Gian Carlo Menotti
Born: July 7, 1911 in Cadegliano-Viconago, Italy
Died: February 1, 2007 in Monte Carlo, Monaco
Premiered: 1952 by Efrem Zimbalist and the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Eugene Ormandy.
To most American listeners, Gian Carlo Menotti is probably best remembered for his operas. Many of them were made into films, aired on the radio, broadcast on TV, or even performed on Broadway. In particular, his one-act opera Amahl and the Night Visitors was a cherished Christmas TV tradition throughout the 1950s and into the early 1960s since its premiere on NBC on Christmas Eve in 1951. These were unconventional strides for opera during this time period (his opera was the first ever to be televised), yet led the way for others in the next two decades. This innovation for Menotti’s operas was matched by his unconventional musical style during this period as well. He was a traditionalist and romanticist at a time when most western composers were preoccupied with new styles marked by the avant-garde experimental spirit and theoretical rigor; there was little room for traditional tonality and lyricism in the classical music world at the time. He did use the experimental features at times, though selectively: non-tonal harmony, church modes, 12-note technique, and even electronic tape music made their way into his works when the dramatic flow of the music called for them. (It is notable his lifelong partner Samuel Barber was also tonally and lyrically inclined.) Menotti was essentially driven by the desire to communicate directly with his audiences, rather than alienating them. Such orientation is undoubtedly linked to his commitment to the candid expression of the human voice, as he tellingly remarked in 1964: “There is a certain indolence towards the use of the voice today, a tendency to treat the voice instrumentally, as if composers feared that its texture is too expressive, too human.”
Menotti’s profound interest in the voice and belief in connecting with his audience through accessible musical language is also tangible in his instrumental works. The Violin Concerto, rich with drama, lyrical melody, and orchestral color, is far more accessible that instrumental works by other composers of the time. The concerto was written in 1952 after a commission by the violinist Efrem Zibalist, who premiered the work with the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall later that year. The premiere was a success, as can be read in a review by Louis Biancolli of New York World-Telegram & Sun: “It is a fresh and vigorous piece of music, overflowing with energy and melody and whatever else it takes to complete a three-movement concerto without becoming apologetic.” Yet, after the initial success, the work was largely neglected. Critics began reacting unfavorably toward the work, probably because it went against the grain of the then-collective musical mind. More recently, however, the Violin Concerto has regained popularity and has been receiving increased spotlight in concert halls. Today, it stands as the most recognized and most popular among Menotti’s instrumental works.
Some features to listen for…
Of the three movements, the first is the most operatic. The flowing main theme quickly evolves into music of a completely different mood but makes its way back. Both the main theme and the more lyrical second theme develop and expand through repetition and sequences. The movement deftly weaves through piquant and lyrical moments, unfolding kaleidoscopically. The poignant second movement is where the listener can relish in Menotti’s gift for lyrical melody and acknowledge his musical indebtedness to the Italian opera tradition. The cadenza is piercing and rhythmically canny, and draws a satisfying contrast to the overall subtlety of the rest of the music. In the third movement, the jaunty rhythm, harmonies, and melodic turns may remind some of the ironic angularity of Prokofiev’s neoclassical music. A breathless finale caps this drama-packed concerto with flair and bravura.
- Jung-Min Mina Lee, Music Department, Duke University