Pirrotta's Narrative of the History of Italian Music: Music and "Cultural Fashion"

By Cummings, Anthony M. | Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Pirrotta's Narrative of the History of Italian Music: Music and "Cultural Fashion"


Cummings, Anthony M., Transactions of the American Philosophical Society


Given the Mediterranean's status as a complex organic cultural system and Italy's prominent place within it, as repository, ancient panMediterranean traditions were destined to influence Italy's artistic expression, including its "ethnophonic patrimony.'" The primeval Hellenic, Theocritan, "pagan" mythological elements underlying Mediterranean (and specifically Sicilian) experience have left their traces in the arts of the Mediterranean world2-music among them-throughout its long history and vast geographic reaches. As "recently" as the sixteenth century emerged the greghesca, a musical genre setting texts in the patois of the "Orientalized," Venetian lingua franca of the Mediterranean ports, which evoked the linguistic practices of the stradioti, Greek mercenaries in the service of Venice.3

But there was also the converse, similarly attributable to the antiquity of Mediterranean cultures: their gradual emergence at a time when most inhabitants of that world could not enjoy ease of transportation and communication beyond their own local community. Existing concurrently with pan-Mediterranean sensibilities, therefore, were circumscribed local traditions: linguistic, musical, and artistic "dialects," with characteristics that readily distinguished them as Sicilian,4 Neapolitan,5 Bergamasque, Paduan, Venetian.6 Linguistically, the regional languages associated with each of the different geopolitical entities were direct, parallel descendants of Latin; the musical traditions associated with those regional entities were also distinctive and identifiable.

Yet another characteristic that defined the artistic productivity of the Mediterranean world was its continuing dialectic-its tension-between popular and learned traditions, and between orality and literacy. Elusive vestiges of popular tradition that we can occasionally identify in the learned constitute what little evidence there is of widespread practices that are otherwise irretrievable, a musico-anthropological undertaking of great importance, subtlety, and complexity.7

These various characteristics of the culture of the Mediterranean world bequeathed to its music such features as "a delicate and graceful polymodality that gives the music an archaic flavor"8 and such distinctive performance practices as the pan-Mediterranean predilection for solo-singing to the accompaniment of a bowed , strummed , or plucked string instrument.

But these are developments that predate our narrative, which begins instead around A.D. 1150.

With the European "Renaissance of the twelfth century,"9 powerful aesthetic and intellectual sensibilities emerged in northern Europe, associated above all with an educational program that might be termed "scholastic," and with the emergence late in the century of the University of Paris. The recovery of Aristotle's writings and the triumph of Aristotelian logic as an intellectual system or style, and the resultant emergence of a passion for intellectual order, were developments that were sufficiently robust and honored to influence many manifestations of elite culture: the prevailing architectural style (the "Gothic"), musico-compositional technique (complex polyrhythmic polyphony, which necessitated a musical notation that unambiguously specified pitch and pitchduration, or rhythm).10

It is not a coincidence that the earliest decisive European solution to the problem of notating rhythm precisely is associated with Paris, medieval university-city par excellence.11 And that same association with university cities of polyphonic practice and its customary supporting "technology" (the unambiguous notation of pitch and rhythm), which characterized the musical culture of medieval France, was typical of medieval Italy as well. Some of the major centers of polyphonic practice in fourteenth-century Italy were also university cities: Bologna and Padua, among others. It was perhaps natural that there should have been a congruence between an interest in musical notation on the one hand and the intellectual interests of the notaries, grammarians, and, above all, physicians on the other; and, indeed, one of the oldest known examples of Italian secular polyphony sets a text on a medical topic, which was sent to Accursino, physician of Boniface VIII. …

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