Entertainment Music

Sunday 4 December 2016

Classical: Italian baker's boy with the recipe for an operatic treat

Published 31/01/2016 | 02:30

Popular score: Pietro Mascagni wrote Cavalleria Rusticana
Popular score: Pietro Mascagni wrote Cavalleria Rusticana

Here's one for you. You're writing an opera - as you do - and you've got the action as far as it can go before you've got to advance the clock a bit. What do you do? Simple. Just write yourself an intermezzo. Like everything else in music, the Italians have a word for it. Intermezzo. From the Latin intermedium - an intermission. Something to get you from here to there.

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One of the most popular pieces in classical music is just such an intermedium.

It's a sumptuous melody that takes us from the dramatic exposure of infidelity (it is opera after all) towards the moment when tragedy becomes inevitable as the cuckolded husband challenges his rival to a duel.

It's the famous intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, the opera that made a turn-of-the-20th-century superstar of an Italian baker's son called Pietro Mascagni.

Mascagni's talent was big enough to get him into the conservatory in Milan, where he met Puccini who was actually his flatmate for a time. But things didn't go according to plan, and he left.

One version has it that he was kicked out for lack of effort, but he may have taken the Groucho Marx approach, figuring that any music school that would have him as a student wasn't worth belonging to.

By all accounts, he didn't fancy academic discipline.

He went off conducting and doing a bit of teaching, fell in love, and got married.

This proved a pivotal event in the context of his subsequent success.

He'd been toying with the idea of becoming a writer and had developed a stage play from a Sicilian story about a jilted husband when he saw a competition advertised. A publisher had put up a prize for the best one-act opera.

Mascagni reckoned his play could be adapted to fit the bill and set it to music. But then he got cold feet and stuffed the score away in a drawer.

It was his wife Lina who dug it out and sent it off, and lo and behold, it won. Cavalleria Rusticana became a hit right across the continent and made Mascagni a very wealthy man.

He went on to write another 15 operas, but while they were huge in their day - one of them was simultaneously premiered in seven separate venues - none has come close in terms of staying power.

Mascagni himself seemed to realise he'd be remembered for 'Cav', as it's known, alone.

Commenting on its immense popularity, he reckoned he'd already been crowned before he'd become the king.

Still he was an enormous presence on the Italian scene. He succeeded Toscanini as musical director of La Scala in Milan.

He then became part of the entourage that surrounded the fascist dictator Mussolini, though the view now is that this was more of an affiliation of convenience. Il Duce was providing considerable financial support.

Mascagni was able to move into the Grand Hotel Plaza on the Via del Corso in the heart of Italy's capital.

The Plaza would host the discussions that led to the Treaty of Rome, which paved the way eventually for the European Union. Mascagni's rooms there are now the presidential suite.

When Rome was liberated and the French took over the hotel they cleared everybody out, but let Mascagni stay, so big was his name.

He died there, aged 81, in 1945, a master of melody who's left us one of the world's most popular tunes.

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