A New Italian Renaissance

By Leon Botstein

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

Commenting on the death of Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936), Alfredo Casella (1883-1947) observed that despite the different musical paths they had taken, which led to a breach in their relationship, Respighi’s “point of departure was the same as that of our entire generation: the necessity to leave the outworn, sterile atmosphere of verismo as soon as possible, that is, to abandon the art of the preceding generation.” Indeed, all the composers on tonight’s program, with the exception of Giuseppe Martucci (1856-1909) and Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), were represented on the first concert of a new Italian national music society on March 16, 1917. For Casella’s generation Martucci was considered a forerunner and the founder of a new resurgence of creativity in Italian music. He had taught Casella and Respighi and in 1895 advised the parents of the young Casella to send the talented boy abroad, for there was no one in Italy who could nurture his talent in a manner competitive with the progressive developments taking place in France, Germany, and Russia.

The notion that at the turn of the twentieth century many Italian musicians considered themselves in a relative backwater seems incredulous. Italy had long been regarded as a vibrant cultural alternative to the darker traditions of northern Europe. In the era of early Romanticism, during the first half of the nineteenth century, German intellectuals flocked to the south to gain new inspiration, following a path already charted by Winckelmann and Goethe. Italian opera dominated the European scene for generations before Wagner. The music of Chopin and Liszt is unimaginable without considering the influence of bel canto. Following Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti came the towering figure of Giuseppe Verdi, represented tonight by arguably his best-known music from his best known opera Aida. Close on the heels of Verdi came the verismo style that Casella so despised.

Italy indeed was no nineteenth-century backwater. Nevertheless, despite the centrality of opera, its musical traditions—precisely because of their international currency—struggled to adapt to the rapidly changing political and social realities that overwhelmed the Italian peninsula after 1848. Under the adept leadership of the Piedmontese monarchy, war was waged against Austria (who controlled much of northern Italy, including Venice) and an alliance with France was consummated, leading to a nearly unified kingdom of Italy by 1860. A decade later, owing in part to the ability of Italian nationalism to create a united front between monarchists and republicans like Giuseppe Garibaldi, a new Italian nation came into being, almost simultaneously with the unification of Germany. Count Camillo Cavour, its architect, was born in 1810 and was just three years older than Verdi. He had been one of the founders of a newspaper dedicated to Italian nationalism in 1847 entitled Il risorgimento, the name of which became attached not only to a political ideal but a cultural one. Alessandro Manzoni’s epic novel The Betrothed was a jewel among that new cultural nationalism’s many literary achievements. But no one equaled Giuseppe Verdi as a symbol of the post-1848 spirit of a reborn Italy free of foreign political influence. The Triumphal March from Aida, which premiered in 1871, is a thinly veiled celebration of the political accomplishment of his generation: the bringing together of all the Italians.

But as late as 1913, younger Italian artists, intellectuals, and writers found fault with Verdi and his generation. Casella wrote an article that year (of which he was later ashamed) that was severely critical of Verdi. It was only decades later that Verdi’s greatness became apparent to him, as “the creator of new musical beauties. . .the man who strove, full of a sense of responsibility toward his art.” The problem for Casella’s generation was not so much with Verdi but with the artistic ideals that seemed compatible with the founding generation of national Italian political consciousness. The genre of opera and its overwhelming domination of the Italian scene were barriers to the engagement with modernity. Casella was fond of the following quote regarding Italian opera: “a special kind of artwork, built on the brink of an abyss of ridicule, which is upheld by the force of genius.” As Casella concluded, opera “demands of the spectator and the listener a real willingness to believe in that blind faith which is required by every heroic or religious act.”

For Martucci and those who followed in his path, the opportunity for a new contemporary Italian musical voice lay in the instrumental realm rather than the operatic. It is significant that Italy’s greatest conductor of the turn of the twentieth century, Arturo Toscanini, bridged the gulf between the operatic (including verismo) and the instrumental, finding reconciliation in an all-encompassing patriotism reminiscent of Verdi. Gian Francisco Malipiero (1882-1973) considered Martucci “a genius in every sense of the term.” The Second Symphony is his masterpiece, and despite the reservations expressed in the program note by Harvey Sachs, it calls for no apologies. It is astonishing that only the music of Respighi has managed to hold a place in the international repertory. Idlebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968) is an entirely forgotten figure, and Malipiero and Casella have both suffered in part because of indirect political associations with Italian fascism.

The failure of this group of Italian composers to sustain a wide following and international reputation is perhaps the result of the fact that none of the individuals on tonight’s program can claim to having originated a new or distinctive style in the manner of Debussy, Stravinsky, or Schoenberg. Casella, for example, radically varied his approach to composition during his career. Just as Martucci is accused of being derivative and too dependent on a Brahmsian model, Casella’s early dependence on French and Russian influences is held against him. Malipiero has emerged, in retrospect, as the most compelling and original composer of this generation. Unlike others, he sought to downplay his earliest work. Pizzetti in contrast represents almost the reverse case. His first period was his most original. He was, among other things, an early admirer of Dukas’s Ariane et Barbe-bleue. Pizzetti throughout his career exercised a powerful role in music education in Italy. But he was also one of the signatories of a notorious reactionary manifesto against modernism written in 1932.

The link between all the composers on tonight’s program is not merely generational. What binds them is the historical moment in which a new kind of nationalism and approach to life were in vogue that encompassed a rather Nietzsche-like ecstatic and immediate embrace of creative action, the mysticism of Gabriele D’Annunzio, the radical egalitarianism inherited from Garibaldi, and above all, a shared fascination and romance with Italy’s history. All these composers at one time or another looked backwards to two singular moments when the Italian peninsula dominated the world. In the political realm, as Mussolini’s brand of fascism revealed, it was the glory of Rome that held sway. In the arts, it was the overwhelming superiority of the Italian Renaissance in music, architecture, painting, and poetry that was revisited in the form of a distinct neo-classicism. Furthermore, this new cultural nationalism kept its distance from the Rome of the Catholic Church and continued the strong anti-clerical strain of the mid nineteenth-century Italian risorgimento.

Despite the accusation of eclecticism, each of these composers produced more fine music than is represented in this program or in orchestral repertoire generally. Once again, greatness in music ought not be reduced to a criterion of originality that is perceptible and audible only on the surface. The originality of Bach, Haydn, and Mozart cannot be located by looking for markers of a new style. Yet in the post-Wagnerian era we are prisoners of the privileging of a certain kind of stylistic originality. The heterogeneity of influence audible in these composers’ work should not be a barrier to responding to the beauty and power of their achievement. Insofar as the reputations of Pizzetti, Malipiero, Casella, and to a lesser extent Respighi, have been damaged by tacit and active endorsement of Mussolini, it should be remembered that much of Europe in the 1920s thought well of Mussolini. These individuals were not alone in failing to recognize the disastrous trajectory inherent in fascist nationalism, particularly when it was combined with dreams of renewed imperial grandeur. The time has come to rethink our relationship with the music of these early-twentieth century Italian masters of non-operatic composition who shared with Verdi and Martucci an enthusiasm for a new, unified political future and present for Italians—one that could put an end to the enmity and rivalry that dominated Italian politics before 1870 and still does today. They sought to fashion not only works of art but institutions of education and performance that would represent a new modern Italian renaissance that mirrored in culture the political emancipation from foreign domination. Their efforts were not in vain. Without the musical advances made by this generation, the nearly unrivaled creativity in the realm of new music in Italy after 1945 would be unthinkable.

Gian Francesco Malipiero, Pause del Silenzio I

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.

“The 1880 Generation:” thus musicologist Massimo Mila dubbed Ottorino Respighi, Ildebrando Pizzetti, Alfredo Casella, and Gian Francesco Malipiero, collectively, because all four were born between 1879 and 1883. They made waves in Italy and abroad between the two World Wars, but, with the exception of Respighi, whose Rome-inspired symphonic poems remain part of the international repertoire, they are rarely represented in concert halls today and appear, instead, as transitional figures between the last group of popular Italian opera composers—Puccini and contemporaries—and the more radical, twentieth-century-born Luigi Dallapiccola, Luigi Nono, and Luciano Berio.

Malipiero was born in Venice in 1882, grew up in what we would call a dysfunctional family, and received an uneven musical education. Early on, however, he became profoundly interested in the works of Monteverdi, Frescobaldi, and other early Italian composers who, at that time, were largely ignored; they influenced him significantly, as did Debussy, Stravinsky, and other major figures of his own day.

Dallapiccola described Malipiero as “the most important [musical] personality that Italy has had since the death of Verdi,” but the unevenness of Malipiero’s work and what Mila called his “moody and fickle” nature worked against him in the long run. Malipiero’s reputation was tainted, too, by his attitude—alternately fawning and lamenting, but always opportunistic—toward Mussolini’s fascist regime. Typically, when the war was over Malipiero complained that the European musicians who had been forced to flee to America had had an easy time, whereas he had stayed home and suffered wartime deprivations—despite which he managed to live to the age of ninety-one (he died in 1973).

Pause del Silenzio—literally, Silence’s Pauses—was written during the First World War, and this and the other works he composed in those years “reflect my agitated state,” he said. On the other hand, “If I have created something new in my art (form, style) it was precisely at that time.” Malipiero also noted that Pause del Silenzio—which he subtitled “Seven Symphonic Expressions” —had no extra-musical meaning, but was written just when the war made it “most difficult to find silence. . . Precisely because of their tumultuous origins, they contain no thematic development or other artifices. . .” He described the seven “expressions” as: 1) pastoral, 2) between a scherzo and a dance, 3) a serenade (this seems a misnomer—much of the section is dirge-like), 4) a tumultuous whirl, 5) a funeral elegy, 6) a fanfare, and 7) a fire of violent rhythms. The commanding statement with which the piece begins is “the only thematic link” among the sections, Malipiero wrote, “and it is somewhat heroic, because a timid voice would not be likely to interrupt the silence.” His biographer, John C. G. Waterhouse, characterizes these seven segments as “boldly contrasted ‘panels’” and calls Pause del Silenzio “one of the most powerful of [Malipiero’s] purely orchestral compositions.”

Pause del Silenzio was given its first performance in Rome in 1918 under the baton of Bernardino Molinari, to whom it is dedicated. Nine years later, the composer wrote five more “symphonic expressions,” which he called Pause del Silenzio, Part Two, but this group was less successful than Part One.

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.

 Ildebrando Pizzetti, Per L’Edipo Re di Sofocle: tre preludii sinfonici (Three Preludes to Sophocles’ Oedipus)

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.

Alfredo Casella, Italia, Rhapsody for Orchestra, Op. 11

By Adrian Corleonis, Fanfare Magazine

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

In the early 1920s, the Sphinx-like Ferrucio Busoni noted of Alfredo Casella that he was “very adroit in conversation, but not so adroit as not to be aware of it.” Coupled with a searching intellect finding stimulus in everything, Casella’s self-consciousness nearly crippled him as a composer, making the achievement of a confident style uphill work.

While radical developments and harbingers were dotting the rising dawn of the new century—cubism, futurism, the theories of Einstein and Planck, Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire, Stravinsky’s Sacre du printemps—the fabled ‘90s persisted until the onset of the Great War, that is, through Casella’s formative years. Casella and Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius were born in 1883—the year Wagner died. Schoenberg’s atonal Three Pieces for Piano, Op. 11, were composed in 1909, the same year as Italia. But these burgeoning manifestations of the new would become influential only during and after the War. In the post-Romantic deliquescence, teetering on the verge of modernism, Debussy, Strauss, and Mahler were the giants establishing themselves against the usual prejudices, though Isaac Albéniz, Manuel de Falla, the Dukas of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, perhaps even the d’Indy of the Symphony on a French Mountain Air, and the Busoni of the Piano Concerto, are Casella’s audible models.

Casella’s musical gifts—not only as a piano prodigy—sent him to the Paris Conservatoire at 13, where he gravitated toward Fauré’s composition classes. His classmates included Ravel, Enescu, Roger-Ducasse, and Koechlin. His social “adroitness” and his prodigious talents enabled him to work with artists of the highest caliber—Eugène Ysaÿe, Jacques Thibaud, Willem Mengelberg—as he toured Europe. Mahler thought well enough of him that he persuaded Emil Hertzka, of Universal Edition, to publish Italia. Which is to say that Casella’s culture was synoptically au courant and thoroughly cosmopolitan. And that, as a composer, entailed a certain arrière pensée.

Looking back in 1941 (in the fascinating memoir, Music in My Time), Casella recalled, “ . . . I began two important orchestral works in which I intended to face for the first time the problem of creating a style at once Italian in spirit and contemporary in its sonorous language. One of these was the Suite in C major. . . The other was a much greater undertaking and still resists the weight of the years; it is the Rhapsody, Italia.” And for the latter work there is some revelatory special pleading: “We must not forget that Italia was written in 1909 by a young man of twenty-six who had lived in exile from the beginning of his adolescence; it was quite difficult to create the style he imagined and sought to realize in that work in the environment in which he lived. The Rhapsody still gives me great satisfaction in one way; conceived in the midst of a musical culture overwhelmingly dominated by impressionism, the work turned out to be anti-impressionistic. Nothing is more remote from Debussyism than this linear and monumental architecture.”

His defensiveness regarding the use of folk material is also notable: “It was natural that when I wished to create a national music I should look for a basis in the national folklore. Many others still do this today, with less ingenuousness than mine.” But there is no embarrassment about the use of Luigi Denza’s banefully popular Funiculì, Funiculà for Italia’s whelming peroration. Rather, Casella evinces such a note of triumph that Denza personally intervened to allow its use where, a quarter-of-a-century before, he had sued the young Richard Strauss for his appropriation of the melody in Aus Italien.

Casella conducted the premiere on April 23, 1910, tellingly at Paris’s Salle Gaveau. Italia was not heard in Italy until 1924.

Ottorino Respighi, Fontane di Roma (The Fountains of Rome)

By Fred Kirshnit

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

In 1830 Mikhail Glinka traveled from St. Petersburg to Milan and upon journeying home brought back to his native land the bel canto sensibilities of a new and refreshing music—a lyricism that charmingly affected Russian opera for almost one hundred years. At the turn of the next century, Ottorino Respighi returned the favor, leaving his Italy to play the viola in the Imperial Theatre Orchestra on the Baltic and study composition with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Returning eventually to run the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia in Rome, Respighi imbued his music with his mentor’s kaleidoscopic sense of color and pinpoint accuracy of descriptive instrumentation. Although he was primarily a man of the theater, Respighi is best known for three orchestral poems, Roman Festivals, The Pines of Rome, and tonight’s essay, The Fountains of Rome.

The story of the 1917 world premiere of this piece is dripping with historical irony. Arturo Toscanini was set to conduct—of course, in Rome—but suddenly cancelled after he was booed off of the stage when he offered music from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung at a time when German forces were killing Italians in Padua. The actual first performance, without the charismatic leader who would come to be known as Italy’s most ardent anti-fascist, was a flop. Only several months later, in Milan, did Toscanini direct La Scala orchestra in a performance that skyrocketed the composer to prominence. Respighi, who had attended the original Roman debacle, opted to stay away from the Milan event.

The young man with the uncanny physical resemblance to Beethoven—he later politely declined an offer to portray the great composer in a film—created in Fountains a cinematic portrayal of his beloved homeland. Although his wife, singer-composer Elsa Olivieri-Sangiacomo, wrote that he had absolutist ideas when creating his tone poems, the music itself, and Respighi’s titles, showcase the programmatic.

The four snapshots of fountains are molded into a pseudosymphonic whole. “The Valle Giulia at Dawn” depicts a pastoral scene with a hint of Middle Eastern modality evoking the most ancient of music. Descending passages in the flutes remind one of cowbells. All is serene. Without pause, we are catapulted into the “Triton Fountain at Morn.” Horns awaken the water creatures, naiads splashing and spouting. This is the lupine world of Romulus and Remus. Quickly we arrive at the “Trevi at Midday.” Neptune in all of his glory is triumphantly driven in his chariot. Images flood the senses with the world of the earliest Roman civilization, sophisticated in its way but still in awe of the supernatural.

Finally, there is the “Villa Medici Fountain at Sunset” with its urbanity, artistry, holiness. The community of churches rings its bells for vespers. This quartet of aural vignettes captures so expertly that unsettling feeling of Rome, a disorientation wherein you never really know in what century you are living.

For Respighi, water is the lifeblood of history and the fountains are Rome’s circulatory system. Commenting on his effort, he described the marble monuments themselves as “the very voice of the city.”