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The Music of 'I Pagliacci'
An Opera by Ruggiero Leoncavallo

PROLOGUE. -- The orchestral prelude opens with a short, lively phrase denoting the Pagliacci, or troupe of players. Suddenly a slow, wailing theme (1) is heard, typical of Canio’s despair. This is followed by a suave, caressing melody (2) representing the love of Silvio and Nedda, which in turn gives way to the grim, mysterious motive (3) associated with Canio’s revenge:

Then the Pagliacci theme is resumed, and presently Tonio appears, to sing the beautiful prologue. When he refers to the life of the actor he is accompanied by the Pagliacci theme; when he tells of the drama to follow, the motives of love, and revenge, and despair rise from the orchestra; when he asks the audience to look on the players as men with hearts and passions like themselves, he sings a fine broad melody, with a flowing accompaniment to which the harp lends additional charm. Then this striking and original introduction is brought to a close as he cries, "Ring up the curtain."

ACT 1. -- The first chorus, with its trumpet calls, its strings tremolo, its shrieking wood-wind effects, its blaring brass, and its general bustle, are full of colour, and highly descriptive of the arrival and reception of the troupe. After this noisy scene the music changes to a tripping measure, as Canio invites the crowd to the evening performance. This is interrupted by the suggestion that Tonio stays behind to flirt with Nedda, when Canio sings in a strain of simple, doleful melody, which seems to indicate his presentiment of the impending catastrophe. When he speaks of finding Nedda with a lover on the stage, the accompanying figure is the same as that used in the play, in the last Act; but when he mentions the possibility of Nedda deceiving him in real life, we hear in the orchresta the revenge theme which we have already noted in the prologue. The lively rhythm is then resumed, the bagpipes are heard in the distance, and soon the pipers enter. The Bell Chorus, with its drone-like accompaniment, in which the men imitate the bell and the sopranos the bagpipes, is particularly fine. It gives us at once the Italian village atmosphere. After a striking and harmonically original cadence, the music gradually dies away as the peasants disappear, and the pipe-like strains grow fainter and fainter. The musical atmosphere changes when Nedda, left alone, wonders if Canio suspects her, the motives of revenge and love accompanying her recitative.

The well-known Ballatella is remarkable for its striking and piquant orchestration, in which the harp and muted strings are used with charming effect. With its freshness and brightness it suggests the open air, and, though trying to the artist, it is a very grateful number.

The melody in which Tonio makes love is reminiscent of his utterances in the prologue, while Nedda’s answer is accompanied by a delicate figure for the strings which is used again in the play in the last Act. When she strikes him, a sinister theme in the bass, heard for the first time, and boldly announced by the trombones with the strings tremolo, indicates Tonio’s revenge:

Then Silvio’s appearance is intimated by a snatch of the love-motive, which is a leading feature in the accompaniment of the scene that follows.

This long duet for the lovers is one of the finest numbers in the opera; noteworthy for its flow of passionate melody, to which the by-play of Tonio, with its vengeance-motive, offers an effective foil. The love-theme is worked up, rising higher and higher; and then a broad phrase for Nedda, repeated in imitation by Silvio, culminates in a fine burst of passion for both, followed by a soft, tender cadence as Nedda gives way to his entreaty. When Tonio and Canio appear at the back, witnessing the farewell of the lovers, the motive of Tonio’s revenge is given out pianissimo by the basses in unison, unaccompanied, in all its naked grimness. When Canio rushes after Silvio, the orchestra works up agitato, this theme being very prominent. The theme also plays an important part, along with Canio’s revenge-motive, in the accompaniment of the rest of this scene, in which declamatory and tragic force are conspicuous features.

Canio’s solo is one of the gems of the opera. His jealous rage, his rebellion against fate, his despair at having to act the clown when death is in his soul, are all graphically depicted in this fine melody, which, in its pathos, rises to such a dramatic height. As Canio moves slowly towards the theatre the despair-motive is heard in the orchestra, and now in the major key -- a truly dramatic touch. Thus the first Act is brought to an effective close, leaving the listener with a sad feeling of utter hopelessness.

INTERMEZZO. --The principal feature of this movement is the them first sung by Tonio in the prologue. Although the "Pagliacci" intermezzo has not achieved the same fame as that by the composer’s fellow-countryman, it serves a somewhat similar purpose, in affording relief to this stirring drama of strong passions, while musically perhaps it is more deserving of appreciation.

ACT 2. -- The second Act, like the first, begins with trumpet calls and general bustle, as the villagers assemble for the play. Much of the music of the opening chorus is repeated, and the same atmosphere prevails.

The play opens with a minuet of quite old-world flavour, during which the Columbine lets it be understood that in her husband’s absence she is awaiting her lover, the Harlequin. The serenade which he sings outside her window, with its pizzicato accompaniment, is quite in the old Italian troubadour style, and the gavotte heard later on might have been written by Mozart. Indeed we should specially mark here the wonderful contrast between this play within a play and the real tragedy underlying it, as illustrating what Canio sings in the first Act: "The stage and life are different, you’ll discover!"

Taddeo’s mock-heroics and vocal roulades afford a little touch of humorous relief. The tripping figure for strings which accompanied Nedda’s scorn of Tonio’s love, when in the first Act she bade him keep his declaration till the evening, is now elaborated with charming effect. After they have sung the gavotte and sat down to supper, Taddeo comes to warn them that the husband is at hand, and then the music changes. The love melody is heard in the orchestra as Canio, the Punchinello, appears in time to catch Columbine’s farewell to Harlequin in the same words she had already use dot Silvio; while his outburst of despair is accompanied by the theme of revenge. Nedda, however, continues to play her part of Columbine in characteristic strains. Again we hear the revenge-motive as the actor merges in the man, and the action hurries to its inevitable end. For a moment he forgets his wrongs as he sings a passionate melody, recalling his trustful love for his wife. Immediately, however, the thirst for revenge is again uppermost, aggravated now by Nedda’s efforts to sustain her part in the play to the old gavotte tune, while fear is in her heart.

Canio’s rage at last overcome him, and the storm in his breast is reflected in the music, which now becomes agitated in character. The general excitement is increased by the consternation of the audience, who begin to suspect that the players are not acting. Finally, Canio, in desperation, tries to force from his wife the name of her lover, and when she firmly refused to reveal it, he stabs her to the heart. As Nedda falls she calls Silvio, who rushes forward to meet his fate at the hands of the distracted husband. For the last time the revenge theme rises solemnly from the orchestra, and the work is brought to a close with the plaintive, wailing melody associated with Canio’s despair, which now blazes forth fff as the curtain falls.

The orchestration of "Pagliacci" is brilliant, and, if at times a trifle noisy, is as a rule picturesque and effective. It seldom fails to meet the dramatic requirements, while, generally speaking, good judgment and a strong sense of colour are shown throughout.

Like Mascagni, Leoncavallo possesses the main gifts essential to the writing of a successful opera. He has the feeling for melody, dramatic force, declamatory power, and musical characterisation. Like him, too, he has his faults. His music often recalls other composers, and his contrasts are occasionally exaggerated. On the other hand, his dramatic grip is greater, as well as his power of characterisation, while he has the obvious advantage of being his own librettist. He makes a more consistent use of the leit-motive, and allows nothing to interfere with the action of the drama, which nevre flags. The music of "Pagliacci" has by some been called theatrical, possibly because now and then it is apt to suffer from the composer’s over-anxiety to accentuate the dramatic situation.

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Middle Ages Music
Renaissance Music
Baroque Era Music
Classical Era Music
Romantic Era Music
Nationalist Era Music
Turn of Century Music

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