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A Piece of Music Found, A Lost Opera Complete

The quest to reconstruct a lost piece of music from the 1920s took Kluge Fellow Elia Corazza to Venice, New Haven, and finally, to the Library of Congress.

Page from the Diaghilev/Lifar Collection, Box 73, Folder 10.

A page from O. Respighi, Recitativi per Le Astuzie femminili di Cimarosa, pp. 83-93, box 73, folder 10, Serge Diaghilev/Serge Lifar Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Sometimes a few missing pages can make it a challenge to reconstruct an entire work. This was exactly the case when current Kluge Fellow Elia Corazza discovered the autographed orchestration of La Serva Padrona, an 18th century opera written by Giovanni Paisiello and then adapted by Ottorino Respighi for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1920.

Corazza, a composer, conductor, and musicologist, with training in piano, composition and orchestral conducting, as well as a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of Bologna (Italy), became interested in La Serva Padrona as a part of his broader effort to rediscover some of Respighi’s lost works. Respighi became popular in Italy after the First World War, just as Fascism was taking hold in the country. During these years, Respighi transcribed various works of pre-romantic music created by Italian composers including Monteverdi, Paisiello, Cimarosa, and Rossini, that had long since been forgotten and seldom, if ever performed.

The story acquired an international flavor when Diaghilev, the famed founder of the Ballets Russes, came into contact with Respighi in Rome in 1917. On a quest for new music with which to refresh his company’s repertoire, Diaghilev fell in love with 18th century Italian opera, and, with Respighi’s collaboration, adapted some of these works for the stage.

Corazza has been diligently reconstructing the details of Respighi and Diaghilev’s working relationship in an effort to shed light on this period in the history of music, and to inform his own direction of works from this era. Much of the primary evidence is found in their correspondence, as well as in notes left on their scores. What has made this a challenge, however, is that following his death in Venice in 1929, Diaghilev’s library and possessions were split between his two closest collaborators, Boris Kochno and Serge Lifar. These two estates, in turn, were further scattered due to ad hoc sales and international auctions.

In the summer of 2012, while working in the Respighi Archive at the Fondazione Cini in Venice, Corazza found a record of auction that pointed to the existence of Respighi’s orchestration of Paisiello’s La Serva Padrona. Corazza then learned that Respighi’s manuscript had been acquired by American philanthropist Frederick R. Koch at a Sotheby’s auction in 1984, and later donated to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale. Once he had located the manuscript in New Haven, however, Corazza encountered yet another problem: the manuscript found in the Yale Library was missing several final pages of ballet music.

This remaining gap was finally remediated when Corazza discerned the missing pages in the Diaghilev/Lifar collection, which The Library of Congress had also acquired in 1984. Corazza speculates that the pages had been torn out by Diaghilev himself in order to be used for a different work, Le Mariage d’Aurore, which was performed in Versailles on June 30th 1923. The missing pages had been gathered with other Respighi manuscripts, but cataloged under a separate entry. Finding them in an unexpected place, says Corazza, was exciting, rewarding, and a true stroke of luck.

This work of historical reconstruction is meaningful, says Corazza, because it brings back to life musical compositions fundamental for understanding changes in aesthetics that occurred after the First World War, but that were subsequently marginalized in the aftermath of Fascism. Respighi had never directly dedicated his works to the Fascist Regime, as others would do, yet Mussolini had liked his music, claiming several times that Respighi was his favorite composer. Because of this guilt by association, especially in Italy, Respighi’s compositions were mostly ignored in the years following World War II.

On the basis of the newly discovered opera, Corazza conducted the first performance of Respighi’s orchestration in Bologna – the city where Respighi was born – on August 5th 2014, with the Orchestra of the Teatro Comunale. Corazza also performed various Respighi pieces in a private concert for Kluge Center fellows and staff on Dec. 8th, 2014, in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress. He has plans to direct the U.S. premiere of La Serva Padrona, along with the recently found ballets, in the near future.

Related Links

  • Posters, production photographs, musical scores, and costume designs from the Ballets Russes can be viewed in this online exhibition mounted in 2009 at the Library of Congress.

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