Francesco Cilea: Complete Piano Works I


  • Artist(s): Sandra Conte
  • Composer(s): Francesco Cilea
  • Edition: Da Vinci Classics
  • Format: 1 Cd
  • Genre: Instrumental
  • Instrumentation: Piano
  • Period: Modern
  • Publication year: 2022
SKU: C00578 Category:

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There is a handful of composers, in the history of Western music, whose name is inseparably and indissolubly associated to just one work, and frequently that work is an opera. This happens, for instance, with Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci, with Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, with Giordano’s Andrea Chénier… and with Francesco Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur.
Yet, each and every musician cited in this list may have achieved immortality thanks to his one absolute masterwork, but contributed valuable compositions to the history of music; and if it may happen that just that one work is truly outstanding, normally the others are at least very interesting, and at times genuinely beautiful.
Moreover, given the cultural climate in Italy between nineteenth and twentieth century, instrumental music still had to struggle in order to conquer its place in the audience’s ears. So it happens that some truly excellent Italian composers who wrote no operas are practically forgotten, both in Italy and abroad; and those who did venture in the operatic field have their instrumental output completely overshadowed by their operatic feats. The latter is the case with Francesco Cilea, the protagonist of this recording of his complete piano works.
Cilea was certainly fully entitled to write beautiful piano music, since he was an appreciated pianist himself. He was born in Palmi on July 23rd, 1866. Palmi is a small city near Reggio Calabria, at the southernmost border of the Italian peninsula, just a few kilometers from the island of Sicily. His father, Giuseppe, was a lawyer and a music amateur. At the age of seven, Francesco was sent to the most important city in the South of the recently established kingdom of Italy, i.e. Naples, where he attended a boarding school. Even though the path laid before him was that of following in his father’s footsteps (i.e., to become a lawyer in turn), Francesco felt a much greater inclination for what was his father’s hobby, i.e. music. The child soon demonstrated great musical talent and fresh inspiration in the field of improvisation. Thus, he was encouraged to pursue a thorough musical training, with the blessing of Francesco Florimo, the legendary librarian of the Neapolitan Conservatory.
At first, Francesco’s family was very perplexed by the idea of a musical career; however, at the age of 12, the child was eventually allowed to follow his genius, and to attend the Conservatory of Naples, at first as a paying student, but very soon as the recipient of a scholarship. His teachers were Beniamino Cesi, a pianist and pedagogue whose piano methods are still in use today, and Paolo Serrao, who initiated the teenager to the secrets of composition. Even before he completed his formal training, Cilea was invited to teach at the institution in a role similar to that of a teaching assistant. The last years of his piano education were guided by another major figure of the Italian musical culture and pianism, i.e. Giuseppe Martucci, one of the great piano virtuosos of the era and an exponent of the group of Italian composers whose best creations are in the field of instrumental music.
For his diploma in composition, Cilea presented a complete opera, which was premiered at the Conservatory to great acclaim. The reviewers easily foresaw a promising future for the young musician. Immediately after his diploma, Cilea was appointed a professor of harmony and of piano as a second instrument; however, he would not maintain this job for a long time, since his true calling was for the operatic stage, and he wished to devote his energies fully to that creative activity.
A first commission came rather soon, when music publisher Sonzogno asked him to write an opera on a libretto by Angelo Zanardini, by the title of La Tilda. The subject did not correspond to Cilea’s personality, but he gave his best and the opera was an immediate success, running from Florence to many other Italian cities, and even to Vienna. It may be worth mentioning that Eduard Hanslick, the bête noire of Wagner, that critic of critics who certainly was not known for his generosity in his praises, was enthused by the work. In spite of all this, Cilea, who was very exacting and hard to please, felt dissatisfied with his own opera, and retired it from the stages.
He then wrote his own version of L’Arlesiana (on the same subject as Bizet’s), whose premiere was entrusted to an Enrico Caruso at his debut. Cilea’s true consecration came however, with Adriana Lecouvreur, which, as has been said, is still “the” opera written by Cilea, and is regularly heard on the stages of the major opera theaters all over the world. Another opera, Gloria, did not meet with comparable success, and is today virtually forgotten; his last opera, Il matrimonio selvaggio (1909), remained unpublished. The last decades of Cilea’s life passed therefore at some distance from the operatic stage. He taught and had positions of responsibility at some of the major Italian conservatories, and he continued to compose.
The paradox is therefore that Cilea’s career as an operatic composer did not reach the two decades, and still he is known mainly as the creator of Adriana Lecouvreur; by way of contrast, his activity as a composer of piano pieces extends over more than six (!) decades, from the Scherzo he wrote as early as 1883, until the Piccola Suite, dating from a mere three years before his death. If some of Cilea’s earliest piano works, such as his Notturno and Mazurka were written when the composer was not yet ten years old, many others were conceived for his students. Through these pieces, he was able to instill both technical and musical values in his students and to educate them pleasurably. For this reason, these works should find their place also in today’s piano courses, and it is to be wished that the publication of the present recording will help Cilea’s music to find a place in the teaching curricula.
Another valuable aspect of Cilea’s works, and particularly of those written in mature age, is their frequent literary inspiration. Among the poets cited in his music is Rabindranatah Tagore, whose verses are cited in Cilea’s Invocazione (1923).
Several of the pieces performed here have highly evocative titles: for instance, “Gocce di rugiada” is the musical representation of “dewdrops”. Other works, particularly among those written in the composer’s youthful years, reveal the influence of Chopin: from the earliest Mazurka of 1880 to the later work by the same name, published as op. 14, from the Preludio of 1886 to the Notturno published as op. 22, the importance of Chopin as a model and as a source of inspiration is evident. On the other hand, the Scherzando written in 1883 reveals the budding composer’s interest in the music of Robert Schumann. Moreover, the Notturno op. 22 does allude to Chopin, but with the already-formed style of a mature composer. Young Cilea clearly absorbed the teaching and values of his professor Martucci, both as a pianist and as a composer; it has been argued that this work is also indebted to the technique, style, and musicianship of Sigismund Thalberg, whose stay in Posillipo would prove crucial for the development of the Italian piano school and for the dissemination of “northern” instrumental music in the Peninsula.
Conversely, the instrumental works of the most promising Italian musicians were appreciated outside Italy more than within its borders. For instance, Cilea’s Trois petits morceaux op. 28, written in 1895, saw the light in Berlin, where they were published by Bote & Bock in 1898. This small collection, whose French titles reveal their composer’s claim to an international status, are particularly interesting for the use of harmony which manages to find a balance between Cilea’s rootedness in the tonal tradition and his attention to the transalpine trends. Just as his operas demonstrate a fruitful dialogue with the French tradition of, for instance, Jules Massenet, here too he seems to provide an Italian response to the symbolists’ exploration of the piano’s sonorities. Similar experiments are observed in the interesting Badinage op. 15, with its tonal wavering and original combinations of sound and technique.
Both Cesi and Martucci were among the first appreciators of Bach in Italy, and they also contributed to the rediscovery of the Italian heritage of Baroque music. Evidently, their lesson was not lost on Cilea, who, in his Suite (Vecchio stile) op. 42 offers his own, personal and original, reinterpretation of the styles and musical gestures of the past. The result is far from the antiquarian reconstruction of a lost language; rather, Cilea nods to the virtuoso pianists of his time with the brilliant Capriccio found at the Suite’s end. Among the many other works comprised in this recording, the Chanson du rouet (Song of the Spinning Wheel) is worth mentioning. Written toward the end of the nineteenth century, it has a markedly descriptive quality, and clearly alludes to the famous, onomatopoeic depictions of the activity of spinning in the Romantic repertoire (as found in Schubert and Mendelssohn). Yet, Cilea manages to find a voice of his own, here and in the other works recorded in this album.
The long itinerary of his pianism is therefore to be considered as a journal documenting his creative life, his reactions to the various styles of the era, the musical and extra-musical interests of their composer. By listening to this album, we are drawn into the musician’s personal life, and can assist, in a manner of speaking, to the blossoming, flowering, and ripening of his talent, which, at each stage of his life, had something beautiful to offer.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2022


Sandra Conte
Born in Brindisi (Italy), she began her piano studies at six and achieved a full-score Conservatory graduation at “Tartini” Conservatory of Trieste (Italy) in 1990, guided by Luciano Gante.
During her university engineering studies, from 1990 to 1995 at the Milan Polytechnic University, she regularly kept receiving piano lessons from Ilonka Deckers, who transmitted her Russian piano school technique and teachings.
After achieving her civil engineering master graduation, Sandra Conte participated to many masterclasses and courses with Vitaly Margulis, Franco Scala, Charles Rosen, Simone Pedroni, Piero Rattalino and Lev Naumov, who defined her as “a true musician”.
In 2007 she achieved the master degree in piano performing at “G.Verdi” Conservatory of Milan, studying with Leonardo Leonardi and Edda Ponti. In the same period she applied herself to ancient instruments practice, attending Ruggiero Laganà’s class and she improved her musical improvisation skillness with Danilo Macchioni.
She took part to many national and international piano competitions, gaining prizes and nominations, including a second place at the “Concourse Musical de France” (Paris).
She performed for several musical seasons and festivals such as “Scuola Normale di Pisa” Concert Season, “Società dei Concerti” of Milan, “Festival di musica da camera” of Cervo, “Kyoto International Students Music Festival”, “Amici del loggione” of Teatro alla Scala, “Mito Festival”, “Festival Liszt” of Bellagio, “Ravello Festival”, "Accademia Chigiana" of Siena, “Ravello Festival”, Italian Cultural Institutes of Paris and Budapest, “Società del Quartetto” of Milan. In june 2008 she played the first Beethoven Concerto at the Milano Auditorium, conductor Matthieus Manthanus. In 2008 and 2009 she collaborated, as soloist, with the Orchestra Arteviva directed by Matteo Baxiu.
Since 2009 she has played with the cellist Luca Colardo, who became her husband in 2018.
In 2010 the Duo Colardo-Conte was awarded with the Rancati price of the Conservatory of Milan and in 2011 with the “Premio Nazionale delle Arti”, the most important national competition for the students of italian Conservatories. In 2014 the Duo gave a concert at Quirinale Palace in Rome at the presence of the Italian Republican President, broadcast live on Rai Radio 3 and in 2017 they made their debut at Carnegie Hall in New York in the “New York International Artists Competition” winner concert.
In 2018 italian music magazine Amadeus published a cd of the Duo with complete works for cello and piano by Chopin and Debussy.
Sandra Conte studied composition with Fabio Vacchi, Sonia Bo and Gianni Possio in the Conservatory of Milan, achieving a “magna cum laude” degree in 2011.
She is author of chamber music pieces, incidental music for theatrical representations, and Two Operas.
She is author of chamber music pieces, incidental music for theatrical representations, and Two Operas: La Strega Bombolona, (The Krapfen Witch), performed at the Ariosto Theater of Reggio Emilia in spring 2005 and La Gatta Bianca, (The White She Cat), awarded with the first prize in the Fedora Chamber Opera Competition and performed at the Teatro Coccia of Novara in september 2013.
She taught Piano for children at “Luca Marenzio” Conservatory of Darfo and Complementary piano at “Giuseppe Verdi” Conservatory of Turin. Now she is professor in Elements of music composition at “Antonio Vivaldi” Conservatory of Alessandria.


Francesco Cilea: (b Palmi, Reggio Calabria, 23 July 1866; dVarazze, nr Savona, 20 Nov 1950). Italian composer and teacher. The son of a prominent lawyer, he was intended by his father for the same profession; however, the influence of Francesco Florimo, the famous archivist and friend of Bellini, procured him entry to the Naples Conservatory in 1879, where his teachers included Paolo Serrao, Beniamino Cesi and Giuseppe Martucci, and his fellow pupil Umberto Giordano. There he made rapid progress, becoming a maestrino in 1885. His Suite for orchestra (1887) was awarded a government prize and on 9 February 1889, his final year, his opera Gina was performed at the conservatory. Despite a poor libretto the editor Sonzogno thought sufficiently well of it to commission from him an opera on a fashionable low-life subject. La tilda was given with moderate successs at the Teatro Pagliano, Florence, with Rodolfo Ferrari as conductor and with Fanny Torresani in the title role. Sonzogno included it in his Italian opera season mounted later that year in Vienna, where it earned the gratifying approval of Hanslick. Cilea spent three years on the composition of his next opera, L’arlesiana, to a libretto based on Alphonse Daudet’s play, for which Bizet had supplied incidental music. The text of Rosa Mamai’s aria (‘Esser madre è un inferno’) was provided by Grazia Pierantoni, the wife of the senator in whose house Cilea was staying at the time. The opera was well received at its première at Sonzogno’s Teatro Lirico, Milan, where it helped to launch Caruso on his international career. Not until the following year, however, did L’arlesiana achieve its definitive three-act form.

In 1900 Cilea began work on his most famous opera, Adriana Lecouvreur, whose subject appealed to him because of its 18th-century ambience and its mixture of comedy and pathos. The première proved another triumph for Caruso as well as for the composer. At a season of operas mounted by Sonzogno at the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt, Paris, in 1904, Alfred Bruneau singled out Adriana Lecouvreur as the worthiest product of the Italian ‘giovane scuola’. A projected collaboration with Gabriele D’Annunzio on Francesca da Rimini came to nothing owing to Sonzogno’s unwillingness to meet the poet’s financial demands. In his search for a subject that would offer a choral dimension Cilea turned to Gloria, a story of star-crossed lovers set in 14th-century Siena at the time of the siege. Despite the advocacy of Toscanini the opera was cooly received and failed to circulate; nor did a revised version of 1932 to a new text by Ettore Moschini fare substantially better. A last operatic attempt,Ritorno ad amore, foundered on Renato Simoni’s failure to complete the libretto. From then on Cilea ceased to compose for the stage. His only other large-scale work was the ‘Poema sinfonico’ Il canto della vita for tenor, chorus and orchestra, written to a text by Sem Benelli in commemoration of the Verdi centenary in 1913. The previous year Leopoldo Mugnone had conducted a revival of L’arlesianain Naples, for which he had persuaded the composer to enlarge the part of Vivetta and cut the aria of Rosa Mamai and her scene with L’Innocente. The result so disappointed Cilea that he withdrew the score from circulation for the next 20 years. It was not heard again until a radio transmission in 1932. The Museo Cilea in Palmi contains the manuscript of an unpublished ‘Intermezzo arlesiana’ dated 1938.

Until his retirement in 1935 Cilea pursued a distinguished career in musical education. He taught harmony and the piano at the Naples Conservatory from (1890–92), and held the chair of harmony and composition at the Istituto Reale (later the Conservatorio Luigi Cherubini) in Florence (1896–1904). In 1913 he assumed the directorship of the Palermo Conservatory, moving to that of the Naples Conservatory, a post which he held for nearly 20 years. He was elected to the Academy in 1938. Though justifiably proud of his record as a teacher, he regarded it as secondary to his operatic career, which he believed to have been blighted by the intrigues of others.

More of an all-round musician than most of his colleagues of the ‘giovane scuola’, Cilea shows a lighter touch. Besides Bellini, his chief gods were Bach, Beethoven and Chopin. An accomplished pianist, his keyboard writing is always inventive, and several of his pieces composed between the wars show an attempt to come to grips with the styles of Ravel and Casella. If his operas conform to the manner of Mascagni and his school, they never descend to brutal excess. Thematic recurrence plays an important part in them, even though the motifs themselves are rarely very theatrical. If Adriana Lecouvreur remains his most popular opera, largely due to its appeal to the aging prima donna, his best-loved single aria is the ‘Lamento di Federico’ from L’arlesiana, to this day one of the gems of the tenor repertory.

From The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians