Wolf-Ferrari, an overlooked master?

Violinist Francesca Dego explores why the composer’s violin concerto has missed out on a place in standard repertoire

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (Credit: Getty)
Published: January 25, 2017 at 12:39 pm

I have always been fascinated by the symbiotic relationship between composers and violinists that characterised the creation of the greatest masterpieces written for my instrument throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Joseph Joachim (Brahms), Ferdinand David (Mendelssohn), David Oistrakh (Shostakovich and Khachaturian) are present between the notes of each work dedicated to them, they are the soul of the compositions and followed every phase of their writing.


In the case of Wolf-Ferrari’s violin concerto, the ‘soul’ was a girl my age: the controversial Guila Bustabo (whom history later condemned for having accepted to tour in Nazi occupied territories during the Second World War). Wolf-Ferrari fell hopelessly in love with Guila, albeit platonically, despite the enormous difference in their ages (Wolf-Ferrari was 70 and the young violinist 27). Thus was born a truly complex and enthralling work in 4 movements, lasting almost 40 minutes, a great romantic concerto half a century late.

But who was Wolf-Ferrari?

To begin with, he was an Italian-German, not easily categorised. He decided to emphasise this dichotomy with the double-barrelled surname, adding to that of his father, the painter August Wolf, that of his mother, Emilia Ferrari, a Venetian noblewoman. His music reflects this dual nature: on the one hand in the Germanic mastery of counterpoint and orchestration (he studied composition with the famous Joseph von Rheinberger, teacher of Humperdinck) and on the other hand in the grace and melodic inspiration that is typically Venetian, as is his passion for the plays of Goldoni, almost exclusively the literary source of his operas.

Before the 1930s, his work was performed constantly, championed by the likes of Mahler, Toscanini and De Sabata. Nowadays a few works remain in concert repertoire, but his symphonic and chamber music has almost completely disappeared.

Music historians do not agree on the reasons for this neglect, certainly not ascribable to flaws in the quality of the music.

Wolf-Ferrari is undoubtedly a composer who looks to the past, fondly and with elegance, in an age when innovation, progress, rebellion but also drama and crudeness are the currency in use, and tradition is seen as an enemy to root out. It is only in recent years that we have been able to regard the 1900s in its complete poetic variety, cherishing at the same time Stravinsky and Berg, Strauss and Ravel, Britten and Schoenberg, Shostakovich and Puccini... And in this broad and varied panorama I think the moment has come for a definitive reinstatement of Wolf-Ferrari, in whom a nostalgic eye is not synonymous with lack of originality, but reflects a deeply personal and independent musical aesthetic.

Wolf-Ferrari is not Neoclassical, he does not echo the past through a filter of modernism or parody (Stravinsky, Hindemith or the Classic Symphony of Prokofiev) rather he immerses himself completely, to create a continuity with Mozart or Rossini, who for him embody universal, timeless values, whilst in Italy Mascagni’s Verismo or the psychological theatre of Puccini hold the stage.

The break with the past in post-war Italy also had a damaging impact on Wolf-Ferrari’s reputation. The wound burnt so deeply that anything remotely recalling the war or Italy’s Fascist era was automatically rejected. Even today, Respighi is mostly avoided in his homeland, and Casella, Malipiero, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Busoni, Alfano, Pizzetti and Wolf-Ferrari are regarded with hostility.

In the 1940s the destruction or closure of most German theatres, along with this post-war change of taste, led to Wolf-Ferrari descending into poverty and depression.

But, in the midst of his darkness, there suddenly blossomed the Violin Concerto Op. 26. An oasis of simple, fresh passion, it contrasted almost callously with the Europe of 1944. Perhaps we can see it as psychological refuge from the barbarity of his time.

After the first few performances by Guila Bustabo, the concerto was struck by misfortune. All copies were destroyed by an allied bomb and, after Bustabo was accused of collaborationism in the post-war years, the concerto’s fate was sealed.

I like to think of Wolf-Ferrari’s work as a German-style Romantic concerto with a bel canto soul.

There is a succession of warm Mediterranean passages, a light Mendelssohn-esque finale, a dense recitative with elements that might recall the first movement of the Bruch concerto, virtuosity à la Paganini, and, in the Romanza, an almost Mozartian theme.

Theatre, however, reigns supreme. The violin is the prima donna dominating the scene like the soprano in an opera by Puccini, flowing into a long cadenza in the Finale that recalls the ‘love theme’ at the heart of the first movement.

This concerto is a jewel for which I already feel a kind of historical responsibility, as well as a personal infatuation. I hope to help to reclaim its rightful place in the violin repertoire.


Francesca Dego will give the UK premiere of Wolf-Ferrari’s Violin Concerto with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on 8 March in Symphony Hall.

Sponsored content