GIANNINI: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1934) Symphony No. 4 (1959)

by Walter Simmons

Liner Notes

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1934)
Symphony No. 4 (1959)
by Vittorio Giannini
NAXOS 8.559352

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, contributing to 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 in 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.” 

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 (whose students also included Gershwin and Copland).

Giannini’s creative work embraced all standard musical genres, but he is best known today for his operatic and vocal music, and for his pieces for concert band. During the 1920s, 30s, and early 40s, Giannini’s compositional output centered chiefly around operas and songs. One of his earliest songs became his most famous: “Tell Me, Oh Blue, Blue Sky,” written in 1927, and still frequently performed today, while his operas Lucedia and The Scarlet Letter had successful European premieres during the 1930s. But Giannini also composed instrumental works during that period, among them a piano quintet, a symphony, subtitled, “In Memoriam Theodore Roosevelt,” and the Piano Concerto presented here.

Although Giannini is generally classified among the neo-romantic school of American composers, his Piano Concerto, like his other music from the 1930s, is more accurately characterized simply as “romantic,” as there is little trace in these works of the innovations in harmony and rhythm that appeared toward the beginning of the 20th century, influencing much of the music of even his conservative contemporaries; nor is there any sense of “Americana” in these early works: It is pure European late-romanticism, somewhat similar in effect to the music of the Hungarian-American Ernst von Dohnanyi (who was, admittedly, some 25 years Giannini’s senior). 

Giannini composed his Piano Concerto in 1934; its premiere took place in New York City in 1937. The soloist was none other than the 22-year-old Rosalyn Tureck (later known as the “High Priestess of Bach”). The concerto was well received by both audience and critics. Writing in the New York Times, Olin Downes stated, “There is the sense of a young man who is born to express himself in music, … This concerto is significant of an unmistakable talent, finding itself, … and turning out a very creditable piece of work in so doing.” Francis Perkins (New York Herald Tribune) opined that ‘‘the opulence and expansiveness of Mr. Giannini’s score proved welcome. He did not hesitate to dwell upon frankly expressed melodies, while his orchestral coloring proved warm and vivid.’’ Similarly, Robert Simon (The New Yorker) found it ‘‘full of juicy melodies, and it has a healthy virtuoso bounce,” concluding, “pianists who want a ‘real concerto,’ one that comes off paper and gets to work on an audience, will find an answer in this composition.’’ Yet despite these enthusiastic comments, there is no indication that the work was ever performed again, until now.

The concerto is composed on a grand scale. Much of its bulk derives from Giannini’s propensity for extensive development—including long chains of sequences—throughout the composition. He is also generous with opportunities for the soloist to elaborate the material by means of the full arsenal of standard virtuoso pyrotechnics. The work is cyclical in construction, clearly unified by the motifs presented at the outset, and while the overall texture is relatively simple, the thematic material is combined and manipulated with a thoroughness that is almost compulsive. The overall character of the concerto is extravagantly emotional, from its grimly portentous opening, through its moments of delicacy and sweetness, to its final triumphant peroration.

The first movement, Sostenuto, introduces the stern primary motif of the concerto, while clearly establishing a tonality of D minor. After considerable elaboration by the solo piano, a second idea—plaintively pleading—is introduced, Allegro moderato, still part of the first theme group. After considerable further elaboration, the solo piano introduces the second thematic idea, Andante cantabile, a seductively yearning melody in F-sharp major. After this theme has been explored by both soloist and orchestra, the development section subjects the thematic material to still further elaboration, as the soloist takes every opportunity to emote instrumentally over each motif. Finally, at Largamente, the recapitulation is announced by a richly chordal statement of the second theme, but this builds with apparent spontaneity to a passionate lyrical outburst in which all the thematic ideas are combined in quasi-operatic ecstasy. This is the passage of the concerto in which Giannini’s own individual voice emerges most clearly. But ecstasy is suddenly interrupted as the motifs in their original guises bring the movement to a stormy conclusion.

The second movement, an Adagio in D-flat major, is built around a sweetly tender, pensive melody whose derivation from the concerto’s opening motif is unmistakable. This melody gradually builds to a rapturous climax, before receding.

The finale, Allegro vigoroso, opens in B minor, with a theme whose descending four-note pattern with dotted-rhythm identifies its source in the second portion of the first theme group of the first movement. After extensive elaboration of this theme, a scherzoso section highlights swirling figurations in the piano. A “new” theme in D-flat major suddenly appears, with a slightly Mediterranean flavor, although it is based on an inversion of that second part of the first theme of the first movement. A reprise of the B-minor opening section of the movement follows, and on its heels a fugato based on that descending four-note motif, followed by merging of that motif with the scherzoso material. The “Mediterranean” melody then comes to the fore, Allegro Marziale, in D major, bringing the concerto to a grandly triumphant conclusion.

Giannini composed a total of seven symphonies: The first two date from the 1930s, and were not numbered; five numbered symphonies were then composed between 1950 and 1964.

The Symphony No. 4, composed 25 years after the Piano Concerto, is the creation of a far more mature and sophisticated composer. Concise and tightly integrated, it is truly a “neo-romantic” symphony: a highly cohesive work in which heartfelt emotional expression is balanced by solid structural values, including touches of modernism, such as basing both melodic and harmonic material on the interval of a fourth, and even some toying with twelve-tone ideas. The work was composed in 1959, and dedicated to Jean Morel, who conducted the first performance with the Juilliard Orchestra in May of the following year. There is no record of the work’s having been performed again, until the appearance of this recording.

The first movement, Allegro con passione, opens with themes—three in this case—of widely contrasting character: the first, restless and tonally vague; the second, tender and warm, introduced by the oboe; and a closing theme, passionate and triumphant. However, a closer examination reveals that all the thematic material is derived from the opening theme, a series of ascending fourths and descending fifths (disguised by octave shifts) and including all twelve tones. From the very beginning, the familiar conventions of sonata allegro form take place on the surface of a densely concentrated developmental fabric of contrapuntal interrelationships involving the interval of the fourth. 

The second movement, Sostenuto e calmo, is the emotional core of the symphony, with an opening theme that displays considerable chromatic range, though it too is based on a sequence of perfect fourths, initially divided between the clarinet and the horn. A central section, based on an augmented fourth, blossoms into a gorgeously impassioned melody, heard against a background texture composed of the symphony’s opening motif. A quiet return of the opening material brings the movement to an end.

The final movement, Allegro, begins in the manner of a scherzo in Giannini’s skittish buffa mode, dominated by intervals of the fourth and fifth and permeated by references to the symphony’s chief thematic ideas. After much development of this material, a slow epilogue recalls the melodic material from the second movement, building to a grand apotheosis, before a brief coda recalls the scherzo material and brings the work to a terse conclusion.

In his Fourth Symphony, Giannini achieved the dual accomplishment of a cohesive, tightly-shaped developmental structure and an emotionally gratifying work in the symphonic subgenre of mid-twentieth-century American neo-romanticism. As such, it stands alongside the contemporaneous symphonic works of such composers as Howard Hanson, Paul Creston, and Samuel Barber.