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Pumping up the volume – Italian style

July 6, 2014

This week I want to talk about Lou Harrison. And to get us kickin’ back and in the mood, here is a part of his Suite for Symphonic Strings: the second movement, Et in Arcadia Ego. (Now go and look up the generally accepted interpretation of that phrase, and see whether I haven’t succeeded in spoiling the moment.)

Harrison was one of a bunch of 20th Century American composers, along with Burl Ives, Alan Hovhaness, Aaron Copland and Elizabeth Someone whose name I can’t remember at the moment but I’ve just discovered in the last 2 or 3 years. It’s annoying me that I can’t find the CD of her Piano Concerto that I bought last year and that I don’t have her name embedded in my mind.

The only connection between these composers for me is that I like them all. Beyond that, my knowledge of any of them does not even come close to adequate. Indeed, when I come to think about it – and that is an activity to which Mrs simonsometimessays suggests I devote far too much time – I am in a condition of great ignorance about an awful lot of stuff.  Happily, that is what the rest of the Internet is for. So I am able to discover with little effort that the name eluding me is Elizabeth…

…no, that didn’t work, and that makes me wonder whether it’s Elizabeth at all. I now have to check all the places the CD may have got to. Car, study, work bag… I’m getting increasingly agitated. Like a Rossini crescendo. And here’s one to prove it – the amazing sextet from Act 2 of Rossini’s La Cenerentola. This is sumptuous ensemble writing – not tough on the ear, not too challenging to the emotions, but pure musical gold.

The crescendo is a trademark of Rossini. It’s an effective if unsubtle device for achieving variety in a repeated phrase, and Rossini certainly is not short on repetition. Indeed it is sometimes suggested that he didn’t write 39 operas, but one opera 39 times. But then: why change a winning formula? It worked – depressingly – for the various Johann Strausses.

Rossini sits in my consciousness with Donizetti and Bellini – the three great Bel Canto composers. I would guess that for most people that sequence – R, D, B – is the correct order of familiarity. But only with their names.

Una Furtiva Lagrima, from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore, is one of those tunes that you know, even if you didn’t know you knew it. And that link is to Placido Domingo singing it so perfectly that if Donizetti had been alive to hear he would be sitting back sighing with satisfaction, thinking “Bingo!”.

And Bellini? Casta Diva, from Norma, must surely be one of the best-known tunes on the planet. And this shows you how it’s done, courtesy of Montserrat Caballé*

(Bellini, as I have just discovered, wrote an early opera, Bianca e Gernando, and later rewrote it as Bianca e Fernando. You’d think he might have tried to disguise it a little more effectively. But then again, it’s only a difference of a single letter – much as the difference between Rocky II and Rocky III.)

Well, time’s up, and I got so carried away with the Italian maestri that I forgot all about my missing CD. I still haven’t found what I’m looking for (gospel-style) and as for that composer, well I am ashamed to admit to her that “I don’t even know your name”**. On the other hand, how’s that for a  jumpin’ country tune to finish with?

And I didn’t get to talk about Lou Harrison. That can wait for another day. But in case you’re wondering, he’s not related to George.

* Yes, the one who sang Barcelona with Freddie Mercury.

**  Alan Jackson

Et In Arcadia Ego. This by Guercino, the one at the top, with the same name, is by Poussin

Et In Arcadia Ego. This by Guercino; the one at the top, with the same name, is by Poussin

 

(I’ve just remembered: it’s Sheila.)

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