The Man who Could Make the Seats Sing

Written by  Dario Favretti
In memory of Vittorio Veneziani, great choir conductor and one of the finest musicians Ferrara ever produced.
Over forty years on it is beyond doubt our duty to contribute to the memory of the greatest Italian choir director of the period between the wars, Vittorio Veneziani, one of the finest musicians Ferrara ever produced, who died in Ferrara on 14 January 1958.

Vittorio Veneziani was born into a Jewish family in Ferrara on 25 May 1878. His father Felice, an amateur choral singer, was the source ol his son's precocious vocation for music. His father immediately put Vittorio's name down for the Frescobaldi school, after which he went on to study composition at the Liceo Musicale in Bologna, where Veneziani studied under Giuseppe Martucci, one of the most progressive musicians in Italy.


The Bologna years produced an interesting scholastic exercise: the minor work I due professori (1895). After this debut, Veneziani's career as a composer continued with three ambitious cantatas: Cantata di Calen d'Aprile (1898), Il convegno degli spiriti (1899) and Adelchi (1901), after which he went on to specialize in a genre that has virtually no tradition in Italy - the melologue.

Veneziani's first melologue sprang from his meeting with the young Ferrarese poet Gualtiero Tumiati, author of the lyric poem Badia di Pomposa, praised by Carducci and, perhaps, from didactic stimuli received from the teachings of Martucci. The genre - Germanic by tradition - calls for a text to be declaimed against a musical background. The collaboration between Tumiati and Veneziani produced four works: the Badia, Emigranti (1901), La morte del Boiardo (1903), and La Parisina (1901).
After a few attempts at opera (one, unpublished, dedicated to Pergolesi, and La leggenda del lago, performed in Venice in 1911), Veneziani became a successful teacher of the theory and practice of choral signing. And indeed «the maestro who could even make the seats sing» was already conducting two local groups, the Corale Orfeonica and the Bellini, by 1901, while he took charge of the Coro del Teatro Comunale di Ferrara in 1903. In 1905 the maestro moved on to the Fenice, while 1907 found him in Venice.

Ermanno Wolf Ferrari appointed him teacher of Choral Singing at the Conservatorio Benedetto Marcello; in 1913 he moved to Turin, where he taught at the Scuola Municipale di Musica and was choirmaster at the Teatro Regio. Veneziani also spent time in Milan, and autumn 1915 found him at the Dal Verme theatre, where he directed the choir under Toscanini.

This was a fundamental encounter, because Toscanini was to call Veneziani to La Scala where he made his debut as director of the choir in 1922. His acceptance of this post meant a difficult period for Veneziani, who had to leave Bologna, where he had settled down as a teacher of choral singing at the Scuola Municipale, and where he had founded the Cantori Bolognesi, a handpicked ensemble of twelve singers devoted to classical polyphony, the maestro's true passion.
Veneziani's Milanese commitment led to a reduction in his activities as a composer.
Salient moments of his stay in Milan: the beautiful, full bodied sound attained by the choir almost immediately after his arrival; major successes with difficult scores like Boris, Debora e Jahele, and Peter Grimes; the tragic interlude of racial persecution; the return after the war, when on 28 November 1945 the reconstruction of La Scala got underway with a choral concert directed by Veneziani.

But not even the period darkened by racial persecution managed to stop Veneziani, who from 1941 led the Choir of the Jewish School in Milan and, once exiled to Switzerland, took over the choir of the church of Roveredo Grigioni. This was a chance to begin composing and transcribing again and he busied himself with a new Mass, his beloved Italian regional folksongs, as well as a renowned suite that was later released as Canti spirituali d'Israele on the Philips label.

The "Toscanini OF the choir" was to remain with La Scala for another eight years, until September 1954. 1955 was a fundamental year in the reorganization of musical life in post war Ferrara: the Orchestra Stabile della Provincia di Ferrara was established. In that year, in homage to maestro Veneziani, Renzo Bonfiglioli and the municipal government deliberated the founding of the Accademia Corale Città di Ferrara.
The debut before the public was on the opening of the programme of cultural events for the summer of 1955 in an open air theatre in the courtyard of Palazzo dei Diamanti, where the Accademia thrilled spectators with an anthology of Verdi's choral music.

From then on Veneziani was to conduct the Accademia Corale Città di Ferrara until September 1957, specializing in a repertory of sacred and profane classical polyphony. This orientation is still in force today thanks to the work of Emilio Giani and Pierluigi Calessi. In what has become over forty-five years of life the Accademia Corale Veneziani - as it was renamed in 1958 - has won recognition in national and international events, with hundreds of concerts in Italy, Europe, the United States, and Israel.

Of course the Veneziani choir is still a benchmark in the musical life of Ferrara, which reflects the intentions of its founder: "It's not enough to co-ordinate, keep the tempo, and impart the score: the particular sound of the voices is the quality one seeks to obtain. In this sense, the task of the choirmaster is even more demanding than that of the orchestra conductor: it is a matter of taking rough and uncultivated voices and transforming them into perfect instruments."

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