Cuore e Mano,
with Mascagni conducting
13 June 1885
Vittorio Gianfranceschi, an engineer, was one of Mascagni's closest friends at the Milan Conservatory. They met while they were both students, and Mascagni highly respected the opinion of his friend Vichi (as he was nicknamed). So when Vichi suggested that Heine's tragedy Guglielmo Ratcliff would be a good subject for an opera, Mascagni immediately read it and was fired with enthusiasm over the project.
The full story of the composition of Guglielmo Ratcliff is told largely in the composer's words, here translated into English for the first time. They are taken from two sources:
1. An article written by Mascagni for the magazine Fanfulla della Domenica (December 1, 1892) entitiled "Before Cavalleria" (in which some faulty dates have been silently corrected) and
2. Excerpts from some recently published letters to his friend Vichi. The letters are designated by placing the city and date over each excerpt; the undated words are from the autobiographical article.
"At the Conservatory in Milan I happened to read in a small pamphlet the translation of William Ratcliff by Heine.
"The verses by Maffei, the translator, seemed beautiful to me, and, judging by what I could remember of my school studies, I deemed them very musical. I declaimed them at night, walking up and down my room, and they inflamed me so much and caused me to love them like a madman, that I dreamt of nothing else but "Tom's Tavern" in the drama by Heine and the fantastic passion of William and the adverturous life of those highwaymen. While dropping off to sleep I distinctly heard, in a dream, the works and music of the great love-duet of William and Maria.
"I nonetheless found no peace until I had written three pieces of what should have been my first opera. Later, on vacation during the summer of 1882 at Livorno, I jotted down a great part of the duet and completed it the following year in Milan."
It is generally stated that Mascagni left the Conservatoryin 1885because he would not submit to the discipline, but this is not entirely true. He knew he was a composer of talent, had a number of large works to his credit, and must have felt that he wanted to live music, whether composing or performing, rather than study it. Thus it was, after leaving the Conservatory, he found himself in Cremona and joined an operetta company as assistant conductor.
The Milan Conservatory
"It was the company of a certain [Vittorio] Forlì, a good old devil, who had contracted to give me five lire a day and he gave them to me with a rather capricious irregularity, but sooner or later always honored his obligations.
"I have never wished evil on anyone, but I confess the truth when I say that whether at Cremona, Piacenza or Reggio Emilia where we were travelled with the company, I hoped that a cold would force the conductor of the orchestra to stay in bed for a few days and let me conduct, at least once.
But that rogue was as heathy as a roach and he never would allow me the honor of the bâton, not even one evening.
This ambitious honor was conferred on me finally at [The Teatro Reinach in] Parma, where I conducted Cuore e Mano of [Charles] Lecocq."
Teatro Reinach, Parma
Piacenza, 25 April 1885
"To return to Livorno is by now impossible. Continue to study at the Conservatory for another two years? Nothing but chains around my neck. Instead, coming here, I earn my meals, work, and compose my Guglielmo."