An evening in Rome watching a performance of Rossini’s operas has Walter J Turner musing on the life of the 19th-century composer. Surprised at his enjoyment of the production, the New Statesman’s music editor imagines how the opera was received during the composer’s lifetime a century prior. “We are evidently a long way from the days when Rossini’s fellow-countrymen were so touched by the maestro’s art that they wept publicly and upon each other’s shoulders,” Turner writes while the audience in 1923 remain quiet. As he reflects on Rossini’s contemporaries and fellow Italian composers such as Paisiello, Cimarosa and Puccini, Turner considers how quickly popular music can fall out of taste: “Any list we are likely to draw up today of our contemporaries will probably contain as many names destined to rapid oblivion.”
I recently heard in Rome an excellent performance of Rossini’s “William Tell,” and I was agreeably surprised to find how much I enjoyed it. The whole opera went with great verve, the choruses were better, I thought, than we are accustomed to hear in London. There was an admirable baritone, a mediocre first soprano, a second soprano in the part of Tell’s son of incredible vivacity and fascination who, I learned later, was a young Sicilian new to Rome. She had a natural production and a fine voice which she was inclined to force, but she sang, she did not shout as the tenor did, who rarely was on any discernible note. The music is undeniably taking in its smooth rhetorical fluency. It is also more dramatically coherent than I had expected; there is a long scene between the three male principals in the second act, for example, which is admirably sustained.
The audience was comparatively quiet. We are evidently a long way from the days when Rossini’s fellow-countrymen were so touched by the maestro’s art that they wept publicly and upon each other’s shoulders. Stendhal, in his Promenades dans Rome, tells us that Rossini himself once sang for the Cardinal Consalvi and that after Rossini had been singing a few minutes “a silent tear was seen to escape from the Cardinal’s eyes and run slowly down his cheek.” The “silent tear” seems to have been the inevitable tribute paid to music in the early nineteenth century, and it is sometimes a little difficult for us to understand these people who wept so profusely in their drawing-rooms and who lived in the midst of a not always comic-opera brigandage.
Stendhal is writing of Rome about 1828, and he relates, as an illustration of contemporary manners, how a peasant, reprimanded for being in arrears with his payment of taxes, replied to the official: “What would you, sir, every day I go out upon the high road with my gun, but nobody passes; in future, however, I suppose I shall have to go out at night also.” Stendhal had a passion for music inferior only to his passion for lovely women and the beaux arts. But his references to music are fragmentary and casual. It is a thousand pities he did not give us more detailed descriptions and criticisms of the music he heard in Rome, for he seems to have gone a good deal into society and he occasionally refers to concerts given in private houses.
On November 23rd, 1828, he writes:
“We know a young Russian of noble family and very rich who, if he became poor tomorrow and bore an unknown name, would not need to make the slightest change in his manners, he is so free from affectation… He gave us a delightful concert yesterday; we had the choice of pieces and asked for a new duet by Puccini. Tamburini, who is, today, one of the first of living singers, sang some old music at our request. Pergolesi, Buranello and the divine Cimarosa all shone in turn. Then to include something more modem ‘musique a dissonances savantes’ we chose a symphony by Beethoven, but it was shockingly played. A society lady sang really sublimely Metastasio’s Sacrifice d’ Abraham, music by Cimarosa.”
On December 4th, 1828, he writes:
“Milay N, jealous of the excellent concert given by the young Russian, of whom I have spoken, has given a concert of old music. Tamburini surpassed herself, she is decidedly the finest singer of the day; Rubini’s voice has a tremolo, Lablache’s is becoming soupy. Madame Tamburini, one of the prettiest women in Rome, sang, wonderfully, an exquisite air by Paisiello…. According to the Italians there is more melody in Paisiello than in all other composers put together; which is the more singular seeing that his airs always move within one octave. The orchestra of Paisiello is almost nil; for these two reasons he never strains the voices of his singers. Rubini, who is not more than thirty, is already worn out through singing Rossini, whilst Crivelli, sublime tenor, still sings divinely at 64.”
It is startling to find that in 1828 Rossini was accused of ruining singer’s voices. A generation later he was to be held up by the anti-Wagnerians as a model of how to write for the voice. Of course, Stendhal’s notion that singing Rossini could damage a voice seems to us complete nonsense, but, while recognising that Stendhal probably knew nothing about voice-production, one wonders whether the originality of Rossini’s music did not impose an emotional and nervous strain upon the singer which did the mischief. No doubt people accustomed to hearing Cimarosa and other contemporary operatic composers found Rossini extraordinarily violent and exciting.
Even today, after all the assaults upon our nerves by Strauss, Scriabin and Stravinsky, it is easy to detect a palpitating fervour in Rossini, which becomes still more noticeable if you listen to a Rossini aria immediately after one by Mozart. Rossini was the first real Italian. If we think of Palestrina, Monteverdi or Vittoria, or of Michelangelo, Raphael or Titian, we do not think of them as Italians, but as Florentines, Venetians, Romans, etc.; yet, although Rossini preceded the advent of the modern Italian nation, he is as Italian as Leoncavallo, Mascagni and Puccini. The peculiar quality of emotion characteristic of nineteenth century Italian operatic composers may perhaps be described as “baroque,” and it is curious that the baroque style should seem to have come into fashion in music so much later than its appearance in the other arts.
The composer who most excites Stendhal’s admiration is Cimarosa. Of Mozart he writes very little in Promenades dans Rome. In one place he says: “After having disputed about Cimarosa and Mozart until one o’clock in the morning, we have then discussed the passion which renders the soul susceptible to music.” There follows a typically Stendhalian attack on the French upper classes because they affect a fashionable indifference to the feelings of the heart. A young Frenchman, he says, fears to be seen speaking more than once to the same woman. Then he adds: Tout ce qui en Europe a plus de vanité et d’ esprit que de feu dans l’âme prend les manières de penser des Français.
If Stendhal were alive today and were a witness of the extraordinary way in which this French fashion of thought has seized our English intellectuals and made them more French than the French themselves, he would be astonished. The result is shown in all the arts in the complete divorce of the intellectuals from the masses. The masses still reach works of art through their more immediate, more primitive, feelings. The intellectuals, in the development of their intelligence, seem to have lost all feu dans l’âme. Consequently, their work, though often amusing, interesting even, is sterile and insignificant. Their lack of passion makes them affect to despise passion. They turn away disgusted from the works of Beethoven and Michelangelo to admire the piquant, enormously elaborate trivialities of Busoni and Bernini. No doubt, far better the intelligence of Busoni than the stomach-pumping of the average German or English popular composer! But is nothing else possible?
We must deplore Stendhal’s complete omission of the argument about Cimarosa and Mozart; but Stendhal is haunted all through this book with the fear of being found boring. He is constantly suggesting to the reader that he may like to skip a few pages, and, by this means, secures the reading of a good many historical and informative passages; but sometimes his courage fails him altogether and he says nothing. The only other reference to Mozart I have found is the following:
“This evening we have heard the air from The Magic Flute which the tenor sings just as he attempts to play the flute. This is perhaps the only good thing in the opera, but the Italians have been astonished, their eyes seemed to be saying: ‘Can there really be music outside Italy?’”
Evidently Stendhal had never heard The Magic Flute nor, one would suppose, any opera by Mozart or he would have known better than to imagine that there could only be one good aria in a Mozart opera. This ignorance is really astonishing, but it astonishes us probably not quite so much as it would have astonished Stendhal if he had been told that in another hundred years his “divine” Cimarosa would be completely ignored and almost unknown, while Mozart would be in danger of receiving universal acclamation as the greatest composer who has ever lived.
Finally, let me give a list of the composers named by Stendhal in 1828 as the most famous in his time. Here they are: Buranello, il Sassone (Hasse), Martini, Anfossi and Cimarosa. Of Zingarelli, Nazolini, Frederici, Nicolini, Manfrocci, he says, they are all “sans idées”; but he finds merit in Orgitano, Fioravanti, Mercadante, Carafa and Bellini. Of the last-named, he says: “M. Bellini fera peut-etre quel que chose”; but Stendhal complains that he resembles Rossini too much. It is depressing to study this list and to realise that any list we are likely to draw up today of our contemporaries will probably contain as many names destined to rapid oblivion as Stendhal’s, and that we should possibly omit altogether the one name which will interest our descendants.
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