> Ernest Fanelli - Symphonic Pictures [MC]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Ernest FANELLI (1860-1917)
Symphonic Pictures: ‘The Romance of the Mummy(1883/86) [49:44]:-

I. Thebes

1. In front of the Tahoser palace *
2. On the Nile
3. Triumphant return of the Pharaoh

II. Festivities at the Pharaoh’s Palace
1. In a room at the palace - Naked jugglers
2. Grotesque dance of the Egyptian jesters
3. Triumphant hymns - Orgy
Louis-Albert BOURGAULT-DUCOUDRAY (1840-1910)

Cambodian Rhapsody: Khnenh Preavossa ‘The Feast of Water’ (1882) [17:09]

  1. Introduction - The tale
  2. The Feast of Water
Lydia Drahosova, (Mezzo-Soprano) *
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Adriano
Recorded at the Slovak Radio Concert Hall, Bratislava, in May 2000 and January 2001. DDD
MARCO POLO 8.225234 [69:09]


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The avant-garde yet accessible music of Ernest Fanelli, who is the featured composer on this disc, was a ‘blind date’ and a fascinating one at that. Prior to receiving the disc I was unaware of this composer and have been unable to trace any previous recordings of his works.

Born in Paris in 1860 of Italian parentage Fanelli studied at the Paris Conservatoire until an acute shortage of funds forced him to leave and support himself as a rank and file orchestral player. Although his teachers, for a time, included the luminaries Charles Alkan and Léo Delibes he was largely self-taught and had begun serious composition by his early twenties. In his role as an orchestral player I can just imagine a bitter Fanelli burning with resentment at having to play the music of composers that he considered inferior to his own.

A lucky break came in 1912 when the influential composer-conductor Gabriel Pierné fortuitously studied one of Fanelli’s 29 year old compositions. Pierné was amazed and declared that it, "contained all the principles and processes of modern music used by recognised masters of today." Pierné commented that at the time of Fanelli’s composition he himself had won a Prix de Rome, but in those days, "our art was entirely different from that of Fanelli …Wagner did not win recognition until a few years later and Debussy was not talked about seriously until 1890. Thus one man had marvellously foretold our whole epoch."

Pierné hurriedly arranged an orchestral concert of ‘Thebes’ the first section of the Symphonic Pictures, to enthusiastic acclaim. Performances of other Fanelli compositions quickly followed but almost as swiftly as he became known he was forgotten and banished to obscurity. Even Pierné his champion lost interest and Fanelli became embittered and disillusioned. Although he was to live until 1917 Fanelli sadly did not compose more music after 1894. In spite of his short composing career Fanelli certainly managed to rattle a few cages. It is not clear how he came to know the music but the self-titled ‘bad boy of music’ composer George Antheil is said to have described Fanelli as, "one of the greatest inventors and musical iconoclasts of our time."

Fanelli based and subtitled the Symphonic Pictures on Gaultier’s 1857 novel ‘The Romance of the Mummy’; a fashionable subject so typical of the orientalism that was popular at that time. The work is programmed in two distinct sections, each comprising three movements which he called Tableaux or Pictures.

During the preparation for this recording of the Symphonic Pictures the conductor Adriano learned that the first section ‘Thebes’ had been Fanelli’s only published orchestral work. After much research the second section ‘Festivities in the Pharaohs Palace’ was discovered by Adriano ten years ago in the music library of Radio France. Although it is not stated in the booklet this must be the world premier recording of the Symphonic Pictures.

It has never been claimed that the Symphonic Pictures: ‘The Romance of the Mummy’ is great music but it is fascinating and well worth hearing. For example, there is arguably far less worthy music being performed at this year’s Promenade Concerts. More than merely novelty value the music has much significance for French musical history. Ravel even suggested that Debussy’s impressionism had been highly influenced by the 23 year old Fanelli.

Adriano the conductor discusses the various motifs and identifies two recurring themes that run through the music. He holds the opinion that this is, "perhaps the first example in French music history in which sound and instrumental colour become principal means of expression". In view of this it is fascinating that the Symphonic Pictures predates the evocative imagery of Debussy’s ‘La Mer’ and Ravel’s ‘Daphnis and Chloe' by 19 and 26 years respectively. In spite of Fanelli’s visionary credentials I also hear echoes of the sound-world of Balakirev and Tchaikovsky whose music Fanelli may have known from Paris concerts featuring the increasingly popular Russian music of the day. Stravinsky-like pounding rhythms are also evident too, particularly in the fifth Picture and Stravinsky was a composer whose music Fanelli could not have known.

This is imaginative and varied fare, albeit with a few rough edges here and there. It holds the interest from the first note to the last. Conductor Adriano’s assured and subtle control brings out the sonorities of this strongly atmospheric music. Fanelli’s wide range of tone colours and brilliant orchestration are expertly balanced by the fine playing from the Slovak RSO. Adriano displays a clear conviction for this music resisting the temptation of self-indulgence. He expertly communicates, through the orchestral playing, Fanelli’s individual language. On occasions the music seemed to require slightly swifter tempos and more incisive tuttis. Particularly successful is the pulsating yet atmospheric first Picture ‘In front of the Tahoser Palace’, with the mezzo-soprano soloist representing the plaintive vocalise of a slave-girl. Also impressive is the way Fanelli likes to feature individual instruments, in turn, over a backdrop of low sultry strings which can be best heard in the wonderful second Picture ‘On the Nile’; which I feel is the highlight of the disc. There is so much invention to explore in the Symphonic Pictures. It would be remiss of me to not mention how frequently I was reminded of the film music of Bernard Herrmann and Miklós Rózsa particularly in the third and fifth Pictures. But how could that be? I must be mistaken? They were writing their great film scores some 70 years later!

The second composer on this CD is Louis-Albert Bourgault-Ducoudray who unlike Fanelli had the advantage of a wealthy upbringing. Born in Nantes in1840, Bourgault-Ducoudray became a composer after graduating from music study at the Nantes Conservatoire, aged 19. After winning a Prix de Rome, in 1882 he developed an eclectic taste in music discovering the polyphony of Palastrina and developing a life-long interest in world folk song. Bourgault-Ducoudray was instrumental in introducing unfamiliar and often exotic music to French audiences including the Paris premier of Balakirev’s tone poem ‘Tamara’. His appointment as Professor of Music History at the Paris Conservatoire was the ideal position for him to use his vast musical knowledge.

Bourgault-Ducoudray was reasonably active as a composer, writing two operas and a considerable amount of chamber music, particularly for the piano, and numerous songs. His orchestral output like that of Fanelli is fairly small consisting mainly of a symphony and tone poems.

The two movement Cambodian Rhapsody was composed in 1882. He gave the work the subtitle Khnenh Preavossa ‘The Feast of Water’, which is also the name of the second movement that follows a substantial introduction and tale. The Rhapsody contains melodies of French Indo-China, in keeping with the passion of the day for things oriental. The conductor Adriano considers the Rhapsody to be, "beautifully orchestrated…. but not as impressive and avant-garde as Fanelli’s."

Adriano directs an assured and convincing performance from his Slovak RSO who are now clearly well practised in playing rare and interesting repertoire. The well-crafted score is a credit to the composer but no matter how well the score is played by the enthusiastic conductor and his orchestra the truth is that Bourgault-Ducoudray was a very average composer who wrote unmemorable music.

The recording ambience varies between the two works, which were most likely recorded on separate occasions. There is a slightly muddy sound quality in the lower registers and some blurred edges in the louder sections of Fanelli’s Symphonic Pictures. In Bourgault-Ducoudray’s Cambodian Rhapsody a resonant acoustic in the Slovak Radio Concert Hall is the only real drawback. However I feel that the recording is well worth buying for the fascinating Fanelli work alone.

Translation of booklet titles into English by S.A. Cookson

Michael Cookson


Following Mr Cookson's review of the music of Ernest Fanelli on Marco Polo, I thought you might be interested to read the following comments about the composer.

"My old teacher in Philadelphia, Constantine von Sternberg, had not liked the Debussy-Ravel schoold and had once attempted to discredit them with me by claiming that they, including Satie, had stolen their entire impressionistic technique from an Italian, Ernest Fanelli.

Fanelli was an older composer living in Paris during the 1880s.

I wondered now whether it was true, because, if it were, it might mean that a young foreign-born composer like myself, inventing a whole new music such as I now intended to invent, might easily find his work voraciously predevoured, then reassimilated, finally to be given out to the Parisian public under other names than his own.

I decided to investigate the Fanelli case. To see if any traces of him still remained in Paris. Among the biographers of the French musical impressionists I found little or nothing. But in an old musical directory I found his former address.

The address at least supplied me with a trail which led me to his widow - for he was dead. His son (my age) and the younger duaghter also lived in the same apartment.

I explained to Mme. Fanelli that I was an American music critic (a lie) anxious to write an article on the true worth of Ernest Fanelli. Whereupon they innocently took my into their household, where I was permitted to peruse Fanelli's manuscripts at leisure.

I soon discovered that Constantine von Sternberg had been right, at least in one regard: the works of Fanelli were pure "Afternoon of a Faun" or "Daphnis and Chloë", at least in technique, and they predated the Debussy-Ravel-Satie works by many years.

But, as I also soon discovered, they were not as talented as the works of the two slightly younger men, although they had had the advantage of being "firsts." In my recent investigations I has somewhere read that young Debussy, Satie, and Ravel had known old Falnelli well, had visited him and even borrowed his scores; I asked Mme. Fanelli if this was so.

"Oh yes," she said, "it was so; young and nice Claude Debussy was very enthusiastic about my poor husband's work!"

I left the Fanellis in quite a quandary. To write an article about Fanelli now would be to unbury a possible unpleasant body - who in Paris wanted to hear such a thing! Besides, frankly, the worth of Fanelli - his intrinsic musical worth- hardly merited the sacrifice this would quickly prove to be.

Debussy was the genius who had distilled Fanelli into immortality ! For instance, I has asked her when his "Tableaux Symphonique" [sic] was written; I saw that the date of publication was 1884.

"He wrote it around 1880", she said.

"And when was it first performed?"

"In 1912."

Twenty-two years, during which time Debussy, Ravel, and Satie had visited him, borrowed his scores!

Finally, out of bad conscience, I did write an article about Fanelli. Shortly afterwards Ford Maddox Ford published it in his Transatlantic Review. (Collectors of rare magazine articles may find it there still.) But it was a wishy-washy article, said nothing about the score borrowing - which, if it had, would have instantly made me the most disliked fellow in Paris...

I did not feel like being hung for a principle I had never believed in - the eternal question of who invented what first.

Art is not a question of precedence, but of excellence. "

This is excerpted from George Antheil's autobiography, "Bad Boy of Music" (page 128 to 130 of the 1990 Samuel French Edition)

Ed Reichenbach

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