Ruggero Leoncavallo Biography

(Italian Opera Composer and Librettist)

Birthday: April 23, 1857 (Taurus)

Born In: Naples, Italy

Ruggero Leoncavallo was an Italian opera composer best known for composing the opera titled Pagliacci. Born into an affluent Italian family, Ruggero was always interested in becoming a pianist and opera composer. He learned the basics of composing at the Naples Conservatory and later moved to Cairo, Egypt to teach music. He lived and taught in Paris for a few years as well. After his return to Italy, Ruggero became busy composing operas and after failing initially, he went on to achieve international fame with the release of his opera titled Pagliacci. It became one of the most popular operas of its time and catapulted Ruggero into international stardom. It also remains his only opera that is still performed to this date. Ruggero also composed several successful operas such as La boheme, Chatterton, I Medici and Zaza etc. Along with composing the operas, Ruggero also wrote librettos for his operas. Towards his final years, he inclined more towards composing operettas such as La Jeunesse de Figaro and his last composition was titled Edipo Re, which was performed after his demise.

Quick Facts

Italian Celebrities Born In April

Also Known As: Ruggiero Leoncavallo

Died At Age: 62


Spouse/Ex-: Berthe Rambaud

Born Country: Italy

Composers Italian Men

Died on: August 9, 1919

place of death: Montecatini Terme, Italy

Notable Alumni: San Pietro A Majella Conservatory, University Of Bologna

City: Naples, Italy

More Facts

education: University Of Bologna, San Pietro A Majella Conservatory

Childhood & Early Life

Ruggero Leoncavallo was born on April 23, 1857, in Naples, Italy. He was raised in a wealthy family with his father working as a judge and a police magistrate. A few years after his birth, he moved to Calabria with his father. However, he later returned to his hometown of Naples and resumed his education at the Naples Conservatory. There he learned to play the piano and soon mastered the instrument.

He had a keen interest in music and poetry. Following his music education at the Conservatory, he enrolled at the University of Bologna to study poetry.

Continue Reading Below
Recommended Lists:

He was suggested to start his career as a piano teacher by one of his uncles. Hence, he moved to Cairo and began teaching piano to one of the royalties of Egypt. At the same time, he also tried composing his own operas, but he failed.

However, his career in Egypt came to a sudden halt in 1882 following political upheaval in the country. Ruggero was thus deported to France. In Paris, he began living in Montmartre.

In Paris, he got a job instructing and accompanying the performances that took place in cafes and Sunday gatherings. His stay in Paris had a great impact on his work. He was introduced to multiple romantic pianists and began composing his own song titled La nuit de mai. The opera was composed in 1886 and was performed for the first time in 1887. It immediately became a major success and enabled Ruggero to save enough money to embark on a career as an opera composer.

In order to achieve this dream of his, he moved to Milan in 1887. After returning back to his home country, he took in a few students and taught them composing and piano, to make the ends meet. At the same time, he carried on with his opera composing endeavours. He began composing one opera around this time, titled Chatterton. It was a three-act opera and its libretto was also written by Ruggero himself. The opera debuted in Rome in 1896 and it was a fairly successful venture. He, however, struggled to move past this one.

In 1890, he had seen Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana and was immediately inspired to do something along the same lines. It resulted in his most celebrated work to date, Pagliacci.

Pagliacci is an opera that is performed in a prologue and two acts. Its music and libretto were both provided by Ruggero. After its premiere in 1892, it became a national sensation. The dark and moody opera told the story of an actor who murders his wife and lover on the stage. The opera was performed for the first time in Milan, then it was performed in London and New York as well.

Pagliacci remains Ruggero’s only opera that is being performed even to this date. It also invited some controversy when a French writer Catulle Mendes claimed that the composer had plagiarised the plot of his novel. However, Ruggero claimed that he had based the opera on an event from his childhood.

Its thunderous national and international success catapulted Ruggero into international fame. However, throughout his remaining career, he struggled to outdo himself but none of his later works was considered as good as Pagliacci. One of its popular arias titled Put on the Clothes was recorded by Enrico Caruso and was known as the first-ever record in the world to sell more than a million copies.

Soon after the success of Pagliacci, Ruggero began composing another opera titled I Medici. The four-act opera was the first part of a planned trilogy of operas titled Crepusculum. However, the series was never finished. I Medici debuted in Milan, in 1893, but it wasn’t anywhere near the success of Pagliacci. Ruggero was beginning to be considered a ‘one-hit wonder’. He desperately needed to prove his skills yet again.

Continue Reading Below

In 1897, he came up with another opera titled La boheme. It was performed in Venice and only through its success did Ruggero finally get the validation he desired very badly. However, it was badly overshadowed by Puccini’s opera of the same name, which was considered far more successful.

Further in 1990, he composed another opera titled Zaza. The opera told the story of a music hall singer named Zaza who leaves her lover after finding out that he is married. The opera was heavily influenced  by the French music halls, where Ruggero had spent a lot of his early years working and learning. After its Milan premiere in 1990, the opera travelled around the world and was staged in Cairo, Moscow, Paris, and San Francisco among other cities.

While in that time, both his operas La Boheme and Zaza were considered to be rivalling Pagliacci in influence, they didn’t stand the test of time. While Pagliacci is a pretty popular performed widely to this day, the remaining had a relatively short life and they are alive today only among the hardcore opera enthusiasts.

In 1904, he composed another opera titled Der Roland von Berlin, with its libretto written in the German language. It was based on a German novel of the same name and was performed for the first time in Berlin. It was later translated into Italy with the title Rolando and was performed in Naples.

In 1906, Ruggero embarked on a long American tour, starting with an opera performance in New York. The tour was a success.

None of the operas he composed after that brought him closer to the glory he earlier enjoyed. In 1912, he premiered another opera Zingari, which was also a decent success. Its popularity also reached the USA but all in all, it slowly faded away from the public consciousness.

His last serious effort was Edipo Re, which premiered in Chicago in 1920. However, there are claims that Ruggero didn’t compose or wrote the opera and that his wife paid another composer to use the music of Der Roland von Berlin to produce a new piece of work.

Personal Life & Death

Ruggero Leoncavallo met Berthe Rambaud in Paris. She was one of his students. The couple got married in 1895.

He passed away on August 9, 1919, in Tuscany, Italy. At his funeral, which was held two days later, about a hundred people arrived to pay their respect to the late composer.

In 2002, the Leoncavallo Museum was opened in Brissago, Italy, to honour the memories of the late composer. There are the composer’s personal belongings and original manuscripts on the display.

See the events in life of Ruggero Leoncavallo in Chronological Order

How To Cite

Article Title
- Ruggero Leoncavallo Biography
- Editors,

People Also Viewed

Ludovico Einaudi Biography
Ludovico Einaudi
Claudio Monteverdi Biography
Claudio Monteverdi
Luciano Berio Biography
Luciano Berio
Alberto Sordi Biography
Alberto Sordi
Ennio Morricone Biography
Ennio Morricone
Giuseppe Tartini Biography
Giuseppe Tartini
Luca Marenzio Biography
Luca Marenzio
Niccolo Paganini Biography
Niccolo Paganini