By Julian Budden
Although he was considered part of the “Giovane Scuola” (“Young School”) and was certainly from the same generation as them, Alberto Franchetti soon found himself in a rather different position from his fellow musicians. He studied in Munich under the great organist and composer Josef Rheinberger, then in Dresden with Felix Draeseke and Edmund Kretschmer. This helped him to develop a formidable, versatile academic technique which he used to write his first publicly performed piece: a classical style four-movement symphony. Played before an audience for the first time in Dresden and later in Reggio Emilia, it had decent circulation figures in Italy and other countries. However, like almost all of his Italian contemporaries Franchetti had his sights firmly set on opera and it was in that sphere that his personality shone through more clearly.
Alberto Franchetti with Luigi Illica
In a letter to his wife that is now well known, Ponchielli told her about a conversation that he had with Verdi. One of the topics that came up was Puccini, “whose style of music we do not like because it follows in the footsteps of Massenet, Wagner, etc.”. Ponchielli’s objections could be applied to the “Giovane Scuola” in general. Mascagni called Wagner “the father of all present and future musicians” but he was actually more admired than followed. Although his name did not get mentioned as often, Massenet had a much bigger impact. The flexible, varied articulation, the delicate beat of the accompaniments and the often irregular spans of the melodic phrases served as distinguished models for Puccini and his contemporaries (though less so for Leoncavallo). In contrast, no traces of Massenet’s influence could be seen in Franchetti’s work, but some of Wagner’s could. While Franchetti’s harmonic language reveals a degree of familiarity with late Musikdramen methods – there are obvious echoes of “O sink hernieder, Nacht der Liebe” from Tristan und Isolde in the duet between the protagonist and the young gypsy Loretta in Asrael, which was the Torinese musician’s first opera (1888) – he shows more of a fondness for the compositions from the Rienzi, Tannhäuser and Lohengrin years. The melodies in the singing are mostly broad and regular. Their metric balance gradually expands, with the progression in inflections leading to the final cadence. As in Wagner, the latter is often avoided in order to hook onto what comes next and the triplets do not always end in the same key in which they began. Those of Franchetti’s contemporaries who were more en vogue showed a certain amount of elasticity in their rhythm, but it was not a good match for him. He had a gift for grand gestures that was ideal for portraying sensational historical events. This explains why Verdi picked him out as the composer best suited to writing the opera for the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in America (Cristoforo Colombo, 1892, with a libretto by Luigi Illica), and why his subsequent works of a lighter nature Fior d’Alpe (1894) and Il signor di Pourceaugnac (1897) were not very successful and soon forgotten. With Germania, Illica was confident that he had led Franchetti “back to the main road that he mapped out with Asrael and Cristoforo Colombo”, as he wrote to the composer’s father.
Like Verdi’s La Battaglia di Legnano, in Germania there is a combination of national insurrection and a love triangle among patriots, but on a grander scale and packed with a large number of episodes. To add some specific local colour – which was a key requirement at the time in Italian opera – Franchetti used the popular German song “So viel Stern’ am Himmel stehen”, which is sung faithfully by the old beggar Lene Armuth with her grandson Jebbel. Franchetti added a little unity to the vast, dispersive picture that he had painted by using more recurrent themes than all of his contemporaries except for Puccini, with one difference: while the latter rarely altered his recurring motifs (and he stopped altogether after La bohème) but he gave them different meanings depending on the context, Franchetti often made changes to them. He would shorten them, lengthen them or adjust the harmony, but never modify their features. As usual, these themes were divided into two kinds: reminiscences of passages that were sung previously, and orchestral motifs associated with a certain person or mood. For example, memories of Ricke being seduced by Worms, the baritone antagonist, are chromatically evoked by agitato bass with tremolo strings. There is a timid, hesitant theme for Ricke that modulates without pause, as if it were loath to settle in the cadence.
Alberto Franchetti at the time of “Germania” (1902)
Both ideas help to link together progression and their frequent juxtaposition is the closest that Franchetti gets to Wagnerian development techniques. The other type of recurring theme is at the heart of the first solo by Worms (“Io pure la visione”). It is preceded by a slow march interwoven with delicate bursts of fanfares in dialogue with the voice. Afterwards, with the words “È la patria contrada” a melodic cycle begins. Its opening bars will be used later to represent the yearning for an independent nation, not just in the prologue, and always associated with Worms. He is sceptical about the willingness of the students to back him, hence the subsequent singing of “Gaudeamus igitur”, which symbolizes youthful loose living but is given a curious ironic twist by the dissonant harmony. When Federico arrives with the rebel leaders, he brings a new 36-bar melody that is entirely doubled by the orchestra (“Studenti! Udite, o voi, antichi e nuovi amici”): from then on, the initial theme is associated with the Tugendbund. This motif in turn is developed in an overwhelming crescendo that culminates in the patriotic song by Weber featuring the words of the poet and soldier Theodor Körner, “Lützows wilde verwegene Jagd” (“Lützow’s Wild Hunt”). Weber, Körner and Lützow all participate themselves in a resounding rendition featuring soloists, the chorus and the orchestra! It is another theme that harks back to the past and becomes more and more bitterly nostalgic as the events gradually unfold.
After the failure of the campaign in 1806, Federico looks back on his misfortunes in a long, freely modulating speech (“Son come molti un profugo”). The tightly woven orchestral fabric bears witness to a level of erudition that was rare in Italian composers. This all adds to the efficacy of the diatonic cantilena in which the patriot voices all of his love and faith shortly afterwards (“Onde amo e vivo e credo”). There is a similarly expressive – but even more delicate and tender – atmosphere in the initial progression of the love duet with Ricke (“No, non chiuder gli occhi vaghi”), which is preceded by a short scene (“Ah, vieni qui”) containing her motif. There are two more solos by Worms. The first (“Ferito, prigionier, volli fuggire”) begins with a recitative that is reminiscent of the entry of “Io pure la visione”, moves on to a section of simple descriptive music and then ends with another long melodic section. The second solo (“Orsù, finiam”) is largely a declaimed speech over a minor version of the Tugendbund theme. “All’ardente desìo” by Ricke has a triplet-based structure that combines two themes. The first, previously heard in the orchestra, symbolizes the guilt she feels for giving into temptation with Worms. The second permeates the middle episode and it is an extension of the Ricke motif that is sung for the first and only time.
Needless to say, the most remarkable new feature is the symphonic intermezzo. It was originally published as a concert piece entitled “Nella Foresta Nera” (“In the Black Forest”). This may seem strange because the scene in the opera is set on a plain near Leipzig, but the heavenly vision that it conjures up is more important than the geographical location. The influence of Liszt is clear, especially at the start, when a series of ideas are first presented and then repeated identically but in a very different key. There are no themed reminiscences, just a dazzling display of orchestral bravura enhanced by the chorus. Meanwhile, it is fitting for the final duet between Ricke and the dying Federico (“O tu che mi soccorri”) to be introduced by the Tugendbund motif, the harmony of which is altered twice and then returned to its original form. It is followed immediately afterwards by the Ricke theme. The music subsequently features a series of lyrical sections in the customary Franchetti way. A mention of the “confounded” (“maledetto”) Worms brings about a brief return of his chromatic portrayal and when Ricke recognizes his corpse among the bodies, the gloomy opening bars of the symphonic intermezzo are repeated. A new, melancholy motif accompanies Napoleon passing by in the distance, dismal and silent after his defeat. It is heard again in the final apotheosis, when Federico utters the dying words “O libera Germania!” and the full orchestra bursts into the Tugendbund theme, with a high melody over it. It is a worthy conclusion to an opera that offers a rare example of German and Italian traditions being fused.