Ruggiero Leoncavallo was born at Naples in March 1858, so that he was thirty-four when "Pagliacci" was produced in 1892. He is the son of Judge-President Leoncavallo and Virginia Dauria, daughter of a famous Neapolitan painter. He studied at the Naples Conservatoire, and at sixteen started on a tour as a pianist. At Bologna he heard "Tannhäuser," the first of Wagners works he ever knew. "This new art," he says, "made a deep impression on me, and I began to study it ardently."
Subsequently, at Bologna, he made the personal acquaintance of Wagner, who was there for the production of "Rienzi." Wagner encouraged him to persevere, bidding him not be alarmed at the difficulties he would have to face. While talking, Wagner pulled off his famous cap, seized between his fingers a lock of his white hair, and said, "Voyez, je lutte encore." This conversation, Leoncavallo adds, "was very beneficial to me, and during all the bitterness of my subsequent struggles I had always before my eyes the figure of the patriarch, with his Voyez je lutte encore."
Leoncavallo, an interviewer once told, has on his writing-table a framed portrait of Wagner, to which he would point, saying: "Voilà mon Wagner, qui ne me quitte jamais." He was also proud of a bust of Massenet, presented by the composer, and inscribed, "A mon confrère, à mon ami, Leoncavallo."
The historical researches for a contemplated tetralogy embodying the Italian Renaissance (this was in imitation of Wagners "Ring") occupied Leoncavallo for six years. Then he traveled "all over the world," as he says, to earn his living as a concert pianist. He visited Egypt, Turkey, Greece, Germany, Belgium, and Holland, and finally settled for several years in Paris. It is often said that he began his musical career as a pianist in Egypt, and the statement is almost literally true. His uncle, Leoncavallo Bey, was at that time director of the Press Bureau at the Egyptian Foreign Office. Ruggiero played at Court, and was appointed "Musician in Ordinary" to the brother of the Viceroy, Tewfik Mahmud. His ability, and the influence behind him, caused Arabi Pasha to promise him the post of Chief of the Egyptian military bands, at a handsome salary. His future, therefore, seemed assured. But, alas! the British redcoats interfered with Arabis plans, and Leoncavallo himself tells the story of how he saved his life after the battle of Tel-el-Kebir by a twenty-four hours ride on horseback to Ismailia, disguised as an Arab.
By 1888 Leoncavallo had completed the text of his opera, the "Medici"; for, as has already been noted, he follows the example of Wagner in writing his own libretto. "I find it quite impossible," he says, "to set to music somebody elses words. I do not understand how any really artistic work can be created in that way. With me words and notes are simultaneous; at least, while I am writing the text, the scaffolding, the framework of the music is going up. The phrasing, the elaboration come afterward." Well, having finished the "Medici," Leoncavallo went off to Milan to communicate the fact to the publisher Ricordi. The idea pleased Ricordi, and he made a contract with the composer according to which he was to write the music on his (Ricordis) account. A year later the opera was finished, but Ricordi refused to publish it.
After a delay of over three years, Leoncavallo wrote the libretto and music of "Pagliacci," and offered the opera to Sonzogno, who, as we have seen, had been the direct means of giving "Cavalleria Rusticana" to the world. The work was produced for the first time at Milan in May 1892. Its success then was most striking, and as Leoncavallo once remarked, "The work has gone on like a train of powder." At that time somebody asked the composer whether the libretto was based on a real event. He replied that the idea was suggested by a trial that took place at Cosenza before his father, judge of the court there, in which a strolling player, jealous of his wife, was charged with murdering her after a stage performance. The prisoner was a figure of tragic power as he stood before the judge, unblenching, as if petrified with grief. "Even now," continued the composer, "I can hear his rough voice echoing through the court as he cried, Non mi pento del delitto. Tutt altro! Se dovessi ricominciare, ricomincerei." While Ricordi was still delaying about the "Medici," the success of Mascagni with "Cavalleria" gave Leoncavallo the idea of writing a short dramatic work, and at once the awful figure of the mountebank murderer rose up in his mind. He worked with feverish haste, and completed text and music in five months. He died in 1927.
Such is the history of "I Pagliacci." There is not much to say further about the composer himself. He lived quietly, and let the great roaring world go on for the most part unheeded. He said that when a musical inspiration came to him he never wrote it down at once. He kept it in his memory, which was remarkably good. "When I need the idea, I can find it immediately. I have a horror of re-writing or deleting; the parts of my composition are carried in my head till I can write them down, even to the last note. Then I do not alter a jot."