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ClassicsOnline Home » GIANNINI, V.: Symphony No. 4 / Piano Concerto (Imreh, Bournemouth Symphony, Spalding)
Motivated by a ‘quest for the beautiful, with the humble hope that I may be privileged to achieve this goal, if only for one precious moment and share this moment with my listeners’, Vittorio Giannini was an impeccable craftsman and masterful orchestrator with a gift for arching, expressive melodies that reflect his abiding love of European musical culture. His Piano Concerto is redolent of Rachmaninov, while the passionate Symphony No 4 , with its heartfelt central movement, places Giannini among America’s finest Neo-Romantic composers. Both works appear not to have been performed since their premières in 1937 and 1960.
By Robert R. Reilly
By Scott Morrison
By David Denton
Vittorio Giannini (1903–1966)
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1934) • Symphony No. 4 (1959)
Vittorio Giannini was born in Philadelphia, to a distinguished musical family. Not only were both his parents professional musicians, but his sister, Dusolina, was one of the world’s leading operatic sopranos during the 1930s and 1940s, and another sister, Euphemia, was a member of the vocal faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music for many years. Today Vittorio is perhaps best known as a teacher, having spent decades on the composition faculties of the Juilliard School, Curtis Institute, and Manhattan School of Music, and ending his educational career as the founding president of the North Carolina School of the Arts. Among his students are John Corigliano, David Amram, Adolphus Hailstork, Alfred Reed, Nicolas Flagello, and Thomas Pasatieri.
Giannini, however, was a prolific composer as well, one of the many Italian-Americans who flourished during the twentieth century, contributing to a distinguished repertoire shaped along traditional tonal, formal, and developmental lines. His output includes more than a dozen operas, seven symphonies, scores of songs, and a variety of concertos and choral, band, and chamber works. His music is notable for its warm immediacy of expression, its ingratiating lyricism, and its impeccable craftsmanship. A true traditionalist, Giannini had no interest in being a trend-setter. His musical creed is perhaps best embodied in his statement that he was driven by “an unrelenting quest for the beautiful, with the humble hope that I may be privileged to achieve this goal, if only for one precious moment and share this moment with my listeners”.
Vittorio began taking music lessons from his mother when he was five; after four years he was awarded a scholarship to study at the Verdi Conservatory in Milan, where he concentrated on both violin and composition. Returning to the United States, he continued his education at the Juilliard School in New York, where he studied composition with Rubin Goldmark (whose students also included Gershwin and Copland).
Giannini’s creative work embraced all standard musical genres, but he is best known today for his operatic and vocal music, and for his pieces for concert band. During the 1920s, 1930s, and early 1940s his compositional output centered chiefly around operas and songs. One of his earliest songs became his most famous: “Tell Me, Oh Blue, Blue Sky”, written in 1927, and still frequently performed today, while his operas Lucedia and The Scarlet Letter had successful European premières during the 1930s. But Giannini also composed instrumental works during that period, among them a piano quintet, a symphony, subtitled, “In Memoriam Theodore Roosevelt”, and the Piano Concerto presented here.
Although Giannini is generally classified among the neo-romantic school of American composers, his Piano Concerto, like his other music from the 1930s, is more accurately characterized simply as “romantic”, as there is little trace in these works of the innovations in harmony and rhythm that appeared toward the beginning of the twentieth century, influencing much of the music of even his conservative contemporaries; nor is there any sense of “Americana” in these early works. It is pure European late-romanticism, somewhat similar in effect to the music of the Hungarian-American Ernst von Dohnányi, who was, admittedly, some 25 years Giannini’s senior.
Giannini composed his Piano Concerto in 1934; its première took place in New York City in 1937. The soloist was none other than the 22-year-old Rosalyn Tureck (later known as the “High Priestess of Bach”). The concerto was well received by both audience and critics. Writing in the New York Times, Olin Downes stated, “There is the sense of a young man who is born to express himself in music, …This concerto is significant of an unmistakable talent, finding itself, …and turning out a very creditable piece of work in so doing.” Francis Perkins (New York Herald Tribune) opined that “the opulence and expansiveness of Mr. Giannini’s score proved welcome. He did not hesitate to dwell upon frankly expressed melodies, while his orchestral coloring proved warm and vivid.” Similarly, Robert Simon (The New Yorker) found it “full of juicy melodies, and it has a healthy virtuoso bounce”, concluding, “pianists who want a ‘real concerto,’ one that comes off paper and gets to work on an audience, will find an answer in this composition.” Yet despite these enthusiastic comments, there is no indication that the work was ever performed again, until now.
The concerto is composed on a grand scale. Much of its bulk derives from Giannini’s propensity for extensive development, including long chains of sequences, throughout the composition. He is also generous with opportunities for the soloist to elaborate the material by means of the full arsenal of standard virtuoso pyrotechnics. The work is cyclical in construction, clearly unified by the motifs presented at the outset, and while the overall texture is relatively simple, the thematic material is combined and manipulated with a thoroughness that is almost compulsive. The overall character of the concerto is extravagantly emotional, from its grimly portentous opening, through its moments of delicacy and sweetness, to its final triumphant peroration.
The first movement, Sostenuto, introduces the stern primary motif of the concerto, while clearly establishing a tonality of D minor. After considerable elaboration by the solo piano, a second idea, plaintively pleading, is introduced, Allegro moderato, still part of the first theme group. After considerable further elaboration, the solo piano introduces the second thematic idea, Andante cantabile, a seductively yearning melody in F-sharp major. After this theme has been explored by both soloist and orchestra, the development section subjects the thematic material to still further elaboration, as the soloist takes every opportunity to emote instrumentally over each motif. Finally, at Largamente, the recapitulation is announced by a richly chordal statement of the second theme, but this builds with apparent spontaneity to a passionate lyrical outburst in which all the thematic ideas are combined in quasi-operatic ecstasy. This is the passage of the concerto in which Giannini’s own individual voice emerges most clearly. But ecstasy is suddenly interrupted as the motifs in their original guises bring the movement to a stormy conclusion. The second movement, an Adagio in D-flat major, is built around a sweetly tender, pensive melody whose derivation from the concerto’s opening motif is unmistakable. This melody gradually builds to a rapturous climax, before receding. The finale, Allegro vigoroso, opens in B minor, with a theme whose descending four-note pattern with dotted-rhythm identifies its source in the second portion of the first theme group of the first movement. After extensive elaboration of this theme, a scherzoso section highlights swirling figurations in the piano. A “new” theme in D-flat major suddenly appears, with a slightly Mediterranean flavor, although it is based on an inversion of that second part of the first theme of the first movement. A reprise of the B-minor opening section of the movement follows, and on its heels a fugato based on that descending four-note motif, followed by merging of that motif with the scherzoso material. The “Mediterranean” melody then comes to the fore, Allegro marziale, in D major, bringing the concerto to a grandly triumphant conclusion.
Giannini composed a total of seven symphonies. The first two date from the 1930s, and were not numbered; five numbered symphonies were then composed between 1950 and 1964. Symphony No. 4, composed 25 years after the Piano Concerto, is the creation of a far more mature and sophisticated composer. Concise and tightly integrated, it is truly a “neo-romantic” symphony: a highly cohesive work in which heartfelt emotional expression is balanced by solid structural values, including touches of modernism, such as basing both melodic and harmonic material on the interval of a fourth, and even some toying with twelve-tone ideas. The work was composed in 1959, and dedicated to Jean Morel, who conducted the first performance with the Juilliard Orchestra in May of the following year. There is no record of the work’s having been performed again, until the appearance of this recording.
The first movement, Allegro con passione, opens with themes, three in this case, of widely contrasting character: the first, restless and tonally vague; the second, tender and warm, introduced by the oboe; and a closing theme, passionate and triumphant. A closer examination, however, reveals that all the thematic material is derived from the opening theme, a series of ascending fourths and descending fifths (disguised by octave shifts) and including all twelve tones. From the very beginning, the familiar conventions of sonata allegro form take place on the surface of a densely concentrated developmental fabric of contrapuntal interrelationships involving the interval of the fourth. The second movement, Sostenuto e calmo, is the emotional core of the symphony, with an opening theme that displays considerable chromatic range, though it too is based on a sequence of perfect fourths, initially divided between the clarinet and the horn. A central section, based on an augmented fourth, blossoms into a gorgeously impassioned melody, heard against a background texture composed of the symphony’s opening motif. A quiet return of the opening material brings the movement to an end. The final movement, Allegro, begins in the manner of a scherzo in Giannini’s skittish buffa mode, dominated by intervals of the fourth and fifth and permeated by references to the symphony’s chief thematic ideas. After much development of this material, a slow epilogue recalls the melodic material from the second movement, building to a grand apotheosis, before a brief coda recalls the scherzo material and brings the work to a terse conclusion.
In his Fourth Symphony, Giannini achieved the dual accomplishment of a cohesive, tightly-shaped developmental structure and an emotionally gratifying work in the symphonic subgenre of mid-twentieth-century American neo-romanticism. As such, it stands alongside the contemporaneous symphonic works of such composers as Howard Hanson, Paul Creston, and Samuel Barber.
Author of Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers (Scarecrow Press, 2004)
A personal note by Gabriela Imreh
The discovery of the Giannini Piano Concerto was a dream come true for me. It is the fascinating, powerful work of a composer with an outstanding talent who somehow was lost in the turmoil of time. The nine or so months I spent learning the concerto were a whirlwind; I was obsessed, unable to think of anything else but this heady, passionate score.
From the start it was clear that the concerto is the work of a young composer: the ambitious scope, the terrifying cascades of arpeggios and breakneck octave passages, all reveal fearless, youthful energy, abandon, and an irresistible feel of technical danger that would excite and challenge any pianist drawn to the virtuoso romantic repertoire. One is easily seduced by themes that are haunting and beautiful - at times heart-wrenchingly so—by the luscious richness of the harmonic palette and the warmth of the orchestration. It is music that, after all, recalls the intoxication of young love. What took time and patience to develop was the vision of the whole, of the complex architectural lines. I worried whether the structure was strong enough to sustain a work of such grandeur and convey a coherent, dramatic story.
I believe that along with its youthful impetuosity the Piano Concerto offers a level of confident, assured delivery of emotion that shows maturity, control, timeless ease and polish. Beyond the obvious beauty I found an imaginative and original handling of the piano’s sound and registers, lucid lines that challenge one climax with another one with shattering power and skill. Above all there is a sense of grounded artistic identity and unflinching honesty in Giannini’s embracing such a style at a time when it was no longer fashionable, and to do so with neither apology nor tentativeness.
During one of my many moments of doubt and anxiety, musicologist Walter Simmons shared with me a letter written by a sixty-year-old Giannini to one of his students, who was facing a period of discouragement. The letter is a passionate testimony about the decision to commit oneself to art, and the price one must be willing to pay. It answers many questions I had about the composer’s musical decisions and somewhat enigmatic career path. It reveals a man to whom his art had nothing to do with vanity, or a superficial quest to please in order to be admired and remembered.
“…Do not be discouraged!! Conserve your courage for in the years ahead of you and the path you wish to pursue there are many discouragements, and you will need every bit of perseverance, courage, to continue onward: You will stumble, you will hurt, but you must continue in the service of your chosen art… . If you want to be an artist you must realize that you must build and live in an interior world of Beauty and dedication to your art and service to God. This is a difficult task which never gets easier. The rest of you will go through the motions of living and outside of the few that you will know that may have the same dedication, you will be lonely and sad, but not unhappy, for happiness is doing what you believe you must do”.
For a musician to work from a manuscript also requires courage and a certain amount of faith. There is a risk in taking on a work that has not been heard for generations. It is intimidating to consider that one’s vision, one’s ability to get to the core of the piece may determine whether it survives, or returns to oblivion. To me it feels like a good gamble that had to, and did stop in my heart.
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GIANNINI, V.: Symphony No. 4 / Piano Concerto (Imr...