What do composers speak of when they speak of music? What are they saying when they use words along with – or alongside – sounds? In what way do their words condition our perception, our comprehension of their works? These are “fatal” question we cannot avoid asking ourselves, even if at times we keep them in the silence of our thoughts. At the minimum level of our knowledge (even if we do not go looking for letters, correspondence, or critical reflections), it happens whenever we find ourselves on the threshold of listening: in the instants, for example, before a concert begins, before putting a CD in the player, or before viewing a video on YouTube.
And in the concert programme, in the booklet, or on our tablet screen, we read a title, a subtitle, a definition of genre, a tonality, a descriptive extension, a text in tune with the music. What happens in our predictive system when we prepare to listen to something that is called, for example, a “symphony”? What are we unconsciously preparing ourselves for when we read the word “Romantic” beside the title of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, or “Pastoral” alongside Beethoven’s Sixth? The lexicon adopted by composers to define their works is fated to be the first entryway leading us towards that unreachable, evanescent horizon, towards the chimera that is the music’s “meaning.”
What do composers speak of when they speak of music?
The answer– to use the phrasing of the most recent winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature – is blowing in the wind. But this evening’s concert appears specially conceived to reawaken some of these questions from their hibernation: in Solo il tempo, the new work (still literally unheard) by Pasquale Corrado, the “author’s word” – however mediated by a literary source it may be – in fact lies within the music. It is poetry for music; it is the sung word.
The answer is blowing in the wind!
In Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony, the “author’s word” lies outside of the music – actually preceding it in time – because it in fact illustrates in some way, or claims to illustrate, its presumed “meaning.” On the other hand, in Schumann’s Concerto, it is apparently absent; it goes no further than to define the genre to which the music belongs (“piano concerto”): it therefore performs a function of pure indication.
What, then, may be reasonably and honestly said, before it becomes sound, of the piece we are perhaps most curious to hear – Solo il tempo for chorus and orchestra by Pasquale Corrado? First of all, it is a (highly meritorious) commission from Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, and tonight we are privileged to be its very first audience. But it is useless to deny that the initial impact came with the title: three words that Corrado chose as a sign, as a gateway to his work. And the title, especially if it does not indicate only the genre the piece belongs to, has the function – involuntarily or otherwise – of creating an aura of expectation, of insinuating the idea that the verbal stimulus must be followed by a response. In this case, the title’s three words are almost an inadvertent invitation to complete the sentence, as is done in certain puzzle games: “Only time … can heal all wounds,” for example, or “Only time is ours” (if you have happened upon Seneca’s classical version), or “Only time … brings justice.” This is perhaps the solution closest to the author’s intentions; this may be deduced from the fact that once we get past the title, we are struck by the subtitle: “A Giovanni Falcone e Paolo Borsellino” (“to Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino”).
SOLO IL TEMPO HAS BEEN PREMIERED WITH ORCHESTRA AND CHORUS OF THE ACCADEMIA NAZIONALE DI SANTA CECILIA CONDUCTED BY SIR ANTONIO PAPPANO Rome - 19/20/21 May 2017 -
And the horizon suddenly expands. We are instantly immersed in one of the events that marked a major turning point in Italian twentieth-century history: the murders, just a few months apart, of two magistrates who, with different methods and tools, had understood the profound nature of Cosa Nostra and were trying to dismantle its criminal mechanism piece by piece – and without ever becoming “professional mafia fighters.” Our expectation is thus loaded with a new tension: political and civil tension, all knotted together. But after the opening threshold of the title and subtitle, we make another discovery forged with words: the text intoned by the chorus.
A text that apparently distances us from the heart of the work and that, conversely, takes us towards territories without time or place, of classical myth. Corrado did not choose a letter by Falcone, a speech by Borsellino, or an account of the massacres at Capaci or on Via D’Amelio, but a fragment of Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus (or by whoever is responsible for a tragedy whose authorship is still debated); above all, to further mark the effect of historical estrangement and linguistic distance, he left it in the original Greek. The action is set at a decisive point in the tragedy, at the start of the second Episode, and therefore at the end of the first Stasimon.
The Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia is one of the oldest musical institutions in the world. Officially founded in 1585, it has evolved over the centuries from an organization of largely “local” musicians to a modern academy and symphonic concert organization of international repute. Uniting an academic body of 100 of the most illustrious exponents of culture and music with a symphonic orchestra and chorus that are among the most internationally renowned, the Accademia carries out professional musical training and conserves an extremely rich historical patrimony, thus reflecting its own multi-century history. Music Director is Sir Antonio Pappano
Prometheus, dialoguing with the coryphaeus, attributes to himself, with the arrogance typical of a hero (in Latin, the verb arrogare means simply “to attribute to oneself,” with no negative connotation), the merit of having given men not only the ability to see and hear, but also numbers and writing – that is to say the fundamental tools of knowledge and memory: “The memory of all things,” Prometheus concludes in his oration, which is “the creative mother of the chorus of the Muses.” And here, distance is transformed into proximity: exactly a quarter century after the death of Falcone and Borsellino, music, with this new work, discovers the vocation that Beethoven’s ethos gave it at the dawn of the Romantic age: to be the bearer of thought, of knowledge, and thus of memory. On this horizon, the heroic figure of Prometheus and his rebellion against divine laws, Prometheus the bearer of light and progress, remains somewhat in the background, illuminated by the light of myth alone.
But, as in Aeschylus’s original plot– in which Prometheus refuses to reveal to Hermes the secret of the relationship between Zeus and Thetis, and is thus thrown into the abyss –, in “Solo il tempo” the hero is not saved by any miraculous intervention. “My tragedy,” – the composer writes, lacks “the divine element that saves man from the unavoidability of his own fate, that deus ex machina, as the Romans called it, that could have kept those explosives – which put a definitive end to those two magistrates’ lives – from being set off.” In Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony, the “author’s word” lies outside of the music – actually preceding it in time – because it in fact illustrates in some way, or claims to illustrate, its presumed “meaning.” On the other hand, in Schumann’s Concerto, it is apparently absent; it goes no further than to define the genre to which the music belongs (“piano concerto”): it therefore performs a function of pure indication.
Video: introduction to the concert
Photogallery: World premiere in Rome
Upon leafing through Corrado’s score – a privilege normally reserved for whoever writes the concert programme – the pre-musical and musical discoveries obviously grow thicker. We are above all struck – even if it is common practice in present-day music – by the demands made of the individual orchestral families. The instruments are asked to produce sounds at odds with their natural organological characteristics (or with traditional performance practice), thus giving rise to a sort of unpredictable “imaginary instrument-making.” The flutes, for example, are asked to “violently blow a glissando as when the instrument is being warmed up, covering the entire mouthpiece with the lips and holding it between the teeth”; “an ordinary blowing, but sharp and resonant” is demanded of the clarinets and brasses, and the flutes and clarinets are asked for “tongue pizzicato” in addition to the customary “slap” (a percussive effect produced by slapping the tongue on the reed or mouthpiece).
The cellos and double basses, on the other hand, are told to rap the sides of the sound box with their knuckles but also, in correspondence with a jagged mark in the score, to produce the greatest number of oscillations possible on a single note, and to perform “an ample and nervous vibrato, without pushing the finger down, and quite close to the bridge.” Of course, these indications are not new, but they reveal the explicit intention to create an anxious instrumental universe, one that is neither calm nor reassuring, in which the relationship between sound and its source is broken with great frequency.
According to the pure graphical notation, the first page of the score reveals a writing of extreme precision and complexity. Here is just one example, drawn from the first four measures: the first and second flutes attack, on the natural tones of C and D-flat, a violent and decisive jet whistle, fortissimo, followed by pianissimo ostinato on these same notes’ harmonics. The trumpets also strike the same chord, which in tonal terms might be defined as second minor (C and D-flat), but then perform the ostinato in naturals. The oboes, on the other hand, go no further than to strike, in the opening, a fortissimo multiphonic chord before falling quiet. The bassoons, after a brusque, descending interval, sustain a fixed C for four beats. The high strings perform a very similar figuration: a four-note cell, fortissimo and then pianissimo, followed by a sustained sound that, in the fourth measure, is transformed into an undeterminedly high hiss, “almost like white noise.” The violins alone, pizzicato, quickly repeat a rhythmic, six-tone pattern for the entire duration of the four measures. The low strings, on the other hand, after the initial fortissimo, merely arpeggio with the right hand touching the four strings on the other side of the bridge. The chorus joins in, along with the clarinets performing a rhythmic sequence of undeterminedly high blown sounds, on the second quarter of the first measure (in four/four): the four voices (canonically subdivided into sopranos, mezzo-sopranos, tenors, and basses) intone the first verse of the text (Kàitoi theòisi tòis nèois tùtois ghèra), whispering each syllable with great articulation and following the same rhythmic figuration of the clarinets, with no melodic curvature. In the first two measures, the parts proceed in homorhythm; in the third and fourth, a sort of improper canon takes shape, with the phonetic material distributed among the individual voices. On the whole, to the extent that the sounds “on paper” can speak for themselves, we have here an opening that endows the sonic discourse with the explicit character of the rhetorical oration, and more particularly with the structure of the oratio brevis which, in the initial part, sums up the exordium and the narratio.
Taken as a whole, the architecture of the piece, which lasts about 11 minutes, presents a rather clear ternary subdivision reminiscent – albeit in estranged fashion – of the tripartite structure of rhetorical speech: the first section performs the classical function of the narratio (“I shall recount the love of my gift” says Prometheus), concluding with the intonation of verse no. 9: “Oipròta mèn blèpontes èblepon màten” (They had eyes and did not see). Immediately thereafter, the score shows a new agogic/expressive marking (Poco più mosso), and starts a sort of introduction to the second section, in which the chorus obsessively repeats – on a chord of constant recitation, and distributing among the voices the same rhythmic figuration – the final word of the verse (matèn). The winds fall silent – except for a few touches of colour from the first horn and the trumpets – while the high strings accompany the speech under their breath, almost without a sound, obsessively repeating the same rhythmic figuration and the same sound effects: the harmonics in the high strings, the tremolo in the low strings. The section culminates with the direction given to the individual families in the chorus to read, pianissimo, in an uninterrupted loop “like an intimate prayer,” the same verses chanted up until that moment. In this recourse to the subject of the “spoken word,” it is not hard to make out the distant profile of the argumentatio, which is to say the part of the speech in which the orator– Prometheus – sets out the proof in support of his thesis: that of being the bringer of light and knowledge. The final section – which in canonical fashion brings to mind the peroratio, the part of the speech in which the orator moves the listener’s emotions – begins in correspondence with verse 12: “èfuron eikèi pànta, kùte plinthiufèis” (“they endured a long and vague time”) and consists of a “blurred” resonance, rendered almost evanescent and impalpable, of the sound material set out earlier in the first section, and then reprised, “in mirror image,” in the middle section. In the final measures, the fabric of sound grows increasingly spare and “absent”: the winds fall silent, the voices limit themselves to providing purely phonetic punctuation, and the strings, softer than pianissimo, sustain their sounds until their acoustic presence has nearly vanished. Once silence is attained, the composer directs the performers to “remain immobile for ten seconds” – seconds that we may imagine to be painful, unbearable, and endless. For everyone.