La commedia dell'arte


La commedia dell'arte - (2007)    

Thirteen etudes for piano


i.      Arlecchino

ii.     Brighella

iii.    Columbina

iv.    Gli innamorati

v.     Gli vecchi

vi.    Gli zanni

vii.   Il capitano

viii.  Il dottore

ix.    La ruffiana

x.     Pagliaccio

xi.    Pantalone

xii.   Pierino

xiii.  Pulchinello

[ 13 pages, circa 19' 25" ]



The title, Commedia dell'arte ("Comedy of Art" or "Comedy of the profession"), means unwritten or improvised drama, and implies rather to the manner of performance than to the subject matter of the play. This peculiar species had a long life in Italy, probably of about four hundred years (from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century); but it flourished especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Of course in actual practice the play was not, in any sense, the result of the moment's inspiration. The subject was chosen, the characters conceived and named, their relations to one another determined, and the situations clearly outlined, all beforehand. The material was divided into acts and scenes, with a prologue. The situations were made clear, together with the turn of action and the outcome of each scene. When this general outline (called also scenario or canvas) was satisfactorily filled out there was left an opportunity for actors to heighten, vary, and embellish their parts as their genius might suggest. The necessity for smoothness, constant surprise, clearness, and wit called forth histrionic abilities which had been unknown to the medieval stage. "The actors had to find the proper words to make the tears flow or the laughter ring; they had to catch the sallies of their fellow-actors on the wing, and return them with prompt repartee. The dialogue must go like a merry game of ball or spirited sword-play, with ease and without a pause." [ from A Short History of the Drama. Martha Fletcher Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1927.


The names of the commedia dell'arte characters are akin to those of the French pantomime and the English harlequinade; therefore not all the known names appear as titles for these etudes. All the etudes are from one to two and one half minutes in length, and organized in the edition by alphabetic title.


Arlecchino -  probably the most famous of the Commedia characters, this harlequin is a servant, eager to please his master or mistress, lives for and in the moment, loves what he sees and forgets what is quickly out of sight. He is a trickster known for his physical antics, and his adroitness at getting out of difficult situations is usually the result on not considering the consequences of his antics until it is too late. Never malicious, Arlecchino is sympathetic to everyone's misfortunes, almost to a fault. The etude is alternatively lively and long lined, while sometimes lightly polytonal.



Brighella is the crafty, unscrupulous servant, often paired with Arlecchino. He thrives on double dealings, intrigues, and foul play. Having the highest status among the servants, he is sometimes depicted as an innkeeper, shop owner, valet, or soldier--cunningly separating patrons from their cash and possessions. He is a cynical liar who only looks out for himself, and is never repentant when caught in wrongdoing. The etude is dark and menacingly dissonant, in 3/8 meter and with coloristic whole tone harmonies creating a sense of intrigue.


Columbina - a servant who was usually the beloved of Harlequin, served the female of the lovers - gli innamorati. She was sometimes named Arlecchinetta. This little etude of 1' 15" is a sweet two- and three-voiced invention emphasizing thirds and major triadic harmonies, sometimes dominated by parallelism in its harmonies and voice leading.



Gli innamorati - the lovers, are made of a handsome Inamorato who was given varying names, depending on the theater troupe. The Inamorata was his female counterpart who also went by differing names. Unlike most characters, they wore no masks and spoke eloquent declamations of love to each other. The etude in G flat major features a highly decorated soprano voices and a simpler bass voice, separated by static off-beat chords to represent the regular opposition keeping them apart.


Gli vecchi - "the old servants" follow the lovers in the same key signature, now as E flat minor, in which a solitary bass line moves beneath a simple, dissonant passacaglia-like harmonic gesture. The same sense of no relief as one finds between the voices of "Gli innamorati" pervades this etude.


Gli zanni - the younger servants, though some companies portrayed them older, brought stock comic sketches to the stage. As such, this etude in a bright B major features dotted rhythms alternating with lyrical melody over an odd three-measure ground bass.


Il capitano - a bragging, boasting, outwardly swashbuckling and usually over-dressed officer, would tell extraordinary lies about how he singlehandedly conquered a whole army of Turks, but when there was a hint of real danger he was the first to run away. His standard game is to woo the none-too-innocent servant maid, and got caught and beaten by her lover, Arlecchino. He became the named character, Scaramuccia or Scaramouche in later centuries, though he had many other names as well. The etude in E major is notated wholly in bass clefs, and features a simple, decorated bass line in which ornamentation is written out and a staccato touch to emphasize the braggadocio of this character's stock in trade.




 Il dottore - the figure of the doctor is that of the falsely intellectual man; older and wealthy, he is usually played as pedantic, miserly, and hopelessly
unsuccessful with women.  In F sharp major, this etude features self-important dotted rhythms in a quasi-classic manner, and five note, parallel chords which do not resolve, but rather function as a melodic "Klang."


La ruffiana -- the feminine of ruffian --was a rough, old woman, either the mother or a village gossip, who thwarted the lovers. In an unsettled, E minor mode, the etude in "cut time" features close triadic dissonances, as the rough character of the player speaks in harmonies and a square rhythm. A little bridge material speaks in dissonant sevenths and ninths humorously.


Pagliaccio - the clown was the forerunner to today's clowns, an all purpose comedian bringing levity and planned sketches to the drama as interludes. In G flat major, this etude relies on dissonant, parallel seconds and opposing motion for its opening gestures, with a pleasant parallelism of triads as the secondary thematic texture.



Pantalone - or Pantaloon -- was a caricature of the merchant, rich and often retired, mean-spirited and miserly, with a young wife or an adventurous daughter, sometimes one of the Innamorati and sometimes Columbina. This etude is in a darkly voiced C minor, in 4/4 meter. A strutting, rising, dotted gesture is answered with strange, false-neighbor harmonic relationships.


Pierino - also known as Pedrolino, Pierrot, Burrattino, and Bertoldo, is a mild-mannered zanni - a servant.  The noticeable feature of Pierino is his naïveté; always the fool, always the butt of pranks, yet trusting. He is played as moonstruck, distant and oblivious to reality. He tends to be so kindly that other characters blame him for things he never did, and he agrees that it was all his fault. The etude is heavily polytonal, the chords broken in arpeggios, with a highly ornate and heavily decorated second texture which follows. Rooted in C, the last cadence is an extended polytonal gesture employing C, D, E, F sharp and B flat major triads over a root of C.


Pulchinello -  who became the Punch of English "Punch and Judy" puppet shows, is the freak: pitiable, seemingly helpless, and often disfigured by a hump back or pronounced limp. In some portrayals he is mute, and expresses himself in squeaks or other strange sounds. His personality can be foolish or tricky and shrewd, and yet he is at the same time a cruel, womanizing bachelor. This etude is in B minor, notated in 4/4 with some gestures a strong, limping dotted rhythm in quadruple meter, only then shifting to a quasi 12/8 through written-out triplets.



The score for La commedia dell'arte is available as a free PDF download, though any major commercial performance or recording of the work is prohibited without prior arrangement with the composer. Click on the graphic below for this piano score.


La commedia dell'arte