Who was Ruggero Leoncavallo?

Ruggero Leoncavallo was an Italian opera composer and librettist. He composed 11 operas, 10 operettas and a couple of symphonic poems. However, today Leoncavallo is best remembered for one work above all: his first opera Pagliacci, from 1892.

When was Ruggero Leoncavallo born?

Ruggero Leoncavallo was born in Naples, Italy on 23 April to Vincenzo Leoncavallo, a police magistrate and judge, and Virginia D’Auria.

Where did Leoncavallo grow up?

Leoncavallo later moved with his father to the small town of Montalto Uffugo in Calabria, southern Italy. The young composer spent his teenage years in this small town. Later, thoughl, he returned to Naples to study at the San Pietro a Majella Conservatory. That was followed by a move up to northern Italy, to study literature at the University of Bologna.

What was Ruggero Leoncavallo's most famous work?

Ruggero Leoncavallo was a man on a mission. In 1890, he had watched his younger compatriot Pietro Mascagni achieve global success with the short opera Cavalleria rusticana. With single-minded determination, Leoncavallo set about using the same formula – a gritty tale of poverty, adultery and violent death, all set to impassioned music – to create a hit of his own. Soon enough, the opera he produced, Pagliacci, was pleasing audiences throughout Italy and beyond, in due course becoming a regular partner for the work that had inspired it.

Pagliacci was the product of pragmatism – a calculated attempt to make money. In 1892 Leoncavallo was 35 years old, becoming jaded after years of trying to make it as a professional composer, and financially quite desperate. His family background was one of cultured affluence – his father, who hailed from Apulian aristocracy, was a judge and his mother a painter from a famous Neapolitan artistic family. The young Leoncavallo received family support in his musical ambitions, but finding a publisher or impresario interested in his early operatic efforts proved futile. After a few years in Bologna, the young man took himself off to Cairo – an uncle had a position in the Foreign Ministry there – where he drifted, finding odds and sods of work as pianist and teacher.

Enrico Caruso as Canio in Pagliacci by Leoncavallo, Berlin Staatsoper, 1904
Enrico Caruso as Canio in Leoncavallo's hit opera 'Pagliacci', at the Berlin Staatsoper, 1904. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Where did Leoncavallo live after Egypt?

Leoncavallo’s Egyptian sojourn came to a dramatic end when he was forced to flee a military coup that saw foreigners being threatened and even murdered. He made his way next to France, determined to seek fame and fortune in the capital, showing characteristic drive in placing a notice in the small ads announcing his arrival and his availability for work. His life in Paris gave him first-hand experience of the sort of environment he would depict in one of his later operas, La bohème (1897 - not to be confused with Puccini's La bohème). He endured a period of genuine poverty and hunger, wandering the streets looking for work, occasionally being hired to accompany singers at a café-concert or vaudeville.

After a vigorous period of determined networking, he slowly began to gain a reputation as a concert accompanist and vocal teacher and met leading Parisian singers, writers and publishers, as well as composers including Massenet and Gounod. The famous baritone Victor Maurel suggested Leoncavallo go with him to Milan – he was about to create the role of Iago in the première of Verdi’s Otello – where he promised to introduce him to the publisher Giulio Ricordi. And so Leoncavallo and his wife Berthe relocated to Italy.

This turned out to be not quite the great breakthrough for which Leoncavallo had hoped. Ricordi was preoccupied trying to launch the career of Puccini and roped in Leoncavallo (a good linguist who would write most of his own libretti) to assist with the libretto of the former’s Manon Lescaut. But the publisher was less interested in the young man’s promise as a composer and, although he grudgingly gave him a contract, showed little real enthusiasm for ever staging any works that might result. On hard times once more, and feeling undervalued and exploited, Leoncavallo set about writing his ‘winner’, Pagliacci. Ricordi, once again, was nonplussed, so the composer turned to Edoardo Sonzogno, Ricordi’s great publishing rival, and the powerhouse behind operatic verismo (‘realism’).

Was Leoncavallo a verismo ('realism') composer?

Surprising as it may seem, Leoncavallo professed to hate the verismo genre: dabbling in it was merely a means to an end. The works he had written prior to Pagliacci reveal where his heart really lay. His juvenile piece Chatterton, about the tragic English poet who had committed suicide aged 18 – an obvious subject for an idealistic young composer – showed a leaning towards Romanticism. But the work that Leoncavallo cared about most was I Medici, the opera he had tried to sell to Ricordi, which was to be the first in a trilogy of works about the Italian Renaissance, to be titled Crepusculum. Leoncavallo had discovered the works of Wagner in forward-looking Bologna, and harboured ambitions to write a quasi-Wagnerian triptych inspired by the Ring. Later he would boast of his ambition to create ‘epic music’ and create ‘a national poem’.

These were lofty ambitions indeed, far removed from the commercial and arguably ‘cheap’ world of verismo. But Leoncavallo could not afford to be too disparaging about Pagliacci, for he would never achieve such success again. His last opera of even moderate success was Zazà (1900), based on a best-selling French play that had transferred to Broadway. The subject’s setting in a Parisian music hall transported the composer back to the bohemian environment of his youth.

Leoncavallo was something of an adventurer, crossing borders both literally, in his extensive travels, and figuratively, in his propensity for moving seamlessly between the worlds of opera and popular culture. An experienced traveller after his sojourns in Egypt and France, he was often on the road. He travelled with other composers in the Sonzogno stable to Vienna, to promote Pagliacci at the International Music and Theatre Exposition, and thence to Warsaw and Berlin. In the early years of the 20th century, he undertook several promotional tours to the US, on the first occasion travelling long distances on a special train with a large but second-rate troupe he claimed (falsely) to be the La Scala orchestra.

Did Leoncavallo ever visit Britain?

Occasionally he received a foreign commission. In 1911, he spent time in London, conducting Pagliacci at the Hippodrome, a leading variety hall, and writing an operetta for the venue (Zingari), which enjoyed reasonable runs in Britain and the US. An even greater coup, or so it seemed at first, was the bizarre commission he received to write a German national opera. Promoting Pagliacci in Berlin, he was introduced to no less a figure than Kaiser Wilhelm II.

After watching the German première of I Medici (a work that had failed in Italy), the Kaiser was impressed by the work’s bombastic tone and invited Leoncavallo to write a setting of Willibald Alexis’s historical novel Der Roland von Berlin. The invitation appealed to Leoncavallo’s latent opportunistic impulses and desire for official recognition. Though the German imperial court promoted the opera heavily at its première in Berlin in 1904, local composers and critics took offence at the commission going to a foreigner and Italian audiences failed to warm to the work.

Was Leoncavallo a successful composer?

Leoncavallo’s was a career of great highs and lows. From time to time, he would enjoy financial success, sufficient at one stage to build himself a truly lavish Renaissance-inspired palazzo on the banks of Lake Maggiore in Switzerland. But all too often, he found himself in difficult circumstances, and by the 1910s his career had entered a period of terminal decline. He floundered around from genre to genre, sometimes reverting to verismo mode or making forays into operetta to make money. (Works such as Malbruk and Maia attracted barely a flicker of interest.) To make matters worse, he got himself embroiled in legal wranglings and professional rows throughout his career, whether trying to get out of his contract with Ricordi, being threatened with a plagiarism case by the French playwright Catulle Mendès over the plot of Pagliacci, or rowing with Puccini and Ricordi about who had the rights to set La bohème.

The Italian composers who came to maturity in the 1880s and ’90s, collectively known as the ‘giovane scuola’, were thrown into a position of intense rivalry with one another by their ambitious, commercially savvy publishers. Over the course of his career, Leoncavallo became firmly convinced that the success of Puccini, once his friend, was a contributing factor in his own lack of professional recognition.

Why were Leoncavallo and Puccini rivals?

At the end of his life, this formerly genial man was worn down by stress, pent-up resentment and the effort of churning out endless second-rate operettas and salon pieces in order to scrabble together small sums to pay the rent on grotty apartments, his beautiful Swiss home sold to pay off his debts. A patriotic work written in World War One, Mameli, was a failure. Leoncavallo spent his final months ranting bitterly about the triumph of Il trittico, Puccini’s trio of short operas, his own epic triptych never having been completed. Yet when Leoncavallo died in the fashionable spa town of Montecatini Terme in 1919, at the age of just 62, who should be there in the photographs of the funeral procession but Puccini, staring bleakly into the camera lens.

Leoncavallo’s biography must be one of the saddest in the history of classical music. Tempting as it is to write him off as a one-hit wonder, however, his career remains worthy of our interest. It reveals that the Italian operatic landscape at the tail end of the 19th century was about much more than verismo. Composers of the time also worked on larger canvases, wrote operas set in the distant past and strove to explore grandiose subjects, even if such ambitions weren’t necessarily successful. Leoncavallo’s oeuvre reminds us that he and his generation were obsessed with emulating the musical style of Wagner, but that these composers were also not averse to crossing over into the world of operetta, café culture and cabaret. Interesting times indeed.

What is Leoncavallo's musical style?

The composer's style is a mix of realism, popular song, elements of Wagner and more.

For example, his great hit Pagliacci contains all the musical hallmarks of the verismo school: memorable melodies, simple harmonic language and a new style of hand-on-heart singing that occasionally verges on the coarse. Short vocal phrases are often more shouted than sung and vocal ‘effects’ abound, as exemplified by the sobs in ‘Vesti la giubba’.

Another of his operas, I medici, falls down on a weak storyline, but its tuneful score is worth a listen. With its rich orchestration, languorous vocal lines, and overture full of brass fanfares, it offers a fascinating insight into how the giovane scuola attempted to assimilate the language of Wagner, while somehow remaining unmistakably Italian.

Leoncavallo was a prolific song composer. His most famous is ‘Mattinata’, written for Caruso and symbolic of the era’s modernity in being timed precisely to fit on a gramophone record. Blending the simple Neapolitan street song of Leoncavallo’s youth with the impassioned climaxes of opera, this lilting serenade is irresistibly catchy.

Zazà, an updated La traviata without the tragic ending, is an opera of contrasts. Song is set against the spoken word, artistic idealism juxtaposed with everyday realism, and seedy Parisian nightlife rubs up against respectable bourgeois family life. All this is set to a score brimming with seductive waltz tunes.

When was the first peformance of Pagliacci?

The opera for which Leoncavallo will be best remembered got its first performance at Milan’s Teatro Dal Verme on 21 May. A young Arturo Toscanini was the conductor.

Did Leoncavallo marry?

Yes. After his brief sojourn in Egypt, Leoncavallo went to Paris, where he found workas an accompanist and instructor for Sunday concert performers. During his spell in Paris, the composer met Berthe Rambaud (1869–1926), and married her in 1895.

When did Ruggero Leoncavallo die?

Leoncavallo died in the Tuscan town of Montecatini Terme on 9 August 1919. His funeral was held two days later, and hundreds came along to pay their respects. These included his fellow composer Pietro Mascagni, creator of Cavalleria rusticana, and his longtime rival Giacomo Puccini.

Where is Leoncavallo buried?

Ruggero Leoncavallo is buried in Florence, in the Cimitero delle Porte Sante.

Illustration: Matt Herring


Professor Alexandra WilsonWriter and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

Alexandra Wilson is a musicologist and cultural historian, specialising in Italian opera and operatic culture from the 19th century to present day. She is a professor of music and cultural history at Oxford Brooks University and a regular opera critic for BBC Music Magazine.