Donizetti: The Romantic Gone Conventional
by Alfred E. Vecchio, Ph.D.
From New Jersey State Opera Review, Winter 1980-81

To lovers of·Italian opera there is something baffling and, certainly frustrating about the adverse criticisms sometimes made of the standard Italian repertoire. It is not uncommon for aficionados of Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi even, to be made to feel embarrassed and defensive by these adversaries who claim for their musical idols superior artistic taste and talent. Often, the Wagnerian model remains for these critics a standard of musical excellence in opera, against which Italian laxities are measured. The list of (Italian) musical sins is as lengthy as Leporello's catalogue of Don Giovanni's transgressions: Italian opera, say these critics; is pitiably impoverished of symphonic content; its orchestration teeters dangerrously on the threadbear; music, continue these critics, written for the mandoline, ,and all too reminiscent of the syncopated sound of the village band.

No composer ruffled the pianist and conductor von Bulow's teutonic feathers more roughly than Verdi, whom he once contemptuously refused to identify even as a musician (he later recanted.) George Bernard Shaw, that redoubtable social critic and playwright and early champion of Wagner, turned his acerbic wit and not inconsiderable critical talents and knowledge to music, he stormed about Verdi's "sins against the human voice" (the tessitura, he complained, was too high for vocal comfort); with sly delight he whined about this or that soprano "raving through the mad scene of Lucia amid childish tootlings." Literary critics have sometimes joined the. chorus of detractors. One biographer writing today refers to "the grotesque latinizing of the British - and often distinctively Scottish - novelist, Walter Scott," proclaiming that the Italians "missed Scott's sense of historical uniqueness, particularly regarding the history of his own country, Scotland." Iit is this he concludes, "which makes Donizetti's version of The Bride of Lammermoor so silly at times."

The purpose of this essay however is not to determine the historical integrity of Donizetti's version of The Bride ot Lammermoor (Scott, it must be remembered, was,
of course, a novelist who had himself transformed the history of Janet Dalrymple (Lucy) and ·Lord Ruthertord (Edgar) to suit his romanticizing tendencies.) Its purpose is, on the other hand, to underscore the uniquely Italian character of Donizetti's musical genius.

Donizetti, as with most Italian opera composers of the day, remained peculiarly bound to the traditions of his time and place in history, and virtually impervious to outside influences. In musical form he was not a revolutionary, nor did he envision new aesthetic theories. He beIongs instead to that tradition of Italian artists, for whom the artistic act arose out of a certain natural disposition, an instinct on mlght say, shaped and molded by a learned craftsmanship, the basic tenets of which may be traced back to the beginning of the eighteenth ceritury and earlier. His musical ability was, if we will, part of both his first and second nature.

Is this to say that Donizetti Iived his artistic life outside of his time? Did his extraordinary craftsmanship and skill as a composer impeded him from assimilating the ideas and feelings of the artistic atmosphere of the Europe of his day? I think not. Donizetti assimilated the aesthetic rules that were at that very time being laid down by artists everywhere, and whom we later dubbed, the Romantics. However, when we speak of so-called Romantic music we cannot fail of course to remember spontaneously the contributions of the northem Europeans. Some of the names that come to mind are those ot Weber, Beethoven, Berlioz, and later Schumann and Wagner. But while the northern European most often than not ·expressed through his art the immense distance that separates man from society, the Italian composer, untouched by this particular (romantic) impulse, identified his music with humanly familiar themes. The exponents of the German-French school of romanticism took the position, by contrast that the artist by impulse seeks to free himself from what he perceives to be the constraints of society; in this way, according to this doctrine he places himself on the side of the warrior-artist bent on conquering his enemies - the conservative aristocrat and the narro-minded bourgeois. He must therefore accept one of two alternatives: raising the banner of opposition, the artist conquers society and bends it to his will, or, as often did happen, he will remain disdainful of the world around him only to withdraw into proud isolation. Such Romantics, as with all forms of social and political extremism and radicalism, declared unconditional war against contemporary tastes. Under the slogan, 'Art for Art's sake' they sometimes rushed into battle courting even artistic death. The biographies of romantic artists are replete with such stories.

It was Schiller who distinguished two types of poets: those who are not conscious of any separation between themselves and their milieu, and those in whom there exists a split between inner realities and the world outside. The first type of artist perceives art as a natural form of expression; what he sees he sees directly and seeks to articulate it for its own sake. Such artists, Schiller wrote: "occur in the youth of the world - such a poet is his work, for his work is himself." These, Schiller identified as the naifs. The second type of artist are romantics too but in what Schiller terms, the sentimental sense. These, he notes, live for another time, another place, another person. Where the "naive" artist is totatly absorbed by his art, the "sentimental" artist puts between himself and his artistic expression an intellectual ideal which separates him from the day-to-day world which he feels is no longer his home, and whfch separates him from the lost paradise since it is conceived only ideally, only in reflection.

This was not the Italian way. Donizetti, like Rossini before him and Verdi following him, dissolved everything in his art. This is why knowledge of basic human emotions is virtually all the extra-musical equipment that is needed to understand and enjoy his works. No effort need be made to reach beyond Lucia's and Edgardo's doomed love affair. Like the heroines and heroes of Shakespeare, Balzac, Dickens and Verdi, Donizetti's belong to that tradition which is in complete harmony with the conventions that shape and govem it. There is no 'nostalgie de l'infinie' but only the confirmation and acceptance of what is. Art as therapy? Art as philosophy? Those are modern preoccupations, totally foreign to Donizetti's upbringing and training.

Donizetti stands in the forefront of all those Italian musicians who, perhaps more than any other, expressed the ideals of the Romantic Epoch but in a distinctly Italian context and in quintessentially Italian accents. Like all the great masters ot the l9th century school of opera, Donizetti was a naif; he represents a specific and unique musical mode, which we as moderns cannot be exempt from seeing as occurring within the peculiar and specific fransitions and particularities of the Italian composer's special place in the history of music and indeed in the history of Italian culture as a whole.

How, or better yet, what were the tools by which the Italian operista operated; what released and channelled his creative impulse? Simply put, they are these: a direct and naive appreciation of everyday human feelings, a musical vocabulary which allowed him to draw or compose, in clear, strong, primary colors. Libretti were not constrained by the dream of Iinguistic or poetic purlty (which has haunted, for example, French culture for three hundred years, since the establishment of the Academy.) In fact, it would not be inappropriate to say that librettists of the day studiously avoided high standards of literary or poetic expression, for under no circumstances must music take second place to the words of the libretto. An early l8th century poet and librettist put it this way: ".. a mediocre poem that spreads easy sentiments and affections in fluent, intelligible recitatives and lilting, natural, ariettas gives the composer of the music greater freedom to roam at will and vent his inspiration." What Martello (the writer of these words) was saying is that music can be cramped by great poetry: "We must take it as a fundamental truth that in opera music must take pride of place: for she is its soul, and to her must defer all who are called to collaborate, whether with poetry or wlth furnishings."

Of all Donizetti's operas Lucia best represents the Italian romantic mode. It represents the melodic, emotional center of Italian opera before Verdi. Its fundamental themes are simple: pure and innocent love, a victim of family rivalry and perfidy, virtue misidentified and brutalized, the inexorability of the sciagura, the contrast between conjugal duty and love. The opera has of course many impressive moments, but perhaps the most astonishing plece of music is that music composed for the Mad Scene - the most famous mad scene in all opera. And what a strange mad scene it is! Modern aesthetic prejudices would dictate a different course of action to the artist wishing to give expression to the vagaries of the human mind: finding himself in the presence of an abstract or complex idea the modern composer will most likely psychologize and philosophize, while all the time expressing the phenomenon in a rich variety of forms. But in Donizetti's Mad Scene madness seems pathetically simple: he describes the drama of madness through music that is itself "mad:" the human voice - the voice gone haywire, it could be said - has become the subject of the opera; delirium takes over, evasion, withdrawal into the self, and the final escape from reality.

Lucia "madness" caught on all over Europe. Tolstoy and Flaubert take it up in their famous novels Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary: "She [Emma Bovary] permitted herself to be lulled by the melodies and felt her entire being stirred as if the bows of the violins were passing over her nerve-ends. . . the singer's voice seemed like echoes of her own conscience. . . as the lovers bid their last goodbyes, the last chords of the music drowned out Emma's own sharp cries."

The opera has been relished, welcomed and acclaimed by both audiences and singers: "Behold our entertainment, delightful in itself," wrote Martello, "enhanced by scenery. . ., beauty, and costumes. See how insatiable, we are, especially when wallowing in pleasure!"

A. E. Vecchio is on the faculty of the Humanities Division of Marymount Manhattan College; he is Coordinator of its Weekend Division.

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