Ruggero Leoncavallo is remembered almost exclusively for his opera I Pagliacci, which — along with Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana — has become the hallmark of the late nineteenth century verismo style. Leoncavallo studied composition at the Naples conservatory and literature at Bologna University; this dual passion for music and poetry would lead the young composer to seek a unity between the two disciplines in the manner of Richard Wagner, whose music would come as a revelation.
His first operatic efforts were thwarted by ill fortune: a production of his student work, Chatterton, fell through after the impresario made off with the money Leoncavallo himself had furnished to cover the costs. However, after several years of scraping by as a café pianist, he was introduced to the influential publisher Giulio Ricordi, who bought the rights to Chatterton and engaged Leoncavallo as a librettist. While this signified a temporary improvement in the young man's circumstances, the creative alliance between Leoncavallo and Ricordi proved frustrating. Ricordi declined his next opera, I Medici, and his attempts at a libretto for Puccini's Manon Lescaut led to irreconcilable creative differences.
These combined misfortunes instilled in Leoncavallo a singular desire for operatic success, which he channeled into his masterpiece, I Pagliacci. Modeled on Mascagni's Cavalleria, Pagliacci was an instant sensation at its premier in 1892. From that point onward, Leoncavallo enjoyed fame and wealth, although the success of this work was never to be repeated.
In 1897 Leoncavallo produced a setting of La Bohème that was meant to rival that of Puccini, but, although it pleased the public somewhat, Puccini's finer and more sophisticated work quickly outstripped Leoncavallo's in popularity. Subsequent re-workings of Chatterton and I Medici proved to be dismal failures in Italy, but I Medici sufficiently impressed the Kaiser of Germany to gain a commission for a new work, Der Roland von Berlin (1904), which enjoyed modest success in Berlin. However, Leoncavallo never again gained his footing in Italy, where his works formed a succession of spectacular failures and tepid successes.
The advent of recording technology was fortuitous for Leoncavallo, who conducted I Pagliacci in the first complete recording of an Italian opera. He also accompanied Enrico Caruso in a recorded performance of the song, "Mattinata," which has become his most popular work after Pagliacci.