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La Traviata

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

IN music the saying that "familiarity breeds contempt," is true only of compositions of a low order. In the case of compositions of the highest order, familiarity generally breeds ever growing admiration. In this category new compositions are slowly received ; they make their way to popular appreciation only by repeated performances. It is true that the people like best the songs as well as the symphonies which they know best ; but even this rule has its exceptions. It is possible to grow in-different to even high excellence because of constant association with it. Especially is this true when the form — that is, the manner of expression — has grown antiquated ; then, not expecting to find the kind of quality to which our tastes are inclined, we do not look for it, and though it may be present, it frequently passes unnoticed. The meritorious old is, therefore, just as much subject to non-appreciation as the meritorious new. Let me cite an instance.

Once upon a time duty called me to the two opera-houses of New York on the same evening. At the first I listened to some of the hot-blooded music of an Italian composer of the so-called school of verismo. Thence I went to the second. Verdi's "Traviata" was performing. I entered the room just as the orchestra began the prelude to the last act. As one can see without observing, so one can hear without listening — a wise provision which nature has made for the critic, and a kind one; I had heard that music so often during a generation of time devoted to musical journalism that I had long since quit listening to it. But now my jaded faculties were arrested by a new quality in the prelude. I had always admired the composer of "Rigoletto," "Il Trovatore," and "Traviata," and I loved and revered the author of "Aida," "Otello," and "Falstaff." I had toddled along breathlessly in the trail made by his seven-league boots during the last thirty-five years of his career; but as I listened I found my-self wondering that I had not noticed before that his modernity had begun before I had commenced to realize even what maternity meant — more than half a century ago, for "La Traviata" was composed in 1853. The quivering atmosphere of Violetta's sick-room seemed almost visible as the pathetic bit of hymnlike music rose upward from the divided viols of the orchestra like a cloud of incense which gathered itself together and floated along with the pathetic song of the solo violin. The work of palliating the character of the courtesan had begun, and on it went with each recurrence of the sad, sweet phrase as it punctuated the conversation between Violetta and her maid, until memory of her moral grossness was swallowed up in pity for her suffering. Conventional song-forms returned when poet and composer gave voice to the dying woman's lament for the happiness that was past and her agony of fear when she felt the touch of Death's icy hand ; but where is melody more truthfully eloquent than in "Addio, del passato," and "Gran Dio ! morir so giovane" ? Is it within the power of instruments, no matter how great their number, or harmony with all the poignancy which it has acquired through the ingenious use of dissonance, or of broken phrase floating on an instrumental flood, to be more dramatically expressive than are these songs? Yet they are, in a way, uncompromisingly formal, architectural, strophic, and conventionally Verdian in their repetition of rhythmical motives and their melodic formularies. This introduction to the third act re-calls the introduction to the first, which also begins with the hymnlike phrase, and sets the key-note of pathos which is sounded at every dramatic climax, though pages of hurdy-gurdy tune and unmeaning music intervene. Recall "Ah, fors' è lui che 1' anima," with its passionate second section, "A quell' amor," and that most moving song of resignation, "Dite all' giovine." These things outweigh a thousand times the glittering tinsel of the opera and give "Traviata" a merited place, not only be-side the later creations of the composer, but among those latter-day works which we call lyric dramas to distinguish them from those which we still call operas, with commiserating emphasis on the word.

That evening I realized the appositeness of Dr. von Bulow's remark to Mascagni when the world seemed inclined to hail that young man as the continuator of Verdi's operatic evangel: "I have found your successor in your predecessor, Verdi," but it did not seem necessary to think of "Otello" and "Falstaff" in connection with the utterance ; "La Traviata" alone justifies it. Also it was made plain what Verdi meant, when after the first performance of his opera, and its monumental fiasco, he reproached his singers with want of understanding of his music. The story of that fiasco and the origin of the opera deserve a place here. "La Traviata," as all the world knows, is based upon the book and drama, "La Dame aux Camélias," by the younger Dumas, known to Americans and Englishmen as "Camille." The original book appeared in 1848, the play in 1852. Verdi witnessed a performance of the play when it was new. He was writing "Il Trovatore" at the time, but the drama took so strong a hold upon him that he made up his mind at once to turn it into an opera. As was his custom, he drafted a plan of the work, and this he sent to Piave, who for a long time had been his librettist in ordinary. Francesco Maria Piave was little more than a hack-writer of verse, but he knew how to put Verdi's ideas into practicable shape, and he deserves to be remembered with kindly interest as the great composer's collaborator in the creation of "I due Foscari," "Ernani," "Macbetto," "Il Corsaro," "Stiffelio," "Simon Boccanegra," "Aroldo" (a version of "Stiffelio"), and "La Forza del Destino." His artistic relations with Verdi lasted from 1844 to 1862, but the friendship of the men endured till the distressful end of Piave's life, which came in 1876. He was born three years earlier than Verdi (in 1810), in Durano, of which town his father had been the last podesta under the Venetian republic. He went mad some years before he died, and thenceforward lived off Verdi's bounty, the warm-hearted composer not only giving him a pension, but also caring for his daughter after his death. In 1853 Verdi's creative genius was at flood-tide. Four months was the time which he usually devoted to the composition of an opera, but he wrote "La Traviata" within four weeks, and much of the music was composed concurrently with that of "Il Trovatore." This is proved by the autograph, owned by his publishers, the Ricordis, and there is evidence of the association in fraternity of phrase in some of the uninteresting pages of the score. (See "Morrò! la mia memoria" for instance, and the dance measures with their trills.) "Il Trovatore" was produced. at Rome on January 19, 1853, and "La Traviata" on March 6 of the same year at the Fenice Theatre in Venice. "Il Trovatore" was stupendously successful ; "La Traviata" made a woful failure. Verdi seems to have been fully cognizant of the causes which worked together to produce the fiasco, though he was disinclined at the time to discuss them. Immediately after the first representation he wrote to Muzio :

" `La Traviata' last night a failure. Was the fault mine or the singers'? Time will tell." To Vincenzo Luccardi, sculptor, professor at the Academy of San Luca in Rome, one of his most intimate friends, he wrote after the second performance : "The success was a fiasco — a complete fiasco ! I do not know whose fault it was; it is best not to talk about it. I shall tell you nothing about the music, and permit me to say nothing about the per-formers." Plainly, he did not hold the singers guilt-less. Varesi, the barytone, who was intrusted with the part of the elder Germont, had been disaffected, because he thought it beneath his dignity. Nevertheless, he went to the composer and offered his condolences at the fiasco. Verdi wanted none of his sympathy. "Condole with yourself and your companions who have not understood my music," was his somewhat ungracious rejoinder. No doubt the singers felt some embarrassment in the presence of music which to them seemed new and strange in a degree which we cannot appreciate now. Abramo Basevi, an Italian critic, who wrote a book of studies on Verdi's operas, following the fashion set by Lenz in his book on Beethoven, divides the operas which he had written up to the critic's time into examples of three styles, the early operas marking his first manner and "Luisa Miller" the beginning of his second. In "La Traviata" he says Verdi discovered a third manner, resembling in some things the style of French opéra comique. "This style of music," he says, "although it has not been tried on the stage in Italy, is, however, not unknown in private circles. In these latter years we have seen Luigi Gordigiani and Fabio Campana making themselves known principally in this style of music, called da camera. Verdi, with his `Traviata,' has transported this chamber-music on to the stage, to which the subject he has chosen still lends itself, and with happy success. We meet with more simplicity in this work than in the others of the same composer, especially as regards the orchestra, where the quartet of stringed instruments is almost always predominant ; the parlanti occupy a great part of the score ; we meet with several of those airs which repeat under the form of verses; and, finally, the principal vocal subjects are for the most part developed in short binary and ternary movements, and have not, in general, the extension which the Italian style demands." Campana and Gordigiani were prolific composers of romanzas and canzonettas of a popular type. Their works are drawing-room music, very innocuous, very sentimental, very insignificant, and very far from the conception of chamber-music generally prevalent now. How they could have been thought to have influenced so virile a composer as Verdi, it is difficult to see. But musical critics enjoy a wide latitude of observation. In all likelihood there was nothing more in Dr. Basevi's mind than the strophic structure of "Di Provenza," the song style of some of the other arias to which attention has been called and the circumstance that these, the most striking numbers in the score, mark the points of deepest feeling. In this respect, indeed, there is some relationship between "La Traviata" and "Der Freischütz" — though this is an observation which will probably appear as far-fetched to some of my critics as Dr. Basevi's does to me.

There were other reasons of a more obvious and external nature for the failure of "La Traviata" on its first production. Lodovico Graziani, the tenor, who filled the rôle of Alfredo, was hoarse, and could not do justice to the music; Signora Salvini-Donatelli, the Violetta of the occasion, was afflicted with an amplitude of person which destroyed the illusion of the death scene and turned its pathos into absurdity. The spectacle of a lady of mature years and more than generous integumental upholstery dying of consumption was more than the Venetian sense of humor could endure with equanimity. The opera ended with shrieks of laughter instead of the lachrymal flood which the music and the dramatic situation called for. This spirit of irreverence had been promoted, moreover, by the fact that the people of the play wore conventional modern clothes. The lure of realism was not strong in the lyric theatres half a century ago, when laces and frills, top-boots and plumed hats, helped to confine the fancy to the realm of idealism in which it was believed opera ought to move. The first result of the fiasco was a revision of the costumes and stage furniture, by which simple expedient Mr. Dumas's Marguerite Gauthier was changed from a courtesan of the time of Louis Philippe to one of the period of Louis XIV. It is an amusing illustration of how the whirligig of time brings its revenges that the spirit of verismo, masquerading as a desire for historical accuracy, has restored the period of the Dumas book,— that is, restored it in name, but not in fact, -- with the result, in New York and London at least, of making the dress of the opera more absurd than ever. Violetta, exercising the right which was conquered by the prima donna generations ago, appears always garbed in the very latest style, whether she be wearing one of her two ball dresses or her simple afternoon gown. For aught that I know, the latest fad in woman's dress may also be hidden in the dainty folds of the robe de chambre in which she dies. The elder Germont has for two years appeared before the New York public as a well-to-do country gentleman of Provence might have appeared sixty years ago, but his son has thrown all sartorial scruples to the wind, and wears the white waistcoat and swallowtail of today.

The Venetians were allowed a year to get over the effects of the first representations of "La Traviata," and then the opera was brought forward again with the new costumes. Now it succeeded and set out upon the conquest of the world. It reached London on May 24, St. Petersburg on November 1, New York on December 3, and Paris on December 6 — all in the same year, 1856. The first Violetta in New York was Mme. Anna La Grange, the first Alfredo Signor Brignoli, and the first Germont père Signor Amodio. There had been a destructive competition between Max Maretzek's Italian company at the Academy of Music and a German company at Niblo's Garden. The regular Italian season had come to an end with a quarrel between Maretzek and the directors of the Academy. The troupe prepared to embark for Havana, but before doing so gave a brief season under the style of the La Grange Opera Company, and brought forward the new opera on December 3, three days before the Parisians were privileged to hear it. The musical critic of the Tribune at the time was Mr. W. H. Fry, who was not only a writer on political and musical subjects, but a composer, who wrote an opera, "Leonora," in which Mme. La Grange sang at the Academy about a year and a half later. His review of the first performance of "La Traviata," which appeared in the Tribune of December 5, 1856, is worth reading for more reasons than one:---

The plot of "La Traviata" we have already given to our readers. It is simply "Camille." The first scene affords us some waltzing music, appropriate in its place, on which a (musical) dialogue takes place. The waltz is not specially good, nor is there any masterly outworking of detail. A fair drinking song is afforded, which pleased, but was not encored. A pretty duet by Mme. de la Grange and Signor Brignoli may be noticed also in this act; and the final air, by Madame de la Grange, "Ah! fors' e lui che l' anima," contained a brilliant, florid close which brought down the house, and the curtain had to be reraised to admit of a repetition. Act II admits of more intensified music than Act I. A brief air by Alfred (Brignoli) is followed by an air by Germant (Amodio), and by a duet, Violetta (La Grange) and Germont. The duet is well worked up and is rousing, passionate music. Verdi's mastery of dramatic accent-- of the modern school of declamation — is here evident. Some dramatic work, the orchestra leading, follows — bringing an air by Germont, "Di Provenza il mar." This is a 2–4 travesty of a waltz known as Weber's Last Waltz (which, however, Weber never wrote) ; and is too uniform in the length of its notes to have dramatic breadth or eloquence. A good hit is the sudden exit of Alfred thereupon, not stop-ping to make an andiamo duet as is so often done. The next scene introduces us to a masquerade where are choruses of quasi-gypsies, matadors, and picadors, — sufficiently characteristic. The scene after the card-playing, which is so fine in the play, is inefficient in music. Act III in the book (though it was made Act IV on this occasion by subdividing the second) reveals the sick-room of Traviata. A sweet air, minor and major by turns, with some hautboy wailing, paints the sufferer's sorrows. A duet by the lovers, "Parigi, O cara," is especially original in its peroration. The closing trio has due culmination and anguish, though we would have preferred a quiet ending to a hectic shriek and a doubly loud force in the orchestra.

Goldsmith's rule in "The Vicar" for criticising a painting was always to say that "the picture would have been better if the painter had taken more pains." Perhaps the same might be said about "La Traviata"; but whether it would have pleased the public more is another question. Some of the airs certainly would bear substitution by others in the author's happier vein. The opera was well received. Three times the singers were called before the curtain. The piece was well put on the stage. Madame La Grange never looked so well. Her toilet was charming.

The principal incidents of Dumas's play are re-produced with general fidelity in the opera. In the first act there are scenes of gayety in the house of Violetta —dancing, feasting, and love-making. Among the devotees of the courtesan is Alfredo Germont, a young man of respectable Provençal family. He joins in the merriment, singing a drinking song with Violetta, but his devotion to her is unlike that of his companions. He loves her sincerely, passionately, and his protestations awaken in her sensations never felt before. For a moment, she indulges in a day-dream of honest affection, but banishes it with the reflection that the only life for which she is fitted is one devoted to the pleasures of the moment, the mad revels rounding out each day, and asking no care of the moment. But at the last the voice of Alfredo floats in at the window, burdening the air and her heart with an echo of the longing to which she had given expression in her brief moment of thoughtfulness. She yields to Alfredo's solicitations and a strangely new emotion, and abandons her dissolute life to live with him alone.

In the second act the pair are found housed in a country villa not far from Paris. From the maid Alfredo learns that Violetta has sold her property in the city — house, horses, carriages, and all — in order to meet the expenses of the rural establishment. Conscience-smitten, he hurries to Paris to prevent the sacrifice, but in his absence Violetta is called upon to make a much greater. Giorgio Germont, the father of her lover, visits her, and, by appealing to her love for his son and picturing the ruin which is threatening him and the barrier which his illicit association with her is placing in the way of the happy marriage of his sister, persuades her to give him up. She abandons home and lover, and returns to her old life in the gay city, making a favored companion of the Baron Duphol. In Paris, at a masked ball in the house of Flora, one of her associates, Alfredo finds her again, overwhelms her with reproaches, and ends a scene of excitement by denouncing her publicly and throwing his gambling gains at her feet.

Baron Duphol challenges Alfredo to fight a duel. The baron is wounded. The elder Germont sends intelligence of Alfredo's safety to Violetta, and in-forms her that he has told his son of the great sacrifice which she had made for love of him. Violetta dies in the arms of her lover, who had hurried to her on learning the truth, only to find her suffering the last agonies of disease.

In the preface to his novel, Dumas says that the principal incidents of the story are true. It has also been said that Dickens was familiar with them, and at one time purposed to make a novel on the subject; but this statement scarcely seems credible. Such a novel would have been un-English in spirit and not at all in harmony with the ideals of the author of "David Copperfield" and "Dombey and Son." Play and opera at the time of their first production raised questions of taste and morals which have remained open ever since. Whether the anathema periodically pronounced against them by private and official censorship helps or hinders the growth of such works in popularity, there is no need of discussing here. There can scarcely be a doubt, however, but that many theatrical managers of today would hail with pleasure and expectation of profit such a controversy over one of their new productions as greeted "La Traviata" in London. The Lord Chamberlain had refused to sanction the English adaptations of "La Dame aux Camélias," and when the opera was brought forward (performance being allowed because it was sung in a foreign language), pulpit and press thundered in denunciation of it. Mr. Lumley, the manager of Her Majesty's Theatre, came to the de-fence of the work in a letter to the Times, but it was more his purpose to encourage popular excitement and irritate curiosity than to shield the opera from condemnation. He had every reason to be satisfied with the outcome. "La Traviata" had made a complete fiasco, on its production in Italy, where no one dreamed of objecting to the subject-matter of its story; in London there was a loud outcry against the "foul and hideous horrors of the book," and the critics found little to praise in the music ; yet the opera scored a tremendous popular success, and helped to rescue Her Majesty's from impending ruin.

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