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8.573072 - CATALANI, A.: Ero e Leandro / Contemplazione / Il Mattino (Rome Symphony, La Vecchia)
Alfredo Catalani (1854–1893)
Alfredo Catalani is best known today for his opera La Wally, but he also experimented with a number of orchestral works. Catalani grew up in a family of musicians: his first teachers were his father and his composer-pianist uncle. Having studied at the Istituto Musicale Pacini in his native Lucca, he then travelled to Paris where he studied composition and piano with François Bazin and Antoine-François Marmontel. On his return to Italy in 1873, he continued his studies with Antonio Bazzini and Carlo Andreoli at the Milan Conservatory, his diploma piece this time, in 1875, the one-act opera La Falce (The Scythe). Between 1872 and 1874 he composed a series of chamber works for strings: three fugues and a quartet, which he entered in a competition organised by Milan’s Quartet Society. Having written the single-movement Sinfonia a piena orchestra (Symphony for full orchestra) in 1872, he then composed two further symphonies in the mid-1870s, the first a “Romantic” work in B major, entitled Il Mattino (Morning), the second a “descriptive” work in C minor, entitled La Notte (Night).
The rest of Catalani’s working life as a composer and teacher was spent in Milan where, in 1880, he succeeded Pnchielli as professor of composition at the Conservatory. He came into contact with the local followers of the Scapigliatura movement (a grouping of young artists, writers and composers committed to rejuvenating Italian culture), notably Franco Faccio, Emilio Praga and Arrigo Boito, from whom he drew some of his ideas on musical innovation. He was also a frequent guest at the salon of the Countess Maffei, where he met, among others, Giovannina Lucca Strazza, a publisher who in those years was a great supporter of new musical trends.
Catalani’s training was predominantly focused on opera, although his Parisian studies and links to the Scapigliatura movement led him to embrace a number of other cultural currents and stimuli present in Italy between 1870 and 1890. These included, for example, the French melodic idiom of Gounod and Massenet, Wagnerian opera (in particular Lohengrin, which had its Italian première at Bologna in 1871), the Lieder of Schubert and Schumann, and the piano works of Mendelssohn and Chopin, but his ideal tutors were Verdi and Ponchielli, and he devoted the majority of his time to composing stage works. La Falce, an eclogue for two voices and chorus with text by Arrigo Boito, received considerable critical acclaim, and resulted in a commission to set a libretto by Carlo D’Ormeville. This next opera, Elda, is a retelling of the story of the Rhine maiden Lorelei who supposedly lured sailors to their deaths by entrancing them with her singing (the character was originally invented by Clemens Brentano, then reimagined by various other authors, including Heinrich Heine). Other operas followed: Dejanice (1883), Edmea (1886), Loreley (a revised version of Elda, 1890) and La Wally, to a libretto by Luigi Illica which was itself based on a story by Wilhelmine von Hillern. Catalani began work on La Wally in 1889, completing it within about a year, and it received a highly successful première at La Scala in 1892 (among its fans was Mahler, who considered it the best Italian opera he had conducted). He did not live to see it establish itself within the repertoire, however, as he died just a year later, at the age of 39.
Writing orchestral music was a more demanding task: Catalani’s symphonic poem Ero e Leandro (Hero and Leander) was composed during the summer of 1884 at Gais, in the Swiss canton of Appenzell, “in the shadow of the soaring mountains”, as he wrote to his friend the music critic Giuseppe Depanis. Engrossed in his romantic theme, he developed it in a detailed programme: “a peaceful night, the sea tranquil; Hero, the bride of Abydos, is alone in her tower waiting for her Leander to swim across from the other side of the Hellespont; the sky darkens and a storm threatens; Leander does not arrive, Hero weeps and asks the gods to have mercy on him; now the storm rages; amid the lightning flashes Hero spies a figure floundering in the water. Leander arrives; ecstasy; day breaks. The storm has abated. Leander must return. He plunges into the waves and dies.” The work opens on the note of D, in unison and piano, and the mode (major or minor) only becomes clear in bar 7, when the strings sketch out a lively motif, creating a murmuring sound into which the clarinets too are drawn, while the horns play figures reminiscent of hunting calls. The initial idea, although subjected to continual tonal variations, remains anchored to the murmuring string sound until the clarinet introduces a new element, issuing its own call; the music becomes livelier and the string sound increasingly full-bodied, sustained and enriched by chords from woodwind and brass. The clarinet line is imitated by the horn, then the oboe, in a different rhythm. The lovers’ reunion is represented by the oboe and cor anglais. A dark silence, punctuated by the timpani and low-lying brass chords, depicts the moment of Leander’s death, then an aptly chromatic passage leads into the funereal epilogue, in which the opening string phrase is evoked once more by the clarinet, now in icy tones. Finally, a Vivacissimo episode leads into the work’s conclusion.
Structurally, Ero e Leandro has two symmetrical outer panels which act as its prologue and epilogue, enclosing a broad, three-part central section. This ambitious architecture is mirrored by the high quality of Catalani’s orchestration: the sea motif is skilfully put to use as the work’s key theme, its varied tonal intensity demarcating the different sequences of the programme; so for example, at the moment of “ecstasy”, painted by the cor anglais and cello, it takes on a more anguished feel, then experiences a dramatic crescendo in the bars that depict Leander’s death. The performance given by Franco Faccio at La Scala on 9 May 1885, was a success, the audience impressed by Catalani’s power of expression, the surprising effects of his instrumentation and the careful pacing of a wealth of melodies throughout the work.
By contrast, the brief Scherzo in A (written in 1878) is a light, sparkling piece, whose harmonic writing is far more traditional in nature. It is cast in the standard three parts, with a central Trio. The leading motif is as light as a feather and full of dynamic contrast, Catalani playing with shifting accents to great effect. The Scherzo was given its première in Paris by Franco Faccio in 1878, as far as we can tell from contemporary reports.
The Andantino (?1871), also in A major, was one of the first of Catalani’s works to be issued by the publisher Venturini, and was favourably received by the critics, who praised the young composer for his originality. It is written in rondo form and its theme, first set out by the oboe (soon joined by the flute), is then picked out in delicate manner by the high winds and imitated and varied by the strings before the different sections of the orchestra trace its fluid melodic line, clothing it in a variety of tonal colours. Both this piece and the Scherzo have also survived in versions for solo piano.
There is a clear French influence, meanwhile, on Contemplazione (1878), which was also conducted in Paris by Franco Faccio. Light in both tone and instrumentation, this is an orchestral nocturne whose theme is introduced in almost timid fashion by the violins above a rocking accompaniment on cellos and double basses sustained by the syncopated rhythm which bassoons and horns provide. The intensity builds in the central section then gradually eases again, right up to the final nostalgic, impassioned repeat of the opening theme.
The Symphony, Il Mattino, is a larger-scale orchestral work—although it only comprises one movement, it is nonetheless divided into several clearly distinguishable sections. In the introductory Andante the cellos present a broken chord of B, pianissimo, with tremolando violins entering a few bars later to complete the chord (by adding the third). It is as if Catalani wants to put off choosing between major and minor as long as possible, thereby making listeners focus instead on the entry of solo oboes and clarinets as they sketch out the first thematic motif. The theme is not fully fleshed out until later—the composer uses this introduction to build up the B major chord, instrument by instrument. Once the key has been established, a new section begins, an Allegro in B minor. This unfolds in the opening bars as the arpeggiated chord continues to be heard, with a broad cantabile theme above it, entrusted first to the woodwind, then taken up by the strings and given a darker feel by the brass who carry it to its conclusion. Now a second motivic idea emerges, picked out originally in a harp arpeggio, before the strings expand upon it in a new (hemiola) rhythm, while the winds create more and more energy by repeating and varying the existing melodic and rhythmic material. The final section is characterised by its free treatment of the melodic line: the vibrato strings sustain the melody with tremolando pedal points that gradually extend to the other instruments as a lengthy coda unwinds.
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