by Walter Simmons
By Vittorio Giannini
Vittorio Giannini (1903-1966) was one of the many Italian-American composers who flourished during the 20th century, contributing to a distinguished repertoire shaped along traditional tonal, formal, and developmental lines. However, the extent of Giannini’s contribution is little known today, his name and reputation kept alive chiefly by a few songs and a symphony for concert band that is a beloved staple of that repertoire.
But during the first half of the 20th century Giannini played an important role as teacher as well as composer. He spent decades on the compositional faculties of the Juilliard School, Curtis Institute, and Manhattan School of Music, ending his educational career as the founding president of the North Carolina School of the Arts. His students include John Corigliano, David Amram, Adolphus Hailstork, Alfred Reed, Nicolas Flagello, and Thomas Pasatieri, among many others. Giannini’s creative work centers around more than a dozen operas, seven symphonies, scores of songs, and a variety of concertos and choral, vocal, and chamber works. These works are notable for their warm immediacy of expression, their ingratiating lyricism, and their impeccable craftsmanship. Like many traditionalists, Giannini had no interest in being a trend-setter. His musical creed is perhaps best embodied by his statement that he was driven by “an unrelenting quest for the beautiful, with the humble hope that I may be privileged to achieve this goal, if only for one precious moment and share this moment with my listeners.”
Giannini was born in Philadelphia into a highly musical family. His father was a successful operatic tenor, as well as the founder of both an opera company and a concert band; his mother had been a professional violinist. His three siblings were all musicians, the most celebrated of whom, his sister Dusolina, became one of the world’s leading operatic sopranos. Vittorio began taking music lessons from his mother when he was five; after four years he was awarded a scholarship to study at the Verdi Conservatory in Milan, where he concentrated on both violin and composition. Returning to the United States, he continued his education at the Juilliard School in New York, where he studied composition with Rubin Goldmark.
During the 1920s, 30s, and early 40s, Giannini’s compositional output centered chiefly around operas and songs, all in a highly romantic, even sentimental, vein. One of his earliest songs became his most famous, “Tell Me, Oh Blue, Blue Sky,” written in 1927, and later championed by Leonard Warren, Mario Lanza, and, more recently, by Thomas Hampson. He had two major operatic successes in Europe during the 1930s, Lucedia and The Scarlet Letter, the latter with his sister Dusolina and Hans Hotter in the leading roles. Although the New York Times critic called it “a milestone in the history of American opera,” it has never been produced again. However, several years later CBS commissioned Giannini to compose two short operas for radio—Beauty and the Beast and Blennerhassett—both of which have been produced on stage a number of times. Giannini’s most enduring operatic success, however, is a buffa adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.
During the early 1940s Giannini began to turn his attention to instrumental music. His compositions became clearer, more concise in design, and less inflated by romantic rhetorical extremes than his earlier works. Many of the pieces from the 1940s and 50s are light and diverting in character, and easier and more practical to perform. During the 1950s and early 60s he composed five symphonies, of which No. 3 (1958), scored for concert band, is the perennial favorite mentioned earlier.
Around 1960, another side of Giannini’s creative personality began to emerge, perhaps prompted by a serious heart attack that brought the realization that his life was likely to be cut short, followed by the dissolution of his second marriage. These late works are dark, even tragic in character, revealing an emotional depth and intensity hitherto unexplored by the composer. With a markedly attenuated sense of tonality and an increased level of harmonic dissonance, they reflect a considerable advance with regard to density of texture and concentration of activity, and represent the most profound and fully realized works of his career.
Among these compositions stands the Psalm 130, for double-bass and orchestra, composed in 1963 for double-bass virtuoso Gary Karr. Karr later recalled that the work was written “during the period when his young wife was divorcing him. He told me that he was so much in love with her that he found it impossible to sleep, so during those agonizing nights, he poured his heart out into this work.” An abstract, rhapsodic commentary on the Psalm (“Out of the depths my soul cries out …”), it presents the solo instrument as a tortured protagonist, crying out against the orchestral backdrop, somewhat similar in conception to Bloch’s Schelomo. The work is based largely on a motif-presented at the outset-that outlines a minor-seventh chord, and may have had some sort of coded autobiographical significance, as this same motif appears prominently in the Variations and Fugue composed for band the following year. Despite the improvisatory effect created by its rhapsodic structure, Psalm 130 falls roughly into three sections-the opening and closing, proclamatory, agitated, and anguished, while the central section is poignant and meditative. It is one of Giannini’s most personal, deeply moving, and fully realized utterances, and was first performed by Karr in August, 1963, at the Brevard Music Center in North Carolina.
Notes by Walter Simmons
Contributor, The New Grove
Author, Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers
(Scarecrow Press, 2004)