Nostalgia, by Pietro Cimara (1887-1967)

Pietro Cimara was an Italian pianist, composer (a student of Respighi) and conductor who spent much of his life in America, associated with the Metropolitan Opera. Several of his songs, Stornello  (Starling) and the pungent little Fiocca la neve  (The Snow is Falling), are rather well known, and the latter is duly featured in Lakeway and White's Italian Art Song  (Indiana Press, 1989) as a prime example of the composer's style.

Several Cimara songs have also been recorded, appearing in recital collections by such artists as Leonard Warren and Yolanda Marcoulescou. These selections all demonstrate something of the highly melodious, Italianate Cimara style. But of the half-dozen or so songs that, I confess, represent the extent of my knowledge of his output, my preference is for a little known one titled Nostalgia--a piece with modest vocal requirements, superb legato line and a telling dramatic peak.

The Italian firm of Bongiovanni is Cimara's primary publisher, and their catalog lists Nostalgia  as the second song, in a series titled Cinque Liriche  (Five Songs), set to a variety of poems. Assuming such things to be chronological, the plate number assigned Nostalgia -No. 572--places the undated song fairly early in the composer's output.

Cimara's text is an imaginatively titled, uncredited Italian translation of the poem Wandl ich in den Wald des Abends  by Heinrich Heine (1797-1856). It is the first poem in a section of Heine's Neue Gedichte   (New Poems) subtitled [ auf englisch ] Sundry Women. Mindful of Robert Frost's observation that 'poetry is what is lost in translation', I offer this English paraphrase of the Italian translation of Heine's German:

Quando a sera io vado stanco
nella selva addormentata,
parmi scorgere al mio fianco
la tua forma delicata.

Del tuo velo è il biancheggiare?
Miro il tuo leggiadro volto?
O sol è chiaror lunare
che dei pini entra nel folto?

Ma quel ch'io sommessamento
sento scorrere è il mio pianto?
Oppur tu sei veramente
che mi segui, e piangi tanto?

(Italian text quoted with the permission of the copyright holder and publisher:
Edizioni Bongiovanni, Via Rizzoli 28/E, Bologna 40125, Italy.)

When at eve I wander, weary,
Down a sleepy woodland pathway
Then I sense you at my side
Like a graceful, gentle spirit.

Is that your white veil wafting?
Do I see you at your loveliest?
Has the sunlight turned into moonbeams
As the light is filtered by the trees?

But what are the sounds I hear?
Do I hear my own heart weeping?
Or is it you, who have come to join me
Who weeps so bitterly?

Heine's original German is, of course, readily available in his collected works, and there is a fine English poetic version of it in the ever useful The Complete Poems of Heinrich Heine, A Modern English Version, by Hal Draper.

Cimara found the ideal shape for the opening quatrain: a placid, gliding line that breathes and sighs with the singer--like some marvelous old aria cantabile. The piano then repeats this pensive melody while the inner-voice pulse is heightened with a triplet pattern and the singer delivers the questioning second quatrain in the manner of a recitative. Then there is a change of key, meter and harmonic density as the final quatrain turns dramatic. The piano echos the singer with phrases suggesting the softly flowing sounds, the luscious, liquid alliteration-- sommessamento sento scorrere--of the text. There is an animated move toward the passionate peak phrase (a marvelous example of what Donald Ivey calls Cimara's 'exultant lyricism'), followed by a brief, reflective postlude that returns the singer, his mysterious companion and the listener to solitude.

All this is done with very modest means, using only a ninth of vocal range (treble low E flat up to G above the staff) and a vocal line so remarkably conjunct that, at the dramatic climax, the skip of a seventh makes a startling and powerful effect. Even the unconventional elements of the writing (this is a thirty-one measure song which does not return to its opening key) are handled so smoothly they remain unsuspected in the hearing and are revealed only on close inspection--like the seven measure phrase Mozart uses to begin the overture to Nozze di Figaro.

Nostalgia  is currently in print, and may be obtained either directly from the publisher or through your local music dealer. It is available in only one key, specified for soprano or mezzo soprano. I have no answer for those who may ask why Cimara wanted a woman's voice to deliver this masculine poem. In my view, the poem would be most comfortable when sung by either a tenor or a baritone with a solid high G.


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Copyright 1999, John Koopman. All rights reserved. No part of these websites, designated A BRIEF HISTORY OF SINGING and UNSUNG SONGS, or their contents may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means--electronic, photocopying or otherwise--without the written permission of the copyright holder. For information about the use of this material please contact the author through the Conservatory of Music, Lawrence University, Appleton, WI , (U.S.A) 54912-0599. Fax 920 832 6633