Reconstruction of Musical History

Reconstruction of Musical History

“[The archive] has all the information that will allow us to reconstruct the creative process that led to those scores.” 

Luciano Berio

Opera is the dominant genre in 19th-century Italy. Only at the turn of the century do stronger trends towards instrumental music begin to emerge. The archive reflects these trends and offers ways to reconstruct musical aesthetic developments. In the period from 1912, Italian composers are also exploring the modern trends of atonal music and dodecaphony: Luigi Dallapiccola and Goffredo Petrassi. The “Ottanta” generation born in the 1880s, comprehensively represented at Ricordi, is more conservative and seeks to combine modern and traditional concepts: Franco Alfano, Alfredo Casella, Italo Montemezzi, Ildebrando Pizzetti, Gian Francesco Malipiero, Ottorino Respighi. Franco Alfano is familiar to operagoers as the composer who completed the third act of the fairy tale opera Turandot, which Puccini left unfinished when he died. In his time Alfano himself was active and very popular as an opera composer. Much like Puccini, he has a penchant for exotic material, such as Indian stories. A case in point is the three-act opera La leggenda di Sakùntala, which premieres in 1921 at the Teatro Comunale in Bologna, is re-performed in Naples, Buenos Aires, at La Scala and in Dusseldorf and Antwerp, and is one of Alfano’s most successful works. The archive contains extensive material on this. Pizzetti’s own approach to opera literature also represents an attempt at the renewal of the genre, as opposed to verismo. Casella toes a neoclassical line with a focus on chamber music, while Respighi, probably the best known of the group to date, develops great symphonic music with strong orchestral tones. Finally, Malipiero is a very active artist with talents in many genres, both in chamber music and in works for big orchestras and the opera. His collaboration with Casa Ricordi well into the postwar period, his ambivalent position at the time of fascism, and his efforts to create new musical forms and ideas, which do not preclude sharp judgments about musicians of his time, are documented in an extensive collection of letters.

In Italy, the “Classical Modern” period from 1910 to 1930 can be regarded as a time of cautious searching for ways of renewing the tradition. The Archivio Storico offers extensive material for research on the subject. Publishing catalogs, bundles of individual letters, handwritten scores and the libretto collection provide information about a time in which various artistic movements thrive side by side, with varying importance. A history of the publishing company for these years has yet to be written — and should be based on the archive, because it documents the various forces acting on the musicians and the business correspondence in particular makes it possible to uncover and trace links between the institutions and people in a European context. The history of Malipiero’s opera La favola del figlio cambiato (The Fable of the Transformed Son) by Pirandello is just one example of the interconnectedness between cultural policy and artistic development. Premiered at the State Theater in Braunschweig in early 1934, its Italian première in Rome is banned by Mussolini for ideological reasons, an action that has an impact on the development of modernist forms in Italy. Malipiero mentioned the ambivalent affair in a letter of 1946. The archive keeps opening up new directions of research that lead back to the archive itself. Questions related to publishing policy can be followed up in the archive documents. What kind of relationship, for example, did the publisher have with the avant-garde composer Ferruccio Busoni, who repeatedly approached the Ricordi publishing house, and several of whose autographs are housed in the archive?

The extensive collection of contract documents in the archive (which are indexed in a clear system), and the significant business correspondence, the aforementioned “copialettere”, which is available from 1888 to 1962, is relevant to these and other questions. Sorted by fiscal year, it contains copies of all outgoing correspondence. For each fiscal year there is an index of volumes listed in alphabetical order. This correspondence provides evidence of the lively publishing activity: correspondence with composers, theaters, set designers, costume designers, technical companies (manufacturers of paint, fabrics, paper, machinery), the press, institutions, offices, etc. A thorough research on this correspondence also shows how opera is designed as a “Gesamtkunstwerk” and market product from the late 19th century. And so the correspondence with individual addressees can be filtered out over decades. A detailed study of this unique documentation provides insights into the development of contracts with the authors, as well as with opera houses; about the purchase of new presses, paints and paper; about negotiations of rights issues; about the addition of new writers; press contacts, concert agencies and much more. For instance, contracts may even cover the production conditions. From Verdi’s correspondence, we know how this area becomes more and more important: which singers, orchestra, cast members and conductors are hired and much more. The stage arrangements are also part of this.

During the postwar period, Italy’s intellectual circles are gripped by a liberating mood of renewal. The years 1943 to 1945, the years of the Resistenza, lead to a high level of politicization, which lingers on into the postwar period. The theses of Antonio Gramsci, one of the founders of the Italian Communist Party, regarding the educationally important role of culture and art on the whole of society become influential for writers, painters and musicians. In this context, the arts — including music — are not marked by a desire for depoliticized, purely abstract music, and they are not afraid to pick up on tradition: the lyrical cantabile in the field of singing; the aesthetics of polytonality and atonality, and twelve-tone composition, cultivated during the classic modern period of the 1920s and 1930s in Italy as elsewhere; and in the field of opera, forms of literary opera. Ricordi’s publishing program reflects these different trends. As a result of diversification in the musical landscape, the changes in society, and not least the changes to the publishing company’s structure, the archive no longer presents such a complete picture of these years as it does for the years of Verdi and Puccini. It’s been a long time since there were dominant individual personalities, and the music industry itself now has to contend with competition in the genre of film, and also increasingly with television. The separation of classical and popular music is now permanent, and the boom in popular music is unprecedented. Interest in sheet music in the field of traditional ballads, songs and extracts from operas continues, as evidenced in the catalogs from those years.