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ClassicsOnline Home » PETRASSI, G.: Partita / Divertimento / 4 inni sacri / Coro di morti (Rome Symphony, La Vecchia)
Goffredo Petrassi was one of the most important Italian composers of the twentieth century. Beginning with the previously unrecorded Divertimento in C, this release focuses on Petrassi’s compositions of the 1930s and 40s. Employing an unusual mix of styles and idioms, as well as brief quotations from Ravel and Stravinsky, the Partita was the first work to win him renown. The eloquent Quattro inni sacri (Four Sacred Hymns), described by the composer as ‘music of today for the faithful of today’, were intended as an antidote ‘to the unctuous and conformist style in use in our churches’ but, in reality, are only ever heard in the concert hall. Soon after the start of the Second World War, Petrassi wrote his meditative madrigale drammatico, Coro di Morti (Chorus of the Dead), the composer’s first setting of a non-sacred text and perhaps his finest achievement in the field of vocal music.
By Chris Hathaway
Classical 91.7 KUHA
Goffredo Petrassi (1904–2003)
Divertimento in C major • Partita • Quattro inni sacri • Coro di morti
Petrassi was born in 1904 in Zagarolo, a village surrounded by farmland—“a wild, remote place” that offered few opportunities for music-making, as he himself once said in an interview. It was only by chance that he was drawn to music, struck perhaps by the image of a Viennese piano that his uncle, an amateur musician, used to play at home. At the age of seven, Petrassi moved to Rome, where he became a chorister at the Schola Cantorum of San Salvatore in Lauro. His experiences there would have a lasting impact on his artistic life. The choristers were given a very thorough grounding in music: they sang every day, as part of the Cappella Giulia at St Peter’s, and at other religious institutions, both in Rome and elsewhere. “Every morning the Schola provided a small number of boys to sing Mass; the repertoire included works by Palestrina and other composers of the same period, such as Animuccia and Anerio.” (E. Restagno) Petrassi began teaching himself to play the piano in a backroom at the music shop where he worked as a sales assistant and delivery boy, later taking lessons with Alessandro Bustini, as well as studying harmony and counterpoint with Vincenzo De Donato. In 1931 he graduated in composition and organ from the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia, going on to further studies in conducting with Bernardino Molinari.
In 1932 and 1933, while still in his twenties, Petrassi won two national music prizes with his Partita for orchestra. Between 1937 and 1940 he was general manager of La Fenice in Venice, and in 1939 was also appointed professor of composition at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia. Influenced by the innovations of Stravinsky, Hindemith, Malipiero and Casella, Petrassi composed his Concerto for orchestra No 1 (1933), following this up with two choral works, Psalm IX (1934–36) for chorus, strings, brass, percussion and two pianos, and Magnificat (1939–40) for soprano, chorus and orchestra, both of which draw on the music of the Italian Baroque. Thereafter his work took on a more reflective, introverted tone, delving more deeply into religious themes, taking inspiration from a broader range of technical and linguistic resources and deploying a richer palette of tonal colours. Compositions from this phase of his career include the “dramatic madrigal” Coro di morti for male-voice choir and small instrumental ensemble (1940–41), the Due liriche di Saffo for voice and eleven instruments (1941), the ballets La follia d’Orlando (1942–43) and Ritratto di Don Chisciotte (1945)—both of which stemmed from a collaboration with choreographer Aurel Millos—and the one-act operas Il cordovano (1949, after Cervantes) and Morte dell’aria, which sets words by St John of the Cross.
From 1951 onwards his focus began to shift away from vocal and towards instrumental music. He wrote seven more concertos for orchestra (Nos 2–8) between 1951 and 1972, a series of works which reveal the way in which his compositional idiom was constantly evolving, now also drawing inspiration from Bartók and using pared-down forms and tiny cells so as to, in a way, free up the musical material, as well as assimilating new techniques, particularly that of twelve-tone serialism, all in an entirely personal manner. Petrassi wrote many chamber works in this period, including the Chamber Sonata for harpsichord and ten instruments (1948), String Quartet (1956), Serenata for five instruments (1958) and the String Trio (1959). Between 1974 and 1980 he went back to choral music to produce Orationes Christi, as well as working on a major instrumental work, Poema for strings and trumpets. His extraordinary creative longevity can be seen in the music that came out of the next decade, including instrumental works such as the Sestina d’autunno (1981–82) and religious meditations such as the Tre cori sacri a cappella (1983).
Various models and influences informed the first orchestral works Petrassi wrote, between 1926 and 1932, music that, as one might expect, reflects the search for his compositorial identity. Among the different stylistic currents that characterise these early experiments we find traces of Ravel, filtered through Casella; a number of techniques borrowed from Malipiero; Debussyan tonal combinations and unexpected, thematically undeveloped structures; and the decadent abstraction of Hindemithian counterpoint. Inevitably, there are also nods to current trends: a taste for isolated chords, the use of dance forms and elements of folk music. The Divertimento in C is part of this context—composed in 1930 as part of his conservatory studies, it takes the form of a suite and is divided into four movements: Allegro, Andante (Caccia), Pavana and Allegro. The opening Allegro has the freedom of a prelude or fantasia, its musical discourse getting under way with a rhythmic-chordal block above which the woodwind play whirls and spirals—these are taken up by the strings and extended into the orchestra as a whole. The thematic idea then passes to the strings, with chordal episodes from the winds and sudden interventions from the brass, before a fugato section introduces the unsophisticated, folk-related sound of the trumpet. As the movement draws to a close, the instrumental entries become denser and the chordal writing of the introduction returns.
The theme of the Caccia, introduced by the oboe, with the cor anglais joining it in canon, flows along, one minute calm and cantabile, the next capricious, rotating from one fanciful variation to another. The development section sees the masterful superimposition of two different motifs: a cantabile figure for woodwind and an ostinato murmuring for strings. The woodwind are also given the main melodic lines in the melancholic Pavana, whose tone remains heartrending and sorrowful throughout, and whose dense harmonic writing calls to mind the style of a Bach chorale. Petrassi’s talent for counterpoint is more than evident in the closing Allegro, in which the string melodies are mingled with lighthearted brass playing on the backbeat, the trombone given a virtuosic display of its own. In measured tempo the horns then have a motif that recalls the first movement’s second theme. The ground is prepared for the recapitulation proper by ever clearer reminders of the main subject which, after a fugal section in which some of the key elements of the work are revisited, leads towards a chordal conclusion.
Petrassi achieved his first public recognition with the Partita, a composition he began work on in 1924 and which was published eight years later. The work was performed in several European capitals after its Rome première, under the baton of Bernardino Molinari. In it are discernible the influences of Hindemith (the dynamic polyphony of its contrapuntal fabric, driving rhythms and tonal treatment of certain sections of the orchestra, in particular the brass), Stravinsky (the polytonal dissonance) and Casella (the rhythmic figurations). It employs an unusual mix of styles and idioms in its three movements—Gagliarda, Ciaccona and Giga, titles which are essentially used as a way of distinguishing one rhythmically from the next and enabling a large dose of creativity. In fact, sonata form prevails throughout, but is freed from its traditional shackles and subjected to all kinds of reinventions. The Gagliarda’s structure, for example, seems to have been generated from various sources: a Beethoven concerto, a suite and and a concerto grosso. The first subject, introduced by the three trumpets, is measured and, at times, angular; it is passed between the various sections of the orchestra (woodwind, strings, brass) to create the effect of blocks or “choirs” of contrasting timbres typical of Late Renaissance and Early Baroque sacred vocal music. The second subject, given to the alto saxophone, is songlike and supple in both its metre and chromatic colouring; its lyrical abandon soon ignites into jazz-infused jerky rhythms and tonal play that give rise to frequent shifts in pulse and accent. Petrassi also introduces a number of intentional quotations, including a brief saxophone fragment from the Lullaby in Stravinsky’s Firebird and a few bars of the Blues from Ravel’s Sonata for violin and piano.
The second movement, Ciaccona, is a genuine ricercare, whose counterpoint takes an unexpected path towards closely related timbres in the style of Bartók. Its outer sections are notable for their dark, reflective tone, initially created by the clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon and double basses, then in the first variation by the double basses and, in the coda, by the clarinet, horns, trumpet, trombone, cellos and double basses, with the addition of bass clarinet in the final cadenza. The variation form, here given a modern reworking, modifies the thematic configuration itself, thereby creating what Petrassi himself called “a construction of grand arches and volutes”.
The final Giga is a hugely virtuosic scherzo. Its vertiginous 12/8–4/4 rhythm injects a stinging vivacity, while its effects and tonal nuances are dominated by a dense juxtaposition of “acoustic balances” and rhythmic and melodic variations.
The Quattro inni sacri (Four Sacred Hymns) for tenor, baritone and orchestra are Baroque in style. Composed in 1942, they were only orchestrated eight years later. The first two, Jesu dulcis memoria (Sweet thoughts of Jesus) and Te lucis ante terminum (To thee before the close of day), are for the tenor, the latter two, Lucis Creator optime (O blessed Creator of the light) and Salvete Christi vulnera (Hail, wounds of Christ), for the baritone. In the first hymn, the low strings provide a reciting tone above which we hear the various melodic lines played by the woodwind, anticipating the expressive and dramatic entry of the solo voice. This then seems to “wander” around the central notes of the harmony, constructing broad melismas on which some of the orchestral players form elaborate arabesques. Episodes in different rhythms help articulate the various strophes, including some in triple time, as on the words “Nil canitur suavius” (No song is sweeter), where the accents become a textual metaphor expressing the joy of the prayer. The text is emphasised again in the final strophe by means of the introduction of a slow cadential section which underpins the final invocation, “Sis, Jesu, nostrum gaudium” (Jesu be our joy). The same compositional process is used in Petrassi’s setting of Te lucis ante terminum: the orchestra sustains and introduces the melodic vocal line. Compared to the opening work in this set, the pace is calmer, the atmosphere crepuscular, reflecting the canonical hour of Compline for which the hymn is intended. The introduction to Lucis creator optime is solemn and organ-like. Again, the vocal line is of prime importance, its motivic ideas sustained by the strings and recalled, in brief snatches, by the winds. The final hymn in the collection is the uplifting Salvete Christi vulnera, in which the orchestral parts take a greater rôle in proceedings, leaving the task of supporting the voice to the cellos, double basses or horns. In the opening section the various instruments enter close on each other’s heels and set a dynamic pace which only begins to grow calmer in the second part of the piece when the strings, playing Adagio, introduce the central notes on which the free recitative style of the words “Quot Jesus in Praetorio” (How many lashes Jesus bore) is built. More changes of tempo lead to the recapitulation of the opening Allegro, now setting the words of the final invocation, “qui nos redemit Sanguine” (who with his Blood redeems us). Above an almost archaic, spare polyphony, in which the different orchestral sections introduce and anticipate the vocal line in the manner of an intonazione (prelude), the lacerating eloquence of the melody unfolds, here, as in the other three hymns, reminiscent at times of the atmosphere of a Mahler Lied.
Petrassi’s madrigale drammatico, the Coro di Morti (Chorus of the Dead), was drafted at the beginning of the Second World War, in 1940–41. It sets the opening words of Giacomo Leopardi’s Dialogo di Federico Ruysch e le sue mummie (Dialogue between Frederik Ruysch and his mummies), written in 1824 and published in 1827. It seems Petrassi was prompted by an article he read in June 1940, relating to Italy’s recent entry into the war and which mentioned the words “coro di morti”, to re-read Leopardi’s work and reflect on the fate of all men. The poem that Leopardi wrote to preface this Dialogo is set in the laboratory of the Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch. Granted the ability to converse with the living for fifteen minutes at midnight on a particular night of mathematical significance, his mummies sing about the nature of life and death. In the following prose dialogue Ruysch, woken by their singing, asks his embalmed corpses about the pain or pleasure of the moment of death itself. Petrassi, however, sets only the thirty-two lines of the prologue (all either seven or eleven syllables long), describing the transition from life to the nothingness of death. The sense of the text wholly inspires the composer’s instrumentation, a musical interpretation of Night and Darkness using twelve brass (four horns, four trumpets, three trombones and bass tuba), double basses, three pianos and percussion (timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals) to accompany the male voices, and none of the brighter tones and colours of the orchestra. The timpani are also responsible for marking out the different melodic-rhythmical cells that form the basis of the entire composition.
Petrassi’s setting takes its structure from the poem, interspersing instrumental sections with four choral episodes, the last two of which are closely linked. Two scherzos separate the second and third and the third and fourth vocal sections—these are both fugal pieces in dance form, the second being a variation on the first, whose purpose is to break up the otherwise unchanging pace imposed by the text. A very short instrumental intervention then reflects the brief pause separating the final two sentences of Leopardi’s text.
Here, as in Monteverdi’s madrigals, the music serves the words—Petrassi’s subtitle is quite deliberate. Hence his use of various motivic cells that echo and highlight particular words and phrases, emphasising their symbolic value, for example the three-note motif (F, E, C sharp) on the affirmation expressed by “Vivemmo” (Once we were alive) and the questions “Che fummo?” (What were we?) and “Che fu quel punto acerbo / che di vita ebbe nome?” (What was that brief and bitter / moment known as life?). The dramatic element is homogenous in form, while the pull of opposing forces in the musical material—on the one hand the choral writing, whose tonalism harks back to Monteverdi, on the other the instrumental parts, full of harsh timbres and straying at times into atonalism—is the perfect vehicle for Leopardi’s nihilism. The tone is always intense and vibrant, while the instrumental images alternate, reappearing rhythmically transformed until we reach the final tense moments, created by dissonant effects on brass and pianos, the work ending on “a note of alienating solitude”.
Critics have labelled the Coro di Morti a mystical, even metaphysical work—according to the composer himself, there are echoes in it of the wider anxieties of the time: “this was my first setting of a non-sacred text, but I felt that the words stemmed from a secular mysticism not that far removed from the questions posed to us by religion”. (E. Restagno)
English translation by Susannah Howe (Quotations taken from Petrassi, ed. E. Restagno, Turin, EDT 1986 and 1992)
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PETRASSI, G.: Partita / Divertimento / 4 inni sacr...