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Nicola Vaccai

Malibran preferred part of his Romeo to Bellini’s

by Stefan Zucker

Nicola Vaccai was born in Tolentino, March 15, 1790, into a family of doctors. As a youth he studied music with Fabbri of Pesaro, also law and poetry. One of his verse tragedies was professionally performed there. In Rome, in 1807, he abruptly interrupted his university studies to enroll in Jannacconi’s school, studying harmony, counterpoint and composition. After receiving the diploma di maestro from L’accademia di Santa Cecilia, in 1811, he studied dramatic composition with Paisiello in Naples and wrote liturgical music for churches and, anonymously, insert arias for Valentino Fioravanti and others. His I solitari di Scozia, Naples, 1815, was well received. But in Venice his Malvina, 1816, was withdrawn after one night, his Il lupo di Ostenda, 1818, declared imitation Rossini. For six years he composed no operas. Better regarded were four ballets for La Fenice, 1817-20. That year he translated the libretto to Méhul’s Joseph, also revising Handel’s Messiah. 

He turned to teaching singing, becoming popular in this capacity in Venice high society, in Trieste in 1821 and at the Frohsdorf residence of Murat’s widow, where he spent three months, in 1822. Rejecting the offer of Kapellmeister at Stuttgart, he returned to opera in 1824, with the dramma buffo Pietro il grande, ovvero un geloso alla tortura, at Parma’s Teatro Ducale, himself substituting for one of the singers. The work’s success led to Zadig ed Astartea, Naples, 1825, and his widely repeated Giulietta e Romeo, Milan, the same year, to the Romani libretto a modification of which Bellini set in 1830. However, Saladino e Clotilda, Milan, 1828, failed so miserably that his commission to compose an opera for the opening of Genoa’s Teatro Carlo Felice was revoked in favor of Bellini, who premiered Bianca e Fernando, 1828.

Again forsaking the stage to teach singing, in 1829 Vaccai went first to Paris, then London, in 1832 publishing a manual, Metodo pratico di canto italiano per camera—in part a codification of some of the period’s vocal practices—which remains a standard work. Among its maxims: “Whenever one encounters two similar notes at the end of a phrase or also more similar notes in the middle, that note on which the accent of the word falls must be converted entirely into an appoggiatura on the following.” (Though the dissonance and harmonic tension caused by appoggiaturas is essential to bel-canto-period music, this standard practice of the time is widely ignored by today’s performers.)

On the death of his father, in 1833, Vaccai returned to Italy, married and started a family. In ’33 and ’34 he performed in some of London’s best homes. Even with Malibran in the title role, his Giovanna Grey, Milan, 1836, flopped. In 1837 he joined with Coppola, Donizetti, Mercadante and Pacini in the composition of a cantata on the death of Malibran. In 1838 he had some success with Marco Visconti in Turin. That year he became the censore of the Milan conservatory, reorganizing the study of singing, inaugurating performances of student operas and starting a choir. Over the cancellation of a projected 1843 Holy Week performance of the Messiah, he resigned, effective 1844. Virginia, Rome, 1845, was modestly successful, after which he resided in Pesaro, composing chamber music and teaching, where he died on August 5, 1848. He composed 17 operas, five cantatas, four ballets, more than one hundred songs and vocal chamber pieces, instrumental and sacred music, counterpoint studies, 12 ariette per camera in chiave di violino per l’insegnamento del bel canto italiano and the Metodo pratico. During his last years he attempted unsuccessfully to found a conservatory in Rome.

Malibran, at Rossini’s suggestion, in her performances of Capuleti, replaced Bellini’s setting of Romeo’s final scene, “Ah, se tu non dormi,” with Vaccai’s, starting a tradition so widely observed that when, at Florence in 1834, Giuseppina Ronzi de Begnis sang Bellini’s score intact, it was a novelty. In most Capuleti editions the Vaccai setting is given as an appendix. Rossini, in an 1851 letter, declared that Vaccai occupied “a very luminous place among composers of the best renown,” also terming him “a profound knower of the physiology of the voice, in order to keep students within the limits of art, applying to them a method that leads them to sing in that manner that is sensed in the soul.” That Vaccai’s name is perhaps better known today than some others here is because of his singing manual.