The Funeral Marches

Marcia funebre per I funerali di Manzoni, Op. 157

The funeral march dedicated to Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873) is dated May 23, 1873; however, the actual march performed for Manzoni's funeral was the composition Ei fu! by the capobanda in Milan, Gustavo Rossari (1827-1881). More likely, Ponchielli's march is an "aesthetic" funeral march composed in memoriam after the manner of Giuseppe Verdi's monumental Messa da Requiem. The timing of this work is quite a mystery as Ponchielli had left his bandmaster duties in Cremona several months earlier, leaving Achille Bissocoli and Giuseppe Cesura as co-vicemaestri. The manuscript is in the Ricordi Archive, and the source for this edition is the version published by Ricordi in 1873. As in the case of the Fantasia militare, the published score abounds with editorial peculiarities that can only be explained by the fact that Ponchielli's score was conveyed forward literally. Also, there are many occurrences where slurs and phrasings suffer from either the literalness or the peculiarities of Ricordi's inhouse engravers.

Unlike all of the preceding funeral marches, this march is in a key that might fit well into an orchestral setting - D Minor. However, no Ponchielli transcription for orchestra has come to light. According to the published score two piano versions - solo and four hands - were also available. The choice of D Minor is especially notable as it is a key that J. S. Bach used for his Kunst der Fuge and Beethoven for his Ninth Symphony. The grandeur of D Minor expresses a passion and sadness tinged with joy. For Bach it was likely the realization that this masterwork was to be his last while Beethoven sets the stage for the brilliant, triumphant arrival of freedom (Freiheit) cloaked in a celebration of joy (Freude). Ponchielli celebrates a national hero even as he bids farewell to the man who saved his career.

Ponchielli's last funeral march for Cremona had evolved into a two-part/minor-major format, but he retained the usual minor-major-minor format of traditional funeral marches. The paucity of percussion parts also suggests a purely concerted or "aesthetic" purpose in this march's creation. Due to the success of Ponchielli's second setting of I promessi sposi based on Manzoni's popular romance, Ponchielli was likely profoundly grateful to the man whose work had enabled him to rise to the operatic realm. Though the instrumentation for any given band in Italy would reflect local resources, Ponchielli used the "advanced" voicing he had enjoyed just recently in Cremona, even going so far as to retain the (student-performed) E-flat cornet part.

Upon initial transcription one had to notice that the contrasting key of the Maggiore (Trio) section of this funeral march. It is in B-flat major, the lowered submediant. This key relationship was favored by Beethoven as he expanded the harmonic language using this relationship as a substitute for the dominant. Since Ponchielli's setting of Beethoven's Marcia funebre sulla morte d'un Eroe from his Op. 26 Piano Sonata was undiscovered at that time, it was deemed unwise to characterize this discovery as "Beethovenian."

As in the case of Verdi's mass, operatic devices abound throughout. The most outrageous occurs in the clarinets in measures 104-105 where parallel diminished triads roll about and rise to the A-Major dominant cadence that leads to the da capo. The "duet" operatic melody of the Maggiore section is fittingly bel canto, suggesting a soparano-tenor duet by a heavenly choir. Its peaceful interlude is broken by a brief descending chromatic passage to a G-Minor six-four cadence (Measure 101) that immediately becomes a diminished dominant of A, the dominant of the D-Minor march. The Maggiore ends with the dominant seventh, disallowing any practical use of this march in a real funeral where one might need to finish playing at the end of either section of the march. The exceptionally dramatic ending of the march section finally is able to wring its full measure of grief that is so easily banished by the bel canto melody of the Maggiore section.

The emotional and dynamic high point of the march is "operatic" as one might expect. In measures 58-61, Ponchielli assigns a rising, unison chromatic line to the highest and lowest parts of the band, filling the middle with a trumpet and horn tonic pedal and a vigorous D/C-sharp tremolo in the lower clarinets. The end of this section overflows with descending sighs and ominous brass fanfares. The last note is a somber unison D intoned by only the low brass.

A final note is that Ponchielli would come to own a summer home in Lecco, the town that was Manzoni's family home, though he never really lived there. Further, Lecco was the setting for many scenes in Promessi sposi. Just recently the city of Lecco has taken possession of this house as a public trust.

This masterpiece has heretofore been unavailable to modern bands.


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