1858 — 1919
Composer • Librettist
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Leoncavallo was one of the great Italian opera composers of the late 19th century who followed in the French tradition, belonging to the Giovane Scuola. While he had several minor successes throughout his lifetime, it is for his major opera-hitPagliacci that he is famous. In addition to operas, Leoncavallo composed many operettas later in his career.
Ruggero Leoncavallo was born in Naples on 8 March 1857 into a wealthy family. His musical studies took place at the local conservatory beginning in 1866. There he studied piano with Beniamino Cesi and composition with the famous Lauro Rossi. In addition, he received composition lessons from Serao until 1876.
Leoncavallo also followed courses from the poet Giosuè Carducci at Bologna University for a short time. Carducci was influential to Leoncavallo, especially due to his fondness for Wagner. Leoncavallo’s musical upbringing occurred during a largely transitional period in Italian opera. He was schooled in the traditional French style, but also very much interested in the controversial Wort-Ton-Drama and the revival of Boito’sMefistofele. He also experienced the Italian premieres of Wagner’sRienzi in 1876 and Der fliegende Holländerin 1877, both under the baton of Mancinelli.
It was during this Wagner-influenced period that Leoncavallo composed his first opera,Chatterton, for which he also wrote the libretto. The opera was, however, not premiered until many years later.
Leoncavallo travelled to Egypt in the late 1870s, with the goal of making a name for himself, on the recommendation of his uncle, who worked for the Italian Foreign Ministry. He did not remain long in Egypt as the Anglo-Egyptian War forced him to evacuate. He next travelled to Marseilles and Paris, where he established a bohemian lifestyle. While not giving up on his composition career, he earned his living primarily by giving lessons and performing salon-style concerts on the piano.
A bit of good luck came to Leoncavallo in the form of the baritone Victor Maurel, who helped the composer acquire a commission for an opera from the publisher Giulio Ricordi. This was Leoncavllo’s chance to compose his answer to Wagner’sRing cycle, which he had already decided to do after the 1876 premiere ofRienzi in Bologna.
The trilogy, which was to be titled Crepusculum, turned out to be a very tiring and drawn out endeavour. Just the first opera,I Medici, alone took many years to complete and resulted in many disagreements with Ricordi. While the opera displays fantastic writing, it did not experience much success.
Leoncavallo returned to Milan in the early 1890s, after marring singer Berthe Rambaud. In Milan he supported himself through his writing and some musical activities. One of his most important contributions at the time was his libretto for Puccini’sManon Lescaut (1893).
It was Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana (1890) that truly inspired Leoncavallo’s most popular work,Pagliacci. And as with Mascagni, Leoncavallo would only become famous for this one opera, yet another one-hit wonder of 19th century Italian opera.
Despite his appreciation of Wagner’s music, Leoncavallo saw potential in the verismo style of Mascagni’s opera and, desperate for fame and success, he sought to create a hit. His orchestration and use of harmony are well-studied and considered to be more impressive than that of Mascagni, though Mascagni was deemed more original.
Similarities exist in the general storyline to many of Verdi’s late works. The main difference is that Leoncavallo did away with the tragic ending, allowing his main character, Canio, to redeem himself in a morally satisfying manner. This can perhaps be seen as his crude way of looking at the market value of opera and understanding what audiences wanted. He delivered a compelling storyline with immaculate orchestration, one that gives the audiences with a sense of fulfillment. As a result,Pagliacci was an immediate success after its 1892 premiere at the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan and is still a part of the opera repertory and remains a favourite work among audiences worldwide.
The success of Pagliacci allowed Leoncavallo the opportunity to present his earlier operas—I Medici in 1893 also at the Teatro Dal Verme and his first opera Chatterton, at the Teatro Argentina in Rome in 1896.
Following more arguments with his publisher, Ricordi, and also with Puccini regarding his new work based on Murger’sScènes de la vie de Bohème (1892-7), Leoncavallo eventually left Ricordi for the Venetian publisher Sonzogno.
The argument arose as both Leoncavallo and Puccini wrote a piece based on Murger’s work, which aimed to “convey the realities of life in the Latin Quarter of Paris”. Despite having been the first to come up with the idea of turning the story into an opera, it was Puccini’s opera that would endure the test of time. At first, both operas were performed side by side, but eventually Leoncavallo’s version was forgotten.
After this unfortunate rivalry with Puccini, Leoncavallo finished his theatrical operaZazà, which was premiered in 1900 at the Teatro Lirico in Milan, and became an international success overnight.
Apparently, Leoncavallo was quite prone to these arguments with his publishers as he was eventually unable to secure publishers and performances in Italy. Instead of taming his behavior, Leoncavallo sought a new audience, which he found in Germany.
Leoncavallo experienced success with German versions of his Pagliacci and I Medici, leading to a commission by Wilhelm II to celebrate the Hohenzollern dynasty. Interestingly, as Leoncavallo’s German was quite limited, the chosen story,Der Roland von Berlin, had to be translate first into Italian in order for Leoncavallo to compose the music. Afterwards, it was translated back to its original language. The language barrier does not seem to have affected the success of the work, as it was deemed successful after its premiere in 1904, receiving nearly 40 performances.
Always the businessman, Leoncavallo got in on the new trend of recording as early as 1904. During this fresh creative period he also composed his famous Mattinata, which was recorded by Caruso for the G & T Company. Furthermore, for the American market, he composed his first operetta,La jeunesse de Figaro.
Leoncavallo returned his attention to opera in 1910 with his opera Maià, based on a story by Paul de Choudens, whose stories Mascagni had also used. Unsatisfied, Leoncavallo returned to his beloved verismo style withZingari (1912), leading the way for Mascagni to do the same with hisIl piccolo Marat.
Leoncavallo’s final phase in his career was dominated by operettas, such as Prestamu tua moglieand A chi la giarrettiera? Though, he did complete one final opera in 1916,Goffredo Mameli, a very patriotic opera composed in an outdated style.
He had also gained the attention of the Chicago Lyric Opera in America and was commissioned to make operas out of the playsEpido re and Prometeo. However, these ambitious projects were left uncompleted at the time of his death. In addition, he also left the operaLa tormenta unfinished.
Leoncavallo died in 1919 and one year later his Epido re was performed in Chicago. He is remembered primarily for hisPagliacci, which is still a crowd favourite today.