Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite No. 2 (1923) Ottorino Respighi (Bologna, 1879 – Rome, 1936)
Once upon a time, many centuries ago, the only music people wanted to hear was contemporary music. During the age of Palestrina, no one performed the music of Dufay and Josquin, and in the time of Bach, Palestrina was little more than a name that appeared in treatises of counterpoint; the music itself was not well known.
The situation began to change gradually in the late 19th century, when Beethoven, Wagner, and others took a series of radical steps in composition that some critics and audiences found hard to follow. As the gulf between contemporary composer and listener widened, earlier music came to be more and more appreciated. Musical scholars became interested in the Baroque, the Renaissance, and the Middle Ages, and soon there were modern editions and performances of an enormous repertory that had lain dormant for hundreds of years.
The rediscovery of musical manuscripts started several decades before the revival of early instruments and performance techniques. Therefore, during the early years of the 20th century, Renaissance compositions were adapted to modern instruments and arranged, sometimes with considerable liberties taken, to make the music consistent with current tastes.
Ottorino Respighi was one of the first symphonic composers to have a strong interest in early music. He was actively involved in the modern editions of works by Monteverdi and other 17th- and 18th-century masters, and was fascinated by lute music from the Renaissance and early Baroque. This repertory had just become available in modern editions prepared by an Italian scholar named Oscar Chilesotti (1848-1916), a pioneer in the deciphering of the old lute notation (the so-called “tablature”). Chilesotti published several volumes of solo lute pieces and lute songs in modern scores, transcribing the accompaniment for piano in the spirit of the time.
Respighi turned to Chilesotti’s editions several times over the years, and compiled three suites from them between 1917 and 1931. In arranging these “ancient airs and dances,” Respighi wanted to create instrumental parts that 20th-century players would find interesting. In the three suites, the coloristic imagination of the author of The Pines of Rome meets early music with unique results.*
The second suite begins with Laura soave (a punning title that can mean “sweet Laura,” but also l’aura soave, “sweet breeze”). It is a dance sequence arranged for lute by Fabirizio Caroso (c. 1527–c. 1605) from music originally written by Emilio de’ Cavalieri (1550-1602) for the wedding of Ferdinando de’ Medici and Christine of Lorraine in 1589—one of the most famous weddings in music as well as political history.
The second movement, Danza rustica (“Rustic Dance”) is of French origin, based on a set of dances first published in 1614. One of the particularly noteworthy touches in Respighi’s orchestration, here and elsewhere in the suite, is the use of harpsichord four hands, which gives the Baroque instrument a fullness of sound that is quite modern.
The third movement unites what were originally two separate pieces of music, both from 17th-century France. The first, Campanae parisienses (“The Bells of Paris”), is anonymous; the second was originally a vocal piece (a so-called air de cour, or court song) by Antoine Boësset (1586-1643) entitled "Divine Amaryllis."
The last movement of the suite is a Bergamasca (a dance from in the Italian city of Bergamo) preceded by a prelude. Using his limited orchestral forces to great effect, Respighi fashioned a grand finale, rich in contrasting colors and ending in a monumental climax.
* In 1987, lutenist Paul O’Dette recorded the original versions of the pieces Respighi used, in the order of the three suites (Hyperion CDA 66228).
La Peregrina: The Queen’s Ballet from Don Carlos (1867) Giuseppe Verdi (Le Roncole, Duchy of Parma, 1813 – Milan, 1901)
In the 19th century, French grand opera was unthinkable without an extensive and grandiose ballet scene. When Verdi went to Paris to produce Don Carlos—arguably the most ambitious project he had ever undertaken—the inclusion of a dance sequence was a foregone conclusion. Thus, in Act III of what was originally a five-act opera based on Schiller’s historical drama, the attendants of Elisabeth de Valois, Queen of Spain, performed “La Peregrina,” an elaborate entertainment named for the exceptionally beautiful pearl that belonged to the Queen. (The famous jewel was later owned by another Elizabeth—Taylor.)
The ballet is part of a great festivity in the Queen’s honor. It represents the story of the pearl, chosen from all the pearls in the ocean to adorn Elisabeth—who herself appears at the end of the scene, carried on a golden chariot.
Years later, the opera was revised for performances in Italy. At that point, Verdi decided to cut the entire first act, which took place in France, several years before the rest of the opera which is set in Spain. (Elisabeth and Don Carlos, the son of King Philip II, had been in love before Elisabeth was forced into a political marriage with Philip.) The ballet scene, not customary in Italy, was also eliminated in the new four-act version (actually, versions -- there were several); to this day, the music is heard very rarely either at the theatre or in concert halls.
The musical requirements of a ballet were rather strict: tempos and meters had to conform to the needs of the choreography, which called for an alternation of characters within the circumscribed framework of a 15-minute spectacle. Accordingly, an evocative introduction was followed by a fast opening piece; there had to be a slow episode, then the obligatory waltz, and a closing movement again in a quick tempo. But Verdi added some personal touches: for instance, he wrote a rhapsodic violin solo acting as a prelude to the slow movement. Also, he created a more complex scenario by having the waltz return, in abbreviated form, after the subsequent quick dance. Most significantly, there is a solemn hymn announcing the arrival of the Queen, first appearing in the middle of the ballet, and then returning, in a grander scoring, to conclude the entire sequence. (In the opera, this is immediately followed by the scene where the Princess Eboli, in disguise, comes to meet Carlos in the garden at midnight, and the Prince, for a fateful moment, mistakes her for the Queen...)
Harold in Italy, Op. 16 (1834) Hector Berlioz (La Côte-Saint-André, France, 1803 – Paris, 1869)
Generation after generation of French composers coveted the famous Prix de Rome, a two- or three-year residency at the Villa Medici in Rome offered to the most talented young composers. Once they were installed in the sumptuous villa, however, they often found their stay unstimulating—at least this was the case with two of the greatest recipients of the prize, Hector Berlioz and Claude Debussy.
Berlioz never completed the two years he was supposed to spend in Italy. He stayed a total of 14 months in Italy 1831-32, but more than half of that time he was away from the villa. This was a turbulent period in the young composer’s life. He had left his fiancée, the pianist Camille Moke, behind in Paris. Shortly after his arrival in Rome, he received a letter from Camille’s mother, announcing her daughter’s marriage to the piano manufacturer Camille Pleyel. Berlioz equipped himself with a pair of double-barrelled pistols and two bottles of poison, and set out for Paris, ready for a terrible vengeance. He got as far as Nice, where he abandoned his murderous plans and returned to Rome.
No wonder, then, that Berlioz was restless during his Roman residency. He spent little time composing, even though he was required to send annual envois back to the Conservatoire. Instead, he wandered in the Abruzzi mountains, hunting, mingling with the villagers, singing songs to his own guitar accompaniment, and dreaming romantic dreams.
After his return to France, Berlioz picked up where he had left off before Italy. In December 1832, there was a repeat performance of the Symphonie fantastique, which had been premiered in 1830. Soon afterwards, he introduced himself to the Irish actress Harriet Smithson (he had been infatuated with her since the time of composing the Fantastique, but had never seen her except on stage). They were married on October 3, 1833, and their son Louis was born on August 14 of the following year.
It was during this period that Berlioz worked on his second symphony, Harold in Italy, which he completed shortly before the birth of his son.
As he related in his Memoirs, he had been approached by Niccolò Paganini who asked him for a viola concerto:
He told me he had a Stradivarius viola, a marvelous instrument, which he wanted to play in public; but he lacked the right music. Would I write him a piece for it? “You are the only one I would trust with such a commission,” he said....So, to please the great man, I attempted to write a solo for the viola, but a solo combined with orchestral accompaniment in such a way as to leave the orchestra full freedom of action; for I was confident that, by the incomparable power of his playing, Paganini would be able to maintain the supremacy of the soloist. The concept struck me as new; and before long a rather happy scheme for the work formed itself in my mind that I was eager to carry out. No sooner was the first movement written that Paganini wanted to see it. At the sight of so many rests in the viola part in the allegro he exclaimed: “That’s no good. There’s not enough for me to do here. I should be playing all the time.”
Disappointed, Paganini lost interest in playing a Berlioz viola concerto. The composer was thus free to work out his “happy scheme” without any external restrictions. As a result, the composition turned out to be not a concerto at all, but a symphony in the traditional four-movement form (the only time Berlioz ever used that form), in which the solo viola and the orchestra interact in a highly innovative manner.
Unlike the Symphonie fantastique, Harold in Italy does not have a detailed literary program, only programmatic titles for each movement that explain some of the work’s more unusual features. The Harold in the title is Childe Harold, the hero of Lord Byron’s narrative poem. But Berlioz didn’t follow Byron’s poem closely; nor would this have been possible, since Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage has no real plot. It is more a series of philosophical and historical meditations on the journeys undertaken by this philosophically minded, disenchanted man. Inspired by his own travels, Byron wrote Childe Harold in several installments. He started it in Albania in 1809-10. By 1812 he had finished the first two cantos, whose publication brought him immediate fame. He added a third canto in 1816 and a fourth one in 1818; it is in this last canto that Harold visits Italy.
Berlioz continued his account of the work’s genesis in Memoirs:
My idea was to write a series of orchestral scenes in which the solo viola was involved, to a greater or lesser extent, like an actual person, retaining the same character throughout. I decided to give it as a setting the poetic impressions recollected from my wanderings in the Abruzzi, and to make it a kind of melancholy dreamer in the style of Byron’s Childe Harold....As in the Fantastic Symphony, a motto (the viola’s first theme) recurs throughout the work, but with the difference that whereas the theme of the Fantastic Symphony, the idée fixe, keeps obtruding like an obsessive idea on scenes that are alien to it and deflects the current of the music, the Harold theme is superimposed on the other orchestral voices so as to contrast with them in character and tempo without interrupting their development.
In light of this background, it should come as no surprise that the first movement is titled “Harold in the Mountains: Scenes of Sadness, Happiness and Joy.” The movement opens with a fugue-like passage over a chromatic subject in Adagio tempo that seems to evoke the mist of the mountains; eventually, the Harold theme is foreshadowed by the woodwinds in the minor mode. Soon afterwards, the solo viola enters, and—with the accompaniment of the harp—presents the Harold theme in major, the form in which it will recur in all four movements of the symphony, always played by the solo viola. The tempo is still Adagio, but the accompaniment becomes more and more animated, preparing us for the ensuing Allegro in sonata form. (It is interesting that the Harold theme was first used in a work written in Rome, the overture Rob-Roy after Sir Walter Scott, which was withdrawn after a single unsuccessful performance.) The energetic and vibrant Allegro section of “Harold in the Mountains” concludes with a coda that made history with its astonishing juxtapositions of the most distant keys of the tonal system.
The second movement, Allegretto, is a “March of the Pilgrims, Singing their Evening Prayer.” The sustained chords of the woodwinds and harp at the beginning and the end are stylized (and sometimes surprisingly dissonant) church bells. First, the violins and the violas take turns playing the melody, which is repeated in several variations and is combined with the Harold theme. There is a gradual crescendo until the dynamics reach forte. The middle section is marked “Canto religioso” (religious song). The double basses play the rhythm of the pilgrims’ march, while the rest of the strings intone a solemn chant against the arpeggios of the solo viola. Then the pilgrims’ march grows more and more dissonant until we hear nothing but the bells.
The third movement, “Serenade of a Mountaineer of the Abruzzi to His Mistress,” Allegro assai, seems to have been inspired by a young man in the mountains named Crispino, described in the Memoirs as “that young scalliwag, half bandit, half irregular soldier....who had the audacity to claim he had been a brigand on the strength of having spent two years in the galleys.” One night, Berlioz and Crispino went out to serenade Crispino’s girlfriend with a duet sung to Berlioz’s guitar accompaniment. This experience found a direct echo in the symphony, but Berlioz added the Harold theme, which reappears as a melancholy counterpoint to the cheerful serenade. There are two distinct serenade themes in this movement, plus the Harold theme. At the end of the movement, all three are heard simultaneously, with two different 6/8 meters going on at the same time (one twice as fast as the other). Then the three melodies fade out, one after the other. According to Berlioz, the conductor Narcisse Girard (who led the first performance) could never get this passage right. Berlioz eventually made a resolution to conduct his works himself, which he went on to do with great success for the next three decades (the last concert he ever gave, the year before his death, took place in St. Petersburg and ended with Harold in Italy).
The fourth movement is entitled “Orgy of the Brigands: Memories of Past Scenes.” Berlioz spoke of
a wild orgy where the several intoxications of wine, blood, joy, and rage are blended; where the rhythm now seems to stumble, now to rush madly ahead; where the brass instruments seem to vomit imprecations and to answer suppliant voices with blasphemies; where there is laughter, drinking, fighting, quarrelling, murder, violation; while from the solo viola (the dreamer Harold fleeing in terror) we hear in the distance some few tremulous notes of the Evening Hymn.
At the beginning of this mvoement, themes from the first three movement are brought back, following the example of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (which was written only a decade earlier). After the opening Adagio from the first movement, we hear the Pilgrims’ March, the Serenade, and the Harold theme. It is only after these quotations that the “orgy” really gets under way. Interestingly, the solo viola has nothing to play for much of the movement; after the quotations, it doesn’t re-enter until shortly before the end. Instead, we have a turbulent orchestral piece filled with fascinating metric intricacies. Near the end, the Pilgrims’ March is heard again, played by two solo violins and a cello from a distance, as a perfect contrast to the demonic outburst that brings the symphony to its astounding conclusion.
From Byron’s Childe Harold:
Few—none—find what they love or could have loved,
Though accident, blind contact, and the strong
Necessity of loving, have removed
Antipathies—but to recur, ere long,
Envenom’d with irrevocable wrong;
And Circumstance, that unspiritual god
And miscreator, makes and helps along
Our coming evils with a crutch-like rod,
Whose touch turns Hope to dust,—the dust we all have trod.