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Picture Postcards from Italy

Stravinsky declared, “Music expresses nothing outside itself!” That’s absolutely true, provided you prefix it with “Of itself”. However, even when unattended by either words, images, or actions, music is never (or rarely!) alone inside our heads. Moreover, music is magnetic, attracting tasty tit-bits from our mental bottom drawers and joining with them, jig-saw style. Unlike ourselves, music is utterly unprejudiced, caring not whether these “tit-bits” are acquired or genetically inherited: “if it fits, plug into it”! This is why composers can get away with “programme music”, and send us “picture postcards” of the places they visit - or inhabit. Which brings us, rather neatly, to Berlioz - and Respighi

If you divided Romantic music like Twenties jazz, Berlioz would be hot and Mendelssohn cool. However, far from “never”, the twain met often, in Italy, which must have made for some interesting conversations. Naturally both wrote “postcards”, though Harold in Italy (1834) wasn’t directly the result of a holiday. Having commissioned a work to show off his pet viola, Paganini was (shall we say?) disappointed with the first movement draft and stomped off in a huff. Berlioz, apparently trying to kill two birds with one stone, was fathering a hybrid: not a virtuoso concerto, but a symphony with only an obbligato viola part. Shrugging his shoulders the way only the French can do, Berlioz cracked on regardless. Several years later, Paganini eventually heard a performance. He remained unimpressed with the “concerto”, but the “symphony” knocked him sideways, so much so that Paganini, hardly renowned for holding open house on his cheque-book, rewarded Berlioz handsomely. Hmm - fail to deliver and still get paid a princely bonus: nice work if you can get it! 

I can, however, see Paganini’s point: even now this particular Appennine Adventure packs a powerful punch. In true Romantic fashion, Berlioz uses the solo viola to represent himself, and by setting the instrument in a somewhat peripheral perspective he places himself firmly in his proper rôle, that of a visitor. However, given the viola’s inclination to indulge in mournful meditation, it’s obvious that he regards himself as a somewhat less than typical tourist. We can see a broad parallel to Byron’s impression of a world-weary poet, but otherwise forget about Childe Harold -  first and foremost this music is “about” Childe Hector

A significant part of Berlioz’s amazing originality lay not in turning tradition on its head, as you might expect, but in setting the cat of unconventionality amongst the patrimonial pigeons. In the first movement the familiar, firm foundation of the continuo bass becomes as quicksand. In the second, Berlioz’s “pilgrims” set off piously enough, but continually stray from the paths of harmonic righteousness, each time to be patiently returned to the fold by a tolling “bell”. The third movement seems set fair for a scherzo, but the skipping “main subject” peters out surprisingly quickly and the “counter-subject”ends up dominating the movement. Finally, the finale (what else?): a raucous outburst admits the symphony’s opening bars, blackened, bloated by looming brass - signalling a radical change of personnel on the mountainside! Never mind any guff about emulating the “recollections” idea of the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth: Berlioz’s viola is obviously asking, “What happened to all the nice people?” The reply is ominously prophetic of the fate of many of today’s fashionable tourist resorts, and at the end, a meek prayer for sanity is given what sounds suspiciously like the bum’s rush. Daft idea? I wonder. 

Turning from the “visitors” to the “home team”, following World War I there was a minor renaissance in Italy. A new generation of composers dared to abandon the long-standing operatic obsession, in favour of a national style based on old masters like Vivaldi and Corelli. Respighi, something of a musical polymath, became a leading light of this rather radical faction. He found diverse inspiration in his wide knowledge of ancient culture, from early Italian music and Byzantine Chant, and from old paintings and architecture. Although intrigued by the likes of Stravinsky, Debussy and Strauss, Respighi really only responded to his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov, who nurtured his talent for iridescent orchestral colour. 

The factors permeate his famous Roman Triptych, composed in 1916, 1924, and 1928. While acknowledged as masterpieces of orchestration, they are often vilified for being mere baubles, extremely pretty but utterly empty shells. Maybe this is true, but “So what?” I could similarly criticise, say, a cartload of dances by the Strauss family, or the Spanish Caprice by a certain N. A. Rimsky-Korsakov. I could, but I won't, because that's not the point - this is: there's no law requiring music to have “depth”. Respighi wrote plenty of music with abundant “depth”, so presumably the triptych, of which the Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome are the first two parts, was composed expressly to titillate, to flood our heads with gorgeous colour and vivid images: Respighi as musical tourist guide or picture postcard painter. And why not? Can anyone give me one good reason? 

They are sumptuously scored for a velour-upholstered orchestra, enriched where required with deep-pile organ cushioning: no extravagance has been spared in ensuring you the ultimate in listening luxury. Each falls into four sections, played continuously. I haven’t said anything about the content of the music. Do I need to? The composer’s explicit titles, more or less reliably, guide your imagination. These may be swallowed whole or taken with a pinch of salt. Salt? Yes - don’t forget that the images you get depend in part on what’s already in your head. In my case, for example, the central episode of The Pines near a Catacomb carries an unshakeable image that has nothing whatsoever to do with “pines” or “catacombs”. Does this bother me? Not one little bit! 

Note originally commissioned by the Vancouver Symphony for a concert given on 28 February 2004


© Paul Serotsky
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