A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Bellini, Vincenzo

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BELLINI, Vincenzo, born at Catania, the capital of Sicily, Nov. 3, 1802, [App. p.542 "Nov. 1, 1801"] was, like so many distinguished musicians, the son of an organist. From his father he received his first lessons in music; but a Sicilian nobleman, struck by the child's talent, persuaded old Bellini to allow him to send his son to Naples, where he offered to pay the child's expenses at the famous Conservatorio, directed at that time by Zingarelli. Here Donizetti, who was born nine [App. p.542 "four"] years before and died thirteen years after Bellini, had preceded his short-lived contemporary by only a few years. Another of Bellini's fellow-pupils at the Conservatorio of Naples was Mercadante, the future composer of 'Il Giuramento' and 'La Testa di Bronzo,' It is probable enough that Mercadante (who in after years became director of the celebrated musical institution in which he received his early education) may have written better exercises and passed better examinations than his less instructed young friend Bellini. The latter however began at an earlier age to compose. Bellini's first work for the stage was produced while he was still at the academy. His 'Adelson e Salvino' [App. p.542 "1824"] had the good fortune to be played in presence of the celebrated Barbajà, manager at that time of La Scala at Milan, of the San Carlo at Naples, and of numerous minor opera-houses. The great impresario, with the keen-sightedness which always distinguished him, gave the promising student a commission to write an opera for Naples; and in 1826, Bellini's 'Bianca e Fernando' was brought out at the San Carlo without being so successful as to attract European attention. Bianca e Fernando, however, pleased the Neapolitan public, while its general merit encouraged Barbajà to entrust the young musician with the composition of another work, which this time was to be brought out at La Scala. The tenor part in Bellini's first opera for Milan was to be written specially for Rubini, who retired with the juvenile maestro into the country, and remained with him until the new opera, or at least the tenor part in it, was finished. The florid music of Rossini was at that time alone in fashion; and, by way of novelty, Bellini composed for Rubini, with his direct approbation, if not at his express suggestion, the simple expressive melodies which the illustrious tenor sang with so much effect when 'Il Pirata' was at length produced [App. p.542 "1827"]. Owing in a great measure to Rubini's admirable delivery of the tenor airs, 'Il Pirata'—the earliest of those works by Bellini which are still remembered—obtained a success not merely of esteem or even of enthusiasm, but of furore. It was represented soon afterwards in Paris, and in due time was heard in all the capitals of Europe where Italian opera was at that time cultivated. Bellini's next work was 'La Straniera,' first performed at Milan in 1828 [App. p.542 "1829"] with an admirable cast, including in the chief parts Madame Tosi, Donzelli, and Tamburini. 'La Straniera' was less successful than its predecessor, and it scarcely can be said to have met with general favour in Europe. Like 'Il Pirata' it was produced in London, where however it made but little impression. 'Zaira' (Parma, 1829) may be said to have failed. This at least is the only work of Bellini since the production of 'Il Pirata' which was never performed out of Italy. 'Il Capuletti ed i Montecchi,' composed for Venice and represented for the first time at La Fenice in 1830, was brilliantly successful throughout Italy; though in London and Paris the new musical version of 'Romeo and Juliet' seems to have owed such favour as it received to Madame Pasta's performance in the character of Romeo. This part, it may be noted, was the one selected by Herr Wagner's niece, Mlle. Johanna Wagner, for her début in London when, immediately after the so-called 'Jenny Lind mania,' that artist, so much admired in Germany, appeared without success at Her Majesty's Theatre. In 1831 Bellini, now 29 years of age, composed for La Scala the work generally regarded as his masterpiece. Romani, the first of modern Italian librettists, had prepared for him, on the basis of a vaudeville and ballet by the late M. Scribe, the 'book' of 'La Sonnambula'; and the subject, so perfectly suited to Bellini's idyllic and elegiac genius, found at his hands the most appropriate and most felicitous musical treatment. 'La Sonnambula,' originally represented at La Scala [App. p.542 "1831"], could not but make the tour of Europe; and, warmly received wherever it was performed, it seems nowhere to have hit the public taste so much as in England. No Italian opera before or since 'La Sonnambula' has been so often played in London as that charming work, the popularity of which is due partly to the interest of its simple, natural, thoroughly intelligible story, chiefly to the beauty of the melodies in which it abounds. Thanks to Madame Malibran, who appeared in an English version of the work, 'La Sonnambula' soon became as popular in our own as in its native Italian language; and even to that large portion of the public which never enters an Italian opera-house the baritone's air 'When I view these scenes' (Vi ravviso), the tenor's air 'All is lost now' (Tutto e sciolto), the soprano's air 'Ah do not mingle' (Ah non giunge), are as familiar as any of our national melodies. It may be noted, once for all, that the genius of Bellini was exclusively lyrical and tuneful. He was no harmonist, he had no power of contrivance; and in his most dramatic scenes he produces his effect simply by the presentation of appropriate and expressive melodies. The beauties of 'La Sonnambula,' says an English critic, 'so full of pure melody and of emotional music of the most simple and touching kind, can be appreciated by every one; by the most learned musician and the most untutored amateur—or rather, let us say, by any play-goer who not having been born deaf to the voice of music hears an opera for the first time in his life.' The part of Amina, the heroine of La Sonnambula, is still a favourite one with débutantes; and it was in this character that both Madame Adelina Patti and Mlle. Emma Albani made their first appearance before an English public. About a year after the production of La Sonnambula Bellini delighted the world of music with 'Norma,' [App. p.542 "Dec. 26, 1831"] which, very different in character from its immediate predecessor, is equally in its way a work of genius. Bellini has written no melody more beautiful than that of Norma's prayer, 'Casta Diva,' in which however it is impossible to deny that the second movement is unworthy of the first. In the duet of the final scene the reproaches addressed by Norma to the faithless Pollio have, apart from their abstract musical beauty, the true accent of pathos; and the trio in which the perjured priestess and betrayed woman upbraids her deceiver with his newly discovered treachery proves, when the devoted heroine is adequately impersonated, at least as successful as the two other pieces cited. The first and most celebrated representative of the Druid priestess was Madame Pasta. It afterwards became one of Giulia Grisi's greatest parts, and in our own day we have found an admirable Norma in Mlle. Titiens.

Bellini's most important serious opera, like almost all operas of real dramatic merit, is founded on a French play. Romani's libretto of 'Norma' was based on Soumet's tragedy of the same name, produced at the Théâtre Français about a year before the opera of 'Norma' was brought out at the Scala Theatre of Milan. The successful opera has killed the drama from which its subject was derived—a result which under similar circumstances has happened more than once in the history of the modern stage. 'Don Giovanni,' 'Le Nozze di Figaro,' 'Fidelio,' 'Il Barbiere di Siviglia,' 'Lucrezia Borgia,' 'Norma,' are only a few of many examples which might be cited of highly successful operas indebted for their dramatic framework to plays already nearly obsolete. To return to Bellini: his 'Norma' was succeeded by 'Beatrice di Tenda,' which did but little to keep up the composer's reputation. Represented for the first time at Venice in 1833, it was performed three years afterwards, without much success, in London. In 1834 Bellini went to Paris, where, by the advice of Rossini, he was engaged to write an opera for the Théâtre Italien. Rossini is said to have recommended his young friend (Bellini was then twenty-seven years of age) to devote special attention to his orchestration, and generally to cultivate dramatic effect. In 'I Puritani' [App. p.542 "1835"]—which, according to the almost invariable rule, owed its dramatic materials and its stage form to a Frenchman—Bellini was not well served by his librettist. Its special and absorbing interest is attached either to the tenor part, as in 'Il Pirata,' or to the prima donna part, as in 'La Sonnambula' and 'Norma'; while besides being dull, even to those who understand it, the plot of 'I Puritani' has the additional disadvantage of being obscure. On the other hand, the score is full of the most engaging melodies of the true Bellinian type. The part of Elvira, dramatically considered, may be uninteresting; but no prima donna who is mistress of the Italian style will willingly miss an opportunity of making herself heard in the beautiful 'Qui la voce,' and in the joyful sparkling polacca. The chief part however in the opera, in a musical if not in a dramatic sense, belongs to the tenor. Few tenors since the time of Rubini, for whom it was written, have had voices sufficiently high to be able to sing it from beginning to end in the original keys. Otherwise the charming romance in the first act, 'A te o cara,' and the melody of the final concerted piece—so refined and so elevated in character—could not but tempt our Marios and Giuglinis. Both these artists were, in fact, frequently heard in the character of Arturo. The company for which 'I Puritani' was written comprised as leading vocalists, Grisi, Rubini, Tamburini, and Lablache; and the distribution of characters when this work was first performed was the same, for a few years at least, in London as in Paris. 'I Puritani' was produced in London for the benefit of Madame Grisi in 1835; and the 'Puritani season' was remembered for years afterwards, and is still cited by experienced habitués, as one of the most brilliant ever known. We have spoken of the prima donna's Cavatina and of her polonaise 'Son Vergin vezzosa,' of the tenor's romance, and of his leading motive in the concerted piece of the last act; nor must we forget the duet in three movements for the baritone and bass—as fully developed and destined to be quite as popular as the duet for the two soprani in 'Norma.' As regards the spirited concluding movement in the military style, with its vigorous accompaniment of brass instruments, Rossini, writing of the opera from Paris to a friend at Milan, observed: 'It is unnecessary for me to describe the duet for the two basses; you must have heard it where you are.' 'I Puritani' was Bellini's last opera. Soon after its production he went on a visit to an English friend, Mr. Lewis, at Puteaux, at whose house he was attacked with an illness from which he never recovered. 'From his youth upwards,' says Mr. J. W. Mould in his 'Memoir of Bellini,' 'Vincenzo's eagerness in his art was such as to keep him at the piano day and night, till he was obliged forcibly to leave it. The ruling passion accompanied him through his short life, and by the assiduity with which he pursued it, brought on the dysentery which closed his brilliant career, peopling his last hours with the figures of those to whom his works were so largely indebted for their success. During the moments of delirium which preceded his death, he was constantly speaking of Lablache, Tamburini and Grisi; and one of his last recognisable impressions was that he was present at a brilliant representation of his last opera at the Salle Favart.' Bellini died on Sept. 23, 1835, in the 33rd [App. p.542 "34th"] year of his age—not the greatest, but by far the youngest, of many admirable composers (as Purcell, Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Hérold) who scarcely lived to accomplish half the allotted years of man. It has been said that Donizetti, Bellini's contemporary and fellow-labourer, born four years before him, outlived him by thirteen years; yet Donizetti was not fifty-one when he died. Judge Bellini on the other hand by what another of his contemporaries did during the first twenty-eight years of his career, and his youthful energy dwindles away before that of Rossini, who was but twenty-six when he produced 'Mosè in Egitto,' and who had previously composed, among works of less fame, 'Tancredi,' 'Il Barbiere,' 'Otello,' 'La Gazza Ladra,' and 'La Cenerentola.' But even if Bellini should outlive Rossini—and in the present day 'Il Barbiere' and 'Semiramide' are the only Rossinian operas which are played as often as 'La Sonnambula' and 'Norma'—it would still be necessary to remember that Bellini was but a follower of Rossini, and a pupil in his most melodious of schools. Directly after Bellini's death, and on the very eve of his funeral, the Théâtre Italien opened for the season with 'I Puritani.' The performance must have been a sad one; and not many hours after its conclusion the artists who had taken part in it were repeating Bellini's last melodies, not to the words of the Italian libretto, but to those of the Catholic service for the dead. The general direction of the ceremony had been undertaken by Rossini, Cherubini, Paer, and Carafa; the musical department being specially entrusted to Habeneck, the distinguished conductor of the French Opera. In the Requiem Service a deep impression was produced by a 'Lacrymosa' for four voices, of which the beautiful tenor melody in the third act of 'I Puritani' formed the fitting theme. The movement was sung without accompaniment by Rubini, Ivanoff, Tamburini, and Lablache. The mass was celebrated in the Church of the Invalides, and Bellini lies buried in the cemetery of Père la Chaise. Rossini, who had done so much for his young compatriot during his life-time, undertook the duty of conveying to the father the news of his death. 'You always encouraged the object of my eternal regret in his labours,' wrote the old Bellini in reply; '… I shall never cease to remember how much you did for my son. I shall make known everywhere, in the midst of my tears, what an affectionate heart belongs to the great Rossini; and how kind, hospitable, and full of feeling are the artists of France.'

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