Music lovers, and especially amateurs of « musique française » from the turn of the 20th Century, you MUST hear the music of Ernest Fanelli (1860-1917).
Never heard of him? No wonder. Neither had I, until recently. I first encountered his name when reading the (in)famous autobiography of the self-styled "Bad Boy of Music", George Antheil (Bad Boy of Music). Antheil lived in Paris from 1923 to 1927, rented a small apartment above Sylvia Beach's legendary Shakespeare and Co bookstore rue de l'Odéon, befriended Ezra Pound and everybody of note in the Parisian cultural scene of those days. His first composition teacher in Philadelphia, Constantine von Sternberg, a former pupil of Liszt, had told him of an Ernest Fanelli, who he claimed had invented musical impressionism, only to see his "invention" plagiarized by Debussy and Ravel (that was meant disparagingly against the two latter composers). Antheil was of course more than sceptical but, on his arrival in Paris, "decided to investigate the Fanelli case". After some sleuth work he found the family's address, only to discover that the composer had died a few years earlier. Fanelli's widow let Antheil peruse some manuscripts and scores (including the present "Tableaux symphoniques", the first part of which had been published by Editions Max Eschig). Antheil writes (my caps are his italics):
"I soon discovered that Constantine von Sternberg had been right, at least in one regard: the works of Fanelli WERE pure "Afternoon of a Faun" or "Daphnis and Chloe", AT LEAST IN TECHNIQUE, and they predated the Debussy-Ravel-Satie works by many years. BUT, as I also soon discovered, they were not as talented as the works of the two slightly younger men although they had had the advantage of being "firsts" (...) Debussy was the genius who had distilled Fanelli into immortality!". Antheil learnt from the widow that the "Tableaux Symphoniques" had been written in the early 1880s, but performed only in 1912, during which time the older composer (only two years older than Debussy, in fact) had been (says she writes he) visited and had his scores borrowed by Debussy, Ravel and Satie.
Frankly, when I read that story, I thought Antheil had made it up. He was a famous story teller after all, and the events recounted in his book must be taken with more than a pinch of salt (like his concert in Budapest when he conspicuously put his pistol on the grand piano to silence the booers). So I looked up on the present website, and was dumbfounded to see this disc turn up. So it was all true?!
And it was. According to the liner notes, written by conductor Adriano himself, Fanelli had written Tableaux symphoniques in 1883, but shown it in 1912 to composer-conductor Gabriel Pierné (Fanelli was then percussionist in Pierné's Concerts Colonne Orchestra), only in the hope of obtaining copy work. Pierné enthusiastically programmed the composition, but that signalled only a very short-lived rediscovery of Fanelli, who apparently did not return to composing and was quickly forgotten again.
Tableaux Symphoniques after Théophile Gautier's "Roman de la Momie" (Romance of the Mummy, first published in 1857) is a substantial composition, totalling 50 minutes. It illustrates only the four first chapters of the novel.
OK, let me qualify what Antheil says about the musical merits of Fanelli, in both directions: first, Tableaux Symphoniques is a great piece, full of brilliant ideas, wonderful and highly evocative touches of orchestration, worthy of any written in that style in those years or later. Second, no, it does NOT sound like a harbinger of Debussy and Ravel. What it evokes is much more Dukas' Sorcerer Apprentice (composed in 1897) or the sultry atmospheres of Schmitt's Tragédie de Salomé (but Schmitt's masterpiece was composed as late as 1907!), even Ibert's Ports of Call (1924). Loeffler (Pagan Poem, 1906. German-born, American immigrant Charles Martin Loeffler was of the same generation as Fanelli) and Griffes (The Pleasure-Dome of Kubla-Khan, 1912) wrote music in that style as well . The style is an offshoot from the orientalism of St Saens (Samson dates from 1877), and why not of Rimsky (Scheherazade is from 1888). In his notes Adriano mentions Respighi (a composer he is a specialist of) and he is also right. The only place where I hear a little bit of Pelleas (and lots of Dukas) is the beginning of 4th Tableau, which then develops in a highly whimsical fashion (supposedly depicting nude female juglars) that is also musically incredibly advanced. Fanelli is said to have been a pupil of Alkan, and if anywhere it shows there. Again Fanelli's Tableaux is wonderfully evocative and beautifully orchestrated, and all the references mentioned here show how advanced for its days it was - so much so that it is still difficult not to think it is some sort of hoax. One more original touch is the mezzo's wordless vocalise in the first movement - much like the call of the sirens.
No biographic details are given in the liner notes about this conductor who calls himself Adriano. I knew him mainly has a conductor of film music from the great 20th Century composers, particularly Honegger (Honegger: Film Music, Honegger: Le Démon de l'Himalaya, Honegger: Les Misérables, Honegger: Mayerling, Regain, and Other Film Music, Honegger: Crime et Chatiment; L'Idee; Le Deserteur ou Je t'attendrai; Le Grand Barrage; Fairnet). It turns out he is Swiss, born in 1945, and his professional trajectory is most bizarre. Anyway, he deserves the French Legion of Honneur for the research work he has done in hunting and unearthing the manuscript of Part II in the French Radio's Library. His notes are also wonderfully erudite and informative.
Adriano says he is still on the hunt for more manuscripts of Fanelli - so far unsuccessfully, so to complete the disc he came up with another rarity, Louis-Albert Bourgault-Ducoudray's (1840-1910) 17-minute Cambodian Rhapsody, almost contemporary with Fanelli's Tableaux (1882). It is hardly as original as the latter, more traditionally derivate/evocative of Saint Saens and Balakirev (Bourgault-Ducoudray was the introducer of Tamara in France, the year before he composed his Rhapsoy), but it is a fine specimen in that genre, and a welcome bonus.
TT 69 minutes.