About this Recording
8.572013 - PIZZETTI, I.: Concerto dell'estate / La festa delle Panatenee (Thessaloniki State Symphony, Michailidis)
English  Italian 

Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880–1968):
Summer Concerto • Three Symphonic Preludes for Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex
Prelude to Clytemnestra • The Feast of the Panathenaea


In April 1968, two months after Pizzetti’s death, British musicologist and twentieth-century Italian music specialist John Waterhouse wrote that ‘his earlier achievements place him alongside Casella and Malipiero as one of the leading Italian composers of his generation. His works are notable for a refined, noble expressiveness which provided a badly needed antidote to the crudity of so much turn-of-the-century Italian music’. To the general reader who is not versed in twentieth-century Italian musical politics, the strong-worded formulation of Waterhouse’s last sentence prompts a logical question: which element of Italian music around 1900 could possibly be so noxious as to require an emergency antidote? The answer is verismo with all of its excesses in Italian opera, viewed by many younger composers and music critics as deleterious to the health of the nation’s operatic tradition. Along with Pizzetti, the so-called ‘generation of the 1880s’ included Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882–1973) and Alfredo Casella (1883–1947), often extending in relevant literature slightly backwards to Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936) in order to legitimize critical claims for an organized reaction to verismo ideals, based on an entirely different set of musico-poetic principles.

Pizzetti was the only one among his colleagues who systematically sought to devise a new synthesis of words and music, embarking on various operatic projects throughout his life. From an early age his interest had revolved around the theatre, and already in his teens Ildebrando had contemplated a career as a playwright. Although music finally won him over, the composer infused it with his love for drama and subsequently enjoyed a prolific career as a composer for the stage.

Prompted by Giovanni Tebaldini, a pioneering musicologist and director of the Parma Conservatory where he was studying in the late 1890s, Pizzetti became intimately acquainted with Renaissance and Baroque Italian musical tradition. His research yielded beneficial results for his musical personality, and was complemented by his youthful interest in avant-garde musical output. Notable is an analytical essay on Paul Dukas’ opera Ariane et Barbe-bleue, which demonstrates his keen interest in modern operatic projects.

A meeting with his country’s most celebrated—and most controversial—literary figure, Gabriele D’Annunzio, proved pivotal for young ‘Ildebrando da Parma’ (a pen name devised by D’Annunzio with obvious nationalistic overtones). Their association was fruitful and led to a series of projects for which he attracted considerable attention. For Pizzetti the composer, the meaningful symbiosis of word and music remained a lifelong mission. He never stopped ‘affirming his conviction that the highest, greatest, and loftiest form of musical expression is the dramatic, and more particularly music for the stage’. This fundamental claim from his article Music and Drama (October 1931) led to his firm belief that ‘no artistic expression in any art is of value or has a reason to exist, unless it has the qualities of a drama or represents the consequences and conclusions of a drama’.

In the article’s last paragraph, Pizzetti encapsulates his music philosophy: ‘Dramatic music should express life in action—conflicts of matter and mind, of instincts and aspirations, of egoism and moral duty; and lyrical music should express the transcendence, the overcoming of these conflicts. There is no music other than these two types, not even outside the music for the stage…Symphonic music obeys the same laws, even though it be without words; it must have dramatic life to be music at all, that is, it must have a content born of conflict, lest it be a mere juggling with sound and noise’. Listening to the orchestral selections on this recording, Pizzetti’s final words might enhance our perception of these pieces.

Concerto dell’estate (Summer Concerto) is actually a concertante work for large orchestra, where specific instruments are featured as ‘first among equals’ primarily for their idiomatic tone-colour, rather than for a mere display of virtuosity. The composer considered this to be his most important work and described it as his ‘pastoral symphony’. This is clearly an allusion to Beethoven’s famous explanatory remark prefacing his own ‘Pastoral’ symphony, that it was ‘more the expression of feeling than [tone-]painting’—i.e. more about capturing the ineffable sentiments evoked by nature than merely depicting various scenes and placing emphasis on narrative detail. Guido M. Gatti, the noted Italian music critic and a personal friend as well as biographer of Pizzetti, informs us that the composer had a ‘passionate love for the countryside’, finding in it powerful stimuli for expressing his emotions.

Not that the music is devoid of depictive powers, of course. As the imaginary curtain is raised in the first movement, Mattutino (Morning), we are dropped in the middle of a bustling, sunny summer morning scene, roosters crowing persistently through a prominent ascending arpeggiated motive in the woodwinds. Aside from a piano, the multifarious orchestral palette includes two harps that play a prominent role and lend an air of excitement and optimism. Things calm down in the next section with a reminiscence of the vigorous opening theme, played gently in the strings and accompanied by some eerie effects. It is then presented in a new guise by the woodwinds (flutes, clarinets, oboes), first in pairs and then in consecutive, nicely blended solos. Noticeable is the oboe’s chromatically inflected line, languid and distant; the fluid subtlety of its velvety tones might suggest a sensuous dance on an imaginary mental plateau. Reality is temporarily enveloped in a misty atmosphere of impermanence, and the characteristic Pizzettian mastery of orchestration is in display. A reprise of the main theme signals the third and final section, where the composer deploys motivic development and various transformations of the main theme: initially playful and eventually triumphant, it gradually builds up to a sonorous climax with inexorable force.

Echoes of Ravel and Debussy saturate the second movement, headed Notturno (Nocturnal), which resembles a bucolic idyll. Following an introductory cantilena in the strings, the elegiac flute melody is weaved onto a discrete orchestral backcloth painted with pastel colours and permeated by the muffled sound of the string section. The horn calls create a spacious symphonic sound-world alluding to the late-Romantic style (with references to Brahms and Mahler). Introspection is the predominant mood here. To put Gatti’s aforementioned comment in context, ‘if this inclination for meditative solitude were not natural to Pizzetti [see Notturno], this passionate love of the countryside and simple things, this retreating from the world and its madding crowds, we could not well understand the liveliness of rural impressions [see Mattutino] that makes itself felt in all his compositions’.

Gagliarda e Finale (Galliard and Finale) is the title of the concerto’s third movement, a more specific example of neoclassical tendencies. The archaic gagliarda originated in fifteenth-century Italy; in his twentieth-century version Pizzetti transforms the already vibrant Renaissance model into a robust, athletic dance—the perfect musical setting for a summer festival. The characteristic theme, boisterous or even epic, returns at certain junctures to demarcate the episodes of the rondo form. In the Finale, the energy is dispersed evoking an expansive landscape and the music dies away. Gatti offers a key for appreciating it: ‘That sense of broad horizons that emanates from the finest pages of Pizzetti’s works is simply and solely the expression of his uncontrollable joy and delight in the presence of a landscape drenched with sunshine or already half-veiled by violet twilight shadows’.

Ancient Greek civilisation had been a lasting source of inspiration for Pizzetti, focusing understandably on the musical tradition. In 1914 he published a lucid critical study entitled La Musica dei Greci (The Music of the Greeks). But his fascination with themes from Roman and Greek antiquity can be traced a lot earlier. In 1903 Pizzetti was engaged by the actor Gustavo Salvini to compose incidental music for a production of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, staged in Milan the following year. The result was a triptych of symphonic intermezzi, published by Ricordi in 1924 as Tre Preludii Sinfonici per L’Edipo Re di Sofocle (Three Symphonic Preludes for Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex). These preludes provide affective commentary and characterize important points of the drama. They are interwoven through the reappearance of certain principal themes, which in due course undergo various transformations in rhythm, tempo, mode and character.

The desolate initial theme of Preludio I appears jointly in the strings and woodwinds, and is complemented with short pleading interjections. The atmosphere is ominous, for the people of Thebes are suffering from a devastating plague. The austere horn melody suspended over a subtly pulsating accompaniment may represent Creon bringing news from the oracle of Apollo. Traces of the main theme eventually usher in a more lyrical new melody in the high strings (Oedipus appeasing his people?), played against a cello countermelody that stems directly from the horn theme. Soon this is joined by other instruments, until it provokes an outcry. After more statements, the prelude ends with a fragment of the main theme.

The mood of Preludio II is impetuous and dramatic. The countermelody of the lyrical theme heard in the previous Prelude becomes the driving force, above which the woodwinds introduce a new dynamic theme. Then everything comes to a halt: the oboe intones an expressive melody which prompts answers by different sections of the orchestra. The music pushes to a tumultuous climax where the horn theme (carried over from the first Prelude) is combined with the dynamic new theme. The conclusion reveals a momentary vacillation between major and minor, but the minor mode prevails emphatically. There is no question that this is the epicentre of compact drama.

At the beginning of Preludio III Pizzetti conjures an air of melancholy, owing to the doleful transformation of the familiar horn theme now stated with urgency by the strings. The tension peaks with the arrival of a broad theme in the violins, ultimately leading to a state of relief as the violin solo brings catharsis. At the end of the piece, the music dissipates to a serene echo of the principle theme of Preludio I—a truly transcendent finale.

For a composer who had undertaken several film music projects, it is not surprising to see that he invests his scores with cinematic vividness. This is the palpable virtue of what was to be his last opera, Clitennestra (Clytemnestra), composed from 1962 to 1964. Consisting of a prelude and two acts set to his own libretto (as was typical of him), the opera was staged at Milan’s La Scala in 1965. Of the four pieces presented on this disk, the Preludio to Clitennestra (written only after the entire opera was completed) definitely qualifies as the most tenebrous. Pizzetti deliberately casts a darkly hued orchestral mould, forewarning of the dire events about to unfold. This is the tragic ancient Greek myth of Agamemnon’s wife and mother of Iphigenia, who, not having forgiven him for sacrificing their child, murders her husband upon his return from Troy.

The sweeping opening theme, with its gripping melodic leap of an ascending major seventh, might be construed as a psychological portrayal of the anguished queen of Mycenae. A tambourine roll is followed by the solemn call of the horns and a heralding motive in the trumpets, perhaps signaling the arrival of the king. In the ensuing, strongly syncopated section, the rhythmic drive is relentless; dark machinations are under way. Distant trumpet calls make way for a melody in the higher strings, expressive of distress. Clytemnestra is being given a second chance: what can possibly reconcile the inner conflicts of her tormented soul? With the restatement of the opening theme we get our answer: nothing! And so the strongly accentuated rhythm of the final notes brings the prelude to an agonizingly dramatic finale. It is as if Clytemnestra, blinded with rage, delivers her violent death blows before our very eyes, frenziedly thrusting her knife into Agamemnon’s body again and again.

Early in May 1936 Pizzetti moved to Rome, replacing Respighi as Professor of Advanced Composition at the National Academy of St Cecilia. La Festa delle Panatenee (The Feast of the Panathenaea), incidental music to an assortment of texts by Homer, Sophocles and other ancient Greek writers, was composed for a June 1936 open-air performance among the ancient temples of Paestum, an ancient Greek colony in the southern region of Campania. Dedicated to Gatti, the music is mostly interesting for its thoughtful use of archaic modes. Any attempt to identify them, however, would be pointless, since in the late 1930s their nomenclature was still a cloudy issue. Pizzetti had studied Gregorian chant and the Greek modes, and from early on felt the impulse to blend into his personal style the melodic richness and modal colouring he perceived in these traditions. But his attempt to recreate the ethos of ancient Greek music, as he stated, relied more on his empirical perception of the Greek modes and the expressive characteristics befitting a given text or occasion—and this should be our guide.

The Preludio serves as a mood-setting preamble for the other two movements. It begins with a chain of improvisatory phrases in the woodwinds and the flute resembling a Greek aulos. Picking up speed, the head motive becomes cheerful and propels the music forward, only to fade out in the end.

On the highest point of Paestum is the temple of Athena, presumably the site where the ritual Danza di Offerta del Peplo a Pallade Atena (Dance of the Offering of the Peplos to Pallas Athena) was performed. During each festival an outer robe of cloth was offered to the statue of Athena in the Parthenon. The music essentially alternates between a slower, gently waving phrase (first theme) and a faster, lighthearted one (second theme)—both based on the pentatonic scale, hence the exotic feeling. In the central section we hear a distinct modal melody over pulsating drones. Finally, a successive restatement of all themes rounds off the Danza.

The dignified Marcia del Corteo (March of the Procession) portrays the ceremonial pageant. Midway through this movement Pizzetti introduces a fresh theme and progressively summons the brass forces of his orchestra to gather momentum, maximizing the intensity and advancing towards a monumental finale.

George-Julius Papadopoulos

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