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8.570928 - ALFANO, F.: Cello Sonata / Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano (Magill, Dunn, Darvarova)

Franco Alfano (1875–1954)
Cello Sonata • Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano


Franco Alfano was born in Naples on 8 March 1875. After studying the piano privately with Alessandro Longo, and harmony and composition with Camillo de Nardis and Paolo Serrao at the Conservatorio di San Pietro a Majella, Naples, he moved in 1895 to Leipzig, where he furthered his studies with Hans Sitt and Salomon Jadassohn. In 1896 he went to Berlin and launched himself as a pianist, though he did not continue this activity systematically for long: in later life he appeared in public only as a song accompanist and chamber music player, mainly in his own works. From 1899 until about 1905 he was based in Paris, where he composed light music for the Folies Bergère. It is interesting to note that, although Alfano is thought of as an Italian composer, he was actually half French on his mother’s side. He then settled in Milan, moving in 1914 to San Remo, which remained at least his summer home for the rest of his life. It was in 1904 that his big international success came following the world première of his opera, Risurrezione, based on the Tolstoy novel. It was then performed at La Scala in 1906. Continued popularity led to a United States tour starring Mary Garden in 1925–27. By 1951 it had reached its 1000th performance and he had become Naples’ most celebrated son. From 1916 he taught composition at the Liceo Musicale, Bologna, which he directed from 1918. While there (1920), he helped to found the society Musica Nova, which in some ways paralleled Casella’s Società Italiana di Musica Moderna. Alfano was appointed director of the Liceo Musicale (later Conservatory) of Turin in 1923, remaining there until 1939. During 1940–42 he was superintendent of the Teatro Massimo, Palermo, subsequently becoming for a few months professor of operatic studies at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia, Rome. From 1947 to 1950 he served as acting director of the Liceo Musicale, Pesaro. Generally known outside Italy only as the composer who completed Puccini’s Turandot, Alfano was far from being a mere Puccini disciple, but his originality and gentle personality did not please the arrogant Arturo Toscanini, who conducted Turandot’s world première. After Alfano nearly lost his eyesight poring over Puccini’s sketches, Toscanini brutally cut Alfano’s finished ending from 377 bars to 268. Then, not satisfied, he further cut out Turandot’s aria ‘Del primo pianto’. Finally, on opening night at La Scala in 1926, Toscanini stopped conducting where Puccini’s music ended and Alfano’s began, and left the orchestra pit. This incident had a lot to do with damaging Alfano’s career and ensuring his falling into obscurity after his death. Only in the 1980s was the original Alfano ending discovered and finally performed as he intended.

The best of his subsequent operas were much less conformist, and consequently less popular. The original version of L’ombra di Don Giovanni shows an awareness both of the more complex, radical aspects of Debussy and of the Strauss of Salome and Elektra, without being slavishly imitative of either. La leggenda di Sakùntala, unquestionably Alfano’s most important stage work, fulfilled most of what L’ombra had promised. The earlier opera’s rather diffuse turbulence is replaced, however, by a poised, luminous though still very complex texture, saturated with the scented atmosphere of the Indian legends on which the libretto is based, yet without ‘exoticisms’ of the more direct and obvious kind. De’ Paoli aptly compared the intricate, colourful orchestral fabric to ‘certain oriental carpets’. The influence of Debussy remains fundamental; yet the rich harmonic palette is no less individual than in L’ombra. Moreover, the lyrical impulse is still recognizably Italian, notably in such highlights as Sakùntala’s monologue ‘O nuvola’ in Act 2, one of Alfano’s most inspired passages. As an orchestral composer Alfano first came to prominence, shortly before World War I, with the picturesque Suite romantica (later renamed Eliana) and the sumptuous, long-winded First Symphony, both of which, in their different ways, represent transitional stages between the styles of Risurrezione and L’ombra di Don Giovanni. Other important operas are Cyrano de Bergerac from 1936, and Madonna Imperia, first staged in Turin in 1927. The war years and the 1920s saw the composition of his most important chamber works, among which the agitated, improvisatory Violin Sonata and the more mellow and contemplative Cello Sonata are outstanding. He also wrote a Quintet for Piano and Strings and three String Quartets.

The Cello Sonata was composed in 1925 as a result of a commission from the eminent American music philanthropist Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (1864–1953). It received its first performance in 1928 in Rome by the cellist Benedetto Mazzacurati with Alfano at the piano. A large-scale work lasting over thirty minutes, its highly charged mood is reminiscent of the verismo style of Italian Opera (Puccini, Leoncavallo, Giordano), though the harmonic language is more like that of Debussy and Ravel. Traversing an extreme emotional range, from the serene opening chords to the turbulent third movement, the sonata makes great technical demands on the players. Very few works explore the tonal possibilities of the cello as does this one. The profundity of the sonata is striking from the start, setting a religious tone, and gradually working itself up into a heart-on-sleeve outpouring of feeling. The second movement is a gentle, nostalgic lullaby, while the third is firmly rooted in twentieth-century techniques. Throwing itself into a frenzy of anxiety, suddenly this deeply personal statement becomes an outpouring of grief. Ending on a note of resignation and exhaustion, it seems to suggest the end of an epoch.

The more neoclassical Concerto presents three movements of widely differing styles. The first begins in a modal serenity, with a hint of Renaissance polyphony, but this large-scale movement soon leaves the past behind by creating a dramatic story-telling. It culminates in a heart-rending elegy for the two strings, then gradually subsiding in the end to its philosophical ruminating. The second is a wild combination of Basque Zortico and Eastern European folk-music and the third is clearly a celebration of ancient Rome, with hints of Bartók and Prokofiev. During the 1920s and 1930s ‘Italian-ness’ in art was encouraged, and composers were expected to show signs of patriotism. The unusual choice of the title Concerto is probably because of its extreme virtuosic instrumental writing. It is less a chamber work and more of a showpiece than the term Trio would suggest. The Concerto received its world première at the Accademia Santa Cecilia in Rome in April 1933, with the violinist Ballarini, cellist Mazzacurati, and Alfano. It is dedicated to his friend and fellow Neapolitan, violinist Alberto Curci.

Samuel Magill

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