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8.572921 - WOLF-FERRARI, E.: Wind Concertinos (Tenaglia, Moriconi, Ciabocchi, Rome Symphony, La Vecchia)
Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876–1948)
In purely chronological terms, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari could be categorised as part of the Generazione dell’Ottanta (generation of the 1880s), given that he was born (in Venice) in 1876, developing artistically within the European context. He was, however, in no way touched by the reforming zeal of his contemporaries Casella and Malipiero, and rather than rejecting opera, blamed by the latter and their supporters for delaying the development of Italian instrumental music, he devoted the greater part of his creative energies to the genre. Wolf-Ferrari’s music is more about emotion and feelings than polemic or programmatic intentions, and perhaps the best way to understand it is to look at how he became a composer in the first place—the path he took was paved with painful choices, enormous talent and precocious artistic sensitivity. He was born into a creative background—his father, August Wolf, was a well-known artist from Bavaria, while his mother, Emilia Ferrari, was a Venetian noblewoman. In 1895 he added his mother’s surname to his father’s, in order to emphasise his dual cultural roots, but this was soon to fuel an inner conflict, as Germany and Italy became enemies. He was torn between music and art too: his talents were obvious at an early age, and his father wanted to make a painter of him, but also made him take piano lessons. Ermanno fell in love with music: by seven he was composing his own music and at eleven was able to sight-read Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue. He would perform for his parents’ friends, playing them virtually unknown music from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. At the age of thirteen he visited Bayreuth and was captivated by Wagnerian opera. He put together a little orchestra with other children and gave concerts at the Bayreuth home of his aunt, a woman who had known Wagner personally. He was then sent to Rome by his father, however, to study painting at the Accademia delle Belle Arti. In 1892 he went to Munich to continue his art studies but there, surrounded by music, decided a painter’s life was not for him and, although he knew it would displease his father, became a music student at the Akademie der Tonkunst, having prepared for the entrance examination on his own. His talent as a musician was matched by his rebellious nature: when he came to his finals, he refused to sit the history of music paper, on the grounds that he had learned nothing from his teacher, Max Zenger (whom he nonetheless admired as a composer and conductor). He was nineteen, and as well as failing to graduate, lost the gold medal that would have been his as best student. Wolf-Ferrari returned to Venice, where he took up the conductorship of a choir and made his first appearances as a professional musician. There too he fell in love with Goldoni, whose works he saw as encapsulating the ideals of classical drama. His beacon in the musical world, meanwhile, was Mozart. We start to see, therefore, that as far as Wolf-Ferrari was concerned, music went beyond the temporal dimension. This is not to say he was out of touch with the problems facing contemporary music, indeed he was very much aware of the rift that had opened up between composer and audience—so much so in fact that for ten years he wrote nothing. Yet his aesthetic ideal was essentially that of a timeless beauty, as he set out in a collection of writings entitled Considerazioni attuali sulla musica (Current considerations on music), one section of which reads as follows: “At one time, the audience was, and felt itself to be of paramount importance…When a piece of music touches our heart, we do not need to understand why it does so: indeed it is something that should not be understood, even were it possible to do so. We do not need to be botanists to perceive the beauty of a forest! In art, it is sentiment, not reason, that determines [our reaction]. Art does not desire an audience of initiates, a congregation of the faithful, but a pure and open heart.”
This conception of music is reflected in the three delightful chamber works that feature here. Wolf-Ferrari devoted only a small amount of time to instrumental music, and that primarily in his later years. The Idillioconcertino and Suite-concertino both date from the early 1930s and are very similar in terms of instrumental forces (soloist and string orchestra augmented by two horns), structure (both are cast in four movements) and character.
The solo instrument in the Idillio is the oboe, which conjures up a sense of the pastoral—the work’s idyllic landscapes are evoked not only by the oboe’s timbre but by the cantabile nature of the music throughout. In the Preambolo, characterised by the skipping, syncopated rhythm in the string writing, the oboe displays its prowess in lively developments amid scales and arpeggios, while the horns limit themselves to underlining the occasional phrase. The Scherzo, in traditional if miniature three-part form, recalls that of Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, despite its Presto marking, the rocking, lullaby-like rhythm of its central section appearing as something of a surprise. The Adagio is the longest of the four movements, and the emotional heart of the work, establishing a dreamy, nostalgic mood, which darkens halfway through. Ripping apart this veil of melancholy, the Rondò breaks in with a theme of Haydnesque wit, full of humorous repetitions and clear articulations
In the Suite-concertino we switch from an oboe to a solo bassoon, but the atmospheres remain the same. The opening Notturno is dreamlike, almost as long as the other three movements put together, articulate and based on long static harmonies. The ensuing Strimpellata plays the role of scherzo, but lacks a central trio, this being replaced by a brief recall of the first movement, while a placid Canzone acts as an intermezzo before the playful rondo Finale.
More than a decade later, in 1947, Wolf-Ferrari wrote a Concertino, which bears a number of resemblances to its predecessors. This time the solo instrument is a cor anglais, and the climate created is decidedly more dramatic. Once again we have four movements, beginning with a Preludio in which the strings provide the rhythmical impetus above which the cor anglais sets out its ideas, hardly ever engaging in dialogue with them. By contrast, the Capriccio is a tapestry of interwoven fragmented lines—a striking scherzo in which the solo instrument converses with the orchestra, often in imitative fashion, with sudden changes of key. In the central, trio-like section, the cor anglais plays a limited role, simply responding to the string phrases. The Adagio, meanwhile, evokes the full-throated verista drama of Mascagni. Once more the mood is leavened by the Finale, whose arrival is introduced by hunting-call figurations on the horns. Its form is essentially that of a rondo, initially witty and humorous, then taking a more dramatic turn and thereby reflecting the rest of the piece, the interweaving lines, with frequent imitative episodes, soften the angularity of the finales of the earlier two concertino works. In all three, the writing is always pleasingly anchored to the key, fresh and full of brio, to the point of suggesting a kind of personal Neo-classicism; and yet there are also Baroque touches, sudden tonal excursions (inspired by Italian verismo rather than by Wagner), and the quest for beauty—the aspect of music the composer prized above all others.
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