The Sinfonias

Sinfonia per Banda, Op. 153, PP.143.9

Twenty-two years after Ponchielli composed an end - of - school year project that he later reworked for band in Piacenza, he composed a second, original Sinfonia for band. The appellation as a "2a Sinfonia" was not appended until a cover was made for these scores after Ponchielli had left Cremona. According to the concert programs in Il Corriere Cremonese, it may never have been performed by Ponchielli, as he seems to have ended his activities as capobanda in early 1873. In fact, the 1874 performance would have been near the time of the very short career of Andrea Guarneri (1840-1899) as capobanda in Cremona. The dual Vicemaestri, Achille Bissocoli and Giuseppe Cesura, were the most likely persons to have directed it. The title page further identifies the site of the band's rehearsals and school as being located in the monastery associated with the Dominican church that held the tomb of Antonio Stradivari. Already, part of today's Piazza Roma, the church of St. Dominic had been destroyed and had become a site of band concerts.

In spite of the obvious sophistication of the scoring, the role of the editor remains considerable due to Ponchielli's free-wheeling approach to scoring. The opening in B-flat Minor returns briefly before the cadential rush at the end, minus a key signature change. It is only from accidentals that one can deduce that five flats are required. Further, there are passages where there are more notes than players, leaving the final voicing up to rehearsals. In spite of all these concerns, Ponchielli obviously spent a great deal of time in preparing the materials for the final scoring.

The overall structure can be seen in the re-scored Sinfonia from his early student days in Milan and his own transcription of La Savoiarda, i.e., a slow introduction followed by a presentation of several themes in minor and then major, all wrapped up in a lively coda. The masterwork of this piece is its three-part fugal introduction (with countersubjects and real answers) followed by a type of thematic transformation throughout that relies solely upon the motifs presented in the fugal entry. This motivic technique is not usually associated with Italian composers and predates Ponchielli's documented introduction to the music of Richard Wagner in 1876. Initially, I thought that many of Ponchielli's funeral marches exhibited a familiarity with Beethoven's music, particularly with regard to the substitution of the lowered submediant as an alternative to the dominant as a related key. When Ponchielli's band setting of Beethoven's Op. 26 funeral march was discovered, there was a sense of self-justification. While recent presentations (and a new article for the online Grove) by Professor Licia Sirch of the Milan Conservatory have revealed the pedagogical changes made at that institution in compositional exercises, a familiarity with both Bach and Beethoven as studio repertoire in the keyboard area remains undocumented.

Among the entire Cremona band music production, the number of original works for band are very few if one removes the brass concertos, dances, and the marches. Beyond the two sets of variations, only this work and the two Fantasias stand the test of originality. The problems associated with works intended originally for the wind band extends to today, for reasons that have more to do with the vagaries of human nature and the remaining secondary status of the wind band. Mozart, Mendelssohn, Richard Struass, and Wagner all composed works for only winds. Even in the band world such works are more likely to be honored by their absence from programs in spite of their being often cited in arguments for such a repertoire. This work carries with it also the demands of exceptional virtuosity that all but ensures its likelihood of being rarely performed.

A further concern is that Ponchielli had developed over the course of ten years a technology for dealing with the realities of outdoor, unamplified music performances. As yet there is no contemporary report of the atmosphere at these concerts as regarding the number in the audience, the position of the band, whether an elevated stage was used (there are proposal plans in the archives), and many other considerations. Suffice it to say, The band of 1872 was Ponchielli's "ideal," which he had been working toward since he arrived in Piacenza in August, 1860. The combination of a 12-14-member clarinet section with a group of 14-16 conical brass, 7 cylindrical brass, and 2-3 percussion provided a robust yet limited timbre palette for his work. I still provide a "modern" band version though I believe that this work deserves to be played with an ensemble that reflects, as closely as possible, Ponchielli's original intent.

Date on score: Friday, May 25, 1872

Performances: Thursday, September 18, 1873, Piazza Cavour; Sunday, October 19, 1873, Piazza Garibaldi; Saturday, November 1, 1873, Piazza Cavour; Thursday, March 26, 1874, Piazza Cavour.

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