Leoncavallo, Ruggero, noted Italian composer; b. Naples, April 23, 1857; d. Montecatini, Aug. 9, 1919. He attended the Naples Cons. (1866–76), where his teachers were B. Cesi (piano) and M. Ruta and L. Rossi (composition), and then took courses in literature at the Univ. of Bologna (1876–78). His first opera, Tommaso Chatterton, was about to be produced in Bologna (1878) when the manager disappeared, and the production was called off. Leoncavallo earned his living playing piano in cafes throughout Europe before going to Paris, where he composed chansonettes and other popular songs. He wrote an opera, Songe d’une nuit d’été (after Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream), which was privately sung in a salon. He began to study Wagner’s scores, and became an ardent Wagnerian; he resolved to emulate the master by producing a trilogy, Crepusculum, depicting in epical traits the Italian Renaissance; the separate parts were to be I Medici, Girolamo Savonarola, and Cesare Borgia. He spent 6 years on the basic historical research; having completed the first part, and with the scenario of the entire trilogy sketched, he returned in 1887 to Italy, where the publisher Ricordi became interested in the project, but kept delaying the publication and production of the work. Annoyed, Leoncavallo turned to Sonzogno, the publisher of Mascagni, whose opera Cavalleria rusticana had just obtained a tremendous vogue. Leoncavallo submitted a short opera in a similarly realistic vein; he wrote his own libretto based on a factual story of passion and murder in a Calabrian village, and named it Pagliacci. The opera was given with sensational success at the Teatro dal Verme in Milan under the direction of Toscanini (May 21, 1892), and rapidly took possession of operatic stages throughout the world; it is often played on the same evening with Mascagni’s opera, both works being of brief duration. Historically, these 2 operas signalized the important development of Italian operatic verismo, which influenced composers of other countries as well.
The enormous success of Pagliacci did not deter Leoncavallo from carrying on his more ambitious projects. The first part of his unfinished trilogy, I Medici, was finally brought out at the Teatro dal Verme in Milan on Nov. 9, 1893, but the reception was so indifferent that he turned to other subjects; the same fate befell his youthful Tommaso Chatterton at its production in Rome (March 10, 1896). His next opera, La Bohème (Venice, May 6, 1897), won considerable success, but had the ill fortune of coming a year after Puccini’s masterpiece on the same story, and was dwarfed by comparison. There followed a light opera, Zazà (Milan, Nov. 10, 1900), which was fairly successful, and was produced repeatedly on world stages. In 1894 he was commissioned by the German Emperor Wilhelm II to write an opera for Berlin; this was Der Roland von Berlin, on a German historic theme; it was produced in Berlin on Dec. 13, 1904, but despite the high patronage it proved a fiasco. In 1906 Leoncavallo made a tour of the U.S. and Canada, conducting his Pagliacci and a new operetta, La Jeunesse de Figaro, specially written for his American tour; it was so unsuccessful that he never attempted to stage it in Europe. Back in Italy he resumed his industrious production; the opera Maia (Rome, Jan. 15, 1910) and the operetta Malbrouck (Rome, Jan. 19, 1910) were produced within the same week; another operetta, La Reginetta delle rose, was staged simultaneously in Rome and in Naples (June 24, 1912). In the autumn of that year, Leoncavallo visited London, where he presented the premiere of his Gli Zingari (Sept. 16, 1912); a year later, he revisited the U.S., conducting in San Francisco. He wrote several more operettas, but they made no impression; 3 of them were produced during his lifetime: La Candidata (Rome, Feb. 6, 1915), Goffredo Mameli (Genoa, April 27, 1916), and Prestami tua moglie (Mon-tecatini, Sept. 2, 1916); posthumous premieres were accorded the operetta A chi la giarettiera? (Rome, Oct. 16, 1919), the opera Edipo re (Chicago, Dec. 13, 1920), and the operetta II primo bacio (Montecatini, April 29, 1923). Another score, Tormenta, remained unfinished. Salvatore Allegra collected various sketches by Leoncavallo and arranged from them a 3-act operetta, La maschera nuda, which was produced in Naples on June 26, 1925.
R. de Rensis, Per Umberto Giordano e R. L. (Siena, 1949); L. Guiot and J. Machder, eds., Convegno internazionale di Studie su R. L (Milan, 1995).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire