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Zandonai: Mascagni's "Student"

by Konrad Dryden, February 2004

© 2004 Konrad Dryden

Dr. Konrad Dryden is a frequent lecturer on verismo and the author of Riccardo Zandonai: a Biography (Peter Lang, 1999). He recently completed a biography of Ruggiero Leoncavallo.

It is largely unavoidable to notice a distinct sign of animosity - largely based on jealousy - when researching the relationships between composers and their colleagues. They each have a different story to tell regarding their own experiences and, when reading or hearing their testimonies, it is difficult to imagine that they are all defining the same person. In general, composers have few good things to say about compositions that have not sprung from their own pen, while characteristically praising all of their own works regardless of variances in quality.

A formal portrait of Zandonai during the time of Giulietta e Romeo
© Tarquinia-Jolanda Zandonai

Relationships between singers and composers seem to fare somewhat better, given that there is no competition. Thus, Magda Olivero, who sang relatively little Mascagni, save numerous magnificent portrayals of Iris and one run of Santuzza in Cavalleria rusticana, declared to me one day that Mascagni was a most difficult and withdrawn person; one of the most complex personalities when compared to the shy Cilèa or the witty Giordano. Gino Bechi frequently told me about his ordeal singing Alfio in the 1940 Mascagni-led recording of Cavalleria rusticana. Only three and a half minutes were able to be recorded on one side to be followed by complete silence in the studio. Mascagni, jubilant of the result of his efforts, immediately exclaimed his joy, thereby ruining the results of the artists' strenuous efforts. Bechi also recalled that Lina Bruna Rasa, the mentally ill soprano who sang Santuzza, would insist on asking whether he also noticed a set of white horses in the wings that she believed were waiting to take her away. Strangely, she became completely lucid when the music began.

Riccardo Zandonai first met Mascagni in 1898 when the latter was director of Pesaro's Liceo Musicale. Although Mascagni is always touted as having been Zandonai's main teacher, and while it is true that he was enrolled in his composition class, the musician from Trentino always credited his first teacher in Rovereto, Vincenzo Gianferrari, as the man from whom he learned the most. (Gianferrari incidentally also won the Sonzogno prize in 1892 with his one act opera Trecce nere.) Zandonai's decision to live in Pesaro rather than Vienna had more to do with friends who were able to offer him lodging than to any intense interest in studying with the composer of Cavalleria rusticana. Mascagni had already been director of the Liceo for three years when an extremely young Zandonai spotted the composer at Bologna's train station for the very first time on his way to take the Liceo's entrance examination. According to conversations I had with Father Ottone Tonetti, himself a composer and later student of Mascagni, there was not an immediate liking between the two men. Mascagni nevertheless soon realized - when he happened to be in Pesaro - that Zandonai was one of his most gifted students. Although Zandonai emulated the handsome Mascagni in his manner of dress during the period, he steadfastly refused, at the time, to be influenced by verismo or the Giovane scuola. However, there certainly are similarities when comparing Guglielmo Ratcliff and Isabeau to Zandonai's Giulietta e Romeo. Throughout his lifetime, Zandonai only admired Iris of all Mascagni's compositions. "E te lo voglio dire," one of Zandonai's first published songs, was also dedicated to Mascagni.

Mascagni did try to help launch Zandonai, even writing a letter to Tyrol's Ministry of Culture and Education, drawing attention to the validity of the young man's Pascoli based Il ritorno di Odisseo, attesting that Zandonai was one of his most "promising students." L'uccellino d'oro, another short opera soon followed from Zandonai's pen, also incorporating shades of Mascagni, especially in Riccardino's Act II aria "Lontano, lontano, lontano." It is a curious fact that later, when Zandonai became a protégé of Tito Ricordi, the publisher tried to secure the rights to D'Annunzio's Francesca da Rimini for an operatic adaptation during early 1912, precisely when Mascagni and his publisher Sonzogno were making plans for the D'Annunzio based Parisina.

Zandonai at the time of La farsa amorosa (1933)
© Tarquinia-Jolanda Zandonai

Zandonai was always irritated when Mascagni's name was invariably mentioned as his teacher, finding their styles vastly different. Although none of Zandonai's colleagues became his personal friends, save for a few singers, his relationship with Mascagni always remained cordial, if nothing more. Later, when Zandonai himself was an established composer and the director of Pesaro's Liceo where he had once studied with Mascagni, he invited the composer to conduct Il barbiere di Siviglia honoring the 140th anniversary of Rossini's birth. During the same event in 1932 Mascagni also conducted Iris, an opera that Zandonai still admired, even if he now found the libretto to be "silly." Zandonai corresponded with friends that Mascagni had grown hard of hearing by this time, having difficulty making the orchestra follow him, reminding him of what the deaf Beethoven must have been like. Mascagni seemed to have become more affectionate toward Zandonai during this stay than ever before. The younger composer sensed that his teacher had mellowed a bit although there would never be a sincere friendship between them. Mascagni's visit did succeed in robbing Zandonai of sleep, with the older composer retiring around 5 a.m. after discussing the evening's performance at length. Zandonai did not find Mascagni's wage of 40,000 lire bad, considering that he had barely worked five days.

Zandonai felt that Parisina was a "fatal error," while chiding that Mascagni could no longer walk, Cilèa was deaf and blind, and Perosi's mind no longer worked. It is unfortunate that Zandonai's last mention of Mascagni should be supremely negative. In 1943, one year before his own death, Zandonai was shocked to read that Mascagni was conducting a concert at the Adriano in Rome. He felt that the "great old egotist" should not have been accepting such engagements during the crisis of World War II. A sense of irritation most likely played a role because the octogenarian was still in demand. Zandonai now imagined Mascagni having spent most of the war running to be blessed between "the SS and the Pope."

The love/hate relationship that Zandonai felt toward Mascagni was certainly not unique among composers; in fact, it was more commonplace than anything else. Mascagni's comments regarding Zandonai could also be quite cutting, when, for example, he heard the composer's Lagerlöf based opera I cavalieri di Ekebù, stating that although Zandonai was a good musician, he was short on imagination, not possessing a temperament truly capable of expressing passion.

Mascagni (and Puccini) could be just as vicious to Leoncavallo, and it was Francesco Paolo Tosti who later most undiplomatically declared that the difference between Mascagni and the composer of Pagliacci was that "Mascagni is the boss, Leoncavallo the servant." Then, as now, the music industry was a difficult business. Not only did composers frequently loathe their colleagues, but their fury was in fact even superseded - if possible - by their hatred of publishers, critics and impresarios.

Apart from Puccini, Mascagni was doubtless the most important of all the Giovane scuola composers. The intellectual, dramatic and emotional depth to be found in many of Mascagni's works was never attained by any of his other colleagues, who, at best, usually created no more than one or two important operas. The range, skill and breadth of his towering musical canvases are justly inspiring, as are the numerous subjects he successfully and bravely tackled. A deeply felt understanding of the human psyche is at the core of a great many of Mascagni's works. It is therefore hardly surprising at present, in an age of extreme superficiality, that masterpieces such as the gentle and poetic Iris should have such a difficult time being heard. It suffices to quote Iris's pitiful and masterful "perchè?" in Act III when asking why Mascagni has been so unjustly neglected for so long.