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These notes were prepared by Christopher Howell to accompany IL CANTO ROMANTICO IN ITALIA SHEVA COLLECTION 050. review.

If Italian song finds its way into a recital programme it will very likely to be towards the end, when the time has come for a few light pieces by a composer such as Francesco Paolo Tosti. The “Romanza da salotto”, of which Tosti was the prime exponent, was a particularly Italian fin de siècle genre. These pieces, excellent in their way, belong to the crossover area between serious and light music.
From time to time, too, the repertoire of “Arie da camera” by composers mainly associated with opera is dusted down. Clearly, anything written by such well-loved composers as Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi, Puccini, Mascagni or Leoncavallo will attract our curiosity. Songs by the first four of these are regularly studied by budding singers, at least in Italian conservatoires. This in itself tends to inculcate the idea that they are “teaching pieces” rather than real music for grown ups. Once an Italian singer has graduated to opera, he or she will probably not return all that often to the innocent pleasures of his or her training days. Though many of these pieces are excellent, it has to be said that their composers did not make any particular effort to create an idiomatic song-style. “Arie da camera” they may be, but they tend to sound like operatic arias. The piano parts often seem to have been transcribed from hypothetical orchestral originals.
I hope gradually to investigate on Sheva Collection the various ramifications of Italian song, using a range of singers, The first offshoot, with the mezzo-soprano Elisabetta Paglia, investigates the song repertoire by Italian composers not associated with opera. More specifically, it is centred around that group of composers, headed by Martucci, Sgambati and Bossi, which sought to create a symphonic and chamber repertoire for Italy.
The most highly regarded of these today is probably Giuseppe Martucci (1856-1909). Born in Capua, the larger part of his career was spent in Bologna where he directed the Liceo Musicale from 1886 to 1902, returning to Naples for his last years. He conducted the Italian première of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” in 1888 at the Teatro Communale di Bologna. He was also one of the few Italians to show an awareness of British music. Among other items, Stanford’s Irish Symphony appeared in his Bologna programmes.
Martucci’s song cycle “La canzone dei ricordi” (1886-7) is probably the most celebrated work by any of these three composers. It was originally written with piano accompaniment but since it has become universally known in the composer’s orchestral version it seemed preferable to take a look at some of Martucci’s other works for this disc.
They are few: a handful of Corrado Ricci settings from 1892 and his last opus, three songs to texts by Carducci. Included on the disc are the latter group and, from the Ricci pieces, the pair called “Sogni [Dreams]”. These are in a decadent, Lisztian manner and in this they are similar to the parallel works by Sgambati and Bossi. Martucci deemed them worthy of publication but, significantly, did not attach an opus number to them. In the opus 84 songs we find a different kind of music, fully in line with the compositional outlook expressed by the composer in his orchestral and, especially, his numerous piano works. While in Sgambati or Bossi, and in Martucci’s own Ricci settings, we may find countermelodies, these are purely colouristic. In Martucci’s op. 84 the apparently romantic texture conceals tightly controlled counterpoint, often with considerable passing dissonances. These give point to Carducci’s sarcastic “Maggiolata”, a serenade by a singer out of sorts with May and the world generally, while in “Nevicata [Snowfall]” he essays a form of impressionism quite unrelated to that of Debussy. This quite extraordinary piece must make us wonder just what the composer would have achieved had he lived a further decade. “Maggiolata”, by the way, seems to have been a word of Carducci’s own invention. You sing a “serenata” in the evening [la sera], therefore you sing a “maggiolata” in May [maggio], but the word is not in the Italian dictionary.
In his own day, the international reputation of Giovanni Sgambati (1841-1914) probably exceeded that of Martucci. He played and conducted his own compositions in London on more than one occasion, including a Royal Command performance at Windsor for Queen Victoria. His songs, which are not numerous, are clearly modelled on German Lieder and sometimes have German texts. Included on the disc is “Die Lerchen”, to a poem by Hamerling. The vivacious accompaniment reminds us of Sgambati’s prowess as a pianist. Our Sgambati group begins with “Visione”, a sumptuously romantic piece that may stand as an epitome of late 19th century Italian decadence. Rather different is the late piece “Cor di fiamma [Heart of Flame]”, which suggests the influence of the Verismo school.
Marco Enrico Bossi (1861-1925) also enjoyed an international reputation, though more specifically as an organist. His compositions for this instrument have always held a place in the romantic organ repertory, but his songs are notable for their fine handling of both voice and piano. The major offering, which concludes the CD, is the set of 8 Canti Lirici op.121. These suggest a genuine attempt to create Italian “Lieder”, midway between German art song and the “Romanza da salotto”.
A curiosity is “The Clock on the Stairs”, a Longfellow setting in English. This was published in Milan with a title page suggesting a parody of “translator’s English”, but presumably intended seriously, including the dedication “To Very Gentle Madame Pattie Keate”. Bossi’s treatment of the words do not suggest familiarity with English accentuation and several adjustments had to be made for this performance.
Two composers less known today than these three are Ferroni and Sinigaglia.
Vincenzo Ferroni (1858-1934) studied at the Paris Conservatoire with Massenet. On returning to Italy he taught composition at Milan Conservatoire from 1888 to 1929, his pupils including Pick-Mangiagalli, Montemezzi, Mortari and Gavazzeni. His works embrace symphonies and chamber music but at present he is most remembered as a teacher. “La foglia [The Leaf]” must have been written before 1888, since it was published – without date – by Lucca, a publishing company that was absorbed by Ricordi in that year. “Passé” was published in France so this, also undated, is probably an even earlier work dating from his sojourn in that country.
Leone Sinigaglia (1868-1944) came from a Jewish family settled in Piedmont. His studies included a period in Prague with Dvorák, which inspired him to attempt a symphonic style incorporating Piedmontese folk elements. His orchestral works were performed by conductors such as Toscanini and Barbirolli. They were still performed sporadically in post-war Italy, at least for as long as Mario Rossi remained at the helm of the Turin RAI Symphony Orchestra. In 1944, in spite of his advanced age, Sinigaglia was rounded up by the Nazis on account of his Jewish ancestry and taken to a train for deportation. He suffered a fatal heart attack before entering the train, thus avoiding worse suffering to come. The disc contains his 3 Canti op.37. The first, “Canto dell’ospite [The Song of the Guest]” is a D’Annunzio setting that penetrates acutely the poet’s strange mixture of mysticism and sensuality. The manner suggests a knowledge of Mahler. The second, “Quiete meridiana nell’Alpe [Midday Quiet in the Alps]”, touched a subject very close to the composer’s heart. Away from composition, Sinigaglia was an expert mountaineer and the first to scale several peaks in the Dolomites. Solitude is also the theme of the third song, “Il rifugio [The Refuge]”.
Lastly, two composers have been included who have left little trace in “official” music history, but whose works here show good quality.
Alfredo D’Asdia (1871-1949) belongs to a dynasty of Palermo musicians, beginning with Ignazio (1802-1865), in his day a celebrated conductor and composer, and culminating (with apologies to any younger member of whom I am unaware) in Alfredo’s son Armando (1913-1982).
In 1926 the “Giornale d’Italia” described Alfredo as “a pianist worthy to compete with the most celebrated concert artists” and regretted that his “excessive sense of modesty” and that “uncurable mania for self-criticism … common to so many magnificent Sicilian artists” prevented him from achieving wider recognition.
In 1930 Alfredo’s waltz “Farfalla d’oro [Golden Butterfly]” was entered for a competition held by the recently formed EIAR (predecessor of the RAI). It was transmitted anonymously and won the prize with the votes of several thousand listeners. The two songs on this CD date from between 1925 and 1930. They suggest an affinity with the verismo school.
Idino Donini (1891-1959) was a Protestant composer in a fundamentally Catholic country. Born of Waldensian parents in the province of Brescia, he took his diploma at the Naples Conservatoire and for over thirty years directed the Istituto Musicale of Terni. At the same time, faithful to his protestant roots, he contributed regularly to the musical life of the community of Torre Pellice, an isolated pocket of Methodist and Salvation Army followers in Piedmont. He was also a student of Amharic (the language of Ethiopia) and, on a less serious level, an able and entertaining ventriloquist. The two songs included are notable both for their grateful melodic line and for their inventive piano parts.
Italian song composers at this time, rather like those of Great Britain, were poised between habitual use of rhymesters who churned out undistinguished verses intended for musical setting, and the realization that their country’s greatest poets could provide a wealth of material. Either way, the composers on this CD made almost exclusive use of contemporary poets. Since this programme includes some of Italy’s foremost poets, together with several lesser-known, but still considerable, figures, a few words about these seem in order. The CD booklet contains English translations of all the texts.
The careers of the tragically short-lived Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837), the Nobel prize winner Giosuè Carducci (1835-1907) and the romantic adventurer Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863-1938) have been told many times and need not be repeated here. Of the three, D’Annunzio proved the most congenial to composers. However one interprets his content, there is a rich musicality to his writing which has inspired settings ranging from the melodious Tosti to the modernists Malipiero and Casella. Whereas the fame, as well as the sheer density of expression, of Leopardi and Carducci is a challenge that few composers have taken up. In order to grasp Leopardi’s pessimistic allegory of human futility in “The Leaf”, for example, it is necessary to meditate on why he subtitled it “Imitation”.
Carducci’s sphere of influence centred around Bologna so it is not surprising that Bologna-based Martucci was inspired by his work. Corrado Ricci (1858-1934), Martucci’s other poet, was a Bologna-based Carducci protégé who quickly abandoned his poetic ambitions in favour of archaeology and history.
Antonio Fogazzaro (1842-1911), of whom settings are included by both Sinigaglia and D’Asdia, is best remembered as a novelist. His cycle of four novels, and especially the first, Piccolo Mondo Antico, won him the position as Italy’s second great novelist after Manzoni.
Four of Bossi’s 8 Lyrics op.121 use poems by Vittoria Aganoor (1855-1910). Her unusual surname derived from Armenia, though her family had been settled in Italy for some centuries. A retiring, depressive personality, she was persuaded by her admirers to publish her first book of poems only in 1900. In 1901 she married into the aristocratic Pompilj family; her husband, a member of Parliament, committed suicide after his wife’s early death.
Two other songs from Bossi’s op.121 have texts by Luigi Alberto Villanis (1863-1906), a musicologist who collaborated with Bossi on his vast Symphonic Poem in a Prologue and Three Acts based on Milton’s “Paradise Lost” (1903). The two songs in the set are presumably a minor offshoot of their work together.
All eight texts of Bossi’s op.121, including the two by the forgotten F. Gualdo, have in common a decadent pessimism typical of fin de siècle art. Amusingly, they were published with an English “translation” (not the one printed in our booklet) by one Frederick W. Bancroft which transformed them into innocent little lyrics about birds, flowers and the joys of spring. Whether he did this out of ignorance, or from a desire to protect his English public from the unpalatable emotionalism of the Italian poets, is not known.
The second of the songs by D’Asdia recorded on the CD brings us to relatively recent times. Luca Pignato (1892-1955), from Caltanissetta, was a modernist who translated Mallarmé into Italian. Active in Messina, he had an influence on the young Leonardo Scascia, one of Italy’s major post-war novelists. The poem set reflects his vision of life as a journey through a hostile world, without any hope of regaining what we have lost.
Donini’s two poets are both from his immediate circle. Mariano Moreschini (1905-1955) was brought up as an orphan and became Professor of Theology at the Waldensian University of Rome. He was active as a Pastor but his poetry, as in the example recorded, was not exclusively religious.
Nelly Buffa (1894-1963) became Donini’s wife. “Per l’onda molle [Over the Soft Wave]” was a touching tribute to a distant beloved written while her fiancé and husband-to-be was fighting on the Carso in the First World War. Her literary career did not conclude with her marriage; in 1953 she was awarded the Claudiana prize for children’s books.
Of the non-Italian poets, the American Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) was highly rated in the 19th century on both sides of the Atlantic for his epic “Hiawatha” and for his sternly religious outlook. It is difficult today to read such moralizing as “The Clock on the Stairs”, set by Bossi, with a straight face. Robert Hamerling (1830-1889), set by Sgambati, is a name well-known to Lieder enthusiasts but L. Laborde, set by Ferroni, is another name that has sunk without trace. Frédéric Mistral (1830-1914), set by Sgambati in an Italian translation and described as “Federigo” Mistral on the score, was a French writer and lexicographer of the Occitan language. He was awarded the Nobel prize in 1904.
And lastly, the title of the disc. There was not originally any intention to build this programme around a “theme”. The title “Passé” arose when the pieces were all assembled and it became clear that, maybe on account of the prevailing decadent climate in which they were written, more of them than not dealt in some way with echoes from the past. In “Passé” itself, the poet revisits the landscape dear to his youth, to find that it evokes only the memories of a love long dead. Mistral, too, in “Cor di fiamma”, revisits the field of his youth, only to be reminded of his dead mother. In “Visione” the little-known poet Cortesi relives as in a dream an amorous meeting long past, but at the crucial moment the beloved has fled. If Ricci’s “Dream of Love” seems pure ecstasy, in the following “Dream of Death” – assuming the two poems are intended to be read as a pair – we learn that the loved one is dead. Aganoor’s “tender night” reminds the poetess of another such night, when she was embraced by a lover who swore their love would be eternal. Yet he betrayed her and maybe even now, beneath this same starry night, is whispering his falsities in another poor girl’s ear. Perhaps saddest of all, Carducci revisits the tree to which his dead child once held out his tiny hand; the tree is flourishing once more but the child, “flower of my plant”, is “struck down and withered”.
In a different vein, D’Annunzio’s “guest” – man was for him only a passing stranger on the earth – is haunted by ancient ancestral memories evoked by the constellations and fears the dawn which will cause them to flee. In two curiously complementary poems, Leopardi’s leaf and Fogazzaro’s last rose symbolize beauties that will pass yet are vainly unaware of it. The moon, in the latter, and the narrator himself in the former, symbolize instead man’s own vain refusal to recognize his ephemeral existence.
And lastly, we chose as our cover photo a view looking out from a villa on Lake Como that evokes the aristocratic world in which this music was first sung. A world that is in one sense passed. Only the architectural symbols linger on, somewhat the worse for wear. Yet its surprisingly bleak emotions may seem as real to us now as they did to its original listeners.
Christopher Howell
The full contents of the CD are:
Vincenzo Ferroni (1858-1934)
1) Passé [3:01]
2) La foglia (Imitazione) [2:03]
Alfredo D’Asdia (1871-1949)
3) Ultima rosa [1:45]
4) Lontananza [1:58]
Giovanni Sgambati (1841-1914)
5) Visione [3:32]
6) Cor di fiamma [2:12]
7) Die Lerchen [1:57]
Giuseppe Martucci (1856-1909)
8) 1. Sogno d’amore! [3:05]
9) 2. Sogno di morte! [2:48]
Tre pezzi per canto e pianoforte op. 84
10) 1. Maggiolata [2:24]
11) 2. Pianto antico [2:06]
12) 3. Nevicata [3:46]
Leone Sinigaglia (1868-1944)
Tre Canti op. 37
13) 1. Canto dell’ospite [3:04]
14) 2. Quiete meridiana nell’Alpe [2:01]
15) 3. Il rifugio [2:48]
Idino Donini (1891-1959)
16) Stornello in grazia nova … [2:13]
17) Per l’onda molle [2:23]
Marco Enrico Bossi (1861-1925)
18) The Old Clock on the Stairs [3:57]
Otto Canti lirici op.121
19) 1. La serenata [2:35]
20) 2. Sul prato [3:04]
21) 3. Aprile [3:46]
22) 4. Che spera? [2:22]
23) 5. O dolce notte [4:06]
24) 6. Il canto del dubbio [4:43]
25) 7. Madrigale [2:24]
26) 8. Lungo il ruscello [1:44]
ELISABETTA PAGLIA (mezzo-soprano)
Recorded 26 February 2011, Studio “L’Eremo”, Lessona (Italy)
Piano: Bechstein
Producer: Ermanno De Stefani


































































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