Ernest Fanelli


Born: June 29, 1860; Paris, France   Died: November 24, 1917; Paris, France  
As obscure and neglected a figure as one is likely to find in the annals of modern music, Ernest Fanelli was a nineteenth century composer whose work eerily anticipates some twentieth century French Impressionism. Fanelli was born in Paris to a family of Italian émigrés. He entered the Paris Conservatoire as a young man, but resisted the strict regimen of musical training and was soon expelled. For most of his life, he made his living as a Read more timpanist, pianist, or music copyist. He was able to resume musical studies under composer Léo Delibes; unsubstantiated reports also place Fanelli in the class of eccentric pianist/composer Charles-Valentin Alkan. Despite what formal training he may have received, Fanelli in essence remained a self-taught composer, writing with no audience in mind and no intention of hearing his work performed. His major extant composition is the Tableaux Symphoniques d'apres le Roman de la Momie (1882 - 1883, and 1886), which is divided into two parts and based on the exotic novel The Romance of the Mummy by Théophile Gautier.

Fanelli had entirely stopped composing by 1895, when the need to support his family began to outweigh the urge to follow a purely creative direction. Fanelli remained in obscurity until 1912, when his music was discovered by composer Gabriel Pierné. Fanelli was seeking work as a copyist and had submitted to Pierné a sample of his handwriting in the form of one of his own early orchestral scores. Pierné was astounded with the advanced harmonic language of Fanelli's music and began to champion it. Although public attention may not have been what Fanelli had truly desired, he got it, and mostly of a rather negative kind. Instead of being hailed as an unsung pioneer of then-new currents, Fanelli found himself at the center of a bitter turf war being waged among his fellow French musicians. Ravel privately accused Debussy of being a Fanelli imitator and Debussy scrupulously avoided Fanelli at every turn, hoping to sidestep inevitable comparisons between Fanelli's style and his own. It would not be long before critics came to Debussy's rescue, condemning Fanelli as an incompetent who had lucked into an impressionistic milieu by accident. Fanelli's star fell to the point where even Pierné's help couldn't save him and as a result of his short-lived celebrity, only one of his works was brought out into print. By the time he died in 1917, Fanelli had already become as forgotten as he had been unknown before his discovery. Composer George Antheil was one figure who proved the exception in this regard, stating in 1945 that "Fanelli was one of the greatest inventors and musical iconoclasts of all time." However, Antheil also justified this statement by attributing Fanelli's failure to his inability to "discover the new movement," which his music pointed so strongly toward.

One of the aspects about Fanelli's music that seems so striking in the twenty first century is that it embodies such a tough, unvarnished, and un-beautiful approach to oriental exoticism. This may reflect the legacy of Alkan's experimentalism, if indeed Fanelli was Alkan's student, and it has something in common with Fanelli' s younger contemporary Albéric Magnard's tendency toward plain textures and aggressive orchestration, not to mention Erik Satie's deliberate avoidance of complexity. So while Fanelli's music is advanced for its time, it still historically fits in with what is known about the development of French modernism. Sadly, there isn't much of Fanelli's music left for future generations to evaluate, as only very little of it has been preserved. Read less
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