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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 12 Cutting Things Down to Size
Richard Taruskin

It was probably because his head, like those of most of his musical countrymen, was turned submissively toward Germany that Sullivan wrote an unwieldy historical opera like Ivanhoe. The true winds of operatic renewal were blowing again from Italy, and the tendency they furthered remained that of “comedization,” cutting things down to size and making them pungent and “actual” (that is, related to the audience's experience) rather than impressive and remote. The Italian name for it was verismo, “truthism.” It was under cover of this rigorously naturalistic idiom that Italian opera crossed into the twentieth century.

Verismo called (at least theoretically) for the eschewal of all traditional virtuosity in the name of forceful simplicity. It was originally a literary movement, led by Giovanni Verga (1840–1922), a writer and dramatist most famous for his short stories of life and strife amongst the peasants and fisher-folk of rural Sicily. Verga perfected a narrative style of blunt plainness and “objectivity,” seemingly without any intrusion of an authorial point of view. But that impression of “letting the facts speak for themselves” was in fact a highly manipulative procedure, since the author gets to choose the facts. An impression of realism was created by the innovative use of local dialect (something akin to the time-honored technique of infusing operatic music with folkish idioms), but the basic tenor of veristic literature, unlike the literature of the risorgimento (or of Verdi's “Shakespearean” realism), was pessimistic. People fail in Verga because they are overmatched by implacable natural and social conditions, and the line between the natural and the social is deliberately blurred.

It could be said (with only minor exaggeration) that verismo opera was to Romantic opera as short stories were to novels. There was the same radical reduction in scale, the same lowering of tone and simplification of technique through which intensity took the place (or tried to take the place) of amplitude. All of these features are well displayed by the two most successful specimens of the genre: Cavalleria rusticana (“Rustic chivalry;” 1890) by Pietro Mascagni (1863–1945) and Ipagliacci (“The clowns;” 1892) by Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857–1919), both of them one-act operas that are now usually performed together on a double bill affectionately known by operagoers as “Cav and Pag.” (To be scrupulously exact, “Pag” is nominally a two-act opera in which the acts are connected by an intermezzo and played without an intermission.) “Cav” was based on a famous story by Verga himself, selected for setting in a prize competition by a canny publisher who wanted to capitalize on the new literary vogue. Thus in an unusually direct way, operatic verismo derived from its literary prototype.


fig. 12-9 Ruggero Leoncavallo.


fig. 12-10 Enrico Caruso as Canio in Leoncavallo's I pagliacci (Metropolitan Opera, New York), one of his most famous roles.

Both Cav and Pag culminate in brutal crimes of passion—murders committed, in both cases, by jealous husbands. The bloody deeds are portrayed with an eye primarily on sensationalism or “shock value,” and it was of little importance whose side the audience is on. Revealingly enough, the audience is manipulated in “Cav” to sympathize with the lover and in “Pag” to sympathize with the husband. But the main objective in both cases is the same: titillation, the administering of thrills to a comfortable and complacent bourgeois audience, rather than the exposure of social problems and their amelioration (the objective of the realism of an earlier vintage), let alone a call to political action such as the art of the risorgimento had sought to inspire.

For by the 1890s the political goals of the risorgimento had been ostensibly achieved, and popular culture could now revert to a more innocently—or (depending on one's viewpoint) a more irresponsibly—entertaining role, as if confirming by negation Morse Peckham's theory (discussed in the previous chapter) of risorgimento art as stimulus to aggression. Verismo was widely viewed as a catalyst to voyeurism (a state of depraved moral passivity) or even, in view of its exceedingly violent content, as a moral narcotic.

Compounding the irony was the new concept of nationhood that arose in united Italy, a view that verismo both embodied and stimulated. Because of its preoccupation with the mores of the “southern” lower classes and their naturalistic depiction, often in dialect, verismo led to a new variety of “orientalism.” In the theaters of affluent northern Italy these rustic scene popolari (scenes of life among the people) were picturesquely exotic, and nurtured assumptions of cultural as well as economic superiority. This, too, was regressive titillation of a sort, and one that reopened cultural divisions within the nation that the risorgimento had tried to heal, or at least to mask.

But while the late Shakespearean works of Verdi, written not for money but for love and full of snob appeal, are now considered the very cream of the Italian repertoire, and while the shabby little shockers of verismo, exploiting an unsophisticated taste for the sake of mercenary gain and increasingly written to formula by a new generation of hacks or “galley slaves,” were immediately decried by the fastidious (as they still are), they both embodied, at aristocratic and demotic extremes, a common response to the demands of the contemporary theater. They can be viewed, even technically, as superficially contrasting siblings or cousins in a single line of descent from the Verdi of Traviata, Trovatore, and Rigoletto.

In both Cav and Pag, the lyric high points are brief ariosos for the tenore di forza (the lover in one, the husband in the other) in the voice's highest register. These powerful explosions of melody emerge out of ongoing dramatic continuities just as the lyric highpoints in Otello's role emerged in the parts of Verdi's penultimate opera that we have examined (or the way that Falstaff s not-yet-written “Quand'ero paggio” would emerge out of dialogue with Mistress Quickly in his last one), with their musical and dramaturgical properties diminished in scale but exaggerated by compression.

The so-called “Addio alla Mamma” (Farewell to Mother; see Ex. 12-16 for its conclusion), sung by Turiddu, the doomed lover, right before the grisly dénouement of Mascagni's opera, could almost be called a parody of Otello with its repeated calls for kisses (“un bacio… un altro bacio…,” etc.). It retains a vestige of strophic form, in which the melodic repetition is both set off and “motivated” (as strict realism demanded) by a little recitative exchange between the characters, and followed by a written-out cadenza that brings the singer up to high B♭ at the very roof of his range. A similarly deliberate crudity—verismo's greatest strength or its most glaring flaw depending on who is judging—marks the aria's harmonic idiom, with its bald juxtapositions of parallel major and minor.


ex. 12-16 Pietro Mascagni, Cavalleria rusticana, Turiddu's arioso

“Vesti la giubba” (“Put on your costume”), which ends the nominal first act of Leoncavallo's opera, is possibly the most-parodied little number in all of opera, but the mockery it has attracted is fine testimony to its power. It is sung not by the victim of the crime but by the perpetrator, the enraged husband, who has just found out about his wife's perfidy, but who has to go out and perform anyway. On the page it looks like a more formal piece than Turiddu's. It is introduced by a recitative (famous for the “naturalistic” transformation of the tenor's high A into a bout of crazed laughter), and the arioso itself is formally labeled and accompanied at first by a typical “vamp.” But on closer examination (see Ex. 12-17 for the voice part) the surprising realization dawns that this arioso contains no melodic repetitions at all. That absence of preconceived “form”—a musical “state of nature”—was a high realist cause.

And yet the arioso does not sound at all “formless,” because it takes sly advantage of many conventions that render it fully comprehensible within the “ordinary operagoer's” experience. Its phrase structure is completely regular: a sixteen-bar period balanced by two of eight bars’ length (the first of the pair extended by a melodic “stall” of a single measure's duration, a device we first observed as long ago as chapter 1, in Bellini). The modulatory scheme, reaching the relative major in m. 16, and proceeding from there to a harmonic Far Out Point in m. 19, telegraphs the da capo form, one of opera's most dependable. The expected return of the “A” section is avoided, but very “intelligibly”: it is preempted by the climax, replete with high note, marked “with full voice, heart-rendingly.” That is a sure-fire recipe, handled with mastery and aplomb: seemingly “free” and innovatory, but in fact giving listeners everything they are led to desire.


ex. 12-17 Ruggero Leoncavallo, I pagliacci, “Vesti la giubba”

Cynical? There were many who thought so, or at least who objected to such transparently manipulative methods. From the traditional Romantic perspective such art could look at once trivially sensational and reprehensibly “safe.” Gabriele D'Annunzio, a romantic poet famous for his lofty transcendentalism, and who naturally detested verismo, published a practically libelous review of Cavalleria rusticana in which he dismissed Mascagni as an insignificant capobanda (bandmaster) and a “breakneck melodrama manufacturer”18 whose success was due solely to his publisher's genius for publicity.

One who came quickly, if somewhat unexpectedly, to Mascagni's defense was Chaikovsky, a composer often but perhaps erroneously thought to be a model, even the epitome, of musical Romanticism. His “overture-fantasy” Romeo and Juliet (sampled in chapter 7) was nothing if not emotionally direct and “sincere” (a word that always needs to be placed in quotes, since we can only judge the appearance, never the reality, of anyone's sincerity but our own), but Eugene Onegin, while relatively restrained, can easily be seen as a forerunner of verismo in its calculated methods and its compression.

At any rate, with ten operas and three ballets to his credit Chaikovsky was the most successful Russian composer for the stage. Perhaps he took a certain pleasure in shocking his interviewer, a St. Petersburg reporter who probably expected a conventional recoil at the mention of the twenty-nine-year-old Italian upstart. Instead, he elicited a ringing endorsement, couched almost as an explicit refutation of D'Annunzio's charges:

People are wrong to think that this young man's colossal, fabulous success is the result of clever publicity…. Mascagni, it's clear, is not only very gifted but also very smart. He realizes that nowadays the spirit of realism, the harmonization of art and the true-to-life, is everywhere in the air, that Wotans, Brünnhildes, and Fafners do not in fact excite any real sympathy on the part of the listener, that human beings with their passions and woes are more intelligible and tangible to us than the gods and demigods of Valhalla.19

Playing the Wagner card may have been gratuitous, but Russian composers were even more sensitive than Italians to German claims of universality. Chaikovsky goes on to issue an even more fundamental challenge to romanticism, noting that Mascagni “operates not by force of instinct but by force of an astute perception of the needs of the contemporary listener” (the italics are his). D'Annunzio could not have put it better, but as the context makes clear, Chaikovsky intended the remark as praise. Was it praise of realism or praise of pandering?


(18) Gabriele D'Annunzio, “Il capobanda,” Il Mattino (Naples), 2 September 1892.

(19) “G. B.,” “Beseda s Chaikovskim,” Peterburgskaya zhizn’, no. 2 (1892); in P. I. Chaikovsky, Muzïkal'no-kriticheskiye stat'i, (4th ed., Leningrad: Muzïka, 1986), p. 319.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 Cutting Things Down to Size." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-012009.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 12 Cutting Things Down to Size. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-012009.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 Cutting Things Down to Size." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-012009.xml