Two of the greatest Italian musicians of his time, Giuseppe Sgambati and Arturo Toscanini, were unambiguous in their praise of him. Yet, their expressions of admiration have just one word in common, and that word has very little to do with music. In fact, it is “cassock”.
And this summarizes neatly on the one hand the complexity and fascination of Licinio Refice’s talent, and, on the other, its resistance to being encapsulated into the usual stereotypes by which composers are normally classified.
Licinio Refice (1883-1954) was in fact a priest; and the first thing one noticed was the cassock he wore. Sgambati had said: “This cassock will make people talk about it” – and this is significant, since the priest’s robes start to signify the man wearing them; and Toscanini was even more outspoken, when he affirmed: “Were it not for that cassock, Refice would be the greatest operatic composer of our times”. For Toscanini, the cassock was a crucial, and not too welcome, impediment to the realization of a great musical potential.
However, it is doubtful that Refice either wished to be identified only by his cassock, or wanted to be freed of it. Indeed, these two poles – neither of which actually appealed to Refice – represent very well the uneasy balance of the two great fascinations of his life: first and foremost, the spiritual world, but close nearby that of operatic music. Particularly in his youthful years, to speak in the same sentence of a priest and of musical theatre was no praise for the priest (later, the situation would change for the better); and, when forced to choose between his vocation to priesthood and that to the stage, Refice firmly chose the famous “cassock”. Nonetheless, he constantly sought a balance between these two poles, and frequently found it in the domain of liturgical and sacred music. Thus, his Oratorios shine with the vivid colours of human life; the saints he portrays are not bidimensional prayer cards, but rather breathe the actual, contradictory and passionate existence of the human beings. Their uneasy balance between sanctity and sin mirrors the composer’s own experience, walking on the tightrope between the altar and the stage.
On the other hand, his properly liturgical music (which he composed both following his own spiritual yearning and the duties connected with the official posts he held as a Roman musician, closely bound to the Catholic Church’s institutions) was animated in turn by the contrasting feelings which characterize the human experience of the sacred.
Occasionally, the exceedingly pronounced affections found in his renditions of the Mass scandalized his hearers, and particularly those in charge of Church discipline; however, their harsh judgements were quickly counterbalanced by the support of other clergymen and of the laity, who appreciated the power that his music had to touch the soul, and make it relive, in a refreshing fashion, the fascinating history of salvation, enacted in the sacrifice of the Mass.
Refice was not confined to the task of writing oratorios which looked as operas in disguise; after the Conciliation between the Catholic Church and the Italian State, his actual operas could be represented, and obtain an unprecedented success. The audience was moved by the beauty of his music, by his exquisite mastery of the musical language, and by how the characters he depicted mirrored the experience of humankind, with its contradictions and its transcendence. In fact, Refice preached the Gospel in his own way; he obeyed his call to priesthood by doing, to the best of his capabilities, what he felt was his mission in life – to compose beautiful music honouring God and enabling a profound experience of the mystery as embodied in the actual itinerary of real men and women.
Even though Refice was widely acclaimed, and best known, for his large-scale works (from the Oratorios to the Masses to the Operas), some of the most refined fruits of his creativity and artistry are found among his short songs. Here, his deep knowledge of the human voice, and his ability to set to music a poetical text come to the fore; at the same time, the concentration he achieves in these miniatures favours a stronger sense of focus and an even tenser rendition of the emotional scale.
This CD includes a selection of his most successful songs, several of which were unpublished during the composer’s lifetime. Many of them are on religious lyrics, some in Italian and some in Latin (there is even an English-texted poem, Peace at home, which reminds us that this priest who came from a little village of central Italy would end his earthly journey as far away as in Rio de Janeiro, where he was attending a rehearsal of one of his operas). There are songs on Biblical lyrics, excerpted, for example, from the Scriptural books whose poetic features are most pronounced: this is the case, for example, of the Book of Psalms (which is paraphrased in Invocazione), or of Jam hiems transiit, on one of the most touching pages of the Song of Songs; but there are also excerpts from the Gospels, or songs to devotional or traditional lyrics, frequently coming from the Franciscan tradition, to which Refice felt particularly close. Such is the case of Dominus det tibi pacem, or of the paraphrase on St. Bonaventure’s Ave Maria. Indeed, the devotion to the Virgin Mary is another of the focuses of Refice’s output in the field of vocal chamber music: one of his most famous songs is on an Italian paraphrase of the Angel’s salutation (Dio ti salvi o Maria), and the Virgin is also contemplated as the Virgo dolorum, or invoked in Recordare Virgo Mater.
Numerous songs are provided with the names of their dedicatees; they give us a glimpse of Refice’s network of friendships and of the occasions for which he wrote them, along with his poetical choices in selecting the authors of the lyrics. In particular, Custodi eam Domine is a beautiful and touching blessing in which the priest’s spiritual fatherhood seems to be tightly connected to the composer’s brotherly affection for one of the singers whose talent enabled his operas to gain their due recognition. Claudia Muzio, a gifted soprano, had successfully interpreted the role of St Cecilia in the eponymous opera; after a surgery, she received this musical “get well” card, which however resonates with a deeper spiritual meaning of spiritual benediction.
Several of these songs are in fact close to operatic scenes in miniature; such is the case of Dio ti salvi o Maria, where the combination of daring harmonies, of a skilled and shrewd use of the piano’s timbre in an accompaniment which looks rather as a changing scenery, and of a varied and flexible use of the voice (with a masterly intonation of the Italian language), all contribute to transforming a prayer into a human drama, still without depriving it of its intense spirituality.
Much shorter is Foglio d’album, on lyrics by one of the most famous poets of Refice’s era, the Italian Antonio Fogazzaro; even within the short time-span of this piece, however, a simple A-B-A form is achieved, with a pronounced contrast between the piano’s chordal writing in the outer sections and the supple, rippling arpeggios of the central part.
This, along with other songs, is a secular piece; in other of these, Refice reveals a playful and jocund vein, as happens in the delightful Ad una nuvoletta, dedicated to the author of its lyrics. The tiny drama of the white cloud is portrayed with a mix of affection, irony and liveliness, in which also a feeling for the place is found: the piece (as happened to many others) had been completed in Patrica, the small village where the composer was born, but (different from most) it also explicitly alluded to the local sights and toponyms.
Among the other songs, Fiore di Acanto is set to lyrics of yet another famous poet of the time, Carlo Cattaneo; however, the style of its verses is reminiscent of popular poetry, and Refice’s musical version is, at the same time, refined in the harmonic and textural choices, but also simple and uncomplicated in its rocking atmosphere.
The sound of lullabies (as here, or in Berceuse) alternates with the more solemn tunes inspired by the Gregorian modes: Refice was constantly exposed to the debates as to the role of plainchant in the Roman Catholic liturgy, and strings of Churchlike tunes are found throughout his oeuvre – as happens, for example, in Dominus det tibi pacem.
Other feelings populate the dense emotional world of the songs recorded here; we may mention, by way of example, the innocent patriotism of Fede lanciate ed impeto d’amore, where a childlike enthusiasm inspires a heartfelt love for the paternal soil; the emotion of human love, frankly and passionately expressed in La stella di ponente; the refined contemplation of the countryside in Sulla via Appia, with its fascinating piano accompaniment and its numerous contrasting sections; the intense and doleful tone of Virgo dolorum, followed by the heartfelt plea of Recordare; the intimate and prayerful tenderness of Custodi eam, and the fascinating imitation of the poets/singers of the Italian oral tradition, whose typical cadences are evoked in Stornelli montani… The list could continue forever, as each one of these miniatures is a small treasure in itself. The listener will not fail to find, within this collection, many a forgotten gem, many an unforgettable tune, many a touching fragment; and, upon repeated hearings, these pieces will still have much to reveal, opening up a window on the spiritual and poetical world of a great Italian composer of the last century.
Album Notes by Chiara Bertoglio
Edmondo Savio, Pianist: He was born in 1969 and completed his piano studies under the menthorship of S. Marengoni and E. Firmo. He graduated with honors from the Pontiﬁcal Institute of Sacred Music in Milan. He has performed with numerous chamber and vocal ensemble and as conductor with various orchestras with a wide repertoire. Selected among the best 12 participants at the International Courses for Orchestra Conductors at the Teatro di Como, dedicated to F. Ferrara, under the guidance of L. Salomon; he participated also at the ﬁve-year course for conductors H. Swarowski in Vimodrone (Milan) under the guidance of J. Kalmar. In October 2011, he participated at the Permanent Laboratory for Choir Conductors in Cagliari under the guidance of Paolo Scattolin. In 2013, he founded as artistic and musical director the Chamber Ensemble “I Carissimi” and the trio “Les Indes Galantes” with which he performed in several baroque concerts in important frames, such as the installation of the artist Christo: Floating Piers. In 2014, he collaborated with the Franciacorta Philharmonic Orchestra, even for a private concert in honor of His Holiness Benedict XVI in Rome, conducting an all-Mozart program. In 2016, with the Colli Morenici Symphony Orchestra he performed at the Teatro Comunale in Vicenza for the traditional concert sponsored by Conﬁndustria. In 2017, he was appointed director of the Philharmonic Choir of Franciacorta with which he produced with Renato Zero the show Zerovskij. Each date of the tour was a full-success, both with audience and critical acclaim. In the same year, he conducted a program of Russian musicians at the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza with Colli Morenici Symphony Orchestra and the Bolshoi first dancers Anastasia Stashkevich and Vyacheslav Lopatin. Since October 2017, he is the music director at the Brescia Philharmonic Choir.
Marta Mari, Soprano: She was born in 1992 and she graduated in 2015 with full marks. She studied with Daniela Dessì and Barbara Frittoli and took part in masterclasses with Vittorio Terranova (2013), Giuseppe Sabbatini (2013), and Rajna Kabaivanska (2014) at the Chigiana Academy (Siena). In the same year she won the audition and joined the cast of the Ensemble Opera Studio (Teatro Carlo Felice, Genoa). She won several first prizes such as "La città Sonora - Salvatore Licitra" International Opera Competition (November 2014), “Riccardo Zandonai” International Competition (May 2016 ), “Spiros Argiris” International Competition (July 2016), “Magda Olivero” International Competition (November 2016), “Giusy Devinu” First International Competition (October 2017). In May 2017, she sang at the first “Daniela Dessi Galà”, alongside with singers like Barbara Frittoli, Fabio Armiliato, Luciana D’Intino, Juan Ponce conducted by Valerio Galli and Marco Boemi. She was cast in Semiramide (Azema) conducted by Gustav Kuhn (July 2017), in Suor Angelica by G. Puccini conducted by Donato Renzetti (Teatro Lirico di Cagliari, February 2018), in Semiramide (Azema) with Jessica Pratt and Alex Esposito conducted by Riccardo Frizza (Teatro La Fenice, Venice, September 2018), in La Bohème (Mimì) conducted by Alessandro Palumbo (Teatro san Carlo, Naples, December 2018), in the Symphony No. 2 by F. Mendelssohn conducted by Alpesh Chauhan (Arena di Verona, March 2019), in Il Trovatore (Leonora) conducted by Lorenzo Tazzieri at the Teatro Zandonai (April 2019). In December 2016 her first CD with tenor Fabio Armiliato and pianist Marco Sollini was released for Urania Records.
Licinio Refice (b Patrica, nr Frosinone, 12 Feb 1883; d Rio de Janeiro, 11 Sept 1954). Italian composer and conductor. After studying composition and organ at the Rome Conservatory, graduating in 1910 and in the same year taking orders, he taught at the Scuola Superiore (later the Instituto Pontificio) di Musica Sacra (1912–50) and was maestro di cappella at S Maria Maggiore (1911–47). In his later years he made several international tours as a conductor (sometimes with the Cantori Romani di Musica Sacra); the last of them took him to Brazil, where he died. Refice's output chiefly comprises church music for chorus and organ. Regarded as Perosi's heir, he was supported by the Vatican, which widely propagated his masses Regina Martyrum (1920), In honorem Sancti Eduardi Regis (1933, dedicated to Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, later Pope Pius XII), In honorem Beatae Theresiae (1938) and In honorem Virginis Perdolentis (1940). His style is a mingling of archaism, with lines overtly derived from plainsong, and late Romantic and 20th-century harmony. Dramatic gifts led him to write many ‘mysteries’, ‘biblical scenes’, oratorios and two operas on hagiographical subjects, both (along with many oratorios) to librettos by his friend and biographer Emidio Mucci. Cecilia (1922–3) was performed in Rome in 1934 with Claudia Muzio in the title role. The success of the opera caused Refice to undertake another, Margherita da Cortona, performed with success at La Scala in 1938. Both show an interesting juxtaposition of mysticism and passion, a careful reconstruction of historical settings and a sensitivity in the orchestral writing; Cecilia, in particular, won a degree of international fame.