The secret musical life of Lake Como

I do not know a district more clearly blessed by heaven. In the midst of this friendly nature, man can breathe freely, the harmony of his relations is not disturbed by gigantic proportions, and he can love and enjoy because he does not seem to do anything but take his own share of universal happiness.” – Franz Liszt, describing Lake Como.

Just an hour or so north of Milan, in a glorious position at the foot of the Swiss Alps, is Lake Como, whose beauty has been celebrated since Roman times. But the lake has an inner beauty too, as the creative inspiration for generations of European composers and performers. Almost two centuries before George Clooney bought his piece of heaven, the lake was a well-established mecca for writers, painters, sculptors and musicians. Music educator Royna McNamara explores the musical life of Lake Como, both in legend and in history, and the villas and towns which dot its shores.

Imagine the scene. It’s a hot summer afternoon in 1837. Franz Liszt and his lover, Marie d’Agoult have taken a lease on the aristocratic Villa Melzi on the shores of Lake Como. To cool down, they take a walk under the avenue of plane trees that still lines the lakefront in the villa’s extensive gardens.

Villa Melzi, Bellagio, Lake Como

At the end of the avenue they come across a neo-classical sculpture of the great medieval Italian poet, Dante Alighieri and his muse, the beautiful perpetual virgin Beatrice. Beatrice is leading the lovelorn Dante from Purgatory to the realm of Paradise, where angels sing and the blessed bask in the light of God. Liszt’s mind turns to a more earthly kind of love and he is inspired to write his famous ‘Dante’ sonata, a musical depiction of the adulterous and tragic relationship between Francesca da Rimini and her husband’s brother, a tale narrated by Dante in Canto V of Inferno.

Monument to Dante and Beatrice in the gardens of Villa Melzi

This is how Liszt’s ardent admirer and early biographer, Lina Ramann, describes it. While Liszt and d’Agoult certainly visited Lake Como, they didn’t stay at the Villa Melzi, it wasn’t in the hottest months and most probably the Dante Sonata was written much later in Liszt’s life. Nevertheless, the legend has taken on a life of its own, and tour guides to this day charm visitors with this melange of landscape, sculpture, poetry and music.

Liszt and the Dante Sonata is just one of the many connections which Lake Como has to the musical life of 19th century Europe. Aristocratic villas had been built on the lake since the Renaissance, and their owners included important musical patrons and, crucially, the Italian music publisher Giulio Ricordi.

The Villa Pliniana, on western arm of the lake has an extensive artistic heritage. The villa is named after the ancient Roman writer Pliny the Younger who left a tantalising description of several villas he owned on the lake. The modern Villa Pliniana dates from 1573 and its various owners have been keen patrons of the arts. Byron, Shelley and Stendhal have been among the writers who have stayed there, while the roll call of composers includes Rossini, Liszt, Bellini, and Puccini. Rossini wrote his opera Tancredi in the villa over two periods in 1813 (first for the Venice premier and then for the Milan revision). Perhaps the plunging vocal lines in Tancredi’s show-stopping aria Di tanti palpiti were inspired by the precipitous cliffs surrounding the villa? Today the Villa Pliniana is a functioning hotel, so music lovers can book a stay there.

Villa Pliniana stands alone on the edge of Lake Como in its luxury, elegance and splendor

Just across the water from the Villa Pliniana is the village of Moltrasio, which occupies a special place in the life of Vincenzo Bellini. Born in Sicily and with early success in Naples, the maturing composer needed to be near La Scala, Milan to further his career. The family of Count Andrea Passalaqua obliged, offering its sumptuous lakeside villa for Bellini from 1829-1833. It was here that Bellini wrote both La Sonnambula and Norma. Again, it’s easy to imagine how the immense, dramatic landscape of the lake might have fired the composer’s musical imagination, with effortlessly soaring vocal lines and lucid orchestration.

A view over the town of Moltrasio, with the spire of Sant’Agata Church in the foreground

The Milanese Casa Ricordi was pivotal in 19th-century European musical life. Giovanni Ricordi, the company’s founder had managed to acquire the publishing rights to the entire La Scala archive, whereas grandson Giulio developed the now-standard system whereby composers and publishers received royalties for subsequent performances of their works around the globe. In the current age of digital streaming, it is hard to imagine the power that the Casa Ricordi held, and the wealth that could be generated. They were fabulously wealthy and, like other self-made Milanese of the era, the acquisition of a villa on Lake Como was an important marker of one’s social distinction. Giulio Ricordi commissioned the neo-classical Villa Margherita at Griante, directly opposite the resort town of Bellagio.

Villa Margherita Ricordi, Griante

Incorporated in the design was a music room, where regular soirees with some of Europe’s leading musical personalities took place. Unsurprisingly, legends developed around the villa, taking on a life of their own. One of the most persistent of these is that Verdi composed La Traviata here, or at least a substantial portion of the highly-popular melodies and arias which feature in the work. The chief piece of evidence for this is Verdi’s sketch for a musical ‘toast’ (a brindisi) in 3/8 time, clearly marked ‘Cena in casa da Margherita’ (dinner at chez Margherita). The sketch resembles the famous duet between Violetta and Alfredo near the beginning of La Traviata. It’s a fascinating connection, let down only by the fact that Giulio Ricordi commissioned the Villa Margherita in June 1853, some three months after La Traviata had premiered in Venice in March 1853. One hopes that Verdi had finished composing before the premiere, not three months afterwards.

What is more certain is that Verdi was a frequent visitor to the Villa Margherita Ricordi (as it is now known) in the 1860s and 70s and that here Giulio Ricordi succeeded in persuading Verdi to return to the theatre, paving the way for his late career masterpieces, including Otello and Falstaff. It’s a less attention-grabbing tale, but equally significant in terms of music history.

1893: From l to r; librettist, composer and poet Arrigo Boito (1842 – 1918) agent and publisher Giulio Ricordi (1840 – 1912), and composer Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901). Collectively responsible for the production of Verdi’s new opera, ‘Falstaff’ at La Scala , Milan. (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)

Lake Como’s musical life did not come to an end in the 19th century. The villas, gardens and small churches around the lake have continued to attract musicians and music lovers. This tradition was brought together in 2011 with the Bellagio and Lake Como Festival. Concerts take place from late June to September in historic sites around the lake, with the Festival headquartered at the luxurious Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio. And this impressive musical heritage is just one aspect of Lake Como’s appeal. The roll call of writers and visual artists is equally impressive and the lake’s role as a place of creative retreat continues with venues such as the Rockefeller Center at Bellagio and the Villa Monastero at Varenna. And if you’re not into culture, well, you can console yourself with some of the most beautiful scenery on earth!

A version of this article appeared in Limelight Magazine, April 2018

Royna McNamara

Royna is a musician, educator and conductor. Royna has organised numerous music tours to France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK. She has a strong personal interest in art and photography and has studied the link between travel and its impact on creativity. Royna holds a B Mus Ed from the Conservatorium of Music, where she was awarded the prize for Outstanding Final Year Student. She also holds a Masters of Education from the University of Sydney, where she was awarded a scholarship to study Music Performance Practices.


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