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Curt CACIOPPO (b. 1951)
rec. 2004-2020
Texts and translations provided.
Premiere recording
MSR CLASSICS MS1777 [53:52]

Curt Cacioppo is one of a quite large number of accomplished American composers who seem to get relatively little attention in the UK. A search of MusicWeb revealed, somewhat surprisingly, that his name only seems to appear in my 2007 review of a disc of his vocal works and those of Joseph Hudson. I wrote: “Cacioppo’s understanding of his texts is very evident, his setting perceptive and sensitive.” With one substantial reservation, that is largely true of the music on this disc.

I am attracted to Cacioppo’s work in part because he seems to share a number of my predilections: passionate love of poetry, and a particular fondness for works of art and perhaps places. I mean such cities as Toledo, Palermo, Cordoba, Istanbul, Rome or Venice, where several cultures exist layered, like archaeological strata, one above the other.

Cacioppo’s brief biography in the booklet begins by saying that he is “inspired by sources as diverse as the medieval poetry of Dante, aspects of Native American culture or the vernacular music he grew up with”. In his early teens, he formed a jazz quartet with friends. At various later times, he wrote dissertations on both Johannes Ciconia and Native American music.

The Press pages on Cacioppo’s website contain the texts of interviews from which I have gleaned a few quotations illustrative of his aesthetic. He said: “The first piece I wrote, Reprise, gathered together various strands of material from the Classical repertoire I had played with a little Tijuana Brass thrown in.” He explained why he has been captivated by Giya Kancheli’s music: “I found the emotionality of it to be very powerful, and its mixing of the vocal with the instrumental, archaic and new.” He talked of his own work in terms of “the mixing of past and present [and] the marriage of diverse traditions”.

It may be useful to supplement such quotations with lines from Walt Whitman’s Proud Music of the Storm, not used in the composite text which Cacioppo has set in the last piece on this disc.

I hear those odes, symphonies, operas,
I hear in the William Tell the music of an arous’d and angry people,
I hear the dance-music of all nations,
The waltz, some delicious measure, lapsing, bathing me in bliss,
The bolero to tinkling guitars and clattering castanets.

I see religious dances old and new,
I hear the sound of the Hebrew lyre, […]

I hear dervishes monotonously chanting, interspers’d with frantic shouts […]
I see the rapt religious dances of the Persians and the Arabs,
Again, at Eleusis, home of Ceres, I see the modern Greeks dancing,
I hear them clapping their hands as they bend their bodies,
I hear the metrical shuffling of their feet.

I hear the Egyptian harp of many strings,
The primitive chants of the Nile boatmen,
The sacred hymns of China […]

Cacioppo’s sources may not be quite as diverse and multitudinous as those Whitman lists here, but – like Leonard Bernstein, another American composer of controlled eclecticism (or, if one prefers, synthesis) – he is an artistic descendant of Whitman’s vision of American inclusiveness.

This cultural layering, characteristic of Cacioppo’s work, takes many forms. It is worth mentioning, by way of illustration, two earlier works. Consider his eleven-movement suite for string quartet Impressione venexiane, which can be heard in a fine performance by the Quartetto d’Archi di Venezia on Cacioppo’s 2010 disc Italia (Navona 5827). At various points, the piece builds on motifs and stylistic echoes from such sources as Gregorian Chant, Medieval and Renaissance song, Moorish music from Andalusia, music from the Venetian baroque and Mendelssohn’s Venetian Boat Song – to evoke/celebrate eras in Venice’s history and its rich trading history and contacts.

Or take a very different example (where most listeners, including me, would be unable to identify the precise sources): Cacioppo’s Pawnee Preludes for piano. He incorporates original Pawnee melodies within a structure and idiom which is essentially European. One might suspect an effect of patronizing this ‘primitive’ music, although I am certain that Cacioppo would not use such an adjective. Instead, this approach seems very much to identify the music of the Pawnee People of the Central Plains as having as much importance, as much power, as the music of Cacioppo’s own time. Well might Paul Burwasser write (Fanfare 44:2, November/December 2020): “Curt Caccoppo is a composer who honors the long arc of musical history without compromising his contemporary sensibility.”

The work of a composer – or a poet – of this kind inevitably makes much use of echo or allusion. Even so, I will try not to spend too much time playing ‘spot the allusion’ in discussing the contents of this disc of Curt Cacioppo’s music.

The very first track of Illuminations illustrates, with some considerable potency, one kind of layering. The text set, La promessa di Beatrice, is by the modern Italian poet Luigi Cerantola and a friend of Cacioppo, with whom the composer has collaborated for a number of years. Though the poem is contemporary, it is important to note that its occasion is not in any simple sense merely contemporary. It responds, as the title hints, to an episode in the closing cantos of Dante’s Purgatorio (especially cantos XXX and XXI). In those verses, the ‘Dante’ in the poem’s narrative is both reproved by Beatrice (for his failings and sins) and encouraged by her to believe that he will finally see Paradise and understand the Divine plan. Cerantola has added to Dante’s text two verses of terza rima, in which Beatrice makes an explicit promise to Dante:

Inghirlandato, in nere note sante
tu scanderai le stelle al sommo cielo
come va in paradisi un cuore amante,

perch so che nel palpito ed anelito
tutta la luce a te raggia e squaderna
un dio togliendo dell’enigma il velo.

The promise of Cerantola’s La promessa di Beatrice is, thus, that Dante will, despite his human failings and limitations, ‘touch the stars at heaven’s summit’ (tu scanderai le stelle al sommo cielo) and that, for him, ‘God will pull back the veil which hides the Divine mystery’ (un dio togliendo dell’enigma il velo). In an example of that cultural layering so typical of Cacioppo’s work, he sets twentieth-century lines which are grounded in the greatest of medieval poems, a text which, in terms of content, is essentially timeless. It is hardly surprising that in Cacioppo’s setting of Cerantola’s lines one should hear some medieval echoes, for example in some lute-like figures in the piano part.

Elsewhere, the layering is entirely non-verbal. Take the piano piece Paean, played by the composer. An initial listen made clear the Beethovenian nature of the music. Further listens revealed something which Cacioppo’s brief booklet note on the piece confirms: he has made use of the wonderful – and justly famous – duet O namenlose Freude sung by Fidelio and Leonore in Act II of Fidelio. The aria’s sentiments, such as the praise of married love, of fidelity and of joy recovered, permeate this short piano piece, though much of it is quite restrained. A paean is a song of praise or triumph. The specific relevance of the piece’s title (though its meaning is not limited by this reference) is made clear when Cacioppo’s note says: “Paean was written for my dear friends Mrs. Eva and Dr. Benn Sah to commemorate their 50th wedding anniversary.” Even when not directly referencing O namenlose Freude, the composer’s understanding of Beethoven’s piano writing is evident throughout this beautiful and effective piece.

The second piece for piano, Notturno elidiano, is played with subtlety and grace by Debra Lew Harder. The word elidiano is glossed in Cacioppo’s booklet note as a reference to “the main character Elide in Claudio Saltarelli’s libretto La Canzon della Veglia”. The online catalogue of Cacioppo’s work describes La Canzon della Veglia as an hour-long “melodrama for orchestra, chorus SATB, soprano solo, actress and male dancer […] originally written for the Orchestra Filarmonica Italiana di Piacenza”, and adds “score in preparation”. Since this is all I know of the work, the reference to a character called Elide is of no help to me. I am content, however, to listen to this piece simply as a nocturne for piano, which pays due obeisance to the example of Chopin.

The most substantial pieces on this disc, Luce Donna and ‘(I madly struggling, cry)’, remain to be discussed. My responses to the two are very different. I am full of admiration for Cacioppo’s work in ‘(I, madly struggling, cry)’. He created a coherent text out of extracts from several poems by Walt Whitman, and he developed a plausible musical idiom in which to set that text. The latter is no easy task, given the strength of the rhythmic patterns Whitman himself creates, not least through his insistent repetitions and use of anaphora. The art is to find a musical idiom which neither ignores nor is overwhelmed by Whitman’s own ‘music’. Cacioppo’s setting adopts Whitman’s parallelism and repetition, including the insistent use of anaphora, as its structural principle. This works well both in terms of musical patterning and as a means of emphasizing the poet’s key ideas. In baritone William Sharp and pianist Wan-Chi Su, the composer has the advantage of committed performers who evidently understand the text itself and what Cacioppo has done with it. The result is a memorable performance of a powerful work of considerable scope. It invites readings as a work of expressive opposition to Trumpian attitudes towards immigration (as in the text’s very first lines: “Restriction of immigration? / I have no fear for America – not in the slightest!”) or, relatedly but with a different emphasis, as a positive vision of an America defined in the work’s closing lines. Those lines include the insertion into Whitman’s text of two phrases (“yearning to breathe free” and “the golden door”) taken from Emma Lazarus’s sonnet The New Colossus, inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty, and of the phrase “as our forebears were welcomed”, which seems to be Cacioppo’s:

The great city stands, friend and home-giver of the whole earth,
America stands, bracing the earth, and braced with the whole earth.
America stands, friend, welcoming all, as our forebears were welcomed.
America stands, great city,
the distant brought near, each for its own kind,
through the golden door.
America stands,
America stands.

In its passion and intensity of thought and feeling alike, this work synthesizes, very powerfully, words and music, ideals and fears, past and present.

Cacioppo is by no means the first composer to be fascinated by Whitman’s ideas or to set Whitman. In his 1996 reference work Musical Settings of American Poets: A Bibliography, Michael Hovland lists some 540 settings of Whitman; a revision of the volume would certainly now produce a larger figure. It is striking that British composers were amongst the first to produce settings of Whitman’s verse, as, for example, in Stanford’s Elegiac Ode (1884), Delius’s Sea Drift (1903/1904) and Holst’s Ode to Death (1919). A very selective list of later settings might include Roy Harris’s Walt Whitman Triptych (1940), Hindemith’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d (1946), Virgil Thomson’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry (1958), Roger Sessions’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d (1971), John Adams’s The Wound-Dresser (1989), Vincent Persichetti’s ‘Celebrations’, for Chorus and Orchestra (1995), George T. Walker’s Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra (1996) and Jennifer Higdon’s Dooryard Bloom (2004/5). Even judged against ‘competition’ of this quality, I would rate very highly Cacioppo’s ‘(I, madly struggling, cry)’.

I am rather disappointed by the other substantial work, Luce Donna. It also sets a poem by Luigi Cerantola. Cacioppo says that the poem addresses “opera’s negative type-casting of woman: she is easily flattered and seduced; she professes eternal love while contemplating betrayal; she is frail; if she is not frail or promiscuous, she is heartless and cruel; she is prey; as prey, she conjures and is dealt violence…” The poem is a sestina, a powerful but very demanding form; Ezra Pound called it “a form like a thin sheet of flame, folding and unfolding upon itself”.

The sestina consists of six stanzas of six lines each, followed by an envoi of three lines; the rhyme words in the first stanza must also serve as rhyme words in the subsequent stanzas, each time in a different preset order. The six words must also appear in the envoi, three of them as rhyme words. The six stanzas of Cerantola’s poem allude respectively to Don Giovanni, Cos fan tutte, La bohme, Turandot, Manon Lescaut and Madama Butterfly. This bare account of the poem’s form and subject matter is enough to suggest that a great deal is going on in this poem, and that only a brave (perhaps a foolhardy?) composer would undertake to set it.

Cacioppo has decided to add several further layers of complication to the task, as we learn from his presentation in the booklet of “six rubrics” he chose to “follow” in writing his setting. These rubrics are too long to repeat in full here, but some knowledge of them is necessary if one is to understand and judge the resulting work. I offer a partial summary, quoting Cacioppo’s own words wherever possible.

First, “the number 6 would be represented rhythmically, in musical intervals, or in some other musical way in each passage, and even in each measure.” Second, “the poet’s references to Mozart and Puccini and their operatic characters should cue my culling of their scores for musical material associated with those characters…” Third, “Beyond these references I might draw from related examples” [from other works by the same or other composers]. Fourth, “Musical associations that connect with geographical location and national identity should be included”; for example, the setting of the stanza about Turandot “uses China’s pentatonic scale and “the Madama Butterfly verse uses a Japanese scale that compares to the Phrygian mode”. The fifth of Cacioppo’s self-defined rubrics declares: “The structure of the whole [should] flow like the sequence of recitatives and arias in an opera, each verse treated with stylistic difference …” The sixth rubric opens with this declaration: “In the context in which women are shown to be in a position of compromised social status, a feminist slant should prevail”.

The resulting setting is a spectacularly clever piece of work. It is so clever, so densely packed with effects and echoes, that listening to it is, unfortunately, the aural equivalent of eating an excessively over-rich confection at the end of a substantial meal. There are some successful and striking moments. Consider the slitheringly serpentine-like writing at the close of the second verse, or the aptly bleak atonal writing in verse three (setting, for example, the lines “Or che gelida borea uccide l’erba/e il chiuso morbo lei, tenta la donna/rinnovare all’amor l’et pi verde”). The oriental flavour of verse four largely works well. Most extraordinary of all is the moment in the envoi when echoes of Don Giovanni’s ‘champagne aria’ get a kind of bluesy-early rock and roll treatment!

The trouble, as the reader may have deduced, is that this wealth of wit and invention lacks coherence and is too varying to assimilate. It does not, it seems to me, do justice to the subtle unity and seriousness of Cerantola’s poem. In the Whitman setting, the diversity of styles and effects clearly and effectively serves an overall unity of conception, so that the result is, as it were, centripetal. In Luce Donna, on the other hand, judgement seems to have been overcome by wit and invention; I find the work bewilderingly centrifugal. It is consequently unsatisfying, despite a vivid performance by the excellent soprano Kristina Bachrach with the composer at the piano. Ms. Bachrach’s voice has great range and displays an enviable palette of colours. I was not surprised to learn that she has performed Pierrot Lunaire and that her repertoire as a concert recitalist ranges from Schubert to Hanns Eisler, while on the opera stage she has sung many roles, from Purcell to Martinů, via Mozart and Rossini.

My serious reservations about Luce Donna are outweighed by the pleasure I find in everything else on the disc. I suppose that the occasional lapse of judgement may be inevitable for a composer with such a fertile musical imagination, given to a kind of Whitman-like inclusiveness (musically speaking). That is why I urge those who have not previously heard Cacioppo’s work to investigate this disc.

Glyn Pursglove
1. La promessa di Beatrice (2019) [3:55]
2. N pila luce (2013) [4:45]
3. Gloria (2019 version) [4:15]
4. Luce Donna (2008) [14:57]
5. Paean (2015) [6:16]
6. Notturno elidiano (1998) [6:34]
7. ‘(I, madly struggling, cry)’ (2018) [13:17]
1-4 are settings of words by the contemporary Italian poet Luigi Cerantola.
7 is a setting of extracts from several poems by Walt Whitman.

1-4: Kristina Bachrach (soprano), Curt Cacioppo (piano)
5: Curt Cacioppo (piano)
6: Debra Lew Harder (piano)
7: William Sharp (baritone), Wan-Chi Su (piano)

Recording venues and dates
Roberts Hall, Marshall Auditorium, Haverford College, Pennsylvania: March 20, 2004 (6), April 13, 2019 (7), January 26, 2020 (3), January 27, 2020 (1, 2, 4)
Sharpless Gallery, Magill Library, Haverford College, Pennsylvania: September 21, 2016 (5)

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