Page:A Dictionary of Music and Musicians vol 4.djvu/567

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BOITO.
551
 

of the Italian opera. He was too modest to preach a new faith, too honest to demolish before knowing how and what to build, and too noble to write with the sole end of amusing his fellow creatures. This, and the success of Gounod's 'Faust' in Milan, a success that obliged him to give up any idea of having his own 'Faust' performed, gave gradually a different turn to his mind, and he eventually found himself more busy with literature than with music. All his lyrics bear the date from 1861 to 1867 (they were afterwards published at Turin in 1877: his novel, 'L'Alfier Meno,' was also written in these years. He started, together with Emilio Praga and other friends, a lively, brilliant but short-lived newspaper 'Figaro'; he contributed critical essays to Italian and French reviews, and was one of the most active and valuable contributors to the 'Giornale della Societa del Quartette di Milano,' a musical paper edited by Alberto Mazzucato, whose aim was to excite an interest in, and spread a taste for, the study of instrumental music.

Englishmen, accustomed to numberless concerts where music of the great composers may be heard, will hardly realise what the condition of Milan—by far the most advanced musical town in Italy—was twenty-five years ago. Music and opera were synonymous words, and no one cared for anything that had not been or could not be performed with success at 'La Scala.' Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schumann, were as much unknown as if they had never been born. Even as late as ten years ago, the only copy of Beethoven's Symphonies to be had at the library of the Conservatorio, was a cheap edition printed at Mendrisio, and so full of mistakes as to be in some parts unintelligible. This state of things was absolutely alarming, and several more enlightened persons, amongst them the publisher Ricordi, Mazzucato, Boito, Filippi, etc., decided to start a Society of Concerts and a newspaper in order to improve the public taste, and make it at least possible for the new composers to have a chance of being heard and appreciated.

Boito did much useful work in this direction: his articles were full of enthusiasm, and were interesting and readable. Amongst various miscellaneous articles he contributed one essay on 'Mendelssohn in Italy,' published by instalments, in which he spoke of his hero in such a manner that it was considered disrespectful towards Italian composers and the Italians at large, and led to a duel, wherein the ardent musician was worsted, and in consequence of which he had to carry his right arm in a sling for several weeks afterwards.

In 1866 the war with Austria put a stop to all musical business, and Boito, Faccio, Tagliabue, Emilio Praga, and others, joined the volunteer corps under the command of General Garibaldi. During the campaign they fought bravely, some of them even receiving a special mention for military valour. When the campaign was over, Boito felt tired of the comparative idleness of artistic life in Milan, and decided to leave Italy and take up iris residence in Paris: Victor Hugo encouraged him to do so, and exhorted him to join the Parisian press, and gave him the warmest and most affectionate introduction to Emile de Girardin. Accordingly Boito went to Paris in the spring of 1867, fully determined to give up music and throw in his lot with French journalists.

Thus Boito's career as a musician would have absolutely been over for ever, but for a succession of unforeseen and trifling incidents. When he arrived in Paris, Emile de Girardin, who was to act as his sponsor on his entering the Parisian press, was the hero of a political cause célèbre attracting for the moment the interest of all France, and the introduction had no practical consequences. After some time spent in vain suspense, Boito went to visit a sister in Poland.

The monotonous, tranquil, humdrum country life, and the many forced leisure hours he had there, put him again in mind of 'Faust,' and just to please his own fancy he sketched a musical setting of an arrangement of the entire poem, from the Prologue in Heaven to Faust's Death, and also completed some of the principal scenes.

While he was waiting for the autumn to go back to Paris and try his fortune again, Signori Bonola and Brunello, the managers of La Scala, who were making arrangements for the operas to be produced in the ensuing winter season of 1867–68, and had already secured two novelties, Gounod's 'Giulietta e Romeo' and Verdi's 'Don Carlos,' heard that 'Faust' was again occupying Boito, and they managed to obtain the opera, so that when the general public was thinking that Boito was on the staff of some Paris newspaper, unexpectedly the advertisements announced 'Mefistofele' as the new opera d'obbligo for the next season.

No doubt in the interest of art it was well that Boito entered into the engagement, but it was nevertheless a very rash step on his part, of which the effects were demonstrated by the memorable first performance of the original 'Mefistofele' which took place at La Scala of Milan on March 5, 1868. It must be fairly owned that the public was not ready to understand the new language he intended to speak, nor did the poet and composer know clearly what he was going to say to them. There is no denying that the original 'Mefistofele,' though poetically and philosophically admirable, was, taken as an opera, both incongruous and amorphous. It was an interminable work, with very deficient and feeble orchestration, no dramatic interest, and composed without the most distant thought of pleasing the taste of opera-goers. The conception was sublime and the outline bold and startling; but it was little more than a sketch, or a cartoon for a fresco, and the real work was absolutely wanting. It would have taken at least a year to get it properly ready, if the author had chosen to follow up the original scheme; but Boito found himself with very few months before him, barely sufficient to put the materials together.