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It was one of the tragedies of Mascagni’s career that although he wrote and produced 15 other operas, none came close to matching the spectacular success of Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry).
Mascagni (1863-1945), born in Livorno, Italy, composed two operas prior to Cavalleria Rusticana – Pinotta in 1880 and Guglielmo Ratcliff in 1885. After his dismissal from the Milan Conservatory in 1884 for his lack of application, he endured six years of poverty and obscurity touring as a conductor, then teaching and conducting in Cerignola, Puglia.
Here, in 1889, he heard of a competition sponsored by the music publisher Sonzogno offering a prize for the best one-act opera to be submitted. Mascagni took a story – a passionate love tragedy that takes place on Easter morning – by the Sicilian writer Giovanni Verga, which the author had already adapted into a play for the actress Eleonora Duse and which Mascagni had admired in Milan.
“I asked my friend and townsman Targioni-Tozzetti [later assisted by Guido Menasci] to write a libretto that was very close to Verga’s action, simply adding occasional lyrical pieces to cover the naked drama of the plot,” Mascagni recalled. “I received the verses a few at a time but I already had all the situation clear in my mind: I identified with the drama to such an extent that I felt it within myself in terms of music.”
It took Mascagni two months to compose. Then, when the time came for him to submit the score, his courage deserted him. Fearing failure he put the music in a drawer, where it might have remained had it not been for his wife who sent it off.
Cavalleria Rusticana, with its stirring melodies, including the famous Easter Hymn, and tightly constructed plot was unanimously voted the competition winner. On May 17, 1890, it had its premiere in Rome where it received no less than 60 curtain calls; in less than a year it had been performed all over Europe.
Medals were struck in Mascagni’s honour; Livorno welcomed him home as a hero; the King of Italy bestowed on him the Order of the Crown of Italy – an honour even Verdi wasn’t given until middle age. On the strength of one masterpiece, the struggling composer became wealthy and famous overnight.
“It is a pity I wrote Cavalleria first,” he said at the end of his life, “for I was crowned before I became king.”