Francesco Cilea -Piccola-Suite (1932)
(b. Palmi, Reggio Calabria , 23. July 1866 in – d. Varazze, Provinz Savona, 20. November 1950)
Alla marcia p.29
‘Dear colleague, your musical thoughts go straight into my heart; thank you! On Wednesday I was at the Lirico theatre, to admire your Adriana [Lecouvreur]; I love your music, your orchestration is so clear, so expressive, so colourful. Picturesque feeling sits side by side with dramatic expression. Your Adriana is both moving and seductive – and it had a great reception!’
So wrote Jules Massenet, no less, having attended a performance of Cilea’s masterpiece, the opera Adriana Lecouvreur. A tale of theatrical life and intrigue set in the early 18th century the opera features a gratifying prima donna role within a colourful plot featuring a final death by inhalation of the scent from a bunch of poisoned violets! After its sensational premiere in 1902 Adriana conquered the great opera houses of the world. Nowadays it still remains a staple of the Italian operatic diet, but in other parts of the world its appearances on the hoardings have become increasingly rare. Given Cilea’s dates one might expect his theatrical sensibilities to be in keeping with verismo composers. However his essentially modest personality helped keep the worst excesses of verismo in check, while his imaginative use of the orchestra lent the opera the buoyancy remarked upon by Massenet. Although Cilea kept au fait with contemporary musical developments there is no way he could be considered an innovator himself, but his opera does show his absorption of French influences in particular, in tandem with the more predictable ready flow of Italianate melody.
Born in Palmi, near Reggio Calabria at Italy’s ‘toe’, young Francesco was sent to a boarding school in Naples with a view to following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a lawyer. Inevitably – how often have we heard this with other composers? – his innate musicality won through, and in1881 he entered the Naples Conservatoire to study piano with Beniamino Cesi, and harmony and counterpoint with Paolo Serrao. Among his contemporaries was Umberto Giordano, the future creator of Andrea Chénier. Cilea distinguished himself at the Conservatoire, and while there wrote a Suite (1887) which earned him a gold medal from the Minister for Public Instruction. (This is not the Piccola suite in this score; our work emerged in 1932.) Cilea’s graduation exercise of 1889 was an opera, Gina, which he conducted himself in the Conservatoire theatre. His biographer, d’Amico, writes of ‘its abundance and spontaneity of melody […] and the adherence of the music to the spirit of the words.’ Gina showed off the young man in such a good light that the Sonzogno publishing house offered him a contract. Further operas followed, La Tilda (1892) and L’Arlesiana (1897) – this latter making use of the same Daudet tragedy for which Bizet had written incidental music. In spite of the presence of Enrico Caruso in the role of Federico L’Arlesiana suffered from an episodic character and a weak libretto, faults that Cilea tried to rectify in three subsequent revisions. We have already mentioned the success of Adriana Lecouvreur (again Caruso was a principal); Gloria (1907) was Cilea’s final attempt in this genre, but even after a premiere conducted by Toscanini and an extensive revision in 1932 this work failed to elicit either critical or public approbration. Away from the opera house Cilea was not a notably prolific composer. There are piano pieces, including some charming duets, and songs (six of which are vocalises), chamber music and several choral works. Cilea, when not composing, was teaching, first of all at the Naples Conservatoire where he had studied, then at the equivalent institutions in Florence (1896-1904) and Palermo (1913-16). He was the director at Palermo before moving back to Naples in a similar role for the last 20 years of his working life. He managed to revive the fortunes of the Naples Conservatoire by creating a historical music museum and a prestigious Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra. …
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