notes were prepared by Christopher Howell to accompany IL
CANTO ROMANTICO IN ITALIA SHEVA COLLECTION 050.
EXPLORING ITALIAN SONG:
MARTUCCI, SGAMBATI, BOSSI AND A FEW OTHERS
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
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
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
Lastly, two composers have been included who have left little
trace in “official” music history, but whose works here show
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
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
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.
The full contents of the CD are:
IL CANTO ROMANTICO IN ITALIA
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)
CHRISTOPHER HOWELL (pianoforte)
Recorded 26 February 2011, Studio “L’Eremo”, Lessona (Italy)
Producer: Ermanno De Stefani
SHEVA COLLECTION 050