Francesco Antonio Pistocchi: Scherzi musicali [op. II] and Duetti e terzetti, op. III

Critical edition by Alejandra Béjar Bartolo.
Lucca, LIM: 2015. 256pp.
ISBN: 9788870967777 €30

This well-researched and well-printed modern critical edition of the 24 surviving printed vocal works of Francesco Antonio Pistocchi (1659-1726) is welcome: he was a more than competent composer, and his music is charming and lyrical. Precocious as a composer, his instrumental Capricci puerili…, were published in 1667 as Op. I, when he was eight. His actual first opus of cantatas, published in Bologna by Silvani in 1698, and lost, was unknown to Estienne Roger when the latter printed the Scherzi musicali as ‘Op. I’ in the same year, in Amsterdam. So despite the composer’s authorisation to call it ‘op. I’, it is now dubbed ‘[Op. II]’. In fact his Duetti e terzetti was published by Silvani in 1707 as Op. III.

Pistocchi, born in Palermo, and whose father was a violinist and a tenor, was in Bologna by the age of two, sang from the age of 11 in S.Petronio (the Bologna cathedral) and had an active operatic career from 1675 to 1695, teaching singing thereafter. This volume gives a detailed biography, only in Italian. He composed operas and oratorios, sacred and instrumental music, and was highly regarded by Torelli, Perti and Tosi.

Op. II contains 12 pieces, all with continuo: three cantatas for soprano, two for contralto, one for bass, two Italian duets (SS and SC), two French solo arias (S and C, emulating Lully), and two German solo arias (C and S, in ‘Italian’ style). They are above all pleasing, relatively undemanding, and short, with good and sometimes bold harmony. Not only are the da capos written out, but Pistocchi tends to repeat phrases and sections as well, which is perhaps more typical on the stage than in cantatas, or perhaps a reason for calling them collectively ‘scherzi musicali‘.

The prints can also be consulted instantly online here (Op. II) and here (Op. III).

This permits me to comment on Béjar Bartolo’s transcription and critical notes. The source itself is very good, but as inevitable in all prints in movable type, manuscript copies will yield some additional details, different lyrics or underlay, innumerable ties, and may confirm or not other questionable readings. So to that extent, this is not really a complete critical edition. The print requires relatively few things to be noted. I found a manuscript viewable online for the first cantata, which Béjar Bartolo does not list, and this makes me assume that many other manuscripts of these diffusely circulated pieces may not be listed!

I was especially eager to find the first cantata (In su la piaggia aprica) because I suspected a mistaken interpretation of the text, a simile that makes no sense as Béjar Bartolo explained it, abetted by an incorrect comma which she inserted. She misinterprets ‘veloci piante‘, the soles of the feet of the fleeing Mirtillo, as ‘pianti‘, or sobs (of spurned Lucinda), thinking that the spelling was compromised to rhyme with amante! No, these piante are Mirtillo’s fleet feet. The point is that Mirtillo wants nothing to do with poor Lucinda, who isn’t quite crying yet, though she will be at the end. In the opening narrated recit, Mirtillo, as the mythical Daphne had to, is running away, in this case from the girl who loves him (‘che a fuggir la sua amante,/ al par di Dafne, ebbe veloci piante.’).

To her credit, Béjar Bartolo has carefully aligned the continuo figures from the Amsterdam print with the music, providing where necessary the editorial accidentals without which a continuo player would be apt to err. Since movable type has no beaming and this print does not tie any continuo notes, it might have been nice to follow the beaming and to include or comment on the omnipresent continuo ties from manuscript versions, and, where differing, any alternative lyrics or underlay. The print sometimes uses black notation for hemiolas, which the editor then indicates silently by adding coloration brackets. I found one wrong vocal note in this first cantata (in Aria 1 bar 38, b’ instead of a’), and several questionable notes in the others. Players and singers should be suspicious enough to double check with the online original. Pistocchi’s audacious chromatic surprises are, however, theoretically acceptable, if at times challenging. His precise tempo indications are also uncommon: abbastanza adagio, adagio assai, andante ma non presto, più andante; and almost all of his interesting recits turn into substantial ariosos, longer than the recits themselves.

Op. III includes ten duets (SC), and two trios (STB and SCT). These are also cantatas in form, with solo or dialoguing recits between the arias. It is not mandatory, but the entire sequence could be performed as a unified work, since the soprano and the contralto are figures complementing one another in their contrasting points of view, and the final madrigalistic trios address those who have ‘sailed the undulating sea of love’ (Ecco il lido, a terra, a terra) and remind them with downward arpeggios (Tramonta il sol e lascia il mondo tutto) of the sunset of ‘beauty which is born and dies in a flash’.

It is slightly inconvenient that the critical apparatus of Op. III was put in the middle of the volume, between the two works, and much more so that a fairly heavy book of 256 pages needs so much manhandling to make it stay open for playing from. The LIM has very moderate prices, and I wonder how much more it would have cost to print Op. II and Op. III in separate bindings, with the critical material, which is not needed when playing and should have been translated into other languages, in a third. Are we ‘supposed’ to resort to photocopying in order to be able to use the music we buy?

Barbara Sachs