Sunday 25 September 2016

Classical: The musical magic of Italy's capital of song

George Hamilton

Published 29/05/2016 | 02:30

Le Scala, Milan
Le Scala, Milan

Like it or loathe it, there'll be no getting away from it. This day fortnight, the European Football Championship will be in full swing in France. It struck me that it might be appropriate over the five weekends when sport will be centre stage there to put the boot on the musical foot, so to speak, and devote this space to the part France plays in our enjoyment of all matters melodic. And with another big footballing event on tonight, today's musings can serve as a teaser.

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The final of the Champions League may feature two teams from Madrid, but the venue is as synonymous with song as it is with sport. The San Siro Stadium may be the sporting Duomo, but as artistic cathedrals go, there are few on a par with La Scala, Milan (pictured above).

The capital of the Lombardy region in northern Italy is famous for many reasons. Aside from its two renowned football teams - AC and Inter - there's Milan Fashion Week, like a Major in golf or tennis, one of the big four alongside New York, London, and Paris. It's also where the legendary Alfa Romeo racing car was born.

Milan first made its mark musically with a type of religious chant named after the 4th-century bishop St Ambrose. A thousand years later, when the Sforza family acquired the Duchy of Milan, the arts were promoted, and music flourished.

Josquin des Prez, a French composer of the Renaissance and the first to have his music preserved through printing, had a Sforza as his patron. Subsequently, under Austrian rule, the way was open for the musical influences of the great composers like Bach and Mozart to be felt.

Against this rich cultural background, and with the backing of the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, the opera house of La Scala opened in 1778.

It wasn't long before Milan replaced Naples as the operatic capital of Italy, with the newly established conservatory, opened in 1807, now the biggest in Italy, and La Scala at its heart.

The opera house teems with history. Outside, in the square named after La Scala, is a statue of the great man of learning Leonardo da Vinci. (Funnily enough, there is an opera composer called Leonardo Vinci, rumoured to have been poisoned by a love rival, but the artwork is not dedicated to him.)

The Via Verdi is just around the corner. In the foyer, there's an enormous bust of Puccini. It was in La Scala that his Madama Butterfly and Turandot were first performed.

Verdi, regarded as the greatest of all the Italian composers, is the one most closely associated with Milan and its music. The conservatory which refused him admission because he was deemed too old at 19 to take up a place and, in any case, he'd no business there because he wasn't a local, now bears his name.

Ironically, there was a time when he wouldn't allow any of his operas to be performed at La Scala because of the way they were being interpreted. He was a stickler for detail, threatening his publisher with a financial penalty if he ever so much as changed a note on one of his printed scores.

The current season at La Scala kicked off with a Verdi opera. Opening night is always December 7, the feast of St Ambrose. Giovanna d'Arco - a loose take on the tale of Joan of Arc which premiered in the theatre in 1845 and hadn't been back for 150 years - featured Anna Netrebko as Joan and a local hero on the podium.

Riccardo Chailly - in 1999, the first musical director of the symphony orchestra set up in Verdi's name - was back in his home town to take up the reins as the Principal Conductor at La Scala.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm each Saturday and Sunday morning from 10am

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