Success

(Eugenio Montale — Il Successo)

The other evening, at the theatre, the head of the claque must have fallen asleep. (The opera, beautiful but not popular, rather induced somnolence and made the dispensing of ‘bene’s’ and ‘bravo’s’ difficult.) Only this could explain how a bass aria, with two verses still to go, could be interrupted by ill-timed applause at the end of the first verse: at a point, that is, at which no musical phrasing, no vocal effect could possibly justify such impromptu clapping. What had happened? The head of the claque, on waking up, had given his signal at the wrong time; that was all. There were whistles, and the aria resumed; but now the game was up, and when the vocal effect arrived, and the bass decided to go down ‘to the cellar’ (reach for the lowest notes in his range), the tired applause from a quarter now geographically suspect didn’t convince anyone.

We should be most indulgent towards claqueurs. I don’t think they earn much money; and wherever the public shows unjustifiable froideur towards the champions of lyric art, they perform a perfectly legitimate function. An opera or melodrama without applause doesn’t warm the heart; it’s not even a spectacle. To forego the sight of Radamès and Ramfis in front of the closed curtain after their synchronised bellowing in ‘Immenso Ftha’, not to gaze at close quarters at their robes and turbans, is to lose half the pleasure that Aida affords; not to reinforce, with a grunt of agreement, the cackle which Sparafucile utters as he takes leave of Rigoletto, having made that shameful proposal, is to lack — at the least — charity and human solidarity. That grating little sound isn’t hard to make, but it’s not just a sound; it symbolises a whole life spent in the depths. Whoever has lived in rented rooms, in third-rate taverns and boarding houses, has heard thousands of ‘voices from underground’ (though not in Dostoevsky’s sense).

The applause the other evening took me back in time. There was a period when claqueurs were recruited from amongst the barbers. They didn’t manufacture applause for professional reasons, but out of passion; and there was little harm if that passion could also generate a few pennies. I too, when I decided to study bel canto, had my first initiation into the ‘ambiance’ from my barber. Barber Pecchioli, head of the claque in my town, was a bon viveur, and rarely gave the signal by clicking his finger against his thumb. In the best-known pieces, the most popular arias, he left the job to his initiates and to the paying public. He only intervened in difficult cases: in certain pianissimo passages, in occasional diminuendi, in the riskiest vocal attenuations. And then he whispered a ‘bravo’ so spontaneous that no one could suspect that it came at a price: it had a rate.

Personally, I should admit that I wasn’t one of his favourite customers before I entrusted my destiny as a singer to him. As an occasional client, one of those who only go to the barber for a haircut, and who refuse shampoos, lotions and expensive frictions, I wasn’t likely to encourage his affections. However, there was an occasion when he decided to seek my help as an extra, and for one evening I found myself enrolled amongst his claqueurs. The case was novel, and complicated. In my town, a rich citizen returned from Argentina used to give a concert of his own works. José Rebillo, pointilliste painter and author of assorted musical compositions, wasn’t really a proper musician; it was said of him that he hardly knew the notes; but he composed music directly via his pianola, carving and punching holes in rolls of cardboard with scissors and bradawls. The material emerging from this contrivance was then transcribed, harmonised and — often — orchestrated by other people.

In those days, the music of the future was represented almost exclusively by Wagner, who was by then tolerated by most people. But music such as Signor Rebillo’s, all discords and screeches, had never been heard. Was Rebillo a genius or a lunatic? To judge from the titles of his compositions — I remember a ‘Dying Nymph’, described as a ‘Musical Still Life’ — I should have concluded that he was, at least, a pioneer. But I was less able to realise it then than I would be today.

So there I was, on the evening of the concert, entering the Politeama with a complimentary ticket and the firm intention of doing my duty; but when the dying nymph had breathed her last and I was about to clap, a chorus of whistles and jeers arose from every row of the stalls and every nook of the balconies, and the faint cry of ‘Viva Rebillo!’ was drowned out by an almost unanimous howl of ‘Enough! Composer out! Out the door!’, achieving full volume even in ‘Death to Berillo!’, in which the composer’s name seemed to have been somewhat poetically mangled. Had a counter-claque been mobilised? Or did Signor Ribello have numerous enemies in the town? I never found out. Caught up in the tumult, separated from Pecchioli, I hastily took the part of the majority, and shamefully joined in with those bellowing ‘Down with him! Out the door!’. The evening ended with whistles and laughter, and I departed, carefully avoiding my ‘chief’.

Months later, I was taken by others to the house of the composer at whom I had whistled. He lived in a neo-Gothic tower accessed by a non-functioning drawbridge. Rebillo spent his days there puncturing holes in cardboard and spattering flecks onto huge canvases. He spoke a coastal dialect mixed with creole words; and he only read La Prensa and Scena Illustrata. No one ever understood whence this mania for the avant-garde had entered his head. Tall, fat, bald, moustachioed and unschooled, he was probably the most inspirational man ever to have come into the world. Perhaps in Paris, twenty years later, they would have taken him seriously; but in his own commonsensical, commercial town there was nothing to be done. However, Rebillo wasn’t only acquainted with scroungers and claqueurs: people who turn up only at lunchtime or to collect debts. His best friend and confidant was a postal worker, Signor Armando Riccò, a little, hairless man who sported a monocle with a cord and who wrote thousands of Parnassian sonnets. Each of his lines had two diereses, and in that achievement he declared that he had outdone his hero, the great Ceccardo. According to him, if a poet wrote a line of prose he disqualified himself. He loved exalted expressions; he said ‘humans’ rather than ‘men’; but for all that he took pride in disparaging D’Annunzio. He lived a long life, ever lofty, never published. He said he was working for posterity. Around midnight, when the barbers and the diners had gone, and Rebillo and Riccò were alone, the pianola was started up with hisses and sneezes, and Riccò recited his lines, placing great stress on the diereses and half-closing his eyes.

On calm nights, the waves broke gently against the escarpment which protected Signor Rebillo’s neo-Gothic tower, and I expect they break there still, even if the tower is no longer standing. I don’t know what became of the mountains of rolls which cluttered the composer’s study after he died. Disposing of Armando Riccò’s lines will have been less of a problem. He died in obscurity.

From encounters like these I have learned a truth which few people know: that art generously extends its consolations especially to failed artists. This is why it takes up so much space in the lives of men; and this is why the composer Rebillo and the poet Riccò, conjured up by me unwittingly from the other evening’s ham-fisted claqueur, perhaps deserve that recollecting word which every well-meaning soul owes to its teachers.