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8.557779 - BELLINI: Songs
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Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835)

In the dawn of Italian Romantic opera the strongest voice was that of Bellini. Within a limited technical resource he brought to the prevailing Rossinian idiom a wealth of poignant melody enhanced by moments of expressive dissonance to which even Wagner paid tribute. His fame, of course, rests on his stage works, but, like all Italian opera composers of his day, he turned out a number of pieces for voice and piano that vary from academic exercises to songs dedicated to some noble dilettante or other. There is nothing here of the German Lied. The poems are conventional; the accompaniments never exploit the possibilities of the keyboard in the manner of Schubert or Schumann. Sometimes they suggest an orchestral reduction, as though the composer had his eye on the theatre. Certainly the operatic world is rarely far away.

Bellini’s so-called chamber compositions are distributed throughout his career. La farfalletta (The Butterfly 2) is said to have been written at the age of twelve for a childhood friend (and sweetheart, of course) to words by her brother as part of a puppet theatre entertainment, she herself singing while her doll mimed the actions of one who tries to catch a butterfly to give to her boy-friend. It is a pleasant little ditty in the fashionable polonaise rhythm, only the minor-key inflection of the third line presaging the Bellini to come.

Anecdote also surrounds the two pieces dating from the composer’s years at the Naples Conservatory. Both, says his lifelong friend, Francesco Florimo, were settings of poems by his pupil, Maddalena Fumaroli, with whom he was by now corresponding secretly, since her parents disapproved of their budding relationship. Alas for legend! The autograph of Dolente immagine di Fille mia (Sad Image of my Phyllis 5) bears the date 1821, the year before Bellini and Maddalena became acquainted, together with a dedication to one Nicola Taur. But then the concentrated sadness of the melody, already fully characteristic, lends itself all too easily to romantic associations. As for the scena ed aria, Quando inciso su quel marmo (When inscribed on this marble 16), this is obviously one of those essays in dramatic writing that all Italian conservatories required of their students. In the singer’s discovery of his own name carved on a block by his (supposedly) faithless beloved we may discern the plot that inspired Haydn’s curiously experimental L’isola disabitata (The Desert Island). Here the influence of Rossini is apparent, notably in the crescendo of the cabaletta.

By 1829 Bellini had settled in Milan, where the success of Il pirata at La Scala had won him international fame. In that year the firm of Ricordi issued a set of ‘sei ariette’, alternating minor and major modes. No. 1, Malinconia, ninfa gentile (Melancholy, gentle nymph 9), spins a long, continuous melody evolved almost entirely from a single two-bar phrase. In No. 2, Vanne, o rosa fortunata (Go, O fortunate rose 10), the opening strain recurs, punctuated by two short episodes, to be rounded off by a coda whose line rises by sequences to a climax, from which it falls to the final cadence, a specifically Bellinian trait, to be found again in No. 5, Per pietà, bell’idol mio (For pity, fair idol mine 14) and, more strikingly, in No. 3, Bella Nice, che d’amore (Fair Nice, who of love 11), couched in the plain syllabic style of La straniera (The Stranger) of the same year, where the high point is a semitonal clash extremely bold for its time. By contrast, No. 4, Almen se non poss’io (At least if I can not 13) nods in the direction of bland Rossinian canto fiorito, ending with a showy cadenza. No. 6. Ma rendi pur contento (But make happy 15) is the simplest of cantabili, showing Bellini’s ability to extend his final phrase in what Milton called ‘notes with many a winding bout of linked sweetness long drawn out’.

Four more pieces appear to date from Bellini’s years in Milan. L’allegro marinaro 7 alternates two contrasting movements, one boisterous, the other suave. Il fervido desiderio (Fervent desire 4), written for the Contessa Sofia Voina, has all the marks of an ‘album leaf’, short and pithy, the lover’s impatience conveyed by accompanimental fidgets. Vaga luna che inargenti (Lovely moon that sheds silver light 6) is a typical long-breathed cantilena in strophic form, moving smoothly by small intervals. Most remarkable of all is Torna, vezzosa Fillide (Return, fair Phyllis 8), which first came to light in 1935. Although entitled Romanza it is in fact a three-movement aria of distinctly dramatic cut with an abundance of minor tonality and an unusual amount of dialogue between voice and piano. An operatic sketch, perhaps? Even, it might be thought, a survival from Bellini’s conservatory days, but the invention is too bold for a mere student.

Three songs in this collection belong to the composer’s final years in Paris. La ricordanza (Memory 1), dated 1834, is a recently discovered setting of a sonnet by Count Pepoli, librettist of I Puritani, then in preparation at the Théâtre des Italiens. It will be recognised as an early, extended version of what would become Elvira’s Qui la voce sua soave (Here his sweet voice) in the opera itself. Only the rather casual draping of text over music makes one suspect that the latter was thought of first. Next year saw two ariettas: Sogno d’infanzia (Dream of Childhood 3), a folk-like melody laid out on a large-scale, and L’abbandono (Abandonment 12), evidently the elaboration of a sketch intended for the unwritten Ernani that had been dropped in favour of La sonnambula in 1831. Bellini’s influence on Chopin, taken for granted by Schumann, is nowadays disputed for lack of documentary evidence, but a glance at the harp-like introduction to L’abbandono will surely call to mind the opening of Chopin’s first Ballade, published the following year. Both approach the main key from the same distant tonal area. Such a parallel can hardly be due to pure coincidence. It is innovative touches such as these, not to mention the curiously Chopinesque transition to the reprise of La ricordanza, that bring home to us how much was lost to music from Bellini’s early demise.

Julian Budden

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