A New Italian Renaissance

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert A New Italian Renaissance, performed on April 18, 2008 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Commenting on the death of Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936), Alfredo Casella (1883-1947) observed that despite the different musical paths they had taken, which led to a breach in their relationship, Respighi’s “point of departure was the same as that of our entire generation: the necessity to leave the outworn, sterile atmosphere of verismo as soon as possible, that is, to abandon the art of the preceding generation.” Indeed, all the composers on tonight’s program, with the exception of Giuseppe Martucci (1856-1909) and Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), were represented on the first concert of a new Italian national music society on March 16, 1917. For Casella’s generation Martucci was considered a forerunner and the founder of a new resurgence of creativity in Italian music. He had taught Casella and Respighi and in 1895 advised the parents of the young Casella to send the talented boy abroad, for there was no one in Italy who could nurture his talent in a manner competitive with the progressive developments taking place in France, Germany, and Russia.

The notion that at the turn of the twentieth century many Italian musicians considered themselves in a relative backwater seems incredulous. Italy had long been regarded as a vibrant cultural alternative to the darker traditions of northern Europe. In the era of early Romanticism, during the first half of the nineteenth century, German intellectuals flocked to the south to gain new inspiration, following a path already charted by Winckelmann and Goethe. Italian opera dominated the European scene for generations before Wagner. The music of Chopin and Liszt is unimaginable without considering the influence of bel canto. Following Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti came the towering figure of Giuseppe Verdi, represented tonight by arguably his best-known music from his best known opera Aida. Close on the heels of Verdi came the verismo style that Casella so despised.

Italy indeed was no nineteenth-century backwater. Nevertheless, despite the centrality of opera, its musical traditions—precisely because of their international currency—struggled to adapt to the rapidly changing political and social realities that overwhelmed the Italian peninsula after 1848. Under the adept leadership of the Piedmontese monarchy, war was waged against Austria (who controlled much of northern Italy, including Venice) and an alliance with France was consummated, leading to a nearly unified kingdom of Italy by 1860. A decade later, owing in part to the ability of Italian nationalism to create a united front between monarchists and republicans like Giuseppe Garibaldi, a new Italian nation came into being, almost simultaneously with the unification of Germany. Count Camillo Cavour, its architect, was born in 1810 and was just three years older than Verdi. He had been one of the founders of a newspaper dedicated to Italian nationalism in 1847 entitled Il risorgimento, the name of which became attached not only to a political ideal but a cultural one. Alessandro Manzoni’s epic novel The Betrothed was a jewel among that new cultural nationalism’s many literary achievements. But no one equaled Giuseppe Verdi as a symbol of the post-1848 spirit of a reborn Italy free of foreign political influence. The Triumphal March from Aida, which premiered in 1871, is a thinly veiled celebration of the political accomplishment of his generation: the bringing together of all the Italians.

But as late as 1913, younger Italian artists, intellectuals, and writers found fault with Verdi and his generation. Casella wrote an article that year (of which he was later ashamed) that was severely critical of Verdi. It was only decades later that Verdi’s greatness became apparent to him, as “the creator of new musical beauties. . .the man who strove, full of a sense of responsibility toward his art.” The problem for Casella’s generation was not so much with Verdi but with the artistic ideals that seemed compatible with the founding generation of national Italian political consciousness. The genre of opera and its overwhelming domination of the Italian scene were barriers to the engagement with modernity. Casella was fond of the following quote regarding Italian opera: “a special kind of artwork, built on the brink of an abyss of ridicule, which is upheld by the force of genius.” As Casella concluded, opera “demands of the spectator and the listener a real willingness to believe in that blind faith which is required by every heroic or religious act.”

For Martucci and those who followed in his path, the opportunity for a new contemporary Italian musical voice lay in the instrumental realm rather than the operatic. It is significant that Italy’s greatest conductor of the turn of the twentieth century, Arturo Toscanini, bridged the gulf between the operatic (including verismo) and the instrumental, finding reconciliation in an all-encompassing patriotism reminiscent of Verdi. Gian Francisco Malipiero (1882-1973) considered Martucci “a genius in every sense of the term.” The Second Symphony is his masterpiece, and despite the reservations expressed in the program note by Harvey Sachs, it calls for no apologies. It is astonishing that only the music of Respighi has managed to hold a place in the international repertory. Idlebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968) is an entirely forgotten figure, and Malipiero and Casella have both suffered in part because of indirect political associations with Italian fascism.

The failure of this group of Italian composers to sustain a wide following and international reputation is perhaps the result of the fact that none of the individuals on tonight’s program can claim to having originated a new or distinctive style in the manner of Debussy, Stravinsky, or Schoenberg. Casella, for example, radically varied his approach to composition during his career. Just as Martucci is accused of being derivative and too dependent on a Brahmsian model, Casella’s early dependence on French and Russian influences is held against him. Malipiero has emerged, in retrospect, as the most compelling and original composer of this generation. Unlike others, he sought to downplay his earliest work. Pizzetti in contrast represents almost the reverse case. His first period was his most original. He was, among other things, an early admirer of Dukas’s Ariane et Barbe-bleue. Pizzetti throughout his career exercised a powerful role in music education in Italy. But he was also one of the signatories of a notorious reactionary manifesto against modernism written in 1932.

The link between all the composers on tonight’s program is not merely generational. What binds them is the historical moment in which a new kind of nationalism and approach to life were in vogue that encompassed a rather Nietzsche-like ecstatic and immediate embrace of creative action, the mysticism of Gabriele D’Annunzio, the radical egalitarianism inherited from Garibaldi, and above all, a shared fascination and romance with Italy’s history. All these composers at one time or another looked backwards to two singular moments when the Italian peninsula dominated the world. In the political realm, as Mussolini’s brand of fascism revealed, it was the glory of Rome that held sway. In the arts, it was the overwhelming superiority of the Italian Renaissance in music, architecture, painting, and poetry that was revisited in the form of a distinct neo-classicism. Furthermore, this new cultural nationalism kept its distance from the Rome of the Catholic Church and continued the strong anti-clerical strain of the mid nineteenth-century Italian risorgimento.

Despite the accusation of eclecticism, each of these composers produced more fine music than is represented in this program or in orchestral repertoire generally. Once again, greatness in music ought not be reduced to a criterion of originality that is perceptible and audible only on the surface. The originality of Bach, Haydn, and Mozart cannot be located by looking for markers of a new style. Yet in the post-Wagnerian era we are prisoners of the privileging of a certain kind of stylistic originality. The heterogeneity of influence audible in these composers’ work should not be a barrier to responding to the beauty and power of their achievement. Insofar as the reputations of Pizzetti, Malipiero, Casella, and to a lesser extent Respighi, have been damaged by tacit and active endorsement of Mussolini, it should be remembered that much of Europe in the 1920s thought well of Mussolini. These individuals were not alone in failing to recognize the disastrous trajectory inherent in fascist nationalism, particularly when it was combined with dreams of renewed imperial grandeur. The time has come to rethink our relationship with the music of these early-twentieth century Italian masters of non-operatic composition who shared with Verdi and Martucci an enthusiasm for a new, unified political future and present for Italians—one that could put an end to the enmity and rivalry that dominated Italian politics before 1870 and still does today. They sought to fashion not only works of art but institutions of education and performance that would represent a new modern Italian renaissance that mirrored in culture the political emancipation from foreign domination. Their efforts were not in vain. Without the musical advances made by this generation, the nearly unrivaled creativity in the realm of new music in Italy after 1945 would be unthinkable.