The Infamous Scala Enigmatica

A scala cromatica (chromatic scale) can sometimes be a nightmare to practise – and we say so as singers ourselves – but wait till you meet the Scala Enigmatica!

The scala enigmatica, as its name already suggests, is an unusual musical scale featuring both major, minor and augmented seconds. Invented by Adolfo Crescentini, a professor of music at the Bologna Conservatory, this enigmatic scale was first published in Ricordi’s “Gazzetta musicale di Milano” in 1888 as a challenge for its readers to harmonize it. The exact number of submissions to the music journal remains a mystery, and this scale would probably have long been forgotten had Verdi not presented his solution to the musical puzzle in 1889.

The enigmatic scale – or, in Verdi’s own words, “that awkward scale” – was used as the cantus firmus of his Ave Maria, which subsequently became the first song of his Quattro pezzi sacri, notwithstanding the composer’s reluctance in allowing the piece to be published, by reason of it merely being a “game” and hence, “not true music” and should “never [see] the light of day”. But be that as it may, we should probably be thankful that the work had eventually been published, for the austere and bold harmonization for four-part a cappella chorus, as well as the ethereal effect it creates, serve not only as a glorification of Mother Mary, but also as evidence of Verdi’s splendid compositional artistry.

Come hear us perform Verdi’s Ave Maria – plus, of course, the other three pieces – from his Quattro pezzi sacri, and Rossini’s Stabat Mater, in our next concert. Tickets now available at urbtix outlets or online at

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Crossing opera and sacred music

Rossini was quoted to have once confessed:- “I have only wept three times in my life: the first time when my earliest opera failed, the second time when, with a boating party, a truffled turkey fell into the water, and the third time when I first heard Paganini play.” His gleeful personality might have molded his compositional style – it is quoted that “audiences took his music as if to an intoxicating drug – or, to put it more decorously, to champagne, with which Rossini’s bubbly music was constantly compared”.

Although his setting of the Stabat Mater, a Catholic hymn contemplating the suffering of Mother Mary during the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, had been criticized to be too operatic and lighthearted for its subject, it is thought that the “operatic” features of the work serve to enunciate the grief and piety of Mother Mary and the sincerity of her prayer.

Come hear us perform Rossini’s Stabat Mater and Verdi’s Quattro pezzi sacri in our next concert. Tickets now available at urbtix outlets or online at

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Verdi and religion

Do you know that Verdi, as the man behind “Quattro pezzi sacri” (“Four Sacred Pieces”), was in fact not a religious believer himself? He was described by his wife to be “a jewel among honest men… but certainly very little of a believer… I exhaust myself in speaking to him about the marvels of the heavens, the earth, the sea, etc. It’s a waste of breath! He laughs in my face and freezes me in the midst of my oratorical periods and my divine enthusiasm by saying ‘you’re all crazy,’ and unfortunately he says it with good faith.”

Nonetheless, with its operatic features – aria-like themes, long pauses, sudden contrasts in texture and dynamics, to name a few – it is thought that this collection of sacred songs still serves as an inspiration of faith to the audience.

Come hear us perform Quattro pezzi sacri and Rossini’s Stabat Mater in our next concert. Tickets now available at urbtix outlets or online at

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