Now that present-day practice in musical performances, an accurate reflector of trends in taste, has almost cancelled from theatre programmes the names of illustrious 20th century Italian composers (so that the appearance of a work by Dallapiccola or G.F. Malipiero is now a rare occurrence), we must not be sur­prised if little-known or completely unknown composers undergo an even worse fate. However, a knowledge of their works would permit, through actual listening, the filling in of some historical blanks of no small account. The case of the Milanese musician Aldo Finzi (1897-1945) is an example in this regard; in the total oblivion into which his output has fallen, the hasty liquidation of authentic values is evident now that the real-life presence of the composer is no longer there to bear them direct witness with the charisma of his personality; and the greater this was, the faster its decline after his death.

Finzi was a musician of the highest order, nourished by a European culture to the point of making it difficult to discern his belonging to this or that trend, of Jewish religion when that meant dramatic conflicts, not only interior, he had the courage not to align himself with any of the tendencies which were dominant at the time, maturing quite apart a language which was aristocratically his own. He was born in Milan into an old Jewish family which had come originally from Mantua and he completed a classics course at the Parini high school in Milan, graduating later in law at Pavia University; at the same time he carried on his favour­ite study of music, following his vocation and the family tradition (an aunt, sister of his father, was the cele­brated soprano Giuseppina Finzi Magrini of whom Leone Sinigaglia speaks so much) until he achieved his diploma in composition in Rome. He began to compose with success; at only 24 years of age he was one of the composers, together with Fantuzzi and Sonzogno, of whom Ricordi published various symphonic works between 1921 and 1937 (Cyrano de Bergerac, mentioned in a competition in which Toscanini and Pizzetti formed part of the panel of judges), L’Infinito, Nunquam, chamber music (Sonata for violin and pianoforte, Quartetto for strings, various lyrical pieces), a jocular comedy in three acts, La Serenata al Vento, on a libretto by Veneziani.

La Serenata was entered in a competiton organized by La Scala for a new work to be performed in the following season (1938) and, according to a confidential admission by one member of the jury (Pick-Mangiagalli), was con­sidered the best. But the official verdict, expected in the spring of 1938, was never announced and none of the works submitted was judged worthy of performance; as the composer feared, the racial discrimination laws followed and then came the war; the musician continued to write a lot but completely without retribution and with no hope of any performance (the symphonic poem “ Come all’ultimo suo ciascuno artista ”, the title of which is posthumous; the dramatic opera Shylock inspired by anti-semitic persecution and left unfinished; a Pre­ludio e fuga per organo). In order to survive, Finzi agreed to work anonymously or under an assumed name (his is the rhythmic translation of Franck’s Beati­tudini): vicissitudes, escapes, arrests broke down his strength. He died at the early age of 48, leaving his last work, the Salmo per coro e orchestra, as his final testimonial of the artist and the man.

This important and conclusive work, put at my disposal some years ago by lawyer Bruno Finzi, the composer’s son, formed more than a discovery for me: it was a serious problem, it made me ponder and doubt. Reasons of a formal nature class it amongst those many works inspired by the psalms of David of which musical litera­ture is full in the period between the two world wars (from Stravinsky to Petrassi) but stylistically the Salmo is in a position apart, refuting in the reading any precise reference, which can however be indistinctly seen (Parsifal, San Sebastiano by Debussy, something of the orchestral works of Respighi, some Straussian “gestures” ....) and rather taking up a position in the lee of some theatrical experiences of the time (not however Puccini and the realists, but Zandonai, so much admired by Finzi, to whom the Salmo owes, with discretion, some tone-colour backgrounds).

But the problem of the sources remains open: Finzi knew and admired Stravinsky and the importance of the Sin­fonia di salmi will not have escaped him, although there is significantly no trace of its recollection in the Salmo; I doubt if he was aware of the Psalmus hungaricus by Zoltan Kodaly which in spite of the use of a text which is not that of David, could have provided him with more than one indication. And the Italians? Little or nothing with regard to the young ones, and on the other hand it must not be forgotten in what circumstances the work was written (the times were certainly not favourable to a facile consumption of modem texts); there is a lack of direct evidence, such as a diary, which would be most useful in indicating the music studied, listened to, read, meetings with colleagues..... and one would like to investigate more deeply motives and intentions in the light of a correspondence which is also lacking.

What I would call “ Jewishness ” in the melodic arrange­ment, which - as is known - comes down to a more or less oriental-type chromatism - I am thinking of Bloch’s Schelomo - such as might be expected (and which would be helpful), is instead completely absent ;  in the choral part a linear diatonic writing, in great blocks of chords, prevails; in the orchestral part instead a con­tinuous movement, elegant harmonies, discords often accentuated by contrasting tones are prominent. On the harmony level, the tone basis is always indicated in the clef (as in the contemporary Missa solmnnis by Casella) but Finzi often “belies” this with curious contradictions (for example, sharps in the clef and flats in the bar) which show an uneasiness scarcely tempered by the static quality of the vocal arrangement; but there is no lack of distensions, harmonies of an almost romantic flavour which combine to underline the conclusion of a progression in crescendo with results - one might say - which are in the stle of Brahms.

Everything is however relived in a personal manner, is a sort of recasting of material from various sources which appears to allow identification and then each time refers to something else: which is typical of thoroughbred eclectics. The very discreet counterpoint is limited to the usual play of success­ive entries, reducing to a minimum the use of “scholarly” explanations of psalm tones, whilst privilege is given to unisons and concatenations of a vaguely modal flavour to suggest archaic atmos­pheres. But Finzi renounces the attractions, whether Gregorian or of a certain madrigalistic syle which was then in vogue, in the name of a robust choral con­ception which, although it has a clear reference to the theatrical practice of the day, does not adopt its abuses, always maintaining decorum in writing and “chapel choir” elegance: exploitation of the “humming” technique, use of voices only within one section so as to underline the intimate atmosphere of some moinents (there is one tenor only at the opening of the III movement).

A large symphony orchestra is adopted (woodwinds in threes, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, harp, organ, pianoforte, a substantial percussion group); the organ alone is entrusted with the accompaniment to the prayer which opens the III movement, with an almost total renouncement of soloist participation. Finzi demonstrate his knowledge of contemporary contributions (Respighi) without as a consequence taking pleasure in too rich sounds or, on the contrary, thin­ning down the orchestra to chamber levels. For this reason everything is prearranged in order to ensure support for the choir, without ever defaulting (com­poser of two operas, he knew how to treat the voice and in 1931 had written a work for female voices and orchestra, Il Chiostro, in which some peculiarities, later present in the Salmo, already appeai-ed). Orches­tra and chorus reach moments of great, sumptuous sound (as in the final parts of the II and IV movements) but the composer is capable of finding delicately poetic accents through the use of separate types of strings, muted horns, a humming chorus (final parts of movements I and III).

Finzi does not make use of a particular biblical psalm (as was the case with Bruckner, Salviucci and Petrassi) and neither does he mix several psalms (as in Stravinsky); he prefers to “psalmodize” for himself, let us say, by writing some verses full of joy and thanksgiving, per­fectly responding to his requirements of a formal nat­ure: in fact, although articulated in the four move­ments which constitute the Salmo, Finzi’s verses express one single concept of exulting gratitude

  1. (calmo e sereno) “Blessed is he who enters trusting in God, God bless him from His heavenly throne.”

  2. (ritmato e deciso) “The Lord is God, He sustains us; bear the thanksgiving amphoras to the corners of the altar.”

  3. (lento) “Thou art my God, I will pay Thee homage, my God, I will Thee extol.”

  4. (con impeto) “Render homage to God, He is gracious, His mercy is infinite, glory be to God. Amen.”

Divided into four short movements which classically alternate contrasting progressions, the Salmo shows some formal affinity with the Sonata (I movement), with the Scherzo (II), with the Lied (III), with the Rondo (IV) and may bring to mind a “Choral Symphony” or rather a “Symphonic Cantata” of the type of Men­delssohn’s Lobgesang (where however the choir is used in the last movement only, whereas Finzi puts voices and instruments on an identical plane); but the indi­cation of a formal classical base is limited to the suggestion of a passage of the symphonic type which the composer transforms continuously, in complete liberty: some themes are taken up again exactly, with­out modification; entire sections are repeated in­tegrally, but with a different tone colour.

The theme is present in the I movement, where there is no orchestral introduction and the tenors alone, sup­ported by the strings and the muted horns, effect right from the first bar wide ascending spirals: all the thematic material which appears in this first part, and which the addition of the entire choir and gradually the whole orchestra leads to a high degree of tension, will be resumed at the end of the agitated central section (full of Strauss-type and latter-day Wagner echoes) under an opposing sign: very softly and gradu­ally extinguishing all sound.

The “Scherzo sinfonico” form, dear to the composers of Finzi’s generation, is used in the Il movement which reaches moments of great orchestral virtuosity: the choir sings a forceful invocation to God whilst in the orchestra three important thematic bases alternate: a blaring of trumpets and horns followed by a threaten­ing breaking-in of the “basses” (double bassoon, violin­cellos, double basses), a brass fanfare on a rhythm accompanied by the woodwinds, a combination of the two former effects, up to a conclusion of grand sound.

A humming chorus and single tenor (one of the tenors of the choir, it is useful to underline) open the III movement, a sweet prayer which the organ surrounds with mysterious echoes in the medium-low register whilst the great lyrical expansion which follows and which emerges in a peroration entrusted to the brasses marks the expressive peak of the piece but not its conclusion: that happens instead with a return to the initial atmosphere, “diminuendo e morendo”. An implacable “motor force” underlies the entire IV movement, an agressive 2/4 “ con impeto ” in which homage to God is expressed in almost menacing tones, which recall in similarity the warlike Psalm 94:

“ O Lord God, to whom vengeance belongeth; O God to whom vengeance belongeth, shew thyself.

Lift up thyself, thou judge of the earth; render reward to the proud. ”

Only in the final “Largamente” does the hammering of the semiquavers subside, in the grand chorale which closes the work in a festive atmosphere, in aluminous B major: the tone environment of the Salmo therefore travels from the initial E minor, arriving at the fifth through the D flat major of the Il movement and the F sharp major of the III, the end movements thus acting as pivot for the entire composition.

The material regarding the Salmo in my possession con­sists of the full orchestral score and the score for voices and pianoforte, unfortunately without the final part: since forreasons of space the composer often omitted to indicate the part of the choir in the full orchestral score, referring to the other scores with “see voice and pianoforte”, it has happened that, with regard to the finale, this note cannot be put into effect.

I have carried out the integration work, following the procedure which is suggested by an identical result in the same situation, that is to say after having carefully analysed the preceding pages - a method which, although presenting serious unknown quantities because it deprives the composer “a posteriori” of the right to make changes - offers a guarantee of stylistic coherence; the finale clearly suggests a procedure in blocks of perfect harmonies.

The careful writing by Finzi and a good copy effected on the basis of the manuscript allow us today to have at our disposal material which is as far as possible free of errors; diligent integration work, respecting to the maximum the intentions of the composer, permits a com­plete reading; but all of this would be in vain without a performance to verify, through hearing, what I have tried to demonstrate in these notes. It is to be hoped that they will fall under attentive eyes, making poss­ible the coming true of this hope. Because beyond all sterile enthusiasm for the “masterpiece rediscovered” which would be repulsive to the gentlemanly reserve of the composer of the Salmo, what counts for much more is the effective attention of art directors and of those critics who are sensitive to the values of our 20th century music.

Gian Paolo Sanzogno
Article published on “ La Rivista illustrata del Museo Teatrale Alla Scala ”, n. 17th , winter 1992/1993.
Translation by Eleonora Vita Heger