Vincenzio Battista: The San Carlo's Forgotten Boy Prodigy
Updated: May 25
Pick up any biography of Verdi and the account of his "Galley Years" at the San Carlo will probably mention passim two composers we have come to know much better in recent decades, Mercadante and Pacini. However, they will probably also give a brief nod to Vincenzio Battista, of whom there is almost no residual memory.
But who was Vincenzio (as he himself spelled it) Battista? His utter obscurity today belies the celebrity he enjoyed in the Neapolitan music scene. He burst onto the scene in February, 1843 at the tender age of 19 (he was apparently born October 5, 1823, although as we will see, his age was a bone of contention) with a tragic opera, Anna la Prie. He was instantly celebrated, although apparently the public could scarcely believe that someone so young had composed such a fresh, ingenious, and moving work; there were rumors that his supposed teacher, a monk named Guidi, had actually composed Anna for him.
Those rumors got laid to rest the following year when he gave his second work, Margherita d'Aragona at the same theatre. The public and press responded with great enthusiasm to every piece, and the novelty of Battista's style was lost on no-one. A starry cast: Fanny Goldberg, Carlotta Gruitz, Gaetano Fraschini, and Filippo Coletti shone brightly and Battista was rocketed to even greater stardom. Fantasias were composed on its tunes. Even the few naysayers give some indication that there must be something of great interest Battista's style. A lengthy article about Margherita by Andrea Martinez appeared in the second volume of the 1844 edition of Museo di Scienze e Letteratura, pillorying Battista's reliance on the wrong role models. He does not say so explicitly, but seems to mean Verdi, for he mentions Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Mercadante as the composers who had NOT inspired the youthful composer. Bolstering the notion that Battista was emulating the recent success of Nabucco is the accusation that the vocal writing is abusive to the chords of the singers, and that the orchestra is given too prominent a part (in the "German" manner).
Battista's rise was meteoric enough to have gotten him a commission to compose an opera for La Scala, Rosvina de la Forest, which debuted with success in 1845.
But this seems to have marked the high point of Battista's career, and his gradual descent from glory appears to date from just after Rosvina. He still enjoyed successes, notably Ermelinda (Napoli, T. Nuovo, 1851) based on Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame), and the weirdly titled Emo (Napoli, T. San Carlo, 1846). That he had flaws as a composer seems to be uncontroversial. A genius, yes, but one whose musical training was rather superficial, according to the affectionate eulogy he received in Napoli Musicale.
By all accounts, Battista seems to have suffered something of the fate of child stars, his ego slightly overinflated. He is said to have had a rather bizarre if affable personality, and his presence at the salons of Vincenzo Torelli, the editor of L'omnibus, where Battista would often sing his own salon music with overblown flair, was a source of entertainment to all that attended. His chamber songs were widely performed and beloved, including one entitled Bivacco, of which Napoli Musicale informs us was, "at the time it was composed, was played and sung ad nauseum, worse than is now done with the Aida March, which is far less beautiful than Bivacco."
The final page of Mudarra (T. San Carlo, 1851), where Battista bitterly added "vera" to "Tragedia Lirica" and a footnote "che fece tremendo fiasco"! Conservatorio di S. Pietro a Majella, Napoli.
But even in his native Naples, the public was less and less enthused about Battista's operas. Though Giovanna di Castiglia, based on Hugo's Marie Tudor, was a clamorous success, it was his last opera to see daylight, and Ricordi refused to even evaluate it for publication. And his remaining works, such as Mudarra (1851) had at best enjoyed mediocre and temporary success.
We are told that his downfall was hastened by the increasing dominance of Verdi and the machinations of the Ricordi firm, which put his first two scores in the public domain and refused to publish others. Il Mondo Artistico puts it thus:
He was destined to receive a solemn snub at the San Carlo, with the opera Mudarra (1853 (sic)). This was the period when, to the idol Verdi, all the maestros were being immolated, just atrociously, beginning with Mercadante and Pacini, and poor Battista had to resign himself to having companions in the duel Statira of the former (later recast in the acclaimed Virginia!!) and the Margherita Pusterla of the latter. Henceforth the hosannas of yore, turned definitively into crucifixion, and he who, at the time of his first successes, had been, in an excess of enthusiasm, placed by several on a par with Verdi, was mocked and laughed at, all raising themselves to doctors on his account, and avoiding him, however much they had courted and desired him before.
His scores - many of which are digitized on internetculturale.it - show great interest and promise. Orchestration is rich and varied. Musical form follows the drama, rather than slavishly following the solita forma. Indeed, Martinez specifically criticized Battista's blurring of the lines between recitativo and set pieces. There simply must be a reason why a 19-year-old composer landed a commission at Naples' biggest and most prestigious theatre, with the best singers, and a reason for his meteoric rise.
Thankfully, unlike composers like Pacini whose genius has been obscured behind the dizzying haze of chicken-scratches that are his autograph scores, Battista's handwriting is an anomaly among composers of the day. Particularly in his youth, his autograph manuscripts are meticulous, precise, and written in exaggeratedly large script. Every detail is spelled out, with nothing left to chance. Stage directions are never omitted. Lyrics are especially readable. The cellos are indicated with "unisono col basso", when they follow the bass line. Every staccato, every phrasing and dynamic mark, is indicated. If anything, Battista's autographs are actually neater than the copyists manuscripts they spawned.
Tragically, Battista died suddenly at only 50 years old. The cause, we are told, was an apoplectic fit during the rehearsals of a church piece at the Chiesa di San Potito on November 14, 1873. By this time, his birth date had apparently been forgotten, because the obits place his age at either 55 or 53. Reading them is a sad task. Those that loved and respected him gave a balanced appraisal of his merit as a composer. He begins to truly emerge from the shadows as a colorful figure in the pages of Il Mondo Artistico,:
"...he was, or showed himself to be, always buoyant, not succumbing to the harsh trials, shrewd, not lacking in wit; and his originality was apparent at first glance in his squat and irregular figure, but slender and by old habits somewhat pretentious, in his physique far from beautiful, but revealing wit in his high and spacious forehead, in his piercing eyes, in his excited and expressive speech, and in a certain bizarre hairstyle, which made him distinctive. His handwriting, too, had a certain something strange about it; and by old habit he never omitted in his signatures, and by extension, his first name, which he had established as Vincenzio."
Sadly, he died in penury, leaving behind 3 older unmarried sisters. He himself had never, we are told, had a romantic relationship of his own. Not a few of his comrades blamed the fickle public and - though never explicitly - his snubbing by Ricordi and by the management of the San Carlo - for his destitution and his early death.
As a final slap in the face to the beaten-down composer, the Gazzetta Musicale di Milano (published, let it be noted, by Ricordi!) did not include a separate obituary, but sandwiched the news of his death between reports of a colder than usual Neapolitan winter, and the appointment of a new concert master. The correspondent is brutal, quoting an unnamed Neapolitan doggerel dating from the time of one of his less successful efforts:
"To make fate even sadder, Battista threatens [to compose] new music."
Battista is not, he claims, an example for young composers to follow, but is held up as a model of what NOT to do:
A mind without restraint, an imagination from which gushed forth happy and dulcet melodies that were not always consistent with each other, here in a few words is the whole of Battista. His sad end much grieves me, however I never approached him because of his strangeness, and because I could never enjoy his music. I think, however, to remind young artists in the discourse of a misguided intellect, that one must by silence and study mature one's inspirations, so that that love may grow more and more, without it being a source of ugly disillusionment.
A page from the autograph of Margherita d'Aragona (Napoli, T. San Carlo, 1844). Conservatorio di S. Pietro a Majella Napoli.
Gazzetta Musicale di Milano, Anno XXVII, No. 47, 23 Nov. 1873 p.376.
Il Mondo Artistico, "BIOGRAFA MUSICALE", Anno VII, No. 45-6, 8 Dec. 1873, p. 1-2.
Museo di Scienze e Letteratura, V. 2, 1844, p. 186-192.
Napoli Musicale, 29 Novembre, 1873, Anno VI No. 21, p.4.