Garibaldi’s Red Shirts are marching triumphantly en route to the successful Risorgimento, the establishment in 1861 of a united Italy—though the actual ramifications were complex and true uniting took longer. Lustily they sing, and the song on their lips is none other than Va pensiero, the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Verdi’s Nabucco (8.571000), a hymn to freedom whose sense of longing infuses the patriots. Even in this very moment of crisis, the Italian operatic spirit is central to the aesthetic feelings of the people. A good chorus never dies; and its transference from the world of the stage to the living current of soldiery and politics is potent proof. But here’s the strange thing. Even as Garibaldi was helping to forge the united Italy, the great instrumental and orchestral compositional traditions the country had enjoyed were in decline and were soon to be eclipsed.
The release of Saverio Mercadante’s orchestral music (8.572731) highlights these thoughts. An operatic pioneer alongside Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi he was one of the few such composers to write seriously in the medium of orchestral music, though a number of these works were derived from operatic source material. He lived until 1870, by which time opera had all but crushed every other genre in popularity, influence, and sheer economic muscle. And yet Italy had produced some of the great instrumental virtuosi, going back to Domenico Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas (8.554792), Corelli’s cornerstone Op.5 violin sonatas (8.557165 and 8.557799), Tartini’s Concertos (8.570222) and sonatas—not to mention Vivaldi (Four Seasons on 8.571071).
But don’t even look that far back. Imagine you are one of the great star nineteenth-century Italian virtuosi. Take Camillo Sivori, Paganini’s only acknowledged pupil. His Etudes-Caprices (8.572484) attest to his mastery. And then there is the greatest cellist of the age—Alfredo Piatti – whose Caprices (8.570782) reveal his virtuosity. For the double bass look no further than Giovanni Bottesini, whose pyrotechnical works astonish even today (8.572284). But where is your native contemporary repertoire?
The death in 1840 of Paganini (the epochal Caprices are on 8.550717) largely contributed to a withering of Italian orchestral music. There was little opportunity to promote such music in the land of opera. Beethoven’s Eroica symphony wasn’t performed in the country until, rather unbelievably, 1867 and the Seventh had to wait until 1870. Orchestral music was the preserve of a small enclave of enthusiasts. Most of it was performed in reductions or piano arrangements. Both Beethoven symphonies were, however, conducted by Giovanni Sgambati whose own First Symphony (1880-81) was admired by Grieg and Saint-Saëns. He laid the seed, along with Giuseppe Martucci (8.570929, 8.570931, and 8.570932) and in particular his masterpiece, the Second Symphony of 1904 which Gian Francesco Malipiero called ‘the beginning of the rebirth of non-operatic Italian music’ (8.570930).
What it took to drive the process further still was the establishment of a concerted renascence in Italian orchestral music. And for that we must thank the ‘generazione dell’ottanta’, the generation of composers born in the 1880s. Prominent among them were Casella, Ildebrando Pizzetti, Ottorino Respighi (the oldest, actually born in 1879), and Malipiero. What they shared was a common dislike of verismo opera, and a raging determination to replace it through their individual and combined efforts.
Of them, the most influential was Alfredo Casella (1883-1947), who set up societies to promote Italian instrumental and orchestral music. Successive releases of his music have established just how exhilarating and powerful it can be. He effectively established symphonic modernism in the country. The First (8.572413), the Second (8.572414) and the magnificently structured Third Symphonies (8.572415) are indeed the foundation stones of twentieth-century symphonic writing in Italy. Orchestrally, the Elegia eroica is a searing human memorial to Italians killed in the First World War (8.572415) whilst he himself considered his Concerto, Op.61 to be the summation and greatest single achievement of his orchestral writing (8.573004). As Garibaldi liberated the nation, so Casella truly freed Italian composers from the operatic yoke. He was an enabler, an energiser and a practitioner rolled into one.
And in his wake, and through the opportunities he provided for performances of new works via societies—not least the Società Italiana di Musica Moderna—came a succession of great works from his contemporaries. Ildebrando Pizzetti, whose significance is now increasingly being recognised, wrote a pastoral symphony of beguiling beauty called Concerto dell’estate (Summer Concerto) (8.572013), and Respighi unleashed his magnificently vibrant Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome, and The Birds, amongst many others, and crafted a Violin Concerto in 1903—Sivori never lived to hear it—that has recently been revised, completed and recorded, receiving its premiere in 2010 (8.572332). Malipiero wrote no fewer than 11 numbered and six unnumbered symphonies. The Third and Fourth were written during the Second World War (8.570878) and are amongst his best such works—powerful, compelling, haunting, and strongly orchestrated. By now Italy could compete on the world stage. It had the structures to promote, the orchestras to perform, the conductors to interpret, and above all—thanks to Casella and many others—the composers to craft significant and important new work, a process that continues to this day.