About this Recording
8.573613 - PIZZETTI, I.: Symphony in A Major / Harp Concerto (Bassani, RAI Symphony Orchestra, Turin, Iorio)

Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880–1968)
Symphony in A (1940) • Harp Concerto in E flat major (1958, 1960)


The series of concerts in Tokyo in December 1940 at which Pizzetti’s Symphony in A was first heard were the culmination of one of the most extraordinary episodes in the history of the ever-fraught relationship between music and politics. The story of that episode is complex, and it remains in some aspects murky, but it is essential to a full understanding of Pizzetti’s Symphony.

The 1940 Tokyo concerts were one element of a major programme of events staged in Japan that year to glorify the 2600th anniversary of the founding of the Japanese Empire. 11 February 660 BCE, according to tradition, saw the enthronement of the first Emperor, Jimmu or Jinmu, a descendant of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. The inconvenient fact that Jinmu never actually existed was not permitted to impede the celebrations—one prominent Japanese historian, Sōkichi Tsuda (1873–1961) was even put on trial during the Second World War for daring to suggest (correctly) that revered ancient accounts of the Empire’s first 900 years were almost completely fictitious. Since the accession in 1926 of the dynasty’s latest scion, Emperor Hirohito (1901–89), the Japanese authorities had promoted the myth of Empire to underpin a surge in nationalism and expansionism, and by the time the War broke out in Europe in September 1939, Japan had firmly established itself as the dominant power in East Asia, commanding large areas of present-day China, parts of Mongolia and Russia, the whole of Korea and countless Pacific islands including Taiwan.

The inclusion of European music in the anniversary festivities was perhaps not as startling as it might appear. Japan’s rulers had been making sustained efforts to westernise the country for well over half a century; western classical music had attracted genuine public enthusiasm, barely dampened by the increasingly chauvinistic political climate; and Japan had already produced numerous musicians of international stature—most prominently Viscount Hidemaro Konoe [or Konoye] (1898–1973), a son of the powerful Fujiwara clan (probably second in influence only to the Japanese imperial family) who studied composition with Vincent D’Indy (1851–1931) and Franz Schreker (1878–1934) and conducting with Erich Kleiber (1890–1956): in Tokyo in 1926 Hidemaro Konoe founded the New Symphony Orchestra, which rapidly became the best in the country, and with which in 1930 he made the first-ever recording of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (1892, 1899–1900, rev. 1901–10). The president of Japan’s 2600th Anniversary Celebration Committee was Hidemaro Konoe’s older brother, Prince Fumimaro Konoe (1891–1945; he was also Prime Minister of Japan from June 1937 to January 1939 and from July 1940 to October 1941)—in which context it is understandable that the Committee should decide to mark the Empire’s putative 26th centenary by commissioning new music from western composers.

But the story becomes stranger the closer you look. When in September 1939 the 2600th Anniversary Celebration Committee contacted six western governments—France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, Italy and the United States—to request a new overture, suite, symphonic poem or symphony from whichever one of their leading composers they chose to nominate,¹ three of those countries were already at war with each other. Germany and Italy were doubtless top of the Japanese Committee’s list—not only for musical reasons (as representing the two foremost traditions of western music) but for political ones: Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy shared authoritarian systems of government, had signed a joint anti-Communist treaty in 1937, and would conclude a military alliance (the ‘Tripartite Pact’) in September 1940; though in August 1939 Japan had been angered by the Nazis’ non-aggression pact with Soviet Russia. The motivation for a Hungarian commission is unlikely to have been political: while Hitler did pressurise Hungary into joining the Tripartite Pact in October 1940, their relationship in 1939 was ambivalent; probably somebody on the Japanese committee had a particular penchant for Hungary’s famous composers Béla Bartók (1881–1945) and/or Zoltán Kodály (1882–1967)—the New Symphony Orchestra had given the Japanese premiere of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936) only a few months earlier. It seems surprising, however, that the Japanese requested commissions from France, Great Britain and the USA—and still more so that Britain and France accepted the invitation, given that both countries had just declared war on Germany in response to the Nazi invasion of Poland at the beginning of September 1939. US-Japanese diplomatic relations had already deteriorated so far that the Americans summarily (and uniquely) refused to provide a commission.

So then there were five. The five European composers who received the commissions from their respective governments were intriguingly varied—which must have been pure accident: with three of the countries at war, there could hardly have been international liaison on the matter. The grand old man of German music, 75-year-old Richard Strauss (1864–1949), whose relations with the Nazis were complicated but sometimes beyond excuse, was reportedly selected by Hitler’s Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels in person; some sources state that Strauss accepted the commission (and waived his fee) only because the Japanese agreed to help protect his Jewish daughter-in-law Alice from anti-Semitic persecution. Italy handed the commission to the 59-year-old Ildebrando Pizzetti, who looked to have the perfect pedigree: since the mid 1920s Pizzetti had given every appearance—admittedly in common with virtually every other Italian composer—of being a good Fascist; he ran the elite composition course at the Santa Cecilia Conservatory in the Italian capital Rome; he had written the score for the epic film Scipione l’Africano (Scipio the African, 1936–37; known in English-speaking countries as Scipio Africanus or The Defeat of Hannibal), which glorified Fascist Italy’s imperial expansion in Africa by analogy with the ancient Roman Empire; and in June 1939 he had become the latest composer to be granted membership of the regime’s prestigious Reale Accademia d’Italia (Royal Italian Academy)—sixty leading figures in the Italian sciences, humanities and arts, appointed for life. Presumably by coincidence, the Académie de France (French Academy)—the model for the Italian Accademia—chose to commission the composer who was their Director in Rome, Jacques Ibert (1890–1962). Hungary and Great Britain opted for composers of the younger generation, just beginning to make their mark internationally: the Hungarian nominee, Sándor Veress (1907–92), was a safe bet, as a former composition student of both Bartók and Kodály, and also Bartók’s chosen assistant in folk music research; but the British Council took what appears to have been the rather risky decision to approach the yet more youthful Benjamin Britten (1913–76), who was something of an enfant terrible, nurtured unconcealed pacifist sympathies, and was not even living in his native country, having left for the United States six months earlier. The work Britten created, the Sinfonia da Requiem (‘Requiem Symphony’, 1939–40, Op. 20), is unquestionably a masterpiece; but it was eventually rejected by the Japanese, owing to a complex combination of some or all of the following factors: its far-from-celebratory title and tone; the fact that Britten dedicated it to the memory of his parents, with no mention of the Japanese anniversary; the use of Latin headings from the Catholic Requiem Mass for its three movements; delays, lacunae and misunderstandings in communication—virtually inevitable in two unrelated languages across three continents amid escalating global hostilities—including Britten’s description of Prince Fumimaro Konoe as ‘Mr’ Konoe (it is not impossible that Britten and/or his advisers may have confused the Prince with his conductor brother); and the fact that by late 1940, while the Japanese were still officially neutral, Britain stood alone in the War in Europe against Japan’s allies Germany and Italy; word may also have reached Tokyo of an interview published by the New York Sun on 27 April 1940 in which Britten declared that he planned to make the piece ‘as anti-war as possible’.

And then there were four. The Japanese authorities certainly accorded VIP treatment to the four works they judged acceptable, arranging four concerts in Tokyo’s huge Kabuki Theatre (two for invited audiences including the Imperial family on 7 and 8 December 1940, and two open to the public the following weekend, 14 and 15 December), followed by further performances for radio broadcasts and a commercial subscription recording; and assembling for the purpose an enormous ‘26th Centenary Celebration Symphony Orchestra’ that augmented the New Symphony Orchestra to 170 players (180 for the Strauss), including at least 46 violins, 14 horns and 12 percussionists. Political complications were never far away: according to John Morris (1895–1980), an Englishman employed at that time as a language adviser by the Japanese Foreign Office (he would later become Controller of the BBC Third Programme), the New Symphony Orchestra’s Chief Conductor, Polish-born Joseph Rosenstock (1895–1985), was not permitted to lead the anniversary performances—because he was Jewish.

To open each concert, the Tokyo-born composer and conductor Kōsaku [aka Kósçak or Kôsçak] Yamada (1886–1965) directed the Japanese National Anthem—‘throughout which’, Morris reported, the official representatives of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy ‘remained in the “Heil Hitler” position, much to the discomfort of those seated immediately in front of them’. (This notorious gesture with a straight, raised arm had been promulgated independently by the Italian regime: Mussolini called it the ‘Roman Salute’.) The programme’s grand finale, presided over by the flamboyant Nazi-approved conductor Helmut Fellmer, was the most feted and ingratiating—even obsequious—of the four European pieces: Richard Strauss’s fifteen-minute Japanische Festmusik (‘Japanese Festival Music’, 1940, Op. 84), or, to give its full name, Festmusik zur Feier des 2600jährigen Bestehens des Kaiserreichs Japan (‘Festival Music to Celebrate the 2600-Year Existence of the Japanese Empire’), dedicated to Emperor Hirohito himself, and featuring Japanese tuned gongs and sections entitled Cherry Blossom Festival, Attack of the Samurai and Hymn of the Emperor; ‘showy, in fact bombastic’ was the verdict of the Japan Times critic—which few subsequent commentators have disputed. The first commission in the concert, conducted by Kōsaku Yamada, was another fifteen-minute piece of considerably greater musical merit, Ibert’s Ouverture de fête (‘Festival Overture’, 1940), subtitled ‘In Celebration of the 26th Centenary of the Foundation of the Japanese Empire’—the only overture among the four works, and the only one of them that has survived even on the edges of the modern orchestral repertory, albeit in a reconstructed (and very slightly revised) version Ibert was obliged to make in 1941 after part of the manuscript was lost in transit; by that time, his music was banned in France by the Nazi puppet Vichy regime. Following the Ibert was the shorter of the two symphonies on the bill, directed by the younger Japanese conductor—and composition pupil of Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951)—Kunihiko Hashimoto (1904–49): Veress’s Symphony—Hungarian Greetings on the 2600th Anniversary of the Japanese Dynasty (now more often called simply his Symphony No. 1), a twenty-minute, three-movement work with a dash of Germanic influence from Paul Hindemith (1895–1963)—and even, in the (highly questionable) view of the Japan Times, ‘occasional touches of Japanese idiom’—spicing Hungarian colours akin to Bartók and Kodály; in his finale with its Magyar dance rhythms Veress, like both Ibert and Strauss (but not Britten), delivered an upbeat ending of precisely the kind the 2600th Anniversary Celebrations Committee would have anticipated.

But by far the most fascinating of the four European commissions is the piece recorded here, Pizzetti’s Sinfonia in la (‘Symphony in A’, 1940), which opened the second half of the concert under the baton of the Italian Gaetano Comelli (1894–1977), conductor of Japan’s Imperial Household Orchestra. At almost three-quarters of an hour, Pizzetti’s was also by far the longest work on the bill—indeed, by far the longest purely orchestral work he ever composed: when Japanese Columbia issued their subscription recordings of the whole programme early in 1941, the Symphony in A occupied no fewer than seven of the fifteen 78rpm discs. It carried a dedicatory subtitle identical to Ibert’s (except that Pizzetti’s was in Italian, Ibert’s in French)—perhaps intentionally, since both men were living in Rome at the time of composition; so the Tokyo audience must have expected similarly celebratory music.

The Sinfonia in la seems to open innocently enough, in a modally inflected A minor, with bassoon and two horns in unison playing a slow theme that will become the Symphony’s motto. But the first warning is in the final word of Pizzetti’s initial marking—‘teso’, meaning ‘tense’ or ‘anxious’. And the motto theme is soon swept up by surging chromaticism into the movement’s main, faster tempo, ‘Concitato’—‘Agitated’. Massed violins (almost 50 of them in Tokyo, remember) introduce the second important theme, marked ‘quiet, but intense and incisive’, establishing what is the almost constant tone of the first movement: surprisingly often quiet, but pulsing with ominous pent-up energy, as if dreading that something terrible is about to happen—or trying to keep it at bay. Militaristic fanfares echo threateningly on horns and trumpets. Big climaxes build but pass in a flash. Several times the motto theme returns, most often on woodwind instruments (especially flute and clarinet), offering momentary respite… but always consumed again by agitation. Just before the end of the movement a slower transformation of the motto theme manages to burgeon into a brief, yearning striving towards peace; but it is extinguished one last time by chromatic anxiety, now ‘very agitated’. Pizzetti was usually meticulous in dating his manuscripts, and we know that he composed the Symphony’s first movement between 25 February and 15 March 1940 precisely—during the tense, ominous European standoff that has been called the ‘phoney war’. The previous autumn Britain and France had done little to prevent the Nazi German and Soviet Russian armies chopping up Poland between them in less than two months; Russia also invaded neutral Finland at the end of November 1939, but—not least owing to a particularly bad winter—there had been almost no land warfare in western Europe. In Italy Mussolini dithered, unsure whether joining the War would reverse or redouble the recent drift of public opinion against him. General dissatisfaction at the Fascist regime’s failures, not least in delivering promised prosperity, was reinforced by opposition to specific recent policies such as the persecution of Jewish Italians and the May 1939 ‘Pact of Steel’ with Hitler; even longstanding supporters who had once taken Fascism’s self-aggrandising propaganda at face value were increasingly doubting and fearful of the future.

In April 1940 the War began to feel less phoney. On 9 April Germany invaded neutral Denmark and Norway; within three days Britain invaded the neutral Faroe Islands. In the north Italian spa town of Merano, Richard Strauss completed his Japanische Festmusik; in Rome, Jacques Ibert completed his Ouverture de fête. The music of both seems oblivious to the looming crisis. Also in Rome, between 3 and 15 April, Pizzetti composed the second movement of his Symphony, which follows the first without a pause. Almost immediately the strings sing a beautiful and quintessentially Pizzettian slow movement melody—compare, for example, the central movements of his Violin Sonata (1918–19; in the key of A like the Symphony) [Naxos 8.570875] and his only other large-scale purely orchestral piece, the sunny Concerto dell’estate ( Summer Concerto, 1928) [Naxos 8.572013]. In both those works, the slow movement’s opening theme flowers in ardent colours at the climax. But in the Symphony, despite persistent efforts to flourish, the melody becomes increasingly fragmented as the movement goes on; foreboding chromaticism edges in and intensifies, and the music can never quite recover its original harmony, even in the final, ‘sweetly singing’ clarinet phrase. The scherzo-like third movement, dated 21 April to 5 May 1940, undergoes a similarly disturbing experience. At first, it too seems to have escaped unease: the main theme, introduced by bassoon and cellos in unison, dances through delicate, sometimes polyrhythmic textures with an almost French lightness; there is also a kinship with the analogous movements of two war-related Symphonies by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958), No. 2 (A London Symphony, 1911–13, rev. 1918–33) and No. 5 (1938–43, rev. 1951). But gradually—and especially in the central section—the music becomes more and more unsettled by chromaticism; and the main theme, burdened with proliferating polyrhythmic complexities, fails to reestablish its earlier buoyancy or sense of equilibrium, and expires as if in a spiral of smoke.

On 10 May 1940, Hitler’s army invaded the neutral Low Countries and Britain invaded neutral Iceland. In a terrifyingly swift advance, the Nazis overran Luxembourg and the Netherlands in less than a week, and they were well on the way to subjugating both Belgium and France by the time Pizzetti began to compose the finale to his Symphony on 22 May. In the slow introduction, ‘strenuous and heavy’, a baleful bass tritone underpins the motto theme’s reappearance on solo oboe; in the course of the fourth movement (as in the first) the motto will return repeatedly, in diverse forms. The violas (at least 18 of them in Tokyo) launch the finale’s main theme, ‘very sustained and intense’, with menacing blasts from the brass—‘the march’, according to the supremely vivid if perhaps overstated characterisation by Pizzetti’s friend and biographer Guido M. Gatti (could it have originated with Pizzetti himself?), ‘of someone or something unstoppable, which crushes underfoot and annihilates everything—a terrible Fate, an inexorable Moloch.² Human creatures recoil in terror. Flashes of lightning illuminate the sky, which grows ever blacker, closing in on the devastated world. In vain people try to ward off the danger: the fleeting, fragile appearances of the initial theme are expressive at once of an unquenchable desire for tranquillity and peace and of the futility of all attempts to find it.’ At times the music seems to be moving towards affirmation, even triumph—but it is always ultimately sabotaged by harmonic tension and battered into submission. As Pizzetti wrote, Belgium surrendered to the Germans and the Allies evacuated over 350,000 troops from Dunkirk. On 10 June, six days before Pizzetti completed the Symphony in A, Italy entered the conflict as Mussolini declared war on France and Britain. With his wife Irene (Rirì) and their 14-year-old son Ippolito, Pizzetti fled Rome to seek safety in Siena, writing in his diary: ‘And God knows when—or if—we will be able to return home!’ As the finale’s final lightning flashes fade into gloom, four ‘sweet, soft, very expressive’ solo cellos begin to sing the moving main C major melody of the slow movement of Pizzetti’s Violin Sonata (1918–19). Guido M. Gatti associates this melody with Pizzetti’s anguish at the tragedy of the First World War, revealing that it is a wordless setting of the supplication ‘O Signor Iddio nostro, o Signore, abbi pietà di tutti gli innocenti che non sanno perchè si deve soffrire’—‘O Lord God, have pity on all the innocents who know not why they have to suffer’; and Pizzetti’s elder son Bruno reports that his father first notated the melody on 22 October 1918, when the fever finally lifted after 10 days in bed with influenza—the deadly so-called ‘Spanish flu’; so Pizzetti’s ‘innocents’ were seemingly both the victims of the War and the yet more numerous victims of the pandemic, which killed tens of millions of people (hundreds of millions, like the composer himself, recovered). Here in his Symphony of the heightening Second World War, palpitating Es on double basses threaten to undermine the melody, and it cuts off at the words ‘have pity on all the innocents’, violas joining the cellos in imploring, falling reiterations of the phrase ‘O Signore’—‘O Lord’… then silence. And finally the motto theme returns, in a more hopeful variant of its slower transformation at the end of the first movement, a still stronger striving for, even glimpse of, peace—as for the only time in the whole Symphony, the music settles in A major. Pizzetti’s marking is ‘calmo’—‘calm’: the calm of serenity, or the calm before the storm? In the 1951 English edition of his Pizzetti biography, Guido Gatti hears serenity; but the revised 1954 Italian edition omits this—at Pizzetti’s behest? His final chord is not quite conclusive, augmenting its A major chord with an added sixth.

We do not know how the official Italian representatives—or their Japanese hosts—responded to Pizzetti’s Symphony at its Tokyo performances. Nor can we ever know what exactly was going through Pizzetti’s own mind as he composed it. But there can be no doubt that despite its—purely ceremonial?—subtitle, Pizzetti’s Sinfonia in la is almost as far from celebratory as Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem. This is certainly not the music the Fascist authorities would have expected when they commissioned the composer of Scipione l’Africano; nor that of a man convinced that the Nazi-Fascist war was a just one. Yet Mussolini’s regime continued to offer Pizzetti formal administrative positions—and he continued to fulfil them until the very month of its collapse, July 1943. In February 1944, at home in a Rome enduring Nazi German occupation, Pizzetti found himself ‘incapable of work, and almost ashamed of my life and of all I have done’—evidence, perhaps, of the inner conflict he had surely felt for years. It would be hard to imagine a truer musical reflection of such conflict, of a struggle of conscience in Fascist Italy, war-torn Europe and the darkening world in 1940, than the Sinfonia in la.

On Pizzetti’s sixtieth birthday, halfway between his completion of the Symphony and its Tokyo premiere, he and Guido M. Gatti addressed one another for the first time as ‘tu’—the familiar ‘you’, rather than the more formal ‘lei’. They had known each other for twenty-five years: since 1915—the year Italy had entered the First World War (but effectively on the ‘opposite’ side, fighting with Britain and France against Germany). All his life, Gatti (1892–1973) was an indefatigable supporter of countless Italian composers from Ferruccio Busoni (1866–1924) to Luigi Dallapiccola (1904–75) and Goffredo Petrassi (1904–2003), not least in the periodical La rassegna musicale (The Musical Review) which he founded (as Il pianoforte The Piano) in 1920 and edited until it ceased publication in 1962. But no music meant more to Gatti than Pizzetti’s: in 1921 he hailed Pizzetti in The Musical Times as ‘undoubtedly the greatest musician in Italy today’ (when Puccini was still very much alive!), and in 1934 he published the first-ever Pizzetti biography. By the time Gatti updated his book his for its English and then second Italian editions in the 1950s, Pizzetti had progressed smoothly from positions of influence in musical life under the Fascists to positions of even greater influence under the Christian Democrat-led governments of post-war Italy. In 1954 Pizzetti was made president of the Syndicate of Italian Musicians, which also gave him a place on the board of the country’s pre-eminent opera house, La Scala, Milan—little wonder, then, that the last three of his fourteen extant operas were all premiered there.

The first of those ‘last three’ is probably Pizzetti’s best-known (or least-unknown) opera, Assassinio nella Cattedrale (1956–57), based on T. S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral, and first staged at La Scala in March 1958. Three months later Pizzetti retired from running his advanced composition course in Rome; and a month after that, in July, on holiday at his customary summer retreat amid the breathtaking Dolomite mountains of northern Italy, he began to compose a Harp Concerto for Clelia Gatti Aldrovandi (1901–89)—Italy’s leading harpist, and Guido Gatti’s wife. Aldrovandi inspired at least a dozen new harp works, including Sonatas by Paul Hindemith in 1939 and Alfredo Casella (1883–1947) in 1942–43, and Concertos by Pizzetti’s former students Nino Rota (1911–79) in 1947 and Mario Zafred (1922–87) in 1955. But Pizzetti himself had previously written only a single solo harp piece, four decades in the past: a brief Movimento di danza (‘Dance Movement’, 1919; planned as the first of three Bassorilievi ( Bas-Reliefs), though the others never appeared)—which Aldrovandi is unlikely to have been aware of, since it was not heard in public until 1997 and remains unpublished today. And the Concerto seems to have set Pizzetti something of a challenge: while he rapidly completed the first movement in the summer of 1958, it was not until the first two months of 1960, his eightieth year, that he added the second and third movements. Not that any hint of labour is audible in the result—premiered by Aldrovandi at La Scala in October 1960, three weeks after Pizzetti’s eightieth birthday: the Harp Concerto is a far less weighty but much happier work than the Symphony, a contrast highlighted by its key of E flat, as far away from A as music can travel. Pizzetti matches Aldrovandi’s harp with what he calls a ‘classical orchestra’—strings and percussion plus a single oboe and two each of flutes, clarinets, bassoons and horns. And the music’s mood is moulded throughout by the lyrical side of the harp’s character: both the primarily relaxed, gentle, ‘arioso’ (‘aria-like’) opening movement and the idyllic sunlit second close with sections marked ‘Largo, sereno’—‘slow and serene’; and even the livelier finale with its (composed) cadenza is not so much virtuosic as smilingly vivacious. If the chromatic stormclouds of Pizzetti’s wartime Symphony are only rarely pierced by rays of hope, in his Harp Concerto chromaticism casts merely momentary shadows over the prevailing atmosphere of—at last—true peace.

David Gallagher

¹ Many sources incorrectly state that the composers were chosen by the Japanese commissioners. The most detailed and helpful account of the background to the 2600th anniversary commissions known to me can be pieced together from the copious references and annotations scattered throughout Vol. 2 (1939–1945) of Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten 1913–1976, ed. Donald Mitchell and Philip Reed [with Rosamund Strode, Kathleen Mitchell and Judy Young], Faber, London, 1991; for this particular fact, see p. 704.

² In the Old Testament of the Bible, Moloch is an idol worshipped by the Canaanites and associated with the sacrifice of children.

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