The Impeccable Piano Music of Francesco Cilea

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The impeccable piano music of Italian composer Francesco Cilea (1866-1950), though little-known, surely represents one of the unsullied treasures of the “salon music” repertoire.

Happily, this music of supreme taste and charm has been given a fresh opportunity to shine, Cilea’s complete piano oeuvre newly edited by Giuseppe Filianoti and published in a single-volume edition by Ricordi.

The sumptuous 272-page volume has completely enchanted me… let’s take a look!

Francesco Cilea

Born in Palmi in Southern Italy in 1866, Francesco Cilea showed an early aptitude and enthusiasm for music in general, and Italian opera in particular. He played the piano from a young age, composing his first solo pieces when just nine years old, and went on to study at the Naples Conservatory of Music.

Embarking on a career in composition, he devoted the first half of his life to composing operas; today he is best known for Adriana Lecouvreur, a four-act verismo opera based loosely on the life of a French actress, which though admired is also sometimes criticised for its fairly convoluted plot and emphasis of melodrama over realism.

In his lifetime, Cilea neither achieved the success of his senior contemporary Puccini, nor indeed sufficient success to focus exclusively on composing. His last opera, the 3-act tragedy Gloria, was premiered under the baton of Arturo Toscanini at La Scala Milan in 1907, but withdrawn after just two performances.

In his later years Cilea continued to compose orchestral, chamber and piano music while devoting his professional life to teaching, rising to become the director of the Conservatorio Vincenzo Bellini in Palermo, and from 1916 the Conservatorio San Pietro a Maiella in Naples, his alma mater and longtime spiritual home, from where he retired in 1936. Cilea died of pleurisy in November 1950.

The Piano Music

In his essay Nostalgic Reverberations: Cilea and the Piano, which introduces the new Ricordi edition of the complete piano music, editor Giuseppe Filianoti writes,

“His piano compositions represent, in fact, a very solid (and the most visible) common thread running through Cilea’s artistic trajectory.”

The earliest surviving pieces date from Cilea’s teenage and student years (1883-1888), nine characterful miniatures with such titles as Scherzo, Danza Calabrese, Impromptu and Mazurka. Already apparent in these pieces, we hear Cilea’s poignant sense of melodic inevitability.

The main body of this music dates from Cilea’s mature composing years up until around 1906. Many of the pieces include French titles such as La petite coquette (The Little Flirt), C’est toi que j’aime (You’re the One that I Love) and Au Village (At the Village).

Intended as lighter “salon music” morsels, the harmony here is nevertheless more refined than in the earlier works, while Cilea’s gift for appealing melody and taut sense of form remain undiminished.

In the works dating from the early twentieth century, meanwhile, we find Cilea anticipating neo-classicism, for example in his Suite di stile antico (Suite in the Olden Style), while impressionistic influences also make a mark.

Summing up Cilea’s achievements as a piano composer, as shown in the 51 miniatures included in this complete edition, Filianoti suggests,

“The reader should not expect to find anything among these pages that will revolutionise the current state of piano literature. In fact, this was also never Cilea’s objective… This is why we see lighter works here, such as descriptive sketches, or album leaves dedicated to naturalistic themes… A look at the corpus as a whole shows that the sum is greater than its parts.”

If you are interested in listening to this music, the standout recording is by Pier Paolo Vincenzi, available on the Brilliant Classics label and available here.

In doing so myself, it strikes me that any of the pieces here could become instant classics of today’s repertoire. The earnest concert pianist might find them too trivial to be of interest, but for enthusiastic amateur players this collection of music is an absolute treasure trove.

It is also worth noting that the level of almost all these pieces would be early advanced, perhaps around UK Grades 6-7 (with just a couple of more difficult pieces) and many of these pieces would undoubtedly be standout favourites were they to appear in a future syllabus.

The Ricordi Edition

Ricordi’s publication beautifully serves up this delicious music.

A large volume with gloss card covers and white pages within, it has to be said that it’s a weighty tome, and one which I feared would not be easy to manage on the music stand. However, due to it’s stitched (rather than glued) binding, the book proves highly robust in use.

The four-page essay that begins the publication is followed by a five-page timeline outlining the major artistic events of the composer’s life.

The subsequent notation is spaciously and generously engraved, which results in more page turns than is always necessary, but makes for a score that is a delight to play from. Editorial fingering has not been added.

In terms of the authority of the edition, this is beyond question and putting together this edition was clearly a labour of academic love and integrity.

In addition to the solo works, the volume includes six pieces written for piano four hands, which will interest enthusiastic duos seeking appealing lighter music to break up their programmes, entertain friends and family, or play for pleasure.

Closing Thoughts

It is surely a pity that only the most “serious” of works tend to survive the rigours of history; in the case of the piano repertoire a golden age of domestic music-making in the mid nineteenth to twentieth centuries has left us with an astounding wealth of wonderful, but now too-little-known music ripe for rediscovery.

I cannot overstate how keen I am for this music to find its place as a mainstay of the 21st century domestic piano repertoire. I very much hope you will take a look and explore it. For my own part, I hope before long to teach, perform and perhaps record some of these pieces.

Ricordi’s new edition is thus hugely welcome, and an achievement to be warmly commended and embraced.

It is also quite a bargain (just £25.50 at the time of this review, and as ever Pianodao Tea Room members can claim a 20% discount).

An outstanding release!

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, published author and composer based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs a successful private teaching studio.

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