27 April 2023
By Erica Worth
The Italian concert pianist discusses Baldassare Galuppi, almost losing her life in a house fire, and how that traumatising event changed her
1. For your new album, Colours of Venice, you have chosen to focus on compatriot Baldassare Galuppi. Is he a composer close to your heart?
After recording my first album dedicated to the Italian baroque composer Domenico Scarlatti, I wanted to recognise another superb, contemporaneous Italian composer by studying and performing the charming sonatas of Baldassare Galuppi.
Baldassare Galuppi (18 October 1706 – 3 January 1785)
“The Buranello" (Galuppi was was born on the island of Burano in the Venetian Republic) is not well known except among connoisseurs of classical music of the pre-Romantic era. During my study at the conservatory I had played a couple of sonatas suggested by my teacher and I particularly loved the Third Movement (Giga) of the Sonata in F major, Illy 12, and the First Movement (Andante) of the sonata in C major, Illy 27, which had been given a beautiful, historically significant recording by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli at Rai headquarters in 1962.
Unlike Scarlatti, Galuppi did in fact achieve a greater measure of international success, and spent periods of his career in Vienna, London and St. Petersburg, but his home base remained Venice, "La Serenissima,” where he held a succession of prestigious appointments.
Venice, in all its shimmering jewel-like glory, also happens to be my favourite Italian city. It has been the propulsive centre of musical innovation which greatly influenced the course of Western music. Nietzsche, during his 1880 stay at the Berlendis palace, said, “When I seek another word for ‘music’, I never find any other word than ‘Venice’.”
2. Have you read the famous poem, “A Toccata of Galuppi" by English Victorian poet Robert Browning?
Robert Browning (7 May 1812 – 12 December 1889)
Yes, of course! Most people who recognise the name “Galuppi” only know it because they are familiar with Browning’s poem (it often appears in English poetry anthologies). Having lived in England now for over seven years I wanted to explore the link between Browning, Galuppi and Venice. (Browning, by the way, was a gifted amateur pianist with an extensive library of keyboard music. He loved Italy and his final home was in Venice.) Coincidentally, I had lived for a while in the district of “Little Venice” in London, so named because of its canals, and I knew that Browning owned a house near there in Maida Vale from 1862 through 1887.
Browning’s “A Toccata of Galuppi,” like a well-crafted keyboard composition, has many facets that make up the whole work: a tribute to the Venetian composer, a discourse on the social impact of the arts, a poetic demonstration of the construction of a toccata, a reflection on the transience of youth, beauty, passion and gaiety.
Browning poses an essential paradox about the intersection of the fine arts and human life when he reveals the essential irony that Galuppi’s music actually provided an escape for Venetians to forget about mortality and the constant presence of disease and death.
3. What would you say are the technical challenges of his keyboard music?
I am particularly fond of piano music that developed between the baroque and early romantic period. The greatest technical difficulty lies in the ability to play that music (which was written for harpsichord and early keyboards) on the modern piano, using intense focus and sensitive technique to achieve sound control and the right keyboard touch. Baroque and early Classical compositions generally display a simpler harmonic form with fewer notes on the score, sparse indications of tempo, dynamics markings and other stylistic directions.
In this new album, as was the case for my previous Scarlatti album, every note and every phrase is played with a studied, carefully chosen sound. I strive to bring an added dimension to music that can appear rather flat and two-dimensional on the page. Interpreting these compositions on a modern piano like a Steinway grand also helps add character and dimension so the resulting effect can be more a more powerful and pleasing experience for contemporary listeners.
4. Have you listened to the great Galuppi interpreters, such as Michelangeli?
As I mentioned earlier, it was a recorded performance by Michelangeli that helped spark my keen interest in Galuppi’s sonatas. Michelangeli restored Galuppi’s reputation and reintroduce him to 20th-century audiences.
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (5 January 1920 – 12 June 1995)
It is worth noting that two important symposia dedicated to critical analysis and reappraisal of Galuppi’s work took place in Siena in 1947 and in Venice in 1985. Both gatherings included several well-attended recitals of Galuppi’s music. His sonatas began to be included in the repertoire of Italian concert pianists such as Egida Sartori, Lya de Barberis and, of course, Michelangeli.
5. You obviously feel an affinity for the Italian Baroque composers (We notice you gave your Carnegie Hall debut with Scarlatti). Which similarities do you find between Scarlatti and Galuppi?
The most important link that unites these two composers is the inherent theatrical element clearly present in almost every work. Scarlatti is mainly known for his keyboard sonatas, but his prolific production also includes operas, melodramas and cantatas—works where his compositional technique reveals a strong sense of theatre, acting and performative art. Scarlatti appreciated the ability to amuse, astonish and move a listener in a theatrical manner.
Torretta plays Scarlatti's Sonata K492 in D major
Galuppi had extensive, actual experience in theatre. He was invited to the King’s Theatre in Haymarket, London, and was appointed composer of “opera seria” for two years. In 1748 he travelled to Vienna for a special performance of his opera, “Demetrio.” He eventually became celebrated as the “Father of Comic Opera” (opera buffa) because he composed operas in the new style of “dramma giocoso”.
Galuppi developed an elegant, melodic style which included numerous dramatic changes of tempo and tonality. He was not afraid to impart a sense of frivolity, tension or dramatic surprise. Some of Galuppi's sonatas follow the same compositional model used by Scarlatti. Many sonatas by both composers seem to have been composed with the same brilliant, energetic spirit. Both composers require an extensive use of ornaments and embellishments. Both composers’ sonatas display a wide range of emotions—from melodic “dolcezze” to serious dramatic moments of an almost existential nature.
6. You have studied with some of the great teachers such as Fou Ts’ong, Dmitri Bashkirov and Charles Rosen. What have they taught you – and any highlights of your education you’d like to share?
I had the chance to meet these legendary teachers during my studies at the International Lake Como Academy, founded by maestro William Grant Nabore and Martha Argerich in 2001. I have wonderful memories of those years. I was privileged to be one of only 7 students in my class. The Academy fostered a truly collaborative environment with ample time for lessons and also for shared meals and walks in the beautiful surrounding lake district. In that intimate and genial atmosphere I learned to grow as a complete artist and not merely as a pianist.
The aim was always to elevate the soul and spirit. Fou T’song always said: “Don’t just play notes. Tell a story!”
Lake Como, Italy
I remember spending hours creating, analysing, listening to my sound production and finding technical strategies to bring to life every single note written on the score. I've studied at several schools and universities but nothing has been like my experience at The International Lake Como Academy that nowadays continues to host great pianists like András Schiff, Elisabeth Leonskaja and Peter Frankl.
7. We note you were a classical dancer for many years. Has that helped with your musical interpretations?
Ballet certainly contributed to my musical education. Training took place with piano accompaniment so that early in life I heard a lot of classical music. I was also attracted to the piano more than to other instruments.
My years of ballet training imparted a heightened sense of rhythm, phrasing and dance-like interpretive movement also found in much early classical music. It also helped me develop a more graceful, elegant style of playing the piano.
8. How did your awful experience of a house fire at the age of 18 affect yourself and your music-making? Did anything ‘good’ come out of it?
I'm a pianist because of that tragic accident. I was seriously burned at the age of 18 and the person I had been until then suddenly died... the accident also provided the opportunity for a rebirth.
Unable to walk for some time, many of my dreams were interrupted or terminated. I could no longer recognise myself or feel “at home” in my body. While suffering great pain, despair and depression I found that playing the piano had a profoundly beneficial effect. It literally saved my life. Until then I had never given any thought to being a professional pianist. Music and the piano allowed me to bring a new focus to my life. I no longer needed to look at life on the outside, on merely superficial matters. Instead, I could now focus on internal matters and I succeeded in finding a path to attain greater spirituality, intelligence and higher, truer values.
"While suffering great pain, despair and depression I found that playing the piano had a profoundly beneficial effect. It literally saved my life."
The most important thing I learned is the value of kindness, compassion and generosity. Today’s world is filled with many cruelties and much horror. I believe, however, that each of us is born with the ability to overcome any challenge if we set our mind firmly upon doing so.
9. Is this how the ‘Behind the Scars’ project was born?
I met the project founder, the remarkable Sophie Mayanne, in 2018 in Reading. She is a talented, accomplished photographer who launched the “Behind The Scars” project in 2017 to provide inspiration and hope to victims of scarring. She has captured portraits of people and their scars and speaks candidly to her subjects about how the scars were received. The result provides touching and powerful insight into stories which often remain hidden.
Sophie’s project uses these stories about skin to reveal compelling tales of humanity. The message is simply that it's possible to move on after a tragedy. Sophie believes that for those who have been through such tragedy, having a photo session and feeling beautiful again can give them new confidence and the ability to accept what has happened to them. By participating in this campaign I overcame being ashamed of my body. Instead I could begin to see it again as a beautiful work of art created by nature.
10. You give courses and masterclasses for the promotion of the medical studies made by professors Laurent Boullet and Eckart Altenmuller regarding the right use of hands and body on the keyboard. Can you expand on this?
Professor Laurent Boullet became head of the department of Music Physiology at the International Piano Academy Lake Como (where I studied) and a member of the faculty along with professor Eckart Altenmuller. A serious malfunction called focal hand dystonia prevented Boullet from playing piano for a long time, but in collaboration with specialised physiotherapists he was able to re-educate himself and resume his career as a concert pianist.
He is one of the leading specialists in the physiological approach to piano technique where movement patterns specific to piano technique are analysed according to neuro-physiological criteria. I have also studied with professor and pianist Cristina Frosini at the conservatory G. Verdi in Milan. [She] is another proponent of Piano Physiology. Her concert career was also interrupted due to focal dystonia and she started a re-education process with Boullet in Hanover. Although I have been lucky not to suffer from such a condition, these professors have taught me much about the importance of proper posture and technique which has been of tremendous value to me and which I now pass on to my students.
11. Finally, why did you choose to live in London? Does it give you the right musical environment?
I came to London for the first time in 2016 to play a concert at Saint Martin-in-the-Fields. It was a great experience; the concert was sold out and I had the opportunity to meet many wonderful people. I decided to stay on a few more days to visit the city and I fell in love with it. As Samuel Johnson observed, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
London has incredible energy that is expressed in so many different forms—music, theatre, dance, art—and it offers so much opportunity for inspiration.
London is now my true home.
Margherita Torretta’s album, Colours of Venice: Baldassare Galuppi, is out now on the Academy Classical label.