Music blog

Music news and views

26 April 2017

Leoncavallo meets the queen

Italian composer Ruggero Leoncavallo’s biggest hit remains his opera Pagliacci. This was first performed in 1892 when the composer was 34.

Or was he?

Largely due to his own inconsistent accounts, it was long thought that Leoncavallo was born in 1858, and it is this date that appears in many of the standard reference resources. However, recent biographer Konrad Dryden suggests he may in fact have been born 160 years ago, on 23 April 1857.

Ruggiero_leoncavalloRuggero Leoncavallo

Just as Leoncavallo’s reputation rests largely on one piece, the British Library holds one substantial music manuscript by him. This treasure from the Stefan Zweig collection is an orchestral score of a short piece, Cortège di Pulcinella (Zweig MS 48). This was published as a piano piece at the time, and only later in the orchestral arrangement. Subtitled ‘marche humoristique’, it has a somewhat morbid sense of humour, distantly reminiscent of Charles Gounod’s famous Funeral March of a Marionette.


Leoncavallo, Cortège di Pulcinella. British Library Zweig MS 48, folio 2 recto

Leoncavallo conducted Cortège in a concert at the Teatro Real in Madrid on 1 April 1906. The manuscript contains an inscription to ‘Angelo Berlinghi’ and copious annotations made with a coarse blue pencil. These markings suggest that it might have been the copy Leoncavallo used for performance. Another autograph manuscript is also extant, this time held at the Morgan Library in New York. This, too, contains markings that hint at its use for performance.

Rewind just over seven years to March 1899, and we find Leoncavallo in the company of none other than Queen Victoria. Shortly afterwards, Leoncavallo sent her beautifully-bound presentation copies of vocal scores for his operas Chatterton and La bohème (the latter first performed a year after Puccini’s more famous setting). These mementos include telling inscriptions to ‘La Reine Victoria’, and are now preserved in the British Library's Royal Music Library collection.

RM9d17 flyleaf  RM9d17_titlepage
Fly-leaf and title-page of Leoncavallo’s Chatterton. British Library R.M.9.d.17

Pagliacci was performed for the Queen at Windsor Castle in July that year. She apparently noted in her diary that, while “the music was beautiful [and] very descriptive”, she still preferred Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana

Chris Scobie
Curator, Music Manuscripts