I Gioielli della Madonna, a unique and Hyper-veristic opera by
“If there were no sadness, who would ever know joy?”
One of the fundamental characteristics of 19th century historical criticism consists in moving towards models that analyze and study a historical product, not as an isolated work within itself, but as part of the historical arc in the development of compositional techniques, i.e. as one stage of a continuing work in progress.
Carl Dahlhaus maintained that for a militant critic “what an opera represents in itself in the immediate, aesthetic present is not the determining factor, but rather its ability to insert itself in an innovative way into the evolution of compositional methods and musical thought. And in the end, the operas that do not do this become superfluous.”
It seems true then that for this type of criticism, the works of Wolf-Ferrari have become, for quite some time now, superfluous, prey to the passage of time. It is useless to define him, as his faithful student Adriano Lualdi (1885-1971) did, as “the man most unadapted to earthly realities…a nostalgic by nature of pure, uncontaminated creativity” in order to rescue his works from the severe judgment of 20th century criticism that, for its part, did not understand how or where to place the works of a composer who confessed to have lived as a child until the age of 40, i.e. after the outbreak of World War I, the tragic conflagration that saw the two cultures to which he belonged—German and Italian—armed one against the other.
Wolf-Ferrari’s case is therefore a real historical and critical puzzle divided into two parts, one German and the other Italian. It was really the German side that paid the most attention to Wolf-Ferrari during his lifetime. Wolf-Ferrari was truly a bilateral musician: he was a child of two cultures and he was gifted in two fields—music and painting.
Venetian by birth, but German on his father’s side, the son of the German painter August Wolf (1842-1915) and the Venetian Emilia Ferrari (1849-1938), he was German as regards his mother tongue (for Italian he spoke Venetian dialect almost exclusively) and, most importantly, as regards his cultural and artistic training. If it is true that he was invited to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome at the age of 14, in the following year, 1892, he was sent to Munich to continue his studies in the figurative arts at the private school of the Hungarian painter Simon Holosy and, at the same time, he began his studies in counterpoint with the organist Joseph Rheinberger (Vaduz, March 17, 1839-Munich, November 25, 1901) and in conducting (until 1894) with the violinist and conductor Ludwig Abel (January 14, 1834-August 13, 1895), at the Academy of Music, the school that rose in that same year from the ashes of the Royal Bavarian Music Conservatory that had been directed by Hans von Bülow from 1867 to 1869.
At this juncture, in order to understand and pinpoint the origins of his thought and musical syntax, I think it would be useful to rest at least a little on one of these two teachers. Joseph Gabriel Rheinberger, originally from Liechtenstein, attended the Conservatory in Munich between 1850 and 1854 and then studied privately in Munich with the anti-Wagnerian Franz Lachner (1803-1890) over whom Ludwig II had chosen the Wagnerian Hans von Bülow (1830-1894) as General Music Director in 1868.
Not only was Rheinberger not isolated, he was the leader of a school of composition which included, besides Wolf-Ferrari, the youngest; Felix Draeseker (1835-1913), the oldest; Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921); and Ludwig Thuille (1861-1907), the great and unfortunate friend of Richard Strauss.
Therefore, even though he did not graduate due to a juvenile rebellion against some of his teachers, Wolf-Ferrari had European training and musical taste formed in the Austro-Germanic school. Notwithstanding his anti-Wagnerian teacher, however, even the young Ermanno, like many others of his generation, succumbed to the fascination with the Wagnerian style, recognizable in his orchestral and harmonic palette, often filtered through Humperdinck. It was perhaps for this reason that Richard Strauss held him in such high esteem and, together with Respighi, considered him one of the few Italian composers worthy of the name.
Having returned to Venice, he composed the opera Irene which remained unpublished and was never performed. In 1897 we find him in Milan where he conducted a German choral society, and, more importantly, where he established relationships with Giulio Ricordi who, in the end, did not become his publisher except for a very few works in the 1930’s ; with Arrigo Boito, who together with Ricordi accompanied him to meet the now very old Verdi; and with the priest-composer Lorenzo Perosi, with whom he became close friends. In 1900 the complete fiasco of his opera Cinderella took place at the Fenice in Venice. The opera was revised in a German version for the Bremen Opera in 1902. In 1903 we find him again in Munich where he established contact with Max Reger (1873-1916) who greatly praised the premiere of his Cantata based on Dante's "La Vita Nuova" for baritone, soprano, chorus and organ. From 1903, at only 27 years old, to 1909 he served as Director of the Liceo Musicale (the future Conservatory) Benedetto Marcello in Venice, and in the same year he saw his first great success at the Residenztheater (Cuvilliérs) in Munich with his first Goldoni comedy Le Donne curiose (The Curious Women) presented in German.
This extraordinary phase of Wolf-Ferrari’s career began with this opera that enjoyed a huge success and great luck in German-speaking countries where the composer was viewed as German; while in Italy everything was much more difficult. In Berlin the opera was conducted by Hans Pfitzner (1869-1949); then it was produced at the Vienna State Opera; in Dresden it was conducted by Arthur Nikish (1855-1922). This was the moment then in which Wolf-Ferrari created that synthesis between the inherited traditions of Verdi’s Falstaff (which had even impressed Strauss when he was Hans von Bülow’s assistant at Meiningen) and Mozart’s Da Ponte trilogy which marks his distinctive dramatic style from this point onward characterizing all the other Goldoni comedies forming the major body of his work in the years ahead. With the above-mentioned Donne curiose, fully five Wolf-Ferrari operas are directly linked to Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793): I Quattro Rusteghi (The Four Curmudgeons-Munich State Theater, 1906 in German and Venetian dialect); Gli amanti sposi (The Loving Couple-1916, Venice 1925); La vedova scaltra (The Clever Widow-Rome, 1931); and Il Campiello (The Little Square-Milan La Scala, 1936).
In 1910-11, however, something shattered and pushed him to change direction, albeit momentarily, to follow in the tracks of the verist, hyper-naturalistic theater that had traveled throughout Italy, France, and Germany in the preceding decade, with I Gioielli della Madonna (TheJewels of the Madonna), a score with the strongest of verist colors in which we discover an Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari who, even though outside his usual post-Falstaffian comfortable range, really succeeds incredibly well! Those who have studied the score often compare it to Cavalleria Rusticana, and paradoxically Mascagni’s name is also linked to musical comedy through his attempt to revive a new style of vaguely neoclassical, Italian comedy in Le Maschere (The Masks), the opera by the composer from Leghorn that was presented simultaneously in six Italian theaters on the same evening—January 17, 1901: Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa, Teatro Regio in Torino, La Scala Milan (conducted by Toscanini), Teatro La Fenice in Venice, Teatro Filarmonico in Verona, and Teatro Costanzi in Rome, with an impressive publicity campaign mounted by the publisher Sonzogno, but which resulted in a giant, painful fiasco (except in Rome where Mascagni conducted and was supported by a claque that favored him).
If, on the one hand, Wolf-Ferrari’s choice of 18th century comedies in the Goldoni style—and therefore set in Venice, his mother country—appears to us to be an almost impossible but completely personal synthesis that he found pleasing, as a sort of alternative to contemporary theater and to his own traits which he seems, in some way, to want to deny, with I Gioielli della Madonna he plunges headlong into a tragic subject, a neo-romantic work in which the composer seems to want to kill his very self! It is an experience in which Wolf-Ferrari is not himself, but “dresses up” in the clothes of the “verismo” composer and does it with such an incredible and unexpected power that it seems almost overwhelming then takes it to a level not seen in any of the real “verismo” composers which can only lead us to suspect that this is a deeply felt experience and not something studied casually with the intent of procuring an easy success, above all, with the Italian-speaking public who seemed to want to ignore the rest of his works. It was a step he needed to accomplish in the realm of his career as a composer for the theater.
In reality, this subject, which Wolf-Ferrari himself thought up, not only reflects his desire to confront the Italian verist theater, but also follows that German line begun with Tiefland (Lowlands), the hyper-realistic opera from 1903 (Prague) by Eugen d’Albert (1864-1932) and Der Evangelimann (The Evangelist) by the Austrian Wilhelm Kienzl (1857-1941). This verismo opera had an incredible triumph in Berlin in 1895 and recounts in a rather crude and realistic manner a dark, bloody event that actually occurred in a small village at the foot of an Austrian abbey, based upon a report by a police commissioner in Graz during the second half of the 19th century. The opera signaled the beginning of this Austro-Germanic verismo line and shares many common traits with I Gioielli della Madonna: the choral scenes of the populace, the processions, the bands, the more-or-less unbridled folk dances, and the numerous instrumental pieces that in German are called “Zwischenspiele” (intermezzi) that serve as moments of connection, as well as a certain type of melodic composition that, in the case of Wolf-Ferrari, can be either Italian or Neapolitan, similar to those in “Auf der Campagna” (sic) and the “Neapolitanisches Volksleben” from the Symphonic Fantasy “Aus Italien” composed by Richard Strauss in 1886. It should be noted that the many Wagnerian harmonic references do not appear as an adaptation to a compositional system, but rather as ghostly images, almost always as built-up chords, sometimes thematically-based, around which unwinds a compositional technique that the German musicologist Wilhelm Pfannkuch defined as “mosaic-style”, a mosaic technique that does not, as some might believe, refer only or even preferably to the musical comedies of Wolf-Ferrari. Even in Gioielli della Madonna we note its use rather sparingly in the vocal line (which is not to say that there is not also the typical verismo “declaimed” kind of vocalism, too), of melodies subdivided into smaller elements that re-appear through variations and compressions.
To all this it should be added (and in this I am putting myself in a contrary position towards many of my Italian colleagues) that the German version by Hans Liebestoeckl, does not in any way give the impression of being a mere translation, as is the case with Quattro Rusteghi, rather it is clearly evident that the composer conceived the opera in both languages from the very beginning; the German edition is incredibly direct and effective, perhaps more so than the Italian in which Golisciani often uses poetic terms, even in pseudo-Neapolitan dialect, somewhat uncommon even for that time period, and this makes it clear why the Germans didn’t consider Wolf-Ferrari an Italian composer any more than they did Ferruccio Busoni. What’s more, we must add that the exclusive rights to the published version of this opera were held by Joseph Weinberger in Leipzig, Wolf-Ferrari’s publisher, while the publisher Sonzogno in Milan retained only, one could say, the secondary rights to make photographic copies; in effect, the Milanese publisher was only the Italian correspondent and retained the rights to sales and rentals only for Italy, as was also the case for this score with Schirmer in New York after 1912.
The opera had an overwhelming premiere in Berlin at the Kurfürstenoper on December 23, 1911, which was repeated less than a month afterwards in the U.S. on January 16, 1912, at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago with the Chicago-Philadelphia Opera Company in the presence of the composer, followed by the New York premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in 1917 starring the soprano Rosa Raisa and the baritone Giacomo Rimini (who in 1920 would become her husband). It appeared there again during the 1926 and 1927 seasons with Maria Jeritza.
It is impossible, for generational reasons, to accuse these critics of idealogical impartiality due to their supposed membership, above all in the case of Vigolo, in the musical avant-garde of the period. Therefore, it is completely evident that the opera’s action—born out of the fantasy of Wolf-Ferrari and the crude libretto by Carlo Zangarini (1874-1943) and by the older Enrico Golisciani (1843-1919)—touched a nerve dramatically about the sad and still unresolved problems of the public and social order in Italy, even though this aspect, in reality, is portrayed in the libretto in a most oleographic and fanciful manner, far from the true Neapolitan reality which perhaps Wolf-Ferrari and his librettists did not even know directly and which was even somewhat dated by that time.
Zangarini had been the author of the libretto of Conchita by Zandonai (1911), an opera born almost at the same time as Gioielli, and the author of the unfortunate Italian rhythmic version of Pelléas et Mélisande by Debussy (1908-Scala-Toscanini). Golisciani was the author, among other things, of the librettos for Marion Delorme by Ponchielli (1885) and Gina by Francesco Cilèa (1889). In any event, to shine a positive light on a Neapolitan Camorrist together with his band of men, thereby making the serious, historical problem of the Neapolitan Camorra recede to the level of folklore certainly did not belong to the category of “politically correct”.
In 1937 when a biography by Raffaello de Rensis appeared, taken from interviews with the composer, the chapter dedicated to Gioielli della Madonna and to the Venetian composer’s American experiences beginning in 1911 and lasting several months is dispatched in just a few lines and with apparent embarrassment.
However, this was not the sole dramatic work in the composer’s musical career. Sixteen years later there would be the case of Sly, or The Legend of the Sleeper Awakened, to a text by Giovacchino Forzano (1884-1970) written and liberally adapted for the theater a few years earlier from the prologue to The Taming of the Shrew by Shakespeare. But here Wolf-Ferrari takes a different route and even though there are dramatic elements in common between the two operas (the most obvious being the suicide of the protagonist at the end), we see in Sly a pleasing combination of elements both from comedy and from the dramatically powerful sphere, a neo-Shakespearian synthesis typical of the work of Forzano and most certainly of the post-D’Annunzian theater of that era in Italy.
After the verismo experience of Gioielli, with the next opera-comedy L’Amore medico (Doctor Cupid) presented in Dresden in 1913, Wolf-Ferrari seems to have suffered a moment of dismay as though he had realized that in some way he had forced the limits of his expressive and dramatic possibilities in trying to relate and speak to his audience. Enormously complicating this difficult psychological state was the arrival of the terrible conflagration of the Italo-Germanic conflict of World War I which he lived through in unspeakable inner torment. The clash between the two cultures to which he had chosen to belong, including artistically having joined together early in his musical career the last names of both his Bavarian father and Venetian mother, propelled him, or rather, forced him to leave his beloved Munich to move to Zurich, Switzerland, where he lived from 1915 to 1922.
Those seven years represent an abyss, an absolutely sterile period for the composer. For the full explanation, it is almost impossible now to reconstruct this time period in Wolf-Ferrari’s life with reliable biographical data. The composer, himself, seemed to want to erase these years from his life so much so that in the two biographies authorized during his lifetime, i.e. the above-mentioned one by Raffaello de Rensis, and the one by the Swiss scholar Alexandra Carola Grisson , there is no mention of this period at all. We only know that he conducted the orchestra of the Tonhalle, and attended the premier of Arlecchino by Ferruccio Busoni, with whom he corresponded. Another thing that Wolf-Ferrari imposed silence on was the end of his first marriage to the American singer Karola Kilian, whom he had married in 1897, and with whom, in 1898, he had a son, Federico, who became an opera director. The end of the marriage came as a result of a meeting in 1916 in Zurich with the young Bavarian Wilhelmine Christine Funk (1894-1970) who became his second wife in 1921.
At the end of the war, as it was similarly for Busoni, Wolf-Ferrari was offered teaching positions at the Conservatories of Rome and Milan; and also like Busoni, he declined the offers, unable to choose one culture or people over another. Then he returned to Munich and composed a completely German opera to a German libretto Das Himmelskleid (Heaven’s Dress), freely adapted from Perrault’s fairytale and presented at the Munich National Theater in 1927. There followed the aforementioned Goldoni operas which, compared to Donne curiose and Quattro Rusteghi, show cracks in his musical vocabulary, as though the experience of Gioielli had in some way left its mark on him. Then, there was the period of living with the fascists and National-Socialists. From 1922 to 1931 Wolf-Ferrari’s home, purchased in 1916, was in the immense forests of Ottobrunn, a small suburban town southeast of Munich, and later he lived in Plannegg, another small town at the gates of Munich in the southwestern part of the city, until the house was destroyed towards the end of World War II.
As far as we know, Wolf-Ferrari was never a man who belonged to groups like his student Adriano Lualdi did in Italy. He lived alongside the two totalitarian regimes without any particular inner anxieties, even to the extent that he received an important office as lecturer in composition at the Salzburg Mozarteum, a nomination that he received personally signed by Adolf Hitler in 1939 after the Mozarteum had been an institution of the Reich for several months, i.e. after March 12, 1938, and the annexation of Austria by Germany sealed by an absurd popular vote on April 10th of that same year. The sympathies of the highest officers of the Nazi pyramidal system (Goebbels) and even of Hitler himself towards Wolf-Ferrari might have been born out of the composer’s intransigent position with regard to the musical avant-garde expressed on more than one occasion, but without any ideological implications, even in certain of the German government-aligned press outlets. Then, too, the composer was also a figurative artist and surely this made him more congenial to Hitler who had also tried to pursue that path in Vienna in his youth. And yet, let’s not forget that the famous and shameful exposition on “degenerate music” had taken place in Düsseldorf only one year earlier, in 1938. However, we must not be tempted even for a moment to consider the Venetian composer as an element in the system as, for example, Hans Pfitzner was. His crime was in not being able or not wanting to publicly take a position against the evilness of the National-Socialist system of which, most likely, he was unaware until much later, just before his death, when he confessed to his student Lualdi in Venice that for him… “It was a great humiliation to have lived in these times.”
Even though it is irrefutable that some of his positions and points of view expressed between 1930 and 1940 towards the musical avant-garde in the 20th century appear rather aligned and in tune with the disgraceful Nazi campaign against those whom he himself referred to as “sporchezzi e stomeghezzi” (Venetian dialect terms originating from Goldoni, lit. “filthy and nauseating”) which the National-Socialist political-cultural complex defined as Degenerate Art in order to put a sort of indelible mark that, in any event, was rather common among the European musicians of the period who shared their ideas, and, who, absolutely legitimately, chose not to take part in the experimentalism of the musical avant-garde of the first half of the 20th century. The grotesque aspect of this historic problem exists in the fact that among these composers who kept their distance from the new frontiers of musical expression (read above all the Second School of Vienna!) many were Jews and were persecuted anyway! The Chair in teaching in Salzburg, most probably, was given to him as an ‘honor”, somewhat like the office of Directorate of the Pesaro Conservatory given to Zandonai in 1940 by Giuseppe Bottai, Minister of Education in Fascist Italy.
After World War II, there was a last trip to Switzerland characterized again by the absence of correspondence. He was the guest of friends there for a year. Extremely ill, he returned to his Venice where he met his old student Adriano Lualdi for the last time and where he died on January 21, 1948.
Raffaello de Rensis, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari: la sua vita d’artista, Milano, Treves, 1937
Chronological List of Operas
Cenerentola (libretto by M. Pezzè-Pascolato, from Perrault; Venice, 1900, reworked, Bremen 1902 under the new title Aschenbrödel)
Unpublished, Never Performed, or Unfinished Operas:
Irene (libretto by the composer: 1895-96, never performed)