Magazine article Musical Opinion

ITALIAN 20th CENTURY MUSIC: The Quest for Modernity

Magazine article Musical Opinion

ITALIAN 20th CENTURY MUSIC: The Quest for Modernity

Article excerpt

ITALIAN 20th CENTURY MUSIC: The Quest for Modernity By Michael D.Webb Kahn &Averill 150 pp. ISBN 978- 1 87 1 08289-0 £13.95 paperback

The only thing wrong with this book is that at barely 150 pages it is too short. Crowd- ed with composers, many of whom seem of great interest, and most of whom remain unfamiliar to us, the story of Italian music in the 20th century and beyond is full of diverse happenings which are scarcely known outside their land of origin. But Michael D. Webb is a master of his subject, having, through long residence in Italy, become acquainted with much absorbing music. Writing about this great body of work in a thoroughly engaging manner, he arouses an appetite in us to learn more. He could have painted the larger and more detailed canvas which the subject could easily have supported.

This music's 'quest for modernity,' to quote Webb's subtitle, was not so much an avoidance of opera - for even in the 21st century Italians still compose works in that form - but a long-drawn-out flight from reaction and ignorance. Many attempts to modernise Italian music were frustrated by the deep-rooted conservatism of authences there. The orchestral scores of Mozart, Mendelssohn, even Beethoven, were unknown in Italy as late as the 1860s, Pelléas et Mélisande was greeted with hostility in 1907, Rosen kavalier was 'too modern' for La Scala in 1911. So it was a long way from Leoncavallo to Nono and 19th-century pioneers of instrumental music like Sgambati and Martucci should be saluted for their independence. So should Busoni, a key modernist figure whose case is complicated by his German affiliations yet who was sure Doktor Faustus (1917-24) finally eliminated any trace of verismo. A similar claim may be advanced for the contemporaneous Debora e Jaele (1922) by Pizzetti, who, though writing 14 operas followed an independent line in them, partly as a result of his fascination with Renaissance vocal music. Verdi, a towering figure who had died in 1901 yet who, Webb tells us, remains an influence on Italian music even today, had recommended that composers 'look back to move forward,' which sounds like the neo-classicism of the 1 920s. This was taken up by members of, approximately, the 1880s generation such as Tommasini although I fear the author exaggerates by equating Le donne di buon umor with Pulcinella because Stravinsky makes a far bolder use of his Pergolesi originals, thereby far surpassing Tommasini's charming orchestrations of Scarlatti sonatas.

Other important figurers of the entre deux guerres period include Casella, who in fact spent many years in Paris, whose Scarhttiana and Paganiniana paralleled the neo-classical tendency of Tommasini but who had as early as 1917 founded a 'Societa Italiana di Musica Moderna' and whose Pagine di Guerra and Divertimento por Fulvia are indeed more modem. Progressive too was the very prolific Malipiero, whose output covered nearly 70 years. His Torneo Notturno is particularly striking while his La favola del figlio cambiata is an extremely adventurous piece using a considerable diversity of styles. …

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