The Variations

Carnevale di Venezia Variazioni per Banda, Op. 140, Ms.Civ.91

Variations have long been considered as one of the criteria by which a composer's "inventiveness" might be measured. Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven were all famous for their improvised and published variation sets. Though no record of Ponchielli's improvisations at the keyboard have come to light, his use of variation in several of the band works is considerable. By the date of this piece, Ponchielli had already composed the trumpet and cornet concertos, which both have demanding and inventive variations. While the exact origins of this popular melody are shrouded in mystery, an 1869 Milan periodical claims the theme is from Paris. Ponchielli more than demonstrates a familiarity and mastery of the art of variation. While the cornet variations on Carnevale di Venezia by J. B. Arban are perhaps the most famous of all, Ponchielli's fifteen surpass Arban's in every way, especially regarding the technical demands made upon the soloists.

There are six soloists, including Ponchielli himself who would have performed on a set of bells controlled from a keyboard (not a celesta, invented in 1886). Likely, the notated part was expanded upon in live performance. The other five soloists are Solo Clarinet, Solo Cornet, Solo Trumpet, Solo Flicorno basso, and Solo Bombardino. The names of all except the flicorno basso are known: Alessandro Peri, Achille Bissocoli, Giuseppe Cesura, and Alessandro Fantini. Though the "numbered" variations are only twelve, Ponchielli inserted two more as "5½" and "9½" along with two "Variazione 1a." Variazione 5½ is not in Ponchielli's hand, but in that of his copyist, Francesco Belforti. For the insertion of Variazione 9½, Ponchielli had to do some fancy pasting as Variazione 9 does not end on an easy page turn in the autograph. Also, the link to Variazione 10a must be inserted for a composite whole.

With the score at hand, one is loathe to waste too much time discussing the music. One hopes that everyone who looks at this music is already familiar with Ponchielli's "Greatest Hit" - the Dance of the Hours from La Gioconda. Here, in 1868, Ponchielli has already laid out the introduction that he will return to in 1876. In both cases, Ponchielli presents himself as a master of silence. Several of the variations reveal a richer invention beyond dazzling virtuosity and must be mentioned. In Variazione 6a the low brass perform the theme in parallel thirds in the extreme low register of the BB-flat Pelittoni. This is one of the few times where four basses are required instead of the normal three. If there is another variation on Carnevale di Venezia in minor other than Variazione 7a, one has not heard of it. Please note that the several ossia that Ponchielli offers may be found in the "original" score only. They are notated in adjacent staves as he did in the autograph.

The autograph score is one of the more confusing in its detail and Ponchielli's own manner of scoring. There are obviously sketches from which Ponchielli worked. The problem is that there is no direct way to check on his intentions, and there are no parts to see how the band saw the piece. After a point, Ponchielli seems to forget that a pickup note assigned to a part occasionally has no continuity on the next page. He even changes his mind about whether to use the keyboard bells at one point. Often, he will transcribe the band version of the score but use different parts at which to begin. When this occurs, details like articulations, accidentals, and dynamics may not be designated. Because Ponchielli never imagined anyone would ever be interested in this music (he certainly was not), his concerns of performance niceties would be handled in the context of the rehearsals he and the principal players organized. Likely, the last variation added was Variazione 5½ as the hand in the score is that of copyist, Francesco Belforti. Ponchielli had already passed numerous administrative duties off to his two vice maestri who were, of course, the cornet and trumpet soloists.

The flicorno basso solo listed as "9½" and the trumpet-clarinet-flicorno basso trio called "5½" were added (likely) after the flurry of performances in 1868. While the addition of these two variations points to an 1870-1871 arrival of the flicorno basso soloist, his name remains a mystery. These two variations are not in Ponchielli's hand, rather of copyist, Francesco Belforti. By mid 1872 Ponchielli was involved in rewriting his opera based on Promessi sposi that was premiered in the end of the year. Thus, the July performance may have been the one that Ponchielli ever conducted.

The United States Marine Band's very fine performance of this work is still available here. Some of you will notice that there are some changes between the updated version offered here and Colonel Michael Colburn's excellent performance. This due to the editor's own developing philosophy of how to voice Ponchielli's inventive use of a minimal timbral palette. His two harmonic/rhythmic choirs - genis/horns and contralto trumpets - are exploited fully and have caused a new interpretation in the updated instrumentation. Also, anyone interested in this work must realize that they should (as did Colonel Colburn and Ponchielli himself) play only those variations desired. Ponchielli has already set this up for you.

Date on score: Saturday, April 11, 1868

Performances: Sunday, April 26, 1868, Piazza Cavour; Thursday, May 28, 1868, Piazza Cavour; Thursday, July 23, 1868, Piazza Garibaldi; Thursday, October 1, 1868, Piazza Cavour; Thursday, November 19, 1868, Piazza Garibaldi; Sunday,June 5, 1868, Piazza Cavour; Sunday, May 21, 1871, Piazza Garibaldi; Thursday, August 10, 1871, sull'area della demolita chiesa di San Domenico; Thursday, June 29, 1872, Piazza Roma; Tuesday, July 9, 1872, Piazza Cavour.

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