The Band Music of Amilcare Ponchielli
The Glory of a Bandmaster
Battle music has been a staple for much of the history of music from Jannequin's chanson to John Williams' Star Wars. While the actual date of composition is unknown, this piece was obviously written for the Piacenza band before 1864. In fact, Ponchielli dates its second performance as June 24, 1863 the fourth anniversary of the Battle of San Martino that took place in 1859 as part of the Second War of Independence.
Unlike Jannequin or even Tchaikovsky, Ponchielli seems to have no single battle in mind. In fact much of the piece is an idealized view of the life of a unit of the Guardia nazionale encamped with friends and neighbors transforming a field into a bivouac full of domestic activities and good fellowship. At nightfall the camp eases into a vigilant rest with the contralto trumpets intoning an Italian version of Taps while nervous cornets resound with signals in the night. A quiet theme with a lilting accompaniment in the clarinets gradually transforms into the second phrase of Garibaldi's Hymn. The hymn is reduced to a phrase that might be played on a natural trumpet (Tromba a squillo), and is immediately followed by signals from the cavalry, announcing discovery of the enemy. This is where most battle pieces usually begin.
Gradually the cornets (representing the infantry) join in as the encampment prepares to meet the enemy. The battle begins quite ferociously with rapid chromatic passages reminiscent of Rossini's storm from William Tell. Finally there is an attack with bayonets. One would assume that Ponchielli would have known that the tempo for such an attack should be at 160 M.M. as prescribed in various Italian military manuals of the period. The key has been minor to this point. All of a sudden it switches to major as confidence grows in the beleagered army as the tide turns in their favor. More of the Garibaldi Hymn is heard as the battle ensues. As the melee quiets the groans of the wounded are heard. Finally, comrades gather around to hear the last words of a dying soldier. As he dies a heavenly, quiet melody is transformed into a solemn oath with which the soldiers return to the battle and victory.
The optimism and confidence in this rather lengthy piece bespeaks the enthusiasm with which Ponchielli undertook his duties as capobanda in Piacenza. Sadly, his considerable efforts were greeted with indifference as he more than exceeded the requirements to produce "marches and music for dancing." The distinct cornet and flugelhorn parts represent a stretch of the decidedly limited resources of the Piacentine band. The saving grace is the many rests throughout for brass players. The clarinets, basses, and horns fare somewhat less well in terms of chances for an occasional rest.
The editing of the published score by Lucca betrays a poor level of editing that was surely corrected in Belforti's parts, which no longer exist. Oddly, there are no performances of this work in Cremona before 1868. This is particularly confusing as Ponchielli brought several key players from Piacenza who had surely played the piece there. One wonders why this piece was not programmed during the Third War of Independence in 1865.
Performances: May 3, 1868, Piazza cavour; June 25, 1868, Piazza Garibaldi; July 17, 1869, Piazza Cavour; July 14, 1870, Piazza GaribaldiSeptember 15, 1870, Piazza del Duomo; June 4, 1871, Piazza Cavour, June 1, 1873, Piazza Cavour.