Ernest Fanelli was born and died in Paris (1860 – 1917). He briefly attended the Paris Conservatoire, but was expelled. He was also rumoured to have studied with the experimental composer Charles-Valentin Alkan, but these rumours have not been substantiated. In effect, Ernest Fanelli was self taught and his works did not see the light of day until finally discovered in 1912, by Pierné. By this time Fanelli had long since stopped composing and was supporting himself as a musician and copyist.
What is remarkable about Fanelli’s music is that it developed in virtual isolation and in some ways ‘predicted’ Impressionism. This lead to much controversy when figures such as Debussy were accused of having stolen from Fanelli. Debussy even took to avoiding him. Fanelli himself did not court this controversy and was not interested in getting sucked into a feud. However, none of this gossip worked in his favour and he quickly sank back into obscurity.
The elements of Fanelli’s music which are reminiscent of Impressionism is the extensive use of uneven meters, the wholetone scale and augmented triads and various atonal and polytonal devises later popularised by Debussy. Tone and colour take a front seat too. There is also plenty that sets his music apart. It’s altogether starker, harsher and more aggressive.
Only one of his works (divided into two parts) survive today; Tableaux symphoniques d’apres le Roman de la Momie (1882 – 1883, and 1886) which is based on Théophile Gautier’s novel Le Roman de la momie (‘Romance of the Mummy’).
The Tableaux starts in Egypt at the time of Ramses II where a young girl is forcibly abducted and married to the Pharaoh. She eventually becomes the Queen of Egypt and as such is buried in Pharao’s tomb upon her death. When the tomb is uncovered In the 19th Century one of the excavators falls in love with her mummy.
Part I, Thèbes, is in three movements. Uncharacteristically for the time it opens with the mezzo-soprano Lydia Drahosova, harps and percussion. Gongs, bass drum rolls, crashes are beaten repeatedly and relentlessly. The music is aggressive and epic in a similar way to modern day action/adventure filmscores. Comparisons to some of Bernard Herrmann’s Hitchcock scores are inevitable. There are also similarities to Respighi. It does make me wonder if these composers had come across Fanelli. (Lace, 2002)
My own impression of Fanelli’s music is coloured by the time I live in. To me, it simply sounds like film music. It is often bombastic and overblown. It lacks the sensitivity of Debussy and Ravel, but it is nevertheless very effective in setting a scene and evoking an exotic landscape. I could so easily see it as the soundtrack to a Hollywood fantasy blockbuster. A highly enjoyable adventure…
Cooke, M. (2008) A history of film music. [Kindle edition] From: Amazon. co. uk (Accessed on 9 March 2017)
Fanelli, E. (s.d) Ernest Fanelli. [Download] Available at : Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra – D’apres Le Roman De La Momie: I. Thebes: Devant Le Palais De Tahoser – Lydia Drahosova, Mezzo-soprano (Accessed on 6 April 2017)
Lace, I. (2002) Ernest FANELLI (1860-1917) Symphonic Pictures: ‘The Romance of the Mummy’. At: http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2002/Nov02/Fanelli_marcopolo.htm#ixzz4gyZ5xVQD (Accessed on 17 April 2017)
Lewis, D. (s.d) Ernest Fanelli: Artist Biography by Uncle Dave Lewis. At: http://www.allmusic.com/artist/ernest-fanelli-mn0001667181/biography (Accessed on 23 February 2017)