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Verdi in Victorian London

Massimo Zicari

18. Music Journalism in London: The Late 1870s and 1880s

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  • 1 Massimo Zicari, The Land of Song (Bern: Peter Lang, 2008), pp. 91–125.

1Over the last three decades of the nineteenth century, the musical milieu of Victorian London underwent changes that affected the manner in which Verdi was perceived and his final operas conceptualised. A shift in music journalism took place, leading to a new generation of critics whose minds were more open to the challenges of modern music drama. Not only did Wagner’s music come to be generally accepted, but his ideas began to exert an increasingly strong influence over the younger generation. That said, nostalgic commentators continued to lament the sad state of “the Land of Song” and refer to “the palmy days” when describing the glorious past of Italian opera. Eventually, a young generation of Italian composers established themselves as the representatives of a “new school” which attempted to combine the Italian tradition with the Wagnerian musical-dramatic tenets: Pietro Mascagni, Ruggiero Leoncavallo and Giacomo Puccini.1

  • 2 Meirion Hughes, The English Musical Renaissance and the Press 1850–1914: Watchmen of Music, p. 66.
  • 3 Ibid.

2In the 1870s, London music journalism witnessed major changes, at least in part owing to a group of well-known personalities passing away and a new generation of music critics making their appearance. Henry Fothergill Chorley died in 1872. His position at The Athenaeum was taken first by Campbell Clarke (1868–1870), who was then followed by Charles L. Gruneisen (1870–1879), Ebenezer Prout (1879–1888), Henry F. Frost (1888–1898) and John S. Shedlock (1898–1916).2 Campbell Clarke shared with his predecessor a loathing for modern music, but his contributions to The Athenaeum were limited by his short tenure. Charles Gruneisen, an experienced journalist from The Morning Post, shared his predecessors’ conservative attitude and considered Wagner’s achievements “illegitimate.” Ebenezer Prout and Henry F. Frost were both more progressive and championed Wagner among others, while Shedlock was a conservative who loathed Wagner and opposed his operas. In general, The Athenaeum continued to be a weekly literary periodical of conservative musical orientation until the end of the century.3

  • 4 In 1889, Edwards took a special interest in Verdi and contacted him through Boito. See Charles Osbo (...)

3James W. Davison withdrew from active professional life in 1879 and died in 1885. His successors at The Musical World were Joseph Bennett (1831–1911), whose musical recollections can be found in his Forty Years of Music 1865–1905 (1908), and Desmond Ryan, along with other promising young British writers. Among them we find T. E. Southgate and Henry Sutherland Edwards (1828–1906); Edwards’ interest in opera is well captured by his Rossini and His School (1881), The Lyrical Drama: Essays on Subjects, Composers, & Executants of Modern Opera (1881) and The Prima Donna (1888).4 After Davison’s death, Bennett appears to have continued to supervise The Musical World.

Fig. 14. Joseph Bennett, from the frontispiece of his Forty Years of Music, 1865–1905

Fig. 14. Joseph Bennett, from the frontispiece of his Forty Years of Music, 1865–1905

London: Methuen & Co., 1908.

  • 5 Joseph Bennett, Forty Years of Music, pp. 9–11. 6
  • 6 Ibid., p. 27.
  • 7 Richard Kitson, The Musical World (1866–1891), I: xi.
  • 8 Meirion Hughes, The English Musical Renaissance and the Press 1850–1914, p. 21.
  • 9 John Alexander Fuller Maitland, English Music in the XIXth Century (London: Grant Richards, 1902), (...)

4Appointed music critic by The Sunday Times in 1865 and The Telegraph in 1870, he contributed extensive music analyses and reports to other periodicals, among them The Musical Standard and The Musical Times (as we have seen, upon the London premiere of Verdi’s Requiem, Bennett authored a detailed analysis of Verdi’s score).5 As he narrates in his memoirs, in a few years Bennett established himself as one of the most sought-after pens in London music journalism: “Yet the fact is—so much was a new pen desired that within five years from the appearance of my first concert notice, I became critic of the Sunday Times, the Graphic, the Pictorial Times, and the Daily Telegraph, as well as being a regular contributor to the Musical Standard, the Musical World, and the Pall Mall Gazette.”6 From 1886 to 1888 the editorship of The Musical World passed to Francis Hueffer, whose appreciative attitude towards Wagner is testified to by his volume Richard Wagner and the Music of the Future, published in 1874. Eventually Edgar Frederick Jacques, who was a member of the London Wagner Society (which in 1884 was re-founded as the London branch of the Universal Wagner Society), took command of the journal.7 Francis Hueffer’s work as a music critic was particularly important at The Times, where he was appointed chief music critic in 1878. Hueffer opened the columns of the most important daily journal of Victorian London to the advanced ideas and innovative music of Wagner and “used The Times in an attempt to channel English music in a progressive, Wagnerite direction.”8 Among the chief critics of The Times, the name of John Alexander Fuller Maitland is also worth mentioning, since he distinguished himself as a music historian and as George Grove’s successor as the editor of A Dictionary of Music and Musicians. He took a deep interest in German music, as his scholarly publications suggest—Schumann (1884), Masters of German Music (1894), Joseph Joachim (1905) and Brahms (1911), together with the English translation of Philipp Spitta’s biography of J. S. Bach (1899, with Clara Bell)—and he committed himself to the cause of English national music. He used The Times to support English composers, and in his English Music in the XIXth Century (1902) he drew attention to the so-called “English Musical Renaissance.” In describing the Renaissance of English music he distinguished two phases, one which preceded it and was dominated by foreign musicians, and one in which a group of talented native composers finally gained prominence thanks to the value of their music. These composers were Alexander Campbell Mackenzie (born in 1847), Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848), Arthur Gorning Thomas (1850), Frederic Hymen Cowen (1852) and Charles Villiers Stanford (1852).9

  • 10 Nicholas Temperley, “MT and Musical Journalism, 1844,” The Musical Times 110/1516, 125th Anniversar (...)

5The presence of Henry Lunn at The Musical Times had visible consequences upon its output, since in the mid-sixties he started including extensive reviews of musical and operatic events in London.10 Under his leadership (1863), The Musical Times eroded the leading position held until then by The Musical World. New music journals made their appearance during the second half of the century; among them there were The Musical Standard (1862–1893), The Orchestra (1864–1887) and The Monthly Musical Record (established in 1871 and published until 1960).

  • 11 The complete opus is collected in Dan H. Laurence (edited by), Shaw’s Music: The Complete Musical C (...)
  • 12 Eric Bentley, ed., Shaw on Music (New York, London: Applause Books, 1995), p. 30.
  • 13 Massimo Zicari, “Critica musicale e opera italiana a Londra nell’Ottocento: George Bernard Shaw,” M (...)

6A case in point with regard to the development of music journalism in Britain is represented by George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), one of the most controversial critics of late Victorian London. With reference to the provocative opinions he expressed in the columns of The World, he once wrote “I could make deaf stockbrokers read my two pages on music, the alleged joke being that I knew nothing about it. The real joke was that I knew all about it.”11 Shaw was music critic of The Star from 1888 to 1890 and The World from 1890 to 1894. His reviews written during the first period were collected in London Music in 1888–1889 as Heard by Corno di Bassetto, those belonging to the second appeared in Music in London 1890–94. To them the well-known writings on Wagner, The Perfect Wagnerite (1898), must be added, together with a vast number of reviews written during a lifelong professional career and appearing in different periodicals. Shaw was a witty critic and a brilliant writer who, as he admitted in his Preface to London Music in 1888–1889 as Heard by Corno di Bassetto, treated with contemptuous levity “the pre-Wagner school of formal melody in separate numbers which seemed laid out to catch the encores that were then fashionable.”12 As he put it, all those old- fashioned works were standing in the way of Wagner, the most abused musician then in London. Shaw was an aggressive, violent Wagnerite and participated actively in what he called a blood-thirsty war of religion between Wagner’s advocates and detractors. Notwithstanding his attitude towards Wagner and the scornful manner in which he dealt with traditional Italian opera, he was genuinely interested in the younger generation of composers and drew his readers’ attention to the works of Mascagni, Leoncavallo and Puccini on many an occasion.13

7Notwithstanding the increasing attention paid by Victorian periodicals to music and operatic events, and despite the quality of the scholarly contributions which made their appearance in the specialised press over the decades taken in consideration, not everybody agreed on the real value of music journalism in late Victorian London. In 1892, an anonymous contributor to The Musical Standard (maybe Joseph Bennett) published a long and articulate analysis of the sad state in which music criticism in London lay at the end of the century. Music journalists were said to be lacking in both solid competence and proper critical acumen, leading either to long and convoluted prose texts indulging in the inessential or to incomprehensible technical analyses of the score, which, by challenging the composer’s skills revealed, instead, the critic’s own ignorance.

  • 14 “Musical Criticism Does it Exist in England?” The Musical Standard, November 12, 1892, p. 385.

As to express their opinions and impressions, he [the critic] is generally much to wary a bird to do that. It is, indeed, one of the characteristics of English musical criticism that you may read it through without arriving at any conclusion in your mind as to whether the critic likes or dislikes the work. If it be a new opera, for instance, more than two-thirds of the report will treat of the plot in a descriptive manner, most of which is written beforehand, and the other third will be devoted to the music itself, and to a criticism of the artist. […] But some of our critics are not content with being so tame, they sometimes think it necessary to speak of the music from a technical point of view, and then it is that their path is strewn with pitfalls; they become modern instances of the truth of the old adage, ‘a little learning is a dangerous thing.’ Diminished sevenths, consecutive fifths, major, no matter how they might be used ninths, discords, unusual progressions, constant modulations, and especially “ugliness,” and “want of melody,” are the bête noire of those critics who happen to possess a slight smattering of musical knowledge.14

8A similar point was made by Shaw in the columns of The World on 21 October 1891. While referring to the London premiere of Cavalleria rusticana (19 October), he called attention to the pitfalls stemming from pointless harmonic analyses of the score.

  • 15 Laurence (ed.), Shaw’s Music, 2: 431–37.

Those vivid emotions which the public derive form descriptions of “postludes brought to a close on the pedal of A, the cadence being retarded by four chords forming an arpeggio of a diminished seventh, each grade serving a tonic for a perfect chord,” must be sought elsewhere than in these columns. It is perhaps natural that gentlemen who are incapable of criticism should fall back on parsing; but, for my own part, I find it better to hold my tongue when I have nothing to say.”15

9Shaw addressed the question on more than one occasion during his career, and made his point not only with regard to the necessity for a critic to be possessed of solid musical knowledge, but also to be committed to expressing his genuine opinion. This was clearly stated in a contribution appearing in The World on 13 June 1894, the title of which read “On Musical Criticism.”

  • 16 Ibid., 3: 238.

We cannot get away from the critic’s tempers, his impatiences, his sorenesses, his friendships, his spite, his enthusiasm (amatory and other), nay his very politics and religion if they are touched by what he criticizes. They are all there hard at work; and it should be his point of honour—as it is certainly his interest if he wishes to avoid being dull—not to attempt to conceal them or to offer their product as the dispassionate dictum of infallible omniscience.16

  • 17 Ibid., 3: 340.

10On a later occasion that year Shaw defined the skills necessary to make a good critic, and explained why those who were not possessed of them failed to write good criticism. In “How to Become a Musical Critic,” which appeared in The Scottish Musical Monthly in December 1894 and was reprinted in The New Music Review in October 1912, he argued that “he [the critic] must have a cultivated taste for music; he must be a skilled writer; and he must be a practiced critic.”17 However, many of those who possessed the first two qualifications were nevertheless poor at their job because, as Shaw maintained, they could not criticise.

  • 18 Ibid.

They set to work like schoolmasters to prove that this is “right” and that “wrong;” they refer disputed points to school authorities who have no more authority in the republic of art than the head master of Eton has in the House of Commons; they jealously defend their pet compositions and composers against rival claims like ladies at a musical at-home.18

11Shaw was addressing a kind of provincialism in music matters that it was now time to dismantle and get rid of. Nor could a patronising tone be considered acceptable in the realm of proper music criticism.

  • 19 F. G. E. “Wagner’s Music in England,” The Musical Times, September 1, 1906, pp. 589–93.
  • 20 Ibid.

12One major factor in the change which music journalism underwent in late Victorian London was the edifice of Wagner’s theoretical and dramatic accomplishments, the influence of which is clear from any number of scholarly contributions and reviews that appeared after 1873. The increasing attention paid to the German composer by the press should be understood not only in relation to the ongoing critical discussion at international level, but also as a result of his works being performed in London. As we have seen, in 1855 (long before the first performance of Der Fliegende Holländer) the German composer was invited to take the baton laid down by Costa as conductor of the Philharmonic Society; on that occasion, he presented excerpts from Lohengrin and the Tannhäuser Overture. From 19 May 1855 to 26 April 1856, his Oper und Drama was published in the columns of The Musical World. After that, and despite no public performances of any of Wagner’s music dramas in England in the late 1850s and 1860s, an almost uninterrupted series of contributions, making their appearance particularly in the columns of The Musical World and The Athenaeum, addressed in more or less critical terms both Wagner’s theories and works. In 1870, Der Fliegende Holländer was first performed in London as L’Olandese Dannato, while in 1872 the London Wagner Society was founded, with Edward Dannreuther assuming a pivotal role. Dannreuther took it upon himself to clarify the composer’s ideas to the English public, a task that he accomplished by publishing the volume Richard Wagner: His Tendencies and Theories in 1873. On 19 February 1873, the first concert given by the Wagner Society took place at the Hanover Square Rooms, the programme including the Overture and the Introduction to the Third Act of Die Meistersinger, with Dannreuther conducting.19 In 1875, Lohengrin was performed at Covent Garden (in Italian) and at Her Majesty’s Theatre, followed by Tannhäuser in 1876 (also in Italian) at Covent Garden. In 1877, Wagner paid his third visit to London in order to conduct, together with Hans Richter, a “Wagner Festival” at the Royal Albert Hall, which included six concerts from 7 to 19 May. Rienzi was given at Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1879 (in English) by the Carl Rosa Company, but it was not until 1882 that the full performance of Der Ring der Nibelungen was produced in German at Her Majesty’s Theatre and that Die Meistersinger and Tristan und Isolde were given (in German) at Drury Lane.20 Likewise, ample coverage was granted by the London press to the performance of Wagner’s works on the continent, and special attention was paid to the Bayreuth Festival when it was founded in 1876. Countless reports from Bayreuth made their appearance in the columns of The Times, The Musical World, The Athenaeum and The Musical Times on the occasion of the inaugural performance of Der Ring in 1876.

13As suggested by Hermann Klein in his Thirty Years of Musical Life in London, 1870–1900 (1903), although Wagner had established himself as a prominent figure on the continent and his works were produced in the main capital cities of Europe, in 1877 London he still met with strong prejudices despite all the efforts of the Wagner Society.

  • 21 Hermann Klein, Thirty Years of Musical Life in London, 1870–1900 (New York: The Century Co., 1903), (...)

To make matters clear, I must premise that the adversaries and supporters of Wagnerian art in London were then [in 1877] ranged in three distinct camps. There were (1) those who refused to accept his music under any conditions; (2) those who would accept all he had written down to Tannhäuser and Lohengrin; and (3) those who worshiped both at the temple and from afar, accepting and rejoicing in everything. The first of these sections was gradually dying out, or was being absorbed by the second, as the beauty of the operas heard in London within the previous two years slowly but surely forced its way into the heart and understanding of the people. The prejudice against the later works still prevailed, however, and to such an extent that no London impresario yet dreamed of mounting Tristan, or Die Walküre, or Die Meistersinger, despite the success those works were then meeting with in many Continental cities. All one could say was that musicians were beginning to display an interest in the preludes and excerpts occasionally performed in the concert-room; while, as a matter of course, the London Wagner Society was constantly growing in numbers and strength, and working a steady propaganda on behalf of the cause.21

  • 22 Fr. Hueffer, Richard Wagner and the Music of the Future (London: Chapman & Hall, 1874), p. 49.

14Among those who strongly advocated for Wagner’s music and ideas, Hueffer played a pivotal role. In his Richard Wagner and the Music of the Future, he tried to survey the different stages through which the history of opera had gone, and described the circumstances leading to the reforms that the German composer considered necessary. “For by a rare gift of nature he is endowed with the combined genius of music and poetry, and in him at last we must recognise the reformer who re-unites in the music-drama the two arts of poetry and music, which seemed to be separated by a profound chasm and in reality are one.”22 Hueffer explained the role of Wagner by giving an extensive account of the development of opera, which included a large, although not flattering, paragraph on Rossini and his music.

  • 23 Ibid., pp. 37–39.

Italy, the old cradle of the divine art, was to recover once more her position at the head of musical Europe. Rossini, the most gifted and most spoiled of her sons, sallied forth with an innumerable army of bacchantic melodies to conquer the world, the Messiah of joy, the breaker of thought and sorrow. Europe by this time had got tired of the pompous seriousness of French declamation. It lent but too willing an ear to the new gospel, and eagerly quaffed the intoxicating potion which Rossini poured out in inexhaustible streams. Looking back with calmer eyes at the enormous enthusiasm with which Rossini was received by our grandfathers, we are almost at loss to discern the causes for such an unequalled success. It requires, indeed, all the patience of an English audience to endure nowadays a performance of Otello, Semiramide, or any of Rossini’s serious operas except Guillaume Tell. The recitativo secco is treated by him with all the dryness which this ominous name implies. The melodious structure, mostly founded on dance-like rhythms, verges constantly on the trivial, and wherever Rossini covets the forbidden fruit of counterpoint, his deficiencies become sadly obvious. Only rarely the swan of Pesaro rises with the dramatic power of the situation to a remarkable height of passionate impulse. But Rossini knew his public, and he knew equally well his own resources; prudent, as most Italians are, he did his best to profit by the chances of the situation. What he could do and did admirably well was to open the rich mines of melodious beauty with which nature had endowed him, and which it is so easy to augment and develop in a country whose very language is music, and where the gondolieri chant the stanzas of Tasso to self-invented tunes. This principle of absolute melodiousness, as Rossini carried it out to its extreme, combined with the charming freshness of his good-natured humour, was well adapted to silence the objection of graver criticism in the universal uproar of popular applause. The unpleasant fact of a strong family likeness among all these sweet children of song and their common mother the waltz, whether they deplored the sad fate of Desdemona or mimicked the jealous rage of the Seville Dottore, seems to have struck only very few of the enchanted hearers.23

  • 24 Ibid., p. 74.

15Hueffer lamented that Italian opera lay in a state of decadence on account of a compositional style that continued to indulge in separate set pieces and long recitatives at the expense of dramatic truth. In Wagner’s dramas, by contrast, one had to “recognise an energetic protest against the established artificialities of a demoralised operatic stage. We have already seen before how the opera itself, based as it was on a misunderstood imitation of the antique drama, had in the course of time completely lost what little there might have been of dramatic economy in its original structure.”24

16Opera came to be perceived as a form of art whose organism was diseased to the core and in which the principles of music and poetry were definitely at variance with each other. This, at least, was the case until Wagner made his appearance.

  • 25 Ibid., p. 75.

All this was thoroughly changed by Wagner. He has crushed the hard fetters of petrified formalities in the firm grasp of his hand, remoulding the dead metal by the burning breath of his genius into new shapes of harmonious fashion. His operas are no longer a series of separate pieces of music, like duets, arias, and finales, with little reference to the action of the piece, and loosely connected with each other by the weak thread of dry recitativi.25

17Hueffer’s analysis of the manner in which Wagner contributed to the progress of dramatic music also took into consideration some of the criticisms made by hostile contemporary critics. In our eyes, two of them assume particular relevance: the first was the lack of any genuine novelty in the so-called “music of the future,” while the second was the alleged absence of true melody in the composer’s style. In response to the first point, Hueffer insisted upon the need to distinguish between individual genius and the repertoire of forms and rules that every artist deserving that name should master; however revolutionary and advanced Wagner may have been, he was still deeply rooted in his own time. With regard to the second objection, Hueffer explained that melodiousness only appeared to be lacking in his operas.

  • 26 Ibid., pp. 107–09.

One of these causes is, strange to say, the continuous flow of melodious beauty which characterises our master’s creations, and which makes it much more difficult to single out a particular motive in his works, than, for instance, in the Italian opera, where a snatch of fine cantilena appears like an oasis in the desert of recitativi secchi. Moreover, in Wagner melody and harmony are so closely connected with the dramatic action, that their separate existence becomes imperceptibly mixed up with the general harmony of the work of art as a whole.26

  • 27 Sessa, Richard Wagner and the English, p. 28.

18Hueffer’s commitment to Wagner’s theories and music dramas is also testified to by the writings he contributed to The New Quarterly Magazine in April 1875, where he explained the Ring and Wagner’s use of the sagas, and to the Examiner in August 1876, where he returned to the Ring and commented on the Bayreuth Festival.27

  • 28 Ibid., p. 39.

19Together with Hueffer and Shaw, the name of William Ashton Ellis, one of Wagner’s most faithful champions, is also worth mentioning. The editor of the Meister, a quarterly journal published from 1888 to 1895 by the Wagner Society, he wrote Richard Wagner, a Poet, Musician, and Mystic in 1887 and Wagner’s Sketches: 1849, A Vindication in 1892. Moreover, he took it upon himself to translate Wagner’s entire prose works (first edition 1892).28

20By the mid-1880s an increasingly large number of commentators began to bestow more appreciative judgments upon Wagner and those progressive critics who embraced Wagner’s tenets now included his notion of music-drama as one of their main critical criteria. Wagner’s idea of dramatic consistency and the newly defined relations between melody and harmony, singer and orchestra, music and drama now informed their value judgments. This involved a change in attitude towards those traditional stock operas on which they now looked down with contempt. Meanwhile, those who still opposed Wagner’s theories and disliked his music took refuge in past operas, craving for those “palmy days” when declamation had not yet prevailed over proper singing and the orchestra still played a subordinate role.

21A first glance at the notion of palminess is offered to us by Shaw, who addressed the issue in his “Palmy Days at the Opera,” which appeared in The Magazine of Music in 1886.

  • 29 G. B. Shaw, “Palmy Days at the Opera,” The Magazine of Music, January 1886 (unsigned) in Laurence ( (...)

When old-fashioned people deplore the decadence of the modern theatre, and regret the palmy days of the drama, superstitious ones are apt to take the desirability of palminess for granted, without troubling themselves to ascertain the exact conditions which constituted it. On inquiry, we are led to infer that long runs, elaborate scenery and dresses, efficient performance of minor parts, and prose dialogues, are degenerate; but that prompters, changes of program every night, poster playbills printed in blue colour that adheres to everything except the flimsy paper, and “historical costumes—i.e. costumes belonging to no known historic epoch—are palmy.29

  • 30 Ibid., 1: 437.

22Shaw’s sarcastic tone refers to a production system, rather than a repertoire, which implied a changed programme every night and a harried rehearsal every second day. Shaw lamented that those working conditions were insufficient for the actor-singer to prepare his part, and drew attention to the negative results involved in a system that forced the actors into continuous changes of character. “One impersonation isworth more than many impostures. Long runs mean impersonations: palminess means imposture. Let us rejoice over the departure of the palmy days of the theatre.”30 Shaw clarified his position in a later article, appearing in 1889. In returning to the question, the critic referred to the drawbacks and shortcomings of a system that did not aim at artistic quality on stage.

  • 31 G. B. Shaw, “The Opera Season” The Scottish Art Review, September 1889, in Laurence (ed.), Shaw’s M (...)

The operatic artist of today is a “stock company” artist. He calls himself a primo tenore or basso cantante instead of a juvenile lead or a first old man; but the difference is only technical. Just as the stock actors could take any part in their line at short notice by learning or recalling the lines, and applying their stage habits to the action; so within one week do the Covent Garden artists contrive to get through Lohengrin, La Traviata, La Sonnambula, Aida, and Le Nozze di Figaro.31

23A wider definition of palminess is offered to us by another contemporary commentator, the critic of The Musical Standard, who by pronouncing himself a constant admirer of Wagner, took a precise position against the old system.

  • 32 “The Opera Question,” The Musical Standard, July 30, 1892, p. 85.

We agree with our esteemed friend [of the Daily Telegraph] that good vocalization is not to be despised, and that melody, or beautiful tune, is and almost must be a sine qua non, whether in the lyrical theatre or the concert room. We also admit, although constant admirers of Wagner, that the music should be secondary, or subsidiary, to the drama of operas. But the age of such works as took the public taste in London some 60 years ago is no longer a “golden” age in many sense of the term. Rossini and his servile imitator, poor Bellini, can no longer command paying audiences. We would, in common with many connoisseurs, rather pay not to sit through such an opera as Semiramide, heavy as lead. And the revival of I Puritani, by Colonel Mapleson, some ten or eleven years ago, only served to attest the decline and fall of the old system. In 1834 I Puritani was in high fashion, and four eminent vocalists formed a fine quartet; but such music is not worthy of the baker’s oven. [...] In the opera Aïda, again, not to speak of Otello, Verdi has adopted, with signal success, Wagner’s theory that the opera must combine dramatic action with good music, and not merely serve for a display, before the footlights, of “walking gentlemen” and well-dressed women with voices above the lines!32

24A certain tunefulness allotted to the voice was no longer sufficient for an old opera to be cherished by the cognoscenti; still, many operagoers seemed to rejoice in an operatic performance simply consisting in a series of nice, melodious arias strung together by means of endless recitatives of no consequence. In that regard the figure of Verdi and the novelty represented by his latest operas provided sufficient evidence that the urge for change was also felt by a composer who was generally perceived as the only living, and thus most authoritative, representative of the Italian operatic tradition. Those progressive critics who had been nurtured in Wagner’s theories now craved a music drama that would wed music and text in a coherent way, and opposed those Italian operas from the past which defied this definition of music drama.

  • 33 Klein, Thirty Years, p. 152.

25A similar position was held by Hermann Klein who, in his Thirty Years of Musical Life in London, addressed the issue of the sad state of Italian opera in the following terms: “The history of Italian opera in London during the middle eighties is a history of decline and fall. As the fortunes of English and German opera improved, so did the glorious ‘palmy days’ of the older school recede deeper and deeper into the shadows of the past.”33

26Although Klein held that the food necessary to resuscitate the dying opera was provided when Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele was mounted by James Mapleson at Her Majesty’s Theatre in July 1880, it was not until the production of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana at the Shaftesbury Theatre in 1891 that critics recognised a momentous shift in the history of Italian opera. It is again the critic of The Musical Standard who, by providing us with the reasons why Mascagni’s opera scored an almost unprecedented success in London, sheds some light on the nature of the change. Cavalleria rusticana represented the turning point between the palmy days of the past and a new kind of dramatic work capable of combining Wagner’s innovative theories with that vocal style in which the nostalgic public still rejoiced.

  • 34 “Why Mascagni is Successful,” The Musical Standard, November 19, 1892, p. 405.

Mascagni appeared on the scene at the right time. The public had long outgrown the string of songs which during the early part of this century went by the name of opera. They wanted drama allied to music. Wagner, unfortunately, is beyond the mental grasp of the average operagoer, and Mascagni’s opera came as a golden mean between the works of the Bayreuth master and the inanities of the old style of Italian opera.34

27Of course, the success that accompanied the appearance of Mascagni and the “Young Italian School” was to be understood in relation to the palmy days of Italian opera.

  • 35 Ibid.

The “palmy days” of the opera have faded away with the popularity of the works themselves. That is not a fact to be regretted, for, indeed, what was the opera house in its “palmy” days, but a social institution, where members of society could outglitter each other in jewels, and where innumerable flirtations progressed with alarming rapidity beneath the combined influences of sentimental songs and dazzling chandeliers? A work of art cannot live in such an atmosphere, and opera was not a work of art, but a peg on which conversation and social intercourse could hang; at best, but a string of lyrical gems, oftener than of paste and glass, strung upon a thread of recitative—in short it was not organic drama, nor did it really aim at anything higher than to give the singers an opportunity of showing off their vocalization. It served its purpose and it has had its day; therefore requiescat in pace.35

28The critic also suggested that, although Wagner had played an important role in the process leading to the change in question, it could not be asserted that he alone had brought that change about. The old-fashioned operas were already fading away and the need for an operatic form that wedded music and drama without renouncing the beauty of melody was already in the air. Furthermore, not only Wagner’s theories but also his music were said to be above the heads of the majority of operagoers; they did not attend an operatic performance with the purpose of scrutinising its components through the critical lens of a given theory of drama. Rather, they took delight in listening to something easy enough for them to grasp and bring home humming. The reason why Mascagni was successful lay in the manner in which he had rationalised Italian opera by assimilating Wagner’s lesson without renouncing the beauties of proper melody.

  • 36 Ibid.

In truth, Mascagni’s success is due to the fact that he is, in his way, the mouthpiece of the artistic needs of the majority of music lovers; he gives them melody, passion and dramatic interest, and he has absorbed just enough of the modern ideas of music-drama, of which Wagner is the supreme exponent, to hit the popular taste. At any rate, his operas are much more works of art than the majority of those of the old Italian school, and that the public takes an interest in his compositions, is a healthy sign for the future of dramatic musical art. He is the straw that shows which way the wind blows.36

29Shaw held a similar position. He addressed the issue of the shift in compositional style introduced by the young Italian composers in the last decade of the century on the occasion of the London premiere of Verdi’s Falstaff. In his “Born-again Italian Opera,” which appeared on 23 May 1894 in the columns of The World, Shaw described the state of decadence in which Italian opera lay and penned a vivid picture of the affectionate feeling shared by those who believed it was still alive.

  • 37 G. B. Shaw, “Born-again Italian Opera,” The World, May 23, 1894, in Laurence (ed.), Shaw’s Music, 1 (...)

The difficulty was to convince those who had been brought up to believe in it (as I was myself) that it was all over with it: they would go on believing that it only needed four fist-rate Italian singers to bring the good old times back again and make the rum-tum rhythms, the big guitar orchestration, the florid cabalettas, the cavatinas in regular four- lines, the choruses in thirds and sixths, and all the rest of it swell out to their former grandeur and sweep Wagner off the boards. […] But now an unlooked-for thing has happened. Italian opera has been born again. The extirpation of the Rossinian dynasty, which neither Mozart nor Wagner could effect, since what they offered in its place was too far above the heads of both the public and the artists, is now being accomplished by Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Puccini, and Verdi.37

  • 38 Ibid., 1: 216.

30Shaw adopted an argument already made by the critic of The Musical Standard, and claimed that Tristan could never kill L’Elisir. While imposing new forms of composition could do little or nothing to affect traditional Italian opera, Mascagni and especially Puccini proved able to develop it from the inside by rationalising it, condensing it and bringing it up to date. The result was amazing and the critic argued that with Manon Lescaut, given at Covent Garden on 14 May 1894, a few days before Falstaff, “the domain of Italian opera is enlarged by an annexation of German territory.”38

31Although less concerned about Italian opera than English music, Fuller Maitland also took some interest in that moment of artistic decadence to which nostalgic operagoers now referred when evoking the palmy days of Italian opera. When trying to draw the line between the long years of dormant inactivity and the dawn of English native music, in his English Music in the XIXth Century (1902), Fuller Maitland devoted an entire chapter to the notion of palminess.

  • 39 Fuller Maitland, English Music, pp. 38–39.

The Italian opera of the “palmy days,” which remained in vogue throughout the greater part of the XIXth century, was an amusement as far removed from the intellectual as could be imagined. From the time when Addison attacked it in the days of Handel to a date within the remembrance of all persons of middle age, a grasp of the action of the piece was not considered an essential part of the evening’s enjoyment. Few of the subscribers understood Italian; and from the boxes to the gallery the frequenters of the opera attended the representations, not in order to hear a certain work, but to hear some popular singer in what was called “a favourite part.39

32Although the general public was attracted by the singers and did not trouble themselves to understand the lyrics, in Maitland’s opinion the language in which a given opera was written and performed represented a question of paramount importance. While advocating the cause of native composers he lamented that an English National Opera could not be born as long as the use of foreign idioms on stage continued to prevail over the English tongue. The palmy days of Italian opera were standing in the way of the English National Opera.

  • 40 Zicari, The Land of Song, pp. 47–89.

33Occasional critical notes addressing the lack of dramatic consistency typical of such hackneyed operas as Lucia di Lammermoor or La favorite continued to make their appearance over the last decade of the century, as testified by the articles that appeared in the columns of The Musical Standard under the pseudonym “R. Peggio.”40 In a way, these articles reveal the extent to which the critics’ opinion diverged from the public’s orientation; even though the first insisted on the “palmy days of opera” being gone for ever, it was thanks to those stock operas so dear to the nostalgic audiences who crowded the theatres night after night that the operatic business could keep going.

34The debate concerning Wagner’s drama, the progressive critics’ hostility against the notion of palminess, the public’s nostalgic longing for the operas of the past, the craving for an English National Opera and finally the appearance of a new group of Italian composers whose dramaturgically consistent work was understood as innovative all contributed to defining the musical milieu of late Victorian London. It was in this renewed context that Verdi’s last operas made their appearance.

Fig. 15. This portrait of Giuseppe Verdi was painted by Giovanni Boldini in 1886: a rather tall, gaunt figure, whose long grey hair and wrinkled forehead now commanded respect

Fig. 15. This portrait of Giuseppe Verdi was painted by Giovanni Boldini in 1886: a rather tall, gaunt figure, whose long grey hair and wrinkled forehead now commanded respect


1 Massimo Zicari, The Land of Song (Bern: Peter Lang, 2008), pp. 91–125.

2 Meirion Hughes, The English Musical Renaissance and the Press 1850–1914: Watchmen of Music, p. 66.

3 Ibid.

4 In 1889, Edwards took a special interest in Verdi and contacted him through Boito. See Charles Osborne (ed.) Letters of Verdi (New York: Holt, 1971) p. 238.

5 Joseph Bennett, Forty Years of Music, pp. 9–11. 6

6 Ibid., p. 27.

7 Richard Kitson, The Musical World (1866–1891), I: xi.

8 Meirion Hughes, The English Musical Renaissance and the Press 1850–1914, p. 21.

9 John Alexander Fuller Maitland, English Music in the XIXth Century (London: Grant Richards, 1902), p. 184.

10 Nicholas Temperley, “MT and Musical Journalism, 1844,” The Musical Times 110/1516, 125th Anniversary Issue (1969): 583–86.

11 The complete opus is collected in Dan H. Laurence (edited by), Shaw’s Music: The Complete Musical Criticism of Bernard Shaw, 3 vols. (London: The Bodley Head, 1981), 1: 7.

12 Eric Bentley, ed., Shaw on Music (New York, London: Applause Books, 1995), p. 30.

13 Massimo Zicari, “Critica musicale e opera italiana a Londra nell’Ottocento: George Bernard Shaw,” Musica e storia 17/2 (2009): 377–92.

14 “Musical Criticism Does it Exist in England?” The Musical Standard, November 12, 1892, p. 385.

15 Laurence (ed.), Shaw’s Music, 2: 431–37.

16 Ibid., 3: 238.

17 Ibid., 3: 340.

18 Ibid.

19 F. G. E. “Wagner’s Music in England,” The Musical Times, September 1, 1906, pp. 589–93.

20 Ibid.

21 Hermann Klein, Thirty Years of Musical Life in London, 1870–1900 (New York: The Century Co., 1903), p. 67.

22 Fr. Hueffer, Richard Wagner and the Music of the Future (London: Chapman & Hall, 1874), p. 49.

23 Ibid., pp. 37–39.

24 Ibid., p. 74.

25 Ibid., p. 75.

26 Ibid., pp. 107–09.

27 Sessa, Richard Wagner and the English, p. 28.

28 Ibid., p. 39.

29 G. B. Shaw, “Palmy Days at the Opera,” The Magazine of Music, January 1886 (unsigned) in Laurence (ed.), Shaw’s Music, 1: 432.

30 Ibid., 1: 437.

31 G. B. Shaw, “The Opera Season” The Scottish Art Review, September 1889, in Laurence (ed.), Shaw’s Music, 1: 765–66.

32 “The Opera Question,” The Musical Standard, July 30, 1892, p. 85.

33 Klein, Thirty Years, p. 152.

34 “Why Mascagni is Successful,” The Musical Standard, November 19, 1892, p. 405.

35 Ibid.

36 Ibid.

37 G. B. Shaw, “Born-again Italian Opera,” The World, May 23, 1894, in Laurence (ed.), Shaw’s Music, 1: 214–15.

38 Ibid., 1: 216.

39 Fuller Maitland, English Music, pp. 38–39.

40 Zicari, The Land of Song, pp. 47–89.

List of illustrations

Title Fig. 14. Joseph Bennett, from the frontispiece of his Forty Years of Music, 1865–1905
Credits London: Methuen & Co., 1908.
File image/jpeg, 92k
Title Fig. 15. This portrait of Giuseppe Verdi was painted by Giovanni Boldini in 1886: a rather tall, gaunt figure, whose long grey hair and wrinkled forehead now commanded respect
File image/jpeg, 103k


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