By Lorella Del Rio
The people of Reggio Emilia continue to have fond, vivid memories associated with the name of Baron Alberto Franchetti, the impact he made as a person and the story of his family.
Born in Turin on 18 September 1860, he saw Reggio Emilia as his adopted home town and the local people always thought of him as one of their own due to the love and dedication that he showed the city. The successful premiere of “Asrael” took place in Reggio Emilia on 11 February 1888 and Franchetti composed his most significant works here, including “Cristoforo Colombo” (1892) and “Germania” (1902). It was also the city where he married Margherita Levi, who was the daughter of Arnoldo and came from one of Reggio Emilia’s leading families.
Great fondness for Reggio Emilia was also felt by Alberto’s son Raimondo, who was known as “the explorer” due to his love for great feats and an adventurous life. In the 1930s, he donated the majority of his mementos and the vast amounts of material that he had gathered during his many expeditions to the City Museums, which subsequently dedicated an ethnographic section to him (see Reggio Storia issue 16, pp. 72-74).
Alberto was the son of Raimondo and Sara Louise Rothschild. He got his love and sensitivity for music from his mother, who was an exceptional pianist. After learning the basics in Turin and winning over his reluctant father, he studied harmony and counterpoint in Venice with Coccon and Maggi. He later moved to the Munich Conservatory in 1880 and studied with Rheinberger, then studied with Draeseke and Kretschmer at the Dresden Conservatory, where he graduated in composition in 1884.
Giacomo Puccini at the rehearsals for Asrael
A significant demonstration of the abilities of the composer from Reggio Emilia was provided in 1884 by his Symphony in E Minor. There is a distinctive German influence on the style and technical conception and it was actually written for an exam at the conservatory, but it has some truly exceptional qualities.
Although they did have some reservations, the work met with a positive response from the press at the time: “In any case, it is remarkable and marvellous. Indeed his mastery of his art and the confidence with which he arranges the parts and handles the orchestra […] offer irrefutable proof of the diligence and depth shown by Franchetti in his studies and the admirable self-assurance that he has built up very quickly.” (La Sinistra, 25 April 1888). Franchetti made his debut in the theatre with the opera “Asrael”, featuring a libretto by Ferdinando Fontana. The premiere took place in Reggio Emilia and later in the same year it won great praise at La Scala, with Faccio as the conductor. It went on to enjoy further success in many other theatres in Italy and other countries, proving particularly popular in Germany due to the freshness of the melody, the modern approach to the instruments and the technical and dramatic prowess on display. On 7 January 1888, the Italia Centrale newspaper discussed just how much the people of Reggio Emilia were looking forward to the premiere: “We will soon be savouring the delights of the eagerly awaited opera ‘Asrael’. It is too soon to pass judgement, but the talent of the young maestro gives us every reason to expect that more, even greater successes are on the horizon.” In an article in the same newspaper on 26 February 1888, Giovanni Borelli wrote: “Only a brute could fail to appreciate the vast, bold concept behind Franchetti’s marvel. It is an affirmation of his clear, keen and perspicacious talent, which is complemented by a deep-rooted, weighty cultural background, and prodigious knowledge of even the innermost ploys hidden away on the musical palette… I believe that he has a rare gift for assimilation, in a form that is never in danger of giving rise to weaknesses of any kind… It is assimilation reminiscent of Ponchielli and Carducci that gives rise to fresh originality based on skilful versatility… With Asrael he is sealing his artistic reputation. As it has shown, Reggio is proud to have ushered in this new hope of the Italian music scene.” The dress rehearsal was attended not only by journalists and critics from Italy and other countries, but also by such prestigious figures as Puccini and Martucci.
Acclaim from Giuseppe Verdi
Evidence of the esteem in which the young composer was held is provided by a recommendation made by the “old hand” Giuseppe Verdi. Genoa was preparing to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in America with the opera Cristoforo Colombo. The city council held a competition to find the librettist, which was won by Illica. When they asked Verdi to suggest a composer, he picked out Franchetti. Verdi was pleased and enthusiastic about the opera composed by Franchetti and he remembered Cristoforo Colombo for the rest of his life: from the evening when he applauded it at the Teatro Carlo Felice, until the final years of his life when he would play his favourite parts on the piano, according to Umberto Giordano. The opera was performed in Genoa in 1892. Conductor Luigi Mancinelli clashed with its exacting composer and stood down before the third performance, leaving the baton in the hands of Arturo Toscanini. According to reports from the time, the young prodigy “amazed everyone by conducting an opera with such a substantial score from memory”. In later years, a reappraisal of Alberto Franchetti was triggered by Toscanini, who was one of the main driving forces behind the creation of an independent body to run La Scala: the first opera organization of its kind in Italy. One of the first operas that the great maestro included in the theatre’s regular repertoire was Cristoforo Colombo in 1923. He also added Germania in 1929, which was his last year at La Scala, but the example that he set was in vain.
A dazzling lifestyle and artistic activities
Franchetti became a big name on the late 19th century opera scene and he was portrayed in various lights by newspapers in Reggio Emilia and beyond due to his frank, jovial personality, his love of cars, women and fashion, and his pioneering approach to sport, which saw him serve as the President of the Italian Automobile Club.
Having composed the symphonic poem Loreley, symphonic impressions entitled Nella Selva Nera, Variations for quartet, an Anthem for soloists, chorus and orchestra, and some poorly received operas, Franchetti teamed up with the librettist Illica once again and enjoyed fresh international success with Germania. Toscanini conducted when it was presented at La Scala in 1902 and it was later taken to the Metropolitan Opera. The opera reached Reggio Emilia on Wednesday 1 March 1905 and the following report on the evening at the Teatro Municipale appeared in the Italia Centrale newspaper: “When the conductor climbed onto the podium at exactly 8.12 pm, only a few boxes and one row of reserved seats were empty. It was quite literally a full house and it was a magnificent sight. Numerous ladies of all ages could be seen in exceptionally elegant attire… We are witnessing a total, complete, undisputed success. Having made considerable sacrifices and tripled its capital reserve, the Theatre Committee can now happily and proudly state that it has finally achieved its goal of presenting an opera that caters to all needs… The Committee has every right to say that it has been many years since Reggio hosted a show that reached such great heights and proved so good a match for the stunning building, which is one of the city’s main attractions.”
Puccini, Mascagni and Franchetti
Franchetti’s lesser works were: Fior d’Alpe (1894), Il signor di Pourceaugnac (1897), La figlia di Iorio (1906), featuring a libretto by Gabriele D’Annunzio, Notte di leggenda (1915), Giove a Pompei (1921) – a joint project with Giordano, who acknowledged that “Franchetti was the master of all of us” – and Glauco (1922). From the time of Germania onwards, critics tended to follow the example of the musicologist Luigi Torchi and their generally negative views had an impact on Franchetti’s reputation.
It is now many years since he died in Viareggio on 5 August 1942 and his works have disappeared from theatres, but there was a time when Puccini, Mascagni and Franchetti were considered the most promising members of the “Giovane Scuola” (“Young School”). Puccini was deemed the most melodic, Mascagni the most passionate, and Franchetti the most learned, erudite and cultivated. His scholarly nature may have been the very thing that prevented him from reaching the same heights as some of his contemporaries.
Most importantly, as Roncaglia quite rightly noted, “he had trouble coming up with melodies, so sometimes his motifs seem to start haltingly and struggle to develop. This occasionally means that Franchetti’s melodic singing is lacking the effusive warmth and readiness that is easily perceived by the audience… and plays a big part in success, as well as a big part in opera in general. Nonetheless, Franchetti’s descriptive symphonic style brought something brand new to opera and opened up fresh horizons that would subsequently be explored by others.”
Roncaglia went on to say that another praiseworthy aspect is the importance of the chorus. Rather than “the main decorative feature”, it plays an “active part in the drama. In addition, Franchetti’s constructions always have a classic sense of balance that gives them a solemn nature even when there is a great deal of movement.”
In conclusion, Roncaglia asked the same question that we ask ourselves: “Would it not be worthwhile to revive some of Franchetti’s operas? Although he never quite reached the very top, he had some considerable merits and deserves reparation.”
His musical values may have been questioned by some, but they are part of the history of Italian music and culture, so it is only right for them to be rediscovered.