About this Recording
8.572410 - FERRARA, F.: Fantasia Tragica / Notte di Tempesta / Burlesca / Preludio (Rome Symphony, La Vecchia)
English  Italian 

Franco Ferrara (1911–1985)
Preludio • Fantasia tragica • Notte di tempesta • Burlesca


In a scene in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1998 film Besieged, the male protagonist, a troubled pianist, is suddenly asked by one of the other characters why he has given up performing in public. Mr Kinsky, the fictitious pianist, replies by citing Vladimir Horowitz’s stage fright and the fact that every time Franco Ferrara climbed on to the conductor’s podium he was overcome by emotion, sometimes even collapsing unconscious.

By paying tribute, albeit indirectly, to the life, gifts and personal drama of this extraordinary artist, Italian cinema underlined the fact that Ferrara was no mere ill-fated meteor among the many stars of the music world, but a never-forgotten vital presence, and still a rich source of intellectual and literary inspiration.

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.

Italian conducting seemed, therefore, to have found a new star in the fertile garden of its traditional concert halls. Fate, however, was to intervene in a dramatic and unexpected way. With increasing frequency, Ferrara became ill as he went out on stage, often actually losing consciousness. This condition (never satisfactorily diagnosed by any of the top doctors and psychiatrists he consulted) meant an end to his public career. His last concert at the helm of an orchestra took place in Naples in May 1946, although he did go on to work with the Italian Radio orchestras on a number of studio recordings, free of the overwhelming presence of an audience.

Just when it appeared his genius as a conductor was destined to be entirely eclipsed, his fortunes once again changed radically as, in 1949, he entered into what was to prove a lasting and productive relationship with the film world. He became the conductor of choice for many directors, including Fellini and Visconti, the latter of whom commissioned him to work on the soundtrack of Senso (using excerpts from Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony). Ferrara also began a fruitful association with Nino Rota, who asked him to conduct a number of his film scores, including that of Visconti’s unforgettable The Leopard (Il gattopardo). In fact the list of scores that benefited from Ferrara’s guiding hand is highly impressive: between 1949 and 1966 (the year in which he accepted his last such project, John Huston’s grandiose The Bible: In the Beginning), he worked on at least seventy soundtracks, maybe more, with music by Nascimbene, Morricone, Rota, Trovajoli and Mayuzumi, as well as some he composed himself. All were for films that have since gone down in cinematic history: La dolce vita, El Greco, War and Peace, Nights of Cabiria and La strada, to cite just the most influential among them.

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)¹ at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in 1990.

Strongly rooted in a robust tonal framework, the compositional fabric of these musical frescoes reveals, with an almost Franciscan simplicity, a century of European musical history. Ferrara had no hesitation, for example, in drawing on Shostakovich for the drama that imbues his Fantasia tragica, a score that many listeners find disconcerting. We know that there had been talk of using a reworking of the third movement (‘Eternal Memory’) of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 for the score of Vittorio De Sica’s film The Condemned of Altona. In fact even today rumours abound, most of them unfounded, that De Sica directly commissioned the Russian composer to create a brand-new soundtrack. Nothing, however, has been found among Shostakovich’s correspondence or unpublished works that can be conclusively linked to such a commission. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union is known to have admired and approved of Italian neo-realist films, but there is no proof of anything beyond that. Similarly, there is little evidence that Ferrara was then asked to write music “in the style of” Shostakovich. What is true is that De Sica’s film uses excerpts from the Eleventh Symphony’s third movement in seven highly dramatic sequences. Maximilian Schell’s masterful incarnation of Franz von Gerlach is heightened by the music, with long sequences drawn primarily from the end of the movement, featuring mysterious pizzicati and a dreamlike sense of progression (can it be coincidental that the character of Franz, who lies to others and to himself about his involvement with the Nazis and his crimes as “the butcher of Smolensk”, gradually goes mad to the soundtrack of a movement entitled ‘Eternal Memory’…?). Something else about which there can be no doubt is that the Fantasia tragica is a “symphonic homage” to Shostakovich. An identical compositional process is shared by Ferrara’s work and the ‘Eternal Memory’ movement: the same mysterious pace, the same musical tension, the same crescendos and the same tragic development leading up to the mysterious finale; all clues that this music could have been intended for The Condemned of Altona, but—once again—there is no way of confirming this hypothesis.

Echoes of the nineteenth-century Italian school (that of Casella and Pick-Mangiagalli) are to be heard in Ferrara’s Burlesca, one of many works he wrote when still very young (this particular piece dates back to 1932). The skilful use of the strings anticipates his ability as a great conductor to make the individual orchestral parts “sing”. This work, like the late-Romantic Notte di tempesta, reflects Ferrara’s familiarity with the expressive mechanisms of the silver screen. He was, then, a fully rounded musician: conservative to his bones, but also an attentive if somewhat disenchanted witness to a century that perhaps he felt was no longer his.

On 1 September 1985 he was awarded the prestigious “A Life in Music” prize in Venice. The emotional impact on a such a reserved and sensitive man was such that his already delicate state of health declined further (he had suffered a stroke some years earlier). He travelled to Florence, where he was due to form part of the jury of a conducting competition, but suffered a heart attack and died on 7 September. As the late conductor Massimo de Bernart said, “the entire history of Italian conducting” died with him.

Angelo Scottini
English translation by Susannah Howe


¹ The RAI archives house a recording of Ferrara’s Cello Sonata in C minor. This was made in 1951, and the work is performed by cellist Giorgio Lippi (the work’s dedicatee), with Ferrara himself at the piano. It is the only recording we have of Ferrara the pianist, and no evidence remains of his former glories as a virtuoso violinist.

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