won in his previous career. The "Stabat Mater," publicly performed for the first time in 1842, has been recognized, it is true, as a masterpiece; but its entire lack of devotional solemnity, its brilliant and showy texture, preclude its giving Rossini any rank as a religious composer.
He spent the forty years of his retirement partly at Bologna, partly at Passy, near Paris, the city of his adoption. His hospitality welcomed the brilliant men from all parts of Europe who loved to visit him, and his relations with other great musicians were of the most kindly and cordial character. His sunny and genial nature never knew envy, and he was quick to recognize the merits of schools opposed to his own. He died, after intense suffering, on November 13, 1868. He had been some time ill, and four of the greatest physicians in Europe were his almost constant attendants. The funeral of "The Swan of Pesaro," as he was called by his compatriots, was attended by an immense concourse, and his remains rest in Pere-Lachaise.
Moscheles, the celebrated pianist, gives us some charming pictures of Rossini in his home at Passy, in his diary of 1860. He writes: "Felix [his son] had been made quite at home in the villa on former occasions. To me the parterre salon, with its rich furniture, was quite new, and before the maestro himself appeared we looked at his photograph in a circular porcelain frame, on the sides of which were inscribed the names of his works. The ceiling is covered with pictures illustrating scenes out of Palestrina's and Mozart's lives; in the middle of the room stands a Pleyel piano. When Rossini came in he gave me the orthodox Italian kiss, and was effusive of expressions of delight at my reappearance, and very complimentary on the subject of Felix. In the course of our conversation he was full of hard-hitting truths on the present study and method of vocalization. 'I don't want to hear anything more of it,' he said; 'they scream. All I want is a resonant, full-toned voice, not a screeching voice. I care not whether it be for speaking or singing, everything ought to sound melodious.'" So, too, Rossini assured Moscheles that he hated the new school of piano-players, saying the piano was horribly maltreated, for the performers thumped the keys as if they had some vengeance to wreak on them. When the great player improvised for Rossini, the latter says: "It is music that flows from the fountain-head. There is reservoir water and spring water. The former only runs when you turn the cock, and is always redolent of the vase; the latter always gushes forth fresh and limpid. Nowadays people confound the simple and the trivial; a motif of Mozart they would call trivial, if they dared."
On other occasions Moscheles plays to the maestro, who insists on having discovered barriers in the "humoristic variations," so boldly do they seem to raise the standard of musical revolution; his title of the "Grand Valse" he finds too unassuming. "Surely a waltz with some angelic creature must have inspired you, Moscheles, with this composition, and that the title ought to express. Titles, in fact, should pique the curiosity of the public." "A view uncongenial to me," adds Moscheles; "however, I did not discuss it.... A dinner at Rossini's is calculated for the enjoyment of a 'gourmet,' and he himself proved to be the one, for he went through the very select menu as only a connoisseur would. After dinner he looked through my album of musical autographs with the greatest interest, and finally we became very merry, I producing my musical jokes on the piano, and Felix and Clara figuring in the duet which I had written for her voice and his imitation of the French horn. Rossini cheered lustily, and so one joke followed another till we received the parting kiss and 'good night.'... At my next visit, Rossini showed me a charming 'Lied oline Worte,' which he composed only yesterday; a graceful melody is embodied in the well-known technical form. Alluding to a performance of 'Semiramide,' he said with a malicious smile, 'I suppose you saw the beautiful decorations in it?' He has not received the Sisters Marchisio for fear they should sing to him, nor has he heard them in the theatre; he spoke warmly of Pasta, Lablache, Rubini, and others, then he added that I ought not to look with jealousy upon his budding talent as a pianoforte-player, but that, on the contrary, I should help to establish his reputation as such in Leipsic. He again questioned me with much interest about my intimacy with Clementi, and, calling me that master's worthy successor, he said he should like to visit me in Leipsic, if it were not for those dreadful railways, which he would never travel by. All this in his bright and lively way; but when we came to discuss Chevet, who wishes to supplant musical notes by ciphers, he maintained in an earnest and dogmatic tone that the system of notation, as it had developed itself since Pope Gregory's time, was sufficient for all musical requirements. He certainly could not withhold some appreciation for Chevet, but refused to indorse the certificate granted by the Institute in his favor; the system he thought impracticable.
"The never-failing stream of conversation flowed on until eleven o'clock, when I was favored with the inevitable kiss, which on this occasion was accompanied by special farewell blessings."
Shortly after Moscheles had left Paris, his son forwarded to him most friendly messages from Rossini, and continues thus: "Rossini sends you word that he is working hard at the piano, and, when you next come to Paris, you shall find him in better practice.... The conversation turning upon German music, I asked him 'which was his favorite among the great masters?' Of Beethoven he said: 'I take him twice a week, Haydn four times, and Mozart every day. You will tell me that Beethoven is a Colossus who often gives you a dig in the ribs, while Mozart is always adorable; it is that the latter had the chance of going very young to Italy, at a time when they still sang well.' Of Weber he says, 'He has talent enough, and to spare' (Il a du talent a revendre, celui-la). He told me in reference to him, that, when the part of 'Tancred' was sung at Berlin by a bass voice, Weber had written violent articles not only against the management, but against the composer, so that, when Weber came to Paris, he did not venture to call on Rossini, who, however, let him know that he bore him no grudge for having made these attacks; on receipt of that message Weber called and they became acquainted.
"I asked him if he had met Byron in Venice? 'Only in a restaurant,' was the answer, 'where I was introduced to him; our acquaintance, therefore, was very slight; it seems he has spoken of me, but I don't know what he says.' I translated for him, in a somewhat milder form, Byron's words, which happened to be fresh in my memory: 'They have been crucifying Othello into an opera; the music good but lugubrious, but, as for the words, all the real scenes with Iago cut out, and the greatest nonsense instead, the handkerchief turned into a billet-doux, and the first singer would not black his face—singing, dresses, and music very good.' The maestro regretted his ignorance of the English language, and said, 'In my day I gave much time to the study of our Italian literature. Dante is the man I owe most to; he taught me more music than all my music-masters put together, and when I wrote my 'Otello,' I would introduce those lines of Dante—you know the song of the gondolier. My librettist would have it that gondoliers never sang Dante, and but rarely Tasso, but I answered him, 'I know all about that better than you, for I have lived in Venice and you haven't. Dante I must and will have.'"
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 the 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.
Gaetano 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 Gaeetano 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 "Moise Sauve," 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 Theatre 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.
"La Favorita," the story of which was drawn from "L'Ange de Nigida," and founded in the first instance on a French play, "Le Comte de Commingues," was put on the stage at the Academie with a magnificent cast and scenery, and achieved a success immediately great, for as a dramatic opera it stands far in the van of all the composer's productions. The whole of the grand fourth act, with the exception of one cavatina, was composed in three hours. Donizetti had been dining at the house of a friend, who was engaged in the evening to go to a ball. On leaving the house, his host, with profuse apologies, begged the composer to stay and finish his coffee, of which Donizetti was inordinately fond. The latter sent out for music paper, and, finding himself in the vein for composition, went on writing till the completion of the work. He had just put the final stroke to the celebrated "Viens dans un autre patrie" when his friend returned at one in the morning to congratulate him on his excellent method of passing the time, and to hear the music sung for the first time from Donizetti's own lips.
After visiting Rome, Milan, and Vienna, for which last city he wrote "Linda di Chamouni," our composer returned to Paris, and in 1843 wrote "Don Pasquale" for the Theatre Italien, and "Don Sebastian" for the Academie. Its lugubrious drama was fatal to the latter, but the brilliant gayety of "Don Pasquale," rendered specially delightful by such a magnificent cast as Grisi, Mario, Tamburini, and Lablache, made it one of the great art attractions of Paris, and a Fortunatus purse for the manager. The music of this work perhaps is the best ever written by Donizetti, though it lacks the freshness and sentiment of his "Elisir d'Amore," which is steeped in rustic poetry and tenderness like a rose wet with dew. The production of "Maria di Rohan" in Vienna the same year, an opera with some powerful dramatic effects and bold music, gave Ronconi the opportunity to prove himself not merely a fine buffo singer, but a noble tragic actor. In this work Donizetti displays that rugged earnestness and vigor so characteristic of Verdi; and, had his life been greatly prolonged, we might have seen him ripen into a passion and power at odds with the elegant frivolity which for the most part tainted his musical quality. Donizetti's last opera, "Catarina Comaro" the sixty-third one represented, was brought out at Naples in the year 1844 without adding aught to his reputation. Of this composer's long list of works only ten or eleven retain any hold on the stage, his best serious operas being "La Favorita," "Linda," "Anna Bolena," "Lucrezia Borgia," and "Lucia;" the finest comic works, "L'Elisir d'Amore," "La Fille du Regiment," and "Don Pasquale."
In composing Donizetti never used the pianoforte, writing with great rapidity and never making corrections. Yet curious to say, he could not do anything without a small ivory scraper by his side, though never using it. It was given him by his father when commencing his career, with the injunction that, as he was determined to become a musician, he should make up his mind to write as little rubbish as possible, advice which Donizetti sometimes forgot.
The first signs of the malady, which was the cause of the composer's death, had already shown themselves in 1845. Fits of hallucination and all the symptoms of approaching derangement displayed themselves with increasing intensity. An incessant worker, overseer of his operas on twenty stages, he had to pay the tax by which his fame became his ruin. It is reported that he anticipated the coming scourge, for during the rehearsals of "Don Sebastian" he said, "I think I shall go mad yet." Still he would not put the bridle on his restless activity. At last paralysis seized him, and in January, 1846, he was placed under the care of the celebrated Dr. Blanche at Ivry. In the hope that the mild influence of his native air might heal his distempered brain, he was sent to Bergamo, in 1848, but died in his brother's arms April 8th. The inhabitants of the Peninsula were then at war with Austria, and the bells that sounded the knell of Donizetti's departure mingled their solemn peals with the roar of the cannon fired to celebrate the victory of Goito.
His faithful valet, Antoine, wrote to Adolphe Adam, describing his obsequies: "More than four thousand persons," he relates, "were present at the ceremony. The procession was composed of the numerous clergy of Bergamo, the most illustrious members of the community and its environs, and of the civic guard of the town and the suburbs. The discharge of musketry, mingled with the light of three or four thousand torches, presented a fine effect; the whole was enhanced by the presence of three military bands and the most propitious weather it was possible to behold. The young gentlemen of Bergamo insisted on bearing the remains of their illustrious fellow-townsman, although the cemetery was a league and a half from the town. The road was crowded its whole length by people who came from the surrounding country to witness the procession; and to give due praise to the inhabitants of Bergamo, never, hitherto, had such great honors been bestowed upon any member of that city."
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 choregraphie 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 the 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 Theatre 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 Academie 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 Pere 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.
Donizetti and Bellini were peculiarly moulded by the great genius of Rossini, but in their best works they show individuality, color, and special creative activity. The former composer, one of the most affluent in the annals of music, seemed to become more fresh in his fancies with increased production. He is an example of how little the skill and touch, belonging to unceasing work, should be despised in comparison with what is called inspiration. Donizetti arrived at his freshest creations at a time when there seemed but little left for him except the trite and threadbare. There are no melodies so rich and well fancied as those to be found in his later works; and in sense of dramatic form and effective instrumentation (always a faulty point with Donizetti) he displayed great progress at the last. It is, however, a noteworthy fact, that the latest Italian composers have shown themselves quite weak in composing expressly for the orchestra. No operatic overture since "William Tell" has been produced by this school of music, worthy to be rendered in a concert-room.
Donizetti lacked the dramatic instinct in conceiving his music. In attempting it he became hollow and theatric; and beautiful as are the melodies and concerted pieces in "Lucia," where the subject ought to inspire a vivid dramatic nature with such telling effects, it is in the latter sense one of the most disappointing of operas.
He redeemed himself for the nonce, however, in the fourth act of "La Favorita," where there is enough musical and dramatic beauty to condone the sins of the other three acts. The solemn and affecting church chant, the passionate romance for the tenor, the great closing duet in which the ecstasy of despair rises to that of exaltation, the resistless sweep of the rhythm—all mark one of the most effective single acts ever written. He showed himself here worthy of companionship with Rossini and Meyerbeer.
In his comic operas, "L'Elisir d'Amore," "La Fille du Regiment," and "Don Pasquale," there is a continual well-spring of sunny, bubbling humor. They are slight, brilliant, and catching, everything that pedantry condemns, and the popular taste delights in. Mendelssohn, the last of the German classical composers, admired "L'Elisir" so much that he said he would have liked to have written it himself. It may be said that while Donizetti lacks grand conceptions, or even great heauties for the most part, his operas contain so much that is agreeable, so many excellent opportunities for vocal display, such harmony between sound and situation, that he will probably retain a hold on the stage when much greater composers are only known to the general public by name.
Bellini, with less fertility and grace, possessed far more picturesqueness and intensity. His powers of imagination transcended his command over the working tools of his art. Even more lacking in exact and extended musical science than Donizetti, he could express what came within his range with a simple vigor, grasp, and beauty, which make him a truly dramatic composer. In addition to this, a matter which many great composers ignore, Bellini had extraordinary skill in writing music for the voice, not that which merely gave opportunity for executive trickery and embellishment, but the genuine accents of passion, pathos, and tenderness, in forms best adapted to be easily and effectively delivered.
He had no flexibility, no command over mirthful inspiration, such as we hear in Mozart, Rossini, or even Donizetti. But his monotone is in sublile rapport with the graver aspects of nature and life. Chorley sums up this characteristic of Bellini in the following words:
"In spite of the inexperience with which the instrumental score is filled up, the opening scene of 'Norma' in the dim druidical wood bears the true character of ancient sylvan antiquity. There is daybreak again—a fresh tone of reveille—in the prelude to 'I Puritani.' If Bellini's genius was not versatile in its means of expression, if it had not gathered all the appliances by which science fertilizes Nature, it beyond all doubt included appreciation of truth, no less than instinct for beauty."
In 1872 the Khedive of Egypt, an oriental ruler, whose love of western art and civilization has since tangled him in economic meshes to escape from which has cost him his independence, produced a new opera with barbaric splendor of appointments, at Grand Cairo. The spacious theatre blazed with fantastic dresses and showy uniforms, and the curtain rose on a drama which gave a glimpse to the Arabs, Copts, and Francs present of the life and religion, the loves and hates of ancient Pharaonic times, set to music by the most celebrated of living Italian composers.
That an eastern prince should have commissioned Giuseppe Verdi to write "Aida" for him, in his desire to emulate western sovereigns as a patron of art, is an interesting fact, but not wonderful or significant.
The opera itself was freighted, however, with peculiar significance as an artistic work, far surpassing that of the circumstances which gave it origin, or which saw its first production in the mysterious land of the Nile and Sphinx.
Originally a pupil, thoroughly imbued with the method and spirit of Rossini, though never lacking in original quality, Verdi as a young man shared the suffrages of admiring audiences with Donizetti and Bellini. Even when he diverged widely from his parent stem and took rank as the representative of the melodramatic school of music, he remained true to the instincts of his Italian training.
The remarkable fact is that Verdi, at the age of fifty-eight, when it might have been safely assumed that his theories and preferences were finally crystallized, produced an opera in which he clasped hands with the German enthusiast, who preached an art system radically opposed to his own and lashed with scathing satire the whole musical cult of the Italian race.
In "Aida" and the "Manzoni Mass," written in 1873, Verdi, the leader among living Italian composers, practically conceded that, in the long, bitterly fought battle between Teuton and Italian in music, the former was the victor. In the opera we find a new departure, which, if not embodying all the philosophy of the "new school," is stamped with its salient traits, viz.: The subordination of all the individual effects to the perfection and symmetry of the whole; a lavish demand on all the sister arts to contribute their rich gifts to the heightening of the illusion; a tendency to enrich the harmonic value in the choruses, the concerted pieces, and the instrumentation, to the great sacrifice of the solo pieces; the use of the heroic and mythical element as a theme.
Verdi, the subject of this interesting revolution, has filled a very brilliant place in modern musical art, and his career has been in some ways as picturesque as his music.
Verdi's parents were literally hewers of wood and drawers of water, earning their bread, after the manner of Italian peasants, at a small settlement called La Roncali, near Busseto, where the future composer was born on October 9, 1814.
His earliest recollections were with the little village church, where the little Giuseppe listened with delight to the church organ, for, as with all great musicians, his fondness for music showed itself at a very early age. The elder Verdi, though very poor, gratified the child's love of music when he was about eight by buying a small spinet, and placing him under the instruction of Provesi, a teacher in Busseto. The boy entered on his studies with ardor, and made more rapid progress than the slender facilities which were allowed him would ordinarily justify.
An event soon occurred which was destined to wield a lasting influence on his destiny. He one day heard a skillful performance on a fine piano, while passing by one of the better houses of Busseto. From that time a constant fascination drew him to the house; for day after day he lingered and seemed unwilling to go away lest he should perchance lose some of the enchanting sounds which so enraptured him. The owner of the premises was a rich merchant, one Antonio Barezzi, a cultivated and high-minded man, and a passionate lover of music withal. 'Twas his daughter whose playing gave the young Verdi such pleasure.
Signor Barezzi had often seen the lingering and absorbed lad, who stood as if in a dream, oblivious to all that passed around him in the practical work-a-day world. So one day he accosted him pleasantly and inquired why he came so constantly and stayed so long doing nothing.
"I play the piano a little," said the boy, "and I like to come here and listen to the fine playing in your house."
"Oh! if that is the case, come in with me that you may enjoy it more at your ease, and hereafter you are welcome to do so whenever you feel inclined."
It may be imagined the delighted boy did not refuse the kind invitation, and the acquaintance soon ripened into intimacy, for the rich merchant learned to regard the bright young musician with much affection, which it is needless to say was warmly returned. Verdi was untiring in study and spent the early years of his youth in humble quiet, in the midst of those beauties of nature which have so powerful an influence in molding great susceptibilities. At his seventeenth year he had acquired as much musical knowledge as could be acquired at a place like Busseto, and he became anxious to go to Milan to continue his studies. The poverty of his family precluding any assistance from this quarter, he was obliged to find help from an eleemosynary fund then existing in his native town. This was an institution called the Monte di Pieta, which offered yearly to four young men the sum of twenty-five lire a month each, in order to help them to an education; and Verdi, making an application and sustained by the influence of his friend the rich merchant, was one of the four whose good fortune it was to be selected.
The allowance thus obtained with some assistance from Barezzi enabled the ambitious young musician to go to Milan, carrying with him some of his compositions. When he presented himself for examination at the conservatory, he was made to play on the piano, and his compositions examined. The result fell on his hopes like a thunder-bolt. The pedantic and narrow-minded examiners not only scoffed at the state of his musical knowledge, but told him he was incapable of becoming a musician. To weaker souls this would have been a terrible discouragement, but to his ardor and self-confidence it was only a challenge. Barezzi had equal confidence in the abilities of his protege, and warmly encouraged him to work and hope. Verdi engaged an excellent private teacher and pursued his studies with unflagging energy, denying himself all but the barest necessities, and going sometimes without sufficient food.
A stroke of fortune now fell in his way; the place of organist fell vacant at the Busseto church, and Verdi was appointed to fill it. He returned home, and was soon afterward married to the daughter of the benefactor to whom he owed so much. He continued to apply himself with great diligence to the study of his art, and completed an opera early in 1839. He succeeded in arranging for the production of this work, "L'Oberto, Conte de San Bonifacio," at La Scala, Milan; but it excited little comment and was soon forgotten, like the scores of other shallow or immature compositions so prolifically produced in Italy.
The impresario, Merelli, believed in the young composer though, for he thought he discovered signs of genius. So he gave him a contract to write three operas, one of which was to be an opera buffa, and to be ready in the following autumn. With hopeful spirits Verdi set to work on the opera, but that year of 1840 was to be one of great trouble and trial. Hardly had he set to work all afire with eagerness and hope, when he was seized with severe illness. His recovery was followed by the successive sickening of his two children, who died, a terrible blow to the father's fond heart. Fate had the crowning stroke though still to give, for the young mother, agonized by this loss, was seized with a fatal inflammation of the brain. Thus within a brief period Verdi was bereft of all the sweet consolations of home, and his life became a burden to him. Under these conditions he was to write a comic opera, full of sparkle, gayety, and humor. Can we wonder that his work was a failure? The public came to be amused by bright, joyous music, for it was nothing to them that the composer's heart was dead with grief at his afflictions. The audience hissed "Un Giorno di Regno," for it proved a funereal attempt at mirth. So Verdi sought to annul the contract. To this the impresario replied: "So be it, if you wish; but, whenever you want to write again on the same terms, you will find me ready."
To tell the truth, the composer was discouraged by his want of success, and wholly broken down by his numerous trials. He now withdrew from all society, and, having hired a small room in an out-of-the-way part of Milan, passed most of his time in reading the worst books that could be found, rarely going out, unless occasionally in the evening, never giving his attention to study of any kind, and never touching the piano. Such was his life from October, 1840, to January, 1841. One evening, early in the new year, while out walking, he chanced to meet Merelli, who took him by the arm; and, as they sauntered toward the theatre, the impresario told him that he was in great trouble, Nicolai, who was to write an opera for him, having refused to accept a libretto entitled "Nabucco."
To this Verdi replied:
"I am glad to be able to relieve you of your difficulty. Don't you remember the libretto of 'Il Proscritto,' which you procured for me, and for which I have never composed the music? Give that to Nicolai in place of 'Nabucco.'"
Merelli thanked him for his kind offer, and, as they reached the theatre, asked him to go in, that they might ascertain whether the manuscript of "Il Proscritto" was really there. It was at length found, and Verdi was on the point of leaving, when Merelli slipped into his pocket the book of "Nabucco," asking him to look it over. For want of something to do, he took up the drama the next morning and read it through, realizing how truly grand it was in conception. But, as a lover forces himself to feign indifference to his coquettish innamorata, so he, disregarding his inclinations, returned the manuscript to Merelli that same day.
"Well?" said Merelli, inquiringly.
"Musicabilissimo!" he replied; "full of dramatic power and telling situations!"
"Take it home with you, then, and write the music for it."
Verdi declared that he did not wish to compose, but the worthy impresario forced the manuscript on him, and persisted that he should undertake the work. The composer returned home with the libretto, but threw it on one side without looking at it, and for the next five months continued his reading of bad romances and yellow-covered novels.
The impulse of work soon came again, however. One beautiful June day the manuscript met his eye, while looking listlessly over some old papers. He read one scene and was struck by its beauty. The instinct of musical creation rushed over him with irresistible force; he seated himself at the piano, so long silent, and began composing the music. The ice was broken. Verdi soon entered into the spirit of the work, and in three months "Nabucco" was entirely completed. Merelli gladly accepted it, and it was performed at La Scala in the spring of 1842. As a result Verdi was besieged with petitions for new works from every impresario in Italy.
From 1812 to 1851 Verdi's busy imagination produced a series of operas, which disputed the palm of popularity with the foremost composers of his time. "I Lombardi," brought out at La Scala in 1843; "Ernani," at Venice in 1844; "I Due Foscari," at Rome in 1844; "Giovanna D'Arco," at Milan, and "Alzira," at Naples in 1845; "Attila," at Venice in 1846; and "Macbetto," at Florence in 1847, were—all of them—successful works. The last created such a genuine enthusiasm that he was crowned with a golden aurel-wreath and escorted home from the theatre by an enormous crowd. "I Masnadieri" was written for Jenny Lind, and performed first in London in 1847 with that great singer, Gardoni, and Lablache, in the cast. His next productions were "Il Corsaro," brought out at Trieste in 1848; "La Battaglia di Legnano" at Rome in 1849; "Luisa Miller" at Naples in the same year; and "Stiffelio" at Trieste in 1850. By this series of works Verdi impressed himself powerfully on his age, but in them he preserved faithfully the color and style of the school in which he had been trained. But he had now arrived at the commencement of his transition period. A distinguished French critic marks this change in the following summary: "When Verdi began to write, the influences of foreign literature and new theories on art had excited Italian composers to seek a violent expression of the passions, and to leave the interpretation of amiable and delicate sentiments for that of sombre flights of the soul. A serious mind gifted with a rich imagination, Verdi became the chief of the new school. His music became more intense and dramatic; by vigor, energy, verve, a certain ruggedness and sharpness, by powerful effects of sound, he conquered an immense popularity in Italy, where success had hitherto been attained only by the charm, suavity, and abundance of the melodies produced."
In "Rigoletto," produced in Venice in 1851, the full flowering of his genius into the melodramatic style was signally shown. The opera story adapted from Victor Hugo's "Le Roi s'amuse" is itself one of the most dramatic of plots, and it seemed to have fired the composer into music singularly vigorous, full of startling effects and novel treatment. Two years afterward were brought out at Rome and Venice respectively two operas, stamped with the same salient qualities, "Il Trovatore" and "La Traviata," the last a lyric adaptation of Dumas fils's "Dame aux Camelias." These three operas have generally been considered his masterpieces, though it is more than possible that the riper judgment of the future will not sustain this claim. Their popularity was such that Verdi's time was absorbed for several years in their production at various opera-houses, utterly precluding new compositions. Of his later operas may be mentioned "Les Vepres Siciliennes," produced in Paris in 1855; "Un Ballo in Maschera," performed at Rome in 1859; "La Forza del Destino," written for St. Petersburg, where it was sung in 1863; "Don Carlos," produced in London in 1867; and "Aida" in Grand Cairo in 1872. When the latter work was finished, Verdi had composed twenty-nine operas, beside lesser works, and attained the age of fifty-seven.
Verdi's energies have not been confined to music. An ardent patriot, he has displayed the deepest interest in the affairs of his country, and taken an active part in its tangled politics. After the war of 1859 he was chosen a member of the Assembly of Parma, and was one of the most influential advocates for the annexation to Sardinia. Italian unity found in him a passionate advocate, and, when the occasion came, his artistic talent and earnestness proved that they might have made a vigorous mark in political oratory as well as in music.
The cry of "Viva Verdi" often resounded through Sardinia and Italy, and it was one of the war-slogans of the Italian war of liberation. This enigma is explained in the fact that the five letters of his name are the initials of those of Vittorio Emanuele Re D'Italia. His private resources were liberally poured forth to help the national cause, and in 1861 he was chosen a deputy in Parliament from Parma. Ten years later he was appointed by the Minister of Public Instruction to superintend the reorganization of the National Musical Institute.
The many decorations and titular distinctions lavished on him show the high esteem in which he is held. He is a member of the Legion of Honor, corresponding member of the French Academy of Fine Arts, grand cross of the Prussian order of St. Stanislaus, of the order of the Crown of Italy, and of the Egyptian order of Osmanli. He divides his life between a beautiful residence at Genoa, where he overlooks the waters of the sparkling Mediterranean, and a country villa near his native Busseto, a house of quaint artistic architecture, approached by a venerable, moss-grown stone bridge, at the foot of which are a large park and artificial lake. When he takes his evening walks, the peasantry, who are devotedly attached to him, unite in singing choruses from his operas.
In Verdi's bedroom, where alone he composes, is a fine piano—of which instrument, as well as of the violin, he is a master—a modest library, and an oddly-shaped writing-desk. Pictures and statuettes, of which he is very fond, are thickly strewn about the whole house. Verdi is a man of vigor' ous and active habits, taking an ardent interest in agriculture. But the larger part of his time is taken up in composing, writing letters, and reading works on philosophy, politics, and history. His personal appearance is very distinguished. A tall figure with sturdy limbs and square shoulders, surmounted by a finely-shaped head; abundant hair, beard, and mustache, whose black is sprinkled with gray; dark-gray eyes, regular features, and an earnest, sometimes intense, expression make him a noticeable-looking man. Much sought after in the brilliant society of Florence, Rome, and Paris, our composer spends most of his time in the elegant seclusion of home.
Verdi is the most nervous, theatric, sensuous composer of the present century. Measured by the highest standard, his style must be criticised as often spasmodic, tawdry, and meretricious. He instinctively adopts a bold and eccentric treatment of musical themes; and, though there are always to be found stirring movements in his scores as well as in his opera stories, he constantly offends refined taste by sensation and violence.
With a redundancy of melody, too often of the cheap and shallow kind, he rarely fails to please the masses of opera-goers, for his works enjoy a popularity not shared at present by any other composer. In Verdi a sudden blaze of song, brief spirited airs, duets, trios, etc., take the place of the elaborate and beautiful music, chiseled into order and symmetry, which characterizes most of the great composers of the past. Energy of immediate impression is thus gained at the expense of that deep, lingering power, full of the subtile side-lights and shadows of suggestion, which is the crowning benison of great music. He stuns the ear and captivates the senses, but does not subdue the soul.
Yet, despite the grievous faults of these operas, they blaze with gems, and we catch here and there true swallow-flights of genius, that the noblest would not disown. With all his puerilities there is a mixture of grandeur. There are passages in "Ernani," "Rigoletto," "Traviata," "Trovatore," and "Aida," so strong and dignified, that it provokes a wonder that one with such capacity for greatness should often descend into such bathos.
To better illustrate the false art which mars so much of Verdi's dramatic method, a comparison between his "Rigoletto," so often claimed as his best work, and Rossini's "Otello" will be opportune. The air sung by Gilda in the "Rigoletto," when she retires to sleep on the eve of the outrage, is an empty, sentimental yawn; and in the quartet of the last act, a noble dramatic opportunity, she ejects a chain of disconnected, unmusical sobs, as offensive as Violetta's consumptive cough. Desdemona's agitated air, on the other hand, under Rossini's treatment, though broken short in the vocal phrase, is magnificently sustained by the orchestra, and a genuine passion is made consistently musical; and then the wonderful burst of bravura, where despair and resolution run riot without violating the bounds of strict beauty in music—these are master-strokes of genius restrained by art.
In Verdi, passion too often misses intensity and becomes hysterical. He lacks the elements of tenderness and humor, but is frequently picturesque and charming by his warmth and boldness of color. His attempts to express the gay and mirthful, as for instance in the masquerade music of "Traviata" and the dance music of "Rigoletto," are dreary, ghastly, and saddening; while his ideas of tenderness are apt to take the form of mere sentimentality. Yet generalities fail in describing him, for occasionally he attains effects strong in their pathos, and artistically admirable; as, for example, the slow air for the heroine, and the dreamy song for the gypsy mother in the last act of "Trovatore." An artist who thus contradicts himself is a perplexing problem, but we must judge him by the habitual, not the occasional.
Verdi is always thoroughly in earnest, never frivolous. He walks on stilts indeed, instead of treading the ground or cleaving the air, but is never timid or tame in aim or execution. If he cannot stir the emotions of the soul he subdues and absorbs the attention against even the dictates of the better taste; while genuiue beauties gleaming through picturesque rubbish often repay the true musician for what he has undergone.
So far this composer has been essentially representative of melodramatic music, with all the faults and virtues of such a style. In "Aida," his last work, the world remarked a striking change. The noble orchestration, the power and beauty of the choruses, the sustained dignity of treatment, the seriousness and pathos of the whole work, reveal how deeply new purposes and methods have been fermenting in the composer's development. Yet in the very prime of his powers, though no longer young, his next work ought to settle the value of the hopes raised by the last.
CHERUBINI AND HIS PREDECESSORS.
In France, as in Italy, the regular musical drama was preceded by mysteries, masks, and religious plays, which introduced short musical parts, as also action, mechanical effects, and dancing. The ballet, however, where dancing was the prominent feature, remained for a long time the favorite amusement of the French court until the advent of Jean Baptiste Lulli. The young Florentine, after having served in the king's band, was promoted to be its chief, and the composer of the music of the court ballets. Lulli, born in 1633, was bought of his parents by Chevalier de Guise, and sent to Paris as a present to Mlle, de Montpensier, the king's niece. His capricious mistress, after a year or two, deposed the boy of fifteen from the position of page to that of scullion; but Count Nogent, accidentally hearing him sing and struck by his musical talent, influenced the princess to place him under the care of good masters. Lulli made such rapid progress that he soon commenced to compose music of a style superior to that before current in divertissements of the French court.
The name of Philippe Quinault is closely associated with the musical career of Lulli; for to the poet the musician was indebted for his best librettos. Born at Paris in 1636, Quinault's genius for poetry displayed itself at an early age. Before he was twenty he had written several successful comedies. Though he produced many plays, both tragedies and comedies, well known to readers of French poetry, his operatic poems are those which have rendered his memory illustrious. He died on November 29,1688. It is said that during his last illness he was extremely penitent on account of the voluptuous tendency of his works. All his lyrical dramas are full of beauty, but "Atys," "Phaeton," "Isis," and "Armide" have been ranked the highest. "Armide" was the last of the poet's efforts, and Lulli was so much in love with the opera, when completed, that he had it performed over and over again for his own pleasure without any other auditor. When "Atys" was performed first in 1676, the eager throng began to pour in the theatre at ten o'clock in the morning, and by noon the building was filled. The King and the Count were charmed with the work in spite of the bitter dislike of Boileau, the Aristarchus of his age. "Put me in a place where I shall not be able to hear the words," said the latter to the box-keeper; "I like Lulli's music very much, but have a sovereign contempt for Quinault's words." Lulli obliged the poet to write "Armide" five times over, and the felicity of his treatment is proved by the fact that Gluck afterward set the same poem to the music which is still occasionally sung in Germany.
Lulli in the course of his musical career became so great a favorite with the King that the originally obscure kitchen-boy was ennobled. He was made one of the King's secretaries in spite of the loud murmurs of this pampered fraternity against receiving into their body a player and a buffoon. The musician's wit and affability, however, finally dissipated these prejudices, especially as he was wealthy and of irreproachable character.
The King having had a severe illness in 1686, Lulli composed a "Te Deum" in honor of his recovery. When this was given, the musician, in beating time with great ardor, struck his toe with his baton. This brought on a mortification, and there was great grief when it was announced that he could not recover. The Princes de Vendome lodged four thousand pistoles in the hands of a banker, to be paid to any physician who would cure him. Shortly before his death his confessor severely reproached him for the licentiousness of his operas, and refused to give him absolution unless he consented to burn the score of "Achille et Polyxene," which was ready for the stage. The manuscript was put into the flames, and the priest made the musician's peace with God. One of the young princes visited him a few days after, when he seemed a little better.
"What, Baptiste," the former said, "have you burned your opera? You were a fool for giving such credit to a gloomy confessor and burning good music."
"Hush, hush!" whispered Lulli with a satirical smile on his lip. "I cheated the good father. I only burned a copy."
He died singing the words, "Il faut mourir, pecheur, il faut mourir" to one of his own opera airs.
Lulli was not only a composer, but created his own orchestra, trained his artists in acting and singing, and was machinist as well as ballet-master and music-director. He was intimate with Corneille, Moliere, La Fontaine, and Boileau; and these great men were proud to contribute the texts to which he set his music. He introduced female dancers into the ballet, disguised men having hitherto served in this capacity, and in many essential ways was the father of early French opera, though its foundation had been laid by Cardinal Mazarin. He had to fight against opposition and cabals, but his energy, tact, and persistence made him the victor, and won the friendship of the leading men of his time. Such of his music as still exists is of a pleasing and melodious character, full of vivacity and lire, and at times indicates a more deep and serious power than that of merely creating catching and tuneful airs. He was the inventor of the operatic overture, and introduced several new instruments into the orchestra. Apart from his splendid administrative faculty, he is entitled to rank as an original and gifted, if not a great, composer.
A lively sketch of the French opera of this period is given by Addison in No. 29 of the "Spectator." "The music of the French," he says, "is indeed very properly adapted to their pronunciation and accent, as their whole opera wonderfully favors the genius of such a gay, airy people. The chorus in which that opera abounds gives the parterre frequent opportunities of joining in concert with the stage. This inclination of the audience to sing along with the actors so prevails with them that I have sometimes known the performer on the stage to do no more in a celebrated song than the clerk of a parish church, who serves only to raise the psalm, and is afterward drowned in the music of the congregation. Every actor that comes on the stage is a beau. The queens and heroines are so painted that they appear as ruddy and cherry-cheeked as milkmaids. The shepherds are all embroidered, and acquit themselves in a ball better than our English dancing-masters. I have seen a couple of rivers appear in red stockings; and Alpheus, instead of having his head covered with sedge and bulrushes, making love in a fair, full-bottomed periwig, and a plume of feathers; but with a voice so full of shakes and quavers, that I should have thought the murmur of a country brook the much more agreeable music. I remember the last opera I saw in that merry nation was the 'Rape of Proserpine,' where Pluto, to make the more tempting figure, puts himself in a French equipage, and brings Ascalaphus along with him as his valet de chambre. This is what we call folly and impertinence, but what the French look upon as gay and polite."
The French musical drama continued without much chance in the hands of the Lulli school (for the musician had several skillful imitators and successors) till the appearance of Jean Philippe Rameau, who inaugurated a new era. This celebrated man was born in Auvergne in 1683, and was during his earlier life the organist of the Clermont cathedral church. Here he pursued the scientific researches in music which entitled him in the eyes of his admirers to be called the Newton of his art. He had reached the age of fifty without recognition as a dramatic composer, when the production of "Hippolyte et Aricie" excited a violent feud by creating a strong current of opposition to the music of Lulli. He produced works in rapid succession, and finally overcame all obstacles, and won for himself the name of being the greatest lyric composer which France up to that time had produced. His last opera, "Les Paladins," was given in 1760, the composer being then seventy-seven.
The bitterness of the art-feuds of that day, afterward shown in the Gluck-Piccini contest, was foreshadowed in that waged by Rameau against Lulli, and finally against the Italian newcomers, who sought to take possession of the French stage. The matter became a natioual quarrel, and it was considered an insult to France to prefer the music of an Italian to that of a Frenchman—an insult which was often settled by the rapier point, when tongue and pen had failed as arbitrators. The subject was keenly debated by journalists and pamphleteers, and the press groaned with essays to prove that Rameau was the first musician in Europe, though his works were utterly unknown outside of France. Perhaps no more valuable testimony to the character of these operas can be adduced than that of Baron Grimm:
"In his operas Rameau has overpowered all his predecessors by dint of harmony and quantity of notes. Some of his choruses are very fine. Lulli could only sustain his vocal psalmody by a simple bass; Rameau accompanied almost all his recitatives with the orchestra. These accompaniments are generally in bad taste; they drown the voice rather than support it, and force the singers to scream and howl in a manner which no ear of any delicacy can tolerate. We come away from an opera of Rameau's intoxicated with harmony and stupefied with the noise of voice and instruments. His taste is always Gothic, and, whether his subject is light or forcible, his style is equally heavy. He was not destitute of ideas, but did not know what use to make of them. In his recitatives the sound is continually in opposition to the sense, though they occasionally contain happy declamatory passages.... If he had formed himself in some of the schools of Italy, and thus acquired a notion of musical style and hahits of musical thought, he never would have said (as he did) that all poems were alike to him, and that he could set the 'Gazette de France' to music."
From this it may be gathered that Rameau, though a scientific and learned musician, lacked imagination, good taste, and dramatic insight—qualities which in the modern lyric school of France have been so preeminent. It may be admitted, however, that he inspired a taste for sound musical science, and thus prepared the way for the great Gluck, who to all and more of Rameau's musical knowledge united the grand genius which makes him one of the giants of his art.
Though Rameau enjoyed supremacy over the serious opera, a great excitement was created in Paris by the arrival of an Italian company, who in 1752 obtained permission to perform Italian burlettas and intermezzi at the opera-house. The partisans of the French school took alarm, and the admirers of Lulli and Rameau forgot their bickerings to join forces against the foreign intruders. The battle-field was strewed with floods of ink, and the literati pelted each other with ferocious lampoons.
Among the literature of this controversy, one pamphlet has an imperishable place, Rousseau's famous "Lettre sur la Musique Francaise," in which the great sentimentalist espoused the cause of Italian music with an eloquence and acrimony rarely surpassed. The inconsistency of the author was as marked in this as in his private life. Not only did he at a later period become a great advocate of Gluck against Piocini, but, in spite of his argument that it was impossible to compose music to French words, that the language was quite unfit for it, that the French never had music and never would, he himself had composed a good deal of music to French words and produced a French opera, "Le Devin du Village." Diderot was also a warm partisan of the Italians. Pergolesi's beautiful music having been murdered by the French orchestra players at the Grand Opera-House, Diderot proposed for it the following witty and laconic inscription: "Hic Marsyas Apollinem."*
* Here Marsyas flayed Apollo.
Rousseau's opera, "Le Devin du Village," was performed with considerable success, in spite of the repugnance of the orchestral performers, of whom Rousseau always spoke in terms of unmeasured contempt, to do justice to the music. They burned Rousseau in effigy for his scoffs. "Well," said the author of the "Confessions," "I don't wonder that they should hang me now, after having so long put me to the torture."
The eloquence and abuse of the wits, however, did not long impair the supremacy of Rameau; for the Italian company returned to their own land, disheartened by their reception in the French capital. Though this composer commenced so late in life, he left thirty-six dramatic works. His greatest work was "Castor et Pollux." Thirty years later Grimm recognized its merits by admitting, in spite of the great faults of the composer, "It is the pivot on which the glory of French music turns." When Louis XIV. offered Rameau a title, he answered, touching his breast and forehead, "My nobility is here and here." This composer marked a step forward in French music, for he gave it more boldness and freedom, and was the first really scientific and well-equipped exponent of a national school. His choruses were full of energy and fire, his orchestral effects rich and massive. He died in 1764, and the mortuary music, composed by himself, was performed by a double orchestra and chorus from the Grand Opera.
A distinguished place in the records of French music must be assigned to Andre Ernest Gretry, born at Liege in 1741. His career covered the most important changes in the art as colored and influenced by national tastes, and he is justly regarded as the father of comic opera in his adopted country. His childish life was one of much severe discipline and tribulation, for he was dedicated to music by his father, who was first violinist in the college of St. Denis when he was only six years old. He afterward wrote of this time in his "Essais sur la Musique": "The hour for the lesson afforded the teacher an opportunity to exercise his cruelty. He made us sing each in turn, and woe to him who made the least mistake; he was beaten unmercifully, the youngest as well as the oldest. He seemed to take pleasure in inventing torture. At times he would place us on a short round stick, from which we fell head over heels if we made the least movement. But that which made us tremble with fear was to see him knock down a pupil and beat him; for then we were sure he would treat some others in the same manner, one victim being insufficient to gratify his ferocity. To maltreat his pupils was a sort of mania with him; and he seemed to feel that his duty was performed in proportion to the cries and sobs which he drew forth."
In 1759 Gretry went to Rome, where he studied counterpoint for five years. Some of his works were received favorably by the Roman public, and he was made a member of the Philharmonic Society of Bologna. Pressed by pecuniary necessity, Gretry determined to go to Paris; but he stopped at Geneva on the route to earn money by singing-lessons. Here he met Voltaire at Ferney. "You are a musician and have genius," said the great man; "it is a very rare thing, and I take much interest in you." In spite of this, however, Voltaire would not write him the text for an opera. The philosopher of Ferney feared to trust his reputation with an unknown musician. When Gretry arrived in Paris he still found the same difficulty, as no distinguished poet was disposed to give him a libretto till he had made his powers recognized. After two years of starving and waiting, Marmontel gave him the text of "The Huron," which was brought out in 1769 and well received. Other successful works followed in rapid succession.
At this time Parisian frivolity thought it good taste to admire the rustic and naive. The idyls of Gessner and the pastorals of Florian were the favorite reading, and Watteau the popular painter. Gentlefolks, steeped in artifice, vice, and intrigue, masked their empty lives under the as sumption of Arcadian simplicity, and minced and ambled in the costumes of shepherds and shepherdesses. Marie Antoinette transformed her chalet of Petit Trianon into a farm, where she and her courtiers played at pastoral life—the farce preceding the tragedy of the Revolution. It was the effort of dazed society seeking change. Gretry followed the fashionable bent by composing pastoral comedies, and mounted on the wave of success.
In 1774 "Fausse Magie" was produced with the greatest applause. Rousseau was present, and the composer waited on him in his box, meeting a most cordial reception. On their way home after the opera, Gretry offered his new friend his arm to help him over an obstruction. Rousseau with a burst of rage said, "Let me make use of my own powers," and thenceforward the sentimental misanthrope refused to recognize the composer. About this time Gretry met the English humorist Hales, who afterward furnished him with many of his comic texts. The two combined to produce the "Jugement de Midas," a satire on the old style of music, which met with remarkable popular favor, though it was not so well received by the court.
The crowning work of this composer's life was given to the world in 1785. This was "Richard Coeur de Lion," and it proved one of the great musical events of the period. Paris was in ecstasies, and the judgment of succeeding generations has confirmed the contemporary verdict, as it is still a favorite opera in France and Germany. The works afterward composed by Gretry showed decadence in power. Singularly rich in fresh and sprightly ideas, he lacked depth and grandeur, and failed to suit the deeper and sounder taste which Cherubini and Mehul, great followers in the footsteps of Gluck, gratified by a series of noble masterpieces. Gretry's services to his art, however, by his production of comic operas full of lyric vivacity and sparkle, have never been forgotten nor underrated. His bust was placed in the opera-house during his lifetime, and he was made a member of the French Academy of Fine Arts and Inspector of the Conservatory. Gretry possessed qualities of heart which endeared him to all, and his death in 1813 was the occasion of a general outburst of lamentation. Deputations from the theatres and the Conservatory accompanied his remains to the cemetery, where Mehul pronounced an eloquent eulogium. In 1828 a nephew of Gretry caused the heart of him who was one of the glorious sons of Liege to be returned to his native city.
Gretry founded a school of musical composition in France which has since been cultivated with signal success, that of lyric comedy. The efforts of Lulli and Rameau had been turned in another direction. The former had done little more than set courtly pageants to music, though he had done this with great skill and tact, enriching them with a variety of concerted and orchestral pieces, and showing much fertility in the invention alike of pathetic and lively melodies. Rameau followed in the footsteps of Lulli, but expanded and crystallized his ideas into a more scientific form. He had indeed carried his love of form to a radical extreme. Jean Jacques Rousseau, who extended his taste for nature and simplicity to music, blamed him severely as one who neglected genuine natural tune for far-fetched harmonies, on the ground that "music is a child of nature, and has a language of its own for expressing emotional transports, which can not be learned from thorough bass rules." Again Rousseau, in his forcible tract on French music, says of Rameau, from whose school Gretry's music was such a significant departure: