Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #18/50: Cavalleria Rusticana (Intermezzo) by Pietro Mascagni

If you have a heart that beats then the intermezzo from Pietro Mascagni’s opera Cavalleria Rusticana will fill it with sadness or with love or both. Many point to this wonderful piece of music as being the saddest, as well as the most beautiful composition ever written. As well as holding a special place in the annals of Italian opera history, the intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana always holds a prominent place in the world of cinema. What is truly amazing about it all is that this composition was not played during a major portion of the opera from which it draws its name. In fact, the composer, Pietro Mascagni was so unsure of its merits that, at first, he refused to submit it for inclusion in the opera and had intended to throw it away as being unworthy. To Mascagni’s wife, who rescued the composition from within her husband’s desk where it had been hidden, the world owes her a debt of gratitude. For never in the history of classical music has something born of self-doubt given way to becoming such a masterpiece. Here is the story of the world’s most famous intermezzo, Cavalleria Rusticana.

Composer Pietro Mascagni.

Pietro Mascagni was just a young man in his twenties when he received word that a competition had been declared to find the best one-act opera in Italy. Mascagni, who had created nothing of note up until this point, was encouraged by his friends and family to put together an entry. So, with the help of two friends who created the libretto (the hand book given to audiences that explained the story of the opera as it unfolded on stage in song), Mascagni began work on an opera entitled Cavalleria Rusticana. Work by Mascagni on the musical score happened in fits and starts and with the deadline for entries fast approaching, he grew anxious and began to question the worth of his own material. It was during these final weeks that Mascagni withdrew the intermezzo he had written as being unworthy. His young wife, Lina, had listened to the intermezzo as it was being developed and thought it was incredibly moving. So, unbeknownst to Mascagni, she retrieved the forsaken composition and brought it to the attention of the librettists who, knowing more about opera than she did at the time, confirmed for her its worth. They, in turn, responded to Mascagni by insisting that the intermezzo be re-inserted into the opera. They even wrote a special scene specifically for it. In the end, Mascagni relented. The intermezzo was put back into his opera and, once completed, the entire opera was submitted on time for judging in the competition.

As it turned out, one of the main sources for Mascagni’s lack of confidence in his own work was due to the innovative nature of its theme. Italian opera had a long history of celebrating God and/or royalty. So, when Mascagni created an opera based upon the lives of ordinary people, it seemed completely unthinkable that such subject matter would ever be deemed as being appropriate for the great opera stages of Italy. But, the uniqueness of the storyline was what struck the judges. Cavalleria Rusticana’s story was, at the time, a completely fresh and original take on what an opera could be. In fact, it ushered in a style of opera known as verismo or “realistic” operas. Shortly thereafter, the sub-genre of verismo operas was solidified with the creation of the classic opera, Pagliacci. But, Cavalleria Rusticana came first and will always be noted for changing the face of Italian opera forever.

As the intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana plays, the men prepare to duel and the towns folk gather, the scorned women comfort each other.

The title, Cavalleria Rusticana means “rustic chivalry” or, simply, the bravery of the common folk. In the opera (which was taken from a play of the same name by a writer named Giovanni Verga), Mascagni spins a one act yarn about mistaken love involving two men and two women. The story ends with one of the men taking out a vendetta against the other for an act of betrayal. Just as the two men prepare for their duel to the death, the intermezzo is performed. In operatic terms, an intermezzo is essentially an intermission or a filler scene that is placed between two other main scenes in order to provide a bit of comic relief or to allow a more minor character to add an extra layer of meaning and detail to the story through a plot device such as an aside. Intermezzos, by nature, are not usually that lengthy. So, while the two men prepare to duel, the towns folk gather, the scorned women talk and the full nature of the betrayal is made clear for all to see. All the while, Mascagni’s intermezzo plays on. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, what Mascagni first thought was unworthy turned out to be a work of incredible beauty. The intermezzo’s score was so touching that the first audiences to witness the opera were said to have jumped to their feet in rapturous applause. The emotional meaning being conveyed through Mascagni’s music enriched the drama that was unfolding on stage and brought it to a level that touched the hearts of all who heard it. While not the first example of a musical score being used to amplify the drama inherent in a story, the intermezzo for Cavalleria Rusticana is often held up as the gold standard by many other creative talents, as we shall soon see.

Just one of the great films made better for having incorporated Mascagni’s intermezzo into its soundtrack.

While Mascagni was changing the world of Italian opera forever with his courageous decision to make opera more accessible and realistic in the eyes of ordinary citizens, the impact of his bravery has rippled out throughout the centuries and can be seen in how the intermezzo was used in two very famous Hollywood movies. First of all, we have well known director Martin Scorsese. Scorsese is of Italian descent and was raised in a household that valued Italian culture. That culture included Italian opera. So, it was in an atmosphere of respect, pride and patriotism that he first heard Mascagni’s intermezzo played in his house as a child. The story of how Mascagni changed the nature of how stories were told on stage resonated with Scorsese. As Scorsese grew up and began to show an interest and an inclination toward filmmaking, the example set by Mascagni sat as a major influence. Thus, it was to the surprise of no one who knew him that Scorcese eventually came to incorporate Mascagni’s intermezzo into one of his own most famous films, Raging Bull. In Scorsese’s masterful hands, his movie opens with a scene of boxer Ray Lamotta alone in a ring. He is warming up for a fight. He is a solitary figure about to put his life on the line while the crowd cheers for each blow landed and received. All the while Lamotta’s character moves, Mascagni’s intermezzo plays. There is no other sound except for this beautiful music designed to describe with notes, a sense of courage summoned in the face of possible death. Many who watched this Academy Award winning film point to this opening scene as setting the rich tone for the entire movie and giving it the emotional heft it maintained throughout. Mascagni’s intermezzo was also used in the closing scene of another Italian-themed movie of note, Godfather-III. In that scene, Al Pacino’s character, Michael Corleone, suffers an unthinkable loss as his daughter is killed in an attempt on his own life. To hold his dying daughter in his arms, while the intermezzo played, brought audiences to understand the full circle of a life lived in the Mafia. It is to know the most profound love and the most profound sadness at the same time. *I will play both scenes in the links to follow at the end of this post.

It is not always easy to be different. There is a certain comfort in not drawing attention to yourself by taking a path in life that is well trodden by others who have preceded you. It is much more difficult to create your own path. I feel that it was understandable for Mascagni to feel that lack of confidence that he did. As all creative types feel at one time or another, who are we to value our own thoughts to such a high degree? For Mascagni, who was only allowed entry into the opera competition because it was open for novice composers, to defy convention took great courage, indeed. It took cavalleria rusticana, as it turned out. I think it also goes to show the importance of having a network of support around you in life. If it had not been for the efforts of his young wife and his libretto-writing friends, Mascagni may have never had the faith in himself that he needed in order to complete his work and then, to actually submit it for scrutiny by judges who had a long tenure in the Italian opera community to which he was seeking to join. One never knows when something you do will change the world in a profound way but that was certainly the case for Pietro Mascagni and his intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, which many call the most beautiful composition ever created. Thank goodness for those who opt for the path less trodden.

The link to the video for the composition, Cavalleria Rusticana (Intermezzo) can be found here.

The link to the opening scene from the movie, Raging Bull, can be seen here.

The link to the closing scene from the movie, Godfather-III can be found here.

The link to the official website for Pietro Mascagni can be found here.

The link to the best classical music radio station in the world…Classical 103.1…broadcasting out of my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario, Canada can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained in this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

2 thoughts on “Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #18/50: Cavalleria Rusticana (Intermezzo) by Pietro Mascagni”

    1. Since I started my new format of a different series each weekday, I think it is the Classic series that I am enjoying the most. Like a lot of people, I used to recognize the composer’s names and identify a tune or two but, in general, I really didn’t know an intermezzo from an allegro. So, I am growing, too. And yes, Cavalleria Rusticana is lovely. I liked how it was used to open Raging Bull, too.

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