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“Contemporary music is not one alone”, Fedele d’Amico was wont to admonish years ago. And to say the truth he was heeded by almost no one. Those were years in which the term contemporary music was used as a synonym for Neue Musik, that is to say music born of that movement of the global founding anew of the way of making music that began with the experiences of Schoenberg, and the more so from the lessons of his pupil Anton Webern. And it was thus that some authors (those sifted out by the so called post-webernism) had the term ‘contemporary’ annotated on their passports whilst others did not. In truth, that the history of modern and contemporary music is the result of the sum of many poetic styles and behavioural pluralities is today clear to (almost) one and all: a complex musical landscape in which contrasts and peculiarities turn out to be fatally and inescapably complementary as much as they are necessary.
In some countries, which are different for their history and culture to ours, they have been able to harmonise the many voices, designing a vast polyphonic backcloth, a grand national fresco. Instead in Italy many a fence has been raised, for example by removing all that which was the experience of authors grown under the wing of fascism (Casella first and foremost) and isolating, in the post war years, those who had shown a lack of interest in Neue Musik. Nino Rota (Milan 1911 – Rome 1979), a pupil of Casella and totally estranged from the turbulences of the live neo avant-garde, worked and gained a position within such a context.
A son and grandson of musicians, Rota began composing at the age of eight, when he was twelve he managed to have performed an oratorio for soloists, chorus and orchestra composed by him, and in later years refined his studies with Masters the calibre of Delachi, Bas (the author of the celebrated treatise on musical forms), Casella, Pizzetti, and then with Fritz Reiner in Philadelphia as orchestra director, whilst in 1937 he got a degree in letters in Milan with a thesis on Zarlino. In other words, a child prodigy but also a fully competent professional. After having taught in a couple of conservatories, in 1950 he became director of the one in Bari, where he stayed until he died. But his fame as a composer is tied, as everyone knows, to his collaboration with Federico Fellini for whose films he wrote almost all the music. It is no mere chance if, not just in Italy, the composers who have left dialogue open with traditional music, the old language of music, the classical forms, the tonality also searching for an immediate contact with the public, have found in cinema (and at times theatre, like Fiorenzo Carpi) an ideal ground in which to exploit their abilities (over an above an environment well disposed to receiving them). This explains why Italian composers of the twentieth century who in some way have a debt with Rota (Negri, Bacalov, Piovani, to quote but a few) are also the authors of concert music that is easily understood but in any case technically excellent.
Unlike Ennio Morricone, Rota did not, so to say, live as a lacerating contradiction the relationship between music for films and ‘pure’ music. Rota’s musical ideas, in effect flow without any sense of continuity from the pentagram destined to a film, to one for an opera or concert or symphony. The musical approach, let’s say the aesthetics, is the same (save for, obviously, technical requirements). Rota seems absolutely not to suffer the problems raised by a search for a compromise between modern musical research and the at times somewhat basic dominant tastes of the public. In other words, Rota was always himself; he was himself in the music he wrote for a hundred or more films (for Fellini, but also for Visconti, Monicelli, Zeffirelli, Castellani, Soldati, Eduardo De Filippo, and Coppola), as he was in orchestral compositions, in concerts and, more so than ever, in the truly copious quantity of chamber music in which, in effect, he experimented themes that he then used in music for films.
To voice Rota dedicated, among other things (over and above the immortal Pappa col Pomodoro), a rich repertoire of sacred music (some hundred pieces) and, obviously, some true gems for musical theatre. Among the many titles we should at least recall Aladino e la lampada magica (Aladdin and the magic lamp), 1963; Ariodante, 1938-1942; Il cappello di paglia di Firenze (The florentine straw hat), 1945, 1946, 1955; La notte di un nevrastenico (The night of a nervous wreck), 1959; Napoli milionaria (Millionaire Naples), 1945. As is well-known, he wrote many comic operas, and indeed, according to many critics, the recent revival of the Straw Hat has revealed the only true comic opera of the twentieth century. We must in no way be surprised if a composer who was obstinately tied to the language of tonality was so successful in an unknown genre and indeed rejected by the post war avant-garde movements. To renounce to tonality is to renounce to comic opera, the comical element, the grotesque. All themes dealt with, and not by chance, by those twentieth century authors who never turned their backs on tonality, such as Britten, ?ostakovich, Walton, Menotti, Prokofiev, Weill, Bernstein and, indeed, Rota. In the case of I due Timidi (The Two Timid), written in 1950, the model is quite clearly Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi of 1918. That great Tuscan had already understood that the worn-out musical style of melodrama had to, in order to survive, abandon tragedy (indeed, the petit bourgeois drama of his hapless heroines) and accost itself to comedy and fable (Turandot). In some sense it is as if tonality, its rhetoric, its lexis, had had to, with time, take refuge in ever more humble categories: from Myth to expansive epic fresco, from patriotic romance to bourgeois comedy through to the domestic sketch (as in the two above mentioned works) to end up with popular song and advertising jingles. Genres and worlds that have lived together across epochs but that have emerged alternately in time more evidently as areas of action and public interest. Things change, also love, and the route that takes us from Tristan and Isolde to I Due Timidi demonstrates this with all too exemplary evidence. With this last work we are reduced to the minor neighbourhood episode sketched with that cynical grace that so recalls Novello’s fulminating texts. Portraits of a provincial ‘little’ Italy where in the name of bourgeois respectability one sacrificed happiness and intelligence. Herewith the subject as presented at the time:
In the block of flats in Via Pozzo 53 there is a great coming and going of people and whisperings and gossip in the encounters at the entrance. From a window comes the sound of a piano. It is Mariuccia who is studying, studying and dreaming. A new guest arrives and goes up to the Pensione Guidotti, a dilapidated and jaded guesthouse like the lady who owns and manages it. In truth, Raimondo, the new guest, has no particular interest for the Pensione Guidotti, he wants to stay there for the sole purpose of being better placed to accost Mariuccia. He has been in love with her for a year, since when he had come to town to complete his studies and had seen her go by; but his shyness has blocked him from speaking to her all that time. On her part, Mariuccia has noticed Raimondo and is flattered by his interest, but has all year been unable to bring herself to do something to encourage him; she plays and dreams, she dreams that one day Raimondo will speak to her … At the guesthouse Raimondo immediately takes the worst room, that one that looks onto the inside courtyard and no one wants. It is there that one can hear Mariuccia’s piano as if it was in the room; if she were to step out onto the balcony she would be there only a few metres away. The piano is now silent; Raimondo is out on the balcony talking to the mature Mrs. Guidotti, but suddenly the belt that holds up the rolling shutter snaps and the shutter crashes down onto Raimondo like a guillotine. Immediately people run out to see what’s happened; Sinisgalli, a doctor who lives on the first floor precipitously climbs the stairs; Mariuccia, in her room, cries out of love and anxiety, but is too shy to show herself. Raimondo comes to his senses but starts talking gibberish. He holds Mrs Guidotti’s hand and, in his state of delirium, is convinced its Mariuccia’s. What a surprise it is when he whispers sweet words of love and Mrs Guidotti believes these directed at her. He who has no peace is Sinisgalli, who now has to rush to the aid of a fainted Mariuccia; and he runs willingly because he has had a soft spot for Mariuccia for a long time … more delirium and misunderstanding. In their delirium the two shy persons become audacious, Mariuccia as well, only that Sinisgalli keeps the tenderness she believes she is manifesting Raimondo for himself. When she returns to normality and understands the mishap, Mariuccia is too shy to clear up the misunderstanding, on his part the young doctor, in perfectly good faith, tells her about the sweet words the delirious Raimondo had spoken to Mrs Guidotti. Tears and catastrophe, fate would have it that Mariuccia marries the doctor and Raimondo Mrs. Guidotti; all out of shyness. Epilogue: two years have gone by and Raimondo administers with severity his wife’s guesthouse. Mariuccia lives on the first floor with her husband, Doctor Sinisgalli; she no longer has much time to play the piano now that she has two children. And when she does play someone shouts out for her to close the window. It’s Raimondo.
Suso Cecchi d’Amico (with an eye to Forzano) here wrote a text that in effect is similar to one for a film. It does, it’s true, contain elements of melodrama (the chorus at the beginning, the areas for the protagonists, the love duet etc.), however, the way the delicate intrigue is developed, the speed of dialogue and with which the scenes succeed one another, the movement of shots between flats and the staircase give the whole an almost dramaturgical audiovisual element (to be noted, for example, the way the piano is introduced at the start to the second act). It would seem like watching a fadeout or a zoom. The work was in effect written for radio (receiving mention at the 1950 Prix Italia, it was recorded 29 July) and abundantly exploits the conventions of fiction for radio that play heavily upon the listener’s complicity so as to integrate through the imagination a visual element. Starting with the voice of the narrator, who Rota however almost never allowed to simply recite but obliged to speak in a chanting tone, which recalls (as mentioned above) many parts of Gianni Schicchi (“Women, remake the bed”, for example). But it is the whole work that is inspired, musically speaking, to Puccini’s single act. The same conversational style, the bustling opening scene, with relatives chatting there and tenants gossiping here. Characteristic themes mingle to identify characters and events, whilst here and there one finds full quotations from Manon Lescaut, Turandot (e.g. in act V) and Schicchi. The melodic material is of the catchy tune type (but in truth never banal) that one expects from the author of La Strada (The Street). The innocent descendant chromatic effect of Rota’s melodies (we again find an archetype in Schicchi: “Upon her head a hat”) guarantees the music a melancholia that well gives the idea of stuffiness, of cheap eau de cologne, of envy for the boss that is the backcloth to the story. The happy ending is missing and one is left with a bit of a bitter taste in the mouth. A portrait of post-war Italy that adds itself to the many that Italian cinema and literature of the period have left us and that should not be ignored also for its documentary worth. One of the reasons for interest in the recordings included in this CD is also tied to the extraordinary ability of those who perform in it. Suffice it to remember that I Timidi is one of the few complete recordings available with Franco Ferrara (1911-1985) on the podium. This a truly limited space in which to recall the great Sicilian music director who – as is well known – had to abandon his career for health reasons, here in the company of an excellent cast of vocalists. Also of a very high standard are the interpreters of the Sonata for viola and piano (1934-35, then revised in 1970), an Allegro moderato, Adagio, Allegretto mosso Allegro that we here listen to with William Primrose, the most famous viola player of the time, together with the pianist David Stimer, in a 1953 recording. Less known by the public at large, Rota’s chamber music often engaged his circle of friends and the Bari music conservatory and includes many titles: from pieces for the piano (15 Preludes) to those for flute, clarinet, bassoon, violin or oboe and piano, to the trios, and the pieces for other instruments (organ, harp). This Sonata does not belay expectations in proposing a first movement that is almost pastoral in character but also nervous and vivacious, with a frequent French accent. The subsequent Adagio unfolds a melody with dramatic tones (something rather unusual for Rota). The pretty Allegretto that follows proposes a sort of perpetual motion of the piano on which the melody of the viola is made to float, a melody again of countrified character. The ending starts with a gait that somehow recalls Hindemith (or Casella’s later works) for the implacable beat of the obstinate
rhythm (interrupted by a singable adagio which brings the piece to a close) that is typical of much of twentieth century neoclassicism. Perhaps Alfredo Casella’s two best known pupils do indeed represent two sides to the same coin. Petrassi on the one hand, with his rigorous and severe manner, and Rota on the other, with lightness and irony, no less rigorous but certainly more indulgent. In all this, one thing is certain: d’Amico was right.