Page:A Dictionary of Music and Musicians vol 4.djvu/566

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BOITO.
 

was an Italian painter, and his mother a Polish lady, which to a great extent accounts for the blending of northern and southern inspiration that is the characteristic of all Arrigo Boito's poetical and musical works. From an elder brother, Camillo, an eminent architect, critic and novelist, Arrigo acquired from his early years a taste for poetry. It may be said here that it was Camillo Boito who directed his brother's attention to Goethe's Faust as the proper subject for a grand opera, and this years before Gounod's masterpiece was written.

In 1856 Boito's mother left Padua and settled in Milan so that he might study at the Conservatorio there. Arrigo was admitted as a pupil in the composition class of the late Alberto Mazzucato. It is asserted on excellent authority that during the first two years at the school, he showed so little aptitude for music, that more than once the director, Lauro Rossi, and the examiners, were on the point of dismissing him, and it was only owing to the determinate and steady opposition of his professor that the decisive measure was not carried out. This fact, compared with a similar incident in the career of Verdi, who at a comparatively advanced age was refused admission to the same institution on the ground that he had no aptitude for the study of music, will not fail to strike the reflective mind, and to show how in some cases genius may be latent, and may reveal itself only after years of well-directed industry.

The musical lessons at the Conservatorio being over before noon, the young Arrigo would regularly spend his afternoons and evenings in the library of the Brera studying literature. The time thus spent was soon productive of excellent fruit: before he had reached his eighteenth year, he was familiar with the Greek and Latin classics, had acquired a perfect mastery of the Italian and French languages, and his first essays in the Italian and French press at once attracted the attention of scholars in both countries to him. Some articles on a French review were the cause of Victor Hugo's writing a most flattering letter to the unknown author, while in Italy Andrea Maffei and others publicly complimented him on his early poems.

It is a custom at the Conservatorio of Milan that the most successful pupils of composition on leaving school should write either an operetta or a cantata to be performed on the occasion of the annual distribution of prizes. On leaving the Conservatorio, Arrigo Boito and Franco Faccio set to work together and produced a cantata, 'Le Sorelle d'ltalia' (the Sisters of Italy), the poem by Boito, the music of the first part by Faccio, the music of the second part by Boito. By the time this cantata was performed, musical circles were greatly interested in the two pupils, as it was known that Faccio was already far advanced in his opera 'I profughi Fiamminghi,' and that Boito had already written and composed several numbers of his 'Faust,'—the garden scene, just as it now stands in 'Mefistofele,' belongs entirely to that period.

'Le Sorelle d'ltalia' was an enormous success, so much that the Italian government, which is perhaps the least musical in Europe, and the least inclined to patronise art, found itself almost forced by the current of public opinion to award the two maestri a sum of money, besides the gold medal, to enable them to reside for two years in various capitals of Europe.

As some twenty years ago the staple, and we may almost say, the only paying article in the music market in Italy was operatic music, there was not the remotest thought of publishing the cantata, successful as it had been, and only two short duets for female voices, the one by Faccio and the other by Boito were printed. Unluckily the manuscript score, which ought to be deposited at the library of the Conservatorio, through the carelessness of the keeper of the library and of the director Lauro Rossi, was lent and never returned, so that, unless chance throws the manuscript in the way of some musician, no hope can be entertained of ever hearing again that interesting work, the authors themselves having kept no copy.

The subject was an allegorical one, intended to represent the four sister nations, Italy, Hungary, Greece and Poland, in their struggle for political independence. The cantata was in two parts, preceded by a prologue and concluded by the stirring 'Hymn of Tirteo,' from the original Greek, by way of epilogue; the peculiar and spontaneous blending of northern and southern inspirations, already hinted at, was conspicuous in the poem. The first part, 'Italy and Hungary' was, musically speaking, as characteristic of Faccio's genius as the second, 'Greece and Poland,' was of Boito's. Those who heard the performance twenty-five years ago, remember still the 'Litanie dei Polacchi,' a choral number which opened the second part, new in treatment and grand in conception. The theme of the final chorus reappears in a somewhat altered condition in the fourth act of 'Mefistofele.'

During his residence abroad, Boito spent most of his time in Paris, and a considerable part of the rest in Germany. Strange as it may seem, Wagner's operas, which he had now an occasion of hearing for the first time, did not alter in the least his musical opinions and feelings: a change came over his mind many years after, when he began the critical study of the works of Sebastian Bach. He left Milan holding Marcello, Beethoven, Verdi and Meyerbeer as the greatest composers in their respective fields, and when he came back he was even strengthened in his belief, though he had had many opportunities of hearing excellent performances of the best music. Yet—perhaps unconsciously—he did not feel at one, on musical subjects, with the majority of his countrymen. His genius, his keen appreciation of the beautiful, his devotion to Beethoven and Marcello, had enlarged his ideas beyond the limits that were imposed upon an operatic composer, and whilst leisurely working at his 'Faust' he could not bring himself to give it the fashionable and only accepted form