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Sappho as represented in a fresco in Pompeii
18 Sep 2005

An Introduction to Pacini’s Saffo

By early 1835 Giovanni Pacini had written almost fifty operas during the course of a career launched in 1813. He was tired and he was discouraged. Not only had his earlier works been overshadowed by the force of Rossini’s musical personality, but even after the departure of the Pesarese from Italy in 1823, Pacini’s star did not shine brighter. In his fascinating Memoirs, the composer examined these years and acknowledged his own limitations. Though the first performances of his Irene, o L’assedio di Messina (Naples, Teatro San Carlo, 30 November 1833) were largely rescued by the singers, Pacini knew the creative vein he had been mining was empty. Maturing under the spell of Rossini, he had not yet shown himself to be more than an able follower: “I began to realize that I should withdraw from the field.—Bellini, the divine Bellini, and Donizetti had surpassed me.”

Saffo, tragedia lirica in tre atti

Leyla Gencer (Saffo); Franca Mattiucci (Climene); Tito Del Bianco (Faone); Louis Quilico (Alcandro). Orchestra e Coro del Teatro San Carlo di Napoli, Franco Capuana, dir. Teatro San Carlo di Napoli, 7 April 1967.

 

‘‘‘He tried his hand once again during the carnival season of 1835, writing Carlo di Borgogna for the Teatro La Fenice, but it was a dismal failure. Pacini’s judgments about his operas through 1835 are harsh, even unduly so:

I gave little thought to honor myself and my art as I should have. . . . They called me Maestro delle cabalette because my cabalettas generally had the virtue of spontaneity, elegance, and form. Everyone believed it cost me little to find a melodic thought of some novelty, since, it was said, that was a matter of innate talent and nothing else.

Though Pacini insisted he worked hard even on cabaletta tunes, always seeking to fashion them in ways different from his contemporaries, he admitted that his music had defects:

My instrumentation was never careful enough, and if it was sometimes beautiful or brilliant, this resulted not from reflection but rather from that natural taste God granted me. I frequently slighted the string section, nor did I take pains about the effects that might be drawn from instrumental families.

He concentrated too much energy on suiting his vocal lines to the needs of individual singers. And though he loved his art, his rivals were ever more admired and his own work thought to be increasingly old-fashioned.

Thus, Pacini decided to abandon the stage. He retired to Viareggio, were he founded and directed a music school, organized a band and small orchestra for his fellow townsmen, and built a theater for his students. In 1837 he was appointed head of the Ducal chapel in nearby Lucca and turned his attention increasingly to sacred music. These years away from the theater were ones of reflection and personal growth. When Pacini decided to accept a commission from the Roman impresario Vincenzo Jacovacci for a new opera to open the carnival season of 1839-40 at the Teatro Apollo, he was determined to strike out on a new path:

During my period of repose, I had meditated on new developments, on the changing taste of the audience, and on what should be the path to follow. Rossini after 1829 had ceased to grace the musical world with further masterpieces. Bellini, the touching Bellini, had been stolen from art in 1835. . . . The versatile Donizetti and the severe Mercadante were the only ones who dominated the stage, since Verdi had just appeared on the horizon in that year 1839 with this Oberto di San Bonifazio. The others, such as Coccia, Ricci, Lauro Rossi, rarely gave their works on our stages. All this made me seriously consider on what path to begin anew. If my compositions were to have any hope for long life, I had to develop that esthetic sense I had previously sought but rarely achieved. I set to work, with the firm intention of putting aside the procedures I had followed in my earlier career, and I looked for characteristic ideas from the diverse melodies of different peoples, drawing them from traditional sources, so that I could inform my works with that truth so difficult to achieve in our art.

This statement and similar ones Pacini made about Saffo (see below) suggest impatience with the artificiality of Italian operatic melody. The desire to revitalize art through new sources in folk or traditional music was common to much European musical thought in the mid-nineteenth century.

Of his opera for Rome, Furio Camillo, to a libretto by the congenial librettist and literary figure Jacopo Ferretti, Pacini wrote only:

The experiment with Furio Camillo was not a complete success, but I felt that I had made progress. Its reception did not correspond to my hopes, but was not entirely unhappy; indeed, several pieces were enormously effective.

No complete edition of Furio Camillo was published, but Ricordi issued three excerpts from the opera in 1841; a fourth was printed by the Litografia Pittarelli of Rome.

* * * *

In June 1840 Pacini, at home in Lucca, received an offer from the Teatro San Carlo of Naples to write a new opera to a text by Salvatore Cammarano. Saffo was to be the first of five collaborations between them. Cammarano sent the poetry of the first act together with an outline of the whole, and Pacini set to work at once. His description of his preparations for the composition of Saffo are fascinating:

Reading and rereading, the story of that people, which opened a path to all human understanding, and seeking to discover what music was used by that heroic nation, whose sons included Euripedes, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Aristoxenus, Homer, Tyrtaeus, and Aristides (who in his Trattato musicale gives a precise idea of the principles that governed music in those times, and particularly speaks of rhythm), I learned that the Greeks attributed a more ample meaning to the word music, consisting not only of the art which excites various sentiments through sound, but also poetry, aesthetics, rhetoric, philosophy, and that science the Romans called politior humanitas. Giving heed to the modes they (the Greeks) employed, Doric, Ionic, Phrygian, Aeolian, Lydian, and of their related forms, Hypodoric, Hyperdoric, etc., I gained an understanding of their system. Keeping always before me what Aristides said about the qualities of the three genera, Diatonic, Chromatic, and Enharmonic (the first noble and austere, the second very sweet and plaintive, the third both gentle and exciting), I attempted, as I said, to approximate their art of melody. I set to work with a joy that I cannot explain. . . .

Pacini completed two numbers, but gradually lost courage for the project.

He arrived in Naples in early September with the intention of asking Cammarano for a new libretto. The librettist asked to hear the numbers already set, and Pacini sat down at the piano and sang them through:

All of a sudden I saw the poet of Saffo grow pale and full of emotion at the words “Di sua voce il suon giungea”. He did not let me finish, but threw his arms around my neck: “My Maestro (he exclaimed), for heaven’s sake continue the work; you will give Italy a masterpiece.”

Pacini did continue, and Saffo had its premiere at the Teatro San Carlo on 29 November 1840. It was an outstanding success, judged universally to be Pacini’s masterpiece. “In the autumn of 1840 I was therefore baptized by public opinion no longer as the composer of facile cabalettas, but rather of elaborated works and carefully meditated compositions.” He claimed to have composed Saffo in twenty-eight days and created (by which he surely meant “sketched”) the final scene in only two hours. But Saffo had been in his thoughts since June and had benefitted both from the preceding years of reflection and from Pacini’s efforts to find a characteristic color for this setting of a Greek legend. It would be fascinating to analyze Saffo with Pacini’s statement about its creation in mind.

Although the Ricordi edition divides Saffo into nineteen separate sections, Pacini’s score is really much more integrated than this dismemberment for commercial purposes would imply. Indeed, orchestral manuscripts of the opera and Pacini’s own description suggest its original divisions were as follows:

Act I
1. Introduzione (= Ricordi #1-2)
2. Recitativo e Scena drammatica (= Ricordi #3-4)

Act II
3. Coro e Cavatina Climene (= Ricordi #5-6)
4. Recitativo e Duetto (= Ricordi #7-8)
5. Coro e Finale II (= Ricordi #9-12)

Act III
6. Scena, Coro e Terzetto (= Ricordi #13-15)
7. Scena ed Aria Faone (= Ricordi #16)
8. Coro, Scena ed Aria Finale Saffo (= Ricordi #17-19)

It is worth stopping over this scheme to recognize the extent to which Saffo is constructed of remarkably extended musical numbers. There are only three solo compositions in the opera, for Climene (#3), Faone (#7), and Saffo (#8), all with either chorus or pertichini or both. The first two are arias in traditional designs, although both are marvelously rendered. Notice the syncopated theme of Climene’s Cavatine (p. 63); the sumptuous clarinet solo that opens Faone’s Scena (p. 221); the lovely canonic writing in its primo tempo (p. 225: the voice is at first dux to the orchestra’s comes, with the pattern reversed at the repetition); and Faone’s cabaletta, worthy of the “maestro delle cabalette,” in which Pacini sends his tenor, Gaetano Fraschini, hurtling up to a high D[-flat], then stratospherically and à la Rubini to a high E[-flat] (p. 232).

Saffo’s final scene is a worthy heir to the final scene of Anna Bolena. The heroine is about to take the fatal leap from the rock of Leucade so as to put behind her earthly passion. Throughout the recitative, Pacini recalls other tunes and designs from earlier in the opera. The reappearance of Climene and Alcandro drives Saffo into madness, and she imagines herself singing in honor of Climene’s wedding, as she had promised to do. Saffo’s beautiful melody (accompanied by harp and winds alone) gives way to an expansive, passionate outburst (“addio; ti lascio in terra”), a melodic topos Pacini associated with Saffo elsewhere in the opera (cf. pp. 37, 114-15, 165, and 206, for just a few examples). A less original but appropriately designed cabaletta concludes the finale, with a startling cadential progression marking her leap to death and bringing down the curtain (p. 266).

The greatest achievements of Pacini’s score, though, lie in the ensembles, particularly the glorious finale of the second act. To do justice to the sources of Verdi’s style, one must recognize that his great Largo movements owe more direct debt to the second-act finale of Saffo (pp. 113-32) than to either Bellini or Donizetti. The strength of this music, its passion and scope, the interaction of an introductory solo and an ensemble, the building of enormous musical climaxes, all elements we hold to be typical of the great early Verdi Largos, are present here in ample measure. Nor does the tension dissipate in the final stretta, with its wonderful reprise of the opening melody transposed up a third at first (from B[-flat] major to D[-flat] major) and assigned to the full ensemble instead of to Saffo alone.

Pacini sought to create a more continuous drama in much of the work, and the extent to which he gives lyrical expression to scenes of dialogue is remarkable. A scene that will repay close study from this perspective is the opening of the final act, where Saffo asks permission to take the leap of Leucade. Only after she has sworn to throw herself into the sea is her identity as the daughter of Alcandro and sister of Climene revealed, leading to another beautiful ensemble, “al seno mi stringi” (pp. 184-95). But it is Pacini’s handling of the dialogue that is particularly noteworthy: he tries, usually with great success, to lend lyrical and dramatic force to each expression. In this he is greatly aided by Cammarano’s libretto, long held to be the poet’s finest achievement. . . .

Philip Gossett
The University of Chicago

Copyright 1986 by Philip Gossett

Reprinted with permission of the author from his Introduction to SAFFO and Excerpts from FURIO CAMILLO, A Facsimile Edition of the Printed Piano-Vocal Scores, New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1986. Page references are to the facsimile score. Endnotes have been omitted.

Schematic from Ricordi's Piano-Vocal Score

SAFFO
Section Title/Description
Atto I La Corona Olimpica
Preludio e Coro D'Introduzione -- Divini carmi!
Scena e Cavatina -- Di sua voce il suon giungea
Rec. Precedente La Scene Drammatica -- Faon qui volge
Scena Drammatica -- Finale Della Parte I -- Quando il mil caldo genio
Atto II Le Nozze di Faone
Coro di Donne -- Al crin le cringete la rosea corona
Scena e Cavatine -- Ah! con lui mi fu rapita
Rec. Precedente il Duetto -- Uno stranier!
Duetto -- Di quai sozvi lagrime
Coro Dell'Imeneo e Ballabile -- Le cetre, le tibie confondano i suoni
Scena e Finale Della Parte II -- Or citaristi, echeggino
Largo Del Finale II -- ai mortali, o crudo, ai numi
Séguito e Stretta Del Finale II -- Saffo, qui siamo in Leucade!
Atto III Il Salto di Leucade
Scena e Coro Degli Aruspici -- Signor di Leucade -- occhio del cielo
Scena -- Il nume accolse la domanda
Pezzo Concertato -- Terzetto -- Al seno mi stringi . . . ripeti l'amplesso
Scena ed Aria -- Ah! giusta pena io colsi
Coro di Popolo e Sacerdoti -- S'ella paventa o dubita
Scena Che Precede L'Aria Finale -- Premio d'amor
Scena ed Aria Finale -- Teco dall'are pronube

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