Antonio Scontrino was born in Trapani in 1850. He therefore can be considered as a contemporary of the much more famous composer Giacomo Puccini, who lived between 1858 and 1924 – thence dying two years after his colleague from Trapani. Scontrino’s father was a caulker: an excellent craftsman but also a music lover. In a letter, Antonio remembers that his father had built several instruments, including the double-basses he had used as a student and during his short-lived solo career. Antonio’s calling arose because Vincenzo organized a small amateur orchestra in his home: his seven-years-old son had got the double-bass, or, rather, a cello stringed as a double-bass. The child was encouraged to practise by means of a tip he received for every piece he managed to accompany. Probably, these were mainly paraphrases from operas, a very widespread genre at the time, or some dance-pieces, such as tarantellas. At eleven, in the same year when the Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed, he entered the Royal College of Music in Palermo, where he also studied harmony with Luigi Alfano and composition with Pietro Platania, a great polyphonist and the heir of the Neapolitan school whose value was acknowledged also by Verdi.
In 1870 he obtained his diploma, and, with his double-bass, he began a series of concerts in Tunis and in Northern Italy, obtaining lively praises. In the same year, Bottesini (1821-1889), the great double-bassist who was considered as the Paganini of his instrument, was at the zenith of his career, and was writing his famous Elegia and the Reverie for the double-bass. At that time, Verdi was still in activity, and it was in 1871 that the famous premiere of Aida took place at Cairo, under the baton of Bottesini himself. In 1872, Scontrino obtained a scholarship from the Trapani municipality allowing him to move to Munich in order to deepen his knowledge of composition by studying German music. After a tour of Italian operas in England, in which he was the orchestra’s first double-bassist, he settled in Milan and dedicated himself mainly to composition. In 1879 his first opera, Matelda, was premiered at the Teatro Dal Verme. Two years later, the overture Celeste was performed at La Scala, as the prize for a composition contest whose jury included also Giuseppe Verdi. In the following years his operas Il progettista and Il sortilegio (1882), Gringoire (1890) and Cortigiana (1896) were premiered, but their success was only lukewarm both among the audience and the critics. Reviewers always pointed out some faults, e.g. in the libretto, or a lack of originality, or the absence of a true involvement of the audience, along, however, with Scontrino’s acknowledged compositional skill, his ability as an orchestrator and in the management of the formal structures. Unfortunately, there was plenty of competition: in 1887 Verdi’s Otello was premiered, in 1890 it was the turn of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, and in 1896 of two masterpieces which are still beloved, i.e. Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chenier and Puccini’s Bohéme. Scontrino was always distant from the Verist aesthetics; his predilection for the models of the past, along with a style which was reproached for being too close to the German taste, excluded him from the stream followed by the successful composers of the era, who, in Italy, were mainly operatic musicians.
In 1892 Scontrino successfully applied for a Chair in Composition at the Conservatory of Florence, where he moved, later becoming the Director of that institution. In 1895, the year of Mahler’s Second Symphony, he married Adele Casati, the widow of a diplomat, and composed his first work for string quartet, a Prelude and Fugue, while Debussy was composing his Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. In 1897, the year of Brahms’ death, he wrote his first Symphony, Marinaresca. This Symphony earned him considerable success in Europe (it was performed in France, Germany and England). The same happened to his Quartets, published by Eulenburg, and bearing witness to a better appreciation of his instrumental music abroad. The crowning feat was the premiere of his Symphony Romantica, still unpublished, which was conducted by Richard Strauss in Berlin in 1914.
For this all, Scontrino is numbered, along with Sgambati and Martucci, among the first representative of the renaissance of instrumental music in Italy, paving the way for the composers born in the Eighties (i.e. Respighi, Malipiero, Casella and Pizzetti). He always continued to nurture the wish to write a successful opera, but this genre was not the most congenial to him, and perhaps he had remained too attached to the models of the past. Such models, whose sweet tunes had touched his heart as a youth, are recognizable precisely among the themes chosen for the Fantasias recorded here.
The Fantasias on opera tunes gathered in this album were composed by young Antonio Scontrino within a single year, from summer 1869 to spring 1870, the year when he finished his Conservatory studies. It is possible that the young double-bassist cum composer used these pieces for his concert activity, during the decade he dedicated to this career, but unfortunately we have very little available information and no reviews of his concerts. Written for double-bass and piano in 1871, these are also the three pieces published by Lucca and later migrated to the Ricordi catalogue. Later, as discussed earlier, he abandoned the double-bass and focused exclusively on composition and teaching. Within the catalogue of his works we find nothing more for the double-bass until the time of his Concerto with symphonic orchestra (1908), premiered in Berlin.
This recording has been preceded by research on the original autograph manuscripts, which had been left ignored for almost a century in the library of the Conservatory where the musician from Trapani had studied. Work is in progress for publishing them on paper for the first time.
These are pieces following the fashion of the time, in which the timbre of the solo instrument made its way in the audience’s ears thanks to the most popular melodies of the operas, highlighting its technical possibilities. Examples from the Fantasias composed by Giovanni Bottesini were clearly in the mind of young Scontrino, who in fact paid homage to the maestro by dedicating one of them to him. Even though, here and there, there are the unavoidable naiveties of a young composer, these Fantasias have the merit of offering to double-bass lovers a panorama on all of the major Italian operatic composers of the early nineteenth century, demonstrating a particular interest in melody even in the virtuoso variations. These reach high levels of technical difficulty, and bear witness to the high standing of the Palermitan double-bass school of the era; still, they always maintain their melodic quality, and never become a mere firework effect.
The three-stringed double-bass for which these Fantasias are conceived, along with the contemporaneous aesthetics, led Scontrino to use extensively the instrument’s high and very high register, imitating the violin and for a more satisfying sound balance with the accompanying piano. The mellow timbre of the middle-low register is used, instead, in the frequent cadential passages, played solo, and working as the transition between two themes, imitating the style of operatic vocal cadenzas.
Album Notes by Nicola Malagugini
Mirea Zuccaro: Mirea Zuccaro was born in 1999. She started to play piano at 4, with her mother. She get the degree at the conservatory of Palermo, summa cum laude and honorable mention, under the guidance of Donatella Sollima. She also attended master classes with Epifanio Comis and Violetta Egorova at Accademia pianistica Siciliana, with Giuseppe Andaloro and Pietro Rattalino.
She won several national and international competitions, like Pedara, Lamezia Terme, Gioia del Colle, Padova, Crotone, Enna. She played recitals in Sicily, Paris and Vienna and with orchestra, in Palermo (Conservatory orchestra) and with Chernovtsky Symphonic Orchestra. She is now continuing to improve with Nora Doallo in Lugano and studying medicine at University of Catania.
Malagugini, Nicola (Double-Bassist) born in 1977. He btained his diploma in double bass in 2001, with teacher F. Garberoglio. He has been principal bass in the Italian Youth Orchestra. He continued studying with A. Bocini, L. Milani, G. Klaus and G. Ettorre. After a degree in Economics at the University of Bologna, in 2002 began his professional activity winning several auditions and working with Pomeriggi Musicali di Milano, Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma, Orchestra Filarmonica della Scala and Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. In 2014 he won the chair of principal double bass in Rai Orchestra of Turin. Since 2004 he is principal double bass in the Orchestra of Teatro Massimo Bellini, Catania.
Antonio Scontrino: (b Trapani, Sicily, 17 May 1850; d Florence, 7 Jan 1922). Italian double bass player and composer. His father, a carpenter, was an ardent music lover and amateur instrument maker. Antonio joined the family orchestra at the age of seven, playing on a cello adapted to serve as a double bass. From 1861 to 1870 he studied at the Palermo Conservatory where his teachers included Luigi Alfano (harmony) and Pietro Platania (counterpoint and composition). He then toured as a double bass virtuoso throughout southern Italy. In 1871 he obtained the libretto of an opera from Leopoldo Marenco, but the work, Matelda, was not produced until 1879.
Aided by a grant from the municipality and province of Trapani, Scontrino went in 1871 to Munich, where for two years he studied German music. In 1874 he went to England as a member of Mapleson’s orchestra and afterwards settled in Milan as a teacher of instrumental, vocal and theoretical music. He was appointed professor of counterpoint and composition at the Palermo Conservatory in 1891, and the following year gained a similar professorship at the Istituto Musicale in Florence.