It was entirely by accident that I stumbled upon the amazing talent of Antonio Pasculli. I had never really heard of any romantic virtuosic oboists before and I had such a hard time finding any information about him that wasn’t extremely basic. However, I was fortunate enough to find a treatise written by an FSU alumna, Anna Pennington, about Pasculli which had a few good information and resources. His works and legacy were lost for most of the beginning of the 20th century until oboists Omar Zoboli and Heinz Holliger started reviving his work in the later half of the century.
“The Paganini of the Oboe!”
Antonio Pasculli (1842-1924) was an Italian virtuosic oboist who, like many other child prodigies, started touring Europe at a young age – fourteen in his case. Since his history is so poorly documented, it is unclear what kind of repertoire he played as a young soloist. Eventually because of his technical aptitude he, like Paganini before him, had to start composing works that truly showcased his brilliance. Because he was so often compared to Nikolai Paganini he was sometimes referred to as “The Paganini of the Oboe.” From my research, most of his oboe compositions that we know about were fantasies, etudes, transcriptions (and variations therein) of opera arias, or small chamber works (1). Pasculli was extraordinarily influential in popularizing the practice of circular breathing on the oboe and many of his compositions require this technique in excess. Pasculli is interesting and perhaps different from other virtuosi of the Romantic era because in 1860 he was appointed a permanent position as professor of oboe and English horn at the Regio Conservatorio di Palermo and conducted the local municipal band (2). This band was fascinating because he required all the members to play string instruments as well as their wind instruments and through this hybrid ensemble was able to perform standard orchestral repertoire, band repertoire (which was lacking in that era), and compositions of his own for this unique ensemble (3).
It is often debated whether or not virtuosi conformed to the musical philosophies of the Romantic era or if their focus on their own mastery of a particular instrument overshadowed the music. Personally, I see both sides to the argument and I believe that a virtuoso can indeed be a great musician, but that the two are not mutually exclusive. In Pasculli’s case, I believe his extensive work in compositions for a variety of ensembles showcased his mastery of not only the oboe, but of music as a whole.
I have unknowingly been listening to a famous composition of Pasculli’s for the last three years on my favorite oboe CD (Played by the god, Eugene Izotov) called La Favorita which is a variation on a theme from Donizetti’s opera, La Favorita. However, I recently discovered an incredible virtuosic work called Le api (The Bees). I opened the score on IMSLP and my jaw just dropped. There is a short intro, then six and a half pages of continuous 32nd notes (I will post a link at the end). This is about a four and a half minute piece and the performer is expected to circular breathe through the entirety of it (which, might I add, is insanely difficult). It might remind the modern listener of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” but it is important to note that it was written prior to Korsakov’s composition. It is an extremely arpeggiated work with drastic dynamic differences throughout the piece, chromaticism, and fast leaps over a fairly large range of the instrument.
1. Pennington, Anna, “Days of Bliss are in Store: Antonino Pasculli’s “Gran Trio Concertante per Violino, Oboe, e Pianoforte su motivi del Guglielmo Tell di Rossini”” (PhD. Treatise, Florida State University, 2007).