Thursday 12 December 2019

Vittorio Monti lives on in his magical music

Irony: the Italian Monti is best known for a Hungarian dance tune
Irony: the Italian Monti is best known for a Hungarian dance tune

George Hamilton

Vittorio Monti was born on this day 150 years ago. Vittorio who, I hear you ask. You may never have heard of him, but it's a racing certainty that you've heard the one and only piece of music that keeps his name alive

And there's irony here, for that piece - a Hungarian dance tune - is about as far away from our subject's natural habitat as it's possible to be.

Monti grew up in Naples, studied at the conservatory there, then found work as a conductor in Paris.

He was pretty rounded. He played the violin and the mandolin, and he composed for the stage, both ballet music and, given that he was in the French capital where Jacques Offenbach had left a considerable legacy, there were operettas as well.

They didn't have staying power, though, and it's a Hungarian csárdás that the Italian Monti is remembered for. But that's not really as surprising as it might seem.

For if operetta's popularity drew a host of composers to the form, so, too, did folk dance.

This was Romantic music breaking free of the strictures of the more rigid Austro-German tradition that relied to a large extent on mathematical perfection. All ordered, everything where it should be, the exposition and development leading to the inevitable conclusion.

All over Europe, where empires were being challenged by a rise in nationalism, culture found ways to get involved. Composers like Dvorák and Grieg were dipping into resources that would not have been utilised as inspiration before.

Folk music was used as the basis for art music. And that's where the csárdás came in.

It evolved from the verbunkos - a type of Hungarian round dance, ­performed at military recruiting ­centres by hussars, accompanied by gypsy bands, a come-on to life in the army.

They had a distinctive style, starting slow, then progressing to a faster section and building to a dynamic climax.

Out of these grew the csárdás (the name comes from the Hungarian for a country inn) which developed as a dance form in the ballrooms of eastern Europe.

As such, it was firmly in place when the Romantic composers went looking for ethnic inspiration.

Brahms famously published a collection of 21 Hungarian dances. 'No 5' is one of the most popular, featuring typical csárdás techniques, starting slow then expanding into a much faster movement.

Brahms believed he was adapting a traditional folk tune, but what he had actually found was an earlier composition - itself folk-inspired - by a Hungarian writer based in Vienna called Béla Kéler.

Johann Strauss included a song in the style of a csárdás - 'Klänge der Heimat (Sounds of Home)' - in his 1874 operetta Die Fledermaus, and there's a csárdás in Tchaikovsky's ballet Swan Lake.

Pablo de Sarasate sampled a csárdás section of one of Franz Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies in 'Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Ways)', his virtuoso piece for violin and orchestra which premièred in 1878.

Liszt himself returned to the form 40 years after he'd composed those Rhapsodies with a set of three that came out in the early 1880s.

So the csárdás was very much in vogue when Monti turned his attention to it in 1904.

He struck gold with a masterpiece that caught the mood to a T. Written for violin, orchestra, and his own favoured instrument, the mandolin, you'll now hear it performed by solo violin with orchestra.

After a typically quiet and slow start in the minor key, it lifts itself through six further sections and having modulated to the major, flourishes to a triumphant finish.

Magical music that ensures the name of Vittorio Monti lives on, even if most of what he wrote lies dormant in the file marked "Forgotten".

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

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