LINER NOTES: Music by VITTORIO GIANNINI (1903-1966)

by Walter Simmons



Dedication Overture (1965) . Fantasia (1963). Praeludium and Allegro(1958). Symphony No. 3 (1958). Variations and Fugue (1965) University of Houston Wind Ensemble, Tom Bennett, conductor. NAXOS 8.570130

Walter Simmons, executive producer
Joe Dixon, session producer
David Burks, recording engineer
Project conceived by Merlin Patterson
Recorded at the Moores School of Music, University of Houston: March 5-7, 2004

Vittorio Giannini (1903-1966) was born in Philadelphia, to a distinguished musical family. Not only were both his parents professional musicians, but his sister, Dusolina, was one of the world’s leading operatic sopranos during the 1930s and 40s, and another sister, Euphemia, was a member of the vocal faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music for many years. Today Vittorio is perhaps best known as a teacher, having spent decades on the composition faculties of the Juilliard School, Curtis Institute, and Manhattan School of Music, and ending his educational career as the founding president of the North Carolina School of the Arts. Among his students are John Corigliano, David Amram, Adolphus Hailstork, Alfred Reed, Nicolas Flagello, and Thomas Pasatieri. 

However, Giannini was a prolific composer as well, one of the many Italian-Americans who flourished during the 20th century, helping to create a distinguished repertoire shaped along traditional tonal, formal, and developmental lines. His output includes more than a dozen operas, seven symphonies, scores of songs, and a variety of concertos and choral, band, and chamber works. His music is notable for its warm immediacy of expression, its ingratiating lyricism, and its impeccable craftsmanship. A true traditionalist, 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.” 

Although Giannini’s creative work embraced all standard musical genres, he is best known for his operatic and vocal music, and for his pieces for concert band. The domains of opera and the concert band may seem worlds apart, yet this duality has historical precedent in Giannini’s background. His father Ferruccio, who had immigrated to the United States from Tuscany in 1885, was both a successful operatic tenor and the founder of an Italian-American concert band that flourished in Philadelphia and Atlantic City around the turn of the 20th century.

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 such singers as Leonard Warren, Mario Lanza, and, more recently, 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. During the late 1930s 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. Like his earlier works, these compositions displayed clear tonal centers, but they were more straightforward and concise in design, and less inflated by romantic rhetorical extremes. Many of the pieces from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s are light and diverting in character, sometimes based on Baroque forms, and often composed with student ensembles in mind. Yet in some of his works from the 1960s, Giannini also began to explore a darker, more complex and dissonant mode of expression. Some of these late works are among his most significant and profound creations.

During the 1950s, spurred by the advocacy and inspiration of Richard Franko Goldman of the Goldman Band in New York, William Revelli at the University of Michigan, and Frederick Fennell at the Eastman School of Music, the symphonic band and its smaller, more flexible relative, the wind ensemble, were coming into their own as serious artistic media. These young ensembles were hungry for challenging works of high artistic caliber, prompting America’s foremost composers to turn their creativity in this direction, and an exciting new repertoire began to develop. Vittorio Giannini was one of the composers who contributed to this new repertoire, producing five such works between the years 1958 and 1965.

Giannini composed the Dedication Overture in 1965, for the ceremonies marking the conclusion of the North Carolina School of the Arts’ first year. It is a festive piece, thoroughly conventional in style and character. Yet part of Giannini’s genius was his ability to imbue the most conventional gestures with an innocent sincerity that can charm even a sophisticated listener. And his thorough mastery of traditional formal and developmental technique is apparent in every measure, despite the piece’s simple, straightforward design. The overture is constructed of two, largely diatonic, thematic ideas: The first, marchlike in character, comprises a number of motifs that become the building blocks of the entire piece; the second, in marked contrast, is warmly and sweetly nostalgic. These ideas are worked out alternately in a way that is easy to follow. A subtle additional element is the tritone, which, as a harmonic movement, underlies the first thematic idea, moving to the foreground near the conclusion of the work. 

Giannini’s Fantasia was commissioned by a suburban New York music teachers’ association, and completed in 1963. Though relatively simple in its technical demands, it is largely dark and dramatic in character. As suggested by its title, the Fantasia develops a few short motifs through a varying series of tempos and moods. A rather menacing exposition of the main motif opens the work. This motif is then developed in a hushed, restless passage, as several additional motifs are introduced. A slower section follows, in which the main motif is given a plaintively lyrical treatment. Finally, the mood shifts from mournful to hopeful, culminating in a warmly expansive climax.

Praeludium and Allegro is Giannini’s first piece for band, commissioned on behalf of the Goldman Band in 1958. The Praeludium introduces a somber melody over a throbbing, pulsating accompaniment. Although the music is romantic in its emotional expressiveness, its rhythmic regularity and symmetrical phraseology suggest a Baroque movement that might be marked Grave. Even its contrasting two-part structure harks back to 17th-century practice. The Allegro introduces a rapidly scurrying idea in the woodwinds that unfolds with ingenious-cross rhythms. This idea is then developed in counterpoint with fragments of the Praeludium theme. An episode in which this theme is heard against highly dissonant chords leads to a recapitulation of the Allegro material, building to a climax at which point the Praeludium melody returns in abbreviated form, now as an outcry of despair.

Shortly after finishing Praeludium and Allegro, Giannini turned his attention to composing an entire symphony (his No. 3) for band, in fulfillment of a commission from the Duke University Band and its conductor Paul Bryan. Completed in 1958, the Symphony No. 3 is unquestionably Giannini’s most frequently performed and recorded work, and has become a much-beloved staple of the band repertoire. Establishing the work’s overall tonality of B-flat Major, the first movement, Allegro energico, opens with a resolute theme suggestive of the Mixolydian mode, built upon a series of ascending fourths (an interval favored by the composer in his works of the 1950s), and including a triplet figure. An additional, transitional theme comprises a scurrying idea in the woodwinds (similar to the Allegro material of the work just discussed). This leads to the second theme, a warm, chorale-like idea that swells and recedes, then builds to a minor climax. The development section incorporates the fourths from Theme I into the transitional material. As this section proceeds, other elements of Theme I are developed as well, finally leading to the expected recapitulation of Themes I and II. The scurrying transitional material re-appears as in the development section, but in abbreviated form. A restatement of Theme 1 brings the movement to a close.

The second movement, Adagio, is poignantly nostalgic in character, and hovers generally around the key of A-flat. Its first two ideas display features reminiscent of the first movement themes: In the first, the interval of the fourth is featured prominently; the second is chorale-like and rises and falls in stepwise motion. The first idea blooms into a plaintive melody, introduced by a solo flute, that anticipates the second theme of the Dedication Overture. This alternates with the chorale idea, which is elaborated gradually. A slightly restless section follows, in which a solo cornet is answered by a solo clarinet, as the chorale idea becomes increasingly demanding. The plaintive melody returns, now building to a heartfelt climax, before a coda of reminiscences ends the movement.

The third movement, Allegretto, has the character of an intermezzo, whose main idea is a stealthy, whimsical theme in B-flat minor that toys with a hemiola (three-against-two) rhythmic juxtaposition. An expansive, wide-arching melody that appears twice provides contrast.

Returning to the key of B-flat Major, the fourth movement, Allegro con brio, is, like the first movement, a sonata-allegro design, but with the character of a march. Its main idea, a brilliant, rapidly descending scale pattern, pivots on a tritone harmonic movement (again anticipating the Dedication Overture). The rushing scales are followed by a fanfare-like motif suggesting the Lydian mode in the cornets and trumpets, and then by a more sustained melodic idea. The second theme grows from this melodic idea, and is more subdued, though still martial in character, calling to mind similar passages in the ceremonial works of Sir William Walton. The mood again becomes exuberant as a cheerful “closing” idea appears in the woodwinds, accompanied by scale patterns in the brass. After a series of ascending fourths recalls the first movement, a development section follows, treating much of the material that has been heard so far with some contrapuntal intricacy, relative to the movement’s lighthearted character. A full recapitulation follows, bringing the movement, and the symphony, to a dazzling conclusion. 

Variations and Fugue is one of the late works of Giannini in which he explored a deeper, more personal mode of expression, as well as a higher degree of structural complexity, in comparison to his earlier output. In fact, it may be seen as a culmination of his elaboration of traditional compositional technique, taken to its ultimate reaches. Revealing elements of both a chaconne and a passacaglia, the work presents a series of fifteen variations on a chord progression clearly in C minor, on a chromatically descending bass-line, and on a chromatically ascending melodic line. The variations are followed by a double fugue whose first subject is a 12-tone combination of both the bass line and the melodic line, in the shape of a wedge, and whose second subject is derived from the same material. Despite its firm grounding in tonality, the work achieves considerable dissonance through an elaborately woven texture of non-harmonic tones and polychords. It is also another example of the way Giannini combined romantic expressive content with Baroque formal procedures, right up to the Tierce de Picardie that ends the work. Considered one of his finest compositions, Variations and Fugue was commissioned by the Purdue University Symphonic Band, who gave the premiere in May, 1965. 

Tom Bennett

Tom Bennett is Director of Bands and Associate Professor of Music at the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music. Prior to his appointment to the University in 2000, Bennett was Director of Bands at East Texas State University, and had conducted an array of high school bands throughout Texas. Several of these bands won auspicious honors and awards during his tenure. Bennett holds degrees from Texas Tech University and Southern Methodist University. He is the recipient of the Leadership and Achievement Award from the Texas Music Educators Association and the Ross Perot Outstanding Teacher Award from the Richardson Independent School District. He was recently presented with the “Grainger Medallion” by the International Grainger Society, in recognition of his significant contribution to the advancement of the music of Percy Grainger. Bennett is a member of the Texas Bandmasters Association, College Band Directors National Association, Texas Music Educators Association, and Phi Beta Mu honorary band fraternity. He is active nationally as a clinician and adjudicator, and in 2005 Bennett was named Texas Bandmaster of the Year.

University of Houston Wind Ensemble

Founded by the distinguished bandmaster Eddie Green, the University of Houston Wind Ensemble of the Moores School of Music has become recognized as one of the foremost university ensembles in the United States today. The  Ensemble is dedicated to exploring the full breadth of the wind-ensemble literature, from the canonic wind repertoire to exciting new and unexplored works. The International Grainger Society selected the Houston Wind Ensemble to record a four-volume series of compact discs featuring works by the Australian-American visionary. One of these recordings was named “compact disc of the year,” by Stereophile. Two of the Wind Ensemble’s other recordings have been nominated for Grammy awards, making them the first college wind ensemble to earn a Grammy nomination.

Moores School of Music

The Moores School of Music’s commitment to academic excellence and the highest performance standards has earned it a place in the forefront of music schools today. Undergraduate and graduate degrees through the doctoral level are offered in theory, performance, composition, music history, pedagogy, conducting, and music education. Through the excellence of its curriculum, the distinction of its faculty, the success of its graduates, and its alliances with the city’s esteemed arts organizations—the Houston Symphony, Houston Grand Opera, and the Society for the Performing Arts—the school enjoys a reputation that attracts students from throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe, Mexico, South and Central America, and the Far East.