By Giorgio Migliavacca
On 4 and 5 December 2019 the Italian town of Lugo (near Ravenna) and its culture and tourist Pro Loco will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the death (4 December 1969) of native son Alceo Toni (1884-1969) well-known in Italy as composer, conductor, music critic and musicologist. His compositions, books and articles have made a mark in the history of music; his critical interpretation studies have been referenced in books and articles of scholars like Philip Gossett, Ezra Pound, Franco Abbiati and Massimo Mila.
Alceo Toni was a pupil of Francesco Balilla Pratella – a keen follower of Marinetti’s futurist movement. Toni then went to Bologna’s Liceo Musicale to further his studies under Marco Enrico Bossi and Luigi Torchi. At the age of 19, in 1903 he conducted five performances of “C’era una volta” (Once upon a time) by Pratella and Gerardi at Lugo’s Rossini Theatre. In 1907, at the same opera house, he conducted “La Traviata”, followed in 1909 by Mascagni’s “L’Amico Fritz” and Massenet’ “La Navarraise”; in 1910 he conducted Giordano’s “Andrea Chenier” and Puccini’s “La Boheme”. In 1913 at the Teatro Politeama Toni conducted Verdi’s “Un ballo in maschera”; in 1915, back at the Rossini Theatre with Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”; and in 1916 Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana”.
The 24 year-old Toni secured a post as director (1908-1910) at the revived Musical High School of Rovereto where his teaching was praised for its modern and up to date approach. From 1918 to 1921 he was technical director of D’Annunzio’s National Collection of Italian Music for which he edited the Notebooks on Carissimi, Monteverdi, Corelli, Vivaldi, Zipoli, Benedetto Marcello, Cimarosa, Boccherini, and Cherubini; indeed, he was very knowledgeable about these composers since he had worked on critical editions of their scores.
In a book by Catherine E. Paul it is mentioned that a 1919 article by Alceo Toni titled “A new ancient Italian musical glory: Antonio Vivaldi” is deemed by musicologist Michael Talbot as the dawn of the Vivaldi renaissance. It is no accident that the earliest modern transcription of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” is a 1919 one for four hands at the piano by Alceo Toni. In fact the Lugo-born musician prepared many editions of Italian music of the 16th and 17th centuries. During the 1920s he wrote reviews for Turin’s monthly review “Il Pianoforte”.
In 1925 at Lisbon, Toni conducted Pratella’s “I sogni dell’aviatore Dro”, (The dreams of the aviator Dro) and in 1927 he conducted the same work at Bologna’s Teatro Comunale, and the following year at Turin’s Teatro Regio. In 1929 Toni conducted concerts at the Augusteo in Rome. In 1939 he brought Pratella’s above-mentioned work at Florence’ Teatro Comunale.
In December 1932, noted Italian composers and musicians had signed “A Manifesto of Italian Musicians for the Tradition of Nineteenth-Century Romantic Art.” Research has confirmed that the manifesto was actually written by Alceo Toni but signed by the composer Giuseppe Mulè, as well as Ottorino Respighi, Ildebrando Pizzetti, Riccardo Zandonai and many others; to give it maximum exposure it was published in three of the most important Italian daily newspapers, Il popolo d’Italia (Roma), Il Corriere della Sera (Milan), and La Stampa (Torin). The manifesto caused quite a stir and in the course of time has been criticised by scholars and musicologists because of its stance on modern compositions and “atonal and polytonal honking”. Music critic Andrea della Corte said that the manifesto was a “psychological outburst” as it would seem that Toni had touched a rather sensitive nerve which polarized the musical world.
From 1935 to 1940 Alceo Toni was president of the Conservatory of Milan; he was also a member of the Santa Cecilia Academy. He was music critic of the Popolo d’Italia between 1920 and 1943, and contributed to many other journals; he was also secretary of the Milan musicians’ union and, later, a member of the national directorate of the union of musicians. After the war he was music critic for the Milan evening daily La Notte and a highly praised lecturer.
As a composer, besides his numerous vocal, instrumental and chamber music scores Toni wrote a choreographic action “I fantocci ribelli” (The rebellious puppets) which premiered on 21 February 1933. His essays and most significant articles on interpretation and other subjects have been published in a popular anthology titled “Strappate e…violinate” (Ripped up and…violin refrains). He also wrote monographs on conductor and music teacher Vittorio Maria Vanzo and violinist and composer Antonio Bazzini. His best-selling and most known book was written with the world famous conductor and “patriarch of melodrama” Tullio Serafin as co-author and published by the renowned music publishers Ricordi. A 2018 review of their “Stile, tradizioni e convenzioni del melodramma italiano del Settecento e dell’Ottocento” (Style, Traditions and Conventions of the Italian melodrama of the 18th and 19th centuries) published on the net by “Il lettore impenitente” states that this book “is extremely interesting, first of all because it outlines with an exemplary clarity the peculiar characters, and the distinctive differences of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, outlining, in practice, the stylistic modalities of the executions.” This 1958 book has been reprinted several times.
In 1942 during the Rossini commemorations he returned to Lugo to conduct the “Petite messe solennelle” with Malipiero, Ebe Stignani, Carla Castellani and Tancredi Pasero; on 30 August at Lugo’s Pavaglione he conducted a concert by internationally acclaimed tenor Beniamino Gigli before an audience of 8,000. In 1957 Toni conducted Monteverdi’s “Orfeo” at the Piccola Scala.
In 1970, shortly after his death Milan memorialized Alceo Toni with a concert of his vocal compositions held at the prestigious Press Club Hall. The following day, 8 April, the “Corriere della Sera” published a moving “in memoriam” by well-known music critic Franco Abbiati.