October 25, 1913
Page 3

“Pagliacci's” Author Soliloquizes on Himself and His Works in an Interval of a Six-Weeks’ Trip to San, Francisco—Regrets That but One of His Ten Operas Is Familiar to Americans—Opinions of Contemporary Musical Tendencies Delivered in a Hurried Visit to New York—New Operas He Is Working On

SOMEHOW or other it does not seem natural that a personage of eminence and distinction should find his way into New York without having the tidings of his advent blazoned forth in the daily prints. Somehow or other that seemingly impossible phenomenon has strangely come about. At this moment Ruggiero Leoncavallo, composer of the perennially popular “Pagliacci,” coequal with Mascagni (and no one else) as a propulsive potentiality of Italian operatic veritism, is peacefully inhabiting San Francisco. A bare week ago he adorned New York with his presence for two entire days, yet scarcely anyone appears to have been apprised of the circumstance. He had arrived, big as life, .on the Oceanic, and took up a brief abode at the Astor. None the less the dynamics of publicity never exceeded a pianissimo. One journal printed a brief notice of his arrival and that constituted practically the sum and substance of the matter.
Possibly the composer of “Ridi Pagliaccio” wanted to avoid obstreperous acclamation. If so, he succeeded rarely. It is scarcely credible that under any other conditions the populace would not have endeavored in some way to pay more intimate respects to' him who had created the music of its best-loved talking-machine record.
Leoncavallo’s rotundity makes him appear in his portraits taller than he actually is. His real height scarcely exceeds five feet five. In all other respects his pictures do him complete justice. His hair curiously suggests Nahan Franko’s in its unequal commingling of black and white. His mustache rears itself at angles that make it seem a first cousin of the Kaiser’s. Casual inspection will disclose the interesting fact that it is tricolored—black, white and reddish. Portly though Leoncavallo is he shuns chairs proportioned to his dimensions, and during his talk with a representative of MUSICAL AMERICA he maintained himself valiantly upon one that struck the observer as perilously small.
Genial is the term that most appositely pertains to the personality of the expansive Ruggiero. He radiates good nature and bonhommie . On occasion he is almost naive, while satisfaction bubbles up within him, and illumines his face with smiles when he meditates upon his achievements and the effect they have had upon the popular mind. Whether or not one is disposed to esteem his works as highly as he himself values them it is impossible not to react in some fashion to the warmth of his good nature. And he adds volubility to his other assets of personality. His conversation (in a far better French than is usually at the command of an Italian) was a monologue delivered with due Italian effervescence and characteristic stress of emphasis. Though his train for the West left in two hours he had no objection in the world to talking about questions of art. He was happy, very happy, for had not a cablegram from his dear wife, Bertha, just reached him telling him of the success of 'his opera “Zingari” in Florence, a city that had never heard it before? The visitor was greeted with fluent cordiality.
Here Only Six Weeks
“So happy am I to be here,” he ,exclaimed when the object of his visit was mentioned, “that it grieves me to have to leave after only six weeks or so. In San Francisco I shall conduct several of my operas—‘Paglilcci,’ ‘Zingari,’ ‘Zaza.’ Also ‘Aida’ for the unveiling of the Verdi monument. Ah! But I should like to stay longer and to see to the presentation of others of my works in America. It is really not fair that only one of them should be heard in so many places: Is it not a pity that there are opera houses over which a publisher exercises so powerful an influence that the operas of one particular composer are constantly exploited and those of another barred? Mr. Puccini’s works are always heard. Naturally I am not in the least objecting to this, for they are thoroughly worthy of that honor. But it is the idea of restraining others that I find unjust. My operas I am sure would be well received. Think of the successes I have enjoyed and the esteem I have been held in in so many music centers of Europe! Think of ‘Zingari’! Think that the Emperor of Germany selected me above the innumerable German composers to write a work for his Royal Opera House! Think that, despite all the harsh criticism and ill-will with which it was met. ‘Roland of Berlin’ has already been sung between sixty and seventy times. In Paris there are numberless French composers clamoring for and receiving hearings. And what does the public prefer, what receives the widest attention? Italian works, mine included. They love me and treat me like a god in Vienna. I was lionized at the Opera there one evening when I was coming down the stairs after a performance of ‘Lohengrin.’ Does it not seem unfair in the face of all this, that only one of my ten operas can be given a hearing in this part of the world? Oh! I should so very much like to introduce the others myself. I should even like to stay here and write an American opera— base it on a good American play if I could find such a one. But were I to write an American work I should collaborate only with an American.”
A question as to his possible preference for any one of his operas brought a bland smile to the face of the composer. “That I cannot tell you,” he said presently; “a father cannot say which of his children he prefers and my works are my children. I am very fond of ‘Zingari.’ It has been called the sister of ‘Pagliacci,’” he added proudly. “I am a hard worker. In twenty years I have composed some ten operas. My ‘Medici’ trilogy is still to be completed—‘Savonarola’ and ‘Cesare Borgia’ are unfinished. But the others—'Pagliacci,’ ‘Boheme,’ ‘Zaza,’ ‘Roland of Berlin,’ ‘Malbruck,’ ‘Rose Queen,’ ‘Zingari,’ ‘I Medici.’Now 'I'm about to begin a new one, ‘Ave Maria.’ The libretto is Illica’s—anything more beautiful I have never read. I have only had it for a month, though, and have not yet started work on it. Ah! but when it is done—!
“The ‘Camicia Rossa’ upon which I was engaged? That opera,” he said, lowering his voice as though the import of his statement were fraught with the gravest mystery, “I never completed. I was advised not to by many important persons. It dealt with the Irredentists, you see, and there was danger that it might arouse political feeling at an inopportune moment. Ah! I put that work aside quietly and I say nothing more about it."
His Own Librettist
In one thing, at any rate, Leoncavallo suggests Richard Wagner. He writes his own librettos—at least he has written most of them. In answer to a query as to the why and wherefore of the procedure, as to whether it sprang from sheer love of literary work or the express conviction that the best operas result from the incarnation of librettist and composer in a single individual he answered that “most librettists in Italy are journalists”; and further intimated that journalists were not the most pleasant of persons to cooperate with—at least when it came to turning out operas. But apparently the subject was more or less painful to him. He disposed of it with celerity.
Composers often go notoriously awry in their valuation of the works of their colleagues. Nevertheless their opinions continue to be eagerly sought; one likes to know them if only to disagree with them. One need not be argumentatively inclined to find oneself at loggerheads with Signor Leoncavallo’s notions. But at all events his beliefs and contentions are delivered in the best of faith.
“Sir,” he began when the matter of contemporary tendencies and composers was broached “I have always been and I always shall remain Italian. Italy has been the teacher of the world in music and it still has much to impart. In the early days! Germany, France and other nations have learned from mv nation. Only in the course of time did they evolve characteristic features of their own. Mozart came to Italy and studied. Beethoven, Schubert, Schuman, Mendelssohn—they and no end of others either lived in Italy at some time or other of their lives or else learned much directly from the Italians. What a glorious array of great teachers we have given to the world—a Palestrina, a Marcello, a Rossini, a Donizetti, a Bellini, a Verdi, to give you only a few. The first impulse has come from Italy; other nations had to experience it before they could proceed on their own way.
“Now, Strauss and Debussy will not last, because they are not natural, because they try to do things that will appeal not to the great body of people at large, but just to some -technical specialists. They are not sincere and only what is written in complete sincerity succeeds. My ‘Pagliacci’ has succeeded because I wrote it in a spirit of absolute sincerity. Those little men who imitate what others have originated are negligible quantities, artistically speaking. There are plenty of them in Italy to-day.
Public the Final Arbiter
“The artist may consider himself triumphant when he has the public on his side. The public must reach up to him and he, in turn, reach down to it. No one who is truly great will be satisfied to write for a few exceptionally learned persons and consider it beneath his dignity to bid for the approval of the multitude. The composer has accomplished something great when he writes something that insinuates itself into the public ear and refuses to be dislodged from there. And therefore I hold it a greater and more difficult accomplishment to have written ‘La Donna e Mobile’ than to have composed ‘Salome.’ Verdi's air is a greater piece of art than Strauss’s opera. If people yawn on hearing a certain composition you can know it is bad art. Whatever tires one is such.
“The public is the final arbiter in all questions of art and the public is right. You will find that it has never really withheld its support in the case of the great masterpieces. If one sometimes hears that such has been the case one may safely assume that some temporary agency was at work which in some way or other hindered the appreciation of the people. One reads to-day that Rossini’s ‘Barber of Seville’ was a failure at its first presentation. It was really nothing of the kind. Only the young and unknown Rossini had dared to set to new music a libretto that Paisiello had used and so a cabal, composed of the friends of Paisiello, was on hand to do whatever mischief it could. A black cat that happened to walk across the stage as the tenor was singing his cavatina afforded occasion for laughter and hisses and this, combined with all other annoyances caused by the hostile claque produced the impression of failure. And similarly when ‘Traviata’ was first sung and the audience laughed uproariously at the enormously stout soprano who was supposed to be dying of consumption, the hearers made merry over the incongruity of it all and gave the occasion the appearance of a failure. Instances of the kind could be multiplied indefinitely. But unless there has been some strongly predisposing factor in the way the worth of a great work has always been recognized by the people from the outset.
“I can treat operatically only such themes as are vital, natural, and true. It would not be possible, for instance, for me to write music for fishes that sing and Valkyries that fly through the air. I have never seen such things in life and so I should be at a loss when it came to treating them. But give me men who can laugh, men who can weep and I can laugh and weep with them. Such has always been my aim. Art should concern itself primarily with the truth. The artist must not tie himself down with theories. Wagner, man of genius that he was, laid down many theories which he purported to follow, but in the last analysis never did. He was unwilling, he averred, to write ensembles, concerted numbers, duets, and he claimed to have written ‘endless melody,’ works in which pieces were not susceptible of detachment and separate performance. Yet Wagner was constantly refuting himself in practice. When he gave concerts in the days of his struggles for recognition what sort of things did he give out of his own works-the Ride of the Valkyries,’ the ‘Waldweben,’ the ‘Siegfried Funeral March,’ the ‘Magic Fire Music.’ All of them are numbers with a definite beginning and a perfectly well-defined ending. Take the wonderful last act of ‘Gotterdammerung,’ which makes it worth one’s while to sit through the first two, and what have you but a string of detachable pieces—the ‘Rhinemaidens’ Trio,’ the ‘Narrative’of Siegfried, the ‘Funeral March.’ the finale! And even in ‘Parsifal,’ supposedly the broadest exemplification of his system, we find precisely the same thing.”
Expects an American School
Whatever anyone else may have to say for or against the question Signor Leoncavallo is quite nositive of two things—that America will develop a national school of music and that opera in English has come to stay. “Of the former I cannot see how there can be any doubt,” he said. “A nation must first be completely settled as to its material well-being before it thinks of artistic creation, and America has plenty of time before it. The clash of material interests will be like stones struck together- it will produce sparks and these figurative sparks will be artistic productivity. To contend that a musical genius cannot arise in America is ridiculous. A genius could suddenly appear in the midst of the Sahara. What should there be to hinder the arrival of one here? The conglomeration of races? Was not England once a mixture of races possessed of characteristic elements apparently irreconcilable? Yet did not England in the course of time produce a Shakespeare and a Byron?
“Italian is unquestionably the most favorable language for singing. English is more difficult than French or German, but it is none the less possible: The only thing that troubles me is that people over here speak English so differently from the way I was taught to pronounce it. I cannot understand those who try to talk to me in this country and they, in their turn, are not able to understand me. If I tell a taxi driver I want to go to the Hippodrome he doesn't seem to know what I'm talking about. Then, when I show him the name in writing, he says it in a curious guttural way (the composer gave an imitation of the sound at this juncture). If I say I want to go to the Savoy Hotel the same thing happens. I cannot grasp the fundamental principles of your enunciation over here. Still, as you people are able to understand each other when you speak there’s nothing to hinder mutual comprehension in singing, I should think.”
Some years ago Leoncavallo was quoted as deploring the lack of good singers in Italy. His ideas have not changed on that score. “Not only our best singers but also our best conductors are being lured away by the fascination of the high prices they receive elsewhere. We have to do the best we can with what remains. But just now we are holding on carefully to all our youngest singers and with them we should eventual1y be able to atone in part, at any rate, for that of which other nations have deprived us.” —HERBERT F. PEYSER.


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