September 10, 2015 1 Comment
From 1980 to 1982 I lived in Italy, the first year in Naples, the second in Rome. How does a boy from Indiana get bitten by the Italian bug? The country grabbed my attention in the early 1970s the moment I saw my first Fellini film, Satyricon. It was either my friend, Kerry Wade, or my high school english teacher in my junior year, William Ribblet, who turned me on to it.
The film’s depiction of life in ancient Rome, blew me away. It was a harsh, brutal society, but it gave us western civilization and the foundation of our republican democracy. But I wasn’t thinking of that in high school: Satyricon overflowed with sex, which for a teenager was continuously on my mind. And it also showed an ancient world that was a funny, venal, and real as our modern one.
The scene in Satyricon that blew me away showed how blasé and decadent the Romans had become by the 3rd century before Alaric and the Visigoths sacked the city. The action takes place in the house of a wealthy roman patrician who has hired a troupe of actors to give a performance of some ancient Greek tragedy. The master of the house, epicene and impotent, is unimpressed by the play. To spice things up, the manager of the troupe comes out and announces a special treat. They will bring out a criminal caught stealing and cut his hand off. Which they do. Supposedly, it was not fake. Fellini found a person who had a gangrenous hand and paid him to have his hand cut off, heavily drugged of course, which Fellini filmed.
In his 1972 film Roma, Fellini drew an even stronger parallel between ancient and modern day Rome by in a scene where a modern construction crew takes an archeologist down into the bowels of Rome because they had discovered an ancient Roman villa while digging a subway tunnel. The villa was almost intact with wonderful frescoes on the walls. As more are discovered, you realize that they are actually portraits of the modern visitors. Then the air from modern day Rome, with its pollution, starts to eat away the paint and stucco of the frescoes and in a few minutes they disappear in front of our eyes.
Today’s piece, “Chrysanthemum” has nothing to do with my time in Italy. I heard it some 15 years after moving back to the states, (why I still sometimes wonder). My wife and I ended up living in the god-forsaken town of Gaithersburg, Maryland, which lies about 20 miles north of Washington, DC. Our suburb was beautiful. I had a 3000 square foot house. The neighbors had immaculate lawns. There was a community pool. The neighbors were lawyers, businessmen, veterinarians, journalists, catholics, evangelicals, white, and computer entrepreneurs. Many were drunks. Not once did I ever have an interesting conversation with any of them about classical music, art or literature.
One forlorn day, riding back from somewhere into this air-conditioned nightmare, I switched on the classical music channel, WBJC from Baltimore. Today’s piece by Puccini was playing. My heart melted at its beauty. I wondered why I had never heard it before. Maybe it’s overshadowed by all of his operas.
Puccini wrote it as a string quartet in 1890, “Alla memoria di Amedeo di Savoia Duca d’Aosta.” Allegedly, he wrote it in a single night in memory of his friend, Amadeo, the Duke of Aosta. Amadeo, according to Wikipedia, was “the second son of King Vittorio Emanuele II (King of Piedmont, Savoy, Sardinia and, later, first King of Italy).” He himself became King of Spain from 1870 to 1873, at which point he abdicated because the country was turning into a republic, and moved to Turin. Puccini was active at that time and they became friends. I’m not a big fan of the monarchy, but this they did cause some great works of art to come into being. And art has the power to assuage the soul, even if you live in Gaithersburg.