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The Life of Pietro Mascagni

Of all the operatic composers who have risen to fame within recent years and whose works have been found worthy of performance by grand opera companies, Pietro Mascagni, if not the most gifted, is certainly the most noted. He is a native of Italy, having been born at Livorno in December 1863. His father was a baker with but slight pecuniary means, yet he sent his musically inclined son to the Milan Conservatoire, where he studied hard for the three years 1881-1884. Besides his acquirements there in theory and composition, he gained a practical knowledge of all the orchestral instruments, which has served him well as a conductor of opera.

When he left the Conservatoire, Mascagni found a post as assistant musical director of an operetta company. At Parma he conducted in public for the first time, the work being Lecocq’s "Heart and Hand." The company visited many of the large and small towns of Italy, and finally, after many vicissitudes, went to pieces in an out-of-the-way place. It was disbanded, and Mascagni, for the want of even a copper, was stranded. Here I cannot resist quoting himself, premising that he was already at work on an opera by which he hoped to conquer the musical public:

But as there is a providence for drunkards, so there is one for players. I had made friends with good people who showed me much affection, and one friend among them, whom I made acquainted with the finished numbers of my opera, showed so much enthusiasm on hearing that he volunteered to assist me with money to enable me to work. I had already finished the overture when at Ancona, and now at Ascoli, having nothing better to do, I worked hard at my opera, wrote the Intermezzo and then the whole of the fourth Act and instrumented it. My appetite was still very good, and I endeavoured to subdue the feeling by deep contemplation and meditation, calling up mysterious pictures, which seemed to arise from my opera score as do the two ghosts which are constantly before the hero of the drama. My music, however, failed to provide me the necessaries of life, and I determined to return to Ancona, having meanwhile written letter upon letter asking for employment. One morning a letter arrived with an invitation to come at once to Naples, and an enclosure of 100 lire. I was engaged for the company of the Duke Cirella. It only lasted a month, when as before the company disbanded and left me idle for six weeks. I lost no time; all my meals consisted of a plate macaroni, and I worked diligently at the composition and instrumentation of my opera, which grew to a large heap of music sheets; this I enclosed carefully in a hand-bag. It would be the treasury-box of my future; this at least was my dream when taking long walks to Posilipo and Portici, chasing rainbows and seeing pictures of future greatness and fortune in the sparkling of the waves.

Mascagni then relates his renewed wanderings with Maresca’s company, arriving on December 29, 1885, at Cerignola, to find there a home for several years. When the company started out for Sicily, our composer managed to get lost; and as soon as he found the coast clear he returned to Cerignola, where some kindly souls among the city authorities got him one or two pupils, and then he became director of an orchestra school. "I found time to work on my opera," he says, recalling those days, "and had it finished in less than two years and a half. Only a few scenes were lacking in 1888, but I then locked up the score. I had some premonition that it might be a necessity for me to become better known by a work of smaller dimensions. The idea to write ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’ had possession of me for many years previously."

The young composer gives a description of his despair and of his efforts to find a "text," when finally his friend Targioni, in Leghorn, promised him one. When the mail brought him the first chorus of the libretto he was in great joy, and said to his wife: "We must indulge in some expense to-day." "And what shall it be?" she asked. "An alarm clock." "And what for?" "So I may get up to-morrow before sunrise to begin with the ‘Cavalleria.’" This extra expense, he goes on to say frankly, "meant great alterations in our monthly budget, but it was granted me without difficulty. We went together to the clockmaker, and, after much bargaining, we bought a clock for 9 lire. I wound it up before retiring; but it was not destined to be of any use, as during the night -- it was on February 3, 1889 -- at punctually 3 o’clock, my sweet little angel Mimi was born, the first of the series. I did not fail to fulfill the promise I had made to myself, and began to write the first chorus of the ‘Cavalleria’ at dawn." Mascagni then describes his past with its fears and hopes, its despair and its reliance, ending with the first representation of "Cavalleria" at the Constanza Theatre, Rome, in May 1890.

Twenty years ago every diligent newspaper reader knew the history of "Cavalleria Rusticana": how it was submitted to a musical friend, who promptly pronounced it "rubbish"; how Mascagni despondently entered it in the competition for the prize of 2000 francs offered by Sonzogno, the famous music-publisher of Milan, for the best one-act opera; how the composer accepted the prize as a wind fall beyond the wildest hopes of a man who, with wife and two children, was existing on half-a-crown a day.

The subsequently furore in Rome was a revelation. In answer to a telegram, Mascagni hurried to the capital in his usual négligé -- in fact his only dress -- the clumsy handiwork of a village tailor. Apparently a simple, countrified young fellow, he appeared on the stage before that immense and enthusiastic audience, which cheered him all the more that he was awkward, bewildered, even stupefied at the reception. The transition was too great, and he felt his brain reel. Sympathising, admiring faces crowded about him. But something of his everyday life, something more restful, he must have, and that speedily. Rushing to his rooms after the performance, he telegraphed for his wife, and also dispatched an incoherent letter, imploring her to pick up the children, and come to him without delay. She came-a plain, quiet person, who during those tedious years of seclusion and hardship, had deteriorated in appearance, and had lost the worldly veneering of her younger days, but nevertheless a true helpmate for an agitated, fame-stricken man. That night she sat in a private box, listening to the entrancing strains, to the enthusiastic plaudits of the audience, weeping tears of joy throughout the performance. Her husband’s time had come at last.

There is very little to say about Mascagni’s later history. Speaking a good many years ago of his career, the composer remarked that there lay much hard work and many troubles behind him. "Success," he continued, "came upon me like a wild storm that took my breath away. I was afraid it would pass unless I went on working hard." He went on working hard. But his other operas have not won any lasting success. "L’Amico Fritz" is too gentle a subject for his robust style; "Ratchiff," "I Rantzau," "Iris," and "Silvano" are hardly known outside Italy. In short Mascagni is, so far, as much the one-opera composer of "Cavalleria" as Bizet is the one-opera composer of "Carmen." That is his one grand success. Its "brutal magnetic measures" fascinated the public from the first; and then, as a critic with a leaning towards slang once out it, "the story is a stunner, necessitating several strong characters." Here is a work dealing with the strongest and fiercest passions -- a terrible tragedy, rushing swiftly and inevitably to its close.

Mascagni is in temperament, disposition, and character earnest, active, benevolent, sincere, and reliable. Pronounced success in life, artistically and materially, does not appear to have changed his nature appreciably, for he manifests the same frank, ingenuous traits of character now that he did in his boyhood. He composes, we are told, with remarkable facility, and the spontaneity of his inspiration is such that he is rarely at a loss for appropriate musical ideas. When he gets a new libretto, he is content at first to read it daily, studying the detail and "living over" the incidents. He does not necessarily begin at the beginning, but chooses a scene anywhere that attracts him, and reads it till the words turn into music. Then he "sits down to the piano and the notes come pell-mell."

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