Quartetto by Giuseppe Totti

As part of my ongoing research project mainly focused on retrieving the known mandolin prints from the 18th century (almost finished by the way), I occasionally stumble upon manuscripts as well. Though these are not the focus point of my current research there are occasions were I cannot resist indulging into a little side project.

I also went through the Portuguese national library, and one manuscript caught my eye almost at once. My interest was soaring because of the particular ensemble (quartet of two mandolins and two guitars) as well as the composer: Giuseppe Totti, one of the music masters of royal court.

Giuseppe Totti

Though there is certainly a case for further research into this composer, some elementary studies provide information about Giuseppe Totti. Some first sources from Rome in 1777 list him as a singer, and some other sources put it that he was a castrato. When around 1777 some singers from the Portugese royal court went away or on pension, there were some vacancies for singers. Totti’s name shows up in the archives for an audition and was accepted in 1780.

The position of singer at the royal was combined with some functions as singer (in some cloisters, royal theaters and the royal chamber). Though we get good reviews about his qualities as a singer, one source mentions that he sometimes suffered from (health?) issues from which his voice also suffered. Hence it is not surprising that Giuseppe Totti looked for alternative musical functions. He was likely trained in composition by those famous composer from the royal court, like David Perez and Joao Sousa de Carvalho.

In the end, he reached the position of master of the royal chapel himself. He left compositions in different genres: quite a lot are vocal music (mainly religious). Some of the profane vocal music is accompanied by guitar, which seems to suggest that he had some affinity with plucked string instruments (maybe played guitar to accompany singers).

Mandolin at the Portuguese royal court

We already know for year that David Perez wrote a variation sequence of 128 variations on a theme, dedicated to the royal princesses. This piece was most likely a study meant for their music / mandolin tuition. This manuscript is also preserved in the Portuguese national library and a facsimile edition is available from Colibri.

David Perez both held the title of master of the royal chapel as well as teacher to the royal children. Hence he is a direct predecessor to Giuseppe Totti, who also achieved both titles later on. The quartet seems to suggest that mandolin tuition or playing of these instruments at the royal court held on in the 1790s. At the very least the music was meant for the royal court, but with the clear link to mandolin tuition, it’s even possible it was played by members of the royal family.

The Quartetto by Giuseppe Totti

Though it’s only a short piece it shows affinity with plucked string instruments as well as a very good education in composition. Both Neapolitan and Viennese influences can be found in the composition and it’s very much in line with the fashion of it’s day (composition has a date of “1793” written in a different hand).

The ensemble is made up by two mandolins and two guitars, though the part of the first guitar says ‘guitar or viola’. Though Totti used guitar in some other vocal works, he never used two guitars, and maybe had difficulty to find a second guitar player. The third part is quite possible with viola, but the chords and plucked string feel of the composition make it slightly less favourable.

There are only two movements, a rather stately Allegro with interesting orchestration. This is not a composition with two main melody instrument and accompaniment, the guitar parts are in effect used in interesting ways. The Allegro is a typical sonata form. There are also some nice interactions between the parts and some driving rhythms which make the piece pleasing to the ear.

The second movement is a Rondo. Here the first mandolin takes the lead and the other parts are usually accompaniment (true to the normal music form of a rondo), but in some cases (mainly in the alternation themes to the rondo theme) their roles becomes a but more substantial. Again a composition very much in the style very fashionable at the end of the 18th century – a Rondo is quite usually the end of a quartet.

It seems there never were other movements, and though a quartet usually had three or four movements, there are other examples of two-movement quartets. Some dynamics help form a view of the interpretation – though only piano and forte signs are used there is also a distinct use of technique which suggest crescendo.

Playing the quartet

The quartet is quite playable as it stands in the manuscript. I made an adaptation for mandolin orchestra first. The biggest alterations are reduction of the guitar chords (so you can take them with the four fingers rather than strumming a chord) as the left-out notes are present in other parts. Also, some alterations / reduction were made to fit the mandola rather than guitar. I’ve added in a double bass – more or less in the orchestration style of Mozart who uses the bass only in places where the orchestration needs the extra depth (forte passages usually).

First impressions from rehearsals: very enjoyable as this is one of the few 18th century pieces really written for a 4-part plucked string ensemble. We could also immediately reach a nice tempo and in short while have the interpretation in our fingers, which shows how suitable the music is for a mandolin orchestra. The orchestra members also seemed to prefer the piece to some of the existing adaptations of 18th century mandolin music. These usually are adapted triosonatas (or extended triosonatas – 2 mandolins, violin and bass) which have not so much of an orchestral composition but more of a melody role for the mandolin parts, reducing the rest to accompaniment. Totti has a more orchestral composition, and his style is also more akin to the fully developed classical era rather than the early classical (gallant) style.

Today we will create this adaption for the first time before an audience (fingers crossed!). Based on the feedback from the audience and my colleagues in the orchestra I will likely make some slight further alterations (so far already highlighted: making the mandola part slightly more idiomatic).

In the meanwhile I’ve also created a mandolin quartet version of the music. Though at some parts this lacks the orchestral depth, the music seems to hold its own  even in this particular ensemble.

I will likely distribute the original and my adaptations at a later stage, when I’m content and have reached a version I consider to be final. If possible I might also share some recordings of the piece as the concert will be recorded (though a simple field recording only, not with a huge setup of audio captation).

The original can be found at the Portugese National Library in Lisbon, ms. F.C.R. 216/47.