Academic journal article Music Theory Online

"That Awkward Scale": Verdi, Puccini, and the Scala Enigmatica

Academic journal article Music Theory Online

"That Awkward Scale": Verdi, Puccini, and the Scala Enigmatica

Article excerpt

The "Scala-rebus"

[1] The Gazzetta musicale di Milano, one of the most widely read music journals in Italy in the second half of the nineteenth century, was published by Casa Ricordi and often functioned as a promotional vehicle for composers and compositions associated with the powerful publishing house. Not surprisingly, the front page of the journal was usually devoted to opera, with La Scala premieres enjoying a particularly large portion of the coverage. Items of interest to local musicians were pushed to the rear, along with communications from subscribers, death notices, advertisements, and snatches of verse. Among the regular features was a contest in which readers were invited to solve some sort of musical puzzle, usually called a "rebus" or "sciarada" (game). The entries were judged and awarded prizes in a manner similar to that of many present-day magazine competitions. Four winners were chosen by lot from the pool of correct solutions, each receiving something similar to a gift certificate, redeemable, of course, in Ricordi publications.

Example 1. A harmonically curious scale

(click to enlarge and listen)

[2] As might be expected, the Gazzetta affords an interesting glimpse of the hot topics of the day. In 1888, for example, there were feature articles devoted to the dramatic theory of Richard Wagner, including some Italian translations of his writings, a group of Mozart's letters, a good deal of discussion of the upcoming premiere of Franchetti's Asrael, and coverage of the death of Tito Ricordi himself, famed director of the publishing house, who had just handed over the reins to his son Giulio. On August 5 of that year, among the notices and diversions of the final pages of the journal, a tiny item appeared under the heading "Curiosità . . .harmoniche."(1) It offered a challenge to the readers (see Example 1).

From Bologna we've been sent the following scale . . .that, when harmonized properly, says its inventor, will prove effective. Leave the undertaking of the task to those musicians who enjoy the study of harmony. (1888a, 292)(2)

[3] In the next issue, there was a brief item saying that the journal had received quite a few harmonizations of what they now called the "scala-rebus," and that they would print them the following week along with one by the inventor of the scale himself, described only as "un egregio musicista di Bologna." As promised, on August 19, 1888, a number of solutions were published, and the name of the "distinguished Bolognese musician," Adolfo Crescentini, was revealed.(3)

[4] Crescentini's "invention" is a clever one, with a number of problem spots specifically designed to challenge and engage those "who enjoy the study of harmony." The scale starts off with an unusual pair of seconds: first, the initial minor one, bringing to mind the cautions associated with the Phrygian mode in elementary counterpoint, and then the conventionally proscribed augmented variety. This is followed by a series of whole steps, which, as in a whole-tone scale, manage to bypass the dominant degree. In its last degrees, the scale turns chromatic, closing with two minor seconds. Upon descending, the scale is altered, with an additional augmented second appearing between the fourth and fifth degrees, once again sidestepping the dominant.(4) The wide gaps, the whole tones, and the lack of a dominant degree all suggest that this is a game, designed to entertain rather than produce a masterpiece or even a particularly musical solution. Still, as the inventor said, it should be possible to come up with one that would "prove effective."

Example 2. Adolfo Crescentini, realization of his "scala-rebus"

(click to enlarge and listen)

[5] Crescentini's own harmonization, shown in Example 2, is indeed effective. The editors of the Gazzetta said it was "naturally the most homogeneous" (omogenea) of the solutions, perhaps out of respect for the inventor (1888b, 320). …

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