DURING THE WHOLE of the eighteenth century, as during the seventeenth, Italy was the land of music. Her musicians enjoyed throughout Europe a superiority comparable to that of the French writers and philosophers. Italy was the great market for singers, instrumentalists, virtuoso, composers, and operas. She exported them by the hundred to England, Germany, and Spain. She herself consumed prodigious quantities of them, for her appetite for music was insatiable, and she was always asking for more. The most famous masters of Germany-Handel, Hasse, Gluck, Mozartcame to put themselves to school with her; and some of them left the country more uncompromisingly Italian than the Italians. The English melomaniacs invaded Italy; one saw them traveling from city to city, following the singers and operatic companies, passing the Carnival in Naples, Holy Week in Rome, the Ascension in Venice, the summer months in Padua and Vicenza, the autumn in Milan, and the winter in Florence; for years on end they made the same tour without ever tiring of it. Yet they need hardly have disturbed themselves in order to hear Italian opera, for they had Italy in London. England was so thoroughly conquered by the Italian taste from the beginning of the century that the historian Burney made this strange reflectionwhich, in his mouth, was praise of his own country:
“The young English composers, without having been in Italy, lapse less frequently into the English style than the young French composers, who have spent years in Italy, lapse in spite of all into the French style.”
In other words, he congratulates the English musicians for succeeding in denationalizing themselves better than the French. This was due to the excellent Italian companies then in London performing opera and opera buffa, directed by such masters as Handel, Buononcini, Porpora, and Galuppi. Burney, in his infatuation for Italy, concluded that “England was consequently a fitter school than France for the formation of a young composer.
This observation was, unknown to Burney, somewhat flattering to France, which was, in fact, of all the nations that which opposed the most obstinate resistance to Italian influence. This influence was brought to bear no less upon Parisian society and Parisian artists; and Italianisrn, which found a vigorous support among the philosophers of the EncyclopediaDiderot, Grimm, and above all Rousseau-gave rise to a positive warfare in the musical world, and in the end it was partly victorious; for in the second half of the century we may say that French music was a prey which was divided up like a conquered territory between three great foreign artists: an Italian, Piccinni; an Italianate German, Gluck; and an Italianate Belgian, Gretry.
The other nations had not held out so long before succumbing. Spain had been an Italian colony as far as music is concerned since an Italian operatic company had been established there in 1703, and especially since the arrival in 1737 of the famous virtuoso, Farinelli, who was all-powerful with Philip V, whose fits of insanity he calmed by his singing. The best Spanish composers, having taken Italian names, became, like Terradellas, Kapellmeisters in Rome or, like Avossa (Abos), professors in the conservatories of Naples; unless, like Martini (Martin y Soler) they went forth to carry Italianism into other European countries.
Even the northern countries of Europe were affected by the Italian invasion; and in Russia we find Galuppi, Sarti, Paisiello, and Cimarosa establishing themselves and founding schools, conservatories, and opera houses.
It will readily be understood that a country which thus radiated art all over Europe was regarded by Europe as a musical Holy Land. So Italy was in the eighteenth century a land of pilgrimage for the musicians of all nations. Many of them have recorded their impressions; and some of these descriptions of journeys, signed by such names as Montesquieu, President Charles de Brosses, Pierre-Jean Grosley de Troyes, the scientist Lalande, Goethe, the Spanish poet, Don Leandro de Moratin, etc., are full of witty and profound observations. The most curious of these works is perhaps that of the Englishman, Charles Burney, who with unwearying patience crossed Europe by short stages to collect the necessary materials for his great History of Music. Strongly Italianate in matters of taste but honest and impartial, he had the good fortune to be personally acquainted with the leading musicians of his day: in Italy with Jommelli, Galuppi, Piccinni, Father Martini, and Sammartini; in Germany with Gluck, Hasse, Kirnberger, and Karl Philipp Emanuel Bach; in France with Gretry, Rousseau, and the philosophers. Certain of the portraits which he has drawn of these men are the most lifelike pictures of them extant.
In the following pages we follow the steps of Burney and many another illustrious traveler who made the pilgrimage to Italy about the middle of the eighteenth century.
Scarcely had they entered Italy when they became possessed of the musical passion which was devouring a whole nation. This passion was no less ardent among the populace than amidst the elect.
“The violins, the instrumental performers, and the singing stop us in the streets,” writes the Abbe Coyer in 1763. “One hears in the public places a shoemaker, a blacksmith, a cabinetmaker singing an aria in several parts with a correctness and taste which they owe to nature and the habit of listening to harmonists formed by art.”
In Florence and Genoa the merchants and artisans combined on Sundays and fete-days to form various societies of laudisti or psalm singers. They used to walk about the country together, singing music in three parts.
In Venice “if two persons are walking together arm in arm,” says Burney, “it seems as though they converse only in song. All the songs there are sung as duets.” “In the Piazza di San Marco,” says Grosley, “a man from the dregs of the people, a shoemaker, a blacksmith, in the clothes proper to his calling, strikes up an air; other people of his sort, joining him, sing this air in several parts with an accuracy, a precision, and a taste which one hardly encounters in the best society of our northern countries.”
From the fifteenth century onward popular musical performances were given yearly in the Tuscan countryside; and the popular genius of Naples and Calabria expressed itself in songs which were not disdained by the musicians; Piccinni and Paisiello exploited them to their advantage.
But the wonderful thing was the ardent delight which the people displayed in listening to music.
“When the Italians admire a thing,” writes Burney, “they seem on the point of dying of a pleasure too great for their senses.” At a symphony concert given in the open air in Rome, in 1758, the Abbe Morellet states that the people “were swooning.” One heard groans of: “0 benedetto, o che gusto, piacer di morir!” (0 Blessed! 0 what delight! One could die of the rapture!) A little later, in 1781, the Englishman, Moor, who was present at a “musical spectacle” in Rome, notes that “the public remained with folded hands and eyes half-closed, holding its breath.” A young girl began to cry out from the middle of the parterre: “0 Dio! Dove sono? Il piacere mi fa morire!” (O God, where am I? I am dying of delight!) Some performances were interrupted by the sobs of the audience.
Music held such a position in Italy that the melomaniac Burney himself saw a danger to the nation in the passion which it aroused. “To judge by the number of musical establishments and public performances, one might accuse Italy of cultivating music to excess.”
The musical superiority of Italy was due not merely to her natural taste for music but to the excellence of the musical training given throughout the peninsula.
The most brilliant center of this artistic culture was Naples. It was the current opinion in Burney’s days that the farther south one went the more refined was the musical taste en-countered. “Italy,” says Grosley, “may be compared with a tuning fork of which Naples sounds the octave.” President de Brosses, the Abbe Coyer, and above all, Lalande expresses the same opinion. “Music,” writes Lalande, “is the triumph of the Neapolitans. It seems that in this country the fibers of the ear are more sensitive, more harmonic, more sonorous than in the rest of Europe; the whole nation sings; gestures, the inflection of the voice, the cadence of the syllables, conversationeverything there expresses and exhales music. Naples is the principal source of music.”
Burney reacts against this opinion which in his day was no longer quite accurate and must always have been a little exaggerated. “More confidence is reposed in the art of the Neapolitans than they deserve today,” he says, “notwithstanding the right they may have had to this celebrity in times past.” And he claims the first place for Venice. Without going into the question of the pre-eminence of either city, we may say that Venice and Naples were in the eighteenth century the great seminaries of vocal music, not only for Italy but for Europe. Each was the seat of a famous school of opera; that of Venice, the earliest in point of date, had sprung from Monteverdi and counted such names as Cavalli and Segrenzi in the seventeenth century, Marcello and Galuppi in the eighteenth; while that of Naples, which had come into being a little later (at the end of the seventeenth century) with Francesco Provenzale, had by the eighteenth century, what with the school of Alessandro Scarlatti and its innumerable adherents and that of Pergolesi, established its incontestable superiority in respect to dramatic music. Venice and Naples also contained the most celebrated conservatories in Italy.
In addition to these two metropolitan centers of opera Lombardy was a center of instrumental music, Bologna was famous for its theorists, and Rome, in the complex of this artistic organization, played her part of capital less by reason of the superiority of individual production than by the sovereign judgment which Rome arrogated to herself in respect to works of art. “Rome,” says Burney, “is the post of honor for composers, the Romans being regarded as the severest judges of music in Italy. It is considered that an artist who has had a success in Rome has nothing to fear from the severity of the critics in other cities.”
The first emotion produced by Neapolitan music on foreign travelers was surprise rather than pleasure. Those who were more sincere or finer judges were even disappointed at the out-set. They found, as Burney did, that the execution was careless, or the time and the pitch were equally at fault, or the voices were harsh, or there was a natural brutality, something immoderate, “a taste,” according to Grosley, “for the capricious and extravagant.” The records of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are agreed upon this point. A French traveler, J. J. Bouchard, states in 1632:
“The Neapolitan music is especially striking by reason of its cheerful and fantastic movements. Its style of song, quite different from the Roman, is dazzling and as it were hard; not, indeed, too gay but fantastic and harebrained, pleasing only by its quick, giddy, and fantastic movement. A mixture of French and Sicilian melody, it is most extravagant as to continuity and uniformity, which it does not respect in the least–running, then stopping short, jumping from low to high and high-to low, forcing the voice to the utmost, then suddenly restraining it; it is by these alternations of high and low, piano and forte, that Neapolitan singing is recognized.”
And Burney writes in 1770:
“The Neapolitan singing in the streets is much less agreeable although more original than elsewhere. It is a singular kind of music, as barbarous in its modulations and as different from that of all the rest of Europe as Scottish music…. The artistic singing has an energy, a fire which one does not perhaps meet with in any other part of the world and which compensates for the lack of taste and delicacy. This manner of execution is so passionate that it is almost frenzied. It is owing to this impetuosity of temper that it is an ordinary thing to see a Neapolitan composer, starting with a gentle and sober movement, set the orchestra on fire before he has finished. . . . The Neapolitans, like thoroughbred horses, are impatient of the bit. In their conservatories they find it difficult to obtain pathetic and graceful effects; and in general the composers of the Neapolitan school endeavor less than those of other parts of Italy to obtain the delicate and studied graces.”
But if the characteristics of Neapolitan singing had remained almost the same from the seventeenth to the eighteenth century, its value had altered greatly. In Bouchard’s day Neapolitan music was behind that of the rest of Italy. In Burney’s time the Neapolitan composers were renowned not only for their natural genius but for their science. And here we see what artistic institutions may do, not indeed to transform a race but to make it produce what it has in reserve and what, but for them, would probably never have sprung from the soil.
These institutions in the case of Naples were its famous conservatories for the musical training of poor children. An admirable idea, which our modern democracies have neither conceived nor revived.
Of these conservatories, or collegii di musica, there were four of the highest standing:
1. The Collegio de’ poveri di Gesu Cristo (College of the Poor of Jesus Christ), founded in 1589 by a Calabrian of the third order of St. Francis, Marcello Fossataro di Nicotera, who gave harbor to poor little children dying of cold and hunger. Children of all nations were admitted from seven to eleven years of age. There were a hundred of them. They wore red cassocks and sky-blue cymars. In this collegeand we need say no morePergolesi was trained.
2. The Collegio di San Onofrio a Capuana, founded about 1600 by the friars of San Onofrio for orphans of Capua and the country round about. The number of scholars varied from 90 to 150. They wore white cassocks and gray cymars.
3. The Collegio de Santa Maria di Loreto, founded in 1537 by a protonotary apostolic of Spanish nationality, Giovanni di Tappia, “to receive the sons of the poorest citizens and educate them in religion and the fine arts.” This very large college contained at first as many as eight hundred children, boys and girls. Then, about the middle of the eighteenth century, it ceased receiving girls and began to teach music exclusively. When Burney visited it there were two hundred children. They wore white cassocks and cymars.
4. The Collegio de la Pieta de Turchini, founded at the end of the sixteenth century by a confraternity which accepted the poor children of the quarter. In the middle of the eighteenth century there were a hundred pupils. They wore blue cassocks and cymars. The most celebrated Neapolitan composers were professors in this college. Francesco Provenzale was one of the first masters in this college.
Each of these conservatories had two headmasters: one to correct compositions, the other to teach singing. These were also assistant masters (maestri scolari) for each instrument. The children as a rule remained in the college for eight years. If after a few years’ training they did not prove to be sufficiently talented, they were sent away. A certain number were received as paying boarders. The best pupils were retained after this period of training to become teachers in their turn.
Burney gives a picturesque description of a visit to the Collegio di San Onofrio:
“On the first-floor landing a clarinet was pegging away; on the second-floor landing a horn was bellowing. In a common room seven or eight harpsichords, a still larger number of violins, and some voices were each performing a different composition, while other pupils were writing. The beds served as tables for the harpsichords. In a second room the violoncellos were assembled; in a third, the flutes and oboes. The clarinets and horns had no other place than on the stairs. In the upper part of the house and quite apart from the other children, six-teen young castrati had warmer rooms on account of the delicacy of their voices. All these little musicians were working unremittingly from rising (two hours before daybreak in win-ter) to going to bed (about eight o’clock in the evening) ; they had only an hour and a half for rest and dinner and a few days’ vacation in the autumn.
These conservatories, which were a mine of opera singers and composers for all Europe, were already nearing their decline in Burney’s day. Their most brilliant period seems to have been during the first thirty years of the eighteenth century, in the lifetime of Alessandro Scarlatti.
There were in Naples foreign musical agents whose sole business it was to recruit musicians and sopranos for their managements. They recruited composers also. The two most famous Neapolitan composers of the middle of the eighteenth centuryJommelli and Piccinni were recruited, the one, Jommelli, for Germany, where he remained for fifteen years at Stuttgart; the other, Piccinni, for Paris, where he was set up in opposition to Gluck. He died there after having been professor at the Royal School of Singing and Declamation, and Inspector of the Paris Conservatory. These two men formed a perfect contrast. Piccinni, small, thin, pale, with a tired face, extremely polished, gentle and vehement at the same time, rather serious as to the outer man, with an affectionate heart, impressionable to excess, was above all inimitable in musical comedy, and it was a misfortune for him that his little comic operas in the Neapolitan dialect could not be transplanted beyond the limits of his native country, where they were all the rage; but, as the Abbe Galiani said, “it was really impossible that this style of music should find its way into France since it did not even reach Rome. One had to be a Neapolitan to appreciate the masterly state of perfection to which Piccinni had brought comic opera in Naples.” Jommelli, on the contrary, was appreciated abroad better than in Naples. The Neapolitans resented the fact that he had become unduly Germanized at Stuttgart. Physically he was like a German musician. “He was an extremely corpulent man,” says Burney; “his face reminded me of Handel’s. But he is much more polished and pleasant in his manners.” A true artist, exalted and emotional, but a trifle heavy, he brought back from Germany a love of harmony and compact orchestration; he contributed in no small degree to the revolution which was brought about in his time in Neapolitan opera, in which the orchestra began to rage and roar to the detriment of the singers, who were compelled to shout. “As for the music,” says- Burney, “all the chiaroscuro is lost; the half-shades and the background disappear; one hears only the noisy parts.”
Venice was distinguished from Naples by the delicacy of its taste. In place of the Neapolitan conservatories it had its famous conservatories for women; the Pieta, the Mendicanti, the Incurabili and the Ospedaletto di S. Giovanni e Paolo.
These were hospitals for foundlings, under the patronage of the leading aristocratic families of the city. Young girls were kept there until their marriage and were given a thorough musical education. “Music,” says Grosley, “was the principal part of an education which seemed more adapted to form Lais and Aspasias than nuns or mothers of families.” But it must not be supposed that all were musicians. At the Pieta barely seventy out of a thousand were such; in each of the other hospitals forty to fifty. But nothing was left undone to attract musical pupils thither; and it was a common practice to admit children who were not orphans provided they had fine voices. They were brought there from all Venetia: from Padua, Verona, Brescia, and Ferrara. The professors were: at the Pieta, Furlanetto; at the Mendicanti, Bertoni; at the Ospedaletto, Sacchini; at the Incurabili, Galuppi, who followed Hasse. The rivalry that existed between these illustrious composers excited the emulation of the pupils. Each conservatory had five or six assistant masters for singing and instrumental music; and the elder girls in turn taught the youngest. The pupils learned not only to sing but to play all instruments; the violin, the harpsichord, even the horn. and the bass viol. Burney says that they were able as a rule to play several instruments and that they changed from one to another with facility. These women’s orchestras gave public concerts every Saturday and Sunday evening. They were one of the principal attractions of Venice; and no foreign traveler who visited the city has failed to describe them for us. They were as pleasant to look at as to hear. “Nothing could be more delightful,” says President de Brosses, “than to see a young and pretty nun in a white habit, with a bunch of pomegranate flowers over one ear, conduct the orchestra and beat time with all the grace and accuracy imaginable.” He adds that “for fine execution and as conductor of an orchestra the daughter of Venice is second to none.” Some of these fair musicians were famed all over Italy; and Venice used to be split into hostile camps in support of this or that singer.
But the somewhat fantastic tales of galant travelers might give us a false impression of the serious nature of the musical training given in these conservatories. Burney, who carefully inspected them, speaks of their learning with admiration. The best of the schools was the Incurabili, which was directed by Galuppi. Galuppi was then seventy years of age but he was still lively and alert, and the fire in him burned even brighter as he grew older. He was very slender, with small face full of intelligence. His conversation sparkled with wit. His manners were distinguished, and he had a love of all the arts; he owned some magnificent canvases by Veronese. His character was esteemed no less than his talents; he had a numerous family and lived a quiet, respectable life. As a composer he was one of the last representatives of the old Venetian tradition; one of those brilliant and impulsive geniuses in whom imagination, natural talents, and scholarship are allied with a fascinating brilliance. A true Italian, full of the classic spirit, he defined good music, in his conversation with Burney, as “beauty, limpidity, and good modulation.” “Extremely busy in Venice, where he combined the functions of senior choirmaster of St. Mark’s and the Incurabili and organist in aristocratic houses with that of a composer of operas, he neglected none of his duties, and his conservatory was a model of good behavior,” says Burney. “The orchestra was subjected to the strictest discipline. None of the performers appeared eager to shine; all remained in that sort of subordination which a servant is required to observe in respect to his master.” The artists gave evidence of great technical skill; but their taste was always pure, and Galuppi’s art was to be detected in the least cadences of his pupils. He trained them in all styles of music, sacred or profane; and the concerts which he directed lent themselves to the most varied vocal and instrumental combinations. It was not unusual, in Venice, to employ in a church two orchestras; two organs, and two choirs, one echoing the other; and Burney heard in St. Mark’s under Galuppi’s direction a mass with six orchestras: two large orchestras in the galleries of the two principal organs and four lesser orchestras distributed in twos between the aisles, each group being supported by two small organs. This was in the Venetian tradition; it dated from the Gabrieli, from the sixteenth century.
Apart from the conservatories and the churches, numerous concerts or “academies” were held in private houses. In these the nobility took part. Noble ladies performed on the harpsichord, playing concertos. Sometimes festivals were organized in honor of a musician: Burney was present at a “Marcello” con-cert. These musical “evenings” were often prolonged far into the night. Burney records that four conservatory concerts and several private “academies” were held on the same evening.
The concerts did no harm to the theaters, which in Venice as in Naples constituted the city’s chief title to musical fame. For a long time they were the foremost theaters of Italy.
At the Carnival of 1769, seven opera houses were open simultaneously; three giving “serious” opera (opera seria) and four comic opera (opera buffa); and this is without speaking of four theaters producing comedy. All were full night after night.
A last detail gives evidence of the liberality and the truly democratic spirit that inspired these Italian cities. The gondoliers enjoyed free admission to the theater; and “when a box belonging to a noble family was not occupied, the director of the opera allowed the gondoliers to install themselves therein.” Burney sees here, correctly enough, one of the reasons for “the distinguished manner in which the men of the people sing in Venice as compared with men of the same class elsewhere.” Nowhere was there better music in Italy; nowhere was it more widely spread among the people.
All around these two operatic capitalsVenice with its seven theaters, Naples with its four or five, of which the San Carlo, one of the largest in Europe, had an orchestra of eighty performersthe opera was flourishing in the other cities of Italy: in Rome, with her famous theatersthe Argentina, the Aliberti, the Capranica; in Milan and Turin, whose opera houses gave daily performances during the season save on Fridays, and where stupendous actions were represented, such as battles fought by cavalry; at Parma, where stood the Farnese theater, the most luxurious in Italy; at Piacenza, Reggio, Pisa, and Lucca, which, according to Lalande, possessed “the most perfect orchestra”; throughout all Tuscany and all Venetia, and at Vicenza and Verona, which city, writes Edmund Rolfe, “was mad over opera.” It was the great national passion. The Abbe Coyer, in 1763, was in Naples during a famine; the rage for spectacles was not diminished thereby.
Let us enter one of these opera houses. The performance begins as a rule at eight o’clock and ends about half-past twelve. The cost of the places in the parterre is a paule (twelve cents) unless admission is free, as is often the case in Venice and Naples. The public is noisy and inattentive; it would seem that the peculiar pleasure of the theater, dramatic emotion, counts for very little. The audience chats at its ease during part of the performance. Visits are paid from box to box. At Milan each box opens out of a complete apartment, having a room with a fireplace and all possible conveniences, whether for preparation of refreshments or for a game of cards.” “On the fourth floor a faro table is kept open on each side of the building as long as the opera continues. At Bologna the ladies make them-selves thoroughly at home; during the performance they talk, or rather scream, from one box to that facing it, standing up, clapping, and shouting bravo! As for the men, they are more moderate; when an act is finished, and it has pleased them, they content themselves with shouting until it is performed again.” In Milan “it is by no means enough that everybody should enter into conversation, shouting at the top of his voice, or that one should applaud, by yelling, not the singing but the singers as soon as they appear and all the time they are singing.
“Besides this, the gentlemen in the parterre have long sticks with which they beat the benches as hard as they can by way of admiration. They have colleagues in the boxes of the fifth tier who at this signal throw down thousands of leaflets containing a sonetto printed in praise of the signora or the virtuoso who has just been singing. All the occupants of the boxes lean half out of them to catch these leaflets; the parterra capers about and the scene closes with a general ‘Ah!’ as though they were admiring a midsummer night bonfire.”
This description, a trifle exaggerated, is none the less not so very unlike certain Italian performances of the present day. A French or German spectator present at such scenes would be inclined to doubt the sincerity of the emotion which the Italian public professes to experience at the opera; he would conclude that the pleasure of going to the theater was, for these people, simply the pleasure of finding themselves in a crowd. Nothing of the kind. All this uproar is suddenly hushed at certain pas-sages of the work. “They listen, they go into ecstasies only when the arietta is sung,” says the Abbe Coyer. “I am wrong; they pay attention also to the recitatives obbligati, more moving than the arietta.” At these moments, “however slight the nuances, none escapes these Italian ears; they seize them, feel them, savor them with a relish which is as a foretaste of the joys of paradise.”
Let us not suppose that these are “concert pieces,” valued solely for their beauty of form. They are in most cases expressive and sometimes highly dramatic passages. President de Brosses reproaches the French for judging Italian music before they have heard it in Italy. “One must be perfectly acquainted with the language and able to enter into the meaning of the words. In Paris we hear dainty Italian minuets or great arias loaded with roulades; and we pretend that Italian music, in other respects melodious, is capable of nothing better than playing with syllables and is lacking in the expression characteristic of the emotion…. ” Nothing could be more mistaken; it excels, on the contrary, in the interpretation of emotion, in accordance with the genius of the language; and the passages most relished in Italy are the simplest and most affecting, “the passionate, tender, touching airs, adapted to theatrical expression and calculated to display the capacities of the actor,” such as are found in Scarlatti, Vinci, and Pergolesi. These are naturally the very passages which it is most difficult to send abroad, “since the merit of these scraps of tragedy consists in accuracy of expression,” which one cannot realize without knowing the language.
Thus we find in the Italian public of the eighteenth century an extreme indifference to dramatic action, to the play; in this superb heedlessness of the subject they will even give the second or third act of the opera before the first when it suits some personage who cannot spend the whole evening in the theater. Don Leandro de Moratin, the Spanish poet, sees at the opera Dido dying on her pyre; then, in the following act, Dido comes to life again and welcomes Aeneas. But this same public that is so disdainful of drama becomes furiously enthusiastic over a dramatic passage divorced from the action.
The fact is that it is above all lyrical, but with a lyrical quality that has nothing abstract about it, which is applied to particular passions and cases. The Italian refers everything to himself. It is neither the action nor the characters that interest him. It is the passions; he embraces them all; he experiences them all in his own person. Hence the frenzied exaltation into which the opera throws him at certain moments. In no other country has the love of the opera this passionate quality because no other nation displays this personal and egoistical character. The Italian does not go to the opera house to see the heroes of opera but to see himself, to hear himself, to caress and inflame his passions. All else is indifferent to him.
What intensity must the art possess that is kindled by these burning hearts! But what a danger is here! For everything in art that is not subjected to the imitation or the control of nature, all that depends merely upon inspiration or inward exaltation, all in short that presupposes genius or passion, is essentially unstable, for genius and passion are always exceptional, even in the man of genius, even in the man of passionate feeling. Such a flame is subject to momentary eclipses or to total disappearance; and if during these phases of spiritual slumber scrupulous and laborious talent, observation, and reason do not take the place of genius, the result is absolute nullity. This remark may be only too readily verified among Italians of all ages. Their artists, even their indifferent ones, have often more genius than many famous and generously endowed northern artists; but this genius is squandered over mere nothings or drowses or goes astray; and when it is no longer at home the house is empty….
The salvation of the Italian music of the eighteenth century should have been found in a style of music which it had just created: the opera buffa, the intermezzo, which, at its point of departure, in Vinci and Pergolesi, is based on the humorous observation of the Italian character. The Italians, who are pre-eminently given to a bantering style of humor, have left veritable masterpieces of this description. President de Brosses was right to speak with enthusiasm of these little comedies. “The less serious the style,” he informs us, “the greater the success of Italian music; for it exhales the spirit of gaiety and is in its element.” And he writes after seeing La Serva Padrona: “It is not true that one can die of laughter; for if it were I should certainly have died of it, despite the grief which I felt to think that my merriment prevented me from hearing as much as I could have wished of the heavenly music of this farce.”
But, as always happens, the men of taste, the musicians, entirely failed to rate these works at their true value; they regarded them as unimportant entertainments, and they would have blushed to place them in the same rank as the musical tragedies. Constantly in history, this unintelligent hierarchy of styles has caused indifferent works in a noble style to be prized more highly than admirable works in a less exalted style. In President de Brosses’ day, the précieux et précieuses of Italy affected to despise the opera buffa and laughed at “de Brosses’ infatuation for these farces.” Consequently these excellent little compositions were soon overlooked; and abuses as great as those to be found in opera made their way into the intermezzi: the same improbability and the same carelessness with respect to the action. Burney is compelled to admit that “if one takes away the music of a French comic opera, it remains a pleasant comedy, while without music the Italian comic opera is in-supportable.” At the close of the century Moratin laments the absurdity of this class of composition. Yet this was the period of Cimarosa, Paisiello, Guglielmi, Andreozzi, Fioravanti, and many others. What might not these lesser masters have done with stricter discipline and more conscientious poets!
In Venice, as we have seen, this passion for the opera was combined with an ardent love of instrumental music, which at this period did not exist in Naples. This had always been so since the Renaissance; and even at the beginning of the seventeenth century this characteristic distinguished the opera of the Venetian Monteverdi from Neapolitan, Florentine, or Roman opera.
In a general fashion, we may say that the north of ItalyVenetia, Lombardy, Piedmontwas in the eighteenth century a paradise of instrumental music.
It was a country of great instrumentalists, and above all of violinists. The art of the violin was peculiarly Italian. Endowed with a natural sense of the harmony of form, lovers of beautiful melodic outline, creators of the dramatic monody, the Italians ought to have excelled in music for the violin. “No one in Europe,” says Pirro, “can write, as they do, with the lucidity and expressiveness which it demands.” Corelli and Vivaldi were the models of the German masters. The golden age of Italian violin music was the period 1720-1750, the age of Locatelli, Tartini, Vivaldi, and Francesco Maria Veracini. Great composers and performers, these masters were distinguished by the severity of their taste.
The most famous of these was Tartini of Padua. “Padua,” says Burney, “is no less famed for the fact that Tartini lived and died there than for the fact that Titus Livius was born there.” People visited his house, later his tomb, “with the fervor of pilgrims to Mecca.” No less famous as composer and theorist than as performer, and one of the creators of the science of modem harmony, Tartini was one of the musical authorities of his century. No Italian virtuoso regarded himself as consecrated until he had won Tartini’s approbation. Of all the musicians of his country he was pre-eminent in matters of taste, and above all he was unprejudiced in respect to the artistic merits of other nations. “He is polite, complaisant, without pride, and without eccentricity,” says De Brosses; “he argues like an angel, and without partiality, as to the different merits of French and Italian music. I was quite as much pleased by his conversation as by his playing.” “His playing had little that was dazzling about it,” for this virtuoso had a horror of empty virtuosity. When Italian violinists came to him that he might listen to their tricks of style, “he would listen coldly and then say: `That is brilliant; that is lively; that is very good, but,’ he would add, placing his hand ever his heart, has nothing to say to me here.’ ” His style was remarkable for the extreme distinctness with which every note was sounded”one never lost the least of them and for its intense feeling. Until his death Tartini modestly filled a place in the orchestra of the Santo at Padua.
In addition to this great name there are others that have retained a legitimate fame even down to our own days, In Venice there was Vivaldi; he too was known to De Brosses; he promptly became one of the Frenchman’s most intimate friends, “in order,” says the latter, “to sell me his concertos at a very dear rate. . . . He is un vecchio, who composes with the most prodigious fury. I have heard him undertake to compose a concerto with all its parts more rapidly than a copyist could copy it.” Already he was no longer greatly esteemed in his own country, “where fashion was everything, where his works had been heard too long, and where the music of the previous year no longer paid.” But one compensation was left him; that of being a model for Johann Sebastian Bach.
The other violinists of the same period Nardini, Tartini’s best pupil; Veracini, whose compositions were noted for their profundity, and in whom some have seen a precursor of Beethoven; Nazzari and Pugnanihad the same sober and expressive qualities, avoiding rather than striving for effect. Burney writes of Nardini “that he should please rather than surprise;” and President de Brosses says of Veracini that “his playing was accurate, noble, scholarly, and precise, but somewhat lacking in grace.”
The art of the harpsichord had already had its masters, such as Domenico Zipoli, a contemporary and rival of Handel, and Domenico Scarlatti, a precursor of genius, who opened up new paths on which Karl Philipp Emanuel Bach was to follow him. A master who won even greater fame for the art was Galuppi. But even in Burney’s time its decadence was perceptible. “To tell the truth,” he says, “I have not met with a great harpsichord player, nor with an original composer for this instrument, in all Italy. The reason for this is that here the ‘instrument is used only to accompany the voice; and at present it is so greatly neglected, as much by the composers as by the players, that it is difficult to say which are worse, the instruments or those who play on them.” The art of the organist had been better preserved since old Frescobaldi’s day. But in spite of the way in which Burney and Grosley have praised the Italian organists, we may accept as correct the verdict of Rust, who says that “the Italians seemed to think it impossible to give real pleasure by playing on instruments actuated by a keyboard.” Here we recognize their expressive genius, which found its favorite instruments in the voice and the violin.
But what was of more importance than the great virtuosos, so numerous in northern Italy, was the general taste for symphonic music. The Lombard and Piedmontese orchestras were famous. The most celebrated was that of Turin, which included Pugnani, Veracini, Sernis, and the Besozzi. There was “symphonic music” in the Chapel Royal every morning from eleven o’clock to noon; the king’s orchestra was divided into three groups which were distributed in these galleries at some distance one from another. The understanding between them was so excellent that they had no need of anyone to beat time. This custom, which was general in Italy, naturally struck foreign travelers. “The composer,” says Grosley, “applies himself merely to encouraging the players by voice or gesture, as the commander of an army encourages troops about to charge. All this music, despite the variety and complication of its parts, is executed without any beating of time.” And this proves, no doubt, that the variety and complication of this music were not as yet very great, or it could not have been accorded such liberty; but it is also a proof of the experience and the musical spirit of the Italian orchestras. It is enough to consider the French orchestras of those days, which did not play more difficult music but which none the less had to be conducted by great sweeps of the baton and stamping of the feet. “These people,” writes De Brosses, “greatly excel us in accuracy. Their orchestras have a great feeling for gradations of tone and chiaroscuro. A hundred string and wind instruments will accompany voices without smothering them.”
In Milan, above all, symphonic music was greatly esteemed. We might almost say that it originated in Milan, for there dwelt one of the two or three men who may lay claim to the glory of having created the symphony, in the modern sense of the word and he was, I believe, that one of the three whose title to this fame was most considerable. He was G. B. Sammartini, Haydn’s precursor and model. He was chapelmaster to almost half the churches in Milan, and for them he composed innumerable symphonic pieces. Burney, who knew him and heard several concerts given under his direction, says that “his symphonies were full of a spirit and a fire which were peculiar to him. The instrumental parts were well written; he did not leave a single instrument idle long; and the violins above all were given no time to rest.” ” Burney complained of himand the same complaint was afterward made of Mozartthat his music had “too many notes and too many allegro passages. He seemed positively to gallop. The impetuosity of his genius impelled him forward in a series of rapid movements which, in the long run, fatigued both the orchestra and the audience.” Burney nevertheless admires “the truly divine beauty” of some of his adagios.
The Milanese gave evidence of a very decided taste for’ this symphonic music. There were many concerts in Milan, not only public but private, at which small orchestras of amateurs performed; at these concerts they played the symphonies of Sam-martini and Johann Christian Bach, the youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach. It often happened even that a performance of opera was replaced by a concert. And even in opera the result of this preference for instrumental music wasto the scandal of the elderly admirers of Italian singingthat the orchestra was too numerous, too powerful, and the complicated accompaniments tended to conceal the melody and stifle the voices.
Thus the principal centers of instrumental music were Turin and Milan; for vocal, Venice and Naples.
Bologna stood at the head of Italian music; the brain that reasoned and controlled, the city of theorists and academicians,
There dwelt the principal musical authority of eighteenth-century Italy, the authority recognized at once by the Italians and by the masters of all Europe, by Gluck, Johann Christian Bach, and MozartFather Martini. This Franciscan monk, choir-master of the church of his order in Bologna, was a pleasant and scholarly composer, whose work exhibited a certain rococo grace; a learned historian, a master of counterpoint, and an impassioned collector who gathered about him, in his library of seventeen thousand volumes, the musical knowledge of the period, This he generously shared with all those who applied to him, for he was full of kindliness; his was one of those pure and serene souls which are to be found among the old Italian artists. He was greatly beloved, and musicians were constantly appealing to his wisdom, whether in writing or by visiting him in Bologna. Burney speaks of him with affection:
“He is advanced in age and in bad health, He has a distressing cough; his legs are swollen and his whole appearance is that of a sick man. One cannot, by reading his books, form an idea of the character of this good and worthy man. His character is such that it inspires not only respect but affection, With the purity of his life and the simplicity of his manners he combines gaiety, kindness, and philanthropy, I have never liked anyone so well after so slight an acquaintance. I was no more reserved with him at the end of a few hours than I should have been with an old friend or a beloved brother,”
Bologna boasted also of the principal musical academy in Italy; the Philharmonic Society, founded in 1666, into which Italian and foreign masters held it an honor to be received. The little Mozart was admitted to it after a competition in which, so the legend records, he was secretly assisted by the worthy Father Martini. It was the same with Grétry, who does not conceal the fact in his memoirs. The Philharmonic Society discussed questions of theory and musical science; and it gave a yearly festival at which the new works of Bolognese composers were performed, This festival, which was a solemn affair, was held in the church of San Giovanni in Monte, where the Santa Cecilia of Raphael was at that time exhibited. The orchestra and the choirs included a hundred musicians; each composer conducted his own works. All the musical critics of Italy were present at these performances of church and instrumental music, by which reputations were made. Burney, at one of these festivals, met Leopold Mozart “and his son, the little German whose precocious and almost supernatural talents,” he tells us, “astonished us in-London some years ago when he was little more than a baby…. This young man,” he adds farther on, “who has surprised Europe by his execution and his precocious knowledge, is also a very able master of his instrument.”
Lastly, Rome exercised a dictatorship over the whole of Italian music.
Rome boasted a speciality in the religious music of the Sistine Chapel, which was then, however, in a state of decline, owing to the competition of the theaters, which by their large salaries attracted the best artists. Rome had her great collections of ancient music. She had her seven or eight famous theaters, among others the Argentina and the Aliberti for opera seria and the Capranica for opera buff a.
Above all, Rome, thanks to the attraction which her fame, her traditions, and her eternal charm have always possessed for cultivated minds, had a public of rare musical competence, a truly sovereign public, which was aware of its own value, perhaps too much so, and pronounced its judgments without appeal.
“There are in Rome,” writes Gretry, “a number of amateurs, of old abbes, who, by their wise criticism, restrain the young composer who allows himself to be carried away beyond the boundaries of his art. So when a composer has succeeded in Naples, Venice, or even Bologna, they say to themselves: We must see him in Rome.”
The performances of new operas in Rome were terrible ordeals for the composers; verdicts were promulgated which claimed to be final, and the judges brought to these verdicts the passion of the Italian temperament. The fight was on from the very beginning of the evening. If the music was condemned, the hearers were capable of distinguishing between the composer and the singers; they hissed the maestro and applauded the artists. Or it was the singer who hissed while the composer was carried in triumph onto the stage.
“The Romans,” says Gretry, “have a habit of shouting in the theater during a composition in which the orchestra predominates: Brava la viola, brava il fagotto, brava !’oboe! (Bravo violin, bravo bassoon, bravo oboe!) If it is a melodious and poetical song that pleases them, they address themselves to the author, or they sigh and weep; but they also have a terrible mania for shouting, one after another: Bravo Sacchini, bravo Cimarosa, bravo Paisiello! at the performance of operas by other composersa punishment well calculated to suppress the crime of plagiarism: ”
With what brutality this popular justice was sometimes executed we learn from the story of poor Pergolesi, who, says tradition, at the first performance of his Olimpiade, received, amidst a storm of hooting, an orange full in his face. And this fact is a sufficient proof that the Roman public was not infallible. But it laid claim to infallibility. Faithful to its traditions, it arrogated to itself an empire over music:
Tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento .. .
No one found anything surprising in this; the privilege of the Roman public was admitted. “Rome, capital of the world,” wrote “Amadeo” Mozart in one of his letters, in 1770.
Such, in its broad outlines, was the fabric of Italian music in the eighteenth century. We perceive what abundance, what vitality it displayed. Its greatest dangerthat to which it succumbedwas its very exuberance. It had no time to recollect itself, to meditate upon its past. It was eaten up by its mania for novelty.
“You mention Carissimi,” wrote De Brosses. “For God’s sake be careful not to speak of him here, under penalty of being regarded as a dunce; those who succeeded him have long been regarded as out of fashion!”
The same writer, ravished by hearing a famous singer in Naplesil Senesino”perceived with astonishment that the people of the country were by no means satisfied. They complained that he sang in a stilo antico. You must understand that the taste in music changes here at least every ten years.”
Burney is still more positive:
“In Italy they treat an opera already heard like a last year’s almanac…. There is a rage for novelty; it has sometimes been the cause of the revolutions which one observes in Italian music; it often gives rise to strange concetti. It leads composers to seek novelty at any cost. The simplicity of the old masters does not please the public. It does not sufficiently tickle the pampered taste of these spoiled children, who can no longer take pleasure save in astonishment.”
This inconsistency of taste, this perpetual restlessness, was the reason. no music worthy of mention was being printed in Italy.
“Musical compositions last such a short time, and the vogue of novelties is so great, that the few copies which might be required are not worth the expense of engraving or printing. … The art of engraving music, moreover, appears to be entirely lost. One finds nothing in all Italy resembling a music publisher.”
Burney is even beginning to foresee, in the midst of the artistic splendor which he loves, the complete and by no means distant disappearance of Italian music. He believes, in truth, that the stupendous energy expended upon it will be transformed, that it will create other arts:
“The language and genius of the Italians are so rich and so fertile that when they are weary of musicwhich will without a doubt happen soon, from very excess of enjoymentthis same mania for novelty which has made them pass so quickly from one style of composition to another and which often makes them change from a better style to a worse, will force them to seek amusement in a theater without music!”
Burney’s prediction was only partly realized. Italy has since then attempted, not without success, to establish “a theater without music.” She has, above all, spent the best of her energies, apart from the theater and music, in her political conflicts, in the wonderful epopee of her Risorgimento, in which all that was great and generous in the nation was expended and often sacrificed in a spirit of exaltation. But Burney has plainly perceived the secret of this Italian music, the principle of its life, its greatness, and its death: the Italy of the eighteenth century is all for the present moment; for her there is no longer past or future. She reserves nothing; she is burning herself up.
What a difference between this thriftless Italy and the wise economy of France and Germany at the same period! Germany slowly and silently amassing her stores of science, poetry, of artistic genius; France patiently, slowly, parsimoniously setting aside her musical possessions, as the French peasant hoards his cash in the famous woolen stocking! And so they will find themselves young, vigorous and, as it were, renewed when Italy will be exhausted by her extravagant expenditure of energy.
Blame her who will! Even though the virtues of domestic economy are worthy of all esteem, all my sympathies are for the art that gives itself without counting the cost. It is the charm of this Italian music of the eighteenth century that it spends itself with both hands without reeking of the future. No matter if beauty be not lasting; what does matter is that it shall have been as beautiful as possible. Of the fugitive radiance of the beautiful dead centuries a joy and a light remain forever in the heart.