The Cassandra Case
«An inquiry, an investigation on the artistic quality of Gnecchi’s music was opened at the beginning of the century with the usual two factions guilty and innocent, and in the fire of the polemic then fiery it was possible to achieve the reversals of the roles of guilty and victim , and then to turn them around again, until someone stated, with tardy common sense , that the crime was presumed and even non existent and that both the accused were to be acquitted from the charge for not having committed the crime. Without doubt, much ado about nothing, was raised mainly by one circumstance: one of the supposed guilty party was a musician of sublime stature, such to crash the name of the other, notwithstanding his fine talent. […] The “case” was a fatal impediment, one of those irreversible misfortunes that change the course of a life from the very beginning, when many games are still to be played.» (Q. Principe)
The quote recalls a writing of the musicologist Quirino Principe appeared in 1990 on the pages of the “ Rivista Illustrata del Museo Teatrale alla Scala” which summed up the story of the presumed plagiarism having as protagonists two names: Vittorio Gnecchi same and Richard Strauss ; object of the contention two operas: Cassandra and Elektra.
But the story – and it is the more serious fact- seems to hide more troubled reasons that find their sad roots in real and unjustified prejudices on the figure of Gnecchi composer same.
He belonged to a very rich family, and therefore could have a private musical education by the most illustrious teachers such as Michele Saladino (teacher also of Mascagni and De Sabata) and Gaetano Coronaro, and was also fellow student of Tullio Serafin, «acquiring so unconsciously – so was writing already in 1932 Mario Nordio, another name who cared for Gnecchi destiny – since then the first demerit title in front of his future enemies , who had found nothing better to do than accusing him of being a “dilettante”».
In any case, the performance in the family villa of Verderio of the newborn Pastorale action “Virtù d’Amore“, composed on the libretto of the aunt Maria Rossi Bozzotti – whose plot appears today having analogies with Strauss opera “Ariadne auf Naxos”, opera dated 1911 – was a difficult precedent…
In conclusion, on the 7th of October 1896, Gnecchi, then just nineteen years old, knew the first laurel of success, even if only in a family ambience, but with the homage of the presence of the most influent musical critics, invited for the occasion: G.B. Nappi of the Italian newspaper “Perseveranza”, G. Antona Traversi of the newspaper “Vita Italiana” as well as two London journalists of the newspapers “Musical Courier” and the “Gentlewoman”.
Also the publisher Giulio Ricordi, who had just published the opera in the edition per canto and piano, attended and wrote about him on the “ Gazzetta Musicale” with deep approval: «Vittorio Gnecchi has just entered into the world of serious musical studies, giving a magnificent proof of his ingenious; and if, now and then, we find a little exuberance in the forms and some complications in the ideas […] this is a beautiful defect belonging to the juvenile ardour, consequence of richness and not of poverty of ideas. But the main merit of the young musician is that of being able to frankly say: “Ladies and Gentlemen this is all my own work!”».
In the following years the idea of a new opera was born, inspired to the immortal power of the Greek tragedy. Gnecchi wrote the subject starting from the beloved Orestea of Eschilo and entrusted the libretto with the wise Luigi Illica, who lavished advices and suggestions, thanks to his affirmed theatrical experience. In 1903, after almost two years of work, Cassandra was born.
As soon as the opera was completed Gnecchi rushed to make it listen to Giulio Ricordi, who had expressed a strong appreciation, while listening during the previous year to the initial and final scenes just composed. But this time the publisher showed far less enthusiasm: «Dear Vittorio, you understand very well that it will never be possible to stage in any big theatre this dilettante essay of yours. At the most you can stage it in your Verderio little theatre, inviting your friends».
Inopportune words since in 1904 Gnecchi presented the score to Toscanini, obtaining a totally different reaction, with his promise of baptising the opera, if the choice of the theatre could be left to him.
On the 5th of December 1905 Arturo Toscanini conducted the first performance of Cassandra at Bologna Municipal Theatre, with exceptional interpreters: Elisa Bruno in the role of Cassandra, Salomea Krusceninski (who the following year was going to be the second Italian Salomé in the homonymous opera written by Strauss and the first at La Scala) in the role of Clytemnestra. And still the tenor Giuseppe Borgatti and the baritones Quercia and Federici.
Although the task during the rehearsals showed a series of dramatic organization mishaps, forcing Toscanini to work with musicians not prepared and with an approximate staging, it was the determination of the author and the conductor (at this point not so more convinced) to save the fate of a concert which seemed destined to failure. The performance in fact was of a very high level and had a good success even if it was contrasted by polemics of no use.
As a matter of fact, the opponents came out in the open dividing themselves between those who kept on considering Gnecchi a “dilettante” and those who, instead, reproached the ostentation of a music too “German”, and therefore pretentious and exhibitionistic, criticising mostly the too dramatic character of the prologue, the use in the melody and in the harmony of antique musical Greeks scales, (in particular in the last scene) and an obstinate style strictly polyphonic. The discussion grew with the reply of the admirers, among which Giulio Ricordi same, who changed his mind publishing at last Cassandra.
Nevertheless the polemics after effects touched also Toscanini, to whom were referred groundless and cursing gossips, which accused him of having conducted Gnecchi’s opera for mere opportunism, to the point of stating that Gnecchi same had “paid” Toscanini to have him conduct the performance in Bologna.
Since then Toscanini did not want to conduct Gnecchi’s music anymore, interrupting every relationship with him in order to not be further damaged. A performance in Ferrara followed the concert in Bologna, but it was of a more modest quality and the critics ignored it with contempt. Since then a growing hostility precluded forever to Cassandra and to all the music of Milan composer, all accesses in Italy. «The civil death in his homeland – observes dramatically Quirino Principe – became Vittorio Gnecchi destiny».
And the worse was yet to come, hidden by a mocking destiny that deluded the author with a series of ephemeral successes. The opera, as a matter of fact, starts suddenly a lucky run towards the theatres abroad. «At last it says – was the maybe more enthusiastic comment of Mario Nordio – a new word in the stagnant conventionality of the opera theatre after Wagner. The new orientation, with the predominant use of Choirs aiming at an expression reproducing the voice with many souls of the people and describing frankly the trepidation, the joy, the terror and the delirium of the same was born, as a matter of fact, with Cassandra in such a way as to have more than one influential critic state that the other modern choral operas derive, in their expression and in their developments, from this opera».
Anyway on the 29th of March 1911 Willem Mengelberg conducted Cassandra at the Vienna’s Volksoper, with Mrs Oridge in Cassandra role and Maria Jeritza (Richard Strauss favourite singer) in the role of Clytemnestra. The author attended and obtained a great personal success with thirty curtain calls. Only few Italian newspapers wrote about the performance, while many foreign newspapers showed their interest. An Italian parenthesis, happy and unexpected, was also the opera staging at the Dal Verme Theatre in Milan, on the 16th of November 1913, with a very modest performance but an unexpected favourable welcome by the public and the critics. The echo of the concert reached the United States and on the 26th of February 1914 Cassandra was staged at Philadelphia Opera Theatre, conducted by Cleofonte Campanini and with, among the interpreters, the great soprano Rosa Raisa.
Ephemeral satisfaction, we were saying, because right then the destiny of the opera fell under the weight of the cursing gossip born five years earlier, when the notorious and complex “Strauss case” had exploded.
Let us go back to 1906 when, on the 22nd of December, in Turin Regio Teatro, the Salome conducted by Strauss debuted in Italy. Gnecchi, attending the concert, approached the German composer offering to him Cassandra score per canto and piano. Strauss accepted flattered the gift promising to read carefully the score.
The discouragement must have invaded Gnecchi soul: he had actually already sent one year before a copy of the score to Strauss and the same had sent him a letter of thanks in the month of August 1925. Clearly , the Italian composer through this gesture wanted to draw respectfully the German colleague attention, but no reply followed the meeting in Turin.
And further on, in 1908 Ernst von Schuch, first director of Dresden Opera, had the intention to perform Cassandra during the following season, but the destiny wishes were that on the 25th of January of the following year, Elektra of Richard Strauss debuted at Dresden Opera, conducted by von Schuch same. All those that knew Cassandra noticed immediately the surprising analogies that made the two operas similar, not only in the music but also in the libretto.
Few months after Elektra’s first night, the musicologist Giovanni Tebaldini published on the pages of the Rivista Musicale Italiana, the essay titled “Musical Telepathy”, enclosing 10 tables which compared around 50 themes of Cassandra with a similar amount of themes drawn from Elektra.
It was the beginning of the end. As a matter of fact, even if Tebaldini never wrote in his essay about a plagiarism by Strauss – asserting instead the reasons of a common an almost “telepathic” inspiration, «accounting for an almost identical material view of an heroic world far away from us, but very alive in our imagination; the same applies to the spiritual analogy which, through the psychic sensibility provoked by intense feelings and passions awakened in the souls and in the brains of the two authors, has at the formal beginning of the musical manifestation so similar motives of expression» – those who wanted to reduce the question to a factious and offensive polemic acted, though, differently. Strauss, irritated, stated – in clear contradiction with what he had written in the above mentioned letter dated 1905 – to never have read Cassandra score nor listened to any note of Gnecchi’s opera. «Among other things – Quirino Principe underlines – he did not have the need to defend himself, nor he had to feel offended, since Elektra greatness was not under discussion, and similarly, notwithstanding this oblique behaviour, the integral image of his artistic greatness was not under discussion».
A polemic on the “case” was totally artificial and trifling were its grounds. Nevertheless many of Strauss friends «sharpened the weapons». Such as the critic Rudolf Hartmann, among other things the translator into German of Cassandra libretto, who declared to be ready to undertake a legal action in front of the Court; or the already mentioned Ernst von Schuch, who felt personally offended by Tebaldini’s essay – who knows why.
There were even those who tried to hurl back the ungrounded accusation of plagiarism, incriminating poor Gnecchi, ignoring therefore the real chronology of the two operas, since Cassandra preceded Elektra of four years. Some American newspapers, in occasion of the opera performance in Philadelphia, wrote that the whole Cassandra was copied from Elektra.
In Italy the comments were not less biting, but even worse.
When in 1909 the duke Visconti di Modrone, president of the committee authorized to program the seasons of La Scala Theatre, proposed Cassandra to Vittorio Mingardi, then artistic director of the theatre, the latter, even if he privately expressed his appreciation towards Gnecchi, hampered the initiative, writing to Visconti: «Pour ne pas deplairé a Strauss» (in order not to displease Strauss), «using – as Quirino Principe with sarcasm highlights, in order to explain the wretched reason – the French language, maybe in order to nobilitate a little bit the vileness».
So it was not possible to displease Richard Strauss… Who, however, never wanted to go back on the issue again, nor to start any kind of delation against Gnecchi.
But do these similarities really exist? As a matter of fact yes, and Tebaldini’s essay wants to witness this fact; but, to reopen here the question with detailed examples could appear as factious to many people. Some indications are, in any case necessary, at least in order to give a temperate sensation of the flow and effect that these analogies in the musical inventions were able to rise then. So much so, since the one (Cassandra) is an antecedent fact of the other (Elektra).
Even if the thematic pattern of Gnecchi’s opera does not have the same structural strength of the operas of Wagner – who , it is not possible to deny it, had inspired for cultural reasons the Italian composer – the writing that supports Cassandra uses musical themes such as emotional and semantic references , both in the proposing will of the “Prologue” and in the development of the facts , which are moved by Eschilo opera.
Just for the sake of curiosity we report hereinafter some examples.
Following always Quirino Principe essay, where he suggests to listen to two topical moments of the opera. At the turning of the tragic epilogue, Cassandra announces that the blood of the Atridi and their relatives was going to be shed; Clytemnestra answers cruelly: “Yours Teucra!” and hits the desperate Trojan princess who, agonizing, pronounces her last prophecy: “Oreste!” foreseeing the future vengeance of the King’s son.
The same procedure can be found, at exactly the same moment, in Strauss Opera, when Elektra, after the orgiastic dance, falls on the ground laying stiff. Chrysohtemis runs to the house door and hitting it, cries: “Orest!”. Then silence calls for the curtains. And so in other parts of the two librettos.
As to the music, as Principe writes, the discussion is more delicate. When comparing the two incipit, the force and the phisionomy of the orchestral gesture announcing the opera opening appears immediately identical. It is a “motto”, a cry of prophetic damnation, a descendent/ascendant darting, which clings to a full, aggressive, “furious” chord , as the agogica wants.
In Cassandra incipit, the alterations shift the harmony from the framework tonality (A major) to the D minor tonality, the same in which Elektra exclamation hacks itself: “Agamemnon!”. And it is this very theme, an interval of fifth descendent, sang on Agamemnon name, one of the firsts that Tebaldini recognizes and indicates as model. In Strauss opera, afterwards, it will identify itself with the theme of Agamemnon sons, recalling the crime same committed by the mother.
Gnecchi made an emblem of this theme already in the “Prologue“, affirming it with crescent vigour, remembering that the Fate is impending and Agamemnon’s death close. Another theme with as strong similarities is that of Oreste who appears in Cassandra as a young boy, but already burdened by the destiny that waits for him; in Elektra, its development is clear mainly in the scene of the recognition of the two brothers.
Just a few examples to record how the two operas are surprisingly linked, how the themes return often with identity of melodic and rhythmic lines, or even how from the themes same correlated and similar episodes derive , so much so that it does not appear daring «to affirm, even if on the basis of intuition – Tebaldini concludes – that a same initial breath of life animates both operas and that, without establishing strident and inopportune comparison of technique or aesthetic, the animating and fecundating source of the themes that develop in them has been the same for both authors».
So talking about plagiarism is an excessive accusation. Since if Strauss knew Gnecchi score, just though a simple but not absent-minded reading, on his working table, next to the still white sheets of Elektra, plausibly there were no copies of Cassandra. It is more likely that the artistic and naturally receptive unconscious of Strauss had remembered those motives and modal treatments, so perfectly in line with the tragic and dramaturgic setting chosen for the new musical opera.
As a matter of fact, it was and it remains a true value of Gnecchi music, having so deeply recreated, with lively knowledge, the ancient Hellenic adherence between music and word, through scales and methods belonging to the Greek language, perfectly characterizing the magic tragic and emotional boundaries of an extraordinarily modern opera, which remained, after all, not understood. Going back to the history of life, with the passage of time, the polemic slowly extinguished itself.
In The Unites States, some music scholars succeeded, at last, in taking the controversy back to its right proportion, and to speak, we repeat it with Principe words, of «Extraordinary coincidences of musical thought and of dramaturgic concept». Beyond the Alps, in Germany and Austria, even a “mea culpa” was pronounced, which brought the German speaking countries same to assume upon themselves the role of places elected to give sincere welcome to Gnecchi music.
At the same time, big names of the international music scene supported generously the unfortunate Italian colleague gathering around the piano in Milan and most of all in Verderio.
Walter Gieseking, Willelm Mengelberg, Bruno Walter, Sergej Prokofiev acknowledged themselves as his most genuine supporters. While Cassandra knew a short life of honours outside Italy, being conducted between 1925 and 1929, in Zurich by Volkmar Andreae and in Paris and Philadelphia by Georg Schneevoigt, in Italy a sole timid performance, only after exhausting negotiations, took place in Rome Opera on the 21st March 1942, conducted by Oliviero de Fabritiis.
It was instead, Austria to assume a tardy role of adoptive homeland and in particular the enlightened city of Salzburg, which had shown from the beginning a particular affection towards him.
During the festival, in August 1934, his Cantata Bibilica was performed, and the following year Gnecchi dedicated to the city the very beautiful Missa Salisburgensis, conducted in its first execution in the Cathedral in the month of August of that year by Karl Koch .
In 1949, after the world war end, it was always Salzburg to re-propose, in program with the Requiem of Fauré, the Missa, directed by Joseph Messner on the stage of the Mozarteum, and to welcome his new ballet Atalanta.
At the end of 1952, one year before his death – that will take him full of sadness in Milan on the 5th of February 1954 – Austria will give him as a present a last performance of the Missa Salisburgensis in Innsbruck Jacobkirche and, again in Salzburg Mozarteum, the first concert performance of the opera Judith, started in the first decade of the century, shortly after Cassandra, on Illica’s libretto too, and for more than forty years left silent inside Verderio walls.
Cassandra will go back to the stage many years later in Innsbruck on the 16th of October 1969 and in Lubeck (10th of February 1975), but limited to the dramatic impetus of the prologue.
Only on the 8th of March 1975, in Lubeck in the Grosses Haus, Cassandra will be performed again, conducted by Matthias Kuntszch, obtaining ten performance and an immense success.
We want to conclude with some words of Gnecchi same, pronounced during the discouragement felt seeing the perpetrated silence to which Italy had condemned him: «For music, performance is life. An opera does not have the everlasting breath of a painting: hidden, it is dust».