THE TAMING OF THE SHREW by Vittorio Giannini

by Walter Simmons

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW by Vittorio Giannini


As we follow the political thaw in Eastern Europe known as Glasnost. it is fascinating to observe another form of glasnost taking place — this one in the arena of American musical politics. For about a decade we have been witnessing the gradual re-emergence of a group of composers — most born between 1890 arid 1920 — whose music had been suppressed and whose reputations had been anathematized for more than a quarter of a century. This suppression was the result of their seeking a continuity with the past by embracing traditional forms, techniques, and musical values, rather than dissociating themselves from the past.

After World War II, contemporary music in the United States came under the sway of a militant form of Modernism that called for the repudiation of tonality and other traditional principles . The prohagonists af this position espoused it as the sole, inevitable path toward musical progress; those composers who failed to follow jt could be safely 19nored as irrelevant and worthless. Though this position found very little resonance among the musical public. it was embraced by prominent spokesmen who. in turn. influenced — or at least intimidated — composers. scholars. students. performers. and members of the press into accepting their notions of historical inevitability and the imperatives of artistic progress.

This orthodoxy. which dominated the music world from about 1950 through the mid-1970s. had a number of very significant consequences: One was a loss of rapport. of “good faith,” between living composers and the listening public that has led to a near-fatal stagnation of the repertoire; another was the virtual disappearance from concert halls and recordings of music by dozens of talented, well-established creative figures whose aesthetic aims did not conform to prevailing doctrines. This unofficial boycott was so effective that many composers who had attained considerable prominence during the 1930s and 40s suddenly found themselves, in effect, “blacklisted.” Many lived to see their music fall into oblivion and their names all but disappear from the standard reference books. One highly distinguished victim of this boycott was Vittorio Giannini.

However, much of the music produced during the mid-twentieth century by the fashionable avant-qarde has proven to be stillborn, and the aesthetic notions that supported it to be sterile. Musicians have begun to take a second look at some of the more traditionally conceived music that was once so summarily dismissed; works that lay unheard for decades are now suddenly being hailed by both audiences and critics.

Vittorio Giannini

Vittorio Giannini (1903-1966) was an avowed conservative, whose considerable output of fifteen operas, seven symphonies, and numerous other works largely ignored Modernist assumptiorts. Instead, Giannini dedicated himself to mastering the musical practices of the preceding certturies and embodying them in music that expressed his own personal-feelings. “A composer’s duty,” he said, “is to express what is in him with the utmost sincerity.” For him, “beauty” was “the ultimate goal of composition.” From this perspective, “originality” was a presumptuous:display of arrogance. Echoes and reminiscences of other composers indicated a sense of homage, rather than an unintentional “derivativeness.” (One is reminded of Brahms’ famous reply to a listener who observed that his Symphony No. 1 showed the influence of Beethoven: “Any fool can see that.”)

Although Giannini was born in Philadelphia, his musical roots were firmly planted in Europe. At the age of ten, he won a scholarship to study in Milan, where he remained for five years. Then, after concentrating on both the viulin and composition for several years at the Juilliard SchoOl, he returned to Italy as the recipient of three consecutive Prix de Rome. Giannini deeply absorbed the European musical ethos, particularly as filtered through the sensibility of late-romanticism. His music during the 1920s and 30s exhibited an ingratiating melodic warmth rooted in the bel canto tradition, enriched by the chromatic harmony of Wagner and the sumptuous textures of Debussy. His predominantly lyrical emphasis was reflected in a concentration on vocal music — severaloperas and dozens of songs, a number of which appeared regularly on recital programs (the most popular being Tell Me, Oh Blue, Blue Sky).

Giannini’s first opera, Lucedia, was introduced in Munich in 1934 via a major production that starred the composer’s sister, Dusolina. Reviewing the premiere in the New York Times, Herbert Peyser wrote:

There is enough beautiful music in Lucedia to outfit a second opera. I can think of no operatic work by an American… that approaches this one in melodic lavishness and lyric fluency, in spontaneity, in whole-souled sincerity, in consummate mastery of musical means. .

Four years later, The Scarlet Letter was produced in Hamburg, under the direction of Eugen Jochum, with Dusolina Giannini and Hans Hotter in leading roles. Peyser found this work to be

something of a milestone in the history of American opera, . . . a wholly sincere expression of a nature refreshingly true to itself, that scorns to force its growth and development by recourse to idioms and agencies foreign to it. And it is music which flows spontaneously, which sings and invariably ‘sounds.’

These early operas also won the praise of Richard Strauss, who hailed Giannini as the most talented American composer known to him. During the same period, Giannini’s Piano Concerto was premiered in New York, with no less than Roslyn Tureck as soloist. Returning to the United States, Giannini joined the composition faculties of the Juilliard School (1939), the Manhattan School (1941), and, later, the Curtis Institute (1956) . During the 1940s and 50s, he expanded his compositional range, increasing his output of orchestral and chamber music and devoting attention to the rapidly growing symphonic band medium. In addition, he developed a fondness for imbuing Baroque forms with a neoromantic touch. It was during this period that Giannini composed his opera buffa based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.

During the early 1960s — the last years of his life — Giannini developed a darker, more intense vein of romanticism, characterized by a concern with more serious subject matter, tighter structural procedures, a more attenuated sense of tonality, and a greater use of dissonance. But by this time there was little interest in his music and many of his later works were never performed. Known then primarily as a composition teacher, he became in 1965 the first director of the North Carolina School of the Arts, where he served until his death the following year. When he died, Giannini was working on his sixteenth opera, Edipus Rex.

During the years since his death, Giannini’s music has been all but forgotten. Most of the operas and songs are out of print or otherwise unavailable. Virtually no recordings of his music have appeared. Yet the time for a revival may have arrived. The John Brownlee Opera Theatre’s production of The Taming of the Shrew is the third major Giannini performance to take place during the 1990-91 concert season in New York City alone. When the soprano Johanna Meier performed the four-movement monodrama The Medead with the Manhattan Symphony last September, the Times’ James Oestreich called it “an impressive creation” by

a skilled composer in a conservative post-Romantic idiom that fell out of fashion at mid-century but might thrive in today’s climate if given wider exposure.

Last month, the American Chamber Opera produced Giannini’s Last Blennerhassett, a work originally written in 1939 for radio. Bernard Holland noted in the Times that

the operas of Vittorio Giannini may be due for a comeback. . . . The vocal lines pour as thickly and smoothly as sloe gin. The climaxes are perfectly calculated. There is not a single stumble during the dramatic interchanges of this five-person cast. . . . far cry from the clumsiness of some of his colleagues today.”

The Taming of the Shrew

Composed in 1950, The Taming of the Shrew was Giannini’s eighth opera. The composer fashioned the libretto himself, with the help of Dorothy Fee. Although most of the words are Shakespeare’s own, some of the lines (in the love-scene between Lucentio and Bianca) are taken from Romeo and Juliet and one of the sonnets.

The Overture sets the buoyant, ebullient tone of the opera right from the start, and introduces most of the themes and motifs that pervade the Ylork and provide its basic material. Despite the sparkling Rossinian exuberance that characterizes much of the opera — especially Act I — the music is subtly conceived throughout, the orchestra creating a continuous symphonic development into which the voices — while dominating the sonority — are thoroughly integrated. This is the essence of Giannini’s operatic style: free and uninhibited Italianate lyricism emerging from and soaring above a richly Straussian orchestral fabric intricately woven from a small number of unifying motivic elements. In keeping with the work’s cheerful good humor, the harmonic language is straightforwardly tonal — even diatonic much of the time — although moments of romantic ardor expand with lush, chromatic opulence.

Among the work’s high points are the effervescent three-part fugato among Lucentio, Tranio, and Biondello in Act I; Lucentio and Hortensio’s respective attempts to court Bianca while disguised as tutors in Act II, Scene 1; the passionate love-scene between Lucentio and Bianca, also in Act II, Scene 1; Katharina’s aria in Act III; and the glorious finale of the opera, beginning first with a male quintet in a confused melange of mistaken identity, which is then resolved in a richly lyrical sextet involving the two couples and the two fathers, Baptista and Vincentio, and finally concluding with an ardent love duet between Katharina and Petruchio.

The Taming of the Shrew was first performed in 1953 by the Cincinnati Music-Drama Guild and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Thor Johnson. Virgil Thomson, who attended the premiere, commented on the work in the New York Herald Tribune:

[Giannini’s] talent has long been known as phenomenal, and now in his fiftieth year he writes like a master. . .with such fine skill and such pretty taste that no one can deny him a place among the authentic composers of our time. By following none of the contemporary aesthetic trends, in fact, he has arrived at a highly individual position.

“The Taming of the Shrew” is a strong work, a practical work; a highly professional achievement that holds the attention by musical means and that communicates dramatically. I suppose this is the definition of an opera, a real opera. . . a perfect opera. It has a good plot and its words are Shakespeare’s. But it tells its story through music, vocal and instrumental; …

It also represents an achievement in the field of today’s major operatic need, which is English-language opera. In this sense it is a work of “advance,” in spite of its stylistic old-fashionedness. . .

The libretto. . . is compact, expeditious, seems to have no major faults. His musical setting also has a clear trajectory, falls in a virtually perfect curve from its farcical beginning to its romantic close, and the effectiveness with which its dramatic line is sustained is due. . . to the composer’s skillful ex:ploration and equilibration of the musical opportunities offered. But the air-borne quality of the opera is most of all a result of sustained musical inspiration. . .

A sort of symphonic continuity involving thematic developments and transformations gives formal coherence, makes a musical shape of each scene, each act, the whole work. This thematic and orchestral elaboration points up the story, of course, colors its emotional content and underlines its dramatic syntax. The vocal lines chiefly follow rather than lead it, though they do become the center of attention in tenderl moments. . .

Dramatically it is strong and musically it is masterful. . . . its melodic charm constant, its orchestral sound delicious. It is a professional piece of work that communicates and is built to wear. Oner suspects that it might stand up even in the great houses. It rather asks for grand execution, in fact. . . It is also by its vast energy and high musico-dramatic competence and by its sweet warmth sentiment born for big time. . . . For Giannini’s possession and exuberant exercise of all these qualities let us today be thankful. . . .

(In view of Thomson’s enthusiasm, it is interesting to note that Giannini’s name does not even appear in the composer-critic’s book, published in 1970, American Music Since 1910)

The following year, The Taming of the Shrew was presented on NBC-TV, in a production conducted by Peter Herman Adler, with John Raitt and Susan Yager in the leading roles. This presentation too was a popular and critical success. (Olin Downes, writing in the New York Times compared the opera favorably with Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Proqress.) The work was mounted by the New York City Opera in 1958, and then elsewhere around the country. Its last New York production was in 1983, when it was presented by NYU’s Reimann Opera Studio.

Walter Simmons is a musicologist and critic who writes regularly for Fanfare magazine. A recipient of the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for Music Criticism, he is also the author of the entry on Vittorio Giannini in the New Grove Dictionary of American Music.