Per L’Edipo Re di Sofocle: tre preludii sinfonici [Three Preludes to Sophocles’ Oedipus] (1903)

By Frank J. Oteri

Written for the concert A New Italian Renaissance, performed on April 18, 2008 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Although he lived well into the twentieth century, Italian composer Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968) created music which was more in the spirit of the nineteenth century, and in many of his compositions he harkened back to even earlier times. In attendance at the 1913 premiere of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, Pizzetti was bewildered, and in 1932, along with Ottorino Respighi and Riccardo Zandonai, Pizzetti signed a reactionary manifesto denouncing the avant-garde. Perhaps the greatest influence on the development of Pizzetti’s mature musical language was his early exposure to the music of the great Italian polyphonists of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries during his studies at the Parma Conservatory under the tutelage of Giovanni Tebaldini, a pioneering Italian musicologist. Following his immersion in this music, Pizzetti plunged even further into the past, delving deeply into Gregorian chant and Ancient Greek modes. In 1914, he wrote a book about the music of Greece, and themes from classical antiquity remained a lifelong inspiration. He composed incidental music for several productions of ancient Greek plays as well as a cantata based on the Epithalamium of first century B.C.E. Roman poet Catullus; and among the fourteen operas published during Pizzetti’s lifetime—most to his own libretti—are Iphigenia (1950) and Clitennestra (1965), his last.

The genesis of Pizzetti’s “Three Preludes” is somewhat complicated. Subsequent to receiving his diploma from the Conservatory in 1901, Pizzetti’s first orchestral work was an Overture to l’Edipo a Colono which the composer dedicated to the stage and silent film actor Gustavo Salvini (1859-1930). A few years later, Salvini asked Pizzetti to compose some music for a production of L’Edipo Re’ at the Teatro Olimpia in Milan. Later in his life, Pizzetti recast all of this material into a three-movement orchestral suite meant for the concert hall.

While there isn’t a detailed programmatic narrative to Pizzetti’s triptych of roughly equal-length preludes, the music suggests broad themes related to Sophocles’ famous tragedy of patricide, incest, and uncontrollable fate. The initial Largo establishes a tragic mood and a sense of foreboding in music that is almost Italianate Bruckner. The ensuing Con impeto very effectively conveys Oedipus’s wrong-headedly insisting on solving the riddle of the Sphinx which ultimately unlocks the mystery surrounding the events of his life and brings about his downfall, echoed musically in the most tumultuous climax of the entire set. The concluding Con molta espessione di dolore hints at Oedipus’s final days, wandering around blind accompanied only by his daughter Antigone, with harmonies which wander chromatically and gradually dissolve.