Quartetto for woodwinds & piano accompaniment

September 18, 2022: Seth Morris, flute; Elaine Douvas, oboe; Anton Rist, B-flat clarinet, Jessica Phillips, E-flat clarinet; Bryan Wagorn, piano

After studying organ with his father as a very young boy, Amilcare Ponchielli received support from a wealthy patron to attend the Milan Conservatory at the age of nine. When he later took a job as a music teacher and organist in Cremona, he became especially interested in the town’s opera theater, and composing opera became his main love. At first he had little success and had to earn his living as a bandmaster, during which time he composed almost 100 works for band and more than 100 band arrangements of other composers’ works.

Ponchielli kept trying to break into the opera world, both as conductor and composer, and his frustrations finally ended with the success of the revised version of I promessi sposi in 1872. Yet even that revision never went beyond conventional style when other Italian composers were beginning to espouse a more futuristic manner. Ponchielli held fast to the conventions of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi, who himself ceased composing for a time in order to make his own adaptations to the changing currents of the time. Whereas Ponchielli may not have achieved the dramatic structure of Verdi, he was a master of melody, instrumental colors, and expressive details, and is considered the most important opera composer—aside from Verdi—of the period leading to the “Giovane Scuola” (young school) of composers such as Puccini, Mascagni, and Leoncavallo. Yet Ponchielli is known today almost solely for La Gioconda (1876), his only opera that is still performed regularly.

In 1857, three years after graduating from the Milan Conservatory, Ponchielli composed his Quartetto for the unusual combination of flute, oboe, E-flat clarinet, and B-flat clarinet with orchestral accompaniment. The piece was premiered that year at the Teatro della Concordia in Cremona by local woodwind teachers—Ponchielli dedicated the piece to his dear friend Cesare Confalonieri, oboe professor at the Milan Conservatory. The work was eventually published in 1873 but with piano accompaniment.

This virtuoso showpiece opens with an extended introduction for the piano, much as a concerto or Konzertstück would begin with orchestra. The frolicking first entrance of the winds immediately sets the novel tone for the high, bright quality of Ponchielli’s chosen palette, as does the first melody entrusted to the E-flat clarinet. This unfolds as the first of three main sections all strung together without pause and bearing certain characteristics of a cycle of sonata or concerto movements, while at the same time sounding right at home among freer operatic fantasies that are based on a series of distinctive melodies. Thus, after a first “movement” with sonata-form characteristics, the oboe takes the lead in a graceful “slow movement” marked Andante.

A lighthearted theme and variations ensues with one of the charming variations, marked “Scherzoso con vivacità,” requiring the utmost skill from the flute and E-flat clarinet in rapid alternation. Ponchielli also showcases the oboe’s melancholy melodic style before returning to the vivacious vein, and the piece concludes with a dazzling blaze of virtuosity for all.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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