Respighi: Six Pieces for Solo Piano (Scherbakov)

It’s embarrassing to admit, but I’ve not paid much attention to the work of Ottorino Respighi. Oh, I know he wrote “The Pines of Rome,” and “The Fountains of Rome,” and “Festivals of Rome.” For godssake, I even lived in Rome and have seen the pines, some festivals and hundreds of fountains. But if you asked me to hum something from one of these piece, I’d be hard-pressed.
Not that I haven’t heard them like, a thousand times, since they used to get played again and again on the local classical radio channels, especially on the call-in request shows.

If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound? If Respighi plays in the background, did I actually hear it? He was 17 years younger than Debussy, and I tend to pigeon-hole him either in the Impressionist school, or maybe as an anachronism like Rachmaninoff–poised between Romantic and Cubist or Atonal music.

He was first noted for his violin and viola virtuosity, playing in string quartets as as principle violist in St. Petersburg, with the Russian Imperial Theatre. While in Russia he studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, and later, living in Germany, reportedly studied with Max Bruch.

Returning to Rome, he taught composition at the St. Cecilia Conservatory, where he managed to weather the Mussolini years trying to remain a-political though he did promote his music for nationalistic purposes. At the same time, he championed more vocal critics of fascism like Aurturo Toscanini.

Today, I’m posting something I stumbled upon while surfing youtube. It’s six pieces for solo piano. From Wikipedia, I see that he wrote operas, ballets, symphonic works, quite a few chamber pieces. His list of works does not include any works for piano, so maybe I should update the Wikipedia entry. Do any of you know anything about his piano works that you can steer me to?

Here’s a piano sonata I just found.

Funiculi, funiculà – Denza/Turco (1880)

This song comes from Naples, Italy, where I lived in 1980, and was written in Neapolitan dialect. It was the winner of a song competition and celebrated the funicular train that had recently been installed on the side of the volcano, Vesuvius.

Here’s a version with the original Neapolitan text and English translation:

I like this version, too by Beniamino Gigli dating from 1949:

Songs We Were Singing

27156-1 Luigi Denza.

This song was written by Luigi Denza and Peppino Turco in 1880. Robert Sherman and Richard Sherman wrote new lyrics to the tune in 1961 and titled the song Dream Boy. Dream Boy was recorded by Annette Funucello and released as a single. Funiculi, Funicula has been recorded by Mitch Miller And The Gang, Mario Lanza, Connie Francis, and Tony Mottola among others. The song was part of Lee Curtis and The All-Stars’ repertoire and was played in a rock style.

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A to Z: V is for Albena Petrovic-Vratchanska

A2Z-BADGE-0002015-LifeisGood-230_zps660c38a0 Today is day 22 of the Blogging from A to Z April Challenge in which I attempt to blog every day (excepting Sundays) throughout the month of April. For this challenge, I am curating a collection of “classical” music pieces, which are lesser known or by lesser known composers (to me at least).Today’s composer is Albena Petrovic-Vratchanska (b. 1965).

Petrovic-Vratchanska hails from Sophia, Bulgaria and appears to be an amazingly prolific composer. She’s completed over 600 works in various forms and has been awarded for her compositions.

Crystal Dream by Albena Petrovic-Vratchanska

The composer’s Wikipedia entry: Albena Petrovic-Vratchanska

A to Z: U is for Vincenzo Ugolini

A2Z-BADGE-0002015-LifeisGood-230_zps660c38a0 Today is day 21 of the Blogging from A to Z April Challenge in which I attempt to blog every day (excepting Sundays) throughout the month of April. For this challenge, I am curating a collection of “classical” music pieces, which are lesser known or by lesser known composers (to me at least).Today’s composer is Vincenzo Ugolini (ca. 1580 – 1638).Ugolini came from Perugia and started out at one of my favorite churches in Rome, San Luigi dei Francesi as choirmaster. He also held that position at other places like the Cathedral at Benevento, Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, and the Capella Giulia in San Pietro.

Quae est ista 3 by Vincenzo Ugolini

The composer’s Wikipedia page Vincenzo Ugolini

This is A Piece on San Luigi dei Francesi I wrote a few years ago for a now-defunct website:

San Luigi Dei Francesi

Seat of the cardinal of Paris in Rome and the heart of the city’s French community, San Luigi dei Francesi houses three outstanding paintings by Michelango de Merisi, known as Caravaggio. It is also a riot of Roman baroque art.


Cardinal Giulio di Giuliano de’ Medici (later to became Pope Clement VII) ordered a church to be built in 1518, not only to serve the French community living in Rome but also as the seat of his cardinalship. The French connection came in the form of Catherine de Medici, great niece to Giulio and wife of King Henry II of France, who donated funds for its construction.

The site chosen was a small church named Santa Maria owned by Medici family. Santa Maria had been built on the ruins of the Baths of Nero and the Baths of Agrippa, and had long served the French community in Rome, which operated a hospital for the infirm on the site.

Cardinal Giulio commissioned the architect, Jean de Chenevière, to build the church, based on plans by Giacomo della Porta, who had built Santissima Trinità dei Monti (the church at the top of the Spanish Steps). Construction of the church was halted in 1527, when Rome was sacked by troops of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Building was resumed in 1580 under the direction of the architect Domenico Fontana, who had completed the Dome of Saint Peter’s.

Since the patron saint of France is King Louis IX, the church was dedicated to him, hence San Luigi. The French kings Henry II, Henry III and the latter’s mother, Catherine de’ Medici, donated funds for its completion. It was consecrated in 1589, the year Catherine died.

What to See

Credit for the façade goes to Giacomo della Porta, who also designed the façade of Il Gesu. Carved from lovely white travertine marble, the façade has two levels (or orders), on top of which sits a small peak. The coat of arms at the top belongs to the Valois Family, and carvings of salamanders represent King Francois I of France, who was the French monarch when the foundation was laid. Four statues depict Charlemagne, St. Louis, St. Clotilde (5th century Queen of the Franks), and St. Joan of Valois (daughter of Louis XI).

The plan of the church is a basilica, that is, a rectangular shape without a transept. Originally a Counter-Reformation church, it would have been quite austere. However, the wealth of the Medicis and the French kings resulted in its subsequent lavish decoration. A number of famous Italian and French artists worked on the interior. Charles Joseph Natoire, whose works also adorn Versailles palace, painted the ceiling fresco (1754), which depicts San Luigi ascending into heaven. It is surrounded by one of the richest and most ornate coffered ceilings in Rome.

The Polet Chapel, to the right of the altar, contains a cycle of frescoes (1612-14) by Domenichino, student of Caracci of the Bolognese school. The bright frescoes recount the dramatic events in the life of Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians and church music. Legend has it that as Cecilia lay dying, three days after her throat was cut, she continued to sing “in her heart to the Lord.” Above the main altar hangs a painting by Francesco Bassano entitled The Assumption.

Contarelli Chapel and Works of Caravaggio

Amazingly, some descriptions of this church fail to mention that it contains three of the greatest and most influential paintings ever produced in Italy. Perhaps this has to do with the shadowy life of the man who painted them, Michelango di Merisi, known as Caravaggio, who later killed a man in a duel and spent the last four years of his
life on the lam.

Then again, perhaps it has to do with the ambivalence of his paintings, which, though covering famous religious subjects, do not exactly inspire faith, either because of the dramatic content – decapitations, crucifixions, depositions from the cross, etc. – or because Caravaggio often used his friends as models, including prostitutes, card sharps, and other folk of dubious morals. One early travel guide to Rome says of him: “He painted chiefly plebian types.” What is true is that Caravaggio’s three paintings in the Contarelli Chapel changed the way that people looked at painting and influenced countless artists who followed.

The artist Cavalier D’Arpino received a commission to decorate the chapel for theFrench Cardinal Matteu Contreil (in Italian, Matteo Contarelli). Caravaggio was working as an apprentice for D’Arpino at the time, and when D’Arpino became too busy to complete the decoration, Caravaggio’s patron, Cardinal Francesco del Monte, helped attain the commission for the artist.

Contarelli’s will stated that the chapel contain works depicting the life of St. Matthew, Contarelli’s namesake (Matteo is the Italian form of Matthew). The will was quite specific as to what should be painted – Saint Mathew’s calling by Jesus; his divine inspiration to write his gospel; and his martyrdom.

Caravaggio had never worked on such large canvasses before, and X-rays reveal he reworked the paintings a number of times.

The painting on the left, The Calling of St Matthew, takes place indoors where Saint Matthew, then a finely dressed moneychanger, sits with a group of common types. Jesus has just entered the dark room, raised his arm, and uttered the words “Follow me,” (Matthew 9:9). The saint looks up, incredulous with an expression as if to say, “Who, me?” The composition contributes to the drama of the scene. A source of light above and behind Jesus’ head slashes the darkness and slants down to illuminate the saint’s face. As in many of his religious works, Caravaggio’s subjects are depicted at the moment of a miraculous event. However, the contrast between the light of the illumined figures and their surroundings, which become almost indistinguishable as they recede into the dark, increases the dramatic tension of the work. This play of light and dark in painting is called chiaroscuro, and Caravaggio’s particular form became known as tenebrism (tenebre meaning “shadow” in French.)

On the opposite wall hangs The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew. The scene shows St. Matthew, who had just been celebrating Mass, seconds before a soldier sent by the King of Ethiopia plunges a sword into him. Legend has it that St. Matthew converted the Ethiopian royal family to Christianity, but when Matthew preached a sermon on the virtues of virginity shortly before a prince’s wedding, it so enraged the bridegroom that he ordered St. Matthew executed. At the moment of death, an angel appears before Matthew, and extends a palm frond toward him, reassuring the saint of his place in heaven. Contarelli wished to show the effect of the martyrdom on the onlookers. One flees, turning look back with an expression of terror on his face. Others stagger back or cower in fear. One figure to the left of the angel is actually a self-portrait by Caravaggio, notable for the look of sadness in his eyes. One scholar described the look this way: “[he is] contemplating and searching himself for responses to the scene to which he is witness.”



The third painting, above the altar, The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, is not the painting Caravaggio originally created for this location. His first submission, entitled The Angel and Saint Matthew, hung in the chapel only a few days before the priests took it down. The reason? The priests said it had “neither the decorum nor the appearance of a saint.”

In this painting, the saint sits with his legs crossed and his bare left foot extending out toward the viewer. An angel, a winged young boy, whispers into Matthew’s ear while guiding his hand in writing his gospel. Sadly, this work survives only as a black and white photograph. The original perished in a museum in Berlin at the close of World War II.

Caravaggio took the rejection hard, but created another masterpiece to replace it, along his robes to the ground.  These three paintings, Caravaggio’s first major church commission, cemented his reputation, and he continued to work constantly until his death in 1610 at the age of 38.

Getting There

From the Colosseum, walk up Via dei Fori Imperiali to Piazza Venezia, turn left on Via Del Plebiscito. This turns into Corso Vittorio Emmanuele II. Continue past the Largo Argentina and turn right on Corso Del Rinascimento. Turn right on Via del Salvatore. At Via della Scrofa, turn left and the church is immediately on your left.

Sonata in G Major, K 146 (L 349)

On October 26, 1685, Domenico Scarlatti was born in Naples, Italy. He is considered the father of modern piano playing as he invented the crossing of hands, rapid repetition of notes, and long arpeggio passages. I have written about two of his other pieces–Sonata in F Major, L. 188, and the Sonata in D Major, L.424.

Scarlatti wrote over 600 sonatas for piano, and critics have said that only a few were duds, so really I could write about nothing but him for the next few years, but that’s not fair. What’s more, I’m only familiar with the 12 pieces that Horowitz recorded that appear on his album, “Horowitz Plays Scarlatti,” which dates from the early 1960s. On the other hand, I could envision a web site devoted just to that composer, in which someone with more musical training than I would write an essay on each sonata. Any takers?

What has always struck me about Scarlatti is how meticulous and playful a composer he was. Today’s Sonata in G Major, Longo 349 demonstrates that as well as any I know. The right hand scurries about playing impossibly fast runs, punctuated and sometimes subdued by the more serious left. I get the image of a kitten playing tag with the tail of a large but benevolent golden retriever. There is so much sweetness in this music it is breathtaking.

In looking up Scarlatti’s biography, I was pleased to see he was from Naples, a city I lived in from 1980 to 1981. The people there have a passion for life that I have not found in many other places. How fitting that Scarlatti came from there.

Scarlatti Biography

Giuseppe Verdi: “Celeste Aïda” from “Aïda”

In 2000, when I started The Musical Almanac, I couldn’t decide whether culturally, we were better or worse off than a during the 1800s. The US had just seen the impeachment of its president after a witch hunt of many years that exposed his amorous indiscretions.  The opposing party came in shortly after that and we had September 11, the War in Iraq, a global economic crisis, and what seems to be a tide of rising fundamentalism in the West.  Despite the fact that the ice caps are melting, there are stronger storms, worse droughts, and increase in certain disease, many people still deny climate change.

In other parts of the world the Internet has brought information and instantaneous communication to even the remotest parts of the globe.  As we have seen with the Arab Spring uprisings, this technology has caused an absolute explosion of ideas.  The times they are a changing.  Since it all started in North Africa, let’s look at an opera set in Pharaonic  Egypt.

Radames a young warrior in Pharaoh’s army sings the aria, Celeste Aïda (heavenly Aïda) at the beginning of the opera. The army is about to go to war with Ethiopia, and he will lead the campaign. In the aria, he declares his love for the slave girl Aïda, who is the captured daughter of the King of Ethiopia. Aïda serves Amneris, Pharaoh’s daughter, who is in love with Radames. (You can see where this is going.) In Radames’ aria he hopes that he can lead his troops well and win the battle so he can say to Aïda, “I’ve fought for you. I’ve won for you.” Then he sings:

Celeste Aïda, forma divina, Heavenly Aïda, divine shape,
Mistico serto di luce e fior,
Del mio pensiero tu sei regina
Tu di mia vita sei lo splendor.
Il tuo bel cielo vorrei ridarti,
Le dolci brezze del patrio suol :
Un regal serto sul crin posarti,
Ergerti un trono vicino al sol,
Mystic garland of light and flowers
you are queen of my thoughts
you are the splendor of my life
I would like to give you your sky back
the sweet breeze of the fatherland:
to put a regal garland on your heart
to build up a throne for you next to the sun

Such grand themes!

I wonder what connection this story had with the people of Verdi’s day.  Aïda is based on a story created by a leading Egyptologist of the day. The previous century Napoleon had campaigned in Egypt, and his troops discovered the Rosetta Stone. With the spoils he sent back and Champollion successfully translating hieroglyphics, Europe came under the spell of Egyptiana. Both England and France were busy building empires during the 19th century, which some might argue did more damage than any McDonalds at the foot of the Great wall of China.

Verdi wrote Aïda in 1871 for the Khedive of Egypt to commemorate the opening of the Suez Canal. Verdi was 58 at the time and of such a stature that he was able to command the equivalent of $200,000 in today’s money, to write the opera. It premiered in Cairo on Christmas Eve and in Milan about a month and a half later. It was met with immediate success and remains a standard of the repertoire.

When Verdi died in 1901, the entire population of Italy went into mourning for him. I used to marvel at this, until I moved to Naples in 1980. When I first arrived, a friend of a friend put me up in an old 18th century palazzo that had been turned into apartments. He had a daughter who was about 9 or 10 at the time. My room was next to the bathroom. One day, I awoke to the sound of this little girl, who during her morning ablutions, stopped to belt out a rousing popular Neapolitan song of the day. On another occasion, while sitting in a restaurant in the back streets of Naples one Sunday morning, a middle-aged man drove up on his Vespa on which he had affixed a crate for carrying the bottles of seltzer water he was delivering. When he alit, he stopped and suddenly burst into a beautiful love song that echoed throughout the narrow streets.

Sometimes artists put down the common people as being philistinic and unappreciative of their art, but the fact of the matter is that how technology and education is used and who uses it is a political decision with serious economic underpinnings. Before we go name calling, it’s important to figure out who’s pulling the strings.

Giuseppe Verdi: “Triumphal March from Aida”

Listen to a Podcast of this Post: Here on Podomatic

It still astounds me to realize how many pieces of classical music have been used to flog products. While searching through music news groups recently, somebody asked the question, “Do you know which piece of music is used in the Buick Century commercial?” Someone answered almost instantly: “Lalo: Symphonie Espagnole.5th movt.”

Psychological research on memory and learning tells us that people remember better when we involve more than one of the senses while learning something new. The theory states that you thereby “hang” the memory on more than one hook and that makes it easier to find for later retrieval. Thus, it would make sense to light a stick of incense, put on some great music, and sit in a comfy chair while studying for a test. School systems systematically ignore these findings and school kids today still sit in stony silence, wedged in chairs/desks that make the Iron Maiden seem like a Lazy Boy recliner.

The Portuguese Mateus Wine Company used the “Triumphal March” from Aida in the early 1970s to sell class. Mateus sold a rose wine in a bottle that looked like it was made of terra cotta, and the white was packaged to look like a bottle of Armagnac.

The commercial gives you, the viewer, the point of view of a middle-class couple opening the door to receive guest for a party. The music starts as the door opens out to reveal a ridiculously long arrow-straight sidewalk up to the front of the house (this is the suburbs, right?) Another couple walks toward the camera carrying a bottle of Mateus and present it to the hosts when they arrive at the door.

It’s quite a clever how Mateus uses the music to convey as sense of dignity to what probably turned out to be a 1970s wife-swapping party. In short they were selling a dream–that this crass, materialistic, anti-intellectual couple had class. No matter that alcoholism claims more lives and has shattered more homes than all the “illegal” drugs combined. Image is everything, after all. And alcohol is legal. As an adolescent, I loved the commercial. Later, as a college student, I followed its message and abused alcohol almost every chance I got. So it was quite an effective campaign, if you ask me.

In high school, my friends the M* family told me the source of the music. I dutifully trundled down to the library and checked out Aida and eventually went on to purchase it. It proved quite valuable later on when I went to college. My second year I transferred to a huge university (student population circa 33,000) that actually had high-rise dorms. My tower sat opposite another tower, which was our rival. Some nights, people in one dorm would throw open their windows and start shouting at the other dorm. This would escalate on both sides until almost everyone was involved. After about an hour of this, I would open my window, put the speakers of my stereo on the ledge and crank up the “Triumphal March.” Eventually the shouting would stop.

I used to flatter myself that playing this piece caused the end of these little outbreaks. In all honesty, though, the people probably just got bored (or hoarse) from all that yelling at each other and just stopped. Still, I like to think that I had a hand in bringing culture to my fellow drunks.

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