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LIFE AFTER PUCCINI: Italian Music in the Twentieth Century

August 26, 2011

Futurist painter Umberto Boccioni's painting "The Noise of the Street Enters the House" depicts the noise and chaos of modernity becoming part of art and music.

Vivaldi. Donizetti. Verdi. Puccini. If you ask someone to name a few Italian composers, these are the most likely responses you’ll hear. While these composers represent a large section of Italian music, what happened after Verdi and Puccini? What new directions did Italian music take after verismo opera was no longer in vogue?

Although Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) was still actively writing in the early part of the twentieth century (Madama Butterfly was composed in 1904), a new group of composers was concurrently emerging. While operas about tragedy in small Sicilian villages seemed in vogue at the time, this artistic movement attempted to move in a direction that they felt better matched the onward march of progress in Europe after the turn of the century. The Futurists, formally founded in 1909 by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, a visual artist and writer, felt that the inspiration for music and art should come from the sounds of industry [1]. Painter Luigi Russolo spent much of his time creating machines that would mimic the sounds of train whistles, car engines, and other clanging, screeching, percussive sounds that would commonly be heard in an industrial society. Through this movement, the boundaries of what would be considered music versus what is noise were greatly stretched, allowing composers to experiment with different timbres and colors.

Luigi Dallapiccola (1904-1975) represented the next step in Italian musical progress: serialism. While growing up in a disputed part of Austria with his Italian parents, Dallapiccola was sent to a prison camp in Graz. It was there that he developed his love for opera, and he eventually entered a music conservatory to further his studies. In the early 1920s he heard a performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, and subsequently became the first Italian composer to use the serial method [2]. However, Dallapiccola never strictly adhered to the academic rules of serialism. As Robert P. Morgan wrote in his book Twentieth Century Music, “The basic impulse continued to be fundamentally lyrical, with long melodic lines spun out in free, continuously unfolding sections, clothed in delicate instrumentation and resonant (though now nontriadic) harmonies.” While his music scores resembled a very lean Webern-esque style on paper, his music retained a grand sense of expressionism within the confines of the twelve tone method. His opera Il prigioniero (1944-48) exemplified his style wonderfully: he used tone-rows, but in ways not strictly adherent to twelve tone technique, thus freeing him to use serialism to fully express the emotions of the characters onstage.

As technology became more readily available, composers began to utilize it more often in their compositions. Luciano Berio (1925-2003) took full advantage of the new technology along with serial composition techniques, and commonly used a collage method to assemble his pieces. With the aid of his soprano wife, Cathy Berberian, he wrote complicated vocal parts that included sounds and extended technique outside of the normal singers’ repertoire (growling, coughing, whispering, singing while inhaling), and would occasionally take the tapes and cut them apart or manipulate them to create a new work. His piece Thema: Omaggio a Joyce (1958) utilized recordings of Berberian reading excerpts from chapter eleven of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which he then cut, manipulated, and spliced to create unworldly vocal effects [3]. The resulting piece does not resemble traditional vocal music as Italian composers had conceived it; Berio succeeded not only in stretching the boundaries of what would be expected of a singer, but of creating new and exciting sounds for his audience utilizing only solo voice.  He was also well known for serialism and indeterminacy, and collaborated with well-known twentieth-century composers like Pierre Boulez.

Whether exposing the musical world to new sounds, expanding the usage of the twelve tone technique, or stretching the boundaries of the human singing voice, Italian composers in the twentieth century played an important role in moving away from traditional composition styles into an increasingly technology-based future [4]. Following the lead of the Second Viennese School, the futurists and composers Dallapiccola and Berio were an integral part of Europe’s movement forward in its changing musical aesthetic. They may not be as commonly known as some of their predecessors, but their impact on modern composition techniques has had a very important impact.

  1. Morgan, Robert P. Twentieth-Century Music. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.
  2. Kennedy, Michael, ed. Oxford Concise Dictionary of Music. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  3. Ross, Alex. The Rest is Noise. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007.
  4.  Godfrey, Daniel and Elliott Schwartz. Music Since 1945: Issues, Materials, and Literature. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 1993.
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