Posted by Ricordi 27 June 2017
The death in Chicago earlier this month of the musicologist Philip Gossett at age 76 marked the loss of one of the most influential scholars of Italian opera of the last half century. His untiring, groundbreaking work on the rediscovery and restoration of the operas of Rossini and Verdi left an indelible mark on modern performances and on the understanding of this repertory, while his high standards of scholarship and passionate involvement in opera production inspired a generation of younger scholars to embrace the critical study of Italian opera. Although in failing health in recent years, he remained actively engaged with the work of his colleagues on Verdi and Rossini operas.
As a doctoral student at Princeton university in the 1960s, Gossett surprised his professors (as he enjoyed relating) by choosing to specialize in 19th-century Italian opera. In those years, such repertory was not considered a suitable field for serious scholarly inquiry; better to concentrate on Beethoven or Brahms. But Gossett’s intense research into the original musical sources of the operas of Rossini in archives throughout Italy and beyond led to his landmark dissertation “The Operas of Rossini: Problems of Textual Criticism in Nineteenth Century Opera” (Princeton 1970), a fundamental work that still serves as the benchmark for research on the music of that composer.
Even among Italian scholars, there was little interest in the study of 19th-century Italian opera when Gossett had undertaken his research: the distinguished tradition of Italian musicology had focused largely on the music of the Renaissance and the Baroque, and while some Italian publishers (notably Ricordi) had issued “revised and corrected” editions of a handful of operas during the 1960s, culminating at the end of the decade with the first score that (in the words of Friedrich Lippmann) could be considered to have “the artistic and scholarly requisites of a ‘critical’ edition” — Alberto Zedda’s Il barbiere di Siviglia of 1969 — there was nothing on the editorial horizon of Italian opera that approached the rigor and breadth of research that had characterized the great monumental editions dedicated to the work of German and Austrian composers.
Gossett’s arrival on the scene changed all that, and the intense investigative methodology and demanding standards he brought to the editions of the operas of Rossini (as General Editor of the critical editions published by the Fondazione Rossini of Pesaro) and later those of Verdi (as General Editor of the Works of Giuseppe Verdi, co-published by the University of Chicago Press and Casa Ricordi) “set the gold standard” (in the words of one of his colleagues) for such work. To discover that there was something amiss with the opera scores that had come down to modern performers was not, of itself, particularly novel. What was revolutionary, and what generated enormous interest, was the scholarly rigor, the passion and excitement, the engagement with performers, that a scholar like Gossett brought to the field. Today it is barely imaginable that major interpreters or opera companies would want to perform this repertory from the older, adulterated materials. Such was not the case fifty years ago.
In another time and place, scholarly editions of this repertory might have remained academic experiments, with little relevance to modern performances. But Gossett’s intense dedication to the scholarly reexamination of 19th-century Italian opera coincided with the interest that Casa Ricordi, the main publisher of this repertoire, had in relaunching these works in reliable texts. As Gossett recalled in the preface to his 1985 book ‘Anna Bolena’ and the Artistic Maturity of Gaetano Donizetti: “It was at Casa Ricordi that I first studied intensively autograph manuscripts of 19th-century Italian operas. The firm remains a commercial publisher, to be sure, and its employees are primarily concerned with supplying materials to performers, conductors, and opera houses. Yet their love of these documents, their fascination with the problems they pose, and their own skill at deciphering their meaning were crucial to the development of my awareness of what could be learned there.” The fortunate confluence of these complementary ideals — a music publisher wishing to provide scholarly editions of a historically important part of its repertory, and a scholar eager to reassess the works of two of the fundamental composers of that repertory — produced one of the most significant editorial collaborations in memory. The ideals and standards adopted for the Rossini and Verdi editions would later inspire Ricordi’s critical-edition series of the operas of Donizetti and Bellini as well (Gossett served on the editorial boards of both). Gossett was an advisor to Casa Ricordi on many editorial projects over the course of four decades; in its scholarly relaunch of 19th-century opera repertory, Ricordi benefitted immeasurably from the authoritative oversight and boundless promotional energy of professor Gossett.
Over a forty-year career at the University of Chicago, the range of Gossett’s publications or editorial collaborations went well beyond Rossini and Verdi. His capacity for work was legendary — dawn-to-dust workdays were the norm. The bookshelves in his study were filled with recent publications on Italian opera, and as musicologist Hilary Poriss once remarked, upon viewing the collection, Gossett had played some role in nearly every volume, as either author, co-author, contributor, or editor. “You really can’t talk about Italian opera” she said, “without coming across something he has laid the groundwork for.”
Gossett’s involvement in the restoration of operas, or of forgotten alternate versions or arias, provided not only fascinating material that allowed other scholars to reassess their understanding of opera history, but also captured the imagination of the broader, opera-loving public. His role in the late 20th-century rediscovery of the “neglected repertory” of Rossini — his serious operas – was fundamental. In recognition of such contributions he was the first music scholar to receive the Mellon Distinguished Achievement award, and the Italian government awarded him the distinguished honorific of Cavaliere di Gran Croce.
Gossett’s efforts toward gaining adherents to the cause of adopting critical editions for performance was in many ways as important as his painstaking scholarly work. Conductors like Riccardo Muti and Claudio Abbado, and singers like Marilyn Horne, Renee Fleming, Cecilia Bartoli and Samuel Ramey, became enthusiastic adherents to the cause. Gossett also served as advisor for numerous opera productions in America and in Europe. “When the public sees an opera,” Gossett once said in an interview, “they just assume that it’s all straightforward, but it’s not. Every singer makes countless decisions: Should I sing just the notes that are written? Should I ornament this? Do I need a cadenza at this point? Critical editions put all options on the table, allowing performers to make more informed choices about their roles.”
As an indefatigable and passionate participant of “discussions with the audience” at opera festivals and theater seasons, often presenting musical discoveries in the context of engaging “lessons” at the piano, Gossett won over myriad opera fans to the importance of research. Alongside his many scholarly publications were countless program notes, essays for LPs albums or DVD booklets. One cannot overstate the influence of Gossett’s work on the study of 19th-century opera today.
Photo: Credit University of Chicago / Jason Smith