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ClassicsOnline Home » GHEDINI, G.F.: Concerto detto L'olmoneta / Litanie della Vergine / BACH, J.S. Musical Offering (Ghedini) (1952)
One of the finest Italian composers of the 20th century, Giorgio Federico Ghedini was almost 35 when his Litanie alla Vergine received what he described as a ‘warm welcome from the public, unreserved praise from all the critics and musicians’. Ghedini’s very individual orchestration of J. S. Bach’s Musical Offering is notable for its use of a variety of small, usually homogeneous groups from within an orchestra including two pianos but no horns. L’Olmeneta (The Elm Grove) of 1951 is a fascinating concerto for orchestra and two concertante cellos which Ghedini felt were like two complementary herbs, the red Glaspi and the white Egusa, growing far apart but with roots intertwining underground. At the heart of the concerto lies a haunting, yearning, almost Mahlerian slow movement. Reissued here for the first time in more than 50 years, these are the only known surviving recordings of Ghedini conducting his own music.
By David Denton
Giorgio Federico Ghedini (1892–1965)
L’Olmeneta • Litanie alla Vergine • Musical Offering after Bach
Hot off the press: good news about the undisputed success of my Litanies last night. Warm welcome from the public, unreserved praise from all the critics and musicians. And an immediate request for two more performances later this month. How I wish you could have heard this enchanting work of mine! So transparent and pure and bright…’
The Italian composer Giorgio Federico Ghedini could never be accused of false modesty—but, writing to his lifelong friend Giorgio Negri after the happy première of his Litanie alla Vergine (Litanies to the Virgin Mary) in Bologna in 1927, Ghedini was clearly almost as surprised as he was proud. Success had been a long time coming. Ghedini was almost 35, and only just beginning to be recognised as a composer outside his home city, Turin. Three years later the Litanies became his first work to be played outside Italy, cementing its pivotal rôle in the career he was fighting to establish.
In his twenties Ghedini had struggled with the ‘all-consuming desire to compose: fantasising about writing important works, about becoming ‘somebody’; beautiful plans, wonderful ideals…but no money: composing doesn’t buy you bread, especially to start with.’ To make ends meet, he fell back on other musical talents: he was a fine pianist, and a particularly gifted conductor—he had burst on to the musical scene as a precocious seventeen-year-old conducting Catalani’s Loreley in Novara (between Turin and Milan); but he found he hated the itinerant life of a performer, and gradually turned instead to teaching—which he turned out to be good at too: his composition pupils at the Milan Conservatory would include Niccolò Castiglioni and Luciano Berio. Hopping from hotel room to hotel room in those early years, hacking through popular operas that gave him no pleasure, Ghedini’s ‘refuge was the music of Beethoven and J. S. Bach: I always carried their scores with me, and they “sowed the good seed” in me.’ Decades later, after the Second World War, Ghedini repaid his debt to Bach with an orchestral realisation of the Musical Offering—Bach’s own tribute to Frederick the Great, built on a theme apparently extemporised by the King himself for Bach to improvise on in fugue when he visited the royal palace at Potsdam in 1747. Ghedini himself conducted the première of his version for Italian Radio in Turin almost 200 years later, in 1946:
‘The Musical Offering had the success it deserved, but one that—given the kind of music it is—I didn’t dare hope for. Everyone is asking when they can hear it again. And with this concert I resumed my long-abandoned conducting activity. I didn’t have high hopes of Ghedini the conductor. But actually I found that my long years of experience and maturing, musically and spiritually, had perfected the gifts I showed right back at the age of seventeen. Now I’m asking myself: why didn’t I become a conductor? Was that a good thing or a bad thing? Both. Good for composition, but bad for my…pocket. So: a good thing for art.’
Quite apart from the question of whether so remarkable a theme could really have been invented by the King (did Bach adapt it?), the original Musical Offering poses many musical puzzles. How are some of the canons to be resolved? In what order did Bach want the movements to be played, and on what instruments? As with other twentieth-century composers from Charles Koechlin to Anton Webern, Bach’s contrapuntal tour-de-force stimulated Ghedini’s orchestral individuality: he uses a variety of small, usually homogeneous groups from within his unusual orchestra—including two pianos but no horns. Fuller forces are used very sparingly, until the culminating four-part Canon and six-part Ricercare of the archform Ghedini creates: his manuscript score includes all of Bach’s movements except the Trio Sonata (explicitly scored by Bach for flute—Frederick himself?—with violin and continuo), though this recorded performance also omits the Canon a 2 (per tonos) and the Fuga canonica in Epidiapente.
By this time Ghedini, in his fifties, had belatedly come to be acknowledged as the leading Italian composer between the so-called ‘1880 generation’—Casella, Malipiero, Pizzetti and Respighi (all born around 1880)—and Dallapiccola and Petrassi (both born in 1904). Ghedini’s finest music has a strong kinship with ‘his’ Musical Offering: imaginative orchestration and use of timbre (conductor’s nous?); unusual ensembles; inspiration from Baroque structures, textures and even titles and subtitles—especially the concerto grosso, small solo groups alternating, contrasting and combining with larger ones. But in contrast to the Musical Offering’s counterpoint in incessant motion, the quintessential Ghedini atmosphere is one of stillness: a ‘unique, cold, hypnotic lyricism’, as the Italian music expert John C. G. Waterhouse put it—as if the serene, soaring, singing radiance of the early Litanie alla Vergine has been infiltrated by a sense of unease. The mood may call to mind Malipiero’s ‘musical mystery-plays’—St Francis of Assisi (1920–21), La Cena (1927), La Passione (1935) and Santa Eufrosina (1942)—or visionary Vaughan Williams, or even more recent ‘Baltic minimalism’; but mature Ghedini is rarely so comfortable or comforting.
These qualities are epitomised in L’Olmeneta (The Elm Grove) of 1951, which found Ghedini (as he told Giorgio Negri) ‘working like a dog’:
‘I’m going to call it “Concerto for orchestra and two concertante cellos”—to satisfy my personal taste, to make it playable by the first desk of orchestral cellos (much more practical), and to stop any of those exhibitionist “tenors of the bow” using it as a vehicle to show off their technique.’
The two anti-exhibitionist cello lines are ‘named’ in Ghedini’s score as ‘Glaspi’ and ‘Egusa’, characterising their relationship by reference to lines from Gabriele D’Annunzio’s play La figlia di Iorio (The Daughter of Iorio):
‘There is a red herb called Glaspi and a white herb called Egusa. They grow far apart, but beneath the blind earth their roots meet and intertwine. Their leaves are different, but every seven years on both the same flower blooms.’
L’Olmeneta has four movements, the first two and last two running without a break. The brief second finds the two cellos jousting with two horns (and pairs of other instruments) in a Hunt in the Elm Grove; but the heart of the concerto is the haunting, yearning, almost Mahlerian melodic line of the long, extremely slow third movement. Ghedini’s recurrent ‘calmo’ marking begins to feel like the calm before the storm; but though it seems to rumble ever closer in the finale, the storm never breaks, and the work subsides into the shadowy mists and uneasy Ghedinian stillness from which it germinated, its tension unresolved. Despite their affinity, Glaspi and Egusa can never truly be united.
Following the successful relaunch of his conducting career with the Musical Offering, Ghedini took to the podium more frequently—though he scarcely needed to do so, even for his pocket: by the 1950s his music was being taken up by some of the world’s greatest conductors, including Celibidache (who performed L’Olmeneta) and Karajan, as well as Italians like Abbado, (whose sought-after Angelicum recording of the Concerto spirituale has never been reissued), Cantelli (another Ghedini pupil), De Sabata, Giulini and Muti. The recordings on this CD were made at the beginning of a highly-successful tour from Naples to Rome and Bologna in 1952: ‘Everyone,’ Ghedini observed, ‘is discovering I’m a born conductor’.
Perhaps unresolved tensions are the secret of Ghedini’s greatest work. The tension between conducting and composing. The tension between this utterly down-to-earth advice from Ghedini to a budding conductor, and the subsequent mystical, almost religious evocation of his compositional calling. The tension between his near-arrogance and its antithesis, the plain-speaking humility he shows here. Tensions illuminated, if not resolved, by his conclusion:
‘Never stop the orchestra without a very good reason. Never say just “Let’s do that again”, but always have a stack of observations ready, and make them in purely technical terms—no flowery language. You can use an image or two, but they must always be related to the practical side of things: loud, less loud, bowings, legato, staccato and so on. Don’t worry too much about instrumental entries. Indicate them without disturbing the flow. Just a look can do it. So: learn the whole score off by heart: study, study, study.’
‘It is an unimaginable mystery, the creation of a work of art, of the simple melodic line that is the essence of music…Melody is everything. Harmony is like the bottle to the wine, the frame to the painting. You need lines to create architecture…In my composing room, luxury troubles me. Too good a piano distracts me with the sensuality of its sound. A mediocre instrument sparks my imagination. Outer simplicity kindles inner complexity…Direct external stimuli (e.g. landscapes) are useless. Images left to lie deep in the subconscious, after a long, arduous process, impossible to explain, suddenly escape into the light, in musical form. This mysterious incubation can last for years…Conclusion: never make art a comfortable career. Music is invention, always; it is divorced from reality, a dream, a poetic vision. You must love your own art, at the price of whatever sacrifice.’
Ghedini conducts Ghedini
L’Olmeneta (The Elm Grove) – Concerto for orchestra and 2 concertante cellos
Benedetto Mazzacurati and Mario Gusella, cellos
Litanie alla Vergine
Marica Rizzo, soprano
‘Associazione Scarlatti’ Chorus, Naples (Elena Gubitosi, Chorus Master)
Musical Offering (after Johann Sebastian Bach) (excerpts)
Thema (Andante, gravemente)
Ricercare a 3 (Andante poco mosso)
Canon perpetuus super thema regium (Largo)
Canon perpetuus (Allegro marcato)
Canon a 2 (Quaerendo invenietis):
Canon a 4 (Andante)
Ricercare a 6 (Andante sostenuto)
Orchestra Alessandro Scarlatti di Napoli • Giorgio Federico Ghedini
Live Italian Radio recordings made in the Alessandro Scarlatti Hall of the Conservatorio di San Pietro a Majella, Naples, on 28 March 1952
LP transfers: Ed Thompson • Audio Restoration Engineer: Andrew Lang (K&A Productions Ltd)
Release editors: Peter Bromley and Paolo Zeccara
Thanks to Marina and Victor Ledin, Michael Gray, Angelo Scottini and Massimo Bianchi
First issued in the USA in 1953 and 1954 on Colosseum CLPS 1039 (L’Olmeneta), 1044 (Musical Offering) and 1046 (Litanie)
Publishers: Universal Music Publishing Ricordi S.r.l., (tracks 1–5); Edizioni Suvini Zerboni (tracks 6–19)
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GHEDINI, G.F.: Concerto detto L'olmoneta / Litanie...