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festa italiana!

festa italiana!

Overture to La Forza del Destino (“The Force of Destiny”) (1861-1862)

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

Verdi, whose music was a symbol of the Italian unification movement, served the spring of 1861 as a representative to the first National Parliament. When his friend and political mentor, Camillo Cavour, died in June, Verdi’s interest in government waned, and he was again open to composing. At just that time, he received an offer from the Russian Imperial Opera in St. Petersburg to provide them with a new work. It had been three years since he had last written for the stage (A Masked Ball), and he was eager to return to composition. Certainly the proposed contract was lucrative enough to entice him, and it was made even more attractive because he was just then undertaking extensive costly additions and renovations to his beloved villa at Sant’Agata. He agreed to the Russian request, and suggested Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas as a subject, but that proposal was rejected by the St. Petersburg administration since it depicted a royal house in a negative light. Instead, Verdi turned to Don Alvaro, a Spanish play of 1835 by Don Angel de Saavedra, Duke of Rivas. Though its plot was an improbable sequence of events, Verdi was attracted to its strong, contrasting emotions, his most important criterion for a libretto. He sketched the scenario, sent it to his faithful poet Francesco Piave to be versified, and set to work on the music. When Verdi left for Russia in November, the opera was complete except for the orchestration. However, illness felled one of the principal singers, and the premiere was postponed until the following year. When La Forza del Destino was first given, in November 1862, it met with a mixed response. The music was generally acclaimed, but the libretto, with three violent deaths in the last scene, drew less praise. For the 1869 production at La Scala, Milan, Verdi made extensive revisions to the work, and it was at that time that the original, short prelude was expanded to the full Overture that is today among his best-known instrumental works.

The story is set in 18th-century Spain. Alvaro has accidentally killed the father of his beloved, Leonora, during the lovers’ attempted elopement. Separately, they flee. Leonora’s brother, Carlo, swears vengeance on both her and their father’s murderer. Leonora first seeks refuge at a convent, and then goes to live as a hermit in a cave. Carlo and Alvaro meet during a military encounter, and Carlo discovers the true identity of his adversary just after Alvaro is carried away, wounded. Alvaro joins the Church as a monk, but he is followed by Carlo who enrages Alvaro to the point of a duel. They fight near Leonora’s cave, interrupting her prayers, and she goes to see what is causing the commotion. As she emerges from her cave, the lovers recognize each other, and Alvaro cries that he has spilled the blood of yet another of her family. She rushes off to help her fatally wounded brother, but Carlo, with his last bit of strength, stabs Leonora, and she dies in Alvaro’s arms.

For this melodramatic tale, Verdi provided one of his most richly expressive scores. The Overture, utilizing several themes from the opera, reflects the strong emotions of the work, though it does not follow the progress of the story. It opens with a stern summons of six unison notes, after which appears the agitated theme that Verdi intended to represent Fate. This motto recurs throughout both the Overture and the opera as a symbol of the workings of destiny on the principal characters. The brief introduction is followed by an expressive, lyrical melody for woodwinds over pizzicato string accompaniment (sung later in the opera by one of Alvaro’s fellow priests) under which are heard the mutterings of the Fate theme. The violins then give an impassioned phrase from Leonora’s Act II prayer. The Fate theme reappears in a menacing guise before the woodwinds sing a reminder of the priest’s melody. Another of Leonora’s themes, given by clarinet over a rustling harp background, is interrupted as the brass intone a chorale. Leonora’s melody continues in a slower setting for full orchestra, and is then treated to another variation in staccato eighth notes combined with the Fate motive. An energetic coda brings this stirring Overture to a close.

Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 6 (1807-1808)

Nicolò Paganini (1782-1840)

“He’s a comet! For never did a flaming star burst more abruptly on the firmament of art or excite in the course of its universal ellipse more astonishment mixed with a sort of terror before vanishing forever.” Thus wrote Hector Berlioz about one of the most extraordinary phenomena in modern history — Niccolò Paganini. There has never been anything quite like Paganini. He was rumored to be a murderer, a seducer, an escaped convict. One report held that 300 of his auditors were “in the hospital suffering from over-enchantment.” A satirist thought his incomparable virtuosity “enough to make the greater part of the fiddling tribe commit suicide.” The celebrated opera composer Meyerbeer once followed Paganini on his travels through northern Europe in an attempt to penetrate the mystery of his powers. Otherwise perfectly reasonable and sober Englishmen poked him with their canes as he walked the streets of London, just to see if he was really made of flesh and blood. Paganini won his Stradivarius in a wager that he could play at first sight a piece that no other violinist could play with preparation. Said Edward Downes about Paganini’s persona, “He did everything but come on stage wrapped in blue flame.”

Perhaps the only episode in our contemporary experience resembling the career of Paganini was the mania surrounding such pop stars as the Beatles and Elvis. But even that is not a thoroughly valid comparison, since few concert musicians gave more than passing notice to the rock music of the 1950s and 1960s, whereas Paganini was hailed as a master by the finest artists of his day. Berlioz not only wrote the glowing words quoted above, but also composed Harold in Italy for the great virtuoso. Schubert maintained that “in Paganini’s [playing of his] Adagio I heard an angel sing.” Schumann correctly called him “the turning point in the history of virtuosity.” And even Rossini was infected with the fever. “I have wept only three times in my life,” he confessed. “The first time when my earliest opera failed, the second time when, with a boating party, a truffled turkey fell into the water, and the third time when I heard Paganini play.”

There was, however, more to Paganini than just his wizardry on the violin. Beyond the dazzling array of unprecedented technical feats — harmonics, double-stops, pizzicati, blinding speed — there was the mesmerizing pageant of theatrics, both on stage and off, that was the fascination of Europe. The great German poet Heinrich Heine left an account of his appearance and mannerisms that described him as “looking as if he had risen from the underworld.” His satanic image and the superhuman qualities of his playing gave rise to tales that he was in league with the devil. “What mere mortal could do the things that this man does?” wondered his hearers. Some who accidentally touched him quickly crossed themselves as a safeguard. He denied any diabolical influence, and he even had his mother submit a letter attesting to the normality of his parentage and birth. In those simpler times, such a move was a public relations inspiration, and it served only to further fan the flames of his fame. (Clever devil, this Paganini.) The shadow of Beelzebub hung over him even after death. Because he rejected the last rites of the Church, his body was refused burial in consecrated ground. His heirs fought for over three years to have him properly laid to rest, until finally the Vatican itself issued an order for his Christian burial. Perhaps the decision took so long because of reports that spread from Nice and, later, Villefranche, where Paganini’s unburied coffin was kept. On still nights, when the moon was full, the natives claimed, the sound of a ghostly violin could be heard playing softly inside the mysterious box.

A century and a half after his death, Paganini continues to fascinate for both the supernatural qualities of his life and the sparkling treasury of music that he left to posterity. The standards of performance that he established still lie at the limits of violin technique, and playing his compositions remains one of the most daunting challenges for today’s virtuosos. It was Paganini’s practice to keep his secrets as well hidden as possible. One way in which he did this was by not allowing any of his violin music (except for his nearly unplayable Caprices) to be published during his lifetime. For his concert appearances, he memorized the solo sections and carried with him only the parts for the orchestra. He did not play at rehearsals, but only gave cues, so that at the performance the orchestra members were as astounded by what they heard as was the audience. Musicians were especially baffled by this First Concerto. It was originally written in the key of E-flat, a seemingly impossible tonality for the soloist in which to negotiate the hazards of the music since it nearly denies the use of any open strings. It was discovered only after Paganini’s death that, though he had written the orchestra parts in E-flat, he himself played in the easier key of D major — he simply tuned each of his strings a half-step higher, and made the impossible seem easy. Even in the D major tonality in which this Concerto is now always heard, it remains a breathtaking showpiece for the master violinist.

The music itself really needs little comment. Much of the pleasure for today’s listener, as for Paganini’s contemporaries, is just to observe a master violinist at work. The first movement follows the traditional sonata form, with a lyrical second theme of decidedly operatic cast. The Adagio, said to have been inspired by a moving performance of the Italian tragedian Giuseppe de Marini, is a reminder that Paganini was as famous for the deeply affective quality of his playing of slow, simple pieces as for his flashy fireworks. (“What suffering, what misery, what torture dwell in those four strings,” wailed Liszt.) The finale is a rousing Rondo filled with technical fireworks amid bounding melodies.

In summarizing the musical style of Paganini, Berlioz wrote, “His melody is the great Italian melody, but alive with an ardor generally more passionate than that which one finds in the most beautiful pages of the dramatic composers of his country. His harmony is always clear, simple, and of an extraordinary sonority.” And, we might add, his music is simply good fun.

Capriccio Italien, Op. 45 (1880)

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

For nearly a decade after his disastrous marriage in 1877, Tchaikovsky was filled with self-recrimination and doubts about his ability to compose anything more. He managed to finish the Violin Concerto during the spring of 1878, but then had to wait more than three years for someone to perform it, and did not undertake another large composition until the Manfred Symphony of 1885. His frustration was only increased by staying at home in Moscow, and he traveled frequently and far during those years for diversion. In November 1879 he set off for Rome via a circuitous route that took him and his traveling companion, his brother Modeste, through Berlin and Paris, finally arriving in the Eternal City in mid-December. Despite spending the holiday in Rome and taking part in the riotous festivities of Carnival (Tchaikovsky recorded that this “wild folly” did not suit him very well), the sensitive composer still complained in a letter written on February 17, 1880 to his benefactress, Nadezhda von Meck, that “a worm gnaws continually in secret at my heart. I cannot sleep. My God, what an incomprehensible and complicated mechanism the human organism is! We shall never solve the various phenomena of our spiritual and material existence!”

Though Tchaikovsky was never long parted from his residual melancholy, his spirits were temporarily brightened by some of the local tunes he heard in Rome, and he decided to write an orchestral piece that would incorporate several of them. At the beginning of February he wrote to Mme. von Meck, “I have been working, and during the last few days I have sketched the rough draft of an Italian Caprice based on popular melodies. I think it has a bright future; it will be effective because of the wonderful melodies I happened to pick up, partly from published collections and partly out of the streets with my own ears.” As introduction to the work, Tchaikovsky used a bugle call sounded every evening from the barracks of the Royal Italian Cuirassiers, which was adjacent to the Hotel Costanzi where he was staying. He sketched the Capriccio in a week, but then did not return to the score until he was back in Russia in the spring; the orchestration was completed in mid-May at his summer home in Kamenka. The Capriccio Italien enjoyed a fine success at its premiere on December 18, 1880 by Nikolai Rubinstein and the Moscow branch of the Russian Musical Society, and audiences demanded its repetition on several subsequent concerts.

Tchaikovsky admitted modeling his Capriccio Italien on Mikhail Glinka’s potpourri of Spanish themes, Night in Madrid, a piece Mili Balakirev had suggested more than a decade earlier that he study for its “masterly fusing-together of sections.” The first section of the Capriccio Italien opens with the brazen trumpet fanfare of the Royal Cuirassiers, which gives way to a dolorous melody intoned above an insistent accompanimental motive. There follows a swinging tune given first by the oboes in sweet parallel thirds and later by the full orchestra in tintinnabulous splendor. A brisk folk dance comes next, then a reprise of the dolorous melody and finally a whirling tarantella, perhaps inspired by the finale of Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony. This “bundle of Italian folk tunes,” as Edwin Evans called the Capriccio Italien, ends with one of the most rousing displays of orchestral sonority in all of Romantic music.

Symphony No. 4 in A major, Op. 90, “Italian” (1831-1833, revised 1834-1837)

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

Felix Mendelssohn never learned how to take it easy. As a boy, he was awakened at 5:00 every morning to begin a full day of private tutelage, exercise, social instruction and family activities — the busy regimen he learned as a child shaped the rest of his brief life. Inactivity was anathema. Two months of bed rest occasioned by a leg injury in London in 1829 were more painful for the confinement they necessitated than for the medical condition. Throughout his days, Mendelssohn preferred travel to quiet life at home: he trooped across Europe, from Vienna to Wales, from Hamburg to Naples, and was welcomed and admired at every stop. Some of his journeys inspired music — the first of his ten trips to Great Britain, for example, which included a walking tour of Scotland (during which he enjoyed “a half-hour of inconsequential conversation” with Sir Walter Scott), gave rise to the “Scottish” Symphony and the Hebrides Overture.

When he was 21, Mendelssohn embarked on an extensive grand tour of the Continent. He met Chopin and Liszt in Paris, painted the breathtaking vistas of Switzerland, and marveled at the artistic riches (and grumbled about the inhospitable treatment by the coachmen and innkeepers) of Italy. “The land where the lemon trees blossom,” as his friend Goethe described sunny Italy, stirred him so deeply that he began a musical work there in 1831 based on his impressions of Rome, Naples and the other cities he visited. The composition of this “Italian” Symphony, as he always called it, caused him much difficulty, however, and he had trouble bringing all of the movements to completion. “For the slow movement I have not yet found anything exactly right, and I think I must put it off for Naples,” he wrote from Rome to his sister Fanny. The spur to finish the work came in the form of a commission for a symphony from the Philharmonic Society of London that caused Mendelssohn to gather up his sketches and complete the task.

The new Symphony was met with immediate acclaim at its premiere on May 13, 1833 in London, and was one of the series of British successes that helped enshrine Mendelssohn in the English pantheon of 19th-century musical genius as Queen Victoria’s favorite composer. Mendelssohn, however, was not completely satisfied with the original version of the Symphony, and he refused to allow its publication. He tinkered with it again several years later, paying special attention to the finale, but never felt the work to be perfected. It was only after his death that the score was published and became widely available. Despite Mendelssohn’s misgivings, the “Italian” Symphony has become one of the most enduring and popular pieces in the orchestral repertory, declared to be virtually perfect by the demanding British critic and scholar Sir Donald Tovey; it was a special favorite of that cantankerous curmudgeon and one-time music critic, George Bernard Shaw.

Mendelssohn cast his “Italian” Symphony in the traditional four movements. The opening movement takes an exuberant, leaping melody initiated by the violins as its principal subject and a quieter, playful strain led by the clarinets as its subsidiary theme. The intricately contrapuntal development section is largely based on a precise, staccato theme of darker emotional hue but also refers to motives from the main theme. A full recapitulation of the exposition’s materials ensues before the movement ends with a coda that recalls the staccato theme from the development. The Andante, in the style of a slow march, may have been inspired by a religious procession that Mendelssohn saw in the streets of Naples, but it also evokes the chorale prelude sung by the Two Armed Men in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. The third movement, the gentlest of dances, is in the form of a minuet/scherzo whose central trio utilizes the burnished sonorities of bassoons and horns. The finale turns, surprisingly, to a tempestuous minor key for an exuberant and mercurial dance modeled on the whirling saltarello that Mendelssohn heard in Rome.

©2019 Dr. Richard E. Rodda

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