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ClassicsOnline Home » Vocal Recital: Secco, Stefano - TOSTI, F.P. / MASCAGNI, P. / DONAUDY, S. (Italian Songs and Ballads)
The late 19th Century was the heyday of the drawing-room ballad, when families and friends entertained each other with a wide range of songs. Sir Paolo Tosti was one of the most successful composers of such music, alongside his contemporaries Pietro Mascagni and Stefano Donaudy. Naturally, the subject of most of these charming songs is amore: love longed for, gained and lost; sweet lips, sparkling eyes, warm arms and cold hearts. Italian tenor Stefano Secco and pianist David Abramovitz enjoy distinguished international careers.
Italian Songs and Ballads
Paolo Tosti (1846–1916) • Pietro Mascagni (1863–1945) • Stefano Donaudy (1879–1925)
The late nineteenth century represented the heyday of the drawing-room ballad. As a result of rising prosperity many households owned pianos, and enjoyed the pleasures of piano-playing. Family members would accompany each other in a wide range of songs. Thus the demand for ballads which could be easily performed with elegance and style was huge, and at the same time could be satisfied quickly through an international infrastructure of publishers and printers. One of the most successful of composers of drawing-room ballads was Sir Paolo Tosti, whose career combined musical virtuosity, aristocratic patronage, and commercial acumen. But it was not always so.
Paolo Tosti was born in 1846 in Ortona, a small town situated on the eastern coast of Italy. Here he received his early musical education, before entering in 1858 the Naples Conservatory, where he studied violin with Pinot and composition with Saverio Mercadante. Mercadante was so impressed with Tosti’s abilities that he made him his student teacher, an appointment which brought with it a small salary. By 1869, however, Tosti was suffering from illness and overwork, and he returned to his home town to rest and recuperate. Here he wrote four ballads, including the later popular Non m’ama più and Lamento d’amore. He submitted two of these to the Florentine Art Society and two to the publisher Ricordi, but all four were rejected. After recovering from his illness Tosti moved to Ancona, another coastal town north of Ortona, but so great was his poverty that he had to subsist on a diet of oranges and stale bread. Eventually he made his way to Rome, where he met the pianist and composer Giovanni Sgambati, who took him under his wing. He came into contact with several leading figures in the arts at this time, including D’Annunzio. Sgambati arranged for Tosti to give a concert at the Sala Dante in the presence of Princess Margherita of Savoy, who later became the Queen of Italy. On this occasion Tosti sang a ballad especially composed for the occasion as well as some of his other songs. So impressed was the Princess with his musicianship that she immediately appointed him her professor of singing, and later the curator of the Musical Archives at the Italian Court.
In 1875 Tosti visited London for the first time. Here he came into contact with a number of influential persons who introduced him to the highest levels of British society. Tosti soon became a staple of the drawing-rooms and salons of the spring social season. He returned to London annually until 1880, when he decided to settle there permanently. In the same year he was appointed singing teacher to the royal family. With the seal of royal approval thus bestowed his fame and fortune increased rapidly. Demand for his songs became enormous: when Violet Cameron introduced one of his songs, For ever and ever, at the Globe Theatre in London, it became a popular success almost overnight. By 1885 he was the most popular composer of songs in the country and his publishers paid him a huge retainer in return for composing just twelve songs each year. He fully joined the Establishment in 1894 when he was appointed a professor of singing at the Royal Academy of Music. He took British citizenship in 1906 and was knighted by his friend King Edward VII in 1908. He returned to Italy in 1913 to spend his final years there, dying in Rome at the end of 1916.
Tosti’s output as a composer of songs was very large indeed, and he was happy to set French as well as Italian and English texts. As a general rule his songs are characterized by natural, easily singable melodies and a sweet, but not cloying, sentimentality. His influence as a composer may be seen in the enormous number of imitations which he stimulated, resulting in the creation of a distinct music genre, the ballad alla Tosti. His compositions have today become synonymous with the term ‘salon music’, but this is to obscure their musical elegance and stylishness. In addition to composing songs Tosti also produced an edition of fifteen Italian folk-songs arranged as duets, which he entitled Canti popolari abruzzesi, his birth-place Ortona itself being located in the region of Abruzzo.
The emotions covered in the songs of Tosti and of contemporary composers, such as Pietro Mascagni (1863–1945) and Stefano Donaudy (1879–1925), represent generalised effusions, all of which describe some aspect of love: before, during and after. Thus Malia (Enchantment)  equates flowers from the lover with the enchantment of a love-potion, from which it is but a short step to the magic of love. Next follows the kiss: ’A vucchella (A pretty mouth) —the sweet mouth delivers the sweet kiss. Even if the beloved is to be married, as in L’ultima canzone (The last song) , she will always be a cherished flower to the lover: remember his kisses. Aprile (April)  is the season of love: flowers bloom, the fields are filled with new scents, and love is in the air. By contrast, in Non t’amo più (I no longer love you)  the lover recalls the ecstasy of love: when love reigned perfection existed, but alas no more. The Luna d’estate (Summer moon)  has driven the singer to love, as does the sight of two beautiful eyes. Love is like the sea, and the heart is like an undulating wave which can only be halted by the beloved’s eyes and rose-petal lips. La serenata (The serenade)  flies into night air on its own, while the moon, also alone, shines down. The waves dream on the moonlit shore, and like dreams they refuse to stay still. In Ideale (Ideal)  the lover follows the beloved and senses her in the air, light and the perfume of the flowers. As the lover dreams, the torments of life fade away. The beloved’s beautiful face represents a new dawn. Serenata (Serenade)  is a little more full blooded. The lovers sleep like amorous doves. As the beloved smiles, a passing spirit tells her that her lover is enflamed with passion. “You are my delight and my torment…Ah, wake not, o flower of paradise, for I will come to you in your dreams and kiss you!” When the moon shines down on Marechiare  even the fishes dream, and the sea itself sings of love. The stars shine down, but are not as brilliant as your eyes. The Sogno (Dream)  is told from the perspective of the beloved. “I dreamt you were on your knees, like a saint praying to the Lord…but I conquered myself and refused you…But your lips brushed my face…Yet, I was dreaming…and the lovely dream vanished.” Just as L’alba separa dalla luce l’ombra (The dawn divides the darkness from the light) , “I do not want to see the day, for I so love my dream and the night-time”. In the Song of farewell, Partir c’est mourir un peu (Parting means dying a little) : to part “means always mourning over a vow, the last line of a poem”. O del mio amato ben (O lost enchantment of my beloved)  speaks from the perspective of the lover. “Everywhere seems sad to me, without her. Day is like night to me; fire is like ice to me…Life thus seems of little use to me, without my beloved.”
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