Italy: the Decline of a Tradition

  • John Rosselli
Part of the Man & Music book series (MAMU)


In the winter of 1855–6 a young English student of singing could be found going for walks on top of the bastions that still hemmed in the city of Milan. He would have preferred to get clean away into the countryside, but that would have meant on his return facing a sort of customs examination from the officials who levied a municipal tax on incoming goods at each of the city gates. It was easier to take the air on top of the walls.1


Italian Composer Musical Structure Instrumental Music Young School Opera House 
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  1. 1.
    C. Santley, Student and Singer (London, 1892), 68–9.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    A. Biaggi, preface to G. Vaccaj, Vita di Nicola Vaccaj (Bologna, 1882), pp.viii–ix, xvii–xviii.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    E. Labiche, La poudre aux yeux (1861).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    C. Sartori, L’avventura del violino: l’Italia musicale dell’ottocento nella biografia e nei carteggi di Antonio Bazzini (Turin, 1978), 86–7;Google Scholar
  5. for earlier Florentine interest in Viennese Classical music, see M. De Angelis, La musica del Granduca (Florence, 1978).Google Scholar
  6. 5.
    C. Sartori, Il R. Conservatorio di Musica G. B. Martini di Bologna (Florence, 1942), 136–40.Google Scholar
  7. 6.
    Verdi to Giulio Ricordi, 20 Nov 1880, quoted in J. Budden, The Operas of Verdi (London, 1973–81), ii, 255.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    M. Carner, Puccini: a Critical Biography (London, 1958), 256–65, 468–9.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    C. Tisdall and A. Bozzolla, Futurism (London, 1977), 111–13Google Scholar
  10. F. Torrefranca, Giacomo Puccini e l’opera internazionale (Turin, 1912).Google Scholar
  11. See also Torrefranca’s article ‘Problemi del dopoguerra musicale’, Critica musicale, i (1918), 33–9, 57–66, 88–92, in which he reviews his earlier career.Google Scholar
  12. 10.
    R. Tedeschi, D’Annunzio e la musica (Florence, 1988) is a full, ruthlessly unsympathetic account.Google Scholar

Bibliographical Note General background

  1. English-language general histories of manageable length are D. Mack Smith’s Italy: a Modern History (Ann Arbor, 1959) andGoogle Scholar
  2. M. Clark’s Modern Italy 1871–1982 (London, 1984).Google Scholar
  3. Famous alternative interpretations of this still controversial period are those of B. Croce, A History of Italy 1871–1915, trans. C. M. Ady (Oxford, 1929; originally published Bari, 1928), andGoogle Scholar
  4. A. Gramsci, found chiefly in his Letteratura e vita nazionale (Turin, 1950) andGoogle Scholar
  5. Selections from Cultural Writings, ed. D. Forgacs and G. Nowell-Smith, trans. W. Boelhower (London, 1985).Google Scholar
  6. Storia d’Italia, ed. R. Romano and C. Vivanti (6 vols, in 9 parts, Turin, 1973–6), includes (iv/2) a stimulating essay by A. Asor Rosa on the cultural history of the period; it points out the neglect of music by Italian intellectuals and has something to say about Verdi but not about Puccini.Google Scholar
  7. A great deal has been published in Italian on intellectual and artistic life, perhaps most notably by W. Binni, La poetica del decadentismo (Florence, 3/1961).Google Scholar
  8. Much less has appeared in English, but see (on D’Annunzio) A. Rhodes, The Poet as Superman (London, 1959), and, on the noisiest radical movement,Google Scholar
  9. C. Tisdall and A. Bozzolla, Futurism (London, 1977).Google Scholar
  10. A. Andreoli’s Gabriele d’Annunzio (Florence, 1988), in its lavish illustrations, covers a good deal more than the poet’s life and tastes. Many theatre posters survive and give a good notion of changing taste; they are reproduced in several illustrated works on La Scala, Milan, none of them otherwise satisfactory as a history of the theatre.Google Scholar

The musical world

  1. Two penetrating essays on the problems facing Italian composers in the latter half of the nineteenth century are the chapters ‘The Collapse of a Tradition’ and ‘A Problem of Identity’ in volumes ii and iii of J. Budden’s The Operas of Verdi, 3 vols. (London, 1973–81).Google Scholar
  2. He has a further chapter on Verdi and his fellow composers in A Verdi Companion, ed. W. Weaver and M. Chusid (London, 1979).Google Scholar
  3. A dense but worthwhile essay on the aesthetics of late nineteenth-century opera is G. Morelli’s ‘Suicidio e pazza gioia: Ponchielli e la poetica nell’opera italiana neo-nazional-popolare’, in Amilcare Ponchielli 1834–1886 (Casalmorano, 1986).Google Scholar
  4. Morelli is the author of another pregnant essay on musical education in Il Conservatorio Benedetto Marcello di Venezia 1876–1976, ed.P. Verado (Venice, 1977).Google Scholar
  5. There is much interesting information on the growth of instrumental music (as well as musical education) in C. Sartori’s L’avventura del violino: l’Italia musicale dell’ottocento nella biografìa e nei carteggi di Antonio Bazzini (Turin, 1978),Google Scholar
  6. a ‘life and letters’ study of the violinist-composer-teacher Antonio Bazzini, and on the beginnings of concert-giving on a large scale in G. Depanis’s I concerti popolari ed il Teatro Regio di Torino, 2 vols. (Turin, 1914–15);Google Scholar
  7. the early chapters of H. Sachs’s Toscanini (London, 1978) are also useful. There is unfortunately no thorough study of the central institution of the Italian musical world in this period, the publishing house of Ricordi.Google Scholar
  8. On opera, the six-volume Storia dell’opera italiana, ed. L. Bianconi and G. Pestelli (Turin, 1984–),Google Scholar
  9. of which vols.iv, v and vi have appeared, is designed to set opera in its social context and to discuss it according to its creative and productive aspects, where the earlier Storia dell’opera, ed. G. Barblan and A. Basso, 6 vols. (Turin, 1977) is organized more according to schools and individual composers.Google Scholar
  10. Extraordinarily detailed dossiers of the creation of Verdi’s last three operas are H. Busch, Verdi’s Aida: the History of an Opera in Letters and Documents (Minneapolis, 1978), andGoogle Scholar
  11. Carteggio Verdi-Boito, ed. M. Medici and M. Conati (Parma, 1978). Busch has now (1989) covered Otello in the same way.Google Scholar
  12. Wagner in Italia, ed. G. Rostirolla (Turin, 1982), brings together essays on Wagner’s influence;Google Scholar
  13. there is nothing comparable on the influence, at least as important, of French composers. The business and organization of opera is dealt with in J. Rosselli, The Opera Industry in Italy from Cimarosa to Verdi: the Role of the Impresario (Cambridge, 1984),Google Scholar
  14. and in L. Trezzini and A. Curtolo, Oltre le quinte: idee, cultura e organizzazione del teatro musicale in Italia (Venice, 1983);Google Scholar
  15. visual aspects are splendidly illustrated in vol.iii (by M.V. Ferrero) of Storia del Teatro Regio di Torino, ed. A. Basso, 4 vols. (Turin, 1976–80).Google Scholar


  1. The finest study of Verdi’s operas is J. Budden’s, already mentioned; he has also written a one-volume account of Verdi’s life and works (including a detailed study of the Requiem) in the Master Musicians series (London, 1985; best read in the corrected paperback edition, 1986). The challenging G. Baldini, Abitare la battaglia, ed. F. D’Amico (Milan, 1970),Google Scholar
  2. trans. R. Parker as The Story of Giuseppe Verdi (Cambridge, 1980), is, in spite of the English title, largely a study of the operas;Google Scholar
  3. it was left uncompleted at the author’s death and does not deal fully with anything later than Un ballo in maschera (1859).Google Scholar
  4. There are distinguished critical studies by J. Hepokoski of Otello and Falstaff (Cambridge, 1983 and 1987).Google Scholar
  5. On Puccini the fullest study in English is M. Carner, Puccini: a Critical Biography (London, 1958), whose psychoanalytical interpretations are however disputable;Google Scholar
  6. there is at least as much to be gained from the briefer E. Greenfield, Puccini: Keeper of the Seal (London, 1958),Google Scholar
  7. and from W. Ashbrook, The Complete Operas of Puccini (Oxford, 1967, rev. 2/1985).Google Scholar
  8. The most revealing source for Puccini the man is the collection of letters to his family, Puccini com’era, ed. A. Marchetti (Milan, 1973).Google Scholar
  9. Other Italian composers of the period fare less well: their works (apart from Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci) are seldom heard, their reputations uncertain. Probably the best study, P. Nardi’s Arrigo Boito (Milan, 1942), suffers from having appeared at a time when Boito’s importance could still be taken for granted.Google Scholar

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© Granada Group and The Macmillan Press Ltd 1991

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  • John Rosselli

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