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(adapted/translated from program notes by Stephen Westra; thanks to Maurice van Peursem <firstname.lastname@example.org>)
Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari is a bit forgotten as a composer, though before World War I his operas were played all over the world. The reason that he is almost fogotten now, might be that he composed in a somewhat archaic style. He was a master of the melody, whereas in the time he composed melody was merely associated with operettas and other light music. His style is highly reminiscent of Mozart, and in its most modern moments one is reminded of Wagner, Puccini and Richard Strauss. However, he can also be seen as an innovator of the Opera Buffa, which had its most important contributers with Pergolesi, Mozart, Rossini and Donizetti. Wolf-Ferrari enriches this genre with early twentieth-century features.
He was not the only composer in those days who was a Mozart fan. In 1887 Tchaikovsky wrote his `Mozartiana’; Mahler tried to reach a Mozartian simplicity in his Fourth Symphony; Richard Strauss wanted to make a follow-up to Mozart’s `Le Nozze di Figaro’. Ermanno might be considered the first Italian neo-classicist.
He is very conscious of his own unmodernism, but is not sorry about it. "Why do so many `modernists’ rail at the things past? Can one imagine a saint, railing at all the saints that preceded him?" he once said. "Historical notion is strange to the artist and belongs to the critic. Can one imagine Mozart saying: `I am an artist from the rococo’?" The essence of (his) music lay somewhere else for Wolf-Ferrari. He wrote for the listeners, not for music history. "When I see how many people lose the possibility to be happy because of their hard life, I just have to consider music as a kind of balm for this wound, as a relief for the unhappy or for those who cannot create joy themselves." He stuck to this motto; his music never sounds tortured, torn, or somber. From his thirteen operas the eight comic ones are his best.
It isn’t so that his life was all happiness. His nationality was mixed (German–Italian), which influenced his life in many ways. He was a talented man: he was a photographer, was to be painter like his father, and he wrote aphorisms and dissertations. On his thirteenth he is so impressed by Wagner’s `Siegfried’ that he is ill for a long time. Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven stay his examples. In Munich he learns counterpoint from the academic Organist-Composer Rheinberger. For his final exams he has to write a four-part fugue on a theme by Rheinberger. He composes an eight-part double fugue with his teacher’s theme as second theme, which surprised the man in many ways. Though he has a natural gift for the fugue, he feels more attracted to Italian Renaissance music.
His contact with Verdi and Boito leads to his first opera: `La Cenerentola’ (1899). He is very disappointed by the little succes it has. It is an ambitious, reminiscent of Wagner; the score counts 1007 pages! The piece foe choir `La vita nuova’ (1901) is his first succes. He finds his own style in the comic opera `Le donne curiose’ (1902): lighthearted music, with a witty libretto, mostly after Goldoni or Molière. Strangely, he is successful in Germany, but not in Italy. His early operas have their first performances in Germany. `Il quattro rusteghi’ (1906) and `Il segreto di Susanna’ (1909) make him world-famous. Toscanini conducts them the New York Metropolitan.
During the First World War Italy fights against Germany and Austria-Hungaria. "Just imagine what it means to be the child of an Italian mother and a German father, in the war! Those with a chromatic, yes, harmonic soul can imagine my dichotomy", he writes. He becomes depressed. For more than ten years he doesn’t compose. In 1926 his creativity returns (his last operas are his best), but not his success. The man who was celebrated even in New York has hardly any food in World War II. His last works — from shear necessity chamber music — are still unpublished, were not played during his life. His grave on San Michele is hard to find.