Since writing my
original review of Fanelli’s Symphonic Pictures: The Romance
of the Mummy in October 2002, I have had more time to listen
to the recording. My view that Fanelli was a groundbreaking composer
has been reinforced and I have no doubt that he was a major influence
over a wide range of composers. He deserves to be heard! The avant-garde
yet most 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 Romance of the Mummy, 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 surely 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 essential listening. For example, there
is arguably far less worthy music being performed at this year’s
Promenade Concerts. More than for merely novelty value the music
has great significance for French musical history. Maurice Ravel
even suggested that Claude Debussy’s impressionism had been highly
influenced by the 23 year old Fanelli.
Maestro Adriano 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 predate 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 visionary and most varied fare, albeit
with a few rough edges here and there. It holds the interest from
the first note to the last. Maestro 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 not to mention how
frequently I was reminded of the Hollywood film music of 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!
I have written the following listening notes
to accompany Fanelli’s: The Romance of the Mummy:
1) In front of the Tahoser Palace
At times very reminiscent of the impressionism
of Ravel and Debussy and particularly brings to mind Debussy’s
Images. The section with the wordless mezzo-soprano resembles
the atmosphere Debussy’s La Mer and the last of the three
Nocturnes. It is hard to believe that Fanelli wrote this
work several years before Debussy commenced the above scores.
2) On the Nile
Fanelli uses a quirky melody over the top of
a longer more expansive theme, a device often used by Sibelius
- but again, this was twenty years before the Finnish master’s
great symphonies. This movement is again impressionist in feel
but rather languid and everything is far too stagnant.
3) Triumphant Return of the Pharaoh
This is a triumphal procession. When the march
starts moving there is a brief glimpse of Holst’s Saturn
[2.30] which is an uncanny projection forward to 1916. There is
also a hint of the refrain ’He shall reign forever and ever’ from
Handel’s Hallelujah chorus, from the Messiah, which is probably
unintentional as Mahler used exactly the same musical idea in
the finale of this first symphony. The whole tableaux sounds like
a score to an epic Hollywood movie and could easily accompany
the Miklós Rózsa score to ‘Ben Hur’, yet the work
dates from 1883 an amazing 70 years earlier.
II. Festivities in the Pharaoh’s Palace.
1) In a Room in the Palace - Naked Jugglers
This movement is extraordinarily modern-sounding
in parts. The high tremolo strings [2:00] could be from a Benjamin
Britten opera. According to the sleeve notes this movement depicts,
’massage with naked girl jugglers’, which should keep me in fantasies
for a while!
2) Grotesque Dance of the Egyptian Jesters
Here Fanelli almost presents sketches for Stravinsky’s
‘Petrushka’. There are also snatches of what one could think influenced
Holst, Janáček, Ravel and Bartók.
But of course with the exception of Ravel they would never have
heard of Fanelli, would they! The movement returns to Britten-like
tremolos at [5:00]. The conclusion I have come to is that this
is a late nineteenth century sound-world that was all around,
with all the composers mentioned drawing inspiration from a fabulous
mix of eastern, western, sacred and profane influences that were
sweeping Europe at that time.
3) Triumphant Hymns - Orgy
This movement is not particularly French sounding.
At times there is more of an English feel, in a cosmopolitan sense,
as opposed to the ’pastoral’ sense. You can hear how Vaughan Williams
and Holst were influenced by French abstract colours in their
scores, even in swifter music such as this. In fact a sequence
of falling phrases seems identical to a section from Holst’s ’Jupiter’
movement. I could even suggest in there a brief and rhythmic climax
that could be from Bernstein’s ’West Side Story’. Yes, it’s true!
Check it out at [10:22]. In the space of a one minute period between
[9:15] to [10:30] I hear Honegger [9:15], Janáček
[9:30], Holst [10:00] and Bernstein [10:22].
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 Palestrina and developing a life-long interest in world folk
song. Bourgault-Ducoudray was instrumental in introducing unfamiliar
and often exotically themed 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
is said to contain melodies of French Indo-China, in keeping with
the passion of the day for things exotic and oriental. The conductor
Adriano considers the Rhapsody to be, "beautifully orchestrated….
but not as impressive and avant-garde as Fanelli’s."
The Cambodian Rhapsody is heavily laden
with Wagnerian harmonies and Rimsky-Korsakovian orchestration,
but clearly inferior in quality. This is colourful music yet rather
unimaginative. If this is ‘oriental’ music give me the Gilbert
and Sullivan Mikado any time!
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
The recording ambience varies between the two
works, which were probably recorded on separate occasions. There
is a slightly muddy sound quality in the lower registers and some
blurred edges in the forte sections of Fanelli’s Symphonic
Pictures. In Bourgault-Ducoudray’s Cambodian Rhapsody an over-resonant
acoustic in the Slovak Radio Concert Hall is the only real drawback.
However I feel that the recording is well worth buying for this
fascinating and influential Fanelli work alone. Essential listening.
Translation of booklet titles into English by