The Tempest saw a strict collaboration between Shakespeare and musician Robert Johnson which gave birth to something unique, getting very close to Opera

The Tempest

As we all know, 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. After four centuries Shakespeare still remains at the top of the list as the most loved, copied, performed, stolen from writer in history. The New Grove Dictionary of Opera lists some 400 stage-works (operas for the most part) based on plays by Shakespeare. The Shakespeare-idolatry began in 1769, with a Stratford-upon-Avon becoming a place of pilgrimage: everyone who was someone, traveled to that small market town that had given birth to a genius, happy to dance around in the muddy streets with their courtly shoes. Music was part of the service, with composer Thomas Arne. Arne was not however the first one to toy with Shakespeare’s works: there seems to be evidence of a quite strict collaboration between the Bard and court composer Robert Johnson, on at least one of Shakespeare’s most famous works: The Tempest.

Music was a family tradition for Robert Johnson, his father having been a lutenist to Elizabeth I. After his father’s death, Robert became, in 1596, an apprentice to George Carey, 2nd Baron Hunsdon, and his wife Elizabeth Spencer, patrons of the famous lutenist and composer John Dowland.

Carey was a great art supporter and, among other things, a patron of the theater company to which William Shakespeare belonged, known as the “Baron Hunsdon’s Men” first, then as the “Lord Chamberlain’s Men” and finally as the “King’s men”. His compositions connected to the King’s men theater have been dated to the years 1610-1617, which means he worked with Shakespeare on his latest works, including the Tempest. What’s fascinating here, is the fact that we are assisting to the birth of opera barely a decade after the “official” birth of opera in Italy: a combination of theater and music to reach the zenith of drama. Now, there is no direct evidence of it, and the idea that the entire play was conceived only to be sung is far fetched. It was by no means a libretto. However, there are at least two songs that Johnson wrote for the play – “Where the bee sucks” and “Full fathom five” – as well as stage directions (either written by Shakespeare or by someone who had seen the show in its early performances) indicating that the music had a special role within the work. Musicians where hidden by a silk curtain: silk was effectively hiding the musicians, while offering very little obstruction to those strains of magic melodies. In The Tempest They played all the incidental “solemn and strange music”, “marvelous sweet music”, “heavenly music”. But they also accompanied the lyrics of Ariel’s songs.

That Shakespeare loved music is quite a known fact. That he held it into high consideration can be assumed by his writings. For example:

The man that bath no music in himself
Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils,
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus.
[The Merchant of Venice (V, I, 83-85)]

Maybe The tempest was written with music in mind as intermezzo or maybe it was more like a film soundtrack, with music playing a fundamental character in the plot. An absolutely modern way of conceiving the theater.

But, after all, what’s not modern even to this day when it comes to Shakespeare?

The tempest has frequently been described as Shakespeare’s most lyrical play. It comes to no surprise that it inspired famous composers like Tchaikovsky (with his symphonic fantasia) or Sibelius (with his incidental music for the Copenhagen Theater). More recently, it was also turned into an opera by English composer Thomas Ades. No matter the era in which one lives, it seems like Shakespeare is an endless source of inspiration for composers and artists in general, from Purcell to Verdi, Bernstein and Elvis Costello.

An immortal mirror on our loves, our flaws, our hopes.

For links and more material please visit:


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A Mass of Life is based upon Also sprach Zarathustra, discovered by Delius on a trip to Norway: is a purely humanistic liturgy.


A mass of life – Delius meets Nietzsche

Frederick Delius composed A Mass of Life in 1904-05, the same period in which he saw the birth of splendid works like Appalachia or his Piano Concerto. The texts come from Also sprach Zarathustra, discovered by Delius on a trip to Norway, and for such reason A Mass of Life is a purely humanistic liturgy; one in which mankind’s joyful thoughts and actions have replaced a heavenly Paradise.

In the words of Eric Fenby, a close friend of Delius: “When, one wet day . . . he was looking for something to read in the library of a Norwegian friend with whom he was staying during a walking tour, and had taken down a book, Thus Spake Zarathustra . . . he was ripe for it. It was the very book he had been seeking all along.”

Delius is commonly defined as an impressionist composer, in light of the innovations introduced by composers such as Claude Debussy after passing the romantic and late romantic model; his work, substantially meditative and introverted, melancholic and evocative, naturally inclined to a non-trivial form of musical descriptive style, is influenced by Edvard Grieg, who was a friend of Delius.
The discovery of the work of Delius is mainly due to the great conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, who in 1907, during a London visit by Delius, was impressed by his music, and soon after recorded and played great part of his production, bringing it to public attention.

Beecham himself conducted the full premiere of A Mass of Life in London, in 1909.
Written for a massive ensemble – Soprano, Contralto, Tenor and Baritone Soloists, Double Chorus and Orchestra: 3 flutes with piccolo, 3 oboes, English horn, bass oboe; 3 clarinets, bass clarinet; 3 bassoons, double bassoon; 6 horns; 4 trumpets; 3 tenor trombones; bass tuba; 2 harps; percussion and strings – A Mass of Life is constituted by two blocks of respectively 5 and 6 sections.

It’s a massive humanistic liturgy, a masterpiece among secular choral works, well worth of the spotlight in today’s season programming.

To dig deeper into int and listen to Sir Thomas Beecham talking about Delius and this work, take a look at this article:


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2016 it's the 100th birthday of Henri Dutilleaux. What I've always admired about this composer is the fact that he never abide to the conformism of the mainstream but always stayed true to himself, drawing inspiration from Van Gogh, Baudelaire and Anne Frank.

starry night

Diving into contemporary music, Dutilleux is one of those figures that attract the most, not just for the quality of his music, but for his relentless aversion to compromise it. Dutilleux grew up with the avant-garde as the only accepted way to compose, and yet he refused to bow to it. His long life rejection for Boulez’s dogmas, especially the necessity of serialism, is common knowledge. That way of composing never coped with his sensibility as a musician.

In his own words:
“I don’t speak about him, and he doesn’t speak about me. I admire his work for the Ensemble Intercontemporain. He has made his choices and he has the right to make his choices. But there are things I cannot accept, and I don’t like people who are never in doubt.”

Dutilleux’s approach was by far the most anti-ideological of his generation: where most composers would fall into the classical refusal of the past and the “tabula rasa” way, he refused to be contained into the strict rules of this school of composition, despite his decades of teaching at the Paris Conservatoire.

His music breathes of French tradition, from Debussy to Ravel to Stravinsky with the addition of some Bartok. He drew inspiration from all form of arts: “Timbres, espaces, mouvements” is based on Van Gogh‘s immortal Starry Night; the “Shadows of Time” is a gloomy meditation on loss, written for the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII and catalysed by the discovery of the deportation by the Nazis to concentration camps of an entire orphanage of Jewish children in Anne Frank’s diary.

The piece itself is dedicated to Anne Frank “and all the children, innocents of the world”.
Incidentally, this dedication reminds me of Shostakovich string quartet op.110, dedicated “to the victims of fascism and war”.

The heart of the score is a movement called “Memory of shadows” that includes music for three children’s voices: Dutilleux recounts a stroke of inspiration when he was searching for a “special color in the instrumentation” to contrast with the brass and wind timbres dominating the beginning and heard “some voices coming from a nursery school close to my studio.” The effect is shocking.

A stickler for details and revisions (something in common with Boulez), Dutilleux only cared about his world, completely independent from the mainstream, extremely refined in his orchestration, true to his heart and art.
Happy 100th anniversary!

Here are a few links to some of my favorites compositions of his:
The shadows of time:
Timbres, espaces, mouvements:
Tout un monde lontain – this cello concerto was commissioned and premiered by Rostropovich:


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Siete canciones populares españolas, by Manuel de Falla, is one of the most popular cycles of folk-songs in music history. Originally written for piano and voice, there are transcriptions for voice and guitar, cello and piano and two versions for orchestra.


Siete canciones populares españolas (“Seven Spanish Folksongs”) is a cycle of traditional Spanish songs. Filtered and re-arranged for soprano and piano by Manuel de Falla in 1914, it quickly became one of the most popular set of Spanish songs. Originally dedicated to Madame Ida Godebska, who hosted regular gatherings for Parisian artists (like the Mallarmé tuesdays) and arranged for the first edition of the songs, the cycle is one of the most transcribed in music history since the times of Bach: there are arrangements for solo piano, voice and guitar, piano and cello and two versions for orchestra.

De Falla himself wrote: “In all honesty, I think that in popular song, the spirit is more important than the letter. The essential features of these songs are rhythm, tonality, and melodic intervals. The people themselves prove this by their infinite variations on the purely melodic lines of the songs.”

The songs derive from different regions of Spain, maintaining their original character and appeal without ever falling into cliché. All of them deal with love and everything that comes with it, joyful or painful. As it usually happens with great composers, De Falla added his own twist to the original songs, thus making them more interesting.

You can find a detailed analysis of each of them here:


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Pickwick was a great program from RAI TV. Last December the same RAI TV humiliated the RAI Orchestra in an unprecedented way.


The art of loosing ground

Once upon a time, not that long ago, you could catch quite a few cultural programs on Italian national TV (the RAI). One of my all times favorites was Pickwick, a program dedicated to literature (contemporary and non) hosted by the brilliant Italian writer Alessandro Baricco ( Baricco himself has always been very close to classical music – see his essay “L’anima di Hegel e le mucche del Wisconsin”, a witty analysis of the avant-garde period among other things – and more often than not the program had a special guest sitting at the piano: Roberto Cognazzo.

To many of you this name probably means nothing. I had the good fortune of playing a concert with him many years ago and have rarely met anybody after with such a deep knowledge of music. And I don’t mean academical knowledge or good memory of historical facts. I mean in depth understandings of the mechanics of composition related to each composer.

This quality, coupled with his extraordinary improvisational abilities, let him do pretty much whatever he wanted to on the keyboard. Starting from nowhere, you could hear him paraphrase Tchaikowsky’s fourth symphony as a galop, bridge to Beethoven’s ninth symphony and land on La Boheme.

See here ( and here ( for a couple of examples.

Times change. RAI TV made use of the RAI Orchestra (or Italian National Orchestra) to play for a Bocelli show at the beginning of last December: but not for real. They actually used a playback track. From a different orchestra (the London Symphony). RAI TV also moved some players around – apparently some of them in the first violins section were not telegenic enough. You can read the full article here (sorry but it’s only in Italian):

Now, the RAI Orchestra ( is one of the finest institutions in the music world, it’s a government financed organization which gets humiliated by another government financed organization, where, apparently, knowing the difference between a professional orchestra and dilettantes is overrated.

I wish I could have started 2016 with a happier post, but these things just make my blood boil.


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Djamileh, Bizet's first mature opera, came right before Carmen. Its music is rich, sensual and beautifully orchestrated, totally worth the listening.


Here I am, yet again, deeming with the intricacies of a period of time I particularly love: Paris in the second half of the 19th century. This era has always fascinated me: it’s the time of Rodin and Camille Claudel, of Debussy, Mallarmé, Verlaine and Rimbaud. And, of course, the time of Wagner’s Tannhäuser in its catastrophic French debut (160 rehearsals and then some for 3 performances!): this started a querelle between pro-Wagnerian and anti-Wagnerian that would last until after World War I. Georges Bizet came up as the quintessence of anti-wagnerism with his most famous masterpiece, Carmen, endorsed by a Wagnerian of the first hour like Nietzsche, who, as much as was a fan of Wagner in his early years became later one of his most poignant critics.
What captured my attention this time is a rather obscure one-act opera by Bizet: Djamileh. I bumped into it by chance, looking around the web for something totally different.

Carmen has had the merit of making Bizet immortal, but also the flaw of obscuring most of his other works. And yet, Djamileh, written one year ahead of Carmen, was greatly admired by Gustav Mahler, who programmed it and conducted it in Hamburg and Vienna, and, later on, by Richard Strauss, who viewed it as a source of inspiration for his Ariadne auf Naxos. At its first production, though, it was a flop, targeted by the critics as drawing too much from Wagner (quite ironic). The opera disappeared after a handful of performances and is today unknown to large audiences and musicians alike – personally, I had never heard of it till a few days ago.

Bizet himself was aware of the fact that the first production of Djamileh was everything but a success: but not because of the music; too little action and a bunch of so-so singers who barely knew their part, to the point where the soprano skipped some 30 bars in one go. Yet, this first mature opera of Bizet respects all the canons of the time: an exotic country, the rhythm and colors of its music mixed with french tradition, colorful settings and room for a ballet.
Bizet was not much of a traveller, but Djamileh, like most operas of that period takes place in a foreign country: librettists tended to set operas in countries where French economic interests were strong. Like every good artist, he travelled with his imagination: the opera sets the mood right from the start for a fairy tale, in a Cairo palace with backstage choir and smoking water pipes with Bizet overcoming the lack of action in the libretto with evocative music and wonderful orchestration. This is certainly one of those works that would deserve to be revived.

Oh, and for once, I like an opera in which nobody dies!
Here’s a (vocal) score of the opera:

and here‘s a YouTube link:



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The conceptual opera “Audioguide III”, by German composer Johannes Kreidler, ends with the disruption of 66 violins. Does this serve the Kantian philosophical underground of the work?


Wandering around the internet, one can make some quite unexpected encounters. My most recent one has been with German composer Johannes Kreidler. I had never heard of him, despite the fact that he seems to be quite accomplished. What captured my attention was the video of his Music Theatre piece Audioguide III, which you can find here in its entirety:

Now, I confess, it took all my good will and then some to listen to the whole thing, but I honestly wanted to give it a chance to see if the end of the piece was somewhat justified. After all, you don’t get to see that kind of spectacle every day. As the author describes it on his website (, this is a conceptual opera, a collage of the present built on small and large modules, different every time. Infused with philosophical essence, the climax should be a cathartic destruction of 66 violins.

This is where I have a problem: how is it cathartic to demolish a work of art? I’m sure these were inexpensive factory instruments, but even those hold, at their very core, 300 years of expertise, science and craftsmanship. Let’s pretend that this was not a relevant issue; another question I have is: what kind of message is passing on with this piece?

As stated by the composer, emotional forces, trauma and revenge lead to these actions, associating the ravages with a mix of pleasure and pain. One could argue that the history of opera is full of ambiguous models and that, after all, this is just one more to add to the pile. However, Kant, who seems to be a fil rouge throughout the piece, is, in my opinion, distorted to support the composer’s thoughts – or, worse, to justify intellectually a pure spectacle that otherwise could not be backed up by any logic.

The feelings of the beauty, cited by Mr. Kreidler, are for Kant always joyous and smiling. Maybe he is referring to the feelings of the sublime, which can provoke enjoyment but with horror. And this is where he falls short in his association of beauty or sublime and catharsis: given the day-to-day horror show running under our eyes in the news, who could enjoy or take any more of this destruction orgy? Since when violence became cathartic?

Perhaps I am too naive, but destruction only makes me sad or angry, I do not find beauty and certainly not catharsis in it and I surely hope other people do not either.


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