About this Recording
8.223883-84 - PACINI: Saffo

Giovanni Pacini (1796–1867)


By early 1835 Giovanni Pacini had written almost fifty operas during the course of a career launched in 1813. He was tired and he was discouraged. Not only had his earlier works been overshadowed by the force of Rossini’s musical personality, but even after the departure of the Pesarese from Italy in 1823, Pacini’s star did not shine brighter. In his fascinating Memoirs, the composer examined these years and acknowledged his own limitations. Though the first performances of his Irene, o L’ Assedio di Messina (Naples, Teatro San Carlo, 30th November 1833) were largely rescued by the singers, Pacini knew the creative vein he had been mining was empty. Maturing under the spell of Rossini, he had not yet shown himself to be more than an able follower: “I began to realise that I should withdraw from the field - Bellini, the divine Bellini, and Donizetti had surpassed me”.

He tried his hand once again during the carnival season of 1835, writing Carlo di Borgogna for the Teatro La Fenice but it was a dismal failure. Pacini’s judgments about his operas through 1835 are harsh, even unduly so: “I gave little though to honour myself and my art as I should have… They called me Maestro delle cabalette because my cabalettas generally had the virtue of spontaneity, elegance, and form. Everyone believed it cost me little to find a melodic thought of some novelty, since, it was said, that was a matter of innate talent and nothing else”.

Though Pacini insisted he worked hard even on cabaletta tunes, always seeking to fashion them in ways different from his contemporaries, he admitted that his music had defects: “My instrumentation was never careful enough, and it was sometimes beautiful or brilliant, this resulted not from reflection but rather from that natural taste God granted me. I frequently slighted the string section, nor did I take pains about the effects that might be drawn from other instrumental families.”

He concentrated too much energy on suiting his vocal lines to the needs of individual singers, and though he loved his art, his rivals were ever more admired and his own work thought to be increasingly old-fashioned.

Thus, Pacini decided to abandon the stage. He retired to Viareggio, where he founded and directed a music school, organised a band and small orchestra for his fellow townsmen, and built a theatre for his students. In 1837 he was appointed head of the ducal chapel in nearby Lucca and turned his attention increasingly to sacred music. These years away from the theatre were ones of reflection and personal growth. When Pacini decided to accept a commission from the Roman impresario Vincenzo Jacovacci for a new opera to open the carnival season of 1839-40 at the Teatro Apollo, he was determined to strike out on a new path:
“During my period of repose, I had meditated on new developments, on the changing taste of the audience, and on what should be the path to follow. Rossini after 1829 had ceased to grace the musical world with further masterpieces. Bellini, the touching Bellini, had been stolen from art in 1835… The versatile Donizetti and the severe Mercadante were the only ones who dominated the stage, since Verdi had just appeared on the horizon in that year 1839 with his Oberto di San Bonifazio. The others, such as Coccia, Ricci, Lauro Rossi, rarely gave their works on our stages. All this made me seriously consider on what path to begin anew. If my compositions were to have any hope for long life, I had to develop that aesthetic sense I had previously sought but rarely achieved. I set to work, with the firm intention of putting aside the procedures I had followed in my earlier career, and I looked for characteristic ideas from the diverse melodies of different peoples, drawing them from traditional sources, so that I could inform my works with that truth so difficult to achieve in our art”.

This statement and similar ones Pacini made about Saffo suggest impatience with the artificiality of Italian operatic melody. The desire to revitalise art through new sources in folk or traditional music was common to much European musical thought in the mid-nineteenth century.

Of his opera for Rome, Furio Camillo, to a libretto by the congenial Roman librettist and literary figure Jacopo Ferretti, Pacini wrote only: “The experiment with Furio Camillo was not a complete success, but I felt that I had made progress. Its reception did not correspond to my hopes, but was not entirely unhappy; indeed, several pieces were enormously effective”.

In June 1840 Pacini, at home in Lucca, received an offer from the Teatro San Carlo of Naples to write a new opera to a text by Salvatore Cammarano. Saffo was to be the first of five collaborations between them. Cammarano sent the poetry of the first act together with an outline of the whole, and Pacini set to work at once. His description of his preparations for the composition of Saffo are fascinating:

“Reading and re-reading the story of that people, which opened a path to all human understanding, and seeking to discover what music was used by that heroic nation, whose sons included Euripedes, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Aristoxenus, Homer, Tyrtaeus, and Aristides (who in his Trattato musicale gives a precise idea of the principles that governed music in those times, and particularly speaks of rhythm), I learned that the Greeks attributed a more ample meaning to the word music, consisting not only of the art which excites various sentiments through sound, but also poetry, aesthetics, rhetoric, philosophy, and that science the Romans called politior humanitas. Giving heed to the modes they (the Greeks) employed, Doric, Ionic, Phrygian, Aeolian, Lydian, and of their related forms, Hypodoric, Hyperdoric, etc., I gained an understanding of their system. Keeping always before me what Aristides said about the qualities of the three genera, Diatonic, Chromatic, and Enharmonic (the first noble and austere, the second very sweet and plaintive, the third both gentle and exciting), I attempted, as I said, to approximate their art of melody. I set to work with a joy that I cannot explain…” Pacini completed two numbers, but gradually lost courage for the project.

He arrived in Naples in early September with the intention of asking Cammarano for a new libretto. The librettist asked to hear the numbers already set, and Pacini sat down at the piano and sang them through:
“All of a sudden I saw the poet of Saffo grow pale and full of emotion at the words ‘Di sua voce ii suon giungea’. He did not let me finish, he threw his arms around my neck: “My Maestro (he exclaimed), for heaven’s sake continue the work; you will give Italy a masterpiece”.

Pacini did continue, and Saffo had its premiere at the Teatro San Carlo on 29th November 1840. It was an outstanding success, judged universally to be Pacini’s masterpiece: “In the autumn of 1840 I was therefore baptised by public opinion no longer as the composer of facile cabalettas, but rather of elaborated works and carefully meditated compositions”. He claimed to have composed Saffo in twenty-eight days and created (by which he surely meant “sketched”) the final scene in only two hours. But Saffo had been in his thoughts since June and had benefited both from the preceding years of reflection and from Pacini’s efforts to find a characteristic colour for this setting of a Greek legend. It would be fascinating to analyse Saffo with Pacini’s statement about its creation in mind. Pacini’s own description of the opera suggest its original divisions were as follows:

Act I
1. Introduzione
2. Recitativo e Scena drammatica

Act II
3. Coro e Cavatina Climene
4. Recitativo e Duetto
5. Coro e Finale II

6. Scena, Coro e Terzetto
7. Scena ed Aria Faone
8. Coro, Scena ed Aria Finale Saffo

It is worth stopping over this scheme to recognise the extent to which Saffo is constructed of remarkably extended musical numbers. There are only three solo compositions in the opera, for Climene, Faone, and Saffo, all with either chorus or pertichini or both. The first two are arias in traditional designs, although both are marvellously rendered. Notice the syncopated theme of Climene’s Cavatina; the sumptuous clarinet solo that opens Faone’s Scena; the lovely canonic writing in its primo tempo; and Faone’s cabaletta, worthy of the “maestro delle cabalette”, in which Pacini sends his tenor, Gaetano Fraschini, hurtling up to a high D-flat, then stratospherically and a al Rubini to a high E-flat.

Saffo’s final scene is a worthy heir to the final scene of Anna Bolena. The heroine is about to take the fatal leap from the rock of Leucade so as to put behind her earthly passion. Throughout the recitative, Pacini recalls other tunes and designs from earlier in the opera. The reappearance of Climene and Alcandro drives Saffo into madness, and she imagines herself singing in honour of Climene’s wedding, as she had promised to do. Saffo’s beautiful melody (accompanied by harp and winds alone) gives way to an expansive, passionate outburst (“addio; ti lascio in terra”), a melodic topos Pacini associated with Saffo elsewhere in the opera. A less original but appropriately designed cabaletta concludes the finale, with a startling cadential progression marking her leap to death and bringing down the curtain.

The greatest achievements of Pacini’s score, though, lie in the ensembles, particularly the glorious finale of the second act. To do justice to the sources of Verdi’s style, one must recognise that his great Largo movements owe a more direct debt to the second-act finale of Saffo than to either Bellini or Donizetti. The strength of this music, its passion and scope, the interaction of an introductory solo and an ensemble, the building of enormous musical climaxes, all elements we hold to be typical of the great early Verdian Largos, are present here in ample measure. Nor does the tension dissipate in the final stretta, with its wonderful reprise of the opening melody transposed up a third at first (from B-flat major to D-flat major) and assigned to the full ensemble instead of to Saffo alone.

Pacini sought to create a more continuous drama in much of the work, and the extent to which he gives lyrical expression to scenes of dialogue is remarkable. A scene that will repay close study from this perspective is the opening of the final act, where Saffo asks permission to take the leap of Leucade. Only after she has sworn to throw herself into the sea is her identity as the daughter of Alcandro and sister of Climene revealed, leading to another beautiful ensemble, “Al seno mi stringi”. But it is Pacini’s handling of the dialogue that is particularly noteworthy: he tries, usually with great success, to lend lyrical and dramatic force to each expression. In this he is greatly aided by Cammarano’s libretto, long held to be the poet’s finest achievement.

Philip Gossett
The University of Chicago


Six hundred years before the reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus a young lyric poetess lived in Greece: she was not strikingly beautiful but was gifted with an ardent and enthusiastic heart. Her name was Sappho, and she has become as famous for her poetry as for her misfortunes. Rejected by Phaon, a handsome youth of Mytilene whom she loved, she sought a remedy for her violent passion by throwing herself from the celebrated promontory of Leucas into the Aegean Sea: according to the myth. Apollo would heal survivors of the leap from their sorrow by erasing all memories of their unrequited love. Sappho however, did not survive: she met death in the raging waves instead of the cure she had hoped for. In the ages which have elapsed since her death, the most interesting details of Sappho’s life has been lost: even her father’s name is unknown. All we know is that at the early age of six the poetess was left an orphan by the death of her mother Cleida. Sappho, according to history, was very short and slight. She had married a man called Cercylas, but had soon afterwards been left a widow, whereupon she fell violently in love with Phaon: this was the hopeless passion which caused her death. In spite of the obscurity of her life (which is at best a mixture of fact and fable) her name has been preserved through the ages and the memory of her poetic genius will never be effaced.

These gaps in her history have perhaps encouraged the vivid imagination of Salvatore Cammarano, the Italian poet who, to fill up the void left by historians, wrote a libretto for Pacini which creates a romantic and fanciful plot full of brilliant theatrical situations; although somewhat violent it maintains a tender love interest throughout.

Act I
The Olympic Crown ‘Olympia, at the time of the 42nd Olympiad: outside the Circus, where the Poetic Games are being held. Boisterous shouts of applause are heard, followed by an increasing uproar and a tumult of wild yells. Alcandro, High Priest of Apollo’s Temple in Leucadia, rushes in from the Circus in a state of extreme anger and disarray. There he meets Ippia, the Chief Augur, to whom he explains that he has been driven out of the Circus by the people, who had been stirred to revolt by Saffo’s song. The poet’s elegy against the barbarous and inhumane Leucadian leap (supported by the priests of Apollo) has roused powerful emotions in the crowd and forced him to flee. The outraged Alcandro conceives a violent hatred for the sublime poetess, who has just been awarded the Olympic Crown. He swears revenge, although the sound of her persuasive voice, during the contest, woke strangely familiar feelings in his breast, and some secret power impelled his heart to love her. Faone, already jealous of the admiration Saffo deservingly receives from the famous lyrical poet Alceo, now seems to the cunning Alcandro to be the best instrument he can use to carry out his vengeance on Saffo, prime cause of the insult Alcandro has just suffered at the hands of the people. Therefore, in a most persuasive way, he reminds Faone of the affection the young man had formerly expressed for his own daughter Climene. Judging his moment with care, he exhorts the wavering young man to forget the inconstant Saffo. When later the two lovers meet, Saffo makes every effort to dispel the suspicions so insidiously aroused in Faone by Alcandro. But though Faone loves, he still doubts; and if for a moment he submits again to the yoke of love, he very quickly recalls the jealous thoughts which lacerate his heart, and the mere idea that the Olympic wreath is to be set upon her brow by Alceo enrages him. Saffo clings to Faone’s knees in a state of desperation, but he upbraids her and flees from her presence with a storm of curses.

Act II
The Nuptials of Faone

Three months later, in Alcandro’s apartments beside the Temple of Apollo in Leucadia. Climene is surrounded by Dirce and the rest of her handmaidens, who are attiring her for her approaching wedding. Saffo introduces herself to Alcandro’s daughter, to whom she is unknown, imploring Climene’s protection and asking her to intercede with her father to allow Saffo to present offerings to Apollo to appease the god’s wrath. Apollo’s anger has been excited by the contempt Saffo had shown for his worship during the Olympic Games. Climene receives her with love and kindness and offers her friendship, as pure as that which she had felt for her idolised sister whose tragic loss she is still mourning:

The vessel’s brow was turned
Towards the shores of Samos
Whither my father was then going
To fulfil some divine rite; the child
Was with him… impetuous winds
Assailed them in the Cyclades, and cast
The ship upon a rock;
He alone escaped death!

Saffo then tells Climene that she too had been the victim of a dreadful fate: for three whole months she vainly searched the shores of Greece, seeking a faithless lover. Climene’s pity is like balm to Saffo’s wounded heart, and the two young women remain for some time in each other’s arms embracing with great feeling. Then Climene suggests that on such a happy day a request from her would certainly be well received: her marriage is about to take place in a few moments. Saffo is overjoyed, and offers to celebrate the nuptials with some verses of her own composition. She feels, however, that she should not attend the ceremony wearing such travel-stained clothing. But Climene instantly gives orders for Saffo to be dressed in her own best garments, and then herself proceeds to the ceremony where she is awaited.

As soon as Saffo presents herself at the wedding ceremony, crowned with laurel and in magnificent attire, what is her astonishment at finding that her former lover, Faone, is the bridegroom! She breaks out into shrieks of wild despair, and reminds him pitifully of his erstwhile love and vows. Climene’s father, Alcandro the High Priest, although feeling with strange disquiet that his vengeance is not as sweet as he had thought, orders her to withdraw from the temple. But when she utterly refuses to leave without her lover Faone, Alcandro points to the two nuptial wreaths on the altar and declares:

Turn to the sacred altar and be silent.
He is already married!

Learning that Faone no longer belongs to her, Saffo at first remains as if thunderstruck, then rushes madly at the marriage altar and hurls it to the ground with a blasphemous gesture. All is confusion and terror: the Augurs and Priests of the Leucadian Apollo tear the poetess away and drive her with curses from the sacred precinct.

The Leucadian Leap

In a remote place, buffeted by roaring gusts of wind. Alcandro is presenting Saffo to Ippia and the assembled Council of Augurs. Lisimaco, an old man of Leucadia is also present. The unhappy Saffo, bowed down under the weight of divine malediction, her sensitive heart wounded by the recollection of her unhappy love, decides to prostrate herself before Apollo and beg the priests to let her make the terrifying Leucadian Leap. In this way she hopes to extinguish the fiery passion which still consumes her heart. The oracle is consulted and the answer is favourable to her request. Alcandro orders the rite to begin, and Ippia first requires the repentant Saffo to state her name, her birthplace and the name of her father. Saffo, Lesbos, Ipseus are the three answers given by Saffo. At this, Lisimaco, becoming increasingly agitated, exclaims!

You must now hear me. Let not
The rite be polluted by inadvertent
Falsehood. She is not, as she believes,
Daughter of Ipseus, nor was she born
Upon the soil of Lesbos…
Four lustra
Have passed since then
When on the beach I found her, thrown
By the tempestuous Aegean sea.

More and more anxious, Alcandro presses him; was there not an amulet hanging from her neck? Lisimaco confirms that there was, adding that it was engraved with the Leucadian Apollo. Then Saffo takes from her neck the amulet which she always wears, which proves that she is Aspasia, long lostdaughter of Alcandro and sister of Climene, who is delirious with joy at the news. Alcandro’s feelings about Saffo are completely reversed; now he knows her to be his daughter he longs to save her from the imminent peril to which she has condemned herself. But Ippia and the Augurs refuse to release her from the sacred oath she has sworn. Alcandro therefore asks if he can at least offer up a sacrifice, so that the Augurs can ask the god, on the victims’ blood, to absolve Saffo from the oath. While the god’s decision - which will be pitiless - is awaited, Faone enters, full of lamentation and remorse for having rejected that faithful and innocent soul, Saffo. At this point Ippia and the Augurs return. The offering has revealed the will of Apollo: Saffo cannot be set free from her sacred oath.
After the fatal decree is pronounced, Faone first falls to the ground in violent agitation, then, as if inspired with sudden hope, resolves to die with Saffo. The Augurs invite him to withdraw, because the appointed hour has come and the dreadful leap must be made. The people of Leucadia advance, fullof consternation, with the Priests of Apollo and the Augurs. Among the Sacred Guards is Saffo, in a white robe, her hair unbound; Lisimaco follows her sorrowfully, bearing her wreath and her lyre. After having put on her laurel crown, Saffo takes her lyre from Lisimaco and strikes it with poetic fire, singing her farewell to the world and to her lover. Then she goes towards Climene, and leads her into Faone’s arms, singing:

Love him as I have always loved him.
More, if thou wouldst, thou couldst not
May love lend you those joys
Which destiny to me denied!

Finally, escorted by the Augurs, the poetess ascends the summit of the promontory. Her father Alcandro drops to his knees; Climene faints in the arms of Dirce; Faone tries to throw himself into the sea, but is prevented by the priests. The curtain falls.

Luigi Ferrari

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