Dragonetti's New Academy
Dragonetti Notes The Italian double-bass virtuoso and composer Domenico Dragonetti (1763-1846) enjoyed a long and prosperous career. Born into relative poverty in Venice, he appears to have acquired his early musical training partly in an informal manner - documents relating to Dragonetti's birth refer to his father Pietro as an amateur guitarist and double bassist - as well as through more traditional instruction; at the age of twelve he began a standard course of double-bass lessons from a local professional, Michele Berini. The young Dragonetti quickly acquired the necessary proficiency for professional employment; at thirteen he served as principal bassist at the Opera Buffa in Venice, and by the age of 18 he had succeeded his former teacher Berini as a section contrabassist at the Ducal Chapel of St. Mark's. Dragonetti's talents quickly led to his being appointed principal of the section; this important post afforded the budding virtuoso the opportunity to perform his own works for solo double bass, thereby showcasing not only his ability as a performer but his compositional skill as well. The success of Dragonetti's solo performances soon attracted offers of employment from various European capitals. Thus in 1794 - encouraged by the success of two of his Venetian compatriots, Giambattista Cimador and the soprano Brigida Giorgio Banti, in their foreign endeavors - Dragonetti was reluctantly granted a leave of absence from the Ducal Chapel and set out for London, the city which he would call home for the remainder of his life. Dragonetti's career in London was an unqualified success. His ample talents soon made him a fixture in the local theatre orchestras as well as at the various subscription series, festivals, and public and private concerts. He was also a welcome guest at the musical evenings hosted by the composer and publisher Vincent Novello. Dragonetti formed a lifelong friendship with Novello, and it was at these soirées that the double-bassist encountered some of the most talented and accomplished artists in Europe. Novello's salon was frequented by contemporary musicians such as Thomas Attwood, Mendelssohn, Liszt, and Paganini, as well as by luminaries from other fields such as Percy Bysshe Shelly and his wife Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley, Leigh Hunt, and the Shakespearean scholar Charles Cowden Clarke. There can be no doubt that this intense and diverse social atmosphere and the eclectic and heterogeneous artistic influences that Dragonetti encountered therein were profound influences on his compositional efforts. Despite the great demand for his services as a performer in London, Dragonetti made time for occasional excursions to the Continent. It was during a trip to Vienna in 1798 that he renewed his acquaintance with Joseph Haydn; Dragonetti had first encountered Haydn during the latter's second London sojourn in 1794. A subsequent visit to Vienna in 1808 found the Italian virtuoso in the company of Beethoven and the German theorist and composer Simon Sechter; indeed, Dragonetti would maintain a lifelong professional correspondence with Sechter. Dragonetti's associations with Haydn and other Viennese masters would seem to indicate that the Italian virtuoso was keenly aware of the large body of solo double-bass literature that was so much a part of the Viennese Classical repertory. Haydn had composed a double-bass concerto in the 1760s; though now lost, this work along with the double-bass solos in many of Haydn's symphonies would have formed an admirable basis for musical discourse between the two artists. Dragonetti surely would have discussed with Haydn the merits as well as the difficulties of such works as a fellow composer; further, he would no doubt have felt comfortable offering his perspective as a performer on such efforts. Indeed, it seems likely that Dragonetti viewed his compositions for solo double bass - hardly the first examples of such works, as they were often portrayed in twentieth-century scholarship - as an extension of this vibrant Viennese heritage, a continuation of a noble tradition of works for virtuoso contrabass performance in which Haydn and his contemporaries had so actively engaged. It is with this information in mind that we should view Dragonetti's compositional output. It is a substantial one notwithstanding the fact that only a handful of works were published during Dragonetti's lifetime. Novello was charged with cataloguing Dragonetti's compositions after the composer's death; the collection that was presented by Novello to the British Museum contained numerous concertos and other works for solo double bass as well as conventionally scored string quartets, vocal music, and many other works in a variety of genres. Dragonetti's compositions are clearly a synthesis of the various stylistic approaches with which he became familiar during his extensive performing career. Rather than feeble attempts at musical expression by a composer with little formal training who could best be classified as utilitarian, close examination of Dragonetti's works demonstrates a fluency with the musical language of his day; in fact, many of these pieces are excellent examples of compositions whose author had captured the essence of that musical language so that it held meaning not only for his contemporary audiences but for future generations as well. The reasons for overlooking the majority of this repertory until recently are understandable; it is easy, after a preliminary examination of Dragonetti's manuscripts, to dismiss these works as mere exercises in virtuoso technique, lacking in originality and musicality. When viewed in the context of works by later double-bass performers such as Giovanni Bottesini or Sergey Koussevitzky - from whom much of our modern concept of double-bass virtuosity is derived - Dragonetti's works would, at first glance, appear to be cast in the same mold, relying on a display of technical prowess as the main musical feature. But further engagement with Dragonetti's manuscripts rewards the interested musician with a body of pieces that - particularly in the solo double-bass works - privileges musicality over technique and stylistic integration over melodic pleasantries. The works presented on this recording are excellent representatives of Dragonetti's compositional skill, and the diverse stylistic influences discussed above are evident. Dragonetti utilized a wide range of ingredients in the construction of his themes; popular tunes as well as melodic material from more serious works are frequently employed. For example, in Quintet No. 13 - scored for solo double bass, violin, two violas, and basso (performed here on violoncello) - the opening theme of the Adagio is taken from the second movement of Haydn's Symphony No. 99, which was first heard in London shortly before Dragonetti's arrival there in 1794. Dragonetti changed the mode of the theme from Haydn's G major to C minor, altering the character dramatically. This gives the Adagio a tragic cast as well as an expansive feeling that sets the stage well for the extended scale figurations in the solo double-bass part. The thematic material of the Allegretto likewise owes much to a preexisting source, in this case a popular canzonetta ("Ho perso l'ogaletto"). This movement has a gracious and amiable affect and is punctuated by numerous instances of parallel fourths and fifths, perhaps an inside joke directed by the composer at some officious pedagogue. Quintet No. 18, which features the same scoring as No. 13, employs a variety of style topics familiar to early nineteenth-century audiences. The opening Andante has a pastoral character, gracious and inviting, and serves as an introduction to the extended second movement (Allegretto non troppo), which is cast in a rondo form. The recurring opening theme of the rondo, reminiscent of an Alpine call, functions rather like a narrator throughout the movement. Various activities are sketched through familiar musical tropes - horn calls, village scenes, etc. - and as the movement progresses the listener is treated to a variety of swiftly changing moods, creating a very dramatic, even operatic, atmosphere. Quintet No. 31 does not employ the double bass as a solo instrument. Scored for two violins, two violas, and basso, it is the first violin that is given the soloistic activity throughout much of the work. Mr. Feeney performs the bass part in the eight-foot range on double bass for this recording, lending a distinctive timbre to the ensemble that would be lacking if replaced by a violoncello. Quartet No. 1, employing a standard string-quartet instrumentation, is one of Dragonetti's most inventive and interesting works. It has a five-movement format that again characteristically draws from many styles. The first movement (Andante) hints at Baroque influences with it's extensive ornamentation in the first violin part. This is followed by a triple-meter Presto evocative of traditional Viennese dance movements. The final movement is a large ternary form (Allegretto: Tempo di Allemande - Adagio - Allegretto: Tempo primo), featuring dance sections with a Baroque flavor surrounding a charming, and somewhat Romantic sounding, central section. The works on this recording were arranged by John Feeney from Dragonetti's manuscript collection in the British Museum. Mr. Feeney's involvement with Dragonetti as a composer began in earnest in the 1990s. At that time, he was in England preparing for a tour with the London Classical Players. The director of that ensemble, Sir Roger Norrington, was able to obtain permission from the museum's curator for Mr. Feeney to have access to the manuscript room. During an off week in the middle of the tour, Mr. Feeney spent his days pouring through Dragonetti's extensive collection of music, including not only Dragonetti's works but original manuscripts from Purcell, Leopold Mozart, Mendelssohn, and many others. Mr. Feeney came away from his engagement with this collection with copies of most of Dragonetti's original works and a determination that they should be brought into the repertory of modern musicians. It is his hope that this recording will begin to reintroduce these finely crafted works of art to modern performers, scholars, and music enthusiasts in general.