Readers of this blog may be surprised that I do listen to music other than works by British composers. I was watching Ruggero Leoncavallo’s great opera Pagliacci on YouTube the other day. It is the first opera I ever heard and I have loved it ever since. I recalled reading an anecdote allegedly related by the composer about a ‘social gaffe’ he made. It deserves retelling here.
Ruggero Leoncavallo’s (1857-1919) Pagliacci was first heard at the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan on 21 May 1892, conducted by Arturo Toscanini. Its British premiere was at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in London on 19 May 1893. Perhaps I will dig out some contemporary reviews: all I know is that Dame Nellie Melba played Nedda and Fernando de Lucia played Canio.
Composers are not always keen to tell stories at their own expense or at that of their compositions, but the following related by Ruggero Leoncavallo, the prominent young composer of the modern Italian school, he deemed too good to keep, though at the time it put him in the light of a first-class plagiarist.
Being one day in the town of Forli, he heard that his opera Pagliacci, that work which has given him so much fame, was to be produced, and he decided to hear it incognito. That the rising young composer was in town, was not generally known.
At the opera his seat was beside a bright-eyed and enthusiastic young lady, who, when she saw the composer did not join in the general applause, but remained quiet, turned to him with the question, “Why do you not applaud? Does it not suit you?”
The composer, much amused, replied: “No, on the contrary, it displeases me. It is the work of a mere beginner, not to call him anything worse.”
“Then you are ignorant of music,” she said.
“Oh, no,” replied the composer.
Then he proceeded to enlighten her on the subject, proving the music worthless and entirely without originality.
“See,” said he, “this motive is,” and he hummed lightly a short melody; “this aria is stolen from Bizet, and that is from Beethoven.” In short, he tore the whole opera into pieces.
His neighbour sat in silence, but with an air of pity on her countenance. At the close, she turned to him and said: “Is what you have said to me your honest opinion?”
“Entirely so,” was the reply.
“Good,” said she, and with a malicious gleam in her eyes left the theatre.
Next morning, glancing over the paper, his eye fell upon the heading, ‘Leoncavallo on his Pagliacci’ and reading further, was somewhat startled to find the conversation of the evening before fully reported and credited to the proper source. He had, unfortunately, played his little joke on a lady reporter, who had proved too smart for him.
Leoncavallo swore off from making disparaging remarks concerning his own works to vivacious young ladies, no matter how handsome or how enthusiastic they might be.
La commedia è finita! – "The comedy is finished!"
Anecdotes of Great Musicians, W Francis Gates Weekes & Co., London, 1896