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Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford


It is not at all surprising to hear of wives who sacrificed their own talents in the service of their husbands' careers, like Clara Schumann who was obliged to curtail her piano playing and composing initially because Robert could not put up with any noise whilst working, and later by household duties and bringing up eight children. Mahler forbade his wife to compose for fear of the encroachment of one under his command upon his own territory, not too far from the difficulty Mendelssohn had in admitting the talent of his sister.

But a surprising sacrifice is that of one composer for another. The fact that Haydn turned down an opera commission because he believed the young Mozart would do a better job is more a part of the generous nature of that beloved man. But Arrigo Boito, who died in 1918, was constantly torn between music and literary composition. At the age of only nineteen he met Verdi in Paris who was enough impressed with a cantata libretto to use it in a work to open the International Exhibition in London in 1862. Boito went on to write some of the finest libretti of the late nineteenth century, among which were La Gioconda for Ponchielli, Simon Boccanegra for Verdi, and later Verdi's last two masterpieces Otello and Falstaff.

Yet through all this, Boito wished intensely to compose his own operas, the Faust legend being particularly fascinating to him. Mefistofele received a first disastrous performance at La Scala in 1868 and then, after seven years revising it and living on writing libretti and journalism, it became a triumphant success in Bologna, Venice and finally back at La Scala in 1881. Little more than frustration and dreams followed. He helped many struggling composers (including Puccini), supervised music education programmes in Italy, and was awarded an honorary degree by Cambridge University, but was destined to serve others rather than himself.

John Christopher Smith (the elder) was happy to see his modest ambitions realised with such genius by Handel, the master he served. But Eric Fenby, who was amanuensis to Delius for ten years, felt that his own creative personality had been devoured completely by the ruthless demands of the sick composer. 'After his death,' he told me, 'everything I wrote came out Delius; the old devil was in my bones and couldn't be exorcised'. And were these sacrifices worth while?

Copyright © 6 July 2004 Patric Standford, Wakefield, UK




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