October is Italian-American history month. How can we not acknowledge the musical gifts and legacies Italian-Americans provided to the USA?
Early on in our musical training, we are introduced to the Italian language, learning the terms used to describe tempos, dynamics, instruments and so much more. Yes, ‘piano’ is an instrument with ivory keys and hammers hitting strings, but it’s also the term composers use to describe ‘play it softy.’ And to have it REALLY soft, it’s ‘pianissimo.’ There have been instances other European composers using their native language to create an atmosphere, like Gustav Mahler and his exacting descriptions in his symphonies (‘etwas zurückhaltend’ translates to somewhat reserved; ‘wild’ in German connotes the same in English: wild, and it usually is with Mahler), but the universally accepted dynamics and other musical vocabulary are still the Italian designations.
From the very American big band era, Frank Sinatra studied with an opera singer to learn breath control, and observed Tommy Dorsey, trombonist and leader of his own band, for phrasing. Coming into his career as the recording process was being refined, Sinatra often stood in the middle of the orchestra during the recording session, preferring to hear what was going on around him as he was singing. I enjoy the idea that he was a part of the process, not thinking everything revolved around his voice.
Another great Italian-American singer is Gershwin award winner Tony Bennett. With his signature song “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”, we all wanted to return to the city by the bay.
Composers and arrangers contributed wonderful music to Hollywood film and television series. Henry Mancini is synonymous with a lot of ‘cool’ music, in my opinion. Theme from Peter Gunn, The Pink Panther, along with dreamy music like Moon River, Days of Wine and Roses, and fun works like Baby Elephant Walk. Bill Conti is another Italian-American composer. He provided a fanfare for all of us and our workouts. “Fanfare for Rocky” from Rocky is great motivational music to push through the challenge.
In the classical area, Gian Carlo Menotti presented operas, but not the multi-act versions known historically as Italian opera. And, he wrote in English, reaching out in the language where his works were performed, and in a style that was popular, the musical theater. While he retained his Italian citizenship, he was educated at Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Menotti’s one-act operas are still performed and included a premiere on NBC television of “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” This opera was inspired by the painting “The Adoration of the Magi” by Hieronymous Bosch.
Also carrying on the Italian composing tradition, John Corigliano, Jr. has presented lyrical scores to movies, The Red Violin, and operas, The Ghosts of Versailles. With an embedded family history in New York City, his father was concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic. Corigliano Sr. came to the Philharmonic as a result of being heard by Arturo Toscanini on the radio in a performance of works by Fritz Kreisler. And while we can’t claim Toscanini as an Italian-American, we can certainly be grateful for the elevation of orchestral playing he required. The NBC Symphony performed live concerts on the air in the GE building in Studio 8H, now home of Saturday Night Live.
The next time you listen to any of these composers, enjoy your cappuccino and remember, “they’re just getting started.” (Quotation by Al Pacino’s character from “Scent of a Woman”)
Listed below are some of the compositions mentioned above and books from the NLS talking book collection.
Baby Elephant Walk by Henry Mancini. From the Paramount picture Hatari, for piano. BRM33039. Bar over bar format.
Moon River by Henry Mancini. From Breakfast at Tiffany’s, piano solo, BRM20896. Bar over bar format.
The Pink Panther by Henry Mancini. BRT37088. For piano, bar over bar format.
The Pink Panther by Henry Mancini. BRM33037. For piano, bar over bar format.
Popular Music Lead Sheets No. 97. Days of Wine and Roses words and music by Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini. BRM35016.
Sounds and Scores: Practical Guide to Professional Orchestration by Henry Mancini. BRM 35206. 7 v. of braille.
Audio, music instruction and appreciation titles
Barclay, Michael. Michael Barclay lectures on The Medium. DBM01417.
Theme from The Pink Panther for piano. Piano by Ear. DBM01756.
Moon River for alto sax. Sax by Ear. DBM02727.
Moon River for piano. Piano by ear, easy arrangement. DBM02413.
Thorn Birds Theme Piano by ear, late beginner/early intermediate level piano solo. DBM02944.
Amahl y los Reyes Magos. Gian Carlo Menotti; Narrated by Ilona Dulaski. For grades 4-7. Spanish language. DB 15713.
Kaplan, James. Frank: the Voice. DB 83116.
Kaplan, James. Sinatra: the Chairman. DB 83627.
Sinatra, Tina. My Father’s Daughter: a Memoir by Tina Sinatra with Jeff Coplon. DB 51413.
To borrow any materials from the NLS Music Section, you may access BARD or request a copy on digital cartridge or braille by contacting the Music Section by phone at 1-800-424-8567, option 2, or e-mail [email protected].