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      Poetry of Sensuality  



      The days, each a brick, have been pushed forward. The years now constructing a temple of memory. People no longer must stay in the roles traditionally assigned them.

      Despite this, only the men play Bocce on Sunday afternoons.

      We take turns in endless matches until it is time for dinner. When men gossip it is never called that, but it is.

      To kill time until a match, part of our ritual are the little cheroots we smoke. Outside, in the game, only the sweetness of the smoke is noticeable, but inside it adopts a spiced-cloying strength which Theresa says is sometimes too much. It sticks to one’s clothes like an erotic lie.

      Often, she is willing to risk a kiss or two though. Sometimes, it is actually what she wants. The wine, the music, the scents of cooking and smoke. The right ingredients combined by studied chance create a sensuality which borders on temporary madness. The dichotomy between appetite and heart temporarily set aside.

      This sensuality, so deep it occasionally threatens to drown, can be found too in the art of both Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863-1938) and Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936).

      Coming from an old and moneyed family, D’Annunzio was sent to study at the University of Rome. Spending formative years in a city known for both its sensuality and direct ancestral ties to his people’s imperial lineage served to plant the seeds of two of his life long obsessions, strength based off a unified national identity and passion as savage as it was sometimes poetic. Seemingly divergent ideas, which when he was at his best, he would manage to fuse successfully.

        D’Annunzio started out as an enfant terrible of literature having his first collection of poems published by the age of sixteen. Stylistically, he would quickly switch gears from this first collection, his next one being in a less traditional poetic format and showing a literary voice, powerful but in flux. From its nascence there had been evident an ability to convey sensuality which he would never abandon or lose despite several stylistic shifts over the course of his literary career.

      These early years too, D’Annunzio would witness first hand the passion behind the politics as he paid his dues writing a gossip column under the nom de plume “Duca Minimo.” The rich and powerful, lofty ideals uttered in public often giving way to uncontrollable passions, ambitions  and the not always discreet assignations which sometimes lead to ruin. Further fuel for his prose.

      Also around this time D’Annunzio became politically active, immersing himself in helping to try to create a new nationalism. A trip to Greece inspired him to attempt a new national poem, a modern Aneid. This cause would bring together into a loose federation many diverse burgeoning political factions including what would morph into the fascist regime of Mussolini. Being a seductive public speaker, the new thirst for nationalism combined with severely fractured political parties allowed D’Annunzio to become an elected member of parliament in 1899 serving a three year term as a “non-doctrinaire conservative with revolutionary ideas”.

      He chaffed under the established system and felt it held back potential for any real progress. In 1900 he helped force a new election by leaving the far right which he had been part of, joining with the left during a parliamentary impasse. This put the then left, socialists into power including eventual dictator Mussolini. In the pre-fascists time though, the left was a form of socialism advocating among other things, a return to one unified nation and party, with public health and education programs.

      Having put his own cult of personality as equally important as the national political agenda, he would not be re-elected to parliament. D’Annunzio having proved his point and also grown disillusioned with formal politics, seemed not to mind.

      Some critics and intellectuals embraced his writing feeling it built off of Italy’s past literary glories while incorporating new ideas from outside the nation’s traditional sphere of thought. He is said to be the first to introduce the concepts of Nietzsche to Italy, often coloring it with the vibrant hued skins of a fresco wall.

      Others felt he was a corrupter of morals and a passion based deviant.

      Part of what would always seem necessary to fuel his imagination was amores and the lifestyle needed for seduction. Two years into his term in parliament he moved into the opulent villa La Capponcina. Even after leaving politics he continued to live there.

      The negative feelings of some of Italy’s important taste makers, the dissolution of the literary group which had first embraced him and years of living beyond his means eventually  forced him into a French exile. He continued to write while living in France even collaborating on an oratorio with Claude Debussy.

      When the first world war broke out, D’Annunzio was still living in France. He returned to Italy feeling it was of the greatest importance for his homeland to join the war, allowing Italy to take its place as a major power in the modern world. He gave a series of important speeches, becoming along with Futurist art movement founder Marinetti one of the main catalysts of Italy joining the war.

      D’Annunzio joined the air force, becoming one of his nation’s war heroes with a series of daring feats, one of which cost him an eye. It was while convalescing from this injury he began a new collection of prose. The intoxication of words which flowed from his pen easing some of the pain.

      After the war, while concentrating on his writing, he also obsessed over Italy’s loss of Fiume (in a region of Croatia) which would soon turn from its long time Italian occupation to one of Yugoslavia. It had been assumed that one of Italy’s rewards for her part in victory would be this tiny land which they had occupied for hundreds of years. He led a small loyal private army of 278 veterans to this area setting out to conquer it for himself. Along the way men and supplies were absorbed into his ranks swelling the ranks to 1000 by the time they reached the city gates.

      The Italian garrison, not having yet been replaced by a Slavic one, refused to fire upon D’Annunzio, who by this time was considered a national treasure. The  troops walked through the gates without a shot being fired.

      D’Annunzio envisioned creating a city similar to Goethe’s Weimar or Plato’s Republic. A land where artists helped govern the body of the people and everyone was to be given daily physical training and an education which equally emphasized both the arts and more practical trade classes. This city state would also mirror aspects of a Renaissance state with its various guilds of both the arts and trade. Newly erected buildings would all share a similar aesthetical style. A lot of these ideas would be directly adapted by Axis fascists regimes although with a darker, more practical bent. Unlike D’Annunzio’s dream land however, emphasis on art education under the fascists would be replaced, changing to arts use strictly as propaganda .

      Fiume began to attract outsiders from all walks of life and various political parties.  The great powers of Europe were against his rule, feeling Fiume’s fate had been decided long before D’Annunzio proclaimed himself ruler. A blockade was set up.  Eventually his rule became so far removed from anything to do with Italy or Italian politics they too had to join the blockade. For awhile D’Annunzio managed to keep his tiny nation going by adding pirating to his resume.

      Mass Italian troops were sent to besiege the city. D’Annunzio actually held out for five days until the war ship Andrea Dona came into shelling range of the city. To prove a point the ship shelled several balconies. Despite most citizens’ willingness to sacrifice all in his name, in the end he realized the tiny city state would be shelled to the ground and pay the price for his rule. He surrendered it back to Italy.

      D’Annunzio returned to Italy and the pen. There was now an unrepairable rift between he and Mussolini. Both anti and pro fascists courted him, both sides looking to up public opinion by adding his name to their roster. D’Annunzio retired to a villa named “The Shrine of Italian Victories” refusing to now actively get involved with either side.

      Despite this second loss of Fiume, D’Annunzio still proved to be one of the most popular men in Italy. To keep him from being offended and rejoining the fray in political opposition, Mussolini would give him a largely honorific title of President of the Royal Italian Academy (1937), but he would die before taking office while sitting at his desk writing. This is the beginning of what has besmirched D’Annunzio’s reputation. While not directly given, many of his ideas provided blue prints if not inspiration for the aesthetics of both Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. His monochromatic military uniforms to the pseudo-Romanesque fascist salutes and the balcony speeches.

      As a man he was idealistically naïve, sometimes dangerously so. In a desire to create an impractical dream world of national identity he sometimes was aligned with wrong and dangerous parties.

      As an artist, he left behind a large body of work, some of which is very good and still offers up a feast for the senses in its poetics. Not his deeds, but his prose writing was an early inspiration for Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936).

      Ottorino came from a family with musical pedigree which possessed, if not fame then an open eared ability. His father played and taught piano, teaching his son violin. He first began his formal studies at the age of twelve at the Liceo Musicale which after ten years gave him his diploma for violin performance.

      After a decade of arduous study he took a working vacation. Rather than go to that timeless capital of all (bohemian) arts, Paris, he opted for the then unique choice of St. Petersburg. While there he studied under Nicolay Rimsky-Korsakov. Besides his Russian studies he also became first violin for their Russian Imperial Theater which better let him put a working, practical application to the orchestra colorations he was learning from this late-romantic era composer.

      After absorbing orchestral lessons in Russia he moved to Berlin where he studied under Max Bruch. Ottorino’s years of study under two distinct composer/teachers and what he had learned while at university combined with his multi instrument ability (violin, viola and piano) preventing his music from ever sounding of one place or one people. Aside from the inherent beauty to be found in his pieces, this is one of its other main appeals. While always very much an Italian, his music was never merely “Italian” in the way Brahms’ was “German”.

      1913 saw the return to his native land. Once back in Italy he began composing while becoming an important teacher in his own right. Ottorino did not restrict his work to any one particular musical genre. His pieces were performed in Italy, often featured in multi composer programs. This initial exposure helped, but it was his comic opera Re Enzo that brought the first flush of fame and an appointment to St. Cecilia Academy in Rome as professor of composition (1913). During these first years of teaching he collaborated on a text book “Orpheus” with Luciani.

      Rome provided him with the final ingredients which make up the best of his art. He would spend the rest of his life in this city of which he would never tire. The city had two faces and he would be inspired by both. The decadent hot house where passions blossomed gave him the perfect environment for which to provide a sound track.

      The city’s ancient lineage, the white marble statues and rituals still performed which, rope like connected the past to the present also served to inspire. One of his tone poems ends with a march on Rome, not written for or inspired by the then in power Fascist, but by her ancient past and the sandaled troops marching down the Apian way.

      Ottorino professed great admiration for the sensual poetry and D’Annunzio. And like this poet he would draw from the art of his people’s past while merging it with his own vernacular to create a modern art for a new age.

      Unlike some other modernist artists of his time, Ottorino did not out right reject all art of the past. He made some beautiful song cycles off of the poetry of Shelly, the English poet who lived in Italy and whose final post-drowning resting place is by fellow English exile Keats, in Rome. Aside from a profound knowledge of madrigals and other older vocal forms, his vocal music was helped by being able to work intimately with the singer/composer Elsa Olivieri Sangiacomo (1894-1996) whom he would later marry.

      He did orchestral workings of songs by Italian baroque composers too. Among other things Ottorino was also one of his nation’s greatest musicologists. He would publish works of Italian composers covering the periods from 16th to 18th century.

      Much as Stravinsky would do, Ottorino often combined the musical high and low forms in his music, as well as the new and ancient. Street songs, folk melodies and baroque motifs would combine with modern orchestral colorations and touches of modern discordance.

      This embracing and building off of the past while boldly forging forward into the modern world was in line with the fascists’ basic tenants of thought. With D’Annunzio discussing the fascist label can become a matter of semantics, but the lines are far more clearly drawn with Ottorino.

      Under Mussolini’s regime all teachers and musicians had to have party-permits (true of most trades at this time). While having been granted one, Ottorino was never opportunistic with his art. Nothing in his catalog was written for or dedicated to Mussolini. In 1931( Bologna) Ottorino was directly involved with saving legendary conductor Toscanini from an angry fascist mob.

      There are many more examples which prove which side of the fence he was on. Some of the confusion has come from people mistaking his history with that of D’Annunzio. Another key factor is that, while not written for them, the fascists did use some of his music. It was programmatic tone poems about Rome. Not Mussolini’s Rome, but that of the eternal city.

      Against his will, Ottorino’s bronze breast plated Romans marching down the Apian way were subverted by a black shirted army waving banners.

      He is not as well known in the states as he should be. Now that history has allowed emotions to cool and a more accurate assessment of his activities during so terrible a time to come to light, people should explore his works.

      The place to start would be with the easiest to find, his trio of programmatic tone poems The Fountains of Rome, The Pines of Rome and Ancient Airs and Dances for Lute.

      The Fountains of Rome (1914-1916) is the earliest written of the three pieces. Within in this piece is the passage of a day as witnessed by various fountains around Rome (Trevi fountain at mid-day, Villa Medici fountain at dusk). The start is soft and lush. One gets the sense of the oncoming heat of the day, the water in the fountains coming to life, cool, not yet having been heated by the Mediterranean sun. Within the bigger picture painted are cheerful and lush motifs similar to Debussy’s Prelude a l’ après-midi d’un faune.

      The end of this piece is the end of the day, low and softly you can hear (literally) the tolling of bells, perfect symmetry as the piece ends on a soft fragile notes akin in spirit to how it began.

      The Pines of Rome (1923-24) is more varied in what it sought to portray. The start is kinetic celebration of children at play. This is a pastoral setting which shows many of the lessons of orchestral coloration he had learned under Rimsky-Korsakov. The scene during the second part of this piece slows and darkens. An air of melancholy mystery as the listener is taken into catacombs. Over a tapestry of strings a horn is heard off in the distance, used almost to convey a sense of farewell or rest.

      The last part of the piece takes place among the pines of Janiculum, one of Rome’s seven hills. A low rumbling at the start gives a sense of something marching forward, legions who are partially represented by the brass section swelling and intimating the call of buccine which is a lower than baritone horn similar to a stritch. This end piece does not satirize any type or martial march as Shostakovich was sometimes prone to do. It builds in volume, a large orchestra all its voice slowly coming in to be heard as one whole, the voice of a glorious past.

      For this piece too, Ottorino wanted the call of nightingales heard, but he did not want an instrument, a flute, to merely mimic the call of a bird. In his score he called for a recording of a bird to be played at the appropriate time. Like the tolling of bells in the previous piece, it is there to hear almost subliminally.

      Ancient Airs and Dances (1931) come from two 16th centaury anonymous composers lute dances. Ottorino transcribed these lute pieces for orchestra. They are dark and lush, the perfectly ripe piece of fruit. Although done by an orchestra there is no sense of bloat. All the voices of strings are clearly heard and perfectly layered.

      Although this music is programmatic, unlike some of the romantic era composer’s tone poems, one need not know the source of inspiration “what it is about” to enjoy it.

CD art

      I went with the Berliner Philharmonkier/ Herbert von Karajan version of these pieces. Aside from the aforementioned pieces it also contains  Procession of the Military Night Watch in Madrid by Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805) and Adagio in G Minor by Tomaso Albinoni (1671-1750). Considering how adapt a musicologist Ottorino was and the fact that he did draw inspiration from older forms of music, it takes the littlest leap of logic to see how well these other pieces fit into the program. I did not find any piece in this collection superfluous.

      If one is unaware of the chronology of each composer represented here, a change in mood could be discerned but in a far from jarring way.

      The CD has been remastered using original image bit processing.  The recordings date from the 1970’s when the Von Karajan was in the midst of cementing his place in the pantheon of great conductors. What is interesting about this CD is this was far from the usual fare offered up by von Karajan. He usually stuck with composers of the classical era. There is no evident awkwardness and you never get the feeling you are hearing an experiment or working vacation.

      The original liner notes are reproduced along with a small paragraph which looks back on the recording in retrospect by the concertmeister.

      When buying classical CDs there are often two choices, to go with classic pre-digital age recordings you run the risk of hearing audience members coughing or that odd live ambient reverb. Newer recordings can sometimes sound too clean, a digital flatness. With a small amount of research the “definitive” recording for almost any recording can be found. This has the pre-digital warmness without extra noise or even reverb. My only bone of contention is not with the recording technique, but with the music. What I have found with some of these intricate, high fidelity pieces is they are difficult to listen to in a car. The soft parts get real soft, you raise the volume then the loud part makes a hand do mad scramble for volume control. The same effect is often had in the music of Debussy and Berlioz. Bad for driving but headphone paradise.

      The CD is 79 minutes long. The entire thing is compelling and lush. A sensual reminder that once in a while, we should all order everything on the menu.


      -Maxwell Chandler-


      Maxwell will return with more adventures in sound

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      CD info:

      Fontane Di Roma/Pini Di Roma/Antiche Danze Ed Arie-Suite 3

      Berliner Philharmoniker-Herbert con Karajan

      Deutsche Grammophone

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