The “Other” Muzio

Emanuele Muzio

Opera lovers might immediately connect the surname “Muzio” with the great soprano, Claudia, who lived in the Puccinian era between 1889 and 1936.  The beloved Claudia, however, is not the only Muzio in opera.  Born in 1821 (d. 1890), the Italian composer and conductor, Emanuele Muzio left an indelible stamp on opera history, but unfortunately has not been as fondly remembered as Claudia.  I was inspired to do a little reading on Emanuele Muzio and so in an attempt to rekindle his name and drag his history out of the cobwebs, I’d like to share the documented history of the great Frank Walker, a true Verdian scholar.

Walker writes:

Twelve years after Antonio Barezzi had sent the young Verdi to Milan to complete his studies, he assisted in the same way another local musical prodigy.  Emanuele Muzio, the red-headed son of a poor cobbler, was born at Zibello, in the Duchy of Parma, on the 24th of August 1821. The Family moved to Busseto in 1826 and at ten years of age, Emanuele entered the municipal school of music, during the period when Verdi was acting as Provesi’s assistant. But Muzio at first intended to become a priest and after Provesi’s death, he studied music not under Verdi, but under Verdi’s rival, Giovanni Ferrari.  When Ferrari left Busseto, apparently in 1840, Muzio succeeded him as provisional organist. 

The ever helpful Barezzi then took up Muzio’s case and in December 1843, the Monte di Pieta decided to give him a pension for four years so that he could study music at Milan. So Muzio, like Verdi, came to Milan with the help of the Monte di Pieta and of Antonio Barezzi, and like Verdi he failed to obtain admission to the Conservatorio. Shortly afterwards, to his own amazement and delight he found himself Verdi’s pupil.(Walker, The Man Verdi (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962), 117-118.

Barezzi wrote, “Emanuele Muzio commences his musical studies at Milan under the direction of Maestro Giuseppe Verdi on 15th of April 1844, according tot he certificate of the aforesaid Maestro consigned to the administrators of the Monte di Pieta at Busseto.”

In a long series of letters which Muzio, while studying with Verdi in the years 1844-7, wrote to their common benefactor at Busseto, he reveals himself as a backward ill-educated, naive, but loveable and loyal youth. His teacher became and remained almost his God. In these important letters we have, against the background of Milanese life before 1848, a superb portrait of Verdi in his shirt-sleeves (Walker, 118)

Herein lies one of the most valuable reasons to remember E. Muzio: he shares with us a valuable recollection about Verdi’s methods of teaching and instruction, compositional methods, demeanour in rehearsals, and general artistic manner. I have selected a few of E. Muzio’s letters as examples.

22nd April:

     “For some days now Signor Maestro Verdi has been giving me lessons in counterpoint […] Many music students would pay two or three whalers a lesson if Signor Maestro Verdi would give them, but he gives them to nobody, save a poor devil to whom he has shown a thousand favours, and finally that of giving him lessons, not just two or three times a week, but every morning. I am stunned; and, what is more, sometimes when he has me do something for him he gives me my lunch as well. He, my Signor Maestro, has a grandeur of mind, a generosity, a knowledge, a heart, such that to find a good parallel one would have to set beside it your own, and say that they are the most generous hearts in all the world.” (Walker, 118).

29th May:

I have finished Fenaroli’s books on harmony. Now I am revising. The Signor Maestro says to me when I begin the  lesson: ‘Remember that I am inexorable.’ Imagine how frightened I am; but little by little this disappears when he says: ‘Well done’; but believe me, he doesn’t pass a note–he wants everything perfect. He won’t have two hidden consecutive fifths or octaves (open ones are, of course, excommunicated); he wants all the parts like a scale, without ever a jump; they must never rise all together in similar motion; and all the parts in whatever clef they are written, must never go above a high B:  The conditions are few, but the difficulty is in putting them into execution. […] Now I am on another subject, having finished also with melodies based on the scale, and instead I am adding eight parts, all consonant, under a single note of the scale; then one note against one, two against one, etc. This is real counterpoint.” (Walker, 119)

24th June:

“On Saturday there came a singer who wanted the Maestro to write a contralto part for her in the opera he is composing for Rome. He said the libretto was already finished and he couldn’t. “That doesn’t matter”, said this lady. “Just one scene, an entry, a cabaletta…” It was funny, he could not dissuade her from her purpose; afterwards she wanted him to promise to write a part for her in the opera for Carnival. The Signor Maestro lost patience and said: “No, No, and No.” She went away then. He is tormented by everybody, he says he won’t receive anybody else, but he is so good, he will never carry this out.” (Walker, 121)

Giovanna d’Arco was preceded at La Scala by a revival of I Lombardi, and Muzio provides a vivid sketch of Verdi at the rehearsals of I Lombardi:

I go to the rehearsals with the Signor Maestro and it makes me sorry to see him tiring himself out; he shouts as if in desperation; he stamps his feet so much that he seems to be playing an organ with the pedals; he sweats so much that he drops fall on the score…At his glance, at a sign from him, the singers, the chorus, and orchestra seem to be touched by an electric spark.” (Walker, 127)

There are many other letters that are equally important in that they identify vital issues within Verdi’s history.  The first is the detailed attention Verdi lent to the study of counterpoint.  I find this fascinating and wildly expansive in terms of compositional style.  Counterpoint is a a baroque feature most commonly used in the fugue but, historically, Verdi steered away from instrumental styles, especially the fugue and said as much in many arguments with Boito.  It is then even more compelling that Verdi ended his entire career with the grand fuga finale in Falstaff.  Obviously, Verdi felt that the difficult voice-leading properties that counterpoint exercises were an appropriate way to educate a young composer…if you can do counterpoint you can write anything, perhaps.

The latter letter, referring to Verdi in rehearsals also struck me. With all the discussion about today’s modern performances and mis-cast fachs, operas sung without any real understanding of style, and even the outright exclusion of the composers instructions, do we really think that Verdi would have stood for any of this? Opera was as serious as a heart-attack for the great guy, so if he was a perfectionist extraordinaire in his day, he was a perfectionist for A REASON. The pickiness that Verdi exhibited wasn’t a fad in passing, but the tried and true method of greatness, of artistry and its boundaries.  HA!! There’s a word for you…BOUNDARIES! It’s quite possible that they don’t exist today because directors feel obliged to do whatever they please without recalling that someone actually wrote this music and the instructions that go along with it.  In the case of Verdi, I think it ought to be mandatory that singers, directors, and conductors, read his letters and perhaps the letters of Emanuele Muzio in order to truly understand who they are offending.

Emanuele Muzio’s career ensued:

In 1847 he assisted in preparing Macbeth for Florence and I masnadieri for London. He also made transcriptions and reductions for the publishers Ricordi and Lucca. In February 1849, for political reasons, he went to Mendrisio, Switzerland, to the publisher Carlo Pozzi, Ricordi’s son-in-law. In 1850 he conducted at the Théâtre du Cirque Royal, Brussels, where his first opera, Giovanna la pazza, was performed in 1851. Returning to Italy, he had other works performed, but without great success. In 1858 he conducted at Her Majesty’s Theatre, London, then began a long tour in the USA, where in 1861 he introduced Un ballo in maschera and announced a new opera of his own, La scommessa, though this was never produced. In 1862 he was in Havana and in 1863 again in the USA. At the end of 1866 he returned to Europe, having married the singer Lucy Simmons. In March 1869 at Bologna he conducted the Italian première of Rossini’s Petite messe solennelle in its orchestral version. Late in 1869 and in 1870 he conducted in Egypt during the inauguration of the Suez Canal and soon after became conductor and adviser at the Théâtre Italien, Paris. In 1873 he gave the first performances of Aida in the USA and returned there in 1874 to introduce the Requiem. In 1876 he conducted the French première of La forza del destino. From the end of 1878 to spring 1879 he again conducted at Havana. He was then active as a singing teacher, as well as a frequent collaborator of Verdi, who named him the executor of his will. (Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians).

©Mary-Lou Vetere, 2011

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