Giovanni Battista Rubini
Rubini divides the palm with Mario. In many respects it is difficult to decide how much of the palm should be given to either, or whether it should be equally divided. The weight of sympathy is doubtless on the side of Rubini, whose splendid powers were unrivaled in delicacy of expression, and who florid execution – a phrase woefully abused by charlatans and pretenders – was a perfect wilderness of sweets. His name, too, is inalienably associated with the fame of Bellini and Donizetti, composers who genius his voice touched into expression, and who fame he extended among their contemporaries.
Giovanni Battista Rubini was born at Romano, near Bergamo, April 7, 1795. His father, from whom he learned the rudiments of his art, was a poor musical professor. The infancy of Rubini was checkered by poverty and family straits, but not uncheered by music; for the child had within him a gift of song that expressed itself with spontaneous enthusiasm after the manner of birds.
When only eight years old he sang in the church choir, and played a violin in the orchestra. Don Santo, priest and organist at Adro, to whom at this period the child was committed for instruction, declared that he had no talent for singing, and sent him home again. Poor Don Santo – sole depositary of the musical wisdom of that small world – much he knew about it!
At the age of twelve Rubini appeared in a woman’s part at the theater of Romano with considerable success. At the conclusion of his part of the performance he sat at the front door of the theater with a plate before him to receive his reward from the public. So it appears that he was not in the regular salary list. Shortly afterward he was at the Bergamo theater, playing the violin in the orchestra between the acts of comedies, and singing in the opera chorus.
At a pinch he served the manager well by singing in a drama a cavatina by Lamberti; the vocalist was enthusiastically applauded by the audience, and received an extra five-franc piece from the management. Rubini always remembered this even with pleasure, and in his prosperous days often sang the old cavatina for his friends.
In his nineteenth year, after various vicissitudes in a troupe of wandering singers – he danced in a ballet at Piedmont, and so badly that he was hissed – he obtained an engagement as tenor at Pavia at a very small salary. But the young artist was cheerful and courageous, happy to have found employment, ready to profit by every opportunity, and eager to commend himself to the management, which, somehow, did not set a high value upon his services.
Rubini himself could not have foreseen the triumphs that waited upon his future song, the crowds wild with adulation, the deference of potentates, the jeweled loveliness of the civilized world, careful of the smiles of the awkward, commonplace, pockmarked tenor, with a voice of gold, a mouth cradle kissed by all the bees of melody.
When singing and acting on a pittance, tossed by wayward fortune from pillar to post, how should he dare to dream of that future of fabulous sums, of palatial residence in beloved Bergamo, of a princely revenue in England and France, of $100,000 a year in St. Petersburg.
Rubini sang at the Carnival at Brescia; shortly afterward at the San Mose Theater at Venice, then at Naples with Pellegrini and Nozzari, in two operas written by Fioravanti for Barbaja, the famous impresario. His success was undoubted.
The public recognized his great merits as a singer, and the resonance and beauty of his voice were acclaimed on all sides. It was the beginning of fame. Still Barbaja consented to retain his services only on a reduced salary. Rubini accepted the situation with all its hardships including the galling reduction of salary, for the sake of being near Nozzari, from whom he was taking lessons.
Even Barbaja, not slow to recognize artistic merit that paid well, was soon to acknowledge the value of the new tenor. Of Barbaja many humorous anecdotes are told.
Once, after Rubini had attained to great fame, the imporesario was compolacently regarding the tenor from a box in the theater of La Scala, when some wags in the auditorium, bent upon astonishing the manager, set up a discordant hiss. It was one of Rubini’s most successful parts, and the singer looked up in confused amazement. Barbaja leaned out of his box in a towering rage, and, shaking his fist at the hissers, caused general consternation by shouting: “Bravo Rubini! Never mind those pigs. It is I who pay you, and I am delighted with your singing.”
In 1819 Rubini was married to Mlle. Chomel, known at Naples as La Comelli, a singer of reputation, and pupil of the Paris Conservatoire. The marriage appears to have been a very happy one. Rubini had a simple, kindly nature, pleased with success but not dazzled into moral blindness by it, and his head was never turned by flattery or good fortune.
Rubini, having made vast strides as a singer in all the Italian cities, now looked toward Paris. He made his debut in the French capital, October 6, 1825, in “La Cenerentola,” which was followed by “Otello” and “La Donna del Lago.” His triumph was complete. Paris was taken by storm; Rubini was hailed as the “king of tenors.”
His glorious voice, his brilliant execution, his power in dramatic vocalization, his thrilling pathos, were declared to exceed all the best traditions of the lyric stage.
He united the power of expressing deep tragic feeling to the most melting tenderness. “Qu’il avait des larmes dans la voix!” (What tears are in his voice) said one of his critics. From this time forward his artistic career was one of continuous triumph.
Barbaja, having now no doubt of his value insisted upon his return at the end of six months to fulfill his engagement at Naples, Milan, and Vienna.
Rossini’s music, in which Rubini made his first appeal to fame, was soon to be displaced by the new school of opera which the singer himself helped to create. Bellini and Donizetti both wrote operas under the direct influence of Rubini, and the former composer got Rubini to sing over the airs of “il Pirata” and “I Puritani” during the composition of these operas.
Donizetti also wrote the tenor parts of his later operas with an eye to Rubini. “Every one, said H. Sutherland Edwards, “who is acquainted with ‘Anna Bolena’ will understand how much Rubini’s mode of singing the airs, ‘Ogni terra,’ etc., and ‘Vive tu,’ must have contributed to the immense favor with which it was received.” The succession of operas after “anna Bolena” – “Lucia,” “Lucrezia,” “marino Faliero,” etc. – all evince the dependence upon each other of artist and composer.
The influence of Bellini upon the style of Rubini was salutary. It helped to moderate his love of ornamentation, and induced a juster conception of the value of simple and chaste expression in singing. It showed him that force and animation were weakened rather than enhanced by too much decoration; and that true art gained strength and massive grandeur from simplicity.
Rubini’s voice was a revelation to the composer, who lost no opportunity of convincing the artist that its singular purity, freedom, and majesty were best displayed in passages expressing simple dignity and pathos. Although he had carried the art of florid execution to the highest degree of perfection, his real forte lay in the expression of the gems of melody, abounding in the touches which reach the heart and overbrim the eyes. To this end Bellini wrote the tender, moving strains of the tenor parts originally entrusted to Rubini, and prevailed upon him to abandon the falsetto voice, which, although he employed it with the greatest tact and delicacy, would not be tolerated in our day even from a Rubini.
Rubini’s voice extended from E of the bass to B of the treble clef, and commanded a falsetto register as high as F and G above. Simple emotion, expressed with the vocal power of a great singer, afforded a golden key to the sympathies of the audience – this was the principle applied by Bellini and adopted by Rubini.
As illustrating their spirit of cooperation, more than one pleasant record might be cited.
Edwards tells us that when Bellini was putting gthe finishing touches to the part of Arturo in “I Puritani,” Rubini (singing the music as it had just been written down by the composer) inadvertently displaced a D flat by an F natural, which both surprised and pleased Bellini, who accepted it as an emendation, saying, “If he can sing it, he may as well have it.”
In Rossini’s music Rubini had climbed to a high position in the artistic world; but it was really as an exponent of the school of Bellini and Donizetti, and especially in the enunciation of the principles laid down by Bellini, that he won his great fame as a singer.
After the conclusion of his engagement with Barbaja, Rubini appeared in London in 1831. His contracts had allowed him only a moiety of his earnings, which he now received in full to his own account.
He was in a position of positive affluence, with prospects that placed the scantily remunerated engagement at Pavia, seventeen years before, in the dimmest shade of the backward vista of a dream.
Not long previously Rubini and his wife had been offered engagements at a joint salary of $30,000 a year; now these figures were more than doubled. Rubini, blest with simple tastes, and having no delight in mere extravagance, did not squander his money. He lived much in society, with hearty enjoyment of the good things of life; but he laid by a great fortune.
A clinging to old ties and associations ever remained with him. He never forgot that he was once a poor chorister, and when a dismissed member of the chorus besought his intervention with an obdurate manager, he signed his plea for the defaulter, “Rubini, ancient choriste.”
In a like spirit he purchased a property and residence at his birthplace, where he spent his last days. The years from 1831 to 1843 were divided between Paris and London. Rubini was the lion of the greatest two capitals in the world. He sang in operas, concerts, festivals, and created a furor wherever he appeared. A history of his triumphs would fill a volume.
It is remarkable that during the most eventful years of his life the great tenor sang with undiminished force and attained the zenith of his fame with a broken clavicle. The story of the accident was told by Castil-Blaze in the “Revue de Paris,” and is thus condensed by Edwards.
“Pacini’s ‘Talismano’ had just been produced with great success at La Scala. Rubini made his entry in this opera with an accompanied recitative, which the public always applauded enthusiastically. One phrase in particular, which the singer commenced by attacking the high B flat without preparation, and holding it for a considerable period, excited their admiration to the highest point. Since Farinelli’s celebrated trumpet song no one note had ever attained such a success as this wonderful B flat of Rubini’s. The public of Milan went in crowds to hear it, and having heard it, never failed to encore it. “Un’ altra volta!’ resounded through the house almost before the magic note itself had ceased to ring.”
The theater was thronged for the eighth performance of “Il Talismano.” “The orchestra,” says Edwards, “executed the brief prelude which announced the entrance of the tenor. Rubini appeared, raised his eyes to heaven, extended his arms, planted himself firmly on his calves, inflated his breast, opened his mouth, and sought, by the usual means, to pronounce the wished for B flat. But no B flat would come. Os havet, et non clamabit. Rubini was dumb; the public did their best to encourage the disconsolate singer, applauded him, cheered him, and gave him courage to attack the unhappy B flat a second time. On this occasion Rubini was victorious.
Determined to catch the fugitive note, which for a moment had escaped him, the singer brought all the force of his immense lungs into play, struck the B flat, and threw it out among the audience with a vigor which surprised and delighted them. In the meanwhile, the tenor was by no means equally pleased with the triumph he had just gained. He felt that in exerting himself to the utmost he had injured himself in a manner which might prove very serious. Something in the mechanism of his voice had given way. He had felt the fracture at the time. He had indeed, conquered the B flat, but at what an expense – that of a broken clavicle.
However, Rubini continued his scene. His was wounded but triumphant, and in his artistic elation he forgot the positive physical injury he had sustained. On leaving the stage, he sent for the surgeon of the theater, who, by inspecting and feeling Rubini’s clavicle, convinced himself that it was indeed fractured. The bone had been unable to resist the tension of the singer’s lungs. Rubini may have been said to have swelled his voice until it burst one of its natural barriers.
“It seems to me,” said the wounded tenor, “that a man can go on singing with a broken clavicle.” “Bertainly,” replied the doctor, “you have just proved it.” “How long will it take to mend it?” he inquired. “Two months, if you remain perfectly quiet during the whole time.” “Two months! And I have only sung seven times. I should have to give up my engagement. Can a person live comfortably with a broken clavicle?” “Very comfortable indeed. If you take care not to lift any weight you will experience no disagreeable effects.” “Oh! There is my cue,” exclaimed Rubini; “I shall go on singing.”
“Rubini went on singing,” says Castil-Blaze, “and I do not think any one who heard him in 1831 could tell that he was listening to a wounded singer – wounded gloriously on the field of battle. A musical doctor, I was allowed to touch the wound, and I remarked on the left side of the clavicle a solution of continuity, three or four lines (that is to say, a quarter or a third part of an inch) in extent between the two parts of the fractured bone. I related the adventure in the ‘Revue de Paris,’ and three hundred persons went to Rubini’s house to touch the wound any verify my statement.”
Rubini was idolized in Paris and London, and, indeed, in all the capitals of Europe. He was the darling of society, and his popularity never diminished during his lifetime. The public adored the great singer, and great nobles and mighty potentates paid him marked attention.
In 1842, at the conclusion of a concert at Wiesbaden, Prince Metternich invited him to the chateau, where on the following day he met a distinguished company. After dinner Rubini sang two of his favorite songs unsolicited. The delighted prince, famous for his rare and costly wines, gave him a basket of his Johannisberg – the choicest selection of that vintage in the world – at the same time offering him the freedom of the chateau, and instructing the servant to receive Rubini at all times as if he were its master.
With princely courtesy and generosity the stately mansion with all its magnificent appointments was placed absolutely at the disposal of the great tenor. It was the Prince of Courtesy’s fitting devoir to the King of Song. “And the cellar also?” asked Rubini, with slyly amiable vivacity. “The cellar also,” replied the Prince gaily: “the cellar at discretion.”
In 1843, accompanied by Liszt, Rubini undertook a tour through Holland and Germany. They separated at Berlin, and Rubini proceeded alone to St. Petersburg, where he was received with great éclat, and his singing created the wildest enthusiasm. His first concert realized 50,000 francs. The Czar Nicholas conferred upon him the rank of colonel, and appointed him director of singing in the Russian dominions. His artistic career may be said to have been terminated in Russia. After a return visit to Italy in the summer, with a call, en passant, at Vienna, he reappeared at St. Petersburg in 1844. The climate at length seriously affected his health, and permanently injured his voice. He retired to his estate at Romano, where he died, March 3, 1854.