Ruggiero Giacomo Maria Giuseppe Emmanuele Raffaele Domenico Vincenzo Francesco Donato Leoncavallo
23 April 1857
|9 August 1919 (aged 62)
Montecatini Terme, Italy
|Opera composer and librettist
Ruggero (or Ruggiero)[a] Leoncavallo (UK: // LAY-on-kav-AL-oh, US: / - -/, LAY-ohn-kə-VAH-loh, -kah-, Italian: [rudˈdʒɛːro leˌoŋkaˈvallo]; 23 April 1857 – 9 August 1919) was an Italian opera composer and librettist. Although he produced numerous operas and songs throughout his career it is his opera Pagliacci (1892) that remained his lasting contribution, despite attempts to escape the shadow of his greatest success.
Today he remains largely known for Pagliacci, one of the most popular and frequently performed works in the opera repertory. His other compositions include the song "Mattinata", popularized by Enrico Caruso, and the symphonic poem La Nuit de mai.
The son of Vincenzo Leoncavallo, a police magistrate and judge, Leoncavallo was born in Naples, Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, on 23 April 1857.
As a child, Leoncavallo moved with his father to the town of Montalto Uffugo in Calabria, where he lived during his adolescence. He later returned to Naples and was educated at the city's San Pietro a Majella Conservatory and later the University of Bologna studying literature under famed Italian poet Giosuè Carducci.
In 1879, Leoncavallo's uncle Giuseppe, director of the press department at the Foreign Ministry in Egypt, suggested that his young nephew come to Cairo to showcase his pianistic abilities. Arriving shortly after the deposition of Khedive Ismail, Leoncavallo eventually secured work as a piano teacher and pianist to the brother of the new Khedive Tewfik Pasha. His time in Egypt concluded abruptly in 1882 after revolts in Alexandria and Cairo led by ‘Urabi in which the composer quickly departed for France. In Paris, Leoncavallo found lodging in Montmartre.
An agent located in the Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis secured Leoncavallo employment as an accompanist and instructor for artists who performed in Sunday concerts mostly at cafés. It was during this time that he met Berthe Rambaud (1869–1926) a "preferred student", who became his wife in 1895. Increasingly inspired by the French romantics, particularly Alfred de Musset, Leoncavallo began work on a symphonic poem based on Musset's poetry entitled La nuit de mai. The work was completed in Paris in 1886 and premiered in April 1887 to critical acclaim. With this success and now with enough accumulated money Leoncavallo and Rambaud would return to Milan to begin his career as a composer of opera.
Back in Italy, Leoncavallo spent some years teaching and attempting ineffectively to obtain the production of more than one opera, notably Chatterton. In 1890 he saw the enormous success of Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana and wasted no time in producing his own verismo work, Pagliacci. (According to Leoncavallo, the plot of this work had a real-life origin: he claimed it derived from a murder trial in Montalto Uffugo, over which his father had presided.)
Pagliacci was performed in Milan in 1892 with immediate success; today it is the only work by Leoncavallo in the standard operatic repertory. Its most famous aria, "Vesti la giubba" ("Put on the costume" or, in the better-known older translation, "On with the motley"), was recorded by Enrico Caruso and laid claim to being the world's first record to sell a million copies (although this is probably a total of Caruso's various versions of it, made in 1902, 1904 and 1907).
The next year his I Medici was also produced in Milan, but neither it nor Chatterton (belatedly produced in 1896)—both early works—obtained much lasting favour. Much of Chatterton, however, was recorded by the Gramophone Company (later HMV) as early as 1908, and remastered on CD almost 100 years later by Marston Records. Leoncavallo himself conducts the performance or at very least supervises the production.
It was not until Leoncavallo's La bohème was performed in 1897 in Venice that his talent obtained public confirmation. However, it was outshone by Puccini's opera of the same name and on the same subject, which was premiered in 1896. Two tenor arias from Leoncavallo's version are still occasionally performed, especially in Italy.
Subsequent operas by Leoncavallo in the 1900s were: Zazà (the opera of Geraldine Farrar's famous 1922 farewell performance at the Metropolitan Opera), and 1904's Der Roland von Berlin. In 1906 the composer brought singers and orchestral musicians from La Scala to perform concerts of his music in New York, as well as making an extensive tour of the United States. The tour was, all in all, a qualified success. He had a brief success with Zingari, which premiered in Italian in London in 1912, with a long run at the Hippodrome Theatre. Zingari also reached the United States but soon disappeared from the repertoire.
After a series of operettas, Leoncavallo appeared to have tried for one last serious effort with Edipo re. It had always been assumed that Leoncavallo had finished the work but had died before he could finish the orchestration, which was completed by Giovanni Pennacchio. However, with the publication of Konrad Dryden's biography of Leoncavallo it was revealed that Leoncavallo may not have written the work at all (although it certainly contains themes by Leoncavallo). A review of Dryden's study notes: "That fine Edipo re ... was not even composed by [Leoncavallo]. His widow paid another composer to concoct a new opera using the music of Der Roland von Berlin. Dryden didn't find one reference to the opera in Leoncavallo's correspondence nor is there a single note by him to be found in the handwritten score." Pennacchio may either have concocted the opera or may have had to do more to Leoncavallo's more or less complete work to "fill in the gaps" using Leoncavallo's earlier music.
Leoncavallo died in Montecatini Terme, Tuscany, on 9 August 1919. His funeral was held two days later, with hundreds in attendance, including fellow composer Pietro Mascagni and longtime rival Giacomo Puccini. He was buried in the Cimitero delle Porte Sante in Florence.
70 years after his death a campaign was launched to move the composer's remains to Brissago, Switzerland, after an alleged letter written by Leoncavallo claimed to show he had desired to be buried there originally, although no such letter was ever found. Leoncavallo became an honorary citizen of Brissago and owned a lavish summer residence, Villa Myriam, in the town; in 1904 the composer had mentioned in a speech that he would not mind having a resting place in the town's Madonna di Porte cemetery, but it was never a written request in his will. Regardless the campaign to move Leoncavallo's remains moved ahead and was granted official approval by Piera Leoncavallo-Grand, the last remaining descendant of the composer. The body was exhumed for transfer to Switzerland along with the remains of his wife Berthe, who died in 1926.
The Museo Leoncavallo (Leoncavallo Museum) was established in 2002 in Brissago to commemorate the composer. It includes personal items and original manuscripts on display as well as statues representing characters from his operas Zazà and Der Roland von Berlin. The Museo Ruggiero Leoncavallo in the composer's childhood home of Montalto Uffugo was opened in 2010 and also contains various manuscripts and personal items, as well as Leoncavallo's personal piano.
Little from Leoncavallo's other operas is heard today, but the baritone arias from Zazà were great concert and recording favourites among baritones and Zazà as a whole is sometimes revived, as is his La bohème. The tenor arias from La bohème remain recording favorites.
Leoncavallo also composed songs, most famously "Mattinata", which he wrote for the Gramophone Company (which became HMV) with Caruso's unique voice in mind. On 8 April 1904, Leoncavallo accompanied Caruso at the piano as they recorded the song. On 8 December 1905 he recorded five of his own pieces for the reproducing piano Welte-Mignon.
Leoncavallo was the librettist for most of his own operas. Many considered him the greatest Italian librettist of his time after Boito. Among Leoncavallo's libretti for other composers is his contribution to the libretto for Puccini's Manon Lescaut.