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How an Opera was Written.


It was a night in February, in 1889. Even in sunny Italy the air was keen, and the crowd of people who streamed out of the little theatre in one of the small cities of northern Italy, shivered and hastened to their homes, there to chat over the representation they had just witnessed, a pleasure that they seldom enjoyed, since their city did not support a resident opera company, but depended upon the visits of traveling troupes. Among the last to leave the theatre was a young man who carried a violin case in his hand. His face was an interesting one, with fiery dark eyes; yet he looked haggard and pale, and a discontented expression lay round his mouth.

It was but a short walk to the humble little house in which he had rented, for the time of his stay in the town, two modest rooms for himself, his wife and child. The furniture was very simple, no decorations, no pictures on the wall, no carpet on the floor. An old piano could be seen in the larger of the two rooms, and in the same apartment a scanty supper was waiting for the master of the house, the director of the opera company then playing in the city, Pietro Mascagni.

pietro-mascagni.jpgFatigue indicated in every movement he entered the room, and without showing any appetite seated himself at the table, after he had tenderly kissed his young wife and child. Each day brought with it so much work that when evening came he was completely worn out and with little inclination to conversation. Morning and afternoon he devoted to rehearsals with the rather inferior local orchestra and the somewhat ordinary singers of his company; in addition to that he gave lessons, copied music and devoted some time to composition. In spite of all his activity his earnings barely sufficed to keep the little family in the actual necessities of life.

It was not strange then that lines of care should show on the forehead of the musician in spite of his youth (he was but twenty-five). His wife came to him, concern written in every feature, and busied herself in trying to smooth the wrinkles from his forehead and face with her soft fingers, until he smiled at her and kissed her hand.

“Do not worry,” the young wife pleaded; “in spite of our poverty we have so much for which to be thankful. We are both strong, have each other and our sweet child. Think how it would have been if death, so near a few months ago, had separated us and laid me in an early grave!”

Mascagni shuddered. “You are right, my dearest; nothing could be more terrible than for the tie between us to be broken by death.”

* * * * * * *

Spring, Summer and Autumn had come and gone and the end of the year was near. During this time Mascagni had frequently changed his residence, for he still directed the little opera company. He was now in his native city, Leghorn. His circumstances had not improved; he had received no engagements from any of the more important theatres; publishers returned his offered compositions, and he had come to be doubtful of his talent. He reproached himself bitterly that he had not remained in the Conservatory at Milan, in which his father had entered him as an eleven year old boy. All too soon had he thrown off the strict discipline for the freedom which appealed to him so strongly, and had gone out into the world to seek Dame Fortune who had proven uniformly deceitful up to now.

As he sat in his house playing with his little child, two of his friends entered.

“You look as if you have important news,” said Mascagni. “What has happened?”

“We bring you good luck.”

“That sounds fine,” returned Mascagni. “Where is this elusive thing that so far I have never been able to lay hold of?”

With a mysterious air one drew from his pocket a newspaper, the other a manuscript. “Here is the foundation of your good fortune.”

With an air of astonishment the composer looked at the papers. “What shall I do with them?” he said.

And then the visitors tell him that the music publisher, Sonzogno, has offered a prize for the best one- act opera. And then they urge him to take part in the competition; they have brought him a libretto based on an old legend. But Mascagni gloomily turned aside their representations. “What can you be thinking? It will be nothing but labor lost! The best  composers of the country will send in their works; what chance will I have?”

“And why not?” said the friends. “You have plenty of talent, and if hitherto you have not won fame, this one opera can alter everything. Every composer has won success after struggle; why should you expect it to be otherwise? Try it at least. ‘Man is the architect of his own fortune,’ as the saying is.”

Mascagni continued to shake his head, and was glad when his friends went away. They had, however, craftily left the opera text on his table, and although the young composer had so energetically set it aside, he felt himself magnetically drawn to the little book. And now he takes it in his hands and buries himself in its contents; rapidly and still more rapidly he turns the pages, and the glow of enthusiasm animates his eyes. Then he rushes into the open air and when he returns it is with kindling eyes. Absorbed in his thoughts he exchanged scarcely a word with his wife, paid no attention to his child. But Signora Mascagni asked no questions for she knew his habit when he was shaping his musical thoughts mentally.

And then she heard him play and sing, saw him write, and a short time after saw him send the score of the opera to Milan, although he said that he entertained little hope of success; in fact after the lapse of a week he gave little thought to the composition so rapidly written. Besides his duties left him no time to indulge in idle dreams.

One morning as Mascagni was about to go to the theatre for a rehearsal, the postman brought him a letter which he opened with astonishment for he had few correspondents. He read the contents again and again. He seemed to be in a dream. Yet there it stood, plainly and in gigantic letters—as he saw them—that his score had been awarded the prize by all the judges. He grew faint with his emotion, but pulled himself together as he felt the extent of his good fortune. With a cry of joy and with laughter he embraced his wife who entered at that moment and began to dance around the room.

“My dearest, rejoice with me. I have won the prize over eighty competitors. Now the public will hear my music. Now my name will become known. Now I will write better, larger things, and you shall be proud of me. And with to-day need is at an end. Think of it; I am to get 3000 lire ($600). Have you ever seen so large a sum in one pile?”

The opera was produced soon after this and won instant and immense success with its passionate, beautiful melodies. Do you know the name of the opera? Cavalleria Rusticana.


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You are reading How an Opera was Written. from the July, 1906 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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