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A musical challenge to our view of the past

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Essays on Italo Montemezzi - D'Annunzio: Nave

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Alfredo Catalani — A new perspective on later Italian opera

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Cosima Wagner — The Lady of Bayreuth

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13 Apr 2012

Alfredo Catalani — A new perspective on later Italian opera

Assumptions about later Italian opera are dominated by Puccini, but Alfredo Catalani, born in the same town and almost at the same time, was highly regarded by their contemporaries. Two new books on Catalani could change our perceptions.

The First Lives of Alfredo Catalani

David Chandler, ed.

ISBN-10: 1905946252 | ISBN-13: 978-1905946259

$12.00  Click to buy

Catalani is the nearly man of late 19th century Italian opera. Where contemporaries such as Giordano and Cilea hang on to the fringes of the repertoire with a single opera, Catalani is famous for just a single aria, ‘Eben? Ne andro lontano’ from La Wally. But Catalani was highly talented and conscious of the difficulties in writing an opera in Italy post Verdi and post Wagner. These two books give us a chance to see Catalani from the point of view of his contemporaries and hear him express himself his own words.

Both books are based on material written close to Catalani’s own time, by people who knew him and his work. Getting as close as possible to primary sources is particularly important in Catalani’s case. These books allow non-Italian speaking non-specialists a rare glimpse into material that hitherto has been hard to access. Only through primary sources like this can we build on our understanding of this composer and his time.

These books are a valuable contribution to any study of the period, since they shed light on Italian opera circles at the time. Catalani was admired, and performed, well into the 1930’s. Verdi and Puccini so dominate our approach to later Italian opera that other composers are eclipsed. Now we have an opportunity to broaden our perceptions.

David Chandler is a scrupulously objective historian, presenting us with all avaialble evidence. His evaluation of the sources and subsequent commentary is judicious, for even contemporary accounts must be read in the light of why and by whom they were written. Chandler’s approach is scholarly, but he writes in a direct, lucid style. (see his article “Alfredo Catalani : Opera’s Great In-Betweener” here). His essay "Between Heaven and Earth" about La Wally is here in the London Magazine.

In The First Lives of Alfredo Catalani, David Chandler has assembled biographical sketches of Catalani written by contemporaries, including one written during Catalani’s lifetime, plus an obituary, a group of letters to his friend Sefano Stampa and a summary of the Catalani recordings on 78rpm discs along with Chandler’s own introduction and footnotes

Alfredo Catalani, Composer of Lucca was the first in this pair of books to be published but it has now been re-issued as a companion volume. In this volume the first significant biography, written in 1935, is published along with further memoirs and a summary of Catalani’s work on CD, along with David Chandler’s own introduction and footnotes.

Catalani was born in 1854 in Lucca (4 years before Puccini). He was destined by his family for the law though his father had studied with Pacini and his uncle was a composer. When Catalani rebelled he did receive family support and went on to study for 3 years in Paris before returning to the Royal Conservatoire in Milan for further study. His first opera, La Falco, was a student work with a libretto by Boito, but it achieved something of a success. This was followed by Elda, a reworking of the Loreley legend. Here Catalani addressed one of the principals problem of Italian opera, the response to Wagner. Productions of Tannhauser and Lohengrin had been greeted noisily and Elda was derided as being too much like Wagner.

Catalani’s subsequent 2 operas, Dejanice and Edmea, trod a safer course attempting to create some sort of popular response. But with his final 2 operas, La Wally and Loreley (in fact a major reworking of Elda) Catalani returned to his attempts to find a middle way between Verdi and Wagner. Unfortunately the delayed premiere of Loreley occurred just a month before the premiere of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana; the spectacular success of this leaving Catalani high and dry. His early death robbed us of the possibility of this alternative to verismo finally reaching success; though Catalani’s operas had something of a revival in the early 20th century. Arturo Toscanini named his daughter for La Wally.

But we can’t attribute Catalani’s lack of success simply by his being in the wrong place. His suffering from tuberculosis was a contributory factor; it robbed him of creative time and energy, and required him to travel to spas and cures. His taking paid employment as director of the Royal Conservatoire, Milan, arose simply because he needed the money. And whereas Chopin’s TB seems to have caught the mood of the public and contributed to the reputation of the artist, Catalani’s illness seems to have given critics cause to comment that both he and his music were consumptive.

Toscanini thought that, if Catalani had survived, his music would have overtaken Puccini’s; certainly his music had a far more international flavour than that of Puccini. It is also worth bearing in mind that with just 4 years age difference between Catalani and Puccini, by the time of Catalani’s death Puccini had yet to write a significant opera. (Manon Lescaut premiered in 1893).

Part of the reason for Puccini’s dominance is that he was promoted heavily by his publisher, Ricordi. Amongst the secondary sources Chandler quotes is Mosco Carner’s 1958 biography of Puccini, which included a 4 page sketch of Catalani, which demotes Catalani’s music. That was the main source of information in Englsih at the time and shaped modern opinion.The materials reproduced in the contemporary biographies in these volumes are thus an important antidote to received values, and help to set Catalani’s career in balance with Puccini.

The biography by Alfredo Soffredini (1854-1923), the first item in The First Lives of Alfredo Catalani, entirely fails to mention the composer’s illness and in fact makes a joke about the composer sneezing which, in retrospect, can only seem grim. This was the only biography published in Catalani’s lifetime and it is noticeably upbeat. After all Catalani was only 37 when it was produced and had some significant if not outstanding successes.

Soffredini studied at the Royal Conservatoire in Milan (where Catalani also studied after his return from Paris); Soffredini went on to teach there and in fact taught Mascagni. The biography includes no early memories of Catalani so we must assume that they were not intimate as students. However, in 1886, Soffredini left academe and became editor-in-chief of Ricordi’s Gazzetta Musicale di Milano. Soffredini seems to have become close friends with Catalani, though in his introduction Chandler points out that Soffredini is never mentioned in any of Catalani’s surviving letters. Soffredini’s biography, published in 1890, was designed to increase interest in a composer who had just become an official Ricordi composer.

Soffredini dwells quite significantly on the events surrounding Catalani’s decision to abandon his family’s plans for him and study music. Soffredini implies that Catalani received support from his uncle, who was director of the Istituto Musicale Pacini. From the way the biography dwells on this event, we must assume that it still had a strong significance for the 37 year old Catalani.

Soffredini’s biography treats all of Catalani’s operas equally and hardly mentions Wagner, perhaps indicative of Catalani’s attitude; whereas, Depanis, in his biography emphasises the Wagnerian elements in Catalani’s operas. Soffredini’s biography is designed for publicity purposes, it only gives us glimpses of Catalani the man.

Soffredini’s obituary of Catalani, written 3 years later, is inevitably overlaid with a sense of melancholy; now Catalani’s illness is mentioned and casts a pall over Catalani’s career. In fact Soffredini suggested that Catalani’s health had depressive origins. But in overall tone the obituary is the start of the treatment of Catalani as a doomed composer who died before his time. The obituary gives us no real new biographical information. But we get a better feeling for his character, a shy sincere, melancholy character; someone ‘loved and esteemed by all those who come into contact with him’. Though being as this is an obituary for someone who died young, you wonder whether the composer isn’t being seen through tinted spectacles. In his introduction Chandler comments that in his letters to Depanis, Catalani can come over as imperious and demanding.

In both biography and obituary Soffredini makes great reference to verismo, this requires careful reading because it would seem unlikely that Soffredini would denigrate his former pupil Mascagni.

Soffredini’s obituary concludes with a description of Catalani’s obsequies with a list of the luminaries present. Here he differs significantly from Depanis, who describes the event as being poorly attended - an exaggeration perhaps, to make a point.

Because Depanis’s biographical has a definite point. A close friend of Catalani’s, Giuseppe Depanis (1853-1942), his memoir of the composer became the standard biography of Catalani until 1935 when Pardini’s biography was published. Depanis grew up in Turin in a cultured environment and his father eventually became manager of the Regio in Turin. A decisive year for Depanis was 1876 when he attended the Bayreuth festival. His article describing this is reprinted in this volume, it does not involve Catalani, but is a fascinating eye witness memoir of both the impact of Wagner’s works on stage and the trials and tribulations involved in actually attending the performance.

For Depanis, Wagner was supremely important, so in his memoir of Catalani he considers Elda, Loreley and La Wally at length and dismisses Dejanice and Edmea. To Depanis, Catalani had a relatively consistent trajectory as a composer but the critics were themselves inconsistent. But he brings out a tension in Catalani’s career, between high art (Elda, Loreley and La Wally) and entertainment (Dejanice and Edmea); a tension which is missing from Soffredini who considers all the operas equally. In fact, Depanis helped Catalani when he was revising Elda into Loreley.


Depanis starts his memoir with a striking but pointed image; Depanis himself in the Alps, the view calling forth memories of La Wally, whilst the composer lay dying. This is a striking image with which to start, but one which emphasises both the author as a man of action and Catalani as someone enfeebled by illness.

Two other things come over from Depanis. Catalani’s struggle to find a decent libretto and his misfortune in never quite achieving his moment with events like the delayed premiere being trumped by the premiere of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana.

Depanis’s later memoir of Catalani was published in 1915. This does not present new material but does have the benefit of being written in the wake of the early 20th century revival of interest in Catalani’s operas. So that whereas in the first memoir, Catalani’s career seems to finish on a low note, in the later memoir his revival casts a glow. The realisations that both the Wagnerians and anti-Wagnerians had been both wrong and Catalani was simply being true to himself.

Giuseppe Stampa (1819-1907) (he was later known as Stefano) was the son of a wealthy minor nobleman and the stepson of the novelist Alessandro Manzoni. He became a friend of Catalani’s, though little is known of their friendship apart from the letters from Catalani to Stampa reprinted here. The letters peter out in 1885 not because of a dropping off in the friendship but more the reverse, frequent visits removing the need for letters.

The letters are useful for giving us a real echo of Catalani’s own voice. In an early one he comments ‘the success of Lohengrin in London, denied in Il Pungolo though confirmed in La Perseveranza, is a new victory won by our musical camp’. Later on he comments, fascinatingly on the fact that Verdi’s music is not of great merit, talking of ‘delirious screams and stage effects void of common sense.’

Finally the volume gives us a summary, by Stanley Henig, of Catalani’s music on 78 rpm. No complete operas, but testament to the regard in which he was held by singers in the early gramophone era.

Chandler’s volume Alfredo Catalani, Composer of Lucca though originally published first, forms a useful follow up to The First Lives of Alfredo Catalani, because it contains Domenico Pardini’s 1935 biography of Catalani.
Domenico Luigi Pardini (1864-1951) was also born in Lucca, studied there and worked there all his life, becoming director of primary education. But he devoted his spare time to local cultural history, especially the history of music. He doesn’t mention actually knowing the composer but implies he was present in 1892 when Catalani was presented with a huge bronze crown in Lucca.

A short article by Pardini on Catalani, published in 1906, became the germ for his 1935 biography which was published as the 2nd in a series of volumes called Memories of Lucca. It was not intended as a full critical biography, it runs to only 60 pages in the present edition. But it is the first significant 2nd generation biography, it has the advantage that Pardini was born and brought up in Lucca, and knew people who had been familiar with Catalani.

Pardini, along with the other early biographies, omits references to the Scapigliatura movement, no doubt in order to create an image of Catalani as an artist alone. But he did have undoubted links to these bohemian radicals, in which Boito had a strong hand. (Scapigliati means unkempt or dishevelled). To learn more the reader has to turn to more recent articles. Catalani was painted by the Scapigliati artist Tranquillo Cremona and the painting is reprinted in the book.

Chandler points out that another area where Pardini is weak is in the relations between Catalani and Ricordi. When Catalani’s first publisher retired, Ricordi acquired Catalani’s catalogue. Pardini paints Ricordi in a positive light, whereas in fact Ricordi seems to have rather cynically been counting on Catalani dying before Ricordi had to pay him. Also Ricordi seems to have definitely promoted Puccini above Catalani. If Catalani had lived, his relations with Ricordi would certainly have been interesting.

Pardini does give more background on Catalani’s family and memories of his school friends who described him as tidy, good-hearted, thoughtful and diligent. In fact Catalani’s teacher in Lucca, Fortunato Magi, was actually a pupil of Michele Puccini (Giacomo’s father). Pardini rather plays up Catalani’s Luccan background and plays down the family dispute over Catalani’s career.

Pardini is rather down on Francois Bazin, Catalani’s composition teacher in Paris; in fact Bazin’s operas are better than Pardini implies. But Pardini does include discussion of Catalani’s non-operatic works which provides a more balanced view than the earlier biographies. Pardini relates the story, not mentioned by Soffredini and Depanis, but presumably coming from Catalani himself, that his mass had enabled him to get into the Paris Conservatoire without exam. Catalani’s mass, his only sacred music, was first performed at Lucca Cathedral in 1872.

In fact, research by Carlo Gatti for his 1953 book on Catalani could find no written trace of Catalani at the Paris Conservatoire and Gatti has postulated that Catalani simply audited the classes rather than attending the conservatoire. Pardini confirms that the Paris Conservatoire archives possessed no manuscripts by Catalani.

Another curious episode which Pardini mentions is the story that Catalani retired to a convent when writing La Wally. It is not clear on what authenticity Pardini’s includes it, whether he had any knowledge of the episode beyond the article by Barbiera which is also reprinted in this volume.

Pardini’s book includes extensive quotations from Depanis. But Pardini, writing with hindsight in 1935, is able to take a balanced view of the pro/ante accusations of Wagnerism and see Catalani’s works more for what they really are. On the other hand he does rather create the romantic view of Catalani in an artistic fever of creation when writing Elda.

The biographical memoirs reprinted in these volumes don’t give us the sort of salacious detail beloved of modern writers, nor do they give us basic biographical details such as mentioning and of Catalani’s adult non-musical relationships and love affairs. Chandler fills in some of the gaps with a short article which summarises what we know about of Catalani’s love affairs. These were not mentioned in the earlier articles mainly because the affairs were with married women, though Pardini does drop one quite heavy hint.

Giovanni Battista Nappi (1857-1932) was a minor composer and influential critic. He met Catalani in 1875 and became a friend. His article, published in 1918, was to mark the 25th anniversary of Catalani’s death. Chandler describes it as one of the best and most useful things published on the composer. Nappi includes information which is not available in either Soffredini or Depanis.

The article takes the form of little thematic passages rather than through composed narrative; Nappi was hoping to encourage others to provide similar reminiscences of the composer. The result is a series of vignettes, sometimes rather arresting, which give glimpses of the composer not seen so far. Distressing descriptions of the composer’s cough, his gaunt appearance, ‘dragging himself around the streets’; Catalani’s joy at the libretto for his opera Nella Selva (which would never be written); his unwillingness to play the piano in public and the unmitigated disaster of his final appearance playing the piano; his unwillingness to talk about projects when they were underway and a rather charming anecdote of how Boito was involved in Illica becoming the librettist of La Wally.

Also reprinted is the chapter from Rafaello Barbiera’s book Nella Gloria e Nell’Ombra (1926), a rather curious farrago which describes the incident where Catalani retires to a convent to compose. Finally there is an appeal by David Chandler for information on Catalani’s missing letters, and a summary of Catalani’s operas on CD.

These early biographies are important for casting light on the way Catalani was seen by his contemporaries. They make for fascinating reading, particularly for the way the legend of Catalani the doomed composer develops. The articles have all been admirably edited by David Chandler with an informative introduction to each volume and copious footnotes. These latter are supremely important and informative because so many of the people mentioned have all but disappeared from the modern historical record. These books very much give us first hand accounts of a vanished world.

Robert Hugill


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