Italian music is broad and bold and has always been open to exploration. Other than during the Fascist years of the ’20s and ’30s when the regime tried to make music a tool of the State, Italian musicians–with the exception of some sacred vocalists who had to answer to the Pope–have always welcomed the influence of genres from all over the world, taking pride in their interplay with French, Spanish, Slavic, Greek, Arab and other musical cultures. While Italy is known for its being at the heart of sacred Church music as then for its pivotal role in the development of opera, the nation takes great rightful pride in its many types of composers and performers. Let’s meet some of them.
ITALIAN SACRED MUSIC:
For almost two thousand years Italy has been at the center of Christianity–Roman Catholicism, to be specific–and, for just as long, Italy has been at the center of Christian sacred music. At the end of the 6th century Pope Gregory I was Bishop of Rome and, according to tradition, he either originated the type of all-in-unison Latin language chanting that became known as “Gregorian Chant” with the help of divine inspiration or at least ordered church music be simplified and organized. (Historians now believe Pope Gregory didn’t actually either originate or even first notate the type of “plainchant/plainsong” that bears his name.) Gregorian chanting was the Church’s central form of music for many centuries; only in the Renaissance (the 14th to the 17th centuries) did Church music develop to include voices singing various complementary notes at the same time, though still in Latin. Italian Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina is the best-known composer of what has come to be known as “Sacred
Polyphony.” In the 1800s the Church accepted music that was more operatic, marginalizing Gregorian chanting and Renaissance-era polyphony, though at the end of the century the Cecilian Movement aimed to revive this kind of music. Actions of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) of the early 1960s led to the removal of much Latin-language music from the liturgy.
EHow.com differentiates Gregorgian chant from sacred polyphony from hymondy | Wikipedia on the Gregorian chant | Listen to some Gregorian chanting on YouTube | “Stairway to Heaven” as a Gregorian chant? | NewAdvent.org’s biography of Giovannia Pierluigi da Palestrina | “The Tallis Scholars Sings Palestrina” | A MusicaSacra.com discussion about the Cecilian Movement | Not everyone likes Catholic Church music since Vatican II: “Post Vatican II “La La La” Music: Unworthy of the Catholic Church”
ITALIAN INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC:
Though opera, which we’ll discuss below, is at the center of Italy’s contribution to the annals of Western classical music, there have been several influential Italian instrumental composers, most notably the Baroqe-era Domenico Scarlatti, who himself was son of noted early operatic composer Alessandro Scarlotti, and Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741),
whose “Four Seasons” is still popular today. (Watch Itzhak Perlman perform “Spring”–you’ll absolutely know this one.) Opera ruled the Italian classical music scene
until the early 1900s, but after dominant opera composer Giacomo Puccini passed away in 1924 instrumental music experienced a modern revival, in great part due to internationally respected Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957), who had much success early in his career as an operatic conductor but later focused on instrumental work. (Toscanini conducted at Milan’s La Scala opera house, at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, with the New York Philharmonic and, most notably in the U.S., he conducted NBC Symphony Orchestra, broadcast on radio from 1937-1954.) Toscanini was particularly a proponent of Italian instrumental composers such as Giuseppe Martucci (1856-1909), whose Second Symphony has become known as “the starting point of the renascence of non-operatic Italian music.”
BaroqueMusic.org’s biography of Vivaldi, complete with a portrait of him holding a violin like he’s poised to use it for an Eddie Van Halen-style solo | BaroqueMusic.org introduces us to Domenico Scarlotti | Vladimir Horowitz performs Scarlatti’s Sonata L33 | A short biography of Martucci–could he be the composer with the best mustache ever? | Listen to Martucci’s Second Symphony in F. Major (1904) | ToscaniniOnline’s introduction to Toscanini