Short biography
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Antonio Smareglia was born in the seaside town of Pula. The sea was to become the main theme in what he considered to be his best opera, Oceana. In 2003, this opera was performed in the Istrian National Theatre in Pula, as well as in the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb, conducted by Zoran Juranic, marking the 100th anniversary of its premiere, which took place in Milan and was conducted by Arturo Toscanini.

 

Smareglia was born in the street once known as via Nettuno, situated near the Forum square, in the house which today holds his memorial room, the building from which he used to “run away”, as his youngest daughter Silvia recalled, in order to go to the beach and enjoy the moods and the colours of the sea. It was these beaches that later on Smareglia would find most inspiring for his work. The ocean is a theme that appears often in the life of the composer; it is linked to the city where he was born on 5 May 1854, and to the town of Grado, where he died on 15 April 1929.


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Smareglia’s life was very intense, as it is often the case in the life of an artist. It had its moments of success and glory (in the theatres such as Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, New York Metropolitan Opera, Vienna’s Hoftheater, Dresden’s Konigliche Theater, in Prague, and the encounter with the archduke Carl Stephan Habsburg who honoured his art), as well as dark moments (the operas which were not performed, his loss of sight and poverty). Nevertheless, Smareglia’s life was remarkable, and it begun in Pula where he was born on 5 May 1854. His father, Francesco Smareglia, was originally from Vodnjan (Dignano) and his mother, Julija Stiglic (Giulia Stiglich), a Croatian, from a small place of Icici, near Lovran (Laurana). He was a sixth child born to parents whose first five offspring died. A family recollection, mentioned by his daughter Silvia, is linked to Smareglia’s birth: his mother Giulia is known to have been praying to the Madonna of Charity, in Pula, known for its miraculous powers.

 

With regards to music, it must be said that before it became his destiny, this art fascinated Smareglia since his childhood. It had happened before he abandoned his studies at the Polytechnic school in Graz in order to dedicate himself to music. As a child, nicknamed Tonci or Toncele, he used to listen to his mother singing Croatian lullabies (it should be mentioned that Julija Stiglic had learned to speak Italian dialect after she was married to Francesco), and listening to his father practicing and playing the bass horn in the brass band of Vodnjan.

 

His fondness for music became stronger and was soon to become his destiny. It was in Vienna, the capital of the Habsburg Empire at the time, where he had been sent by his family to complete the studies begun in Gorizia, that Smareglia attended the performance of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. He decided to go to Graz and instead of studying at the Polytechnic school, changed his course, undertaking his first piano lessons.


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After having spent some time in Istria, in September 1871 Smareglia went to Milan, in order to attend the Conservatory whose director at the time was Alberto Mazzucato. Since all the student posts were already taken, for the first three months Smareglia studied music privately with Franco Faccio. He enrolled at the Conservatory in the following year, when he also met Arrigo Boito, and begun his compositional career. In order to take a panoramic view of the composer’s life it seems necessary to briefly touch upon Smareglia’s personal life.

 

He had an impetuous and non-compromising as well as charismatic character. The composer’s life-long companionship and wife was Maria Polla, called Jetti, whom he married when she was 17, and who was known as “pearl of Istria” for her beauty. They had five children: three daughters Giulia, Maria and Silvia, and two sons Ariberto and Mario. When Smareglia lost his sight, following an unsuccessful opAfter having spent some time in Istria, in September 1871 Smareglia went to Milan, in order to attend the Conservatory whose director at the time was Alberto Mazzucato. Since all the student posts were already taken, for the first three months Smareglia studied music privately with Franco Faccio. He enrolled at the Conservatory in the following year, when he also met Arrigo Boito, and begun his compositional career. In order to take a panoramic view of the composer’s life it seems necessary to briefly touch upon Smareglia’s personal life. He had an impetuous and non-compromising as well as charismatic character. The composer’s life-long companionship and wife was Maria Polla, called Jetti, whom he married when she was 17, and who was known as “pearl of Istria” for her beauty. They had five children: three daughters Giulia, Maria and Silvia, and two sons Ariberto and Mario. When Smareglia lost his sight, following an unsuccessful operation, he used to dictate his work to Mario, as well as to his other friends, such as the count Primo dalla Zonca, Gastone Zuccoli, Vito Levi and Bruno Czerwenka.


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Smareglia’s love towards his family is apparent in his testament which was written on 18 January 1923 and subsequently published in Trieste’s newspaper Il Piccolo on 21 April 1929. One section from this testament stands out as Smareglia’s “spiritual” message and is worth quoting as it summarises his artistic credo, his Weltanschauumg: “To my children I leave behind only my artistic heritage, with which I and my beloved wife did not reach the happiness, promised to us during our life by the mysterious inner voice of my conscience.” “It is true”, Smareglia wrote, “that I have always had numerous friends, admirers, and satisfactions, but this could hardly compensate for the many troubles and difficulties which affected my life and the life of my family… The voice of my conscience is repeating and reassuring me that the work which I leave behind has an artistic value, at least as good as that of my contemporaries; its powerful expression will sooner or later be recognised.”

 

Text goes further: “ With gratitude I recall the support and assistance of many great artists such as Silvio Benco…I fondly remember Hans Richter who took on the responsibility of performing Il Vassallo di Szigeth in Vienna, thus promoting my reputation around the world, and Ernest Schuch, the director of the Konigliche Theater in Dresden. … I remember Arturo Toscanini, the only powerful figure in Italy who took a strong initiative, with care and affection, in order to promote my operas, and had decided to conduct Oceana and Abisso in Milan’s La Scala… In the end I would like to mention my close friend Arrigo Boito, who will never cease to live in my soul; I recall the long hours we used to spend together in his studio, and our spiritual connection.”

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In his testament Smareglia’s thoughts are also dedicated to the city of Pula. The composer recalls his hometown helping him with the subsidy which he obtained with the help of his Triestine friends: “Pula, my home town, responded in a noble and affectionate way”. Smareglia also recalls his wife Maria (Jetti): “In all the difficulties which followed me throughout life, my biggest comfort was my beloved life companion and wife Maria Polla who supported my work through most sublime self-sacrifice, compensating for the animosities present around me”. These words were also meant for his children to whom the composer leaves his patrimony.

 

Smareglia’s artistic heritage, its “documentation” is being kept in the archives of the publisher Casa Musicale Sonzogno di Piero Ostali in Milan (they hold the composer’s operas), as well as various libraries and museums. One in particular has to be mentioned: small “chest box”, the archive of his granddaughter Adua Smareglia Rigotti, held in her house in Udine. There is also the University Library of Pula (holding the autograph of the opera Nozze Istriane), and the composer’s memorial room situated in Smareglia’s birth house in Pula.


Mariarosa Rigotti Longo