Academic journal article Romance Notes

A Syn-Aesthetic Path: The Notion of Counterpoint from Antonio Gramsci to Edward Said

Academic journal article Romance Notes

A Syn-Aesthetic Path: The Notion of Counterpoint from Antonio Gramsci to Edward Said

Article excerpt

GRAMSCI's writings on music are scattered among various letters, newspaper articles, and notes from The Prison Notebooks. While the subject is not treated systematically, there are many insights that, taken altogether, offer a rather comprehensive view on his ideas concerning the role of music in society. Gramsci was well acquainted with music, first as a student in Cagliari, and later as a journalist in Turin. The main focus of Gramsci's observations is opera, Italy's most popular entertainment form well into the twentieth century. Gramsci was aware that opera shaped "common sense" (senso comune) through the diffusion of a set of shared attitudes, behaviors, and verbal expressions, which he calls linguaggio melodrammatico. He also realized that opera represented the Italian equivalent of serialized novels; it compensated for the chronic lack of national-popular spirit of Italian writers and intellectuals.

While Gramsci lacked the technical competence to articulate his thoughts on music in a broader context, he did nevertheless inspire other intellectuals who were able to draw fruitful connections between music and literary criticism. The cultural critic Giorgio Baratta, building on the dichotomy between sonata form and counterpoint theorized by Adorno and later elaborated by Edward Said, highlights the implications of Gramsci's thought with regard to developing discursive practices in post-modern and post-colonial studies. In light of Gramsci's intuitions, in this paper I will trace a succinct genealogy of the notion of counterpoint as it appears in the works of the above mentioned authors.

Gramsci had an early acquaintance with music; his mother was a good amateur singer, and the young Antonio had many opportunities to hear Sardinian folk music at home and in the community. In a letter written in 1927 from prison, Gramsci encourages her to send him news about that music he missed so much. (1) Later on, when he was a high school student in Cagliari (1908-1911), Gramsci attended at least one opera, either Madama Butterfly or Manon Lescaut; apparently he did not refrain from booing the performers with loud raspberries, as was then customary. Although he never became a fan of opera, he did attend many other concerts in Turin while working as a journalist for the socialist newspaper Avanti! In his music-related articles written during the war he defended the famous and controversial conductor, Arturo Toscanini, for choosing to include works by Wagner in his concert programs. Wagner, as all German composers, was ostracized as an enemy of the country. Gramsci, however, had no sympathy for such anti-German propaganda; he detested the hypocrisy of those who booed Wagner after having idolized him just a few months before. In the years preceding the war, in fact, most Italian intellectuals preferred Wagner to Verdi, considering the latter's music too simple and prone to the public's taste.

In another article Gramsci praised Verdi, commending him as "the meek hero, symbol of the country in the sacred years of national Risorgimento." (2) The Prison Notebooks offer a less enthusiastic view of Verdi, who is held accountable for the diffusion of many artificial attitudes and behaviors among the popular classes. Nonetheless, Gramsci stigmatized those "music aristocrats" who despised the composer, considering him a sort of Eugene Sue of music; according to Gramsci, such attitude revealed the lack of national-popular spirit of Italian intellectuals.

Gramsci's ambivalent opinion of Verdi reflected his more general concern about the influence opera had on the masses. The combined power of music and drama amplified the resonance of second-class literature, which most librettos were, contributing to its diffusion on a national scale. Gramsci recognized that the popular classes picked up certain "melodramatic tones and attitudes" with passion and sincerity, to the point that they became incorporated into the language. …

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