Rossini Thought Him Italy’s Best Composer
by Stefan Zucker
Giovanni Pacini was born in Catania on February 17, 1796. His father, Luigi, was a well-known tenor who became a basso buffo, creating Geronio in Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia. An uncle was a ballet dancer, another a choreographer as well. Giovanni studied singing with the celebrated castrato Marchesi in Bologna. Turning to composition, he studied harmony and counterpoint with Rossini’s teacher Padre Mattei, later with the composer Furlanetto. His first performed farsa, Annetta e Lucindo, 1813, was a success, and over the next four years he composed about a dozen others. His 1817 opera semiseria Adelaide e Comingio established him as a major composer. The opera of his 1818 La Scala debut, Il barone di Dolsheim, ran 47 performances. In 1820 he helped Rossini meet a deadline by ghosting three scenes for Matilde di Shabran. He entered into a liaison with Napoleon’s sister Princess Pauline Borghese, which he escaped by precipitately marrying one Adelaide Castelli in 1825. His Cesare in Egitto, 1821, was well received in Rome, and his Alessandro nelle Indie and L’ultimo giorno di Pompei triumphed wildly at the San Carlo in 1824 and ’25. Appointed music director of that theater then, he had dealings with Bellini, who came to dislike him. Pacini’s Niobe, 1826, Gli Arabi nelle Gallie, 1827, and I fidanzati, 1829, were highly successful. Nevertheless, looking back on this period of his career 40 years later, he wrote in Le mie memorie artistiche:
Everyone followed the same school, the same veins, as a consequence they were imitators . . . of the great star. But, good God! What else was to be done but imitate Rossini if there was no other means by which to sustain oneself. If I was therefore a follower of the supreme Pesarese [that is to say, of Rossini, who was born in Pesaro], the others [the other composers active in Italy through the mid-1820s] were my equals. . . . I had to fight always and always again with that colossus, yet if you wanted to sustain yourself, there was no other road to take. . . . Rossini was always for me a fountain of indefinable admiration; but I well recognized that following him I would not be other than a most servile imitator.
His wife having died in 1828, Pacini had an affair with the wealthy and powerful Russian countess Giulia Samoilov, who consequently connived against Bellini—so it was believed—at the first performances of Norma. Several Pacini operas premiered 1830-33 met with mixed receptions. In his memoirs he says, “I began to be aware that I ought to withdraw from the arena: Bellini, the divine Bellini, and Donizetti had surpassed me.” Bellini—to the extent that he ever really was under it—and then Donizetti had succeeded in throwing off the Rossinian yoke.
In Viareggio Pacini founded a music school, for which he built an opera theater and wrote sacred music, a harmony treatise and other theoretical works. In 1842 he became the first director of a new music institute in Lucca, uniting all the music schools of the duchy. After a first attempt at a return to opera with the tragedy Furio Camillo (dedicated to the Countess Samoilov), 1839, he subjugated Naples with his best-remembered work, Saffo, 1840. His music from this period manifests Bellini’s influence, though he himself did not admit it. In his words, “My style from Saffo on didn’t suffer alteration, and my tendencies that looked always to the impassioned—tendencies that were pronounced in me from my first years—were developed thanks to the reading of the classics of every school.” La fidanzata corsa, 1842, and, in 1843, Maria, regina d’Inghilterra and Medea were all successful. Palermo erected a statue to him alongside that of the dead Bellini.
Notwithstanding a marriage to singer Marietta Albini, he remained intimate with the Countess Samoilov. Her pro-Austrian sympathies and Verdi’s rapid rise turned Milan against him, but his 1845 operas Lorenzino de’ Medici and Buondelmonte succeeded in Venice and Florence. Another triumph, La regina di Cipro, Turin, 1846, embodied, by his account, despite his just-quoted statement, a partial return to his earlier manner. Verdi’s rivalry increasingly embittered his later years, his last major success, Il saltimbanco, Rome, 1858. His second wife died and he married again, spending the remainder of his life in Pescia writing instrumental music and the memoirs. He died on December 6, 1867, survived by five of nine children (three by each wife) and a brother, Emilio, 1810-98, a librettist.
Known as “il maestro della cabaletta,” Pacini was a wellspring of melody. However, he himself declared, “I gave little thought to honoring myself and my art as I should have done. . . . My instrumentation was never careful enough. . . . I often neglected the strings, nor did I bother much about the effects that might be drawn from the other instrumental groups.” His autograph scores testify to his haste and carelessness, though, in his word, he fastidiously “tailored” his music to the abilities of his interpreters. At a performance of an earlier-manner Pacini opera, Donizetti exclaimed to Rossini, “It’s a pity he lacks the real technique of composing!” “It’s too bad, you say?” responded Rossini; “If he didn’t lack the technique, that one would have left all the others behind, with the ease he has of writing.” Bellini wrote that Rossini was reported to have said, “The composer with the most genius in Italy is Pacini, and for the working out of pieces Donizetti.” In Verdi’s judgment, “Pacini was a very prolific extemporizer, . . . good in appearances, but not always in content. It can be said of him that he was in music what in literature is called ‘an old versifier.’ In this respect he had many points in common with Petrella, to whom he always remained superior because of his dramatic power. In fact, in all his operas Petrella has not a single piece to compare with the finale of Saffo.” Pacini composed more than 90 operas, as well as a vast quantity of oratorios, masses, cantatas, requiems, a “Dante Symphony,” chamber music and songs. He wrote articles for the music gazettes of Florence, Milan and Naples as well as for the newspapers Boccherini, La scena. L’arpa and Il pirata.