Happy Birthday, Maestro Panni!

Happy Birthday, Maestro Panni!

On January 24 we’ll be celebrating the 80th birthday of Marcello Panni – a man who’s dedicated his life to music. 
Panni studied piano, composition and conducting at the Santa Cecilia Conservatory in Rome, his hometown. He went on to specialize in composition at the Santa Cecilia Academy under Goffredo Petrassi, and conducting at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris under Manuel Rosenthal. He made his conducting debut in 1969 at the Venice Biennale, in a concert featuring the music of Goffredo Petrassi. Ever since, Panni’s career has been focused on composing and conducting.  
We asked musicologist Sandro Cappelletto to clue us in as to what Marcello Panni has meant to Italian music over the past fifty years. 

For Marcello 

Marcello Panni stands out as an artist whose career has spanned half a century. Youthful exuberance has been his hallmark since his start back in the 1960s. The humor-laden levity of his disenchantment – a typically Roman feature of his temperament – has always come to terms with his longing to observe the events and developments in art through his own personal kaleidoscope of discovery, ever at odds with academic rigidity. As Fedele D’Amico notes, Panni’s awareness of his own prowess has always been a driving force: “Adhering to compositional synthesis is never enough to establish a composer’s identity.”

As a man who dares to doubt and put himself to the task, Panni has always maintained two certainties. One: The need to combine technique, expression and form, which, as an ethical paradigm, he learned from his mentor Goffredo Petrassi, who went on to become his close friend. Two: Expertise in forging an incredibly diverse array of material with the aim of creating his own musical language and not merely a new form of eclecticism. Thus, continuing the legacy of Stravinsky.

Marcello Panni con Igor Stravinskij Venice, 1957 – With Igor Stravinsky, on San Moisé Bridge, in front of Bauer Hotel after a lunch with Giorgio de Chirico (photo by Arnaldo Panni)

Although Panni was an admirer of 20th-century avant-garde artists like Bussotti and Boulez, his work would never be categorized in those terms. He was among the first in Italy to realize that the most important expressions of American minimalism would not be passing fancies. They were a full-fledged indication of all-new meditations and horizons to be seized upon by western rationality. As a keen observer of the research done by post-figurative visual artists and a well-read man of culture whose literary leanings took in a vast array of authors and their books, including Lucian of Samostata, Alexandre Dumas, Guillaume Apollinaire, Alberto Savinio, Yukio Mishima, The Book of Revelations, Panni has always been both a composer and a conductor. He is possessed of an innate knack for understanding an entire musical score at first glance, and has not only been a protagonist in world premiere performances that have made musical history in our time, but has also brought to the fore long-forgotten works from the Baroque period, especially compositions by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. He has also dwelled in the house of opera, where over the years he has stood at the helm of landmark performances.

Marcello Panni con... Venice, 1957 - Left: Rufina Ampenof, agent of Stravinsky, Marcello Panni, Vera Stravinsky, Giorgio de Chirico, Igor Stravinsky, Robert Craft, Isa de Chirico, Adriana Panni (photo by Arnaldo Panni)

Not less prodigious has been his work as an organizer and promoter. In 1971 he created the Ensemble Teatro-Musica, which to this day is one of the most successful – and most arduous – projects involved in seeking out a dialogue between music and new theatrical languages.

Marcello Panni con Luciano Berio Rome, 1971 – Rehearsals of Luciano Berio’s Passaggio with Elise Ross and the composer

In 1984 Panni conducted the world premiere of Civil Wars by Philip Glass at the Rome Opera, directed by Robert Wilson. Back then it was a revelation, today it is an episode that stands out in the annals of music history. Panni was a co-founder of the Musica Oggi Association; he has been a member of the Nuova Consonanza Association since its inception; he has been artistic director for numerous opera theaters and concert associations. These are all reasons why Panni must today sit down and gather together his notes and memories for posterity, and provide us with a narrative of his experiences in book form, as only he knows how to weave a tale.

Marcello Panni con Carmelo Bene Milan, 1981 – Left: Augusto Loppi (oboe soloist), Marcello Panni, Carmelo Bene, Angelo Persichilli (flute soloist) at Bruno Maderna’s Hyperion rehearsals with Coro e Orchestra della RAI di Milano (photo by Madrena Bene)

His works for musical theater– The Banquet (Talking About Love), Garibaldi en Sicile, Il giudizio di Paride, Hanjo (1992-1993), up until his recent  L’Asino magico, a “pantomime for actor/s, marionettes, puppets or mimes, shadows, projections and small orchestra” – tell stories from an array of different times and places, featuring a host of variegated characters, based on any number of literary themes (Panni is also a librettist). Whence constants emerge that characterize the artist. There is the coherence in the rapport between the musical and dramaturgical gesture; his attention in terms of vocal expressiveness in each character, light years away from complacent aping of Baroque styles in what is all too often pawned off as apparent modernity; his intolerance for plot lines that paralyze or negate action altogether; his trust in the truth and eloquence of instrumental soundscapes. When operas are written, they must be operas, and the whole of Panni’s experiences testifies to his complete faith in the future of the genre. Yet there is another fil rouge in Panni, and it leads straight to the heart of his poetics. Something in his characters and in the music that animates them sets Panni’s work apart. It is a question of presence, vocal resonance and action that come together on stage naturally. And yet they are not consumed by the stage. There remains an unidentifiable, mysterious element. Stories unfold rather than reach a conclusion. Possibilities, alternative realities, unexpected outcomes are revealed. Such typically 20th-century aspects reflect the propensities of the composer. “In 1968 my piece Veni Creator (an aleatoric composition) was performed at International Weeks as part of the Nuova Musica festival in Palermo – a very risky choice, in terms of form and lineup. It made use of melodical spare parts and cutouts for instrumental exercises, alternating with invocations (or question marks?) of fragments from the well-known Latin liturgical hymn, in a protestant paraphrasing, Komm, Heiliger Geist. Ever since, up until the final version performed in 1980 at Mills College in Oakland, where I taught, that title and that idea have accompanied me in my search for balance among the various factors I was interested in, like alea, tonality, virtuosity and game, instrumentalism and gesture.” Panni’s reflection, which appeared in the liner notes of his first compilation CD, expresses not merely a high degree of self-awareness. It reveals his compositional method – a constant in Panni – based on his curiosity when it comes to varying the raw material he starts out with. In Panni, composition becomes a creative game that sparks research, experimentation and new horizons.  

Even with regard to Panni’s compositions in the realm of sacred music – such as his Missa brevis  for children’s choir, tenor, wind orchestra and percussion, and  Apokalypsis, oratorio for 2 spoken voices, mixed choir, children’s choir, wind orchestra and percussion – alongside the pleasurable singing that engages in a dialogue with the eternal, and delves into its very nature, what stands out is an urgency to peer into and explore the unknown, and make this common denominator’s presence felt through music.

Sandro Cappelletto

Image: Marcello Panni at Teatro San Carlo (photo Romano)