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ClassicsOnline Home » GHEDINI, G.F.: Architetture / Contrappunti / Marinaresca e baccanale (Rome Symphony, La Vecchia)
Architetture (‘Architectures’), a concerto for orchestra in seven linked sections, was the piece that catapulted the Italian composer Giorgio Federico Ghedini to fame in his home country at the late age of 48. On this disc it is coupled with two more of his finest orchestral works. The powerful atmosphere and stunning orchestral effects of Marinaresca e baccanale (‘Sea Piece and Bacchanale’), written several years earlier, prove that Ghedini’s belated recognition was fully deserved. Contrappunti (‘Counterpoints’), which Ghedini composed much later in life, finds him responding to the inspiration of one of his lifelong musical heroes, Beethoven.
By Daniel Coombs
Giorgio Federico Ghedini (1892–1965)
Architetture • Contrappunti • Marinaresca e baccanale
Some composers—like Mozart (1756–91), Mendelssohn (1809–47) and Benjamin Britten (1913–76)—are childhood or teenage prodigies. Others struggle for decades to gain the recognition they deserve. Among the most extreme experiences are those of the Austrian Anton Bruckner (1824–96) and the Moravian Leoš Janáček (1854–1928), who passed their sixtieth birthdays before winning acclaim: for Bruckner, with the Leipzig première in 1884 of his Seventh Symphony (1881–83); for Janáček, with the first Prague production in 1918 of his opera Jenůfa (composed 1894–1903). Britten’s English compatriot Edward Elgar (1857–1934), and his American contemporary Elliott Carter (1908–2012), ‘only’ had to wait until their early forties—Elgar’s breakthrough work being the ‘Enigma’ Variations of 1898–99, Carter’s his First String Quartet (1950–51). For the Italian Giorgio Federico Ghedini, success was not quite as elusive as for Bruckner and Janáček, but he might have envied Elgar or Carter: when Ghedini’s young friend Fernando Previtali (1907–85) conducted the première of Architetture in Rome on 19 January 1941, the 48-year-old Ghedini suddenly found himself catapulted from relative provincial obscurity to the forefront of his country’s musical life.
Born on 11 July 1892 in Cuneo—Italy’s westernmost city, in the far northwest region of Piedmont—Ghedini first made his name in the 1920s in the nearby great city of Turin, the Piedmontese capital. But, as for Janáček and Elgar, even the hard-won achievement of local celebrity proved to be no more than the first step on a long road to wider acknowledgement. Admittedly, as with Janáček and Carter, Ghedini’s (highly personal) musical idiom was late in developing and took many years to crystallise. But, like almost all composers who come to prominence later in life—including all of the ones mentioned here—Ghedini had in fact found his individual voice in works of international stature long before anybody took notice—witness, for example, his Marinaresca e baccanale on the present recording, written in 1933, seven years before Architetture.
One reason for the delayed ‘discovery’ of Ghedini may be that the best of his mature music is, simply, unique: it sounds like nothing else ever composed, in Italy or beyond. And its true qualities are still not fully recognised; arguably, they could not be until the hegemony of twentieth-century modernism had evolved into today’s more pluralistic musical world. The crucial factor is that, while the component elements of Ghedini’s music often sound very familiar, the way he uses them is remarkably new. The clarity and imagination of his orchestration, the beautifully spaced common chords, the memorable melodic motifs, the fleeting resemblances to other composers—all of these inevitably arouse expectations that Ghedini’s music will move through time in ways we are just as used to. One of the fundamental features of Western music, at least since Austro-German compositional concepts came to prominence in the 1700s, has been the idea of establishing a sense of direction towards a goal, a ‘resolution’, notably by ‘development’ of the musical material—subjecting it to processes of change. This is rarely Ghedini’s aim. Instead he tends to compose relatively brief motifs, then repeats them, shifts them up and down, juxtaposes, layers and combines them in various permutations: concentrating on one kind of atmosphere at a time, sometimes throughout a whole piece, building tremendous, unresolved, intensity. The technique probably derives ultimately from Stravinsky, but Ghedini—like his German contemporary Carl Orff (1895–1982)—takes it much further, with results that, in hindsight, we could now call proto-minimalist. An occasional bar or two of Ghedini may momentarily recall Janáček, Mahler, Sibelius, Shostakovich, Stravinsky or Hindemith, but the overall effect has far more in common with far more recent music—the closest parallel, perhaps, being the post-minimalist works of John Adams. And if this structural innovation was not enough in itself, one of the moods Ghedini creates with it—as in the slow music of all three works on this disc, as well as of the double cello concerto L’olmeneta (‘The Elm Grove’, 1951 [conducted by Ghedini himself on Naxos 8.111325])—is equally unique and characteristic: a kind of ominous, brooding stillness which can only be called ‘Ghedinian’.
As the composer himself explained, the very title of Architetture, ‘Architectures’, rather than ‘implying any descriptive concept, or referring to any pictorial or literary image’, signals its ‘organisation of abstract musical elements into a series of edifices in sound, which are in their turn cemented together by a clear thematic and constructional logic.’ Throughout the seven interconnected ‘edifices’, Ghedini uses the different sections of the orchestra—woodwind, brass, strings, piano—as separate, contrasted blocks, alternating and stratifying them in many different ways, but never bringing them all together until the very end. The first three sections find varied characters within the same basic (moderately fast) speed; the slower fourth section settles via monumental brass chords and stark string lines into mysterious stasis, which finds its most intense expression in the visionary timbres of the fifth (and longest) section, with striving, unmuted violin solos against muted, divided strings, icily chiming piano and later woodwind; then the ricocheting asymmetrical rhythms of the sixth section drive towards the austere yet majestic brass-led polyphony of the concluding chorale.
Ghedini subtitled the piece ‘concerto per orchestra’—‘concerto for orchestra’, a term with a rather flexible significance in the twentieth century. Here it appears to allude both to the sense intended by the likes of Hindemith (1925) or Bartók (1943), of affording soloistic opportunities to individual instruments or sections of the orchestra, as a kind of modern counterpart to the Baroque concerto grosso; and also to the broader, specifically Italian, conception of the ‘concerto’ as a large-scale abstract structure free from the constraints of traditional ‘symphonic’ form—a model probably most familiar from the eight orchestral Concertos (the earliest from 1933–34) by Ghedini’s friend (and a great admirer of Architetture) Goffredo Petrassi, but which was effectively invented by Alfredo Casella with his four-movement Concerto for String Quartet (1923–24, Op 40), another example being Casella’s three-movement orchestral Concerto, Op 61, of 1938 [Naxos 8.573004]. From Architetture onwards, Ghedini adopted ‘Concerto’ as his favourite title for big orchestral pieces, with or without instrumental or vocal soloists—including one entitled simply Concerto for orchestra (1955–56). Architetture itself, though, had no direct precursors: there may be structural affinities with Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments (first version 1920); some textures may be reminiscent of Shostakovich; to English ears there may be—surely unwitting—parallels with the bassoon-led woodwind theme of Holst’s Uranus (from The Planets, 1914–16) in the second section, with Michael Tippett’s hocketing brass writing at the end of the third, and with the climax of the final movement (Requiem Aeternam – ‘Eternal Rest’) of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem (‘Requiem Symphony’) in Ghedini’s wide-spaced final chord. But where Britten augments his bare fifth above the bass with only an added sixth, Ghedini also adds the second degree, summing up his personal expansion of traditional tonality and the deep originality of the whole work—one of his finest. Hearing it on the radio just after the end of the Second World War in 1945, Ghedini wrote to his composition pupil and friend Attila Poggi (1905–70): ‘I had the pleasure of observing that it has stood the test of time and changing taste (at least mine, which is not easy…).’
Interestingly, Ghedini could not actually have known Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem; nor could Britten have known Architetture, as the two composers worked on their pieces virtually simultaneously in 1939–40. This was by no means their only coincidental point of contact. In 1949, Ghedini based an opera-like ‘scenic oratorio’ on the American writer Herman Melville’s sea story Billy Budd; in 1950–51, Britten wrote his own—very different—operatic version. Ghedini’s Billy Budd was his second Melville work, the first being the extraordinary Concerto dell’albatro (‘Concerto of the Albatross’, 1945), in whose chill atmosphere, inspired by a passage from Melville’s novel Moby-Dick, Ghedinian stillness attains its Antarctic pole. Just as with Britten, the sea is a tormenting presence in Ghedini’s music: a presence doubly surprising, for—in stark contrast to Britten, who grew up, and later settled, on the East Anglian coast—Ghedini lived inland until the final months of his life, and seems never to have known a sea crueller than the Mediterranean. His Marinaresca e baccanale (‘Sea Piece and Bacchanale’, 1933) is thus revealed as all the more remarkable, springing entirely from his own imagination, unprompted by external stimuli. As John CG Waterhouse, the English expert on Italian music of the period, pointed out, the Marinaresca is ‘one of the very few twentieth-century musical seascapes that owes virtually nothing to Debussy.¹ The very first bars, in which the lower strings (soon joined by other bass instruments) heave up and down in typically Ghedinian interval patterns, at once suggest a mighty oceanic groundswell, over which the desolately wailing chromatic outlines on the upper instruments suggest (perhaps) the cries of sea birds or the whistling of wind in the rigging. To find comparably bleak, elemental nature music by another composer we must turn not to Debussy but to Sibelius; yet there is nothing Sibelian about the details of Ghedini’s style.’ Indeed, the boreal seas evoked by other Nordic composers such as Nielsen and Nystroem are more comforting than Ghedini’s slow, menacing Marinaresca, with its ‘strange, utterly original orchestral effects’ (in John Waterhouse’s words) and obsessive thematic reiterations. And the wild Bacchanale is scarcely less threatening in its darkly drunken revels. The layered textures—at one point superimposing metres of four against five against six—and strongly rhythmic motifs, particularly for the brass, have occasional affinities with American idioms, of composers such as Roy Harris (1898–1979), or even a man who was aged just three when Ghedini died, Michael Torke (b. 1961). Intriguingly, the orchestra in the only previous recording of this compelling diptych was the New York Philharmonic, conducted by the work’s dedicatee Victor de Sabata, a live recording from Carnegie Hall on 5 March 1950.
In the 1950s and 1960s especially, Ghedini was championed by several famous conductors, not least his pupils Guido Cantelli and Claudio Abbado, but also Carlo Maria Giulini, Herbert von Karajan and Sergiu Celibidache—who commissioned Ghedini’s penultimate orchestral work, the Ouverture pour un concert (‘Concert Overture’) of 1963, having already conducted Architetture ‘as I’ve never heard it before!’ (said the excited composer) and gone on to perform much other Ghedini, including the centrepiece of this disc, Contrappunti (‘Counterpoints’, 1960–61), for the unusual partnership of string trio and orchestra. And partnership it is: the solo group and full ensemble work together—the trio leading, as first among equals—with little sense of opposition, or even (surprisingly) of traditional counterpoint, in the sense of two or more simultaneous lines that are melodically and rhythmically independent. Ghedini was renowned, as both composer and teacher, for his technical mastery, not least of complex contrapuntal writing: witness, for example, the final section of Architetture; or his 1946 orchestration of J. S. Bach’s Musical Offering [conducted by Ghedini himself on Naxos 8.111325]. In Contrappunti, however, as in his earlier piano piece Divertimento contrappuntistico (‘Contrapuntal Divertimento’, 1940 [Naxos 8.572330]), he creates something closer to the etymological root of the word ‘counterpoint’—point against point, or note against note in rhythmic unison. The kinship here is not with Bach but with Ghedini’s other great Germanic musical hero: Beethoven, whose influence becomes increasingly audible in Ghedini’s music of the 1960s. Ghedini even wrote an introduction for the Beethoven entry published in 1963 in a standard Italian reference book, the Ricordi Enciclopedia della musica (‘Encyclopedia of Music’), showing particular sympathy for Beethoven’s late string quartets.² If it is the power of Beethoven’s orchestra that reechoes most clearly in Contrappunti, the concentration of those late quartets casts its shadow too, above all in the slow coda to the first movement. Likewise Beethoven-like—though in a musical language wholly Ghedini’s—is the dark (and unresolved) tension that courses through the whole work, binding it together tautly, even when the musical discourse reduces to a single filament for the first few minutes of the central movement, haunting in its Ghedinian stillness, before the finale impels us to a battering conclusion. Beethoven died at the age of 56; with the passing years, Ghedini the ‘late developer’, now in his late sixties, imbued his own music with ever more Beethovenian energy.
¹ Debussy wrote his ‘three symphonic sketches’ La Mer (‘The Sea’) in 1903–5, inspired by the English Channel.
² Ghedini’s introduction is on pp 214–15, in the Beethoven entry on pp 214–18, of Vol 1 of the Enciclopedia della musica [4 vols, Ricordi, Milan, Vol 1, 1963; Vols 2–4, 1964]; Ghedini discusses the late quartets on p 215.
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GHEDINI, G.F.: Architetture / Contrappunti / Marin...