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Robert Xavier Rodríguez

Publisher: G. Schirmer

Favola Boccaccesca (1979)
Alhambra RXR
Sub Category
Large Orchestra
Year Composed
20 Minutes
Programme Note
Robert Xavier Rodríguez Favola Boccaccesca (1979)
Favola Boccaccesca (fable of Boccaccio) was commissioned by Eduardo Mata and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and completed in 1979. The work is a symphonic poem based on a story from Boccaccio’s Decameron (1353) and was written as a study for Rodríguez’ one-act opera, Suor Isabella ossia It Saltarello de’Veli (“Sister Isabella or The Dance of the Veils”). Suor Isabella is a comedy: distinctly ribald, in keeping with many of the stories in Boccaccio’s collection. The story is set in a convent (not unlike a parody pf Puccini’s Suor Angelca), and deals with a beautiful young nun who smuggles a lover into her cell and is punished by her Mother Superior but forgiven when it is discovered that the Mother Superior has a priest in her room. In the score the musical ideas and proportions are drawn from the opera’s scenario. Included are depictions of the nun’ suspicions of Isabella, the priest’s entrance (in a trunk, which is dropped), Isabella’s sweet music, and the opera’s finale (in which it is discovered that the Mother Superior is wearing not her veil but the trousers of the priest and all join in a rollicking round dance).

Scored for large orchestra (strings, harp, celesta, winds by threes and fours, and nearly thirty percussion instruments), Favola Boccaccesca is, in effect, a concerto for orchestra. Concertos are the largest single item in Rodríguez’ output; and inasmuch as Rodríguez’ scores regularly demand extreme virtuosity from the performers, it is not surprising that each instrument of the orchestra is here featured both in solos and in small combinations. There are some instrumental depictions of characters: a solo violin for Sister Isabella and lower brass for the Mother Superior. Given more prominence, however, are the solo woodwinds, who dominate the score with scherzando figuration and provide a sharp contrast to the more lyrical strings and harp. Trumpets and drums, not often featured in Rodríguez’ works, serve admirably here to suggest the violent extremes the composer sees as characteristic of Medieval life: the one moment festively outlining early dance forms, then suddenly warning of Final Judgment and the flames of Hell.

Favola Boccaccesca draws heavily upon its Medieval roots in matters of structure as well as in the use of actual Medieval melodies woven into the musical texture. Inspired by early mensuration canons, the rhythmic patterns range from simple 2:1 ratios to several complex contrapuntal layerings of cross rhythms (5:7, 7:8, 4:10, etc.) in a variety of meters. One such building block is made to recur in accordance with Ars Nova isorhythmic techniques. Constructed in a series of episodes which are unified by variations of these materials, the work is in one large-scale movement. Ten main (constantly shifting) tempos, some of them created by metric modulation, provide both unity and variety as the tempos alternate and recur – much as the storytellers alternate during the ten days of the Decameron..

Of the actually quotations employed, the most important is a famous Saltarello (or “jumping dance”) of Boccaccio’s time. It is this tune which generates the irreverent sub-title, Il Saltarello de’Veli: a musical pun on the Italian saltero (or “psaltery”), a term used to describe the harp-shaped head-covering (or “psaltery of veils”) worn by nuns of the period; and it is of the many layers of variants and countermelodies added to the tune in a 12-tone/Neo-Medeival version of descant technique that the main musical material of the work consists. This secular tune contrasts with several more decorously ecclesiastical melodies which are developed in a similar fashion. These include a Cunctipotens genitor, the Spanish Quen la Virgen, a highly disguised fragment of the Dies Irae and, appropriately for the Mother Superior, a hymn of St. Ambrose originally composed to combat heresy. Bell patterns heard by the composer in the village churches near Bellagio, Italy are quoted at the opening of the work and at its close.

Related works:
   Favola II for clarinet, cello, and piano

  • Ensemble
    The Louisville Orchestra
    Lawrence Leighton Smith
    First Edition:
…the music Rodríguez has woven was fascinating in the actuality of performance. It is obviously music of the theatre - dramatic, usually playful, often slyly burlesque, rhythmically complex, rampant in its color sense, generally highly sequential, and at times short-winded of phrase. I have not heard a great deal of Rodríguez’ writing in larger forms, but Favola Boccaccesca strikes me as softer and more tonally grounded that is his norm. It certainly speaks strongly on the strength he draws from the formal practices of the past and the highly organized nature of his mind and his musical outlook…music of purpose and clarity which communicated persuasively.
John Ardoin, Musical America,01/05/1980
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