Leoncavallo, Ruggero


Leoncavallo, Ruggero

Tarantella pour Orchestre

SKU: 1902 Category:


Ruggero Leoncavallo

Tarantella pour Orchestre

(b. Naples, 23. April 1857 – d. Montecatini Terme, 9. August 1919)

Ruggiero Leoncavallo was born in Naples on April 23, 1857. His father, a judge, moved the family to the town of Montalto Uffugo in Calabria, when Ruggiero was a child. He spent his adolescence there before moving back to Naples where he studied music at the San Pietro a Majella Conservatory. He completed his degree there at the age of eighteen, having gained considerable skill as both a pianist and music theorist. Rather than continuing his musical studies, he went to the University of Bologna to study literature with famed Italian poet Giosuè Carducci. He was awarded a diploma as doctor of letters at age twenty and upon completion of his studies, Leoncavallo set off for Egypt. In an article for the November, 1902 issue of the North American Review, he explained: “I was not obliged to do any military service, as, at the time of conscription, my brother was in the army. So I began my peregrinations as a concert pianist in Egypt, where at that time I had an uncle, Leoncavallo Bey, who was Director of the Press at the Foreign Office. There I played at Court, and Mahmoud Hamdy, the brother of the Viceroy Tewfik, appointed me as his private musician.”

Leoncavallo‘s tenure in Egypt ended suddenly in 1882 due to anti-European revolts in Alexandria and Cairo. He was able to escape by boarding an English ship in Ismailia on which he sailed to Marseilles on his way to Paris, where he intended to settle.

He struggled at first to find work, earning a small income as an accompanist for casual Sunday concerts at cafés. Again from the North American Review, Leoncavallo elaborates: “I shall always remember one evening when I was engaged by a large wine merchant at Creil for eight francs, plus the amount of the fare there and back, and supper. When I was introduced into the concert-room, to my surprise I found no piano, but a small harmonium, and the artistes who sang had no music, but only those small leaflets that are sold for a sou in the streets, giving the melody only without accompaniment: this did not prevent the artistes, however, from asking, before they began: „A tone and a half lower, please, Maitre!“ It seems that I did marvels in the way of accompaniment, for the next day all the small agencies of the suburban cafe-concerts were asking for the little Italian who was so clever, according to the recommendation of the artistes whom I had accompanied.”

It was during this time that he met his future wife, Berthe Rambaud, who was one of the singers in need of accompaniment.

Increasingly inspired by the French romantics, Leoncavallo began work on a symphonic poem, La Nuit de Mais, based on a poem of the same name by his biggest literary influence of the time, Alfred de Mussett. The piece was completed in Paris in 1886, and its 1887 premier met with critical acclaim and earned sufficient monetary resources to allow Leoncavallo to return to Milan and begin his career as a composer of opera.

Among those whose acquaintance he had made in France was Victor Manuel. The two reconnected in Milan, where Leoncavallo shared an idea he had for a Renaissance trilogy called Crepusculum, for which he had already written the libretto of the first section, I Medici. Manuel was impressed enough to recommend the work to the music publisher Ricordi, who agreed to publish the work based on the strength of the libretto alone. Leoncavallo completed the opera within the year, but Ricordi was sluggish to publish and produce the work.

After three years of waiting, Leoncavallo became so frustrated the he offered his next work to rival publisher Sonzogno. This opera would become his most famous work by far, Pagliacci. The choice of topic was inspired by the enormous success of Pietro Mascagni‘s Cavalleria rusticana and the associated Italian verismo school. Leoncavallo related that he “had taken my plot from an event that really took place in Calabria and was brought before my father when he was holding the Court of Justice at Cosenza.” The critical success of Pagliacci inspired Ricordi to finally publish I Medici, but by this time Leoncavallo had given up on completing his trilogy. The success of the 1897 opening of his La bohème in Venice confirmed his stature in the public eye, but was soon overshadowed by Puccini’s opera of the same name which had premiered mere months before.

Further operas by Leoncavallo – Zazà, Der Roland von Berlin, Maïa, and Zingari – as well as a series of operettas met with success at the time but have since disappeared from the repertoire. Leoncavallo died in Montecatini Terme, Tuscany, on August 9, 1919, leaving his final opera, Edipo re, unfinished (although there has since been some controversy as to whether this work was actually Leoncavallo’s at all). His funeral was held two days later with Pietro Mascagni and Giacomo Puccini among the hundreds in attendance.

In his search for realism in Pagliacci, Leoncavallo introduced elements of Italian society into his opera. The events of the story are based around life in a travelling commedia dell‘arte troupe. The characters would have been familiar to his audience, as would the setting, helping them to connect to the intended realism of the verismo style. These things would also have been very familiar to Leoncavallo, having grown up in the south of Italy, and would have allowed him to write from a place of confidence and authenticity. No doubt this shared familiarity between Leoncavallo and his audience aided in the early success of the opera.

This same idea can be seen in his choice to compose the Tarentella. This folk dance gets its name from the Italian province of Taranto, which lends its name to a local variety of wolf spider, the tarantula. One legend has it that the bite of this spider was said to be highly poisonous and to lead to a hysterical condition known as tarantism. The dance is said by some to mimic this condition. Others suggest that the dance was the only cure for the bite of the spider. According to author Anthony Parente, people would surround the bite victim while musicians would play mandolins, guitars and tambourines in search of the correct rhythm. Each beat would have a different effect on the victim, or tarantata (the victims were almost always female), causing various movements and gestures. Once the correct rhythm was found it was almost certain that the tarantata was cured. As a native Italian, Leoncavallo would have been familiar with both the legend of the tarantella and the musical material associated with it. This shared familiarity would have helped to bridge his work to the local audience, just as with Pagliacci.

Leoncavallo’s Tarentella was originally written as a sketch for piano, and later adapted for orchestra. It is in the typical 6/8 time associated with the style, and features running eighth-notes, to symbolize the frantic nature of the dance, as well as harp, pizzicato strings, and percussion instruments to hint at the timbre of the original folk instruments that would have been played. The sectionalized structure of the work could be seen as an attempt to imitate the efforts of the musicians to find the “correct” rhythm to cure the tarantata. The orchestration and dynamic structure of the piece give it a good sense of flow and serve to remind us that Leoncavallo was, first and foremost, a dramatist, and even in a seemingly simple work like the one presented here, he is committed to telling a story.

Paul Thompson, 2016

For performance material please contact Ricordi, Milano.




Score No.



Repertoire Explorer




210 x 297 mm





Go to Top