Viaggio in Italia: Italian reflections in German Lieder


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    The Grand tour of Italy was a necessary step in the spiritual and artistic life of eighteenth-century intellectuals – first of all, Goethe’s. Still, it was an elite kind of tourism, in spite of the objective practical difficulties: one should consider the mythical description of the passing of the Gotthard in Mignon’s ballade (Wilhelm Meister), whose dragons by the passage are replaced today by the trucks queuing before the tunnel.
    More than a century later, tourism started to become a mass phenomenon, and the great artists adjusted their practices: Richard Strauss toured Italy by car, Brahms did not disdain long stays in Taormina. Poor Hugo Wolf, just dismissed from a psychiatric clinic (and close to the madhouse) ran obviously into the wrong week, before refunds existed: wind and cold weather in Friuli, a pneumonia in Istria, seasick in a savage Adriatic, nostalgia of Austria. In spite of this, it was on that occasion that, at 38, he saw the sea for the first time. But a musical journey in Italy is something different; less expensive but more daring, depending on the known repertoire, on the Volk hybridizations, on one’s love for Italian poetry.
    For Beethoven, a pupil of Salieri, musical Italy is often synonymous with “Mozart”, even though his famous In questa tomba oscura overshadows all other versions, written in the fashion of a contest, just as would later happen with the Diabelli Variations. Years later Schubert, a Salieri pupil in turn, learnt a perfect Italian melodic style: even the theme of his Erlkönig (excluding the piano’s octaves) is Italian in terms of its broad horizon and of the phrasing of the long vowels. Brahms’ solid basses are certainly not the Neapolitan ones (different from Strauss’ Aus Italien), but also for him the great themes are often Italian (one may think of the first theme of his Violin concerto).
    In Rome, Liszt wore the cassock, but his best as an “Italian” composer had come out in his years of “secular pilgrimage”: as an abbot, he too frequently lingered in a mortification of his mundane style, including a penitential version of Petrarch’s Sonnets.
    Wolf, a Slovenian by birth, had some drops of Italian blood (provided that, as Bernard Shaw commented, one can have “some”, just as one has some Scotch whisky left in the cellar). As a boy, he perfectly imitated Rossini’s orchestral style, and in his last years he was actually obsessed by Funicolì Funicolà (which he had heard played by street musicians in Misurina); he tried hard to insert it into the work-in-progress of his masterful Italian Serenade for string quartet. In a terrible night at that clinic, he eventually managed to realize that citation, but it remained as a tragical fragment. More or less tragical tarantellas are not missing in Beethoven (Kreutzer Sonata) and Schubert (Death and the Maiden quartet), and perhaps already in some Gigues by Bach, even though they boast an English air.
    The programme of this CD is a journal of the Italian musical journey of composers who undertook it here, each in his own fashion and according to his availabilities. Liszt was probably the first true European composer, not only for his cosmopolitan life, but also since he was a polyglot of the Lied, a genre that had hitherto been bound to the German language only. Among the great ones, only Aribert Reimann, more than a century later, would be so good at composing in so many languages. Petrarch, to whom – among other things – the birth of modern vocal music (the madrigal) is owed, had a kind of musical Renaissance of his own starting with Reichardt, who splendidly set his poems to music, in Italian. Schubert made use of good German translations, and so did Schoenberg with his first serial piece. Liszt, though, recreated an ideal Italy, “all inclusive”, in his masterful Sonnets, later turned into Songs without words. The background looks like a pre-Rafaelite painting; recitatives have a Mozartean intensity. The arias, and the aura, cross the borders of France, just as Petrarch himself had done. The result is memorable, just as if Laura (whom Liszt calls by name, different from the Poet himself) had the red hair of Burne-Jones, and the portamento of Italo-French vocality of the mid-nineteenth century, to say nothing of his sumptuous pianism, which is very detailed in terms of both music and words.
    Hugo Wolf, who was encouraged to do so by an aged Liszt, had already set to music the greatest masters of German poetry, to unsurpassed levels, when (somewhat like Nietzsche) he took Italitis and turned his attention to the anonymous (but very refined poetry) of the early Italian Renaissance, translated by Paul Heyse until it became German by adoption (under an Italian sun, as Wolf once put it). The central Italian scenes in his Italienisches Liederbuch became miniature universal stories of life, love, quarrels and jealousy, in this double passage to the North, but references to coeval verismo are not missing, particularly in the Lieder of the second book, after his (Spanish) opera Der Corregidor, and when he was close to a breakdown due to a looming neurosyphilis. In one of his Lieder, for instance (Benedeit die sel’ge Mutter), on lyrics of Venetian origins, a reference to folly anticipates the ghostly pace of the second Michelangelo Lied, which we would find a little later. At the same time, he looked back, just one step away from the symphonic poem Penthesilea (written following Liszt’s advice), another product by a “precarious” artist, as Stefan Zweig described both Wolf and Kleist.
    Back from Italy, Richard Strauss composed the already cited symphonic poem Aus Italien; however, even this gem which inaugurates Michelangelo’s (second) Renaissance as a poet for music (after him, and besides Wolf, his words would be set to music by Britten, Shostakovich and Reimann) represents a different kind of Strauss, as was noted by Fischer-Dieskau: not a “Baroque” one, but one in sanguine, with a lowered gaze just as Michelangelo’s own Leda.
    Here we find the same colours of the great, last Lieder by Wolf, just before the first signs of his mental decline but still perfectly in tune with the great figure of an artist in which he tries and sees himself before the end. In the first Lied we find dark musings (on a four-notes motif derived from Beethoven’s Op. 132) evoking thoughts of remorse, of alienation from the world (the “negative” of Mahler’s Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen), with a final statement of being still alive (the lyrics are written on a plaque under the house where Wolf composed these Lieder). In the second Lied, which has already been mentioned, that four-note motif gets fragmented and then recomposed. The dissonances between voice and piano sustain a descent into hell marked by the utmost nihilism, with lightings of human voices, cum mortuis in lingua mortua, of whom Wolf himself said he was afraid. The third is one of Wolf’s great love songs. Here the four-note motto alternates with voices which converge like embraces. The finale is a declaration of love on the very same notes used by Brahms (who was dying in those days) to part from death itself, in his four Serious Songs.
    Salieri had been the perfect seasoning for Schubert’s studies. Years later, in the wake of the success (for him a detestable one) of Rossini, the master of the Lied demonstrates that he was not inferior to him as concerns the handling of recitatives and of the dramatic and buffo ariosi. He wrote at least two true arie da baule on lyrics by Metastasio for bass Lablache, a great Leporello, who was in Vienna at the time, being the torchbearer at Beethoven’s funeral. Il traditor deluso has, in the recitative, some accents of pure terror in the voice, and makes the piano skillfully tremble (“Ahimè, io tremo”), then “l’aria d’intorno” is also the Aria which wavers and tethers with the controlled panic of vocal virtuosity. Il modo di prender moglie looks like an added aria for a Biedermeier Don Giovanni – who is a Casanova no more but rather an insufferable sexist who, still, knows how to amuse us musically. The first of the three songs, L’incanto degli occhi, is a self-standing piece, a delightful, quintessential Schubert Lied (with the typical repeated chords in the right hand), celebrating the beloved’s eyes in an ectasis of delight (as if they were Marisa Berenson’s in Barry Lindon), with a suggestion of coloratura, as if blushing at the mere thought of it. Metastasio’s mannered words say what in Michelangelo (and in Wolf) was carved in marble: the fault (even as concerns the beauty of music itself) is always that of eyes looking at you with love, or of something like that.
    Erik Battaglia © 2023


    Erik Battaglia, Piano
    Professor for Lied and Oratorio at the G. Verdi Conservatorium in Torino. He began in 1986 his activity as concert pianist, entirely devoted to German Lieder, Italian and European vocal chamber music. He appeared ever since in the most important Italian concert festivals. He has been the Italian accompanist of Nicolai Gedda, performing with him Lieder and Melodiés from the Russian and French repertoire. With Lucio Gallo he has given recitals in the most prestigious European venues (Musikverein Vienna, Unter den Linden Berlin, Staatsoper Hamburg, La Monnaie Theatre in Bruxelles, Paris, Radio France, ecc.) as well as in the USA and Argentina. In 2003 he performed Hugo Wolf’s unfinished opera Manuel Venegas in Salzburg’s Wiener Saal. In 1999 he directed the Strauss Project, performing all the songs by Richard Strauss with the patronage of Dr. Christian Strauss, the composer’s heir. He also organized the performance of all Schubert’s songs in a festival to the memory of Fischer-Dieskau. Erik Battaglia is also active as composer and musicologist: his volume Gioia e dolore diventano canto - 1000 Lieder su poesie di Goethe, with a foreword by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, has been published by the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in 2008. In 2011 he published a volume on Hugo Wolf’s early song (foreword by C.C. Schuster); in 2012 a volume on the songs by Strauss (foreword by Michael Kennedy); in 2018 a volume on the Songs by Gustav Mahler (foreword by Graham Johnson) and is currently working on a book on Fischer-Dieskau’s Italian years. He translated Gerald Moore’s The unashamed accompanist and many other Lied-related books (Frank Walker’s Wolf biography among others), books on Antisemitism (Bahr) and on Raoul Wallenberg (Ingrid Carlberg’s biography), and published many essays on the history and the performance praxis of the German Lied. He wrote the introductory notes of all his CD recordings devoted to Italian art-songs by Tosti, Respighi, Verdi, Busoni (Ricordi, Fonit-Cetra, Warner). He also recorded the complete songs by Wolf-Ferrari with soprano Valentina Valente, with whom he formed a duo for many years, giving many Italian first performances of Lieder by Aribert Reimann. In 2006 Erik Battaglia founded the “Centro Studi Eric Sams” aimed to introduce students and readers to the works of his mentor, the late English musicologist and Shakespeare scholar Eric Sams, and to his analytical method. He edited and translated the complete works of Sams as well as the online edition in original language ( Erik Battaglia has been teaching at the Hugo Wolf Academy in Acquasparta and Torino since 1989 and holds regularly Master Classes on German Lieder and Italian songs (Berlin, Akademie der Künste, Hamburg, Deutsche Lied-Akademie in Trossingen, Fiesole School, Vilnius Academy, ecc.). He joined the Jury in the Paula-Solomon Lied Competition in Berlin and published a dialogue on music with the physicist Carlo Rovelli.

    Lucio Gallo, Baritone
    He was born in Taranto and educated in the school of Elio Battaglia, under whose guidance he graduated with honors at Conservatory "Giuseppe Verdi" in Turin. Winner of several national and international competitions (Conegliano Veneto, Francisco Vinas, Prize "Mira Factors"), his prestigious artistic career led him to perform in the world most important theaters and concert halls such as: Metropolitan Opera New York, San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Royal Opera House Covent Garden London, Staatsoper and Musikverein in Wien, Deutsche Oper and Staatsoper in Berlin, Salzburg Festival, Opernhaus Zürich, Bayerische Staatsoper Munich, La Monnaie in Brussels, New National Theatre of Tokyo, Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, Teatro alla Scala, Teatro Regio di Torino, Teatro dell’Opera e Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. His gifts as a performer and his refined vocal technique allow him to sing form Rossini to Mozart, from Puccini to Wagner, Donizetti, Verdi and also contemporary music. Among the countless roles of his repertoire, we can mention Figaro (both in Il Barbiere di Siviglia and in Le nozze di Figaro), Guglielmo and Don Alfonso (Così fan tutte), Leporello and Don Giovanni in Don Giovanni, Dandini (La cenerentola), Malatesta and Don Pasquale (Don Pasquale), Belcore (L’elisir d’amore), Lord Enrico (Lucia di Lamermoore), Marcello (La bohème), Jack Rance (La fanciulla del west), Scarpia (Tosca), Germont (La traviata), Ford and Falstaff (Falstaff), Amonasro (Aida), Marchese di Posa (Don Carlo), Jago (Otello), Macbeth, Rigoletto, Simon Boccanegra, Telramund (Lohengrin), Holländer (Der fliegende Holländer), Golaud (Pelleas et Melisande), Onegin, Wozzeck, Vincenzo Gellner (La Wally), Don Pizarro (Fidelio), Gerard (Andrea Chénier).
    He has worked with such conductors as Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, Riccardo Chailly, Colin Davis, John Eliot Gardiner, Gianandrea Gavazzeni, Daniele Gatti, Bernard Haitink, Daniel Harding, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Zubin Mehta, Riccardo Muti, Seiji Ozawa, Sir Antonio Pappano, Wolfgang Sawallisch. He made also an intensive concert career with lieder and oratorio. He has taught vocal technique at the Academy Pescara Music and he has taught in master courses at the "Hugo Wolf Accademy " in Acquasparta directed by Elio Battaglia. He brought on stage “Tribute to Frank Sinatra” with Claudio Chiara Jazz Quintet. He has recorded for Deutsche Grammophon, Sony, Decca and Fonit Cetra (Warner).


    Franz Liszt: (b Raiding, (Doborján), 22 Oct 1811; d Bayreuth, 31 July 1886). Hungarian composer, pianist and teacher. He was one of the leaders of the Romantic movement in music. In his compositions he developed new methods, both imaginative and technical, which left their mark upon his forward-looking contemporaries and anticipated some 20th-century ideas and procedures; he also evolved the method of ‘transformation of themes’ as part of his revolution in form, made radical experiments in harmony and invented the symphonic poem for orchestra. As the greatest piano virtuoso of his time, he used his sensational technique and captivating concert personality not only for personal effect but to spread, through his transcriptions, knowledge of other composers’ music. As a conductor and teacher, especially at Weimar, he made himself the most influential figure of the New German School dedicated to progress in music. His unremitting championship of Wagner and Berlioz helped these composers achieve a wider European fame. Equally important was his unrivalled commitment to preserving and promoting the best of the past, including Bach, Handel, Schubert, Weber and above all Beethoven; his performances of such works as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Hammerklavier Sonata created new audiences for music hitherto regarded as incomprehensible. The seeming contradictions in his personal life – a strong religious impulse mingled with a love of worldly sensation – were resolved by him with difficulty. Yet the vast amount of new biographical information makes the unthinking view of him as ‘half gypsy, half priest’ impossible to sustain. He contained in his character more of the ideals and aspirations of the 19th century than any other major musician.

    Profile from The New Grove dictionary of Music and Musicians

    Franz Schubert: (b Vienna, 31 Jan 1797; d Vienna, 19 Nov 1828). Austrian composer. The only canonic Viennese composer native to Vienna, he made seminal contributions in the areas of orchestral music, chamber music, piano music and, most especially, the German lied. The richness and subtlety of his melodic and harmonic language, the originality of his accompaniments, his elevation of marginal genres and the enigmatic nature of his uneventful life have invited a wide range of readings of both man and music that remain among the most hotly debated in musical circles.

    Hugo (Filipp Jakob) Wolf
    (b Windischgraz, Styria [now Slovenjgradec, Slovenia], 13 March 1860; d Vienna, 22 Feb 1903). Austrian composer. He intensified the expressive vocabulary of the lied by means of extended tonality and post-Wagnerian declamation while retaining the defining elements of the song tradition he had inherited from Schubert and Schumann. Profoundly responsive to poetry, he incorporated detailed readings of his chosen poems in the compositional decisions he made about every aspect of song: harmonic nuances, tonal form, melodic design, vocal declamation, pianistic texture, the relationship of voice to piano, etc. Seeking an art ‘written with blood’, he went below the surface of poetry – even where his musical purposes were inevitably distinct from the poet's – in order to recreate it in music of remarkable intensity, written, as he once proclaimed, for epicures, not amateurs.

    Richard Strauss (b Munich, 11 June 1864; d Garmisch-Partenkirchen, 8 Sept 1949). German composer and conductor. He emerged soon after the deaths of Wagner and Brahms as the most important living German composer. During an artistic career which spanned nearly eight decades, he composed in virtually all musical genres, but became best known for his tone poems (composed during the closing years of the 19th century) and his operas (from the early decades of the 20th). Coming of age as a composer at a time when the duality of bourgeois and artist had become increasingly problematic, Strauss negotiated the worlds of art and society with a remarkable combination of candour and irony. Averse to the metaphysics of Wagner and indifferent to Mahler's philosophical intentions in music, he exploited instead the paradoxes, inconsistencies and potential profundities to be found in modern, everyday life. The new possibilities he envisioned for music were exemplified in the eclecticism of the opera Der Rosenkavalier, whose juxtaposition of contemporary with intentionally anachronistic elements creates a stylistic pluralism that adumbrates subsequent experimentation of the later 20th century.