FRANCO FERRARA (1911 - 1985)
Ferrara seemed to have been born to be a musician. He grew up in Palermo, surrounded by its Art Nouveau architecture (known in Italy as “stile Liberty”), and started his musical studies at an early age, having begun to entertain his family with little piano sonatas and marches he had composed himself when he was still only five years old. From Palermo’s Vincenzo Bellini Conservatory he moved to Bologna, following his composition teacher, Cesare Nordio, who had already spotted the boy’s astonishing talent for both writing music and playing the piano. His family also moved to Bologna, where they witnessed the young prodigy graduate in violin under Angelo Consolini, and in piano and composition under Nordio. Between 1925 and 1926 Ferrara undertook various tours of Italian cities, performing on both violin and piano. He played some of his own short works, including a delightful Fantasia ungherese-Aria. As early as 1925 he had started work as a violinist in the Teatro di Bologna’s house orchestra. During this period he encountered some of the great conductors of the day, men who left an indelible mark on him: Antonio Guarnieri, Arturo Toscanini and Gino Marinuzzi. In 1933 he was invited by Vittorio Gui to become one of the leading violinists in his newly founded Maggio Musicale orchestra.
The rest is written in the annals of performance history: Ferrara stood in for Guarnieri in a concert at Montecatini Terme, and immediately became a hugely sought-after conductor. His brief but incredibly intense career took him to the most prestigious music venues, both at home and abroad, as he conducted the orchestras of Rome, Trieste, Venice, Florence, Palermo and Parma, as well as that of La Scala, Milan, the Turin Italian Radio Symphony, and the Berlin and Dresden Philharmonics.
In 1958, at the request of composer Valentino Bucchi, Ferrara ran one of the first conducting courses held in Perugia, similar sessions being organised there in the next two years as well. This initial teaching post heralded what was to be his last, and definitive, vocation—that of “maestro dei maestri”. The courses he subsequently taught in Rome, Venice, Siena, Bologna, Manila and Tokyo, and at Tanglewood, The Juilliard and Hilversum attracted hundreds of pupils, many of whom went on to become eminent conductors themselves. In an interview in 1997, Riccardo Chailly recalled Ferrara thus: “He would not tolerate a lack of preparation. He used to say, ‘I teach performance, not technique; anyone who comes to me must have the technique in place already…’ I think our mediocrity was a great burden to him: he was too great a genius to cope with our limitations…”
Ferrara’s teaching commitments made his mature years a productive time. His abilities were also recognised by his more fortunate colleagues, figures such as Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein and Sergiu Celibidache inviting him to sit on the jury of various different conducting competitions.
Despite everything else that happened in his life, Ferrara never gave up composing. His catalogue, vast and still to be fully explored, includes instrumental, vocal and orchestral works; a full-length opera, La sagra del fuoco (never staged); numerous short pieces written for television and adverts; and, curiously, a few songs written under the pseudonym of Franz Falco. Most of his music soon fell into neglect, and has been programmed only rarely by Italian orchestras: Georges Prêtre, for example, conducted the Scherzo brillante and Notte di tempesta (Stormy night) at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in 1990.
© Angelo Scottini