Bringing a Lost Masterpiece Back to Life—A Family’s Quest, with the Help of Social Media

Not everything on social media is fake news. Sometimes social media can work miracles.

A hundred and two years ago on October 2 1916 a big new Oratorio was performed by star Metropolitan Opera soloists and a 150-member chorus in Carnegie Hall. It was the Oratorio di San Francesco by Italian composer Adriano Ariani (1877-1935) a good friend of the famous conductor Arturo Toscanini.

With a libretto in Latin by Father Sixtus Lagorio the Oratorio was commissioned in 1914 by St. Anthony of Padua Church on Thompson Street in Manhattan to honor its 50thanniversary and the founding of the first Franciscan parish in the United States.

The original cast included the famous soprano Frances Alda, the rising young tenor Luca Botta and baritone Adamo Didur. The Oratorio was well received by audience and reviewers.

The New York Times piece published on October 3 1916 read Ariani’s new Oratorio makes a very deep impression. The America Press on October 14 1916 described the work  “sublime…with passages of extraordinary beauty”.  It described the Oratorio as “A finely conceived and truly creative work.”

A production at the Metropolitan Opera House with the same star soloists was mounted the following spring, on April 15 1917, with Adriano Ariani himself conducting. It has not been heard since. The score vanished, hidden from the Italian fascists in the 1930s, and subsequently lost.

But now, thanks to social media and the diligent efforts of a team of enthusiasts led by the re-united Ariani family and Jonathan De Vries, conductor of the Canterbury Choral Society, a lost masterpiece is being brought back to life.

On Sunday November 11th 2018, it will be performed again with soloists and full orchestra and chorus at the Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York City.

“This is a beautiful piece in the Italian operatic tradition, very lyrical, with moving arias and excellent choral interludes” says Jonathan De Vries.

Written in six sections, the Oratorio covers the life of St. Francis: the Preludium, Conversion, Institution of the Three Orders, his collaboration with St. Clare of Assisi, the Temptation and Stigmata on Mount La Verna and the Epilogue. Challenging soloist roles include St. Francis, Historicus, St. Clareand the Voice of Temptation.

The story of how this came to be reads like a detective novel complete with sudden deaths, political persecution, relatives lost for 75 years, chance encounters, missing music and a joyful conclusion.

Who was Adriano Ariani?

Born in Rome on November 25 1877 Adriano Ariani was a noted piano prodigy who performed widely across Europe. In 1911 he immigrated to New York and settled in Brooklyn. In New York circles he also became known as a conductor, collaborating for six seasons with his friend, the celebrated conductor, Arturo Toscanini. In addition to the Oratorio Ariani completed two symphonies, vocal pieces for the Catholic Mass, chamber music ensembles and a piano version of the 1905 opera Amica, by Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945).

In 1932, after twenty one years in the United States, Adriano Ariani returned to Italy, with his young American wife, Marian Harlin, and their baby daughter, Antonietta, who was born on September 8 1931 in Brooklyn. The family settled in Pesaro, and Ariani taught music at the Liceo Musicale Rossini and was also the director of the Conservatory of Music in Bologna.

Three years later Ariani died suddenly at the age of 58 on January 28 1935. With the Fascists now in power his widow returned to the United States with her four year old daughter and the Oratorio was lost.

Before she left Italy Marian Ariani had given the composer’s works to a woman friend for safekeeping, in case it was confiscated or destroyed. The Thirties were dangerous times in Italy for artists and musicians. The Fascists did not appreciate Adriano Ariani’s music nor that of his famous friend Arturo Toscanini. A known anti-fascist, Toscanini and his wife had been physically attacked on the street outside the concert hall in Bologna by the Black Shirts and Ariani was also hurt when he came to their rescue. It happened on May 14th1931, in Bologna, when Toscanini refused to play the Fascist anthem Giovinezza before an important benefit concert. Ariani had prepared the orchestra beforehand and was scheduled to play the piano. Toscanini was hit in the face and neck and had to retreat to his hotel and cancel the concert. A crowd of Black Shirts followed him and he was ordered to leave the city before daybreak. 

The Oratorio languished throughout the Second World War and was moved several times from its original hiding place. The Ariani family was bereft. Not only had they lost the score, they had also lost touch with Marian and her daughter Antonietta. All they knew was that she lived somewhere in America.

Fast forward some decades to 2006. Giacomo Ariani, the composer’s nephew, now in his nineties, had been searching for his uncle’s lost music. He wanted to resurrect his famous uncle’s works. He finally tracked down the family of the woman who was given the score for safekeeping and requested the works be returned. He was stonewalled and legal exchanges took place.

Eventually it was agreed that Ariani’s scores be donated to the music libraries in Macerata and Pesaro. The orchestra scores of the Oratorio, including the vocal books and viola, cello and violin sectional books are safely housed in Macerata, where the Ariani family have a villa.

In 2006, at the request of Ariani’s nephew, the Oratorio was transcribed digitally by University of Bologna musicologist Professor Marco Galarini, who painstakingly copied every note onto a computer program used by musicians to compose music. But the Italian branch of the Ariani family did not have the means to produce the big Oratorio again.

Enter the next generation

In 2008 a young student, Linda Antonetti, (most of the characters in this story begin with the letter A) was studying for her master’s degree in music at the University of Bologna. She was searching for an original topic for her thesis. By chance she was dating a member of the Ariani family, Giacomo Astorri, the great nephew of Adriano Ariani. She often visited the family villa in Macerata. One weekend she found an article in an old newspaper, one of Ariani’s concert reviews. Giacomo Astorri suggested she research his great-uncle and take a look at the music in the Macerata library.

Linda was intrigued. She began her research. She wanted to know more about the Ariani family, so she went to Google. What she found started the ball rolling towards the performance to be given on November 11th in New York City. But it almost didn’t happen.

Linda found a reference on Google to Adriano Ariani’s grand-daughter, Andrea Avery. It was a wedding announcement published in the New York Times in 1983. Andrea was engaged to marry Richard Renault and she was listed as the” granddaughter of the late Adriano Ariani of Rome, director of the Conservatory of Music in Bologna, Italy.” Her mother, Mrs. John Edwin Avery, the former Antonietta Ariani, was also listed. Linda via Google, had found Antonietta, the long lost daughter of Adriano Ariani, a first cousin of Giacomo Ariani, the composer’s nephew!  She did not stop there. She went on Facebook and found Remy Renault, the son of Andrea Avery and Richard Renault and she “friended” him and asked him to contact her.

Remy did not at first realize the significance of this request. He was in college and had no idea who Linda Antonetti was. He mentioned her in passing at a family Christmas dinner in 2009 attended by his grandmother Antoinetta and his mother Andrea. His grandmother was initially suspicious. Then she learned that her cousin Giacomo was still alive at the age of 94 and remembered her.  She realized that these were her Italian relatives that she had not seen in 75 years!

Events moved quickly. Antoinetta and Andrea booked a flight to Italy the following March and got in touch with the family. They were all excited at the prospect of a reunion.

Andrea Avery and her mother flew to Venice, were met by Linda, and drove four hours down to Pesaro, near the Adriatic coast. They visited Adriano’s grave, they saw the Ariani music scores in the reading room in the library in Pesaro and they had a joyful reunion with the Ariani family at the villa in Macerata.

“They served us a wonderful five course lunch and we exchanged photos and saw the clippings and other documents, which the family had kept all these years. It was very emotional, especially for my mother. Her cousin Giacomo actually remembered her as a little girl”, said Andrea Avery.

Sadly, her cousin passed away shortly after the reunion. But by then the Ariani family, both the Italian and the American branch, were determined to revive the Oratorio. They just needed a conductor, an orchestra, a chorus and soloists.

Andrea has two brothers, John and Paul Avery, both living in New York. John Avery and his wife Elizabeth attend St. Michael’s Church on the Upper West Side, where Jonathan De Vries was director of the youth choirs and opera program. Elizabeth mentioned the Oratorio to Jonathan one day and he was interested.

John Avery handed Jonathan the full conducting score, about 400 pages long. There was no extant recording. In 2014 Jonathan played through parts of it on his piano, solo phrases and choral parts. He told John they needed a piano reduction so they could have a read thru with members of the Canterbury chorus and four soloists. The Canterbury board and the Avery family agreed. After many hours of work, a piano reduction from the orchestral score was created by Ryan Francis, a contemporary composer. And on Saturday September 16th 2017 in the chapel of St. Hilda’s and St. Hugh’s school, where Jonathan De Vries is director of music, the read thru took place. The pianist was virtuoso performer Stephen Graff.

“Until I heard it I didn’t realize how wonderful it was” says Jonathan. “It sounded like a beautiful Italian opera, late Puccini with a hint of Debussy. It was very moving. The music amplifies the story of the life of St. Francis. There is something quite extraordinary about it”.

Canterbury scheduled the performance for November 11 2018. For the first time in over a hundred years the Oratorio di San Francesco composed by Adriano Ariani will be heard again. Professional soloists include popular Dallas Opera tenor Blake Friedman in the title role of St. Francis, soprano Hannah Spierman as the Voice of Temptation, soprano Laura Jobin-Acosta as Saint Clare and Robert Balonek as Historicus.

Tickets for the November 11 concert are available at the door or via Smarttix.

All photos courtesy of Canterbury Choral Society