Soprano and mezzo-soprano soli, flute (+ piccolo), oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, harp, cello
Short Note by Paul Griffiths
The fragments from the early nineteenth-century Italian poet are fused into a miniature cantata of duets and arias separated by instrumental interludes. This was for many years Davies’s only setting of non-liturgical words, and in a sense it makes its own liturgy of what Leopardi calls ‘wild and furious joy of despair’. It is very florid yet disciplined music.
Extended Note by Andrew Clements
These settings of the nineteenth-century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi, completed in 1962, were the first work for solo voices that Maxwell Davies had published, and also his first use of secular texts. At the time of its composition Maxwell Davies was working as music master at Cirencester Grammar School, where one of his first projects had been to rehearse and perform sections of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610. The work left a profound impression upon him, and the Leopardi Fragments were one of three subsequent pieces (the others were the Sinfonia and the String Quartet in which he took structural elements of the Vespers as a compositional starting-point.
What seems much more striking in these settings now, however, is the cool sensuality that they purvey, a quality that was afterwards to be submerged in Maxwell Davies’s music until the Orkney experience allowed it to flower again, but in an altogether softer-edged form. For the Leopardi Fragments present a many-layered paradox to the listener. At the deepest structural level of the work there is the coherence assured by the Monteverdi-derived proportioning and by the consistent use of cantus firmus techniques – a fixed framework within which to contain Leopardi’s passionately bitter lyricism. At two points though, in the instrumental interludes separating the third and fourth, and fourth and fifth fragments, Maxwell Davies loosens those structural bonds to allow the instruments a measure of metrical freedom mirroring the way in which the vocal lines, contained and almost hieratic in their intensity (a reminder that Monteverdi’s example stretched beyond mere structural considerations), are nevertheless intricately ornamented.
The Leopardi Fragments are the earliest work to be included in this celebration [Maxwell Davies Festival at the South Bank Centre, London, in 1990], and in many ways the most uncompromisingly modernist of all.
Nothing demonstrates more eloquently his fusion of old and new, his admiration for the music of the past not just as a source of technical devices or raw material but as an aesthetic to be measured against contemporary norms. There is almost as much Stockhausen and Boulez in this work as there is Monteverdi, yet there is no sense of a mismatch: the tensions are thoroughly fruitful and expressive, and the tone of voice is clear.
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BBC Invitation Concert, at the City of London Festival
Dorothy Dorow soprano