While nowadays most films (not all, of course) are conceived, created, sold and distributed mainly as “products” to be “consumed”, frequently without even touching the theatres’ screens and remaining within the walls of one’s room – thanks to digital technology, – at cinema’s beginnings it was considered as the “seventh art”. Directors, actors, scenographers, and all the professionals involved had the clear conscience that their work was exquisitely artistic, and that the result of their efforts had to be something well beyond the boundaries of the merely “pleasant” or “entertaining”.
In the nineteenth century, Richard Wagner had voiced a belief and a goal which many of his contemporaries shared: i.e., that the highest forms of art were those integrating the various artistic viewpoints and perspectives. He had therefore theorized the Gesamtkunstwerk, the “total artwork”, in which words, images and music merged seamlessly, cooperating to the creation of the overall result. For this reason, he wrote the librettos along with the music for his operas, intervened in the visual aspect, and even designed the Bayreuth theatre with the purpose in mind of creating the ideal setting for the reception of such a multi-sensorial creation.
Cinema seemed to represent another fascinating and extraordinary possibility for joining together the different arts. It had, of course, a visual component, which was articulated into photography (the “composition” of the scenes, the lights, the setting) and movement (the actors’ gestures, their facial expressions, their movements and those of the non-human moving objects). It had words, even though, prior to the advent of spoken movies, words had to be read rather than heard, and imagined when the actors were talking silently. And it had music. Here too, music did not come as an integral component of the artwork, since it was played live during the projection. And, frequently, cinema pianists simply presented stereotyped musical “situations” which could accompany, more or less, what happened on screen.
However, the most ambitious creations for the cinema had more elevated purposes, aiming at an integration of music, words and visual aspects so as to create a truly immersive and all-encompassing experience.
This is doubtlessly the case with the movie whose music is recorded in this Da Vinci Classics CD. The film’s subject matter came from a poem by Fausto Maria Martini, dated 1915. Martini (1886-1931) was a poet, playwright and literary critic, belonging in the so-called “movimento crepuscolare”, a literary current borrowing its name from “dusk” (“crepuscolo”). This evocative term represents the overall aesthetics of its adherents: a decadent view of society and of its values, which translates into a nostalgic gaze on reality and into a flat refusal of all progressist beliefs. Clearly, the “crepuscolari” were not aesthetically or morally conservative, quite the contrary; but they denied the energetic enthusiasm of some of their contemporaries, the mechanistic Futurists.
Martini’s subject was adapted for the cinema by Alberto Fassini, and turned into a film by Nino Oxilia, who had also authored an extremely famous comedy, Addio giovinezza. Not by chance, the movie was advertised as a “cinematographic-musical poem”, thus pointing out the three dimensions of the artwork: cinema, music (which, as we will see, was an integral part of the finished creation), and words/poetry.
The female protagonist was one of the most celebrated stars of the Italian cinema, the beautiful Lyda Borelli, whose physical charm and whose magnetic personality enthralled the public, and reached, in this production, an extraordinary level. Her acting was perfectly suited for the plot and for the character she interpreted. The matter was freely excerpted and derived from two modern myths which, with different degrees of intensity, conquered the European readership of the nineteenth century. One was the myth of Faust, as narrated by Goethe, and as recounted by countless musicians and poets in the Romantic era. The other was the character and story of Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, which, in turn, is one further retelling of the Faustian myth, but with the added fascination of the theme of the Doppelgänger, a Romantic theme to end all Romantic themes.
The movie’s protagonist is an elderly noblewoman, by the fascinating name of Alba d’Oltrevita. Alba means “dawn” as well as “white”, while “Oltrevita” can be translated as “beyond life”. Nomen omen, as the Latins would say. Alba, following in Faust’s footsteps, enters a contract with Mephisto: he will grant her everlasting youth, but she must never fall in love. This is easier said than done, however, given that her reconquered beauty is irresistible. Two brothers, Tristano and Sergio, fall in love with her and try – at first in vain – to conquer her heart. Sergio is so utterly desperate for her love that he announces and menaces suicidal thoughts, unless she reciprocates his affection. Alba, however, remains unmoved, and faithful to her part of the contract; Sergio, who was serious about his intentions, effectively takes his own life. Tristano’s love, however, is harder to resist; Alba finally gives up her resistance and accepts to marry him. This is too much for Mephisto, who comes back to exact the penalty for Alba’s failure to respect her side of the pact; she is turned into her older self, and, of course, loses the affection of her lover.
The movie was filmed in 1914 and in the early months of 1915, and already in March it was ready for a preview. The small audience who witnessed that screening was enthused, and some journalists expressed extremely favourable views about the result. For unknown reasons, however, the movie had to wait for more than two years before being offered to the public; in 1917, when it was finally distributed, the director died, killed by the explosion of an Austrian grenade during World War I. In the words of a critic, Martinelli, the film’s publication happened “almost in hiding, and [the movie] was reduced to a much shorter length (…), even though the censorship’s nihil obstat does not include references to ‘conditions’ or ‘suppressions’”. Live screenings of the film with music took place in Turin, in 1918, with no less than 45 performances within just 22 days, while the premiere was played in Rome, on July 5th, 1917, at the Teatro Adriano in Rome, conducted by Mascagni himself.
The film’s aesthetics is totally opposed to Realism; it seeks an unearthly perfection, clearly indebted to the aestheticism of Gabriele D’Annunzio. The very characters are more akin to philosophical types than to human beings, as they represent ideals such as Beauty, Perfection, Love, Repentance, Evil etc. Visual and literary references, citations, quotations abound; there are allusions to pre-Raphaelite art, to symbolism, to D’Annunzio’s poetry, to the architecture of art nouveau and of the “liberty” style. The film was even coloured by hand, partially, so as to create a fascinating contrast between black-and-white and the occasional coloured spots.
The film was produced by Cines, an Italian company, which had offered a five-year contract for the composition of film music to Pietro Mascagni. This contract, however, resulted in this only movie, since the company bankrupted due to the financial straits of World War I; Mascagni would later try his hand with other projects of film music, but without achieving a complete, finished work. The composer, whose fame was grounded mainly on his operatic works, foresaw the potential of cinema as the future of opera, as the artistic expression which would replace the sung theatre as the public’s favourite means of entertainment. But, yet again, for Mascagni it was not a matter of entertainment; he sought artistic perfection, and pursued it.
There is abundant documentation bearing witness to Mascagni’s efforts to this goal. He had at his disposal a large symphony orchestra (80 musicians), and he struggled for achieving perfect synchronization between music and movie. Normally, composers simply set to music a scene’s atmosphere; the performers took care to begin their playing together with the scene, but did not make too much effort to finish together, let alone to describe musically the minute details of the actors’ interpretation. This “method” had been unproblematically employed by no less a composer than Camille Saint-Saëns, in his film music for L’assassinat du Duc de Guise (1908). However, Mascagni had another ideal in mind, and his engagement was exemplary: he recounts that no less than 150 takes were needed for fragments lasting no more than 14 seconds. This synchronization was entirely done manually; he employed a stopwatch, and his son played the movie. But this extraordinary effort, defined as “long, hard, and very difficult” by the composer himself, was to be crucial for paving the way for the modern concept of film music.
Mascagni also took care to set the film’s visual minutiae into music; for instance, the two brothers constitute a pair of doubles, and this mirror-like impression is faithfully mimicked by the music. Borelli’s final scene, with the mirrors, is also rendered in sounds in Mascagni’s score; there is a noteworthy use of leitmotifs, for instance bound to the image of the butterfly. On other occasions, the dialogues are somehow recalled, reminisced by means of Mascagni’s music, which re-presents them when they are actually enacted by the actors. In the music, as in the visual and literary component of the film, quotations are also found: for instance, that of Chopin’s first Ballade.
In general, therefore, we can and should appreciate the painstaking effort by which Mascagni was enabled to represent musically every detail and expression in the actors’ acting.
In this Da Vinci Classics album, the choice has been made to record in its entirety, without cuts, the piano reduction of the orchestral score realized by Mascagni himself. The film, in fact, was not preserved in its entire integrity, and, therefore, it is common practice for today’s conductors to cut those sections which seem not to match the film. This is therefore a unique opportunity to hear the entire score as Mascagni intended it. The appended tracklist makes references to the film’s captions, so as to enable the listener to follow, or to imagine, the movie’s unfolding. And, hopefully, to enjoy the feeling of a “total artwork”, as its creators wanted and realized it.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2023
Marco Attura, piano
He graduated in Piano, Choir Music and Choir Conducting, Composition and Conducting (Cum Laude) to then improve his studies at Regia Accademia Filarmonica of Bologna, at Städtische Bühnen of Münster in Germany, the Teatro Lirico Sperimentale of Spoleto and the Accademia del Teatro alla Scala in Milano. He’s also graduated in Conservation of Cultural Heritage. He starts his concert activity as a pianist and a conductor very young. His compositions are published by Casa Musicale Sonzogno and Universal Edition, and they are performed in music festivals and italian Theaters, Auditorium Parco della Musica in Roma and broadcasted by Rai Storia. He edited for Edizioni Musicali Curci the Italian version of Cantafavola “Aucassin et Nicolette” by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, performed for the very first time at Jesi (Italy). He records for Da Vinci, Brilliant Classics, Tactus e Warner Classics. He’s given the direction of the Italian premiere of the dramatic opera in three acts “The Juniper Passion” by New Zealand composer Michael F. Williams on the libretto by John Davies. He conducted several ensembles: I Solisti Aquilani, Orchestra di Padova e del Veneto, Nuova Orchestra Scarlatti, Orchestra Filarmonica di Benevento, Time Machine Ensemble, etc. He works along with M° Donato Renzetti in “Aida” for the staging of the Teatro alla Scala version of Franco Zeffirelli at Grand Theatre in Guangzhou. For a production of Teatro Carlo Felice in Genova he works on Puccini’s “Turandot” sung by soprano Giovanna Casolla on the occasion of the inauguration of Harbin Opera House (China), where he’s back to conduct The Barber of Seville (direction by Enrico Stinchelli) for a production of Teatro Comunale of Modena. He also collaborated with Bruno Canino, Tomer Maschkowski, Claudio Desderi, Renato Bruson, Marina Comparato, Lella Cuberli, etc. He was the assistant of M° Muhai Tang for the first performance of the opera “Marco Polo” performed at Teatro Carlo Felice di Genova.
Important collaborations with the Fondazione Pergolesi-Spontini and the Study Center for Flemish Music of the Royal Conservatory of Antwerp for which he performs in the world premiere in the modern era some unpublished pages taken from the buffo melodrama "Il quadro parlante" by Gaspare Spontini. He teaches Score Reading in Italian Conservatoriums and he carries out conducting activities especially related to 20th century and contemporary opera repertoire. He has conducted more than 50 world premieres.
Pietro Mascagni (b Livorno, 7 Dec 1863; d Rome,2 Aug 1945). Italian composer and conductor.