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Re Lear

A note on Antonio Cagnoni's Re Lear and its musical sources

 by Anders Wiklund

(Anders Wiklund produced the score that was used in the performance of Re Lear at the 2009 Festivale della Valle d’Itria)

Donizetti Society Newsletter 108, October 2009, pp.4-5.


After having Casa Ricordi, Milano as his principal publisher for several years Antonio Cagnoni in 1866 turned to a newly founded publishing house in Torino : Casa editrice Giudici & Strada. The firm was started in 1859 by Giovanni Batista Giudici and Achille Strada. For more than thirty years this firm would be the most important of all music publishers torinesi. After the deaths of Strada (in 1880) and Giudici (1886) the firm was left to Achille Strada jr., who first chose as a partner Ignazio Cazzini, for a short time, and then the Milan publisher Arturo Demarchi. He ran the firm alone up until his death in 1899 when Paolo-Mariani took over. As he had also acquired the firm of Achille Tedeschi in Bologna the house had the imposing name of Riuniti Stabilimenti Musicali Giudici e Strada, A. Demarchi, A. Tedeschi di P. Mariani fu Claro. It was situated in both Milano and Bologna and when a Societa Anonimà was constituted in Milano in 1909, the number of titles had risen to ca 22.000. Among the composers originally published by the firm are, for example Flotow (La fleur de Harlem [in Italian Il fiore di Harlem]), Ponchielli (I Mori di Valenza), Lauro Rossi (Cleopatra) and many others.

During the First World War the business failed and due to credit problems was taken over by Luigi Stoppa in 1920, he closed the activity in 1930. The financial procedure of the closing was undertaken by Banca cattolica di S. Antonio di Piacenza which turned to the Librarian of what is now the Conservatorio "Nicolini" di Piacenza for help, its library thus received the whole musical archive of the former Giudici & Strada where, ever since, it has been housed.

But back to Cagnoni, who let the new music publisher take over his opera Claudia in 1866. Obviously their cooperation turned out well, for in 1878 Francesca da Rimini as well as the Messa funebre per 4 voci e orchestra (1884) were published by the ditta torinese. The autographs of these pieces are now to be found in the library of the Piacenza Conservatorio. It must have been sometime in the 1880’s that Cagnoni turned his interest to Shakespeare's King Lear. The renown of this piece in Italian 19th century opera is well known as Verdi spent many of his creative years trying to find a good enough libretto for a Re Lear. Therefore it is more than a little piquant that Cagnoni was the composer Verdi chose to write Quid sum miser in the Messa per Rossini of 1869, and that Verdi's librettist for Aida, Antonio Ghislanzoni, was to write the libretto for Cagnoni's Lear.

Fromthe inventory file of the publisher we learn that the rights of King Lear were in their hands in 1888 (Arena [1]), but at the death of Cagnoni on Sept 30, 1896, the opera had not still had its prima. Four years after the death of the composer Giudici & Strada published the vocal score. Nevertheless there are two letters from Cagnoni written to M° Pietro Sormani, direttore sostituto for Toscanini and Campanini at La Scala who had asked for details about the oper[2]. From Cagnoni's answer it is evident that some negotiation had been going on with La Scala for staging Re Lear: there were suggestions about which part of the season would be the most favourable and that il Matto could be regarded as a secondo tenore. The letters are from Feb 1895 and a year before Cagnoni's death, nothing happened and the interest from La Scala came to an end.

The material of Re Lear in the library of the Piacenza Conservatorio consists of the autograph full score in four volumes, one for each act, and a partly autograph vocal score – the vocal lines written by a copyist and Cagnoni writing the piano part. Moreover there is a complete set of orchestral parts (except for the banda where only a guida banda is available) all hand-written. In examining these parts one realises that they have never been used, when opening them the crackling sound from the binding is an echo from the past. The pages are still white without the usual yellowish shade. Not even a single pencil mark from the instrumentalists. In other words: completely virgin material, rare to be seen. There is also a four-volume copyist full score with a few corrections by the copista (who also entered the corresponding corrections in the autograph as Cagnoni had made some vocal changes when he prepared the vocal score!) There is no trace of a printed libretto and nor any mention of any such printed text in Caselli [3].

It is interesting to look at Re Lear in the face of the musical environment in which the ageing composer was living. In the 1880s-90s the Italian opera world had definitely undergone changes and influences that forever ended the golden era from the primo Ottocento, both Wagner and the French opera had moved into Italian Opera Houses and of course a new generation of Italian composers had entered the scene: Puccini, Mascagni, Zandonai, Montemezzi etc.. Cagnoni was born in 1828 when opera still was written in forms that were predictable maybe, but also allowed composers to stretch the boundaries of musical and dramatical expression. Cagnoni carried within him both the power and weakness of the number opera, now however deprived of its recitativi. As we can see from the listing of the numbers in Re Lear it is obvious that he could handle the old number format and transform it into a sequence that was genuinely through-composed:


ATTO PRIMO           N.I        Introduzione

ATTO SECONDO     N.2       Scena ed Aria (Edgardo)

                               N.3      Scena e Duetto (Cordelia, Edgardo)

                               N.4        Finale 2°

ATTO TERZO           N.5       Preludio, Scena e Romanza (Edgardo)

                               N.6        Coro e Tempesta

                               N.7       Scena e Quartette (Matt, Edgardo, Lear, Gloster)

                               N.8       Coro, Scena e Duetto (Cordelia, Lear)

ATTO QUARTO         N.9       Scena ed Aria (Regana)

                               N.10      Scena ed Duetto (Regana, Edgardo)

                               N.11      Coro e Ballabile

                               N.12      Scena e Finale ultimo


The balanced form of the opera is obvious where N.I and N.12 create the outer boundaries: Acts 2 and 4 form the frame for the central Act 3 with four numbers; a form that also reflects the dramatic flow of the play itself with a central third act. Cagnoni has filled it all with music that has its starting point in the past, the 1840s, with the dramatic elegance of Donizetti and the strong dramatic accents of Verdi, linked to present-day Wagnerian chromaticism, a blend of the subtle French harmonic of a Gounod and a Massenet and dashes of verismo and Puccinian sentiment. In its own right. Re Lear thus becomes the Swansong of Italian 19th century opera!

[1] S..Arena: L'archivio delta casa editrice Giudici & Strada presso il Conservatorio "Nicolini" di Piacenza. Fonti Musicale Italiane, 5, 2000, pp. 249-269

[2] I am grateful to Alexander Weatherson who pointed out to me the existence of these letters in the Gallini Catalogues from 2001 and 2003

[3] Catalogo delle opere liriche pubblicate in Italia, Olschki Ed., Firenze, 1969




Page initially published in  2009