Pietro Mascagni: why the Italian composer should be remembered for more than Cavalleria rusticana

ByQuyen Anne

Jan 3, 2024

Famous for Cavalleria rusticana, Mascagni would probably be well known for his other operas too had the tide of political history not turned against him, says George Hall

Read on for an introduction to the life and works of Pietro Mascagni, an Italian composer now famous principally for just one hugely successful work. But there is more to Mascagni than Cavalleria rusticana.

Who was Mascagni?

The Teatro Costanzi in Rome was no more than half full on the evening of Saturday 17 May 1890 for the first performance of a new opera by an unknown 26-year-old composer. Pietro Mascagni – who was currently working as a local musician in the small town of Cerignola in south-eastern Italy – was one of three obscure figures who had made it through to the final round of a competition for a one-act opera organised by the publishing firm of Sonzogno.

Word from the jury-room was positive, but the important verdict would be that of the public.

In the event, the reaction of the Roman audience to Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana exceeded anyone’s wildest dreams – Mascagni’s included. ‘You cannot even have the barest idea of what happened in the hall of the Costanzi on that unforgettable evening’, Gemma Bellincioni – the opera’s first Santuzza – wrote afterwards. ‘After the Siciliana the public applauded; after the prayer they cried out enthusiastically; after the duet between Santuzza and Turiddu they exploded in delirious joy.

At the end of the opera the spectators seemed literally to go crazy. They screamed, they waved their handkerchiefs; in the corridors strangers embraced. “We have a maestro! Hurrah for the new Italian maestro!”’ Together with the composer, who had turned white as a sheet, the performers returned to the stage 60 times. The result was less an ovation than a coronation, with Mascagni crowned the new king of Italian opera. To understand why, we have to look at the broader situation.

Who invented opera?

The Italians had invented opera around 1600, and from the middle of the 17th century had begun to export it all over Europe and subsequently further afield. During the 19th century, Italian composers such as RossiniBelliniDonizetti and Verdi were international celebrities.

However, in their homeland they were wildly popular creative figures who succeeded in producing high art that maintained a popular following. Even those who did not attend the numerous operatic performances given throughout the peninsula would have become familiar with their music as heard on barrel organs and street pianos.

But by 1890, Verdi was 77 years old, and had produced just one entirely new opera – Otello – over the previous 19 years; his talented colleague Ponchielli, meanwhile, had died in 1886. The public was looking to a younger generation to carry on their 300-year-old tradition, taking up the mantle that Verdi would inevitably himself soon leave behind.

What opera is Mascagni most famous for?

Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana answered that need and would become Mascagni’s most famous work.

Following its extraordinary success in Rome, it soon swept Italy and then Europe as a whole. A work that launched a new aesthetic movement in Italian opera – verismo, or ‘realism’ – it spawned distinguished imitators such as Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (1892), with which it regularly shares a double bill to this day, while its influence on non-Italian composers was equally profound.

The challenge for Mascagni would be to follow up this virtually unparalleled success with works that would show development rather than repetition; and it is a mark of his talent as well as his seriousness of purpose that in an active career lasting 45 years he did so to an extent for which he is rarely given full credit.

When was Mascagni born?

Mascagni was born in 1863 in the industrial port city of Livorno, the son of a baker. The brightest of four children, he received a better education than his siblings: his father hoped that he would become a lawyer. Instead, from an early age he felt a fascination for music, and with the help of a dedicated local teacher gained fluency as a pianist and a budding composer.

Where did he study?

His talent came to the attention of Ponchielli, who encouraged him to study at the Milan Conservatory where he himself taught composition. There he became friends with an older fellow student called Giacomo Puccini, even sharing a flat with him.

But he also chafed at the bit, finding aspects of the academic course too limiting. Following a row about a forbidden extra-curricular performance of an orchestral piece, he made the impulsive decision to leave without receiving his final diploma.

Instead, and in a step that must have seemed disastrous to his fellows, he took the first in a series of jobs conducting peripatetic and often short-lived operetta companies as they travelled around the peninsula. After a year or so on the road he washed up in the backwater of Cerignola, where the local mayor saw in him the man to revitalise the town’s musical life, so he stayed.

When did Mascagni compose Cavalleria?

That could have been the end of his grander ambitions, but Sonzogno’s competition for new operas came to his rescue. Turning aside from a much bigger and more ambitious work based on Heine’s tragedy William Ratcliff (Italianised as Guglielmo Ratcliff) and begun in 1882, he put pen to paper and quickly produced Cavalleria, drawn from Giovanni Verga’s play based on one of his own short stories of Sicilian peasant life. The rest, as they say, is history.

What else did Mascagni compose?

Following Cavalleria, the canny Sonzogno – a determined and go-ahead rival to the older established house of Ricordi – signed up Mascagni, who produced a sequence of works that could never match the once-in-a-lifetime popular success of his first opera but in which he set himself different challenges, often successfully met.

L’amico Fritz (1891) was a romantic comedy, lightweight but with a tinge of melancholy, in which Mascagni demonstrated a far subtler use of harmony and orchestration than in Cavalleria; from the same literary source – a work by the French writing duo who linked their names as Erckmann-Chatrian – the rural drama I Rantzau made less impression the following year.

Guglielmo Ratcliff, a long Gothic melodrama that is demanding on its performers, especially the tenor anti-hero, reached the stage in 1895. Acclaimed in its time, but later falling into obscurity, its reputation was vindicated when Wexford Festival Opera revived it in 2015. Not much, though, remains of Silvano (also 1895), the sole piece in which, at his publisher’s instigation, Mascagni tried the impossible task of repeating Cavalleria’s successful formula.

A symbolist drama set in Japan

In 1898 Mascagni tried something entirely new with Iris, a symbolist drama set in Japan and dealing with the abusive treatment of an innocent heroine who achieves her posthumous apotheosis in union with nature: its mysticism drew from the composer one of his most consistent and original scores, replete with references to Japanese music (six years before Madam Butterfly) and even using Japanese instruments. Modern revivals, including at London’s Opera Holland Park, have shown it to be a fascinating if necessarily shocking piece.

In another change of mood, Mascagni and his then regular librettist Illica turned towards the ancient Italian commedia dell’arte figures for the ensemble comedy Le maschere, whose hubristic multiple simultaneous premieres in seven Italian cities in January 1901 mostly flopped, and which took decades to recover from that very public disaster.

By this point Mascagni had commenced an initially successful stint as head of the Pesaro Conservatory (1895-1902), where his reforms to the curriculum, which enthused his students, proved expensive and eventually led to his dismissal. From 1898 a second career as a conductor took off, and for the rest of his active life he would be much in demand in the concert hall and opera house. Repeated public disagreements, however – his impulsive nature often led him into career-damaging conflicts – represented the negative side of a flamboyant, intensely committed personality.

Mascagni and Mussolini

As an operatic composer, he reached the heights of his ambition with Isabeau (1911), a semi-mystical ‘leggenda drammatica’ based on the Lady Godiva story, and the very long Parisina (1913), on which he collaborated with Italy’s leading literary figure, Gabriele D’Annunzio. Like many of Mascagni’s works, Isabeau enjoyed success during his lifetime though disappeared following his death in 1945.

Part of the reason for this was undoubtedly his association with Mussolini and Fascism. Initially regarded by the regime as a left-wing enemy, Mascagni gradually succumbed to the honours and income offered to those Italian artists and intellectuals who were prepared to toe the line – at least in public.

Mussolini was scarcely pleased, however, when the composer’s final opera, Nerone (1935), seemed to represent a conscious attack on the Duce himself. ‘I am not at all pleased with you,’ Mussolini is supposed to have told Mascagni. ‘Did you have to pick Nero in particular for a subject?’ Another insider quotes Mascagni as having commented more pithily that he had ‘stuck Nerone up Mussolini’s arse’.

By the time of the opera’s premiere, the composer was nearly 72 years old, and had not produced a major work since his fierce French revolutionary drama Il piccolo Marat 14 years earlier. A good deal of Nerone had started life several decades earlier in the never-to-be-completed Vistilia. Following its well-received premiere at La Scala the opera soon disappeared, and with it Mascagni abandoned composition.

When did Mascagni die?

He would live another ten years, dying on August 2 1945 in a suite in a Roman hotel that had been his home since 1927.

At the time the city was occupied by Allied forces. Because of his now embarrassing political associations, the new Italian government distanced itself from his funeral, whose attendant procession nevertheless saw the streets of the capital lined with 200,000 people who wanted to pay their respects to the composer of Cavalleria and much else.

Official cold-shouldering of his works – other than his first, unstoppable hit, which was too firmly embedded in the repertoire to be ignored – continued for decades, with works that had been regularly staged up to the 1930s absent from post-war Italian opera houses; though as time has gone on there has been a definite revival of interest both in Mascagni’s homeland as well as further afield.

Mascagni deserves our attention as the most significant of Puccini’s contemporaries and also for the originality and ambition of his music itself. In a life with more than its share of controversy and confrontation, he fought for the artistic principles embodied in his individual vision for Italian opera.

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