Italy – The Land Of Music

THIRTY years ago those whom it was my duty to respect used to tell me that Italy was The Land of Music. They said it in a way that admitted of no contradiction ; one could as soon think of doubting that London was the capital of England. Italian music was represented for me at that time by ” La donna e mobile,” as arranged for small hands in Hemy’s Pianoforte Tutor ; and as my later musical education, like that of everybody else in those days, progressed from Beethoven to Bach, and from Bach to Brahms, with a certain amount of Wagner, I grew up curiously ignorant of even the most hackneyed Italian tunes. But I cherished a vague faith in the doctrine instilled into me in childhood, and the few examples of Italian music that impressed themselves on my youthful memory —the page’s song from Un Ballo in Maschera, sung by a lady when I was about fourteen, a Rossini overture played as a pianoforte duet, the discovery of a copy of Mefistofele just before I left school gave me a strange hankering after it as a sort of forbidden fruit, the more delicious because I knew so little of it.

Many English music-lovers, I imagine, must have experienced the same disappointments as I did when I first pursued Italian music on its native soil. We enter an Italian cathedral expecting the subdued voluntary, the level intoning, the sweet-voiced choir, all that goes to make up the discreet seemliness of an Anglican service, and hear instead boys who seem to have been trained as vendors of news-papers, harsh and perfunctory bawling of plainsong, with an organ that and squeals crashes like that of a steam merry-go-round. Concerts are few and far between, and the audience inclined to behave more as if it was at a circus than at a programme of classical music. How well I remember a performance of the Choral Symphony at Naples the first ever given there ! The great cadenza for the four solo voices, ending pianissimo on a high B for the soprano, was a prolonged and agonising scream ; then, before the orchestra could pick up the allegro after the pause, the whole audience burst into shouts of ” Bravo ! bravo ! bis ! bis ! bis ! ” lasting some five minutes, after which we had the cadenza over again.

It is not by these things that we must judge of Italian music. We must not expect to find in Italy the same sort of music under the same conditions that we are accustomed to in our own country. We must forget our national prejudices; we must keep our ears open, and pick up music wherever we can. To most English people, music is something external to themselves. It is part of ” culture,” like a knowledge of French, an accomplishment, a thing to be bought, a thing to learn, or, it may be, a thing to find provided, like hassocks and hymn-books. In this time of war I am constantly being told that music is a luxury, one of the things that people will give up when increased taxes enforce economy.

Italians could no more give up music than they could give up breathing. Considered by the standards of what we in England call ” musical people,” their judgments of music are much less critical than ours that is to say, they are not so willing to weigh the merits and demerits of a composer or performer dispassionately and intellectually. Their audiences have the reputation of being critical, because they are often hard to please ; but they are not really critical they are extremely sensitive, and extremely outspoken. English travellers often think that hissing is common in Italian opera-houses. What they take for a sign of disapproval is really nothing more than a demand for silence, the equivalent of our ” sh ! ” Italian disapproval, when it does find vent, takes a more terrifying form. You perceive it first, not as a sound, but as a sort of collective shudder ; then it may become a murmur, rising to a cry of ” Uh ! bestia ! ” or even to whistling on door-keys. But such demonstrations are not really very common. Besides, it must not be for-gotten that demonstrations of pleasure are equally violent, and much more frequent.

To understand what music means to Italians, we must take into consideration the music of the less-educated classes, the music which in England would be either negligible or merely annoying. In Italy it is neither ; indeed it is often much more delightful than the music which professes to be high-class, just as cucina casalinga is always better than the cosmopolitan cookery of expensive hotels. Not that there is anything in Italy corresponding to the folk-song cult which has recently been so remarkable and so important a feature of English music. Only a very little has been done in Italy towards the systematic record of real folk-song. The Neapolitan songs, of which ” Funiculi, funiculà ” is the best-known example, are of quite recent growth, and indeed the festival of Piedigrotta, for which they are composed in hundreds every year, does not date back, at least as a musical event, much further than the days of Donizetti. The real songs of the peasantry are generally of much more primitive character, so primitive, in fact, that the modern musician has great difficulty in noting them down.

Take no notice of the people who sing the vulgarities of twenty years ago English and Viennese as well as Neapolitan outside the big hotels at Naples or in a boat decked with Chinese lanterns on the Grand Canal. But if you walk up to Monte Pincio, instead of driving, you may come across the blind man with a harmonium, who plays ” Casta diva ” and ” Ah ! che la morte ” with a real sense of phrasing.

Go and have supper at one of the humble restaurants near Sant’ Agnese, and listen to a street piano, which, if it does not play an air of Verdi, will give you an old-fashioned waltz or polka dressed up with a really clever accompaniment instead of the stupid scales of our English instruments. The tune will have been properly arranged by a musician who knows his business, and the instrument itself will have a quality of tone that is positively pleasing, unless by some evil chance that horrible invention of Naples, the mandoline attachment, forces its strident tone upon the ear. Guitar-players appear everywhere, I need hardly say, and I confess that it is rare to find a good one who can accompany a song with a reasonable bass. It is perhaps in the provincial towns that you will hear the most curious and often attractive combinations. Dr. Burney, who travelled in Italy in search of music about 1770, notes the performance of the bravi orbi at Bologna, and I have often derived great pleasure from blind musicians there and in Parma.

But the most remarkable street music that I ever heard was at Verona, some fifteen years ago. The performer was a tall and dignified old man with a long white beard, who accompanied himself with great skill on the guitar. To one coming fresh from a winter in Germany, as I did, saturated with Wagner, it was a revelation to hear him sing all the classical Italian tenor songs the Count’s serenade from Il Barbiere, ” Spirto gentil ” from La Favorita, ” Dai campi, dai prati ” from Mefistofele. The tenore robusto airs of Verdi were rather beyond his strength, but his execution of the more lyrical type of song was a lesson in the purest art of bel canto. He was evidently so complete an artist that it would have been discourteous to ask any question as to his past history. The waiter at a café told me that his name was Maurelli, and I asked a musical friend in Florence if he had ever heard of him. “Maurelli ? but of course I have heard him. I knew him when he was singing at the Pergola. He was one of our greatest tenors. And now you tell me that, at the age of seventy, he is singing in the streets of Verona ! ”

I went back to Verona a year later, attracted more, I think, by the hopes of hearing old Maurelli again than by any of the architectural wonders of the town. I searched for him in vain, and nobody could give me news of him. Two years later I read in a newspaper that he had died in Verdi’s House of Rest for destitute musicians.

It was from old Maurelli more than from anyone else that I learnt to appreciate the real beauty of Italian music. If you go to La Scala or the Costanzi you may hear admirable performances of Meistersinger or Salome ; but if you want to hear real Italian music you must go to some humble little theatre in a back street, where you can get a box for two francs, to hear Il Barbiere or Lucia di Lammermoor. You need not even pay your twenty-five centimes admission ; for you can do almost as well in the piazza, be it Piazza Colonna or Piazza San Marco. A good Italian military or municipal band is unrivalled, and even if you can get nothing better than the band of some casual Orfanotrofio or Ricreatorio, you may be sure that it will always play good music. Here is perhaps the best proof of Italian musicianship ; the music provided gratis for the humblest of the people, the music which the humblest of the people evidently enjoy, as you can see by their rapt silence as they cluster round the band-stand, is invariably of sterling quality. The programmes are mainly drawn from the national classics : you may sometimes hear a whole act of Verdi or Boito played from beginning to end, with so expressive a delivery of the recitatives that you can almost think you hear the words. But you will hear Beethoven, Wagner, Brahms, and even Bach as well ; incredible as it may seem, I once heard Bach’s G minor organ fugue played by a band in the Piazza Colonna on a stifling August evening when there was hardly a soul in Rome who could afford the railway fare to Ladispoli or Anzio. It was not only played : it was applauded, it was positively encored.

Verdi’s early operas were so closely associated with the movement for Italian liberty everyone remembers the interpretation of Evviva VERDI as Evviva Vittorio Emanuele, Re D’Italia ! that people have sometimes supposed his success to be due merely to his expression of popular patriotism. This is unjust, and may be disproved by the fact that Verdi’s most popular operas Rigoletto, 11 Trovatore, La Traviata belong to a later period, and although composed before 1859, have no specifically patriotic allusions such as distinguished I Lombardi, for instance. Verdi’s greatness needs no bolstering up with sentimental associations. He was accepted as the singer of united Italy not merely because of the words he set, but because of the irresistible appeal of his melodies. And their appeal was irresistible, because it was made to a fundamentally musical people. Dante is credited with having given the Italians a common language. But the musicians of Italy many centuries ago contributed their share towards united Italy, when national drama such as we had in England would have been impossible south of the Alps, owing to differences of dialect. The opera brought Venice, Florence, and Naples together even in the seventeenth century. Goldoni and Alfieri, great as they are, are obscure names compared with Verdi and Rossini. It is opera that represents the soul of Italy ; and that is why, while Dante stands for Italy at Trent, the Italians of Trieste have symbolised their national aspirations in the figure of Verdi.

The musical quality of a country is not to be assessed solely by the great musicians which it may have produced in the past. We shall be much safer in judging by the general standard of music amongst the humbler classes. If ability to sing correctly at sight is an appropriate test, England would probably stand a good deal higher than Italy.

But a knowledge of reading and writing is not the whole of education, as we learn when we listen in amazement to the natural elegance of phrase which is the birthright of every unlettered Tuscan peasant. We can sing at sight in England, but is the stuff we sing worth the paper on which it is printed ? Italy prints less for popular consumption, and even then prints abominably ; indeed at Naples there is still a large trade in manuscript music, not altogether in accordance, I imagine, with the law of copyright. But all Italy sings, if only by ear, and what is more important, all Italy is saturated with its musical classics. The vulgarities of the music-halls have no significance in this connexion ; the attraction of the chanteuse does not lie in her song, or even in her voice. Modern composers may experiment in ” international opera ” with a view to success in America or in London as being worth more financially than they can expect from Milan or Rome. These are only passing phases of an activity commercial rather than artistic. The real Italy is the land of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi.