Arrigo Boito presents the peculiar example of a musician high in distinction in his own country, with a fair measure of fame in other lands, who, though past the age of 50 years has thus far produced but a single work, his Mephistopheles. This work, having it first met with the sad polls in Italy, recovered itself in a brilliant fashion some years afterwards, and has since run successfully on almost all the large stages of Europe. He is perhaps the only known example of a composer who owes his reputation to a single work, and the uniqueness of the case makes it worthy of mention.
It is true that Arrigo Boito is poet as well as musician, and that his fame in his own country addresses itself perhaps even more to the writer them to the composer. Another peculiarity of Boito’s is that, like Wagner, he claims that a musician cannot write a good score unless he is also conceived and executed the poem of his Opera, and he puts this theory in practice by writing the words and the music of his Mephistopheles. But he has belied himself by outlining the librettos of half a score of operas, of which she has confided to other artists the task of composing the music; so that, between his principles and his conduct there is an evident contradiction.
Buddha was born at Padua on 24 February, 1842. His father, who was a Venetian, was a distinguished painter. His mother, Polish by birth and education, was a woman of remarkable intellect, high birth and Greek culture. The eminently artistic conditions which surrounded his early childhood, and that of his elder brother Camilo, seem to push them irresistibly towards the cultivation of the fine arts. Indeed, Camillo became an architect and distinguished art critic, whereas Arrigo devoted himself to letters and to music.
Arrigo was only 11 years of age when he was admitted, in 1853, to the Milan Conservatory, where he formed a very strong fraternal attachment for one of his fellow students, poor Franco Faccio, and artist of great promise, who became conductor of the orchestra at the Scala Theater, Milan, and who died insane, cut off in the full vigor of youth and the full maturity of his talent and less than a year after. Both had for their masters at the Conservatory, Ronchetti and Mazzucato, and both finish their studies in the same year, 1861. Boito had written the words of a “mystery” in one act, entitled le Sorelle d’ Italia, for which he and his friend Faccio wrote the music, and this little work was performed according to custom, by the pupils of the Conservatory and one of the exercises at the close of the year. It was so well received by the special audience gathered to hear it that the Minister of Public instruction granted to each of the young composers a premium of 2,000 francs to enable them to study abroad for one year.
I believe that Boito then made a trip to France. At all events, he had returned to Italy in 1862, and was already proving his poetic talent by writing the verse of the Inno delle Nazioni, of which Verdi wrote the music, and which was performed at Her Majesty’s Theatre, London, on the occasion of the opening of the Universal Exposition in that city. Soon afterward he again became poet collaborator, is furnishing his friend Franco Faccio with the libretto of an opera entitled Amleto, which was given was some success at the Carlo Felice theatre, Genoa, in 1865, but which, given some years later, in 1871, at the Scala of Milan, suffered a signal and memorable defeat. In 1866, when Italy was at war with Austria, Boito, who is an ardent patriot, and listed as a volunteer and serve the campaign in the ranks of Garibaldi’s army.
The 5th March, 1868, was the important date in Arrigo Boito’s artistic career; it was the date of the first performance, at the Scala theater, Milan, of his Mephistopheles, and operate in five acts with prolonged, the complete failure of which formed an epic in the history of the theater in Italy.
He’d already spent several years of labor on this important work, for which, as the title implies, he had been inspired by Goethe’s Faust, in which he had counted on giving this title, when the unexpected appearance at the Scala of Gounod’s Faust, and the success which to obtain there, came to cause some considerable disquietude, and obliged him, that he might not be accused of servile imitation, to modify the plan of his work, and to change even its title. He called it Mephistopheles, and proceeded with as much persistence is ever to have it performed at the theater which had just seen Gounod’s masterpiece applauded.
The fiasco of Mephistopheles was tremendous and rarely had a storm burst with such fury under the roof of the Scala. The author given such free scope to his fancy both in the music and the poem, that the Milanese public was quite upset by his ultra romantic methods and indignant at a work which diverts so widely from the beaten track. Yet, although they cried out at the sacrilege and hissed furiously, those of the spectators whose minds were not warped by prejudice, recognized in this work, in spite of its faults, the breath of an intelligent, earnest and inspired artist. Here is what an Italian biography of Boito says on the subject:
“Boito staged Goethe’s poem with true spirit, making the Evil One his protagonist and giving to the drama and absolutely new form, even attempting to bring back the use of the Latin meters in his verses, an attempt which he was the first to make. The first performance of Mephistopheles at the Scala was a veritable battle, in which the work was sustained by passionate admirers and combated by bitter adversaries. The composer, with prayer intrepidity, directed the orchestra as if he were wholly oblivious of the upper searched about him. In short Mephistopheles fell, but in so doing left a lasting impression on the minds of the public.
Perhaps his failure was chiefly due to the excessive length of certain episodes, and the little or no dramatic element in some places, as for instance the symphonic interlude between the fourth and fifth acts. But Boito was not discouraged, and he was right. Apart from a certain eccentricity which even the intelligent, unprejudiced public did not relish in which it wish to see disappear from the prologue of the libretto, his opera contained many real beauties. Boito had the rare virtue of submitting partially to the wishes of his public, and the patience to wait till his time should arrive: and it did arrive.
In 1875, Mephistopheles was performed at Bologna and applauded there. In 1881, it reappeared at the Scala, reduced to four acts and considerably modified, and this time it was received with enthusiasm. The author was feted by numerous artists, critics and men of letters assembled at Milan on the occasion of the National Exposition, and from there his work began to make the tour of the theaters of the two worlds, being everywhere received with equal favor.”
More productive as a poet, I’ve already said, then as a musician, it was in this capacity that Boito appeared before the public during the interval that elapsed between the first and second editions of his Mephistopheles. He first published a little humorous poem, Re Orse, which had great success. Then he soon set to work to write Opera librettos for various composers. He wrote, by order of Mazzucato, director of the Milan Conservatory, the poem of a little opera in one act, un Tramonto, the music of which was written by a pupil of the establishment, Gaetano Coronaro, become since then second conductor at the Scala. This opera was written for representation on the little stage of the Conservatory at the closing exercises of the academic year. It was to this work, which was afterwards played in several Italian theaters, the Coronaro owed his diploma on leaving the Conservatory. Little later Boito wrote the libretto of la Falce for Alfredo Catalini, and Opera which also appeared first at the Conservatory; then he gave to Amilcare Ponchielli the libretto of Gioconda, which is very successful in Italy and abroad. The subject of Gioconda he had borrowed from one of the most beautiful of Victor Hugo’s dramas, Angelo tyran de Padone, but he had reduced it for the lyric stage with great skill, preserving the principal situations, and those best calculated to excite the inspiration of the composer. Boito signed these various works with the pseudonym Tobia Gorrio, which forms an anagram of his name, Arrigo Boito.
It was about this time that Boito wrote the words in the music of an opera entitled Ero e Leandro. The verses are exquisite, and it is said, and worthy of a true poet, but the music did not satisfy him and he declined to make it known. He then confided the poem of Ero e Leandro to the celebrated double bass player, Bottesini, who was also a distinguished composer, and the opera with the latter’s music was performed in 1879 at the Royal Theatre of Turin. Boito had not entirely condemned his own score, however, and he embodied several fragments of it in his new edition of Mephistopheles, among others, the duet Lontano, lontano. He wrote librettos further composers, particularly Allesandro Farnese and le Maschere, and he published a volume of poems, il Libro dei versi (Turin, Casanove, 1877,) which is very real received by the public, and parts of which deserve the honor of being included by Paolo Heyse in his Antologia dei poeti italiani.
Boito, whose ideas and principles are very advanced in music, as in literature, put himself at the head of the Wagnerian party in Italy. He was one of the most ardent in sustaining and spreading in his country the doctrines of the German master, being aided mole on by the musical critic of the Perseveranzo, Filippo Filippi, who died some years ago, and at Rome by Sgambati, a remarkable pianist and composer, and one of the most distinguished artist of his country. In order to accelerate as much as possible the movement which was manifesting itself in Italy in favor of Wagner, Boito did not hesitate to make a translation of his works. To him is due the Italian adaptation of Riensi, performed at Turin in 1882, and that of Tristan and Isolde.
He had not given up, however, appearing again himself as a composer, and he had written the libretto of a lyric drama entitled Nerone, for which he also wish to compose the score. But at least 10 years of stuff by census work was for spoken of, the newspapers announcing each year that it is about ready for representation, and nothing has been seen of it yet. So the Italian critics make much sport of Boito and his long promised work. However, while waiting for Nerone to be finished, Boito has written for Verdi, who has a very deep affection for him, the librettos of two great works, one of them dramatic, the other comic, the subjects of which he has borrowed from Shakespeare. The first is Otello, which is been so successful for a number of years, and which Verdi did not hesitate to attempt after Rossini; the second is Falstaff, of which the master has finished the score, and which is to be performed in the near future at the Scala, Milan.
And this is where we find Boito today. But we would hardly know how to pass over one incident of his life which is greatly to his honor, and which suffices to show the deep and true brotherly affection which united him to his unhappy friend Franco Faccio. In 1890, when the death of Bottesini made it necessary to select a successor to this great artist as director of the Conservatory at Parma, Verdi was extremely anxious that Boito should accept the office, which he persisted in declining. Then Franco Faccio was proposed and accepted. But Faccio, whose health had begun to fail, was, before he could go and take possession of this post, seized with a mental aberration at Graetz, where he had gone for rest. At the first news of the event, Boito left for Graetz, lavished upon his friend the most devoted care, and was some members of his family, took him back to Milan, then to Monza, where the unfortunate man died at the end of about 18 months. Until the last they were hoping against hope for recovery; but meantime the Parma Conservatory was without a director, a thing prejudicial to the labors and the studies of the pupils. At this juncture Boito generously volunteered to go to Parma as a substitute for his friend at the Conservatory until his hell should permit him to fulfill its functions. He was named “honorary” director, as is stated in the following dispatch addressed from Rome at that time by Dr. Giovanni Mariotti, syndic of Parma, to the vice director of the Conservatory of that city: “Arrigo Boito, to whom, before all others, and on several occasions, Verdi has vainly offered the directorship of our Conservatory, consents today, through very noble sentiment, to become our director in place of his afflicted friend. Yesterday was signed the Royal decree which names Boito honorary director of our Conservatory, confiding to him the supreme authority during the absence of the real director. He is a precious acquisition, of which Parma will, no doubt, be proud.”
Boito, indeed, went to Parma and assume temporary charge of the Conservatory. Then, when poor Faccio died, he resigned the duties which he had accepted only as a service to his friend, and resume the simple course of his private occupation and labors. Is it not very true that this fact does honor to Boito’s character?