Giuseppe Martucci, Symphony No. 2 in F, Op. 81

By Harvey Sachs, writer, journalist, and music historian

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

In late nineteenth-century Italy, the word “music” was practically synonymous with the word “opera.” During the single decade of 1890-1900, for instance, Puccini and his contemporaries Mascagni, Leoncavallo, and Giordano—all born in the 1850s and ’60s—followed in the footsteps of their predecessors Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, and Verdi, and produced such enduring works as Manon Lescaut, La bohème, Tosca, Cavalleria rusticana, Pagliacci, and Andrea Chénier. But not one of these young composers created significant non-operatic music, either then or at any other time.

There were, however, a few contemporary compatriots of Puccini and company who excelled at instrumental music, and Giuseppe Martucci proved to be the most gifted and influential of them. Born in 1856 near Capua, in Italy’s “deep south,” Martucci was a child prodigy at the piano; his father, a trumpeter, exploited the boy’s talent as early and as long as he could, but studies at the Naples Conservatory broadened the young musician’s horizons. By the time he was eighteen, his skill at the keyboard had been admired by Liszt and Anton Rubinstein, and he soon developed into an accomplished conductor whose pioneering achievements included the Italian premiere of Tristan und Isolde—undertaken at a time (1888) when Wagner’s music was barely tolerated south of the Alps. In his lifelong work as a teacher, too, and especially during his tenures as director of the conservatories of Bologna (1886-1902) and Naples (1902-09), Martucci helped to open new vistas for thousands of young Italian musicians. His efforts contributed greatly to the gradual acceptance of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and other foreigners throughout the country.

Martucci’s death in 1909, at the age of fifty-three, deprived Italy of an outstanding, innovative performing musician and pedagogue. His own compositions were overshadowed by those of the outstanding non-Italian composers of his generation (he was born within a dozen years of Rimsky-Korsakov, Fauré, Elgar, Mahler, Debussy, Richard Strauss, and Sibelius), but they were beautifully crafted. Several of his works were conducted fairly often by Toscanini, for whom Martucci also served as a podium role model, and in our own day Riccardo Muti frequently turns his attention to Martucci’s music.

The Symphony No. 2 in F major, Op. 81, completed in 1904, is generally considered Martucci’s masterpiece; Gian Francesco Malipiero described it as “the starting point of the renaissance of non-operatic Italian music.” Its opening Allegro moderato has dramatic moments but is generally lyrical and flowing, whereas the following scherzo, Allegro vivace, is almost Mendelssohnian in its lightness—especially in the violins’ skittish figurations. The dignified Adagio ma non troppo contains some lyrical solo passages and an agitated middle section, and the finale, Allegro, is essentially sunny.

Certainly much of Martucci’s thematic material is undistinguished, and one often has the feeling that however skillfully he develops that material and however masterly his command of the orchestra, he seems unsure as to whether or not he has something important to say. But we mustn’t reprove Martucci for not having been Brahms (his idol) or for not having taken part in the European avant-garde of his day. Without his herculean efforts, musical Italy would have had a hard time entering the twentieth century.