Il segreto di Susanna

„I am, as it were, rather self-evident……“

On the music of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari and his intermezzo “Il segreto di Susanna“

Friedrich Haider (2006)

How often in the annals of music history has the oeuvre of an artistic genius been equally inspired by two different nations? How often has one culture so permeated another that an altogether new artistic language could rejoice in its emergence? Frédéric Chopin, the “French Pole” naturally comes to mind. Yet that there is another such prominent example, this time from the opening decades of the 20th century, is now, at the outset of the 21st century, nearly forgotten. Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, son of a German father and an Italian mother who grew up in Venice and was educated in Munich, displays a fascinating synthesis of the Mediterranean and Germanic spirit and temperament in his compositions.

The works of this composer were almost always susceptible to the vagaries of success. His early compositions, written between the ages of 20 and 25, met with immediate acclaim throughout the entire world. However, within only a short span of time, by the end of World War I, they could rarely be heard at concert halls, and in the last few decades, aside from very few exceptions, Wolf-Ferrari’s works have not been performed at all. Of course, one is aware from countless examples in the past that such developments seldom have anything to do with a work’s “inferior quality” (how ever that is to be defined). Instead, it is usually the zeitgeist at work, casting one cultural manifestation into the limelight – and the other into the shadows.

Art knows no progress

Even during his lifetime, Wolf-Ferrari was often considered an anachronism. One was either unable or simply refused to understand that, in an era which defined “progress” primarily in terms of atonality and formal dissolution, a half-German, half-Italian composer would choose to adhere to tonality, proclaim the “inexhaustible Goldoni” as the “great Venetian idol”, and write, of all things, comic operas which, judging from their artistic physiognomy, seemed to suggest that certain new aesthetic developments had left him untouched. Yet doesn’t that, in actuality, point to a highly individualistic artistic sensibility which has its own goals in mind? For it is, in all truth, completely irrelevant to debate whether Bartok was more “modern” than Debussy, or whether Richard Strauss was more “progressive” than his rival Wolf-Ferrari. In spite of what certain theoreticians have repeatedly attempted to claim, there has never existed in the world of art a prescriptive line of “progress”. Alfred Polgar, in a bon mot typical of him, underscored just how “modern” Modernism really was, just how “contemporary” his contemporaries, in fact, were: “Yesterday lives on only two days from now, whereas today is already a thing of the day before yesterday. How time flies!” There is really nothing more ludicrous than to base a composition on pre-established aesthetic guidelines which disregard the perhaps most important factor in any work of art – namely, its newly created language which cannot be captured in words but which miraculously unfolds before its audience! Wolf-Ferrari himself put it most aptly when commenting on the present and the future fate of the opera: “The only important thing to do is to write good operas. How? I am unable to say because in each case the “how” is the opera itself, and every opera has its own “how”. As soon as it can be expressed in words, it is no longer art.”

A new world is revealed to us in the work of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, an artistic world which, by disregarding certain trends and developments of its day, comes across as being entirely individual by means of its fresh approach to tradition and its transformative revitalization of historical styles. A unique “cadence” takes shape in this music, just as “phrases” of Wolf-Ferrari become evermore distinctive. To use the word “reactionary” in reference to his work (not seldom the case) would imply that the entirety of Renaissance painting were regressive.

The secret of beauty is timeless

Does Wolf-Ferrari’s lifelong yearning for harmony and his glorification of beauty stem from early childhood impressions of his father making the replicas of Veronese, Tintoretto and Bellini which now hang in the Schack Galerie in Munich? Or does Wolf-Ferrari seek – and discover – in the otherworldly beauty of art a personal liberation which he was never able to achieve in this world? Whatever the case may be, he may certainly be considered one of the last composers (at least of the 20th century) who unconditionally praised that mysterious phenomenon called “beauty”. Wolf-Ferrari stated that beauty was “not the sum of its parts, but rather their correlations to each other. Inexpressible!” Writing to the composer Mark Lothar from Munich in 1933, he stated: “We who live for beauty are the most defenseless beings of all, even more so than those who live for ideas – the philosophers – because by their very nature ideas are always calls to battle, always dressed in armor. Ideas can never be anything but one assertion against another. Beauty, however, is simply there. It neither asserts anything nor battles anyone. It is simply there.” In making such a statement, was the composer merely wallowing in a concept of beauty which is sufficient unto itself? By no means. Wolf-Ferrari’s beauty is one enhanced by intelligence, just as it is “timeless”, as Alexandra Carola Grisson has written in her biography of the composer: “sublime… and beyond any epoch and any style.” The expression “timeless” is, in fact, perhaps the most accurate way of describing Wolf-Ferrari’s music. “I am, as it were, rather self-evident,” he once said, by which he also meant that his work was completely lacking in cheap, superficial sensationalism. The music of Wolf-Ferrari is eternal. That, of course, is always hard to swallow for “anti art lovers” who feel the need to cling to established artistic movements.

It is amazing how differently critics have attempted to characterize Wolf-Ferrari. In the works of this Apollonian philosopher of music, the traces of Bach (he adored the incomparable Harmonie des Mathematischen mit dem Irrationalen), Mozart’s metaphysics, Haydn’s folk-like overtones, the language of Barbiere and Don Pasquale, the specific Falstaff parlando, as well as phrases of Puccini and Strauss can all be felt almost simultaneously. It was thus usually easier to just consider him eclectic. To date, there have been hardly any profound examinations of this artistic figure. “According to your estimation, I merely rank among the epigones, correct?” asked Wolf-Ferrari in a letter from 1927 to the critic Hans Tessmer. “Just as I must be an epigone of my father because I somehow (hopefully) resemble him. Who knows who coined this word, or the other one: eclectic. Is one expected to exist completely without forebears? All the other composers you make reference to – those endless seekers – are attempting just that: to begin everything ab ovo.

Although the essence of Wolf-Ferrari’s music cannot truly be expressed in words, there are nonetheless certain features which can be identified very clearly. One of the most important characteristics is the absolute concentration of the material, the compactness of all that Wolf-Ferrari rendered into music. His method of composition was economical, an exception for the early part of the 20th century, yet he was able to attain – with utmost nobility – a sublimation of emotions. Real-life human passions, on the other hand, were something he could never really take seriously. “My works bridle, not liberate,” he wrote. “That is why I do not fit in well with our age, an age I do not quite understand.” Thus, he considered works such as “The Jewels of the Madonna” (1911), which made concessions to the trend of verismo, as not really stemming from his own identity. “It is very simple to write unintelligibly! Yet very difficult to write simply without sounding inane! I would advise the younger generation to write as though composing a telegram to America: short, because the words are expensive, and clear, because one wants to be understood!” And further: “… whoever does not enjoy drawing, and instead only raves about color, will not really take to my music.” Such comments as these refer perfectly to the quill-drawn, filigree web of lines and the transparency of Wolf-Ferrari’s musical compositions. In his music, not even the harmonization of a melodic phrase remains mere “colorization”, but becomes something “essential to the organism, system,” in the same way that his operatic instrumentation always follows even the slightest stage movements and affixes musical meaning to the singers’ words. Only those who do not know in detail the scores of Wagner and Strauss can claim that Wolf-Ferrari did not reach new psychological depths in the relationship between voice and orchestra!

During his entire lifetime Wolf-Ferrari remained contemplative and analytic, spending a great deal of time in the study of harmonics and music theory and becoming extremely well-versed in the teachings of Halm, Thuille, Schönberg and Riemann. Yet he was not interested in theory per se, but rather in a higher level of musical instinct: what people actually hear. He thus considered Riemann to be nothing more than a conceptualizer (“If music were supposed to be as complicated as he declared, it would be the most dreadful of arts instead of the most sensuous.”). Ultimately, Wolf-Ferrari was only enthusiastic about the work of Ernst Kurth, the musicologist whose seminal studies on Bach and the harmony in Tristan could never have been written by pure theoreticians. Wolf-Ferrari always sought what was beneath the surface, stating that the actual truth in art always lay beyond the rules of art. Thus, counterpoint, which does not play a predominant role in his work though is clearly present in it, is never employed as end in itself, but rather as a complement to his poetic expression.

“Il segreto di Susanna” and the novel sound of the musical comedy

By adding completely new qualities to the tone of musical comedies, Wolf-Ferrari’s revival and reworking of the Italian opera buffa, as represented by Pergolesi, Cimarosa and Paisiello, is wholly unique in the history of music. In fact, no one ever followed in the composer’s footsteps! Even the arrangements of the voice parts, which give rise to an idiosyncratic fusion of recitative parlando and arioso, demonstrate new musical territory. “If Italian poetry of the 16th century were better known in Germany,” Wolf-Ferrari wrote to Hans Pfitzner from Venice in 1905, “and if one saw how even Wagner’s concept of the relationship between poetry and music was exercised with such nobility and care in the time of Monteverdi, at the outset of dramatic music in Italy, then the word “Italian” would not always carry with it an unpleasant aftertaste.” This statement calls to mind the specific manner in which words and music come across in Wolf-Ferrari’s work “as a singular and inseparable expression of will and emotion.” That also explains why Felix Mottl, who conducted the premiere, characterized “Susanna’s Secret” as the “most Wagnerian of operas”, even though Wagner’s orchestral tone could not be heard even once.

Wolf-Ferrari creates his own individual orchestral language which leaps at the audience from the overture’s very first bars. It is not only paradigmatic for the blending of cultures in his oeuvre, but is also one of the most splendid examples of Italian vivacitá. In its melodic joy and its Mediterranean desire of freedom, Wolf Ferrari’s language is in love with life itself. It is bursting with creative energy, capricious, high-spirited, and blissful at the same time. With great humor Wolf-Ferrari is also shown to be a master of counterpoint when, in under three minutes, no less than four themes are introduced and brought to conclusion at the same time. A true showpiece! So many technical nuances and so much counterpoint gaiety have scarcely ever been “accommodated” in such a short space of time without for even a moment giving the feeling of being overly contrived. In this composition, the Italian blithely sings German counterpoint; in fact, he displays his mastery of it with absolute confidence – with one hand tied behind his back, so to speak. In the opera itself, the orchestra is accorded its own independent status. Without ever devolving into an accompanying role, it continually offers commentary, engages in dialog, and provides psychologically revealing insight into the action on stage. On more than one occasion, a certain kind of old Venetian orchestral tone breaks forth which, indescribable as it may be, also belongs to the idiosyncrasies of Wolf-Ferrari’s style.
Countless details make this music infinitely endearing, such as the predilection for a lively Neapolitan tarantella rhythm which, usually attenuated and stylized, can be felt through almost all of Wolf-Ferrari’s works. In “Susanna’s Secret” it surfaces upon Count Gil’s first appearance: as a barely perceptible indication of his sanguinary temperament until his true anger finally discharges itself in a howling, orchestral tumult that whistles horrendously around the audience’s ears. This is satire at its best. Then, towards the end of the scene, the music even borrows in a pseudo-lofty manner a phrase from one of the most dramatic moments of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.

One of the most precious characteristics of Wolf-Ferrari’s music is the psychologically delicate treatment of his thematic material. It is absolutely magical how “innocently” Susanna plays the piano in the adjoining room (the composer calls the theme introduced here the “Virgin melody”) while her lord broods to himself in cantabile, enabling the listener to hear numerous facets of mistrust, jealously, and muted desperation. Only a short time later, this theme acts as interlude, as the first big jealous confrontation between Susanna and Gil fades out. While the clarinet with golden tenderness spreads a feeling of calm (the outward appearance of the situation), the argument rumbles ever lightly as the violins play the howling “argument motif” (the internal feelings of the characters). A brilliant passage! Finally, at the end of the opera, the “Virgin melody” is transformed into a hymnal swan song of love, only to end turbulently in the music of the overture. It is a mark of great artistic achievement how Wolf-Ferrari manages with little effort to bring about the metamorphosis of a melody which, actually, never changes at all!

Melos – Wolf-Ferrari adhered to its power throughout his entire life and did not shy away from writing light songs, ariosos, animated (though unsentimental) barcarolas or popular tunes. That was part of his Mediterranean blood and, thus, his self-perception. It also, of course, underscored his affinity with the Venetian people which never dissolved, in spite of his settling in Munich. Goldoni once wrote that in Venice singing can be heard on every square, every street and every canal, by traders, workers and gondolieri. This innate attachment to song can also be found in the language itself. Wolf-Ferrari would always reply to a German-speaker in German, yet with the rising crescendo of the conversation often converted to Italian, and would then, in the most emotional moments, lapse into Venetian dialect! And thus, none of his operas are lacking in melodic highpoints, including “Susanna’s Secret”. This intermezzo may actually contain the most heartfelt of anything written by this composer: for example, the airy little duet “Il dolce idilio” in ¾ time in which both protagonists pierce the truly paradisiacal realm of emotion. The ensuing anger of the count then seems that much more vehement.

A deep, lying “D” of the oboe is the empty and bitter reverberation of the second argument between Gil and Susanna. With only one single chord from the strings, over which the clarinet sheds its mild light, Wolf-Ferrari once again conjures up a change in the atmosphere, demonstrating the singularity of this composer and his ingenious minimalism. The music centers on Susanna and her magical pack of cigarettes as she, exhausted yet happy, sinks into the rocking chair to give herself over to the forbidden pleasures of tobacco. With a stunning intuition for orchestration, not only does the smoke, as it spreads across the room, become “acoustically visible”, but the seduction of the nicotine also becomes palpable as it makes its way through Susanna’s veins. Celesta, harp, three solo violins, and a dampened string section all cuddle her up in the bluish haze which is the catalyst for a magical little opera in which many little things take place but nothing really happens. For this opera, in spite of all its words, wants to be nothing more than one thing – music!

Friedrich Haider, 2006