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difficult and withdrawn person; one of the most complex personalities when compared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
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.