(19 June 1854 — 07 August 1893)
Alfredo Catalani was born into a family of musicians in Lucca on 19 June 1854.
He began to study music in his home town under Fortunato Magi - Giacomo Puccini’s uncle - and went on to study first in Paris under François-Emmanuel-Joseph Bazin and later at the conservatory in Milan under Antonio Bazzini.
It was in Milan that Catalani presented his first important work: the opera La falce for two voices, choir and orchestra, on a libretto by Arrigo Boito; first performed on 19 July 1875, it was warmly received. Following this success, the Lucca-born maestro settled permanently in Milan, entering into contact with the protagonists of the Scapigliatura and deepening his study of the works of Richard Wagner, whose style would have a profound influence on him.
In these years he wrote the operas Elda (1880), Dejanice (1883) and Edmea (1886), works that critics consider amongst his less significant, even though Dejanice received praise from the young Puccini and even from Mahler himself. In addition, in 1885 Catalani composed the symphonic poem Ero e Leandro on the model of the symphonic poems of Franz Liszt.
In April 1886 he was appointed professor of composition at the conservatory in Milan, while, in May 1888, a merger took place between the publisher Lucca - up to that time the holder of the rights to the composer’s works - and the publisher Giulio Ricordi, who thereby became his official publisher.
In 1889 Catalani began to compose what would turn out to be his last and most famous opera: La Wally, on a libretto by the poet Luigi Illica – his first experience of writing a libretto.
In February 1890 the composer travelled to Turin for the premiere of Loreley (a rewrite of the opera Elda), which met with great success.
In 1891 Catalani brought to completion La Wally after two years of working “abstractly” (not on commission) with the object of selling the definitive score to the publisher Ricordi, who in fact acquired the work immediately. The opera was premiered to great acclaim at the Teatro alla Scala on 20 January of the following year. This work represents a profound evolution in Catalani’s style; marked by a number of highly distinctive characteristics, it is quite free of derivative influences and conventions both in terms of musical structure and dramaturgy. Gustav Mahler in fact considered it the “best Italian opera”.
Following the success of various performances of Loreley and La Wally (also conducted by Arturo Toscanini), the composer began to turn his mind to a new work that would bear the title Nella selva. But unfortunately the premature death of the maestro prevented this from ever seeing the light of day.
In the summer of 1893 Catalani left for Switzerland in the hope of fighting off an attack of the consumption that had afflicted him for years. Unfortunately, shortly after his departure, his condition worsened and he was constrained to return to Milan. He died on 7 August 1893, at the age of just 39.