MUSICAL taste grows and outgrows. Donizetti with his ” Lucia di Lammermoor ” and “La Favorita” may now seem antiquated to some of us. Yet in the operatic world Donizetti formed an evolutionary link between Rossini, whose manner undoubtedly influenced him at first, and Verdi, whose vigour he forestalled somewhat in his later works.
A tablet has been fixed to the wall of a house in the suburb of Bergamo called Borgo Canale, to mark the place where Gaetano Donizetti was born on November 29, 1797, six years after Rossini.
Writing to his faithful master, Mayr, in 1843, Donizetti thus described his birth-place: ” I was born underground in Borgo Canale; you had to go down by the cellar stairs where no light ever penetrated.”
As far as is known, his parents showed no talent for music. His father was doorkeeper in the public pawnshop of Bergamo, with 550 lire a year. His mother earned a little as a linen weaver. But his two brothers were musically inclined. Giuseppe, the elder, leaving his trade of tailor, entered the army of Napoleon I. in the capacity of a musician, and eventually drifted to Constantinople, where he became chief of the Sultan’s military music, as well as director of concerts in the Seraglio. The second brother, Francesco, also became interested in military music, and directed the city band of Bergamo. For these details, and many subsequent ones, the author is indebted to Verzino Edoardo Clemente, who has published a collection of letters and documents which throw new light upon Donizetti’s life.
In 1805, Simon Mayr, a native of Bavaria, but for many years maestro di capella of the Basilica of S. Maria Maggiore in Bergamo, founded a free school of music, to which young Donizetti was admitted among the first group of scholars. He was nine years of age at the time. Another pupil of Mayr at this time was a certain Merelli, who later became director of the Imperial Theatre in Vienna, and was instrumental in attracting Donizetti to that city.
Donizetti’s first musical composition was a little piece entitled ” Il Piccolo Compositore di Musica.” It was played on the occasion of an annual examination in the school. His progress was so rapid that a public subscription was raised to enable him to study counterpoint under Mattei at the Liceo Musicale, in Bologna. Returning to Bergamo in 1818, Donizetti once more took up his studies under Mayr, in order to fit himself as a composer of operas.
It so happened that about this time a certain Sicilian impresario, Zancla by name, happening to pass through Bergamo, heard from Merelli of Donizetti’s talent, and promptly gave the young musician an order for an opera. Thus ” Enrico di Borgogna,” Donizetti’s first full-fledged opera, came to be composed. Merelli wrote the libretto. Zancla produced the work for his opening piece in the autumn season of 1818, at the theatre S. Lucca in Venice. With this, the new composer was launched on his career. ” Enrico di Borgogna ” was sufficiently successful to warrant Zancla in ordering further operas. Donizetti wrote a number for various companies under the management of this impresario, working with prodigious rapidity. In less than thirty years he actually produced sixty operas ; two more were not brought out until after his death. They form a bewildering array, indeed, treating of a great variety of historical subjects which could give room for dramatic handling.
Besides these operas, of which many are quite unknown to English and American audiences, Donizetti has left us an oratorio, ” Il Diluvio Universale,” many quartettes, piano and orchestra pieces, and short songs.
It would be hard to say how much popularity Donizetti’s operas owed to the artists who interpreted them : Lablache, father and son; Duprez, Grisi, Mario, Jenny Lind, Sontag, Patti, Albani, and many other famous singers.
If we look over Donizetti’s operatic list today, the eye rests on ” Anna Bolena,” produced at Milan, the Teatro Carcano, December 26, 1830. This opera first attracted the attention of Europe to the composer. Donizetti also had a ” Faust,” produced at Naples, in S. Carlo, January 12, 1832. The year 1835 heralded two of his triumphs. On March 12th ” Marino Faliero ” appeared at the Italian theatre in Paris, and was received with utmost enthusiasm by the public and press of that city. On the 26th of September, the since widely known ” Lucia di Lammermoor ” had an instantaneous success at the S. Carlo in Naples. In 1840 followed two operas which have shown extraordinary staying powers: ” La Figlia del Reggimento” (Paris, Opera Comique, February 11th) and ” La Favorita ” (also in Paris, but at the Theatre of the Opera, December 2d).
Finally, Donizetti’s ” Linda di Chamounix ” took him to Vienna, whither Merelli, his former schoolmate under Mayr and his first librettist, had invited him. Soon after, Donizetti was made Kapellmeister to the Austrian court, and we find him thereafter oscillating continually between Vienna, Paris, Milan, and Rome.
It was in 1843, while in Paris, putting his ” Don Sebastiano di Portogallo ” (libretto by Scribe) on the stage, that Donizetti showed the first symptoms of breaking down. He suffered much anxiety and worry in connection with this opera. Furthermore, it was not entirely successful.
In the fall of 1847, Donizetti was brought back to Bergamo, where he silently passed away the next year. A tablet in the Via Gaetano Donizetti marks the house where he died, fifty-one years of age.
In S. Maria Maggiore, near the cathedral, stands the monumental tomb erected to his memory by his brothers. It is the work of Vicenzo Vela, a sculptor who, as has been noted before, has left a great deal that is excellent in the region of the Italian lakes and in the Southern Alps.
On top, a symbolical figure of Harmony, prostrate with grief, sits and mourns. Donizetti’s head appears in a medallion furnished with two eagles’ wings, to express the prodigious rapidity of his musical faculty. The keyboard of an old harpsichord is also rep-resented.
But the part of this monument which at-tracts special attention is a frieze on the pedestal.
Seven cherubs in bas-relief symbolize the seven notes, each with a lyre, and each ex-pressing grief in a different manner. Do seems uncertain what to do with his lyre, and so holds it joyously before him; there is happy expectation on his plump cheeks, on his rosebud parted lips, and in his up-turned eyes. Re is about to hurl his lyre to the ground; he wears a Greek fillet on his baby brow, an expression of passing petulance momentarily clouds his dimpled face. Mi has tucked his lyre under his arm, and is holding some scanty drapery to a weeping eye. Fa, distinguished by a Psyche-knot, is kneeling with face buried in hands, a garment thrown over the lyre. Sol pretends to be very angry indeed, for he is deliberately pulling his lyre to pieces, regardless of con-sequences. La seems to show temper by stamping on the inoffensive instrument; he looks every inch a beautiful young seraph; but he stands in front of Si in such a manner that one cannot well make out what the latter is doing.
Never was a musician’s tomb so appropriately decorated, or the notes so daintily expressed in sculpture, the arch little notes that do homage to the master. This happy artistic conceit deserves to be widely known and admired, but Bergamo, as already intimated, does not lie directly on the beaten track. Occasionally a foreign silk merchant pays it a visit, for, with neighbouring Brescia, Bergamo collects and distributes many millions of cocoons annually. Perhaps a historian or two may find the way thither, or a painter in search of old masters, but more rarely a musician, to do honour to the composer, some of whose works still hold the boards so valiantly in many parts of the world after so many years.