Azio Corghi, in memoriam

Azio Corghi, in memoriam

Casa Ricordi joins all those mourning the death of composer Azio Corghi, who left us on November 17 at the venerable age of 85.

His stature as an artist and a man, along with his renowned generosity as Maestro for generations of composers, shine on. Corghi’s relationship with Casa Ricordi spanned six decades. His catalogue of over 100 works covers everything from opera to symphonies, from ballet to chamber music.

His friendship with Portuguese author José Saramago was legendary. Together they were responsible for works of musical theater including Blimunda, Divara, Il dissoluto assolto, and symphonic works such as La morte di Lazzaro, …sotto l’ombra che il bambino solleva, Cruci-verba, De paz e de guerra. This past November, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Saramago, the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos of Lisbon staged a new production of Corghi’s opera Blimunda, based on Saramago’s novel Baltasar and Blimunda (original title: Memorial do Convento), which made its world premiere in 1990 at Milan’s Teatro Lirico, as part of the La Scala season.

The following essay on Azio Corghi was written by musicologist Raffaele Mellace, and appeared in the 2017 Ricordi catalogue.

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Ludus and Pathos by Raffaele Mellace

The play of reason and the abyss of passion. Anyone familiar with Azio Corghi’s mature production over the last two decades will find it hardly extravagant if his work is reduced to these two enigmatic and highly fertile promptings.

On the one hand, he responds to the poetics of the divertissement, to the acute, ironic play of intelligence: in this habitus we detect the smile of the great Rossini, a composer with whom he has so often crossed paths. On the other hand – somewhat as compensation for such levity – we also find a reflective exploration of the historical and individual destiny of man. Most of his music theatre, as well as his symphonicchoral cantatas, thrive on the humanistic commitment to contaminate an “incurable nostalgia of hope”, a “desperate desire for life”, also calling on the assistance of some distinguished literary choices. In this respect his affinity of feeling with the Nobel José Saramago stands out. One could therefore portray Corghi as a Jason-like, two-faced, tragicomic figure, equally well versed in either style and required (as the occasion requires) to assume one or other mask. (Naturally, however, the two registers often come together and combine, as for example in Amori incrociati or in Dissoluto assolto).

Corghi was born in Cirié on 9 March 1937 and trained at the conservatories of Turin and Milan (where he was a pupil of Bruno Bettinelli). And still today his energies are divided between his commitments as a teacher (with duties in Parma, Turin, Milan and Rome) and musicologist (his is the critical edition of L’italiana in Algeri). His catalogue has maintained an original course that has often been set apart from those of his contemporaries. It is surely no accident if his production achieved its fullest realization thirty years after the earliest compositional experiences, with the important group of works created around 1989. It is true that he had won the Ricordi-Rai competition with his Intavolature already back in 1966 and that his work had received international attention ever since … in fìeri (1968). But after the experiences of a quarter of a century his interests progressively expanded.

It was his encounter with music theatre, around the mid 1980s, that triggered his new style and marked the beginning of a mature season, during which he has increasingly cultivated large-scale forms. Ever since 1989, the date that marks the encounter with Saramago and the commission of his first opera for La Scala, the various sectors of his variegated production have been steadily developing: the music theatre, the large-scale orchestral and orchestral-choral works, the enchanting divertissements, the ballets and the refined chamber music. All these works are interrelated: in their ideal inspiration, in their exploration of thematic strands, in their sharing of musical materials.

Very determinedly Corghi exploits his own catalogue to tackle certain apparent contradictions present in modern music-making, starting with the knottiest issue of all: the commitment/communication dialectic. This he subjects to a significant updating. After disposing of the dogma that posits a radical alternative between the political- social message of artistic creation and reception by an uncommitted public, he elevates the approaches dismissed by the past musical intelligentsia as examples of inauthentic divertissement to communicative significance replete with meaning. The act of composing finds its reason for being, its political value, in its capacity for transmitting a message and efficaciously relating with contemporary man as he listens.

In his maturity, Azio Corghi’s production has been characterized by several stylistic choices that have turned out to be essential tools in proceeding down two paths near and dear to the composer. First comes his ineluctable and refined study of musical shading, in which there is pleasure in the sound and in the performance of it; it also provides a means for lingering on the border between perceptible reality and imagination, in which we note his preference for the dazed and anti-naturalistic sounds of the Sprechgesang or the madrigal octet. There’s a happy paradox here: Corghi’s attention to the voice of each single instrument, which translates into relationships with individual interpreters, is combined with his absolute openness to transcription, the reworking of an existing piece for an altogether different lineup of instruments, and the migration from one instrument to another – from the oboe to the viola, from the viola to the cello, to the string trio. A central focus is his frequentation of folk culture archetypes. Indeed, for Corghi the heritage of folk music and sounds is often a source of inspiration – from the folk chorus to the accordion. Lastly – and this is perhaps the element that is most evident and most apparently disconcerting – in the Corghi catalogue we inevitably encounter the revisitation of musical tradition in ways that imitate the way we today receive music from the past. This is a postmodern game with tradition, as Corghi puts it, in search “of a ‘rooted’ musical language,” in which sound memory becomes the essential reagent in addressing the most apparent present. This will never be “innocent” transcription: the reference is made within an ironically estranged linguistic context, in a modern compositional milieu, just as our approach to listening to music from the past is inevitably postmodern.

Within that tenacious and vital relationship with sound memory, we see the most authentic nature of Corghi’s inspiration: the psychological need to formulate one’s own creativity in dialogical terms, which develops into true dialogue poetics that feed off the other voices they hear. Such voices may be those of poets and musicians, but they may also be the anonymous voices of folk tradition, including instrumental voices and dance rhythms. Corghi engages in lively conversation with them – questioning them, exploring their frames of reference, creating short circuits of meaning between their time and his, between their thought and his. Indeed, as we read at the end of the Introductory Notes to the score of Cruci-Verba, “When you start out with the idea of creating provocatory interference, you often discover human convergence.” Since the 1990s, this dialogue has been constantly expanded with illustrious interlocutors, some occasional, most, however, returning again and again in a permanent conversation: among the composers, in primis Rossini, Verdi and Liszt, as well as Monteverdi, Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Banchieri, Donizetti, Spontini.

If, in these cases, dialogue is created within the living flesh of the writing, within the melding of ancient and modern symbols along the five-line staff, within the contamination of musical gestures, then no less fecund is the relationship with words and poetry, out of whose resonance much of Corghi’s music has been born. Of course, an important role is played by ancient myth, Rabelais and Boccaccio, though mostly it is the voice of the moderns, on this side of Romanticism, that weighs in: Daudet and Chekhov, Ungaretti and Quasimodo, Yourcenar and Pasolini. But Corghi’s main interlocutor has been José Saramago. The two worked together for twenty years, during which time they produced an opera trilogy and an important series of vocalsymphonic works. He has also worked with Maddalena Mazzocut-Mis, who has penned the books of Corghi’s operas from the past decade. It is not rare that dialogue transforms into triangulation in which reading Corghi means tuning in on a past composer’s world of sounds while at the same time absorbing the words of a contemporary author – where Liszt meets Saramago, Bach and Verdi meet Pasolini, Verdi meets Bertolucci and Quasimodo.

The importance of words in Corghi’s creative universe is on a par with the space conquered by the main instrument in Corghi’s mature dramaturgy: the voice of the narrator. Over the years, he has colored the narrator’s voice with nuances borrowed from the vast array of tones and temperaments of interpreters – mostly women, and all A-listers. In this way, the dialogue between music and words acquires an absolute clarity that promotes it to the civil task that Corghi considers inseparable from the creative act. Such clarity is able to accompany and articulate the memory of key events from the history of modern Italy – Unification, World War II, Liberation. For Corghi, composing is a political gesture, unambiguous testimony before another, an act of ethical responsibility that bonds the musician to the men and women of his time. A key part of that responsibility is the transparence of language, which, in the unshakable ambiguity of the symbol, must reach listeners and offer them an intelligible guide to interpreting reality.

Raffaele Mellace

photo: © Casa Ricordi/Roberto Masotti