Known as “the birthplace of bel canto”, Italy is actually a country where music is almost totally ignored. What is being done about children’s music education, in special or ordinary schools? Little to nothing. Music education is a goal to be pursued immediately, and with determination. Reform is needed in traditional music schools and music must be taught in every school, from primary school to university.
In talking about the difficult, ambiguous or absent relationship between Italians and music, there is a complaint, six centuries old, that immediately goes to the heart of the matter. Between the 13th and mid-14th centuries, we discover an amazing phenomenon: the death of monody. Until then, music had been not only singing, but more particularly monodic singing, meaning a single pure vocal line. After that, music became almost totally different: the weaving together of parts, a search for a blend of sounds, harmonic feats. Why should this concern us? Because this new type of music, meaning polyphony, was born in Northwestern Europe, so that while the French and English launched the first harmonic and contrapuntal constructions, for a further couple of centuries the Italians – according to our historians – continued with their monodic singing, as though enraptured by the enchantment of vox sola. This gap was enough, say some, to produce a crucial consequence. On the one hand, they say, in the north (in France, England, but in Germany most of all), you find polyphony, symphonism and instrumentality – in short, reflection and thought. In Italy, on the other hand, you find vocality, inspiration, feeling, emotivity, the theatre, which is to say the primacy of a line that, with just a little exaggeration, starts from Gregorian chant and, through the ars nova, 17th century music drama, consisting of arias and cavatinas, blossoms as 19th century melodrama with its tenors and prime donne, finally arriving at today’s singers, incapable of putting three notes together, but cleverly amplified by juke-boxes. Naturally, not all music historians agree with this thesis, limited as it may be by a certain schematism. Some object, however: it must mean something that great symphonic music is largely German and great lyric music mostly Italian.
From this point of view, tracing the origin of this divide between monody and polyphony, if nothing more, is useful in fixing a starting point
In a recent dispute between Franco Cordero, an anthropologist, and Fedele D’Amico, a music critic, even more radical opinions emerged, which are worth summarising. Cordero maintains that “The higher music culture of German- and English-speaking countries can largely be explained by the Protestant Reformation. […]
Religious piety becomes an emotional channel to the divine that can best be expressed by music. Catholic religiosity, on the other hand, lacks this sense of drama and the irrational. Italians lack a sense of the tragic and, I would say, are not very appreciative of music because they are not very devout, where ‘religion’ means taking a leap outside oneself and being tempted by convulsive adventure”. Fedele D’Amico has a very different opinion and says, “The basis of music audiences has always been provided by those in one way or another capable of playing music and, for centuries, such people have everywhere been very few. This is why audiences have increased wherever music has spread and to the same extent, culminating in music education for all”. The difference is clear. For Cordero, it’s a matter of national qualities and race, whereas for D’Amico it’s exclusively a question of inadequate legislation. […]
This lengthy premise serves as a background for the main questions of any inquiry into Italian music culture and education. Numbers, statistics, diagrams are of little importance if we omit either the themes of the cultural debate concerning the phenomenon of our ignorance, or the detailed reports of daily life confirmed by the same phenomenon. Let us immediately take two examples. During the debate in the Chamber on the decretone, a shorthand typist transcribed Luigi Nono as “Luigi ix”, evidently confusing the Venetian musician with a King of France. In the same debate, the member for the Manifesto, Luigi Pintor, dwelt at length on the musical qualities of the Red Flag, which he defined as poor. It’s true: from any melodic point of view, the Red Flag is very bad. It can’t compare with the lusty driving force of the Marseillaise or the Internationale. The monotony of Red Flag fragments a bit only in the last verse of the chorus, which proclaims “Long live Socialism (or ‘Communism’, in other versions) and Freedom”, where in little more than three syllables the tune jumps to the octave above. But – and this is the point – even there the chorus is invariably transformed. From being a chorus, it becomes a shout, a yell, a jeer. After twenty-five years of public performances at demonstrations, meetings and congresses of all sorts, few have realised that to avoid transforming the finale of this popular anthem into a strangled howl, it has to be started lower down, “almost an indistinct murmur”. It’s not a worthless example. On the contrary, the case of the Red Flag immediately illustrates and renders almost tactile the clamorous truth about our musical illiteracy, of which, moreover, excellent examples can be found at any social level and under any political regime. During the Fascist period, when the national delegates had to sing the hymns of the revolution together, with all due martial vehemence, the hall would be “stuffed” with professional singers. Indeed, only those honest professionals wedged in under the stairs, between columns, behind the panelling, were capable of keeping properly to the tune throughout the performance. […]
Our list of examples goes on, of course, but what counts is something else: making it clear that to define Italy as “the birthplace of bel canto” (as also “the Garden of Europe”, or “the birthplace of jurisprudence”) is pure ingenuousness. Not only is it not the birthplace of bel canto but, on the contrary, it is the country where music is ignored with such massive indifference that it is a wonder that even top-level musicians, conductors, soloists and orchestras manage to survive. Although in the 16th century, Baldassare Castiglione could include among the worldly duties of a person of culture “to be a musician”, “understanding and being at home with books” and being familiar “with various instruments”, nowadays even young ladies of good family who can play a minuet by Mozart on the piano, amidst a thousand blushes and uncertainties, have become exceedingly rare and prized.
[…] To be more convincing, let us start by looking at a few figures. The first astonishing fact is the purchase of records, the most widespread “voluntary” means of enjoying music (i.e. not strait-jacketed by programmes broadcast by radio or television and not even by collections of public performances). In the sale of records, among European countries Italy ranks fourth after England, West Germany and France […]. We must bear in mind the fact that while “single” disks usually contain light music, lps as a rule contain classical music and – more rarely – popular music, jazz, folk. Percentagewise […] the Italians’ discographic preferences are 90.7% for popular music, against 9.3% for classical; in the other three European countries we like to compare ourselves with in moments of optimism, we have England with 60.8% (light music) against 39.2%; West Germany with 62% against 38%; France with 72% against 28%.
[…] There is also another fact that we can add: newsagent sales of record collections published by Fratelli Fabbri are said to have reached (according to non-official data): Storia della musica (History of Music; 80 thousand copies per week); Grandi musicisti (Great Musicians; 120 thousand copies); Musica moderna (Modern Music; 25 thousand copies). But, what do these numbers signify for music education?
On this question, the opinions are completely divided. On the one hand, optimists deem that any instrument capable of subtracting listeners from jingles and ditties must be enthusiastically welcomed and supported. On the other, the more severe consider that listening to music on records, meaning a single interpretation selected and recorded for eternity is of little use and, on the contrary, can even be damaging.
This position echoes the words of Adorno, the first to perceive the danger of mechanised music and to be aware that records partly suppress the fascination of music, which lies in interpretation. Listening always to the same recorded performance of a Beethoven symphony is like always seeing Luchino Visconti’s production of Chechov’s The Cherry Orchard. In any case, whichever side you take, it is clear that listening to records remains a compromise, a passing phase, like a child whose mother reads him stories until he can read a book for himself. The musicologist Giorgio Pestelli writes: “Music must be played: the disgraced young lady of good family who ‘tinkled’ away at the Barbiere opus for four hands still had something to teach the present-day high fidelity maniac who can’t read a note, for whom the music he listens to has the same face as the sleeves of his records”.
So, how much music do Italians play? The only reliable data concerns the sale of musical instruments. These too are difficult however, because there are no official statistics here, although they exist in the United States of America and confirm what we all know: that the us is prey to a kind of music craze, in which one American out of five plays or studies one or more instruments […].
On the basis of the data available, let us now see what is happening in Italy. In 1966, we sold 20-25,000 guitars, 2,500 home electronic organs, 5,000 pianos, to mention just the most indicative instruments. Such poor figures are still lower for string instruments (violins, violas, violoncellos, double basses), which almost no one studies any longer. […]
Let us now leave aside records and instruments and see how many organisations have a charter to divulge musical culture to the masses, i.e. the “concert societies”, and how they work. For such activities, the State has an annual budget of 700 million lire, which are shared among roughly 200 “concert societies” in the country. In not such a large country, 200 organisations of this kind would seem at first sight sufficient to animate a decent musical culture. But this not so. Glancing through the official data for 1969 we see immediately that this activity is also afflicted by widespread problems. In Rome, for example, where the Ministry of Tourism and Entertainment is located, there are 24 subsidized musical associations, with figures ranging from 36 millions for the deserving Accademia filarmonica romana to 500 thousand lire for the Centro romano giovani artisti lirici. There are a further 12 societies that are not subsidised, but aspire to be so. […]
The truth is that, even if our analysis includes opera lirica, the overall picture livens up, but doesn’t lose its dismal tones. Opera costs the public 20 billion lire every year […]. Despite this fact, each of our 11 opera houses stages every year ten or fifteen new productions that end up in the warehouse after their few scheduled performances […].
On the whole, the difficulties experienced by Italian music culture have a precise starting point: the conservatories. On this topic, Andrea Mascagni – who teaches composition at the Bolzano conservatory – has carried out a vast inquiry for Nuova rivista musicale. The data collected shows that conservatory pupils are considered, within our scholastic system, as little less than eccentrics, for whom a few distracted phrases are reserved in official reports. […] For the past thirty years, the numbers of conservatory pupils have remained fairly static. But that’s not all. The number of the enrolled is not even reliable since, as Mascagni declares, “it can be estimated that not more than 50% (perhaps less) of those who enrol at a professional music school reach the end of their studies”. […] The defect is fundamental, say the experts: our conservatories are organised to award certificates, in the best of cases, to “virtuosi”, not musicians, and still less musicologists, courses which, very recently, can be found only at Bologna on a semi-experimental basis. As Riccardo Allorto says, “The conservatory is the most inauspicious centre of Italian music. A certificate for the pianoforte is of no use either for becoming a soloist, or for teaching the piano. In practice, it serves no purpose”. Mascagni also holds the same opinion: “At conservatory level, the piano serves only for preparing exams, learning a certain number of pieces by heart. It’s not an instrument for ‘reading’, improvising, getting familiar with […]”. But at this point a basic consideration arises, supported particularly by Fedele D’Amico: “Reforming the conservatories without reforming music teaching as a whole would be useless. Why? Because in countries where music is taught seriously at school, only those who are already sure of their vocation go on to a conservatory and the admission exams are extremely difficult. […] But what do our graduates know how to do?”. The answer is given by the musician Carlo Frajese who teaches chamber music at Perugia: “They don’t know anything. They don’t know what to suggest, how to accompany dances, how to teach music, how to conduct an orchestra, how to put together a group of singers, how to produce the sound track of a film, how to write four beats of jazz, and not even how to work in the theatre, for the cinema, or how to use an editing machine in a rehearsal studio. This is the result of a teaching course that, for its whole duration, provides no analysis of a single lyric or symphonic text, but merely the repetition of the same piece for months on end”.
[…] Numerous conferences, reports and meetings have been devoted to conservatory reform. Although no practical outcome has been achieved so far, they have been able to clarify the ideas of their participants. Of the projects presented, the one that saw the greatest consensus was the one made by the sindacato musicisti italiani (Italian musicians’ union), also presented as a legislative proposal in Parliament. The two principal concepts on which it is based are the teaching of music at all schools (from primary school to university) and the total reform of music schools.
So, is it all bad? Almost all. […] There’s no time to lose. Recently, Arturo Carlo Jemolo wrote that our era is characterised more than anything by laziness: of all the kinds of artistic expression, music suffers most from this sort of negative inheritance. A group of young people can create a theatre company without ever having seen an acting academy, or make a film or attempt some collective sculpture without ever frequenting the respective schools. But no young person can even start intoning the scale of A major unless he or she knows that three notes have to be made sharp. In music, familiarity with current models is of little use. If you are familiar with Bach, it’s easy enough to end up appreciating the Beatles too; the contrary is almost impossible. This is why adopting the teaching of music at all schools is the only thing to do.