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8.570130 - GIANNINI: Symphony No. 3 / Dedication Overture / Variations and Fugue
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Vittorio Giannini (1903-1966)
Dedication Overture • Fantasia • Praeludium and Allegro
Symphony No. 3 • Variations and Fugue

 

Vittorio Giannini was born in Philadelphia to a distinguished musical family. Not only were both his parents professional musicians, but his sister, Dusolina, was one of the world's leading operatic sopranos during the 1930s and 1940s, and another sister, Euphemia, was a member of the vocal faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music for many years. Today Vittorio is perhaps best known as a teacher, having spent decades on the composition faculties of the Juilliard School, Curtis Institute, and Manhattan School of Music, and ending his educational career as the founding president of the North Carolina School of the Arts. Among his students are John Corigliano, David Amram, Adolphus Hailstork, Alfred Reed, Nicolas Flagello, and Thomas Pasatieri.

Giannini, however, was a prolific composer as well, one of the many Italian-Americans who flourished during the 20th century, helping to create a distinguished repertoire shaped along traditional tonal, formal, and developmental lines. His output includes more than a dozen operas, seven symphonies, scores of songs, and a variety of concertos and choral, band, and chamber works. His music is notable for its warm immediacy of expression, its ingratiating lyricism, and its impeccable craftsmanship. A true traditionalist, Giannini had no interest in being a trend-setter. His musical creed is perhaps best embodied by his statement that he was driven by "an unrelenting quest for the beautiful, with the humble hope that I may be privileged to achieve this goal, if only for one precious moment and share this moment with my listeners."

Although Giannini's creative work embraced all standard musical genres, he is best known for his operatic and vocal music, and for his pieces for concert band. The domains of opera and the concert band may seem worlds apart, yet this duality has historical precedent in Giannini's background. His father Ferruccio, who had immigrated to the United States from Tuscany in 1885, was both a successful operatic tenor and the founder of an Italian-American concert band that flourished in Philadelphia and Atlantic City around the turn of the twentieth century.

Vittorio began taking music lessons from his mother when he was five; after four years he was awarded a scholarship to study at the Verdi Conservatory in Milan, where he concentrated on both violin and composition. Returning to the United States, he continued his education at the Juilliard School in New York, where he studied composition with Rubin Goldmark. During the 1920s, 1930s, and early 1940s, Giannini's compositional output centered chiefly around operas and songs, all in a highly romantic, even sentimental, vein. One of his earliest songs became his most famous: 'Tell Me, Oh Blue, Blue Sky', written in 1927, and later championed by such singers as Leonard Warren, Mario Lanza, and, more recently, Thomas Hampson. He had two major operatic successes in Europe during the 1930s, Lucedia and The Scarlet Letter, the latter with his sister Dusolina and Hans Hotter in the leading rôles. In spite of critical acclaim it has never been produced again. During the late 1930s CBS commissioned Giannini to compose two short operas for radio, Beauty and the Beast and Blennerhassett, both of which have been produced on stage a number of times. His most enduring operatic success, however, is a buffa adaptation of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew.

During the early 1940s Giannini began to turn his attention to instrumental music, works that were more straightforward and concise in design, and less inflated by romantic rhetorical extremes. Many pieces from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s are light and diverting in character, sometimes based on Baroque forms, and often composed with student ensembles in mind. Yet in some of his works from the 1960s, Giannini also began to explore a darker, more complex and dissonant mode of expression. Some of these late works are among his most significant and profound creations.

During the 1950s, thanks to Richard Franko Goldman of the Goldman Band in New York, William Revelli at the University of Michigan, and Frederick Fennell at the Eastman School of Music, the symphonic band and its smaller, more flexible relative, the wind ensemble, were coming into their own as serious artistic media. The need for appropriate repertoire prompted America's foremost composers to turn their creativity in this direction, among them Vittorio Giannini, who produced five such works between the years 1958 and 1965.

Giannini composed the Dedication Overture in 1965, for the ceremonies marking the conclusion of the North Carolina School of the Arts' first year. It is a festive piece, thoroughly conventional in style and character, yet imbued with an innocent sincerity that can charm even a sophisticated listener, an example of his thorough mastery of traditional formal and developmental technique. The overture is constructed of two, largely diatonic, thematic ideas: The first, marchlike in character, comprises a number of motifs that become the building blocks of the entire piece; the second, in marked contrast, is warmly and sweetly nostalgic. These ideas are worked out alternately in a way that is easy to follow. A subtle additional element is the tritone, which underlies the first thematic idea, moving to the foreground near the conclusion of the work.

Giannini's Fantasia was commissioned by a suburban New York music teachers' association, and completed in 1963. Though relatively simple in its technical demands, it is largely dark and dramatic in character. As suggested by its title, the Fantasia develops a few short motifs through a varying series of tempos and moods. A menacing exposition of the main motif opens the work. This is then developed in a hushed, restless passage, as several additional motifs are introduced. A slower section follows, in which the main motif is given a plaintively lyrical treatment. Finally, the mood shifts from mournful to hopeful, culminating in a warmly expansive climax.

Praeludium and Allegro is Giannini's first piece for band, commissioned for the Goldman Band in 1958. The Praeludium introduces a sombre melody over a throbbing, pulsating accompaniment. Although the music is romantic in its emotional expressiveness, its rhythmic regularity and symmetrical phraseology suggest a Baroque movement that might be marked Grave. Even its contrasting two-part structure harks back to 17th-century practice. The Allegro introduces a rapidly scurrying idea in the woodwinds that unfolds with ingenious-cross rhythms. This idea is then developed in counterpoint with fragments of the Praeludium theme. An episode in which this theme is heard against highly dissonant chords leads to a recapitulation of the Allegro material, building to a climax at which point the Praeludium melody returns in abbreviated form, now as an outcry of despair.

Shortly after finishing Praeludium and Allegro, Giannini turned his attention to composing an entire symphony (his No. 3) for band, commissioned by the Duke University Band and its conductor Paul Bryan. Completed in 1958, Symphony No. 3 is unquestionably Giannini's most frequently performed and recorded work, and has become a much-beloved staple of the band repertoire. Establishing the work's overall tonality of B flat major, the first movement, Allegro energico, opens with a resolute theme suggestive of the Mixolydian mode, built upon a series of ascending fourths and including a triplet figure. An additional, transitional theme comprises a scurrying idea in the woodwinds. This leads to the second theme, a warm, chorale-like idea that swells and recedes, then builds to a minor climax. The development section incorporates the fourths from the first theme into the transitional material, while other elements of the first theme are also developed, finally leading to the expected recapitulation of the two themes, with the scurrying transitional material in abbreviated form. A restatement of the first theme ends the movement.

The Adagio is poignantly nostalgic in character, and hovers generally around the key of A flat. Its first two ideas recall the first movement themes: In the first, the interval of the fourth is featured prominently; the second is chorale-like and rises and falls in stepwise motion. The first idea blooms into a plaintive melody, introduced by a solo flute, that anticipates the second theme of the Dedication Overture. This alternates with the chorale idea, which is elaborated gradually. A slightly restless section follows, in which a solo cornet is answered by a solo clarinet, as the chorale idea becomes increasingly demanding. The plaintive melody returns, now building to a heartfelt climax, before a coda of reminiscences ends the movement.

The third movement, Allegretto, has the character of an intermezzo, its main idea a stealthy, whimsical theme in B flat minor that toys with a hemiola rhythmic juxtaposition. An expansive, wide-arching melody that appears twice provides contrast.

Returning to the key of B flat major, the fourth movement, Allegro con brio, is, like the first movement, a sonata-allegro design, but with the character of a march. Its main idea, a brilliant, rapidly descending scale pattern, pivots on a tritone harmonic movement (again anticipating the Dedication Overture). The rushing scales are followed by a fanfare-like motif suggesting the Lydian mode in the cornets and trumpets, and then by a more sustained melodic idea. The second theme grows from this melodic idea, and is more subdued, though still martial in character, calling to mind similar passages in the ceremonial works of Walton. The mood again becomes exuberant as a cheerful "closing" idea appears in the woodwinds, accompanied by scale patterns in the brass. After a series of ascending fourths recalls the first movement, a development section follows, treating much of the material that has been heard so far with some contrapuntal intricacy, relative to the movement's lighthearted character. A full recapitulation follows, bringing the movement, and the symphony, to a dazzling conclusion.

Variations and Fugue is one of the late works of Giannini in which he explored a deeper, more personal mode of expression, and a higher degree of structural complexity, in comparison to his earlier output, representing a culmination of his elaboration of traditional compositional technique, taken to its ultimate reaches. Revealing elements of both a chaconne and a passacaglia, the work presents a series of 15 variations on a chord progression clearly in C minor, on a chromatically descending bass-line, and on a chromatically ascending melodic line. The variations are followed by a double fugue whose first subject is a twelve-tone combination of both the bass line and the melodic line, in the shape of a wedge, and whose second subject is derived from the same material. Despite its firm grounding in tonality, the work achieves considerable dissonance through an elaborately woven texture of non-harmonic tones and polychords. It is also another example of the way Giannini combined romantic expressive content with Baroque formal procedures, right up to the Tierce de Picardie that ends the work. Considered one of his finest compositions, Variations and Fugue was commissioned by the Purdue University Symphonic Band, who gave the première in May, 1965.

Walter Simmons


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