Vittorio Gnecchi, italian musician born in Milan in 17 July 1876 and died 5 February 1954.
The Gnecchi Ruscone Family
The family, originally from Garlate, near Lecco in northern Italy, was, with the spinning of silk, among the initiators and promoters of the Italian Industrial Revolution since the middle of the XVIII century.
Moving to Milan at the beginning of the XIX century in keeping with the development of their industrial and commercial activity they also had an interest in the area of North of Milan, the Brianza, where most of their factories were located.
Since the Renaissance villas had been built by the aristocracy of Italian cities as pleasant summer residences, centre of their farmland properties and status symbols.
Giuseppe Antonio Gnecchi, born in Garlate in 1783, the first of the family to graduate in Engineering from Pavia University, had married Giuseppina Ruscone. Her brother Giacomo Ruscone, also in the silk business, died without issue in 1842, leaving his property, including a villa in Verderio to his nephew Giuseppe Achille Gnecchi on condition that he added his surname to Gnecchi.
THE VILLA CONFALONIERI
Adjacent to the villa Ruscone was a very grand villa, owned by the Confalonieri, one of the oldest and famous families of Milan aristocracy. Count Vitaliano Confalonieri, its owner, nephew of Federico Confalonieri, a well know member of the Carbonari, an association conspiring for the overthrow of Austrian rule over Milan, mysteriously left the villa one evening, in the middle of dinner, and was never heard of again.
Giuseppe Achille, who had taken part of the 1848 uprising that liberated Milan, had much expanded the industrial and commercial activities of the family also with the help of his father in law, Francesco Turati, a great cotton industrialist, who gave the couple in 1846, as a wedding present, the palace in Milan in via Filodrammatici, adjacent La Scala Theatre, that was to be the family’s main residence until 1947 and is now seat of Mediobanca.
Having three sons and wishing to leave a villa each, he purchased the villa Confalonieri for his eldest son, Francesco and, with his wife he started making it the centre of his cultural and philanthropic activities.
FRANCESCO GNECCHI RUSCONE
Inheriting the villa in 1893, with his wife Isabella Bozzotti he continued and completed his parent’s activities. A very young volunteer in 1866 war of independence he continued the industrial and commercial activities in the silk industry, expanding it into banking. Besides his business commitments he was also very active as a landscape painter of some fame and especially as a numismatic. Founder in 1888 of “La Rivista Italiana di Numismatica” his collection of coins of the Greco-Roman classical period has been declared a National Patrimony and is now in the National Archeological Museum of Rome. As an expert he assisted the young Prince of Naples, later King Vittorio Emanuele III, to set his numismatic collection.
Vittorio Gnecchi Ruscone was his second son and grew up in this atmosphere.
The young Vittorio Gnecchi
From Isabella Bozzotti Francesco Gnecchi Ruscone had three children: Cesare, Vittorio and Carla.
Vittorio Gnecchi was born in Milan, in the house of via Filodrammatici, on the 17th of July 1876.
The family atmosphere was very favourable in allowing him to cultivate his musical talent; he studied with the best private music teachers of the time: Michele Saladino (teacher of Mascagni and De Sabata) and Gaetano Coronaro, becoming afterwards fellow student of Tullio Serafin, to whom he was tied by a life long sincere friendship relation.
What later on tuned out to be the first “title” of demerit of the future composer, who shall be accused by his denigrators of “being a dilettante” , started to slowly take shape: a dilettante too well-off to “lower himself” and follow the “official” course of musical studies . And yet, this very wealth allowed him to have a wide and always updated musical library, addressed particularly to central Europe art, and to keep up to date better than others on the late nineteenth-century developments.
Debut: Virtù d’Amore
In autumn 1896 in the big wine cellar of Verderio villa, used as a theatre, the first opera of Vittorio Gnecchi, the pastorale “Virtù d’Amore”, was staged.
An event that aroused a great deal of interest, mostly for the staging sumptuousness: sketches and fashion plates drawn by the painter Adolfo Hohenstein, person in charge of the set of the Theatre alla Scala and artistic director of the Ricordi Graphic Workshop; while Antonio Rovescalli, one of the most important set decorators of the period, realized for the event the scenes at complete panorama, that is to say without wings (solution that he will adopt the following year for the first scene of Tristano at the Theatre alla Scala).
Illustrious names stood out also in the orchestra: the eighteen years old Searfin was at the piano, Russolo (later on one of the leading exponents of the futurist music) at the harmonium, Galeazzi at the cello (later on he will become the first cello of La Scala), the tenor Cannonieri in the Choir and, among the leading actors, the sixteen years old count Giuseppe Visconti di Modrone (later on father of the famous director Luchino).
On the 12 October 1896, the newspaper “Corriere della Sera” wrote: ”it was a complete success”.
The opera score was published in a very luxurious edition by the publisher Giulio Ricordi who, on the pages of the “Gazzetta Musicale” (Musical Gazette), among other things, wrote: “Vittorio Gnecchi has shown his splendid musical wits”.
An inconvenient Case
Toscanini and Cassandra
After the degree in law, Vittorio Gnecchi conceived the opera that was going to leave a mark, in good and in evil, on his future: Cassandra, thought up as a musical drama, according to Wagner method.
Gnecchi wrote the story, starting from Eschilo’s Agamemnon, and entrusted the writing up of the libretto with Luigi Illica, no less, with whom he started a relation that, even if it was sometimes marked by conflicts, was for Gnecchi a real life’s training ground from a compositional and musical point of view.
Strong from his experience and culture, Illica lead the young and often ingenuous Gnecchi by the hand in the production/staging of an impressive opera, which will show all the musical talent of his young composer.
The rich correspondence between the two, precious testimony remained unpublished, depicts not only the slow and suffered planning of the libretto and of the score(that will be accomplished in 1904), but also Illica commitment in trying to promote Cassadra in different Italian theatres, certain of the immense musical value of the opera.
Upon advice of his friend Tullio Serafin, and supported by the tireless Illica, Gnecchi presented the opera to Arturo Toscanini, who, it seems, was enthusiast about it, so much so that on the 5th December 1905 he conducted the first night at the “Teatro Comunale di Bologna” (Bologna Municipal Theatre), calling exceptional protagonists: the baritone F. Federici (the Prologue), the tenor G. Borgatti (Agamemnon), the soprano S. Krusceniski (Clytemnestra), the mezzo-soprano E. Bruno (Cassandra) and the baritone T. Quercia (Egisto).
The performance was at the height of the protagonists.
Unfortunately, during the rehearsals , Gnecchi little experience on theatrical matters, caused many problems to Toscanini; disagreements which added themselves to gossips, which affected the maestro from the beginning, so much so that after Bologna experience he did not want to hear anymore of Cassandra, which he had so much appreciated, and of Gnecchi.
Tebaldini and the Strauss “case”
Three years later, precisely on the 25th January 1909, the first night of Elektra, Richard Strauss new Opera, was staged at Dresden Opera.
Those who knew Cassandra immediately noticed the surprising analogies that linked the two operas. The musicologist Giovanni Tebaldini, even though not exposing himself with accusations of plagiarism, spoke about a common inspiration, a kind of “musical telepathy” (actual title of the essay published in the “Rivista Musicale Italiana”) , which had moved the two composers.
Unfortunately others will talk of plagiarism and the denials of both shall be of no avail.
The “case” had irreparably broken out, but the damages were to be borne only by Gnecchi. It is sufficient to remember the attitude of the artistic director of the Theatre alla Scala at the time, Vittorio Mingardi, who, in reply to the request of the duke Visconti di Modrone (chairman of the Committee authorized to plan the Scala theatrical season) to include Cassandra in the theatre program, stopped the initiative to don’t displease Strauss “pour ne pas depalire a Strauss” – as he wrote to Visconti. And so it shall always be.
It is still strange today to see how the ostracism suffered by Gnecchi proved to be a typical Italian phenomenon, since abroad his name lived often and with pride on the theatrical programmes.
In Italy, his music was entrusted mainly with foreign hands which supported it with force and enthusiasm – just to mention one worth for all: Willem Mengelberg, who conducted in 1910 Cassandra‘s prologue at Milan Conservatory, achieving a great personal success for the author.
Also the new integral performance of Cassandra, staged at the Dal Verme Theatre in Milan in 1913, conducted by Ettore Panizza, achieved a very good success, both of public and critics, and its echo even reached the United States of America, where on the 26th of February 1914, Cassandra was performed at Philadelphia Opera Theatre, conducted by Cleofonte Campanini.
But here the accusation of plagiarism of Strauss opera made against Gnecchi same by the American journalists who ignored the antecedence of Cassandra as regards Elektra, calmed down the enthusiasms, sealing an already poisoned destiny.
The middle Opera
Ricordi Publishing House was for Vittorio Gnecchi always a source of illusion and subsequent delusions.
Gnecchi Family was always a shareholder of the Publishing House (and it remained such until the end of the ninetieth century , when Ricordi was sold to the German company Bertelsmann; and moreover, recent directors were Vittorio’s nephew, Piero and then the grandnephew Stefano Gnecchi Ruscone).
Nevertheless the publishers, first Giulio then Tito, showed themselves always indifferent, if not hostile, towards Gnecchi’s art. If one thinks of the nice words written by Giulio Ricordi on the occasion of the first night of “Virtù d’Amore”, it is surprising to learn about the little enthusiasm shown in liquidating Cassandra at its first piano audition : “Dear Vittorio, you understand very well that it will never be possible to stage in any big theatre this dilettante essay of yours. At the most you can stage it in your Verederio little Theatre, inviting your friends”. Afterwards, though, he changed his mind and published Cassandra score, probably upon learning that Toscanini was going to conduct the Opera in Bologna.
On this point it is necessary to make a short note on Cassandra edition.
It happened that a very influent friend managed to make Ricordi Publishing House accept the “gift” of the opera score , of the libretto and of all the material necessary for its performance in six theatres.
Luckily Gnecchi added the clause that if the Opera was not going to be performed within five years in a certain number of theatres, the property of the same would have returned to him.
And he had made the right forecast, since in those five years Cassandra slept “a deep sleep”, and therefore the author had back his property “very dusted”: Ricordi will publish also other Gnecchi operas, although the relations between the composer and the publisher remained always so stormy to compel the composer to terminate every contract.
The tragic Idyll: La Rosiera
Gnecchi answered to such hostility with a totally new opera, both for intents and for artistic results.
Actually, he put aside the dramatic austerity of the Greeks tragedies to turn to those “subjects of sentimental easiness “ and those “effects of dramatic force ( quand meme)” that his friend Illica had advised him to avoid. And so, already in 1909, the year of the fatidic article of Tebaldini , Vittorio Gnecchi had completed, after more than two years of work, the composition of “La Rosiera”, tragic romance in three acts on libretto of Carlo Zangarini (with many interventions of Gnecchi same) taken from the theatrical opera “On ne badine pas avec l’amour” of Alfred de Musset.
The case was that in that same period, Gabriel Pierné composed another small opera based on the same text, presented for the first time at the Opera Comique in the month of May 1910, encountering more fortune than Gnecchi.
In 1910, as a matter of fact, the opera had already been published , but Rosiera would have been silent for almost twenty years, suffering the same ostracism that prevented Gnecchi to perform his music in his homeland. Rosiera, although anticipated by some staccato pieces performed by Hildebrand in Berlin in 1923 and by Schneevoigt in Paris in January 1927, will be staged for the first time only on the 16th of February 1927 at the ReuBisches Theatre of Gera, conducted by Richard Meyer.
It was a triumph with twenty – two curtain calls and the offering of many laurel wreaths.
It was Trieste Municipal Theatre “Giuseppe Verdi” (the most Middle-European city of Italy) the first to open the doors to Gnecchi’s “La Rosiera” , including it in the playbill of the season 1930-31 and granting a real national artistic event.
On the pages of the review “ Musicisti d’Italia” (Italian Musicians) , already in November 1930, it was possible to read: “La Rosiera first night , for which the intervention of the critics of the most important Italian newspapers is expected, is destined to become a fact of primary artistic importance not only for Trieste but for the whole Italian music world , since the verdict of the public and the critics will establish if the Italian ostracism towards this opera, that lasted for twenty years was right and justified and if the report on the success overseas are a bluff , as it seems up to now” .
As a matter of fact, the news aroused a wide an renewed interest in the Italian– and not only – music world, persuading many critics to reopen the “Gnecchi case” .
Innumerable newspapers gave wide space to the case, culminating in a conference titled “Rosiera and the Gnecchi case”, held at the hall of the Tarantini Conservatoire on the 23rd of January 1931 by Mario Nordio, who was then editor-in-chief of Trieste’s newspaper “Il Piccolo”; later on the conference was published in the pages of the “Nuova Italia Musicale”, where there was a summary of all the unfortunate vicissitudes of Milan composer.
With enormous success, the Rosiera was staged on the 25th of January 1931, conducted by Giuseppe Baroni and interpreted by C. Togliani (Salency). P. Menescaldi (Perdicano) , A. Clinova (Camilla), A. Oltrabella (Rosetta). “Since the first staging, dated 1919, of “Francesca da Rimini” the public of the Verdi Theatre had never cheered with such clamour as last night”, it was possible to read in the “Piccolo della Sera”.
Italy and Europe
In fascist Italy
In Italy, therefore, except form some sporadic concession, silence was continuing.
And his influent friendships, the innumerable and indefatigable letters addressed to Ministers, newspapers and theatre were of no avail. At every request of performance, the answer was always and kindly one: no thanks we are not interested in your operas.
Even on the occasion of the “First Exhibition on the Italian twentieth-century”, held in Bologna during the spring of 1927, where 57 Italian composers were called, Gnecchi was excluded, giving rise to the indignation of many German critics.
By now the Gnecchi “case” was not referred only to the relation between Cassandra/Elektra but to the musician figure same; the small number of supporters had to sharpen the weapons to fight not only against the detractors (headed by Alceo Toni), who considered the composer a dilettante, but against a whole musical circle, which showed absolute indifference or, in any case, a prevented hostility against any musical creation that did not belong to the gender of the most expected tradition of the Italian melodrama.
And it was actually against said ambience that the passionate interventions of a small group of critics moved. After Mario Nordio it was the turn of the critic Mario Barbieri who, through new documents, reopened in his own manner the “telepathic” question raised twenty three years earlier by Tebaldini on the pages of the “Rivista Musicale Italiana” same.
The last important intervention on the case, prepared with sincere devotion by Francesco Balilla Pratella, titled “Lights and Shadows – For an Italian Musician ignored in Italy” – published in 1933 by the publishing house De Santis, was decisive.
The idea of writing a book including all the most significant reviews of concerts with Gnecchi operas was of the Milan composer same , and it is deemed as the only and final proof of his real value and of his deep faith in music which had inspired everyone of his notes.
At the beginning of the Thirties , Gnecchi found an agreement with the German critic Rudolf Hartmann , proposing to him the idea of the book. The sudden interruption of their relationship though, brought to the definition of new terms for the book with Francesco Balilla Pratella in February 1933: his work was essentially a work of reorganization, arrangement and discreet comment of the vast amount of material collected through the years by Gnecchi.
Up to now, Pratella book’s contribution remains the most important document on Vittorio Gnecchi vicissitudes since, even taking into account all the reserves that may rise from such a defensive-documentary project, it portrays with bare lucidity a precious view on the critics of the time.
He was, after all, an honest witness of his misfortune, firmly intentioned to report always both positions in favour or against his art, convinced of being on the side of reason, presenting newspapers as the only witnesses.
Salzburg and Europe
With the passage of time, as we have seen, Italy forgot completely Vittorio Gnecchi music – and person. It was Austria, instead, which took the position of homeland of adoption , and in particular the enlightened city of Salzburg , showing him immediately a particular affection.
In 1932 Joseph Messner, choirmaster of the Choir of Salzburg Cathedral, commissioned the composition of a Mass to him: the Missa Salinburgensis was born, an opera that showed its importance not only within the creative harvest of Gnecchi, but for the panorama same of Italian holy music and for the history same of Salzburg music tradition.
Performed for the first time in Salzburg Cathedral on the 23rd of July 1933, conducted by Messner same (soloist was the Vienna soprano Erika Rokita), and dedicated in sign of gratitude to the whole city of Salzburg, in person of his Prince Archbishop, the Missa renewed an old and illustrious tradition , inspiring itself to the leitmotiv of Paul Hofhaymer (1459-1537) Chorale, repeated everyday by the carillon of the city Fortress.
Gnecchi’s Missa raised the enthusiasm of the international newspapers, which cheered it as one of the most interesting modern opera of holy music.
The critic Karl Neumayr closed with these words his long review on the concert: “the 23rd of July 1933 represents a milestone in the history of Salzburg Cathedral Choir. Since Gnecchi’s Missa Salisburgensis is the most important holy music work of new Italy, and it is also the first great opera that the immortal Italian genius, after the enlivened “Messa” by Benevoli (1628), has dedicated to Salzburg Cathedral”.
Since then Gnecchi was regularly invited in Salzburg, during the period that was – it must not be forgotten – the golden age for the Festival.
It was, for instance, important the concert held in the following summer, when on the 12th of August 1934 , his “ Cantata biblica” was performed as an absolute premiere, always at the Cathedral during the Salzburger Festspiele, conducted by Joseph Messner with, among the interpreters, the famous soprano Stella Roman and the baritone Giuseppe Manachini.
Salzburg remembered him also after the war, and already in 1948 the Missa– in the program with Fauré requiem- was re-proposed on the stage of the Mozarteum, still conducted by Messner; and the following year his new ballet Atalanta was welcomed .
It must not be forgotten that during all these years the real king of Salzburg musical life was Richard Strauss same; it appears, therefore, even more strange that the only Italian composer often present in the Festival programs next to great names such as Palestrina, Rossini e Verdi , was Vittorio Gnecchi same, although – while Strauss was alive – only with holy music.
A life spent to emerge again
The years between the War and Vittorio Gnecchi’s death, which took place in 1954, are years dominated by the offence and the discouragement, due to the perpetrated silence to which Italy had condemned him.
Something actually had happened during said period.
On the 6th of June 1932 Gnecchi entered at last La Scala theatre doors, with the heroic Poem conducted by Willem Mengelberg. On the 21st of March 1940 the “Cantata Biblica” was performed again at La Scala, conducted by Franco Ferrara, then another run in the following May, always at La Scala, this time conducted by Alberto Erede and with the very famous Stella Roman and Francesco Valentino. On the 23rd of April 1942 “La Rosiera” (Prelude; Danza Campestre) reached the Theatre of “La Fenice” in Venice, conducted by Francesco Mander, while on the following 21st of April (forse errore di stampa perchè la data che precede è il 23 aprile) at Rome Opera Theatre, Gnecchi music was listened to in Italy for the last time: ironically, were the thundering notes of Cassandra to resound, conducted by Oliviero de Fabritiis. From then it was oblivion.
To account for the continuous attempts of Gnecchi to solve his case, there is also a letter of Giulio Andreotti dated May 1949, at that time deputy-minister at the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, who, after being asked, answered: “It really hurts me to hear you are so grieved for what you think is being done to your music. But it does not appear to me that the non performance of the operas is to be ascribed, without doubts, to an on principle or preconceived hostility towards you. Rather, it will depend on circumstances which make fashionable in certain times some compositions rather than others, according to criteria of choice that cannot be censured by this Office. In any case, I have reported to the General Director for Shows the content of your letter, praying him to satisfy your wishes, within the limits of the modest faculty of good offices, reserved to the Services of the Presidency towards the Autonomous Theatre Bodies”.
The oratorio: Judith
In December 1952, Austria will give him again , at Salzburg Mozarteum, the first performance in form of a concert (but with considerable cuts ) of the great musical drama in three acts, Judith , commenced in the first decade of the century , shortly after Cassandra, on a libretto of Illica too , and left silent at Verderio villa for more than forty years – true revenge of Gnecchi, who succeeded at last in having his forth lyrical opera performed in Salzburg, obtaining a huge personal success, even if this shall happen only after Strauss death.
It is a choral opera made of a big orchestral part, and it has an extraordinary modernity in writing, owing to a preparation of almost forty years.
After Cassandra, Judith is the real great opera of Gnecchi which waits to be staged again.
When Vittorio Gnecchi left the stage, silently in February 1954, his death was mourned only beyond the Alps. The 8th of February, therefore three days after his death, on the German and Austrian newspapers different deeply felt obituary notices appeared. To write the commemoration on the newspaper “ Tiroler Tageszeitung” was the famous musicologist Albert Riester.
In the entire Austrian Tyrol the death of Gnecchi was felt as a national mourning, and it was the Italian Institute of Culture to account of the intensity of the honour granted to the musician in a letter to the Italian General Consulate in Innsbruck, dated 15th of February 1954. In the same day in Jakobkirke, Innsbruck Cathedral, a solemn requiem mass for Gnecchi was celebrated, at the presence of the Italian Consul.
The 15th of July of the same year, Radio Innsbruck dedicated an hour of programmes and a portray of Gnecchi, prepared by Riester too.
In the radio conference the musicologist lingered mainly over the importance and the exceptional role of Gnecchi in the Italian musical panorama of the first part of the Nineteenth century, remembering how the musical critics, in 1905 when Cassandra was published, had welcomed the coming of a opera style without precedents; the fusion of the melodic invention of Italian tradition – in particular of Lombard tradition – with the overabundant timbre of Strauss orchestra, passing with diplomacy over the old and embarrassing vicissitudes. More confirms of the persistent interest and high artistic esteem.