Could a serenade of the 1900s possibly exist? Could two, apparently contradictory terms, be compatible? (They were accepted as such for a long period). How does one reconcile the expression of a selected poetic and musical form which was the favourite vehicle of an amorous relationship (that we often see as cloying), with the longing for renewal, for technology, with the magnificent and progressive destiny of the beginning of the 20th century? This is the riddle that I Musici tried to answer with the Serenata italiana (Italian serenade). The work takes us on a listening course covering a temporal arc from the end of the 1800s to the 1960s. Arturo Toscanini was the mentor who shaded the protagonists' lives in various ways. First and foremost was his enthusiastic approval of the group I Musici, which in 1952, had just got started. The great conductor's presence frequently hovered between the biographical and the artistic vicissitudes of the composers chosen to represent the Italian instrumental background. Toscanini conducted three movements of the Intermezzi goldoniani (1901-1905) by Marco Enrico Bossi (Salo', 1861 - during the crossing from New York to Le Havre, 1925) on 8th April 1905 in the Teatro Comunale in Bologna, while the first performance in its entirety was heard only in 1910. These Intermezzi dedicated to Wilhelm Weber by the composer, also refer to literary influences in the texts, not so much by Carlo Goldoni, but by 18th century Venetian culture itself. The work consists of a suite of dances in six movements which follow the baroque tradition, revised and yet effective and, because of their difficulty, rarely heard.
The composition is a jewel that refers to the 18th century nachtmusik tradition. It is in suite form with marches at the opening and at the end of the Prelude and Minuetto but it freely interprets the characteristics of antique dances, the courtly tidiness (Gagliarda and Coprifuoco), going on to yearn for the orderly precision of the 19th century salon (Serenatina) or the severe contrapuntal structure (Burlesca). The connection to the title is rather transient since the intermezzo form is probably only a leftover of the 1700s theatre tradition (connection to Pergolesi is obvius) that saw the overbearing emergence and affirmation of the comic forms, not dissimilar to what happened particularly to the tools Goldoni uses in comic theatre. Almost all of the composers represented on the CD (except Puccini) refer to dances, which characterises and unites them. This doesn't seem strange to us since, from the point of view of the traditional instrumental development, they had a fundamental role and were an important predecessor for the birth of the musical tradition that freed itself from the heaviness and conditioning of vocal music. Even in Respighi's case (Bologna, 1879 - Roma, 1936), the past relives through the connection to the court dances of the 16th century tradition and also in this case we are looking at an assent that is not by chance. His interest in Gregorian chant and his love for Monteverdi was known. The interest in antique arias was part of a rather complex project, seeing that the third suite on the CD, composed in 1931, follows the first from 1917 and the second from 1923.
The dances in four movements are freely reconstructed from Oscar Chilesotti's transcription. They are without the irony that we usually see in the works of Satie or Strawinsky, but also without literary scruples. Parisotti indicates a sign of the times with his well known Arie antiche ad una voce per canto e pianoforte, published by Ricordi in 1890. Respighi doesn't ideologically adhere to the examples in the classical tradition. Although he ascribed to the "Generazione dell'Ottanta" (1880s generation), he used but didn't establish the canon. Neither did he open new roads as Pizzetti or Casella wanted to do at that time. The latter reproached Respighi for not succeeding in going beyond avant-garde impressionism that had influenced so many of that generation. Even here Toscanini's influence is felt. In fact, on the evening of 14th May 1931, the conductor was thrown out of the theatre before a concert, having refused to perform Giovinezza (an Italian fascist hymn) at a commemorative concert for Martucci, Respighi's maestro. The composer was in the hall, intervened and had the conductor escorted and protected by the authorities as he left the Teatro Comunale in Bologna. The composition by Rota (Milan, 1911 - Rome, 1979), written in 1964, is directly linked to I Musici, as he dedicated it to them. A pupil of Pizzetti and Casella, Rota, who well knew the 20th century avant-garde traditions, chose to use a "language" of the 1800s. Even for Rota, Toscanini was an important figure since, not only did he exhort the young pianist to follow Rosario Scalero's courses at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, but he gave him hospitality in New York for a certain period. Concerto in four movements, respects the traditional formal structure but then introduces diverse elements. One notices the contrapuntal elaboration inspired by the old tradition, including Bach. We recognise the long collaboration with Fellini, especially concerning the Scherzo. We could say that the entire Concerto is a kind of dance, apart from the waltz or other allusions. The whole composition is an original installation where musical ideas follow each other and condition us to think of the music as if it was written as a comment for pictures and scenes. Finally, the composition by Puccini (Lucca, 1858 - Bruxelles, 1924), Elegy for quartet, Crisantemi, (a 19th century term indicating compositions of a funereal or melancholic nature), written in 1890 for the death of Amedeo di Savoia. It is still played today since Puccini used the musical material for the finale of Manon. Very much loved, he renovated in part, Italian theatre music, ferried Italian opera into the 20th century and therefore had to be included in this collection. Roman Vlad (1976), a contemporary musician examined the similarities in musical style of both Puccini and Strawinsky. The common characteristics underlying the choice of pieces included on this CD were determined by avant-garde and also Romantic tendencies which maintained specific features of Italian music of the time. The instrumental culture of 19th century Italian music was clearly and directly influenced by melodrama (theatre), didn't create the alternative that Sgambati, Martucci and others were searching for in the great European tradition, especially the Austro-German one. When today, we listen to the many variations, fantasias and elaborations on operatic themes that abounded in the instrumental repertoire, we appreciate the technical knowledge of those composers, perhaps unjustly forgotten. We can say the same for the proposals on Serenata italiana. The criticisms aimed at our composers who were not seeking at all costs to break with the past, but rather to value certain fundamental aspects like clearness of form and melodic creativity, seem to give them true strength. It was exactly the lyricism, a kind of "curse" for the 20th century composers, who tried to move beyond the tonality and also beyond the sound, that becomes the specific foundation on which modernity and innovation with musical taste are based. These pieces are enjoyable and that doesn't make them banal. Today, having surpassed the "backwardness of Italian instrumental music", that took us from the beginning of the last century to the 1960s, we are able to understand certain instances of renewal but perhaps, we no longer wish to give way to the reasons of music which are reasons of beauty and emotion. One banally says today that music works or it doesn't or that the public appreciates it or doesn't. This is why the Serenata italiana is a means of once again proposing not very well known works, thereby enlarging a repertoire that today is really rather restricted. In this sense, the confrontation with the past puts us in difficulty since, not-withstanding, the ideology of a twenty year period, and perhaps because of that, support of the present day period is so strong. Though we remember Toscanini conducting works by Wagner, Verdi, Puccini, Debussy and others, he also presented lesser known works to the Italian public. We know that Italy is a country filled with complexities. The "Italian way" is often tortuous and not on the same wavelength with foreign musical traditions. This introduces elements of diversity to international cultural movements. This can be limiting but as the CD will demonstrate, it can also be its strength and fascination.
Gianfranco Miscia (translated by Desiree Bonfiglio)