Catalani’s Calamitous Life

Among the music-related events in Lucca this year is a visit to places associated with Alfredo Catalani and organized by the eponymous Circolo. (Information and website at There will be a walk around the historical centre of Lucca to the house where the composer was born, the church where he was baptized and the area of Colognora di Pescaglia  where his family originated and where a commemorative plaque has recently been unveiled – there will be also be an operatic concert at the tiny Teatro di Vetriano with a programme which will include Catalani’s music.

Catalani is yet another jewel in the crown of this city’s glorious musical past (and, hopefully, future with its bid to become a UNESCO city of music). I doubt, however, that many have attended or even heard one of his operas. Despite performances by Callas and Tebaldi, Catalani’s music still remains somewhat overlooked. Indeed, it was only in 2004 that his neglected remains in Lucca’s monumental cemetery were re-exhumed and given a dignified burial and appropriate tomb. (If you visit that evocative place, designed by the great architect Nottolini, you will find Alfredo’s bust on the wall of the chapel to the right of the main entrance with moving words below it describing how an inexorable disease cut short his life and how he was mourned at his death in Pascoli’s sublime line: “the harp hangs on the willow-tree but its strings still play, touched by fingers that our eyes can no longer see.”

Yet, the chances are that many people will recognize the heart-melting aria Ebben ne andrò lontana, (from the composer’s last and greatest opera La Wally), even if only from Wiggins Fernandez’ rendition in Jean-Jacques Beineix‘s 1981 cult movie Diva.

These are the words (with a translation) she sings:

Ebben! Ne andrò lontana, Wally’s aria from La Wally:

Ebben! Ne andrò lontana Ah well then! I shall go far away
Come va l’eco pia campana, Like the echo of the pious church-bell goes away,
Là fra la neve bianca; There somewhere in the white snow;
Là fra le nubi d’ôr; There amongst the clouds of gold,
Laddóve la speranza, la speranza There where hope, hope
È rimpianto, è rimpianto, è dolor! Is regret, is regret, is sorrow!

O della madre mia casa gioconda O from my mother’s cheerful house
La Wally ne andrà da te, da te! La Wally is about to go away from you, from you!
Lontana assai, e forse a te, Quite far away, and perhaps to you,
E forse a te, non farà mai più ritorno, And perhaps to you, will never more return,
Nè più la rivedrai! Nor ever more see you again!
Mai più, mai più! Never again, never again!

Ne andrò sola e lontana, I will go away alone and far,
Là, fra la neve bianca, n’andrò, There, somewhere in the white snow, I shall go,
N’andrò sola e lontana I will go away alone and far
E fra le nubi d’ôr! And amongst the clouds of gold!

Incidentally, that work finishes with one of the most dramatic endings of all opera: the heroine dies suffocated by an avalanche – a topical subject considering the terrible number of such victims in the Alps this winter season.

What kind of person was Alfredo Catalani? On the baluardo San Paolino is the monument to the Luccan opera composer placed there in 1954 on the one hundredth anniversary of his birth. I first came across the bronze statue, with six human figures representing allegories of music and the arts, when it was still defaced by amorous graffiti but enhanced by a circle of tall and ghostly plane trees which, alas, had to be felled not so long ago because of disease. In 2008 this monument, created by Francesco Petroni, similarly from Lucca (and who also designed the Dante bust (1902), monument to the fallen at Montefegatesi (1924) and the bas-relief of Puccini (1911) in the Giglio Theatre foyer) was restored by the Lions club and is a fine example of art nouveau sculpture.  In its treeless position, and set against a spectacular Luccan winter sunset, it evoked strong emotions regarding this mistreated and underestimated Luccan composer who died prematurely, aged thirty-nine, from tuberculosis.

The once-killer disease was not the only misfortune that cast a deep shadow on the highly sensitive and somewhat shy man. Others were the unacceptable neglect by Ricordi, the music publisher, Verdi’s indifference to his music (although the great man repented after Catalani’s death by placing his bust in his Busseto estate), his often not very good libretti (with the notable exceptions of La Wally and Dejanice which had words supplied by Verdi’s favourite in his final period: Boito) and the unfair opinion that he stood between two stools – between Verdian melodrama and verismo.  To top Catalani’s catalogue of bad luck, La Wally was first performed in 1892 and a year later the premières of Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff, and Puccini’s first big hit, Manon Lescaut, completely outshone Alfredo’s achievement. Yet there were those who sincerely believed in him, not least Arturo Toscanini who named his daughter after the opera’s Swiss heroine.

Catalani’s first composition teacher was Fortunato Magi, Giacomo Puccini’s uncle, who also happened to be his mentor too. Alfredo then went to study in Paris and finished his apprenticeship in Milan where he became partly involved with the scapigliatura, a bohemian-style Italian literary and musical movement. His love was tormented: the engagement with his cousin, Lisa Picconi, was painfully broken off. His last opera, La Wally, was a significant success when it was premièred at La Scala in 1892. Mahler, who performed it in Hamburg, praised it as “the best Italian opera” and Puccini was certainly influenced by it. But by this time Catalani was ridden with TB, of which his brother and sister had already died, and, the following year, on his way to Switzerland to seek a cure in a Sanatorium, he died at Chiasso.

Catalani wrote six “melodrammi” (all inscribed on his monument on the baluardo): La falce (“The Sickle”), 1875 Elda, 1880 (radically revised as Loreley), Dejanice, 1883, Edmea, 1886, Loreley, 1890 and La Wally, 1892. What is less well-known is that he wrote a Mass on the scale of Puccini’s Messa di Gloria (performed last year by the Cappella Santa Cecilia di Lucca) and was a substantial contributor to Italian instrumental music at a time when it was second fiddle to opera, with three considerable works: a Sinfonia a piena orchestra (“Symphony for Full Orchestra”), 1872, Il Mattino, Sinfonia romantica (“Morning”, Romantic symphony), 1874, and Ero e Leandro, poema sinfonico (“Hero and Leander”, Symphonic tone poem), 1885.

The qualities of Catalani’s music have, in the past, been denigrated for unassimilated Wagnerian influence (particularly from Lohengrin which he heard in one of its first performances in Italy) and retrograde Ponchiellian (he of the Dance of the Hours) effects. But anyone who listens to Catalani with an honest ear (and he was honest in his musical language in a way which Puccini often wasn’t) will soon become strongly involved in his musical language. In particular, I love the intermezzi of his operas, especially the prelude to Act 4 of La Wally, intensely mysterious and atmospheric.

Today there is no excuse for neglect since, in recent years, there has been a spate of Catalani recordings of works previously unobtainable and this has lead greatly to a reappraisal of the magically lyrical and sincerely felt music flowing from the Luccan’s fertile imagination.

For those who wish to deepen their knowledge of Catalani’s tragic life and touching compositions I highly recommend “Alfredo Catalani: Composer of Lucca”, edited by David Chandler, and comprising accounts of his life written by those who knew him: Pardini in 1937, Nappi in 1918, Barbiera in 1926, and translated by Valentina Relton.

Catalani’s life itself reads like a Puccinian opera, so full was it of anguish and disappointment but, at the same time, filled with the creation of highly rewarding, melodic and inspirational music which will always be listened with deep emotion and pleasure throughout the world by those who, above all, prize music of truthfulness and integrity in this, the hundred and twentieth anniversary year of the composer’s death.

Here is a picture painted by Tranquillo Cremona titled “L’edera” (the ivy) depicting the end of a tragic love affair and using Catalani as the artist’s model – it can also symbolise the end of a tragic life:

download (1)



6 thoughts on “Catalani’s Calamitous Life

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