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.
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,