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Geoffrey Simon and the Philharmonia continue their rummaging in the depths of the orchestral cupboard and come up trumps with Respighi's gruesome 1920 tone-poem (a term rather too genteel) depicting the murderous goings-on of a pair of she-gnomes …
Born in Bologna in 1879, Respighi’s early musical studies took him at the age of 23 to Russia for lessons with Rimsky-Korsakov. These were to have a vital influence on his technical development, whilst a sojourn in Berlin a few years later, where he attended lectures given by Max Bruch, found Respighi coming under the considerable musical spell of Richard Strauss.
Respighi then returned to Bologna, but in 1913 settled in Rome for the rest of his life and it was here that he was to produce a large amount of highly varied music—some of it well known, much of it less so. Geoffrey Simon’s championship of the little-known works of celebrated composers has proved highly successful both on record and in the concert hall, and his exploration of Respighi’s catalogue has yielded a number of colourful compositions whose neglect hitherto remains something of a mystery. The works recorded here cover a wide range of moods, from the opulence and excitement for which Respighi was noted in his famous Roman Trilogy, to more reflective pieces inspired by a nostalgia for the music of the past.
Ballata delle gnomidi (Ballad of the gnomes)
This extraordinary symphonic tone-poem was composed between The Fountains of Rome (1918) and The Pines of Rome (1925) and was inspired by verses written by the lawyer-cum-poet Carlo Clausetti (1869-1943). Clausetti’s father was a music printer who had opened a shop in Naples opposite the San Carlo Theatre, and it was here that the Naples branch of Ricordi was eventually established. This was the publishing firm which was to put out most of Respighi’s music, and in time Carlo Clausetti became director of both the Naples and Milan offices of Ricordi, making a considerable name for himself as music editor, composer and stage director. He befriended Respighi, Puccini and many other Italian composers and musicians and was, in the words of his offspring, Eugenio, 'a typical son of the golden age of the Neapolitan nobility at the turn of the century'.
His poem, Ballata delle gnomidi, first appeared in print in the Naples journal Il Mattino on 13 August 1899 and was a clever experiment in Italian verse. It attempted to explore a vein of literature which was common in ancient Greek, Roman and Nordic mythology, whereby innocent males come to decidedly sticky ends at the hands of unscrupulous females. One thinks of the Sirens luring sailors to their doom with voluptuous singing, or of the hydra-headed Medusa turning to stone any hero who gazes upon her.
Perhaps Clausetti even got his idea from a poem by the Russian romantic Mikhail Lermontov which told of an evil seductress who enticed unwary travellers into her tower and in the morning tossed their lifeless corpses into the river below. (Balakirev’s celebrated tone-poem Tamara, based on this legend, was composed in 1882 and was a particular favourite of Sir Thomas Beecham.)
Clausetti’s original poem ran to nine stanzas but was much expanded when it appeared in the preface to Respighi’s score in 1920. The Italian title indicates that the gnomes (or gnomides) are of the female variety and Clausetti’s ballad describes a hair-raising ceremony in which two tiny harridans snatch an equally diminutive male from among their number and drag him unwillingly to bed in the middle of the night.
It would be indelicate in the extreme to speculate just what goes on during this nocturnal ménage-a-trois and in any case the poet merely leaves things to the reader’s imagination. Suffice to say that whatever it is they subject him to, the two wives conclude the proceedings in grisly fashion by putting the poor gnome to death with drastic suddenness and his scream of horror resounds through the inky darkness.
As day breaks, the two women haul the misshapen corpse, still warm and blood-stained, to a conveniently handy cliff-top and without further ado throw it into the sea. This ritual, for that is what it appears to be, is the signal for a wild dance, and the assembled gnomes join the two under-sized hags in their horrendous cavortings high above the watery grave of their erstwhile mutual husband.
To say that Respighi rose to the occasion would be an understatement: his wildly dramatic, sometimes sensuous, sometimes hypnotically rhythmic music reaches a peak of excitement which fully captures the mood of Clausetti’s poem and prompts reminiscences of 'The Dance of the Seven Veils' in Richard Strauss’s Salome.
Notwithstanding this first-class musical influence, however, the work had a poor reception in Rome at its first performance on 11 April 1920 under Bernadino Molinari’s direction, though it achieved much greater success over the next decade when both Arturo Toscanini and Fritz Reiner played it in Europe and America.
Geoffrey Simon has found that it makes a most effective opener to a public concert; after a performance in which he revived the work with the Sacramento Orchestra in January 1992, the critic Holly Johnson commented that 'the orchestra revelled in Respighi’s colouration … rapid violin glissandos, suddenly slicing through the score, created whooping noises, gnome laughter in this case, and when the murder occurs, the fiddles screech as in Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho soundtrack'.
This spectacular work now appears for the first time on record, and is accompanied by a new translation of Clausetti’s verses made especially for this recording:
Their flimsy skirts are fluttering in the wind, as the women drag the gibbering gnome along.
The tiny man kicks wildly as he hangs between two females, both soon to be his, whom a single marriage bed is now awaiting.
O she-gnomes, may this race with him be brief, lest he falls exhausted as the Great Bear fades from heaven.
No torches lit that monstrous consummation, but outside, hordes of gnomes were waiting, eager for their prey.
And then a ghastly scream pierced through the night, so painful as to chase away the darkness.
The dawn was slowly breaking as the mad wives dragged their lifeless trophy from the bed-chamber.
And they carried him away, followed by a teeming mass of cunning little demons muttering prayers which sound like dreadful curses, in a blasphemous tongue heard only in the depths of blackest hell.
A rough pathway brought them to a cliff-top, whose sharp ridge towered above a sea of cobalt blue.
In a trice, the defiled bridegroom was hurled over, and the ritual was at an end.
Now, at the summit of the hill, after their sleepless night, the two women sway in the morning breeze, and as daylight breaks, the tiny folk
join the bloodthirsty widows in their dancing.
They shriek, they bite, they mock and cackle loudly, an insane frenzy seizes each and every gnome, as in a Witches Sabbath!
(Freely translated into English, with acknowledgements to Michael Aspinall and Philip Rham)
Trittico botticelliano (Three Botticelli Pictures)
In Ballad of the gnomes Respighi took poetry as his inspiration, whereas the music for Three Botticelli Pictures was, naturally enough, provided by the visual splendours of paintings by the great fifteenth-century master, Sandro Botticelli. The work was dedicated to the American patroness of the arts, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, and was first performed in 1927 under the composer’s direction at a festival which she organised in Vienna. The scoring throughout is particularly luminous and transparent (Respighi eschews a large orchestra for these little self-contained tone poems) and the fantasy and atmosphere are evocatively in-built.
'Spring', the first piece, is a call to action, with trills in winds and strings: the pastoral world of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is not far away, nor is music for hunting and dancing.
'The Adoration of the Magi' looks back to medieval church music (the ancient hymn O come, O come, Emmanuel is a familiar theme here) and its quasi-religious mood is combined with an orientalism in the middle section where piano, celeste and harp join together in a rhythmic passage to suggest the arrival of the Three Kings.
'The Birth of Venus' depicts the goddess in her sea-shell as the waters gently undulate to a romantic melody which surges through the strings. This arch-shaped movement reaches a sonorous Respighian climax, and then gradually fades away in the distance as the aquatic beauty is carried gently out to sea.
Suite for strings and organ in G major
Here we find Respighi in baroque mood, inspired by composers of the seventeenth century to produce a four-movement suite which has its basis in the old-style concerto grosso. Respighi was a noted transcriber of the old Italian masters—Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Frescobaldi and others—so naturally enough this Suite for strings and organ incorporates archaic features within the sumptuous colouring which Respighi conjures from his unusual resources.
The lively opening 'Preludio' inhabits the same sound-world as a toccata of Bach, whose influence extends throughout the entire work. The succeeding 'Aria' was actually the first movement to be composed, and was heard in a concert in 1902 before being incorporated into the whole suite some three years later. Its yearning melody is one of Respighi’s most heartfelt creations—indeed, it might be said to be his own 'Air on the G string'.
A lilting and celestial 'Pastorale' comes next, bringing to the memory the 'Pastoral Symphony' in Handel’s Messiah. A solemn 'Cantico', sturdy and masculine in its outer sections, tranquil and reflective at its centre, brings the work to a resonant and imposing conclusion.
Adagio with variations
This music began life in the early 1900s in what has been described as Respighi’s 'juvenilia' period. Originally a piece for cello and piano, it was revised and expanded into a concert work for cello and orchestra in 1921 at the suggestion of Antonio Certani, a cellist friend of Respighi who became the work’s dedicatee. Although quite short, its warm melodic line, lack of bravura, melancholic mood and rhapsodic nature capture perfectly the expressive singing qualities of the soloist with classic serenity.
The beauty of this piece makes it all the more regrettable that Respighi didn’t go on to write a full-scale cello concerto. Had he done so, the repertoire might well have been enhanced by a work which could have taken its place alongside the cello concertos of Dvořák and Elgar, and the Rococo Variations of Tchaikovsky.
Edward Johnson © 2023