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My Fumagalli Affair

September 16, 2017

Anyone who attends my piano recitals will know I love discovering music by forgotten, neglected or otherwise lesser-known composers. Recent concerts have featured programmes made up of music by women composers only (yes, there were a lot of them in the nineteenth century, beyond Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn), and collections of pieces by the oft-ridiculed giant of the piano, Friedrich Kalkbrenner. This approach keeps the music on my piano stand fresh, it serves to remind us that the nineteenth century really was a golden age of piano repertoire, and perhaps most importantly it broadens my musical horizon and thus knowledge. The website onthisday.com is a great daily starting point, and once I have become acquainted with a 'new' composer or pianist, I head on across to the wonderful library at imslp.org where, more often than not, sheet music by said composer is available for free download. Just once in a while, though - not even IMSLP can help.

 

On 8 September I came across one Disma Fumagalli, born in Italy on that day in 1826. I'm ashamed to say I hadn't heard of him, let alone his music, and was delighted to discover he was not only a dashing-looking figure from the time period I am perhaps most interested in, but that he came from a musical family in Italy (I have something of a love affair with Italy at the moment - I blame a recent trip to Venice, and last year's trip to Naples and the International Thalberg Piano Competition) and composed not less than 300 études for solo piano. My fingers were itching to play some of them, and I felt sure this was going to be another Kalkbrenner moment. But I drew a blank. Biographically, information seems limited to what I could find on Wikipedia, and try as I may, I can't seem to find sheet music for any of his work. I spent some time admiring his elegant neckwear, and decided to try and research his family, instead. I had slightly more luck with one of his brothers, Adolfo (on the right)...

 

 There are some readily-available pieces by Adolfo, several of which are for left hand only (this quirk is perhaps how his name and music have faired better), but then there is the beautiful piano solo entitled All' amica lontana - a typically Romantic patetico piece - all bel canto melody, rich accompaniment, flowing arpeggios and moments of dazzling display. The piece is eminently sight-readable, though will need some in-depth study to do it justice and add it to a future concert programme. Stylistically, it feels somewhat Chopin-esque, but to me there is a lot more of Sigismond Thalberg in the texture and musical character, and perhaps unsurprisingly there are moments that take me back to my beloved (and in case we forget, very influential...) Kalkbrenner.  

 

Aside from the excitement of discovering something new, of playing music that makes you wonder just how many fingers and indeed ears have even engaged with this music in the last few decades, I have found that my mind is now full of questions. Is there indeed a connection between the Fumagalli brothers and, say, Thalberg? Did the influence of Thalberg and his Neapolitan school extend northwards to Milan, where the Fumagallis lived, played and taught? How many other Italian Romantic pianists have I yet to discover? Are there printed scores, informed scholars, and books devoted to the study of figures like the Fumagallis? How do I get hold of the 300-plus études by Disma? For now, I'm practicing All' amica lontana, I'm trawling the internet, and I'm firing off emails to musicologists I met in Naples. But something tells me that I've only just spotted the very tip of an iceberg on the musical horizon, and that a whole new musical chapter is waiting to be opened - if not written.

 

Perhaps I'll be flying back to Milan sooner than I'd thought...

 

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