Alberto Favara, musician enamored with folk songs

The recent curtains have fallen on the few cultural events organized to honor the memory and work, in the centenary of the death, which occurred in Palermo on September 29, 1923, of the great Sicilian musician Alberto Favara, considered one of the “noble fathers” of ethnomusicology. Teresa, his third daughter, author of the most complete biography of her father, published by the Flaccovio publisher in 1971, wrote that Favara deserves to be remembered “above all for the monumental work of researching Sicilian folk music, which places him among the pioneers of modern ethnomusicology.”

Maestro Favara was born in Salemi on March 1, 1863. His ancestors, both paternal and maternal, were staunch supporters of the Italian unification cause starting from 1848. Many of his ancestors, members of the bourgeois class of Salemi, were active conspirators who were exiled and imprisoned by the Bourbon reaction. In 1860, they supported Garibaldi’s enterprise with weapons, money, and hospitality. They later held important elective positions in their municipality, in Trapani, in Palermo, and in the Italian Parliament. Loyal to Garibaldi and his ideals, they supported him until the end. Simone Favara, Alberto’s father, was elected mayor of Salemi in 1881. He remained in office for just over a year, unable to reconcile public responsibilities with the troubled private and family life that followed. In a climate of various difficulties, Alberto, as told by his daughter, had “a childhood and adolescence without a hearth.” Nevertheless, he attended the Vittorio Emanuele Boarding School in Palermo and, at the age of seventeen, showed interest in music by enrolling in the local Conservatory where he obtained his diploma.

At the age of thirty, appointed as a teacher at the same Conservatory, he obtained the chair of Solfeggio and Harmony and, later, that of Composition. In 1911, for a biennium, he was appointed director of the prestigious institute. He distinguished himself in studies and teaching with commitment and competence. He deepened the work of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and the relationship between music and poetry in ancient Greek tragedy and lyric. He then studied the works of Arthur Schopenhauer and other philosophers who showed an interest in classical music. He was also fascinated by the immense production of two giants of classical music: Richard Wagner and Ludwig van Beethoven. The knowledge he acquired had a significant influence on his formation as a musician and prolific composer. Between 1891 and 1894, he composed “Urania,” a three-act melodrama. The work, praised by critics, was performed at La Scala theater in Milan on December 9, 1918, under the direction of the renowned conductor Tullio Serafin. In 1884, also in Milan, at the Dal Verme Theater, his youthful opera “Marcellina” was performed. During that time, his friendship with the almost same-aged Giacomo Puccini solidified.

At the end of the troubled 19th century, he began the research and collection of materials necessary to compose the Corpus of Sicilian folk music, after publishing the “Songs of the earth and sea of Sicily.” He also found time to work on a volume on classical antiquity and the Renaissance. The Corpus consists of a total of 1090 melodies! Collected, not without difficulties and sacrifices, in Salemi and in other towns in Trapani, Palermo, Modica, Ragusa, and many centers in the eastern part of the island. The collection activity lasted more than seven years, from 1898 to 1905.

The musicologist Paolo Emilio Carapezza, emeritus professor at the University of Palermo, told the writer that Favara then “had to give up because for such activity he only had the summer vacation months or the period free from teaching obligations. But his intention was to collect melodies throughout Sicily. Alberto Favara went to Rome several times to try to obtain at least exemption from teaching for a few years. He did not succeed. At that time, they probably – somewhat amusedly clarifies Professor Carapezza – thought of him as a little crazy, someone who chased after the songs of peasants, fishermen, and cart drivers.” Bitter for the lack of understanding and ostracism prevailing in the places that were supposed to help him in completing a unique work, he remained almost blocked for a considerable period. Suddenly, he realized that he should not give up and, with the tenacity of geniuses guided by reason, he set out to travel across Sicily by all means (on horseback, by train, with a carriage) collecting, patiently and clearly, from the live voice of shepherds, farmers, and fishermen, the melodies necessary to complete his monumental work whose manuscripts remained locked in a family cupboard for many years.

It was thanks to the shrewdness of Favara’s former student and then son-in-law, Ottavio Tiby, a musicologist, historian, and, from 1920 to 1950, music critic of the Giornale di Sicilia, that the 1090 songs and the vast material left by his father-in-law were organized according to a scientific criterion. Finally, in 1954, after numerous and arduous adventures, the Sicilian Region, by decision of President Franco Restivo, financed the publication, under the auspices of the Academy of Letters, Sciences, and Arts of Palermo, of the work entitled, as previously mentioned, “Corpus of Sicilian Folk Music” with a polished preface by the famous ethnologist Giuseppe Cocchiara.

The original manuscripts of Favara (lyric songs, lullabies, sea songs, religious songs, dance songs, “tammurinate,” “abbanniatìne,” instrumental music, etc.) were donated by the family to the “Giuseppe Pitrè” museum in Palermo where they are still preserved today. Ironically, neither Favara nor Tiby were present at the complete publication of the songs, in two large volumes, in July 1957. The former because he had passed away 34 years earlier, the latter, after submitting the final draft of the Corpus for printing on December 4, 1955, following a road accident, lost his life on the pavement in front of the Teatro Massimo.

Apart from some marginal bile dissent, the world of music and culture has always paid Alberto Favara collective gratitude and appreciation for the volume and quality of his artistic production. His students Francesco Paolo Mulè, Gino Marinuzzi, Filippo Ernesto Raccuglia, thanks to the teachings received, did not have difficulty asserting themselves in the music world. Among his “students,” we should also include his four daughters whom Favara, without hesitation, led towards the study of literature, figurative arts, and, of course, music. It is no coincidence that each of them played an instrument: Maria the violin, Teresa the cello, Diana the piano, Anna, although attracted to sculpture, occasionally did not give up strumming. Alberto Favara was proud of his offspring because, like him, he considered music “a sublime art and a means of social and spiritual elevation… but also an art of movement together with dance and poetry.” His “Songs,” as emphasized in the commemorative conferences, withstand the wear and tear of time. It is excellent news that puts in a corner those who claim that we have entered the “tunnel of lost memory.”

Alberto Favara, il musicista innamorato dei canti popolari

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