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Pietro Mascagni: A Bio-Bibliography.

Roger Flury Pietro Mascagni:
A Bio-Bibliography. Greenwood
Publishing Group, 440 pages, $90

To be a one-hit wonder is painful enough; to have posterity forever yoke one's hit with the hit of another one-hit wonder suggests a torment straight out of Dante. Such, in brief, was the fate of Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945). Not only did his Cavalleria Rusticana (1888, premiered 1890) make him world-famous before he had turned twenty-eight, it also proved--after two misleading years of independent existence--unthinkable in the public mind save as part of a double-bill with Pagliacci (1892) by Mascagni's rival Ruggiero Leoncavallo (1857-1919). Known to opera-lovers as "Cav and Pag" (or, more archly, "the heavenly twins"), both masterpieces found their way into Ogden Nash's verse as an emblem for the umbilically conjoined:
 Mr. Powers began to shave only once a week because no one cared whether his
 chin was scratchy.

 He felt as lonely as Cavalleria without Pagliacci.

Mascagni's future was five decades of frustrating efforts to convince the world that he had not shot his bolt after one great commercial triumph. Only with the comedic (rather than comic) opera L'Amico Fritz did he again come close to international success, and even this approval eventually acquired a bitter taste at home, since the opera's sympathetic treatment of a rabbi caused it to be proscribed when Mussolini imposed anti-Jewish laws on Italy in 1938. This embarrassment failed to prevent the composer from vilification--by contemporaries and, still more, by later generalist historians--as Fascism's toadying composer-laureate. That he accepted sinecures and a pension from the regime is true. It is also true that when his last opera Nerone received a star-studded premiere despite the government's vocal opposition to any premiere whatsoever, he gloated: "I shoved Nerone up the Duce's arse!" No wonder that the mixture of a career diminuendo and political bet-hedging has put off Anglophone musicologists, who are for the most part simple souls, auto-lobotomized by the puerile Darwinian dogma of artistic "evolution," and consequently baffled by the sheer hopelessness of trying to shoehorn Mascagni into the approved modernist canon.

Mascagni's muse could breathe only when behind the proscenium arch (and not always there); it is incomprehensible without--in the happy wording of a 1960s British musical--"the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd." Stagestruck from adolescence (most of his few non-stage compositions are in manuscript still), he attained a style so intensely theatrical that it sometimes makes Verdi and even Puccini resemble oratorio-writers manques. For a score-reader, his idiom is almost uniquely unsatisfying, since on the printed page it can look gauche, indeed positively trite, yet in performance--even in the recordings on which we non-Italians must usually depend for our appreciation of his post-Cavalleria output--the gaucherie often, somehow, becomes eloquence, the triteness a sublime concision. Witness his late and defective Il Piccolo Marat (1921), where after hours of the most uniformly forgettable vamping (aggravated by what is a prime contender for operatic history's most incoherent storyline), the second and penultimate act finishes with a blazing love duet that almost melts one's stereo. Not, on the whole, prone to self-criticism, Mascagni seldom knew when his inspiration was merely on autopilot and when it had taken wing. Maybe his ignorance did him good: the idiot-savant seldom profits from being turned into a savant-savant.

That Mascagni commanded a greater emotional and technical range than all but the most omniscient opera lovers suspect is the theme of this new book, which is easily the best piece of English-language writing its subject has inspired, and which also--lest that should appear thin praise--transcends most if not all recent Italian-language Mascagni scholarship. Roger Flury, from the National Library of New Zealand in Wellington, has produced a comprehensive tour de force. Properly speaking, what we have here is a bio-biblio-discography. It is a pity that at $90 it might well be beyond the reach of most readers, but all self-respecting music colleges must acquire it.

Much Mascagni literature resides in fugitive periodicals, while most recordings of his output inhabit that strange limbo of bootleg tapings and evanescent fan-club labels to which the operatic connoisseur perforce grows accustomed for most of his rarer delicacies. Exactly how strange, several of Flury's discographic discoveries hint at. Who, for instance, would guess that recorded versions of Cavalleria's Intermezzo exist for clarinet ensemble, harmonica duet, saxophone quartet, and (from three different performers in Mascagni's lifetime) professional whistler? Who, for that matter, knows enough to discourse upon the composer's non-vocal productions, one of which rejoices in the title of Rapsodia Satanica? Against the streamlined blandness afflicting so much phonography in our time, Flury's rich haul of singletons--mostly, though not invariably, pre-CD--reinforces one's faith in the bizarre.

It does far more besides. By his diligence and dignified self-effacement, Flury prompts the conjecture that bibliography is the highest form of criticism. It is dreadful to contemplate how Mascagni would have fared in, say, the prose of The New York Times's Paul Griffiths: the clever similes would abound; the bile would flow at Mascagni's arrant failure to be Stravinsky, Webern, or Boulez; and always, like an ineluctable ground-bass, would be heard the sneer of the "progressive" apparatchik. Now and then, from Flury's unfailing expertise, a tiny but well-honed claw peeps out. Thus, the entry in a 1989 operatic encyclopedia --which dismisses Mascagni as "the most overrated of all opera composers"-- inspires this laconic annotation: "notable only for the vehemence of the author's summary." Flury epitomizes another peevish 1895 criticism as "the equivalent of a headmaster's report, treating the composer ... like a naughty schoolboy."

Perhaps Flury's greatest success lies in his revelations of Mascagni's sheer stylistic variety. No such thing as "typical Mascagni" exists; had it existed, were there among Mascagni's brain-children the same family likeness to one another perceptible in the mature creations of Puccini or Richard Strauss, he would be far better-known. A 1988 Italian radio broadcast of Mascagni's impressionist masterpiece Iris ranks among this reviewers all-time musical joys, not least for the near impossibility of believing that so elegiac a score derived from the same musical intelligence as Cavalleria's blood-and-sand ferocity or L'Amico Fritz's gentle humor. No wonder Puccini--seldom celebrated for his eagerness to laud colleagues--spoke of Iris with fierce envy.

R. J. Stove is writing a biography of Cesar Franck.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Stove, R. J.
Publication:New Criterion
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2001
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