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ClassicsOnline Home » MERCADANTE, S.: Sinfonia su motivi dello Stabat Mater di Rossini / Omaggio a Bellini / Clarinet Concerto No. 2 (Casani, Rome Symphony, La Vecchia)
Saverio Mercadante’s substantial contribution to instrumental music is exceptional among other famous Italian opera composers of his time. Both his Omaggio a Bellini and the Gran Sinfonia sopra motivi dello Stabat Mater del celebre Rossini are fantasias which contrast the dramatic and the lyrical in their selection of famous tunes of the day. The Seconda Sinfonia caratteristica napoletana magnificently captures the spirit of the tarantella, while the small-scale Clarinet Concerto No 2 is reminiscent of Mozart. Two patriotic anthems and a popular Milanese song infuse the sumptuously orchestrated Garibaldi – Sinfonia a grand’orchestra which celebrates Italian unification.
Saverio Mercadante (1795–1870)
Unlike other leading lights of nineteenth-century Italian opera, who rarely turned their hand to instrumental composition, Saverio Mercadante wrote a good number of orchestral and chamber works as well as the sixty-odd operas that made him famous in his own time. Some of his instrumental music dates back to his student days at the Naples Conservatorio di San Sebastiano, where he became a composition pupil of the new director, Zingarelli, whom he was to succeed in 1840. His early compositions include a series of flute concertos, one of which was published by Girard in 1819. Although his instrumental works are quite separate from the world of opera, many of them nonetheless reveal its influence: his compositions include fantasias and symphonies conceived as tributes to, and based on themes from, well-known operas by such composers as Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti and Pacini. As an experienced man of the theatre, Mercadante knew he was bound to fare well with tunes that people already knew and loved. After all, was not that exactly what the great piano virtuosi of the age—chief among them Liszt—were doing when they either improvised or composed pastiches based on the most popular operas of the day?
Hence Mercadante’s Omaggio a Bellini, a ‘fantasy for large orchestra’. Like Mercadante, Bellini had been a pupil of Zingarelli at the Conservatory in Naples, and Mercadante attended Bellini’s funeral in Paris in 1835. The Fantasy creates an attractive instrumental collage from themes taken from Norma, alternating lively episodes with others more lyrical in nature. It is variously dated between 1840 and 1860, but was published in the latter year, when it was described as specially composed and dedicated to Signor Cavaliere Vincenzo Zurlo, an important figure in the Naples political world and a member of the board of governors of the Conservatory. As one would expect for a work in this genre, it displays great formal freedom. Similarly, the composer shows considerable flexibility in the way in which he quotes Bellini, using both fragmentary and literal citations (listen, for example, to his treatment of the theme of the first-act introductory chorus and cavatina, Ite sul colle, o druidi). He introduces his choice of quotations in the same order in which they appear in the opera, and the Omaggio ends with a section based on the final chorus of Act II (Guerra! Guerra!). Mercadante also retains the original key signatures and, generally speaking, seems to have had little interest in developing the material—in all likelihood, what mattered most to him was his composition’s immediacy and instant accessibility.
The Gran sinfonia sopra motivi dello Stabat Mater del celebre Rossini, which works along similar lines, was composed expressly to precede a performance of the Stabat Mater in Naples in April 1843. Despite its title, this is no symphony that any of his European colleagues would have recognised as such. Here the term simply refers to its being an orchestral work—it is in fact another fantasia. After a solemn introduction, in which a strident brass opening is answered in dramatic fashion by short, fragmented phrases on the strings, we hear the first Rossinian theme. Then, as in the Omaggio a Bellini, one theme follows another, with various changes of tempo, while the orchestra is used in blocks of sound: one minute the strings are playing a theme with the woodwind adding rhythmic annotations, the next the brass are blasting out another melody above tremolando strings. This limpid and well-defined instrumentation incorporates various orchestral techniques typical of Bellini and Donizetti, such as the woodwind melodies in thirds.
It was not just opera, however, which inspired Mercadante in his instrumental compositions, as is demonstrated by, for example, the two symphonies, composed several years apart, which proclaim a particular association with Naples. A first Sinfonia caratteristica sopra i più graziosi motivi napoletani was written in 1832, and revised in 1856 for the Naples Conservatory orchestra. The Seconda sinfonia caratteristica napoletana was included in a collection of 6 Sinfonie caratteristiche. Its ‘symphony’ tag somewhat belies its true nature. There is surely nothing more Neapolitan than the tarantella, and within the more polished, sophisticated framework of a symphony, the relentless, leaping dance rhythm makes itself heard, by means of a persistent use of triplets, pizzicato and percussion. Here there are no moments of repose, no changes of tempo, just the key changes and major–minor modulations characteristic of the tarantella, in addition to the use of the ‘Neapolitan sixth’. The dance’s vitality fascinated many composers, from Europe to the New World, and there were many attempts to pay homage to it or capture its spirit (in 1858 the American composer Gottschalk wrote an astonishing tarantella for piano and orchestra without having ever set foot in Naples). It therefore seems unthinkable that anyone who had lived and been trained as a musician in that city, as Mercadante had, could have failed to be inspired by the tarantella.
Towards the end of Mercadante’s career (his final opera, Pelagio, a tragedia lirica, was staged at the San Carlo theatre in Naples in 1857) came his Sinfonia ‘Garibaldi’, written when Italian unification was almost complete. The symphony was finished in March 1861, and it was on the 17th of that month that the Kingdom of Italy was declared, thanks in no small part to Giuseppe Garibaldi. A fervent patriot, Mercadante had written a number of hymns, choruses and marches inspired by the struggle for unification, and the Sinfonia ‘Garibaldi’ can be seen as the last in this vein, which proved a rich source of musical stimulation. Judging from contemporary reviews and the many adaptations and transcriptions for different forces that were made of it, the work was very warmly received. Curiously, however, it was never published in its original, symphonic form. Cast in a single movement, subdivided into sections in different keys and tempos, the symphony’s internal unity comes from the use of two patriotic anthems, the Inno dei cacciatori delle Alpi (Alpine Hunters’ Hymn) and a popular Milanese song called La bella Gigogin (Pretty Teresa), which is first heard on the cellos. The two are variously alternated and developed as the work travels from an initial Andante mosso to an Allegro section and on again to a final, triumphant Più animato e molto staccato. The orchestration is sumptuous, the work being scored for substantial forces, including piccolo, harp, four horns and three trombones.
By contrast, the small-scale Concerto in B flat for clarinet and chamber orchestra is not based on any external programmatic ideas. The concision, harmonic clarity and supple phrasing of this two-movement, delightfully old-fashioned work give it a definite eighteenth-century, Haydnesque feel. The solo writing displays great assurance in the way it makes full use of the instrument’s technical resources: the nimble runs and sudden changes of register, dynamics and articulation are reminiscent of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto of 1791. Indeed this same assurance can be heard across the works on this recording, all of which demonstrate the composer’s inventiveness and firm grasp of orchestral technique. Mercadante knew how to make best use of his orchestra, and it was no coincidence that Liszt (who was otherwise no great admirer of Italian musical production) should have expressed his feelings about the former in glowing terms when he wrote, in 1838: “We have to make an exception for Mercadante: he has sufficient judgement to write at a slow pace and to revise his own work with care…Some of his instrumental works are truly remarkable. His latest compositions are without doubt the most meticulously crafted in the current repertoire.”
Born in Altamura in 1795 (the exact date is unknown), Mercadante studied in Naples with Giovanni Furno, Giacomo Tritto and Nicola Antonio Zingarelli. It was in that same city, one of the major operatic centres of Europe, that his first stage work, L’apoteosi d’Ercole, was produced in 1819. Two years later, his Elisa e Claudio was staged to great acclaim at La Scala, Milan. He travelled to Spain and Portugal, and later to Paris, at Rossini’s invitation. The opera that resulted from that commission, I briganti, was given its première in the French capital in 1836. From 1840 until his death, Mercadante was director of the Naples Conservatory. Of his many operas, Donna Caritea, Il giuramento and Orazi e Curiazi enjoyed particular success.
Translation by Susannah Howe
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