A new music piece about Sacco and Vanzetti: The Italian Years by Mary Ellen Melnick

An interview by Sergio Reyes, 6/2/2014

Please give us a bit of background about yourself, where were you born, your family, and how long have you been playing and composing music for piano.

About my background, I was born in 1958 in Queens New York in a very working class environment. I began taking piano lessons at age 6 at the convent for the nuns who taught at our elementary school. My first teacher was a very gifted classical concert pianist from Cuba and between that and my love of sound I knew early on that the piano would be a lifelong relationship.

As far as composing goes, I was always preoccupied with somber sounds from everywhere and would spend many hours and weeks and months just repeating the same few tones in my head over and over. This would become an obsession that would lead to composing themes in my head, then at the piano and then expounding on them. I would say the greatest inspiration for me is despair and the sound of voices, whether they be the human animal or other species. Call and response and snippets of conversation are fascinating to me and translating them to music just seems to want to happen. Many people outside of musicians have found this strange over the years and I'm probably not "all there" however its what drives me and makes me believe that life is worthwhile.

When did you learn about the lives and death of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti? What impact has this situation had in you throughout your life?

As regards learning about Sacco and Vanzetti, I heard about them early on, when I was about nine. There was a program on TV on a Sunday, and I remember William F. Buckley Jr. and someone interviewing him were talking about criminal trials and unfair verdicts and the death penalty in general. I remember they flashed a picture of Sacco and Vanzetti handcuffed together, and I remember feeling sick and terribly sad seeing them and hearing about how they were treated. I knew I would have to find out more about them and did so, at the local public library that had a section of old newspapers with major headlines.

Then after this, a TV program called "Room 222" about a history teacher in a public school spoke about Sacco and Vanzetti as a topic of their history discussion, and I felt the need to continue to find out more about them. I remember visiting with my grandfather from Italy who lived downstairs from us and with whom I loved to spend time with after school. He would ask me what I learned that day and when I told him I was interested in and very sad about Sacco and Vanzetti, he looked like a deer in the headlights and said something akin to how terrible a time that was, and how could they take two innocent men, one who made shoes and one who sold fish and do such a terrible thing to them. He looked so sad and his voice was so soft when he spoke, that I knew there was something very strong about these men that would preoccupy my thoughts and that would affect me forever. And so it has.

At that point I became haunted by their voices although I had never heard them, but I imagined how they would sound and would think about them and imagine them seated in a garden, talking about their lives. Between this image and the image of them handcuffed, I would say I probably have thought about them every day from then on and knew I would want to do something in their memory about them. I just didn't know what it would turn out to be.

Why did you decide to compose a major musical piece in memory of the two executed men? What do you want the listeners to get out of it?

What I would hope the listeners would get out of this composition is the feeling of these men's convictions, their strength and absolute bravery. Their dedication to their beliefs and their humbleness and great wisdom and struggle for equality for the working man must ring in our ears forever, and I can only hope this music and the recurring themes will begin to haunt the listener so that they are inspired to read about these men and think more about how much their lives and deaths contributed to the common good. Composing is not about me at all. It is about the subject matter and emotion and the love of sound.

What is the musical structure of your piece? What key is it composed in? It seems to me to be in F minor. Why did you choose that key, what mood are you representing?

As far as the structure of the piece, it is composed in one movement purposely, as I did not wish to break up the story, but have it echo back and forth with recurring themes that weave in and out of the piece. It starts out in F minor, simply because I have always found this key to be the saddest and it goes through various key changes, ending up in D minor. I didn't want the piece to end in F minor as I did not wish to convey something that has come full circle, but rather a journey in sound that ends in a more unsettling way.

The piece does modulate back and forth. In my own mind, there is the courtroom with the sadistic judge Thayer, there is a love song to Rosina, Sacco's wife and there is a segment where Sacco and Vanzetti play bocce. along with moments where they are reminiscing and having flashbacks about more peaceful times, throughout the overall struggle. It's just the way I hear things. There is no right or wrong thing to get out of this music, but I would be disappointed if the listener did not feel for these men and did not find themselves saddened by their plight. I would not wish to befriend someone who just didn't care about them.

You named your composition Sacco and Vanzetti The Italian Years. Sacco migrated to the U.S. when he was 17 years old and Vanzetti at age 20, both men arrived here around 1908, is this musical piece related to their lives in Italy before 1908?

The reasons I titled this work "Sacco and Vanzetti - The Italian Years" is because I did not wish to be melodramatic and set the listener up with some type of preconceived ideas, nor did I wish to minimize the gravity of their struggle by simply calling it "The Struggle". Nothing can compare to "justice crucified" which was how the sympathizers described what was going on at the time. "The Italian Years" is about Sacco and Vanzetti's entire lives when you consider they reminisce and have flashbacks, however it is about the 1920-1927 period specifically also, when people all over the world were trying to support these "two Italians" and when people of all ethnicities found themselves wrapped up in the desperate situation of these "two Italian men." I wanted the the title to be simple and true.

As I listen to your piece, the music reminisces in my mind romantic composers like Chopin. Unlike Ennio Morricone's concert for Sacco and Vanzetti (1971 composed as a movie score) which was very contemporary you chose a more classical style, why?

Regarding the type of work this composition is, I think of it as a soundscape, or a soundtrack, or a story. I wanted this to be in a more classical style so that it would pay respects to days past, and so it would perhaps be of a more operatic nature, as I often think of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti whistling and humming little quiet sections of Italian tenor operas, back in their homeland. I am drawn to the quiet moments when no one else is around, and when they may have found themselves simply humming, perhaps even in the prison cell.

The tempo and the themes remain quite steady until about 19 minutes before the end, when while maintaining the theme, the tempo and the mood change.

As regards the tempo becoming more frantic during the latter parts of the piece, it is because I am trying to depict what would happen when a person knows they are going to be put to death, particularly when they are innocent. The frenzy surrounding this must be overwhelming and yet so lonely and quiet at the same time. The very end is my interpretation of electricity and how static and sharp and dissonant and fiercely sudden it travels. How it shows no mercy and strikes down fatally in the electric chair. I didn't wish for the last sound to be pretty or weak. I just wanted it to stop short. Nothing I do can ever depict the horror of what these men suffered, however I wanted to give everything I felt inside me about them back to them in the only way I know how. It will always fall short.

To listen to a clip of the piece click here.

The CD can be purchased at: www.cdbaby.com/cd/maryellenmelnick