Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > RAPSODIA SATANICA – Pietro Mascagni

RAPSODIA SATANICA – Pietro Mascagni

GREATEST SCORES OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

Original Review by Craig Lysy

Italian playwright, screenwriter and film director Nino Oxilia found inspiration for his next film in legendary character Faust, for which he would provide a twist – retelling the story with Faust cast as a woman. He chose to utilize poems by Fausto Maria Martini who was a member of ‘Crepusscolari”, the ‘Poets of Twilight’. The works of these artists were tragedies, which spoke of the decline of the shallow bourgeois culture. Oxilia purchased the film rights, and Società Italiana Cines agreed to produce and fund the film with a budget that allowed Oxilia to realize his vision. Oxilia spared no expense for his passion project, hiring the leading actress of her generation, prima diva Lyda Borelli who was beloved by Italians, to star in the film. He tasked poet Fausto Maria Martini to provide the film’s closed captions, used elaborate costumes and jewelry, and lastly, added color, both tinted and toned, as well as stenciling to create film imagery that expanded beyond the limited confines of black and white.

In the original Faust legend, Johann Georg Faust, an alchemist, astrologist and magician is dissatisfied with his life, desiring much more. To gain what he desires he makes a pact with the Devil trading his soul for use of his demon Mephistopheles who will use his power for a limited number of years to provide him unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. In the end Faust is irrevocably corrupted, irredeemable and cast into the fiery chasm of Hell, condemned to eternal enslavement and suffering. With Oxilia’s incarnation of the tale an old woman Contessa Alba d’Oltrevita longs for the beauty of her youth and makes a pact with Mephistopheles to restore her youth and beauty, with one caveat – she is forbidden to fall in love. Transformed, the youthful pangs of love are rekindled in her heart as two brothers Sergio and Tristano court her. Sergio loves her passionately and informs her that if she declines his offer to marry, he will kill himself. She declines, declares her intent to instead marry Tristano, and Sergio kills himself. Tristano however is devastated by the death of his brother, feels guilty, and rides off abandoning Alba. Mephistopheles has witnessed everything and mercilessly enforces the terms of their contract by transforming her back to an old woman, which shatters her, causing her to die after she gazes at her aged, wrinkled image of her garden pool. The film was debuted at the theater as a ‘Poema Sinfonico’, a tone poem, which suggest to us that Rapsodia Satanica was presented to the public as concert piece with film accompaniment, not a film with a score. Its premier was conducted by the composer himself and the performance was well received.

Director Nino Oxilia was an opera fan of Pietro Mascagni, the renown composer for Italian opera who gained world-wide renowned for his masterpiece 1889 Calvalleria Rusticana), which transformed the art form and ushered in the Verismo “realism” movement. Oxilia wanted his film to be supported by a score that was operatic, not the usual live piano or organ that was typical of the day. Mascagni saw the offer as an opportunity to sail into uncharted waters and agreed to take on the assignment. There were creative disagreements however between the headstrong Mascagni and Oxilia, which caused a three-year delay in bringing the film to theaters. Mascagni insisted that “music must rule over the image”, which required Oxilia to reshoot a number of scenes to accommodate Mascagni’s set piece compositions, including the film’s ending.

The composer has a greater burden with silent films as music must be more prominent so as to flesh out the powerful emotions normally expressed by spoken dialogue. Mascagni’s conception of the score was to highlight the tragic romance of the Contessa and the two brother’s who loved her, such as was done with the legendary tale of Tristan and Isolde. Foremost in his score is the Love Theme, which offers sumptuous strings romantico full of yearning, which express the aching longing of a heart reborn and desirous of another. Alba has regained her youth and desires a second chance for love, yet this is prohibited by her contract with Mephistopheles. As such the theme’s articulation shifts over the story from a molto romantico iteration to a molto tragico for what good is youth without love? The confluence achieved in scene after scene of her joy, hopes, despair and pathos is profoundly moving. The Mephistopheles Theme speaks of his malignant presence and how he preys upon Alba’s unhappiness. He is omnipresent, always lurking, whose influence and handiwork permeate the film. Strings and woodwinds tristi join for a repeating twenty-three note melody emoted with 11-4-4-4 phrasing. The Nostalgia Theme offers a lyrical, free-flowing, repeating thirteen-note identity by wistful strings. It speaks to Alba’s remembrance of days long passed when she was young, beautiful and sought by countless handsome men. Later after her transformation, she suffers the loneliness and tragedy of her reborn beauty, and the theme instead speaks of her desire to return to her former life.

To establish the ambiance of Alba’s castle and upper-class friends, Mascagni created the Gentility Theme, which emotes as a danza felice, flowing with a carefree joy de vivre. For our two brothers we have three themes; the Courtship Theme supports Sergio and Tristano and offers a bold, and masculine identity empowered by horns maestoso with contrapuntal high and low register strings, which bring both confidence and complexity. It is the more formal of the three themes and supports the social conventions of the era. The Brother’s Theme offers both happiness and gentility with a repeating seven-note phrase by woodwinds, which speaks to the good times enjoyed by Alba and the brothers. Like the Love Theme, it will take on plaintive and then tragic auras as Alba drives a wedge between them, which ends with tragedy. Sergio’s Theme speaks to his longing for Alba’s love, yet also the bitter disappointment of her apathy as she seems more interested in Tristano. Yearning strings offer a pleading ascent, as though he was reaching out with his very heart, yet the theme never resolves, always dissipating in unfulfilled disappointment.

This review had challenges. First, while I was able to secure through YouTube a way to view the public domain film, its on-screen script was in Italian, with French sub-titles – two languages in which I am not proficient. Thankfully, Google Translate saved the day. Also, the music is structured on the album as a concert piece of three acts, not as individual film score cues. Accepting these challenges, we pushed ahead and did our best to review the film score using film scene titles I assigned instead to provide musical links to film context.

Prologue

“Main Titles” opens with a beautiful soliloquy by solo oboe tenero, which supports the roll of the opening credits that display white script on a black background. At 0:23 “Rhapsodia Satanica” displays in red script, supported by the sumptuous, yearning Love Theme by strings romantico. As the theme unfolds, on screen script displays; “The meeting of youth around the old lady Alba in the castle of illusion”. At 0:49 we flow into the film proper with “Film Scene: Alba’s Party” carried by a delightful danza felice as we see the aged Contessa escorted by a gentleman her age at a social function held at her estate. At 1:31 the music becomes wistful atop the Nostalgia Theme as the Contessa sees a young couple hugging affectionately reflected in her longing eyes. The Gentility Theme resumes as she moves on and takes a seat at 2:06 as the guests bid her goodbye. She is despondent and a burdened, and the plaintive Nostalgia Theme reprises as we see on-screen script, which reads “In the dreary evening Alba I envy the Fate of Faust”. In “Film Scene: Alba Retires” Alba rises and prepares to retire to her bedroom. The screen goes black and the Danza Felice ends with an air of despair as we see her enter the bedroom. At 2:29 we segue into “Film Scene: Arrival of Mephistopheles” as his malignant theme supports his entry inro her bed chamber through a wall picture. At 2:59 the Gentility Theme returns as Alba dismisses her maid for the evening. As she sits in her chair and looks in a hand mirror, the Nostalgia Theme returns on woodwinds tristi.

“Film Scene: Mephistopheles’ Offer” reveals Mephistopheles sneaking up behind Alba, and at 3:52 foreboding bass usher in a crescendo dramatico, which erupts at 3:55 as he places his hand on her shoulder. Mascagni supports a powerful rendering Mephistopheles Theme as he ingratiates himself, and she looks at him bewildered. He looks at her, offers her a statuette of love, and on-screen script reveal his words; “Do you want youth? Break this symbol of love as a sign of eternal renunciation”. At 4:34 in “Film Scene: Alba’s Fateful Decision” a repeating five note motif by a playful bassoon supports her eyeing the statuette as he smiles. The music swells with intensity and at 5:19 portentous abyssal bass support her fateful casting of the statuette of love onto the floor. As she cowers in her chair, grim strings of fate voice Mephistopheles’ Theme as he overturns an hourglass and we read; “Mephistopheles overturning the hourglass overcomes the fatal law of time”. “Film Scene: Alba’s Transformation” offers a magnificent score highlight. At 5:29 in a sparkling and now youthful Love Theme slowly swells on a crescendo of happiness as we witness Alba’s on-screen transformation into a beautiful young woman. Yet as Mephistopheles looks on, we read; “But the symbol of love was not broken” – suggesting that the statue of love was not shattered when she cast it onto the floor. At 5:48 Mascagni unleashes his orchestra with a breath-taking statement of the Love Theme as a celebratory paean of joy, which concludes with a magnificent flourish as Alba views her youthful face and firm breasts with ecstatic happiness.

Part 1

“Film Scene: Alba’s Happiness” offers refulgent horns and sparkling strings as Alba happily gazes at her youthful reflection in the water of a park fountain where we see young people playing, and enjoying a good time. On screen we read; “Alba smiles inebriated at her youth”. At 0:09 in “Film Scene: The Brothers” a lush and expressive statement of the Love Theme by strings romantico unfolds as we read; “In the joy of spring in celebration Alba meets the two brothers Tristano and Sergio”. The theme crests at 0:30 atop horns of joy joined by refulgent strings as Sergio and Tristano approach her, clearly smitten with her beauty. The bold and confident horns of the grand Courtship Theme resound at 0:44 as they encircle her and she revels in their attention. In “Film Scene: Sharing Good Times” Mascagni at 1:09 provides a wonderful extended exposition of youthful play and fun with strings felice and bubbling woodwinds with interplay of the Courtship and Brothers Themes as the brothers take her to a swing and help propel her. We read; “On the silent wave love sings”. They then take out a boat and have fun on the lake waters. At 3:34 happy, repeating statements of the Brother’s Theme swell and crests at 4:16 to support their joint carrying of Alba to shore so her feet do not get wet. At 4:23 in “Film Scene: Sergio’s Aspirations” Tristano sets off to retrieve the boat, leaving Sergio and Alba alone. We read; “Sergio talks to her about love”. At 4:45 Sergio’s aspirational theme expresses his longing for Alba, but it loses vitality and becomes plaintive as she ignores him and remains fixated on Tristano.

“Film Scene: The Dance” offers a wondrous score highlight with sterling interplay of the Bother’s and Courtship Themes. At 5:12 in we read; “Dances, flowers, dreams” and we see the three having a fun time at a dance, supported by a bravado Courtship Theme. Yet despite the merriment, we read portentous on-screen script; “The demon grins in the shadows awaiting his prey”. At 5:38 a plaintive statement of the Love Theme supports the sight of Mephistopheles waving his cape in a tree. At 5:45 the confident music resumes as we see Alba and the brothers enjoying the festive dance, swelling with happiness and cresting at 6:15 with the Courtship Theme. At 7:39 we segue into “Film Scene: Sergio’s Discontent” as we read “Sergio Spies on Tristano”. We see that Tristano and Alba have moved off and are enjoying time together near the lion fountains. Playful fluttering woodwinds animato support Alba and Tristano’s merriment. Alba departs the lovestruck Tristano who is soon joined by Sergio at the fountains. At 8:47 the music sours as Sergio joins Tristano, clearly unhappy with the state of affairs. We read; “You love it. It’s not true. The rose that she gives you suffocates her”. Tristano denies it and bubbling woodwinds support him tossing the rose away at 9:26, yet Sergio remains unconvinced as Tristano departs. As Sergio ponders his fate, we close the scene on his plaintive theme at 9:48. At 9:57 we segue into “Film Scene: Alba and Sergio”, a score highlight. It reveals Sergio visiting Alba at her home where she seems more interested in playing with her cat than him. At 10:31 we graced by a Valzer Romantico, which is clearly emoting from Sergio’s perspective. At 10:55 it flows into his theme, a yearning romance for strings as we read; “Love, death? Tell me my fate”. Yet once again his theme does not resolve as it is clear that his romantic overtures are not making an impression on the oblivious Alba as we read; “Sergio’s desperate invocation does not interrupt Alba’s carefree joys”.

At 11:21 we segue into “Film Scene: Dance and Devastation” where we see Alba enjoying a dance party at her estate. Mascagni supports with gentile and happy dance rhythms with a danza felice. Her servant delivering her a note from Sergio and at 12:19 a forlorn Sergio’s Theme supports her reading; “I await under your window. If you don’t appear at midnight, I’ll kill myself on the doorstep of your house”. The music’s gaiety resumes as she asks for her coat and departs without drama. At 12:48 sadness descends as Sergio’s plaintive Theme returns when she enters her bed chamber and we see her clearly unsettled. At 13:12 a sad rendering of the Mephistopheles’ Theme joins as he peaks in from the window. On the dance floor alight with the happy dance music Tristano finds an envelope with Sergio’s handwriting and sets off to find Alba. He finds her and we read; “Tristan’s strong soul bursts and begs for his brother’s life”. The happy dance music flows into a waltz rendering of the Brother’s Theme as he sympathizes with his brother and Alba struggles as to what to do. At 14:01 a crescendo dramatico ascends and crests with Sergio’s Theme on solo oboe triste as Tristano looks out the window and sees Sergio below. Dire horns and tortured strings declare Sergio’s Theme as Alba frets and Tristano departs. We read; “She ordered the guests to be dismissed. Her terrible doubt overwhelmed her”. The happy party music dissipates as she orders her servant to dismiss the guests. At 15:03 in “Film Scene: Tristano Consoles Sergio” we bear witness to a supremely moving score highlight, an achingly beautiful pathos by strings sofferenti, which emote a molto tragico statement of Sergio’s Theme as Tristano tries to console his brother.

At 15:47 in “Film Scene: Alba And Sergio” we bear witness to the score’s supreme moment, where we are graced by Mascagni’s exquisitely tragic romanticism. We segue back to Alba’s bed chamber where she plays Sergio’s Theme on piano accompanied by solo violin triste as we read; “The hour rushes”, while Tristano continues to comfort the distraught Sergio below. When Tristano rejoins her at 16:26 she stops playing the piano and we transition atop thirsting strings of yearning to a molto appassionato rendering of Sergio’s Theme, which crests in despair as Tristano pleads with her to meet him before midnight, only to be waved off. Sergio’s Theme diminishes in torment as we see him distraught below. Alba seems indifferent to Sergio’s welfare, as we see the clock read 11:55 pm and read; “The Moment”. A crescendo of pain ascends as Mascagni supports with a molto tragico rendering of Sergio’s Theme, so full of heartache, which climaxes in futility at 18:11. Alba remains aloof to Sergio’s plight and begins a seduction of Tristano. A romance for strings begins a slow inexorable ascent as the clock nears 12:00 midnight and we read; “And now do you want me to call Sergio?” At 20:18 a rapturous Love Theme joins as he surrenders to her, with a passionate embrace. As he kisses her at 20:28 the Love Theme climaxes powerfully and with finality as it is midnight. Tistano realizes what they have done and Mascagni supports the aftermath with a grim rendering of Sergio’s Theme joined at 20:47 by dire strings of regret as an ashamed Tristano departs. We close at 20:57 with a grim Mephistopheles Theme as he peers in from a window.

At 21:07 we segue into “Film Scene: Sergio’s Death” as Alba descends the stairs and comes to a weeping Tristano holding Sergio’s dead body. Mascagni supports with a molto tragico lamentation as Tristan departs and we read; “As Tristan disappears Alba feels the poison of love creep into her heart.” At 22:19 we segue into “Film Scene: Alba’s Remorse” upon a lament joined by the Love Theme, which crests with grotesque dissonance at 22:37 as Alba at last feels the impact of Sergio’s death and we read; “Boundless sadness of remorse.” At 22:51 we segue atop tortured strings dramatico of Mephistopheles Theme into “Film Scene: Aftermath” as we see a distraught Tristano wandering in a forest. We close in Alba’s castle, where we see her also distraught as she looks in the mirror and we read; “A wrinkle already lines her forehead.” We close on a plaintive statement of the Love Theme, which ends abruptly with a sharp orchestral strike to conclude Part 1.

Part 2

We open reading “Locked in the castle of illusion Alba languished in the disconsolate autumn of her heart.” Film Scene: Alba Languishes” offers a wondrous score highlight of exquisite, aching and rapturous beauty, which offers a testament to Mascagni’s mastery of his craft. Alba’s servant locks the castle’s gate and we see her languishing in the garden, a pathetic soul, lost, alone, and longing for her former life. Mascagni offers unbearable grief and sadness with the wistful strings of the Nostalgia Theme, joined at 0:56 by a contrapuntal oboe triste. At 1:28 we rise on a crescendo of passion by the Nostalgia and Love Themes. At 2:15 we segue into “Film Scene: Alba Despairs”, which also offers a score highlight of the heartache of love denied. We see Alba playing her beloved piano, sustaining the melody of the lament. Yet she quits, taking no pleasure in it and the aching string borne lament of the Nostalgia Theme continues. At 2:46 the Mephistopheles’ Theme returns on strings tristi as a lurking Mephistopheles peers out from behind a vase of roses. We read; “Silence, solitude and mystery.” Strings sofferenti support a scene change to Alba on a garden bridge, and as she wanders forlorn. Mascagni reprises the achingly beautiful yearning romance for strings appassianto, out of which rises at 3:42 a fervent statement of the Love Theme, which brings a quiver and a tear. Yet hope remains, and at 4:10 as the music brightens as we see golden yellow butterflies and we read “Alba confusedly felt that the whole universe was love.” As she ponders in her garden, we ascend on a crescendo brilliante of the Love Theme, which crests gloriously at 4:51 as we read; “Love: everything. The rest: Illusion mocking.”

Yet the moment was fleeting, and at 4:55 the music darkens on strings del tormento as we segue into “Film Scene: Alba’s Torment” where we see Alba back in her castle. At 5:15 Mephistopheles returns supported by the foreboding strings of his theme. We read; “Every night a knight passes on top of the mountain. It’s Tristan.” At 5:38 a sardonic statement of the Brother’s Theme by bassoon, later joined by strings tristi support as Mephistopheles torments her as she gazes out the window. At 6:14 we segue into “Film Scene: Longing For Tristano” atop a solo flute speranzoso as we see Tristano riding at nightfall – reflecting her thoughts begging him to come back to her. Trumpets brilliante resound as we return to Mephistopheles and her in the castle. At 6:30 tortured rendering of the Nostalgia Theme supports as she writhes in agony at the window while Mephistopheles revels. The music dissipates on a diminuendo of despair, which supports his departure. The music again brightens at 7:10, bearing a kernel of hope as we read; “And life sang the refrain of love.” She gazes out the window to see two couple happy and enjoying life and we read; “Desire was beating at the doors of the heart.” The light, fanciful, and carefree music returns and supports as she struggles to find solace. She eventually calls her servants as we read; “Open, open the castle to guests.”

At 8:18 we segue into “Film Scene: Happiness Returns” atop a splendid Valzer Felice as Alba decides to throw a party. We read; “Bring me the most beautiful flowers in the garden.” Her servants begin preparing the castle and we see the estate gates being opened. At 8:56 we read; “Delirium of youth” as we see Alba personally arranging flowers. Mascagni carries us away with a sweeping string borne romanticism as Alba strews flowers across the parlor floor in a graceful danza dei flora. At 9:30 the music become stately, ending grandly at 10:04 as we read; “She veils herself as a priestess of love and death.” The graceful danza dei flora resumes to support her preparations. At 10:21 we segue into “Film Scene: Thoughts of Tristano” trumpets sound and we see Alba, full of longing, looking out her bedroom window, as we see a silhouette of Tristano at nightfall. The Love Theme, so full of yearning, carries her to her mirror to behold again, her youthful beauty. A lush romance for strings unfolds as she drapes herself in veils of desire. Beckoning horns call for her love to return as angelic harp glissandi carry her to the outside balcony, her veils flutter gracefully in the evening breeze. At 12:18, the moment is lost as discordant xylophone chattering doubled by woodwinds ushers in another silhouette shot of Tristano as we see him ride away. We return grandly atop horns maestoso at 12:30 to Alba on the terrace.

At 12:45 we segue into “Film Scene: Finale, the score’s supreme highlight, which features an awesome fortissimo climax. Horns dramatico resound to support the doors opening and her return to her bed chamber. We read; “I let the wind sing a wedding rhapsody over my hundred veils”. The Love Theme rises forth and carries her into the bed chamber, shifting to ethereal strings as she exits to the garden. A yearning solo violin emotes the Love Theme as moonlight glistens on her white veils. Portentous dire horns resound at 13:54 as the black caped Mephistopheles rises forth and envelopes her in his dark embrace. A crescendo of devastation erupts at 14:04 as he withdraws his cape and we see Alba’s beauty stripped away, she transformed back to her aged, grey haired and wrinkled infirmity. At 14:19 last molto tragico statement of the Love Theme resounds, yet is swept away by a stepped crescendo dramatico and swirling orchestral torrent of pain. At Mephistopheles takes her to the garden pool where she gazes at her reflection in its waters. She is horrified and Mascagni crowns the moment at 14:16 with a deafening declaration of Mephistopheles Theme by horns malevole. She is overcome, and we end with a grand, dramatic flourish as she collapses and dies.

I wish to praise Stephan Lang, Johannes Kermmayer and Capriccio Records for this long-sought recording of Pietro Mascagni’s masterpiece, “Rapsodia Satanica”. The audio quality is excellent, and the performance of the Deutshe Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz under Frank Strobel’s masterful baton, superb. Mascagni had never before scored a film and his audacious insistence that “music must rule over the image” was thankfully accommodated by director Nino Oxilia who adapted his shooting to sequence with the music. Mascagni understood that at its core this film offered a tragic love story where themes of love, beauty and death intersect, bringing ruin to all. He also understood that unlike stage and opera, that his music would need to be more prominent, assuming a greater burden in voicing the film’s narrative due to the absence of dialogue. To that end he embraced traditional leitmotifs offering six primary themes, with the Love Theme earning its place in the hallowed hall of the Pantheon of great musical themes.

Alba’s regaining of her youth not only changed her physical form, but revitalized her long absent yearning for physical love. Her contract with Mephistopheles specifically proscribed against love, and yet try as she might, she in the end could not live without it. The brilliance of Mascagni’s Love Theme is how over the course of the film it expresses the emotions of her journey – joy, yearning, passion, despair, and tragedy. The three themes for the brothers were also well-conceived and the evolution of the second Brother’s Theme parallels that of the Love Theme in a journey that takes them from happiness to tragedy and ruin. Sergio’s Theme speaks to his longing for Alba’s love, yet also the bitter disappointment that she seems more interested in Tristano. Yearning strings offer a pleading ascent, as though he was reaching out with his very heart, yet the theme never resolves, always dissipating in disappointment. Juxtaposed to these dramatic identities are a number of wonderful carefree dances and waltzes, which lend themselves well to establishing the film’s ambiance, and moments of happiness. I believe Oxilia’s creation “Rapsodia Satanica” was powerfully brought to life by Mascagni who composed one of the finest melodramatic scores of the Silent Film Age – the only film score he ever wrote. I believe his handiwork offers an enduring testament to his genius, and the capacity of music to empower a film. I highly recommend that you purchase this fine album as an essential film score for your collection.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to the wondrous Part 1 of the concert piece: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EX9bfXfY2vc

Track Listing:

  • Prologue (6:47)
  • Part 1 (24:23)
  • Part 2 (15;05)

Running Time: 46 minutes 17 seconds

Capriccio Records C-5246 (1915/2005)

Music composed by Pietro Mascagni. Conducted by Frank Strobel. Performed by the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz. Original orchestrations by Pietro Mascagni. Recorded and mixed by Axel Sommerfeld. Score produced by Pietro Mascagni. Album produced by Stephan Lang and Johannes Kermmayer.

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  1. July 6, 2021 at 2:17 am

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