Ruggero Leoncavallo
(1857-1919)

In 1857, the composer and librettist Ruggero Leoncavallo was born to an affluent Italian family. He started studying piano and composition at the Naples Conservatory in 1866 and graduated a decade later. He went on to learn literature and poetry at Bologna University and soon after, being inspired by Wagner, composed his first opera, Chatterton, for which he also wrote the libretto. The work was not immediately performed and when Leoncavallo experienced some misfortune, he decided to move to Egypt, and then Paris, where he taught lessons and played piano at cafes.

With the support of vocalist Victor Maurel, Leoncavallo obtained a commission with Ricordi to compose an opera trilogy as an Italian counterpart to Wagner’s Ring Cycle. The process was a struggle and the first opera was not successful after its release in 1899. Around the same time, however, his symphonic poem La nuit de mai was gaining popularity in France. Leoncavallo married Berthe Rambaud and the couple moved to Milan where the composer engaged in the musical culture of the city, including contributions to the libretto of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut.

After seeing the success of Cavalleria Rusticana by Mascagni, Leoncavallo pursued the verismo opera style with Pagliacci, which was an instant success at its premiere in 1892. This recognition allowed for his first two operas to be performed, but his next endeavor was not as successful. His interpretation of Scenes de la vie de Boheme was overlooked due to Puccini’s admired work of the same story. Leoncavallo’s fame in Germany was growing, however, and was commissioned by Wilhelm II to compose Der Roland von Berlin for a celebration, boosting the composer’s confidence.

As sound recording technology was developing, Leoncavallo was an early supporter, composing the song Mattinata especially for that purpose in the early twentieth century.  As he neared the end of his career, he continued composing operettas and began work on a project for the Chicago Lyric Opera. Leoncavallo left many of these works unfinished, passing away in 1919. Leoncavallo can be remembered for his talents as both a composer and librettist, as well as for his keen awareness of current cultural styles; his works were often sparked by inspiration from his contemporaries or composed in response to audience’s tastes. Leoncavallo’s light and realistic writing as part of the verismo movement carved a place for his name in history.

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