Leone Sinigaglia - La musica delle alte vette
by Gianluca La Villa and Annalisa Lo Piccolo
Language: Italian (only)
Publisher: Il Segno dei Gabrielli editori
Size: 21 x 14 cm
First published: 2012
Price: 15.00 euro
It’s generally reckoned that the British are unrivalled in their capacity to neglect their native composers. Yet the Italians, loud in their praises of half-a-dozen of their 19th century opera composers and two or three baroque ones, neglect the rest with a thoroughness that would make even a British concert promoter blush. In some ways neglected Italian composers are worse off than British ones. A composer’s perceived political leanings in the mid-20th century often led to his banishment by the Italian post-war musical establishment. This at least didn’t happen in the UK, or only marginally. Furthermore, while the societies, trusts and sites dedicated to such figures as Gurney, Armstrong Gibbs or Dunhill may lack the financial clout to do more than a tithe of what they would wish, they at least exist and ensure a minimum of information and discussion on their chosen subjects. Vincenzo Ferroni, Aldo Finzi and Leone Sinigaglia are the sort of figures who would surely have societies dedicated to them if they were British. In Italy the best they can hope for is a website put up at somebody’s individual initiative. Nor is there an Italian Music Society that might, like the British Music Society, take up the cudgels for composers without pressure groups of their own. In days gone by the RAI did much to keep alive the lesser names. The best that can be hoped today from this source is an occasional repeat of archival broadcasts.
In 1938 Sir Henry Wood could still say (My Life of Music,p.271) that “Sinigaglia’s orchestral works have always been well thought of in England for their delicacy and for their Piedmontese atmosphere”. But Wood’s British premières of Sinigaglia go back to 1909 and 1912 and I wonder if anything by Sinigaglia has been heard in a UK concert hall within living memory. Things in Italy aren’t much better. While Mario Rossi was still at the head of the Turin RAI SO an occasional tribute to Sinigaglia was managed, but that is going back to the 1950s and 1960s. When Cesare Gallino, RAI’s “house conductor” of operetta in the post-war years, came out of retirement to conduct his 90th birthday concert in 1994, his programme included Sinigaglia’s Piedmontese Dance no.2, a reminder that it had been a pop orchestral number in his earlier days. More recently, music by Sinigaglia is sometimes chosen for performance on Remembrance Day for victims of the holocaust. As for recordings, a few Toscanini broadcasts come and go, as do certain chamber works. I am pleased to have made my own contribution, recording the 3 Canti op.37 with mezzo-soprano Elisabetta Paglia as part of a CD entitled “Passé - Romantic Song in Italy” (Sheva SH 050). Here then, in Italian, is the first book to be dedicated to Jewish-Italian Leone Sinigaglia (1868-1944), native of Turin, pupil of Dvořák, composer whose works were performed by Nikisch, Mahler, Toscanini, Mengelberg, Furtwängler, Barbirolli and Kreisler, collector of Piedmontese folk-tunes, mountaineer and, finally, victim of Mussolini’s race laws.
Written by a lawyer with a passion for music (La Villa), plus a chapter on Sinigaglia the composer by a musicologist (Lo Piccolo), the book plunges in at the end of the story with a dramatic account of Jewish persecution under the Fascists. Anyone who still subscribes to the comforting view that Mussolini’s race laws were a fairly benign lip-service intended, all’italiana, to keep his bullying German partner happy while not actually doing very much, can think again. Fully referenced with detailed footnotes, it makes chilling reading. Doubts on the philological validity of the book arise, though, when Sinigaglia himself is introduced into the story.
Towards 6 on a hot, muggy evening, two men were slipping beside the walls of the Turin buildings. The young man, in a threadbare jacket, was carrying a small suitcase, while his other hand supported an elderly gentleman. The young man peered around cautiously. The old man was aristocratically dressed, but seemed bent and faltering. His eyes were tired and his beard white. Sirens were sounding while shouts from soldiers and gunfire could be heard in the distance. But their goal, their salvation, was nearby: the Ospedale Mauriziano Umberto I, where the young man had, with some difficulty, persuaded the older man to take refuge. They entered a large hall and, after briefly reporting to reception, proceeded upstairs to a room already prepared. The old man sat down, gasping. They embraced and said goodbye: “Ciao Luigi”. (p.13, my translation).
Nice writing but, as the Italians call it, “biografia romanzata”: fictionalized biography. In truth, the young man is identified in a footnote as Luigi Rognoni (1913-1986), a major Italian musicologist. If the above account is based on a specific memoir by Rognoni, this is not stated, leaving us to presume it is an imaginative reconstruction by the author.
Before we get too het up about this, was there any alternative? How much hard information survives about Sinigaglia? La Villa tells us that, as part of his preparation for this book, he applied to “the library of a celebrated [Italian] musical institute” which was known to hold material on Sinigaglia, requesting to have sight of these papers. “The director hummed and hawed and in the end I wasn’t allowed to see anything”. I don’t understand La Villa’s nicety in not naming the institute and its director, who surely deserves to be exposed and, if possible, horsewhipped. There it is. If in the end this book doesn’t offer much in concrete facts that you won’t already find in Wikipedia, it may be that further facts have vanished or are impossible to access. What the authors can do - and they do it very well - is paint the backdrop against which Sinigaglia’s career took place.
The next chapter goes back to the beginning of the story. True to form, it dedicates 13 pages to the cultural life of Turin and 5 to how the young Sinigaglia fitted into this cultural life. It is nevertheless a fascinating tale. The post-WWII world knows Turin as the city of FIAT, an industrial, workers’ town milling somewhat incongruously around the grandiose former royal palaces of the Savoy capital. Even by the time of Sinigaglia’s birth, Turin’s royal status was a thing of the past yet, as La Villa shows, it was still a thriving cultural centre. It was also, thanks to the dominance of the young Toscanini, one of the few places in Italy where concertgoers could hear not only Italian opera but Wagner’s music dramas and a range of recent symphonic works. La Villa even tells us (p.30) that Toscanini conducted works by Cowen and Stanford. Neither of the latter’s two recent biographers, Dibble and Rodmell, mention this. However, Toscanini biographer Harvey Sachs has kindly confirmed that Toscanini conducted a performance of Stanford’s Irish Symphony in Turin on 6 October 1898 and the two middle movements of Cowen’s Scandinavian Symphony on 12 December 1897 and 8 September 1898. There is no evidence that he gave further performances of either composer.
The stars in the Turin firmament - scientific and literary as well as musical - are therefore well described. Turning to Sinigaglia himself, La Villa is unable to do much more than list those whom Sinigaglia is known to have frequented, but this is probably not his fault. We learn that Sinigaglia began travelling in the early 1890s, taking in such musical centres as Munich, Bayreuth, Prague, Leipzig and Berlin. He thus planted the roots for a style that seems as much middle-European as Italian.
The next chapter deals with Sinigaglia the mountaineer. By Sinigaglia’s day the Alps had been pretty well conquered but the Dolomites, less high, had been somewhat scorned by professionals as second-class mountains. They therefore offered several virgin peaks, as well as alternative routes up some of the known ones. Sinigaglia set about climbing these and is considered a major figure in the conquest of the Dolomites. His own account was published in English, soon after the first Italian edition, as “Climbing reminiscences of the Dolomites. With introduction by Edmund J. Garwood. Tr. by Mary Alice Vialls. London: T.F. Unwin, 1896”. A modern reprint appears to be available. Having more material to work on, La Villa opts for the slightly inconvenient solution of a basic narration in the text, with many smallish quotations from Sinigaglia’s own writings, augmented by numerous footnotes, often occupying more than two-thirds of the page, giving further material from the composer’s reminiscences. The result is that, whether you want to read all the footnote material or not, your eyes will be continually darting up and down the page. Perhaps I am being selfish. As a musician, my interest in Sinigaglia as a mountaineer does not require much knowledge beyond the fact that he did it. It is clear, though, that he was at least as important a mountaineer as he was a composer, and it is right that this book should cater for mountaineer-readers as well as musician-readers.
The following chapter, “The Viennese Belle Époque”, takes up the musical story. These are probably the most interesting and eventful years, when Sinigaglia once again travelled Europe, meeting Mahler, Goldmark, Leschetitzky and Brahms. He studied for a time with Mandyczewski and, most significantly, in 1901, with Dvořák. It was from the latter that he was inspired to incorporate Piedmontese melodies and turns of phrase in his compositions, modelling himself on what Dvořák himself had done with his native Czech themes. Sinigaglia dedicated his Piedmontese Rhapsody for violin and orchestra (1904) to Dvořák. Notable interpreters of this piece included Kreisler, Jan Kubelik, Kocian and Stefi Geyer. The folk-inspired Piedmontese Dances provoked loud opposition from the audience when Toscanini premiered them in Turin in 1905. Many critics, too, accused Sinigaglia of “introducing tavern songs into the concert hall”. This was true, but it seems strange today that this should have been considered a shameful thing to do. Even Toscanini expressed misgivings in a letter quoted here, though publicly he stood by Sinigaglia.
The last chapter covers the longest period, from Sinigaglia’s return to Italy at the end of 1901 to his tragic death, but it is the least eventful. Never a notably prolific composer, his production gradually slackened, concluding in 1936 with his violin sonata. It seems that gradually his interests turned towards ethnomusicology. He roamed Piedmont, taking down folk melodies and amassing a considerable collection that was not published in its entirety till long after his death. These “philological” settings had a simple, basic piano accompaniment and are not to be confused with the Old Piedmontese Popular Songs which, with their fairly elaborate orchestral accompaniments, were once performed quite regularly in Italy.
So the book returns to its starting point. The refuge Sinigaglia sought in the hospital was short-lived. Despite his age he was rounded up and only a fortuitous, and fatal, heart-attack saved him from the train to Auschwitz.
As I stated at the beginning, the last chapter is a discussion of Sinigaglia’s music by Annalisa Lo Piccolo. This adopts a descriptive tone rather than a strictly analytical one:
The opening of the Adagio [of the Violin Concerto]is entrusted to a warm pastoral melody on the horns, repeated by the oboes and clarinets while the strings remain silent. The soloist takes up the opening motive, extended and prolonged by numerous syncopations, which seem to transcend the steady rhythmic pulsation of the orchestra [p.91, my translation].
The problem with this sort of writing is that it doesn’t play the music for us, and if somebody did play the music for us we wouldn’t need it. On the other hand, the time is hardly ripe for the sort of examination of Sinigaglia’s harmonic and formal procedures that I would have preferred. If this essay inspires someone to seek out the music and play it then all well and good.
A slim volume, then, but probably all that could be done at present. I have a couple of queries, though.
Firstly, more than half - at a rough estimate - of the 100-or-so pages are taken up with footnotes. Where these quote sources of information, or direct the reader to more detailed sources, I have no quarrel, indeed I would expect this. My eyebrows were raised as early as p.18 when a footnote of 18 lines provided a potted biography of Nietzsche. Surely the reader who does not know who Nietzsche was can look him up easily enough? It is certainly useful to have information on such figures as Angelo Serato (12 lines) and Rosario Scalero (all of 50 lines). That said, is it likely that anyone ignorant of Bruckner (8 lines), Catalani (6), Puccini (18), Boito (10), Mahler (25), Dvořák (17), Bartók (11) and Kodály (9) would be reading about Sinigaglia at all? The footnotes are strangely selective, too. Dvořák and Puccini apparently need explaining; Grieg and Mascagni, it seems, do not. It will be a pleasure to admirers of Svendsen, Reinecke, Rheinberger, Cowen and Stanford to note that, for La Villa and Lo Piccolo, these composers are sufficiently celebrated to need no presentation. Were it not for the suspicion that the authors are so little aware of them as to think they do not matter. Yet, without disrespect to anyone, the five composers just mentioned surely contributed at least as much to musical literature and history as Sinigaglia himself.
Perhaps this is just carping. I’m complaining about things that are redundant rather than things that are missing. As to what is missing, it would have been useful to have a work list. There again, maybe the information just isn’t available. Somebody on the internet has tried to compile a work list but, although Sinigaglia’s opus numbers only extend to 44, he has drawn a blank with quite a number of them. Presumably unpublished, maybe lost.
So, in spite of a few gripes, this book is more than good enough to start the Sinigaglia ball rolling, provided you can read Italian. Whether a detailed, full length study will follow no doubt depends on a revised perception of Sinigaglia’s worth. So what of the music?
Of the one work where I have hands-on knowledge, the 3 Canti op.37, I must say I was impressed. The harmonic language is closer to Mahler than to Dvořák and the opening setting of D’Annunzio’s Canto dell’Ospite penetrates that poet’s mystical-sensual world as well as any other D’Annunzio setting known to me. The other two songs are evocative, poetic and far from predictable in their musical progress.
Finally, I listened to some off-the-air tapes, all recorded in Turin in the 1960s under Mario Rossi. The Overture “Le baruffe chiozzotte”, inspired by a Goldoni comedy, was the piece that grabbed the ears of so many conductors. It’s an effervescent, bustling affair with a more songful, lyrical second subject. It has something of the opulence of the Viennese “Belle Époque”; Rezniček’s Donna Diana overture came into my mind as a possible comparison. While you could hardly fail to enjoy it, it can hardly be said to inhabit a sound-world of its own, or to haunt the memory.
There seems more individuality in the Old Piedmontese Popular Songs, 8 of which were sung at the concert I have on tape. The orchestral colouring is unfailingly piquant and imaginative. The orchestral introduction to “Il cacciatore del bosco” will be balm to Dvořák-lovers’ ears, as will be much else. These arrangements do not have the over-the-top lushness of Canteloube’s “Songs of the Auvergne”, yet a singer about to record an umpteenth version of these latter might just take pause for thought and have a look at Sinigaglia’s Piedmontese songs. She could even find cult material on her hands. Rosina Cavicchioli sang them beautifully, though some of her more impulsive characterization found Rossi lagging behind.
The largest-scale work available to me was the Violin Concerto. It sounds a treat to play in its alternation of fireworks with luscious melodic phrases. If there’s a suspicion that the outer movements are doing, very expertly, all the things a romantic violin concerto is expected to do, the central slow movement touches a deeper chord. Indeed, the return of the beautiful main theme in the violin’s lower register with a counter-melody on the flute entwining high above must be among the most bewitching moments in romantic violin literature. For this movement above all, Sinigaglia’s Violin Concerto deserves far wider currency. Rossi and his soloist, Giovanni Guglielmo, are responsive throughout, but seem truly inspired by the slow movement. If only for this, and some of Cavicchioli’s singing, these Rossi performances would deserve historical issue even if modern recordings were to be made, which I hope they will.
This book is more than good enough to start the Sinigaglia ball rolling, provided you can read Italian.