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Historical Review of Italian Musical Art from the Beginning to the Present Day

For its earliest musical art Italy had to thank the Greeks, the artistic people par excellence of antiquity. Greece, indeed, occupied much the same position that Italy held fifteen or sixteen centuries after the Christian era, when the latter was the authority and the model for imitation in all matters of learning and the arts. There was, to be sure, some indigenous music of a primitive nature in the Italian peninsula, as there is in all nations, but nothing in the shape of a definite theory or a system of notation, both of which are understood in speaking of it as an art. The Greeks had evolved an ingenious and highly complex theory for the practice of music, and this for centuries was the standard in Italy.
palestrinas-birthplace.jpgSo far as the much vexed question of Greek music is concerned, it is enough to say that, while it is theoretically understood, it is impossible to judge from the ancient treatises on the subject as to its actual effect. Two things about it seem assured: first, that it was in no sense an independent art, but was subsidiary to poetry and the dance, intensifying the dramatic and emotional elements of the former largely through what we should call elocutionary effects, and accentuating the rhythmic features and movement of the latter; second, that it was confined to successions of single tones—in other words, that it was purely melodic in structure. It is hardly to be supposed, however, that harmonic possibilities had not suggested themselves to a race of such thinkers and critics, whose philosophers, moreover, had praised the esthetic and ethical value of music so highly in their writings; but, so far as research shows, no trace of even the crudest application of harmony has been found.
Though a little in advance of our subject at present, it may be well to mention the successive stages of the evolution of music as an art; we shall have to do with them later and it will throw light on the question we are considering now. The first phase is that of simple melody, voices and instruments
 all in unison, as in Greek music and the music of Eastern nations at the present day, which is on the same primitive basis. Then followed a period of coördinate melodies; that is, the interweaving of independent melodies in such a fashion as to give a certain impression of completeness; this was the work of what is known as the polyphonic or contrapuntal school. Last of all came the stage, with which we are now familiar: that of harmonic development, meaning that there is but one principal melody growing out of the harmonies by which it is supported.
Southern Italy was largely inhabited by Greeks; their language, their literature and arts exercised great influence in the land of their adoption, fashionable Romans sang in Greek and declaimed Greek poetry; the most noted teachers were Greek, players were brought from Greece to produce the famous Greek tragedies and comedies. Greek music, which represents the culmination of the melodic system, was transplanted into Italy and no further development on its meager lines was possible. Even the establishment of the Christian Church, which was destined to bring in the following era in musical history, wrought no change at first. With the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire early in the fourth century and the growing authority of the Church, music, like all the other arts, was placed on an ecclesiastical basis. It was confined to a system of modes and scales hardly less complicated than that of the Greeks, from which it was derived. As architecture was developed by the building of churches and cathedrals, painting and sculpture by the decoration of their interiors, so the growth of music was due to its power in giving dignity and solemnity to the sacred ritual. The early composers were monks and priests, and it naturally assumed a churchly style almost devoid of movement and totally lacking in rhythm and accent. These were present in the folk music of the day, but this was ignored by musicians and had no part in the development of music as an art. The music of the people more nearly approached modern standards, since it rested on the dance and the scales used in their songs, to which they often danced, were more akin to our major and minor modes than to the scales of the Church.
The early Christians sang in their secret meetings, but the characteristics of the music to which they sang their hymns are not certainly known. There are reasons, however, for inferring that they were Jewish rather than Greek, and thus allied their services to those of the Temple, of which we have such stately accounts in the Old Testament. Rome, as the mistress and the conqueror of the world, held within her walls captives and inhabitants of all countries, and the Romans, though not essentially an art loving people, assimilated and became familiar with the music and musical instruments of her tributary nations. Thus all the known means for the development of the primitive musical art of the day were present, awaiting only the impulse which should point the way to the direction it should take.
This was found in the Church. The power of music in arousing the individual and collective religious emotion of the faithful finally broke the restraints of the exclusively melodic system and led to the second great era in its history. The beginnings of a rational notation were made, a crude harmony resulting from voices singing together in fourths and fifths appeared about the ninth century, and this led to the great polyphonic period lasting for six centuries. These developments were by no means confined to Italy, but owing to the seat of the Church being fixed at Rome they soon found
their way thither to receive its sanction. There the most prominent musicians of all countries congregated, composing, singing in the Papal choir, and practically forming a school of music which had an authority transcending all others, both for ecclesiastical and artistic reasons. This gave Italy the musical preeminence it has since enjoyed, and was the beginning of its renown as the Mecca for aspiring artists and students, which has endured up to the present day.
allesandro-scarlatti.jpgThe composers of this period culminated in the supreme appearance of Palestrina (1514-1594), who achieved all that was possible to the contrapuntal school; his works are admired not alone for the science and art of construction displayed in them, but also for their beauty and elevation of thought. This it was that saved the music of the Church from a serious set-back, for in 1565 such abuses had crept into it through vanity and love of show on the part of the singers that the Council of Trent decreed to prohibit it entirely unless a more suitable style for the service could be devised. In this extremity Palestrina proved that this was possible by composing three Masses of such simplicity and devotional effect, yet withal of consummate technical skill, that music as an art was preserved to the Church.
But, like the melodic system of the Greeks at the beginning of the Christian era, by the end of the sixteenth century the school of polyphony had reached its climax; after Palestrina progress in that direction was no longer possible, he had exhausted its capabilities. His school had been called forth by religious feeling; the third and last great epoch, that of harmony, in which we are now living, was prompted by the drama and gave music of a definitely secular character to the world through the invention of the opera in 1600. Though up to this time the development of musical art had been in the main confined to works for the Church, composers had also turned their attention to secular subjects. Their treatment of these, however, was practically the same as that given to sacred texts, though a marked and constantly increasing effort to obtain the greater flexibility and variety of style demanded by the corresponding change of theme may be noted. The most important form thus originated was the Madrigal, which still survives, albeit musically very different from its early predecessor. The term was first applied to a poem of a sentimental nature and later transferred to the music to which it was set. Another form, which has disappeared, was the Caccia. This was light and gay in character, and its text, as the name (from cacciare, to hunt) implies, had to do with the chase, though it was further enlivened by the representation of characteristic street and market cries.
The Madrigal won great favor with composers of all nationalities and partook of the various peculiarities in the music of the countries to which it found its way. Some of the most charming examples of early English music are its madrigals, and the form is still cultivated in England by madrigal societies. A distinctive feature of the Italian madrigal was the use made of the canon. This device of struct (sic) imitation was much employed by composers of all schools, but the Italians handled it the most successfully, and it forms a striking peculiarity of these secular com positions of an early age. To modern ears the canon in a love song seems strangely stiff and incongruous. It was not until the opera was established and had become the leading amusement of the people that there was any real distinction between the secular and ecclesiastical styles. Then, instead of secular music being written in the ecclesiastical manner, composers began to introduce the lighter, more fluent style, made popular on the stage, into their works for the Church.
Since the opera and oratorio are considered elsewhere in the present issue of The Etude, a mention only of them is necessary in this connection. It must be borne in mind, however, that the great vogue of the former, not only in Italy, but in all countries, wrought more sweeping and far-reaching changes in the art of music than any other agency known in its history. In the efforts of opera composers to create characteristic dramatic effects through musical means the mighty fabric of modern instrumental music had its origin. To the opera we owe not alone the music drama and symphonic poem of the nineteenth century, but the overture and symphony of the eighteenth century.
Up to the invention of the opera music had been principally on a choral basis; the voice formed the material with which composers generally built up their works. Instruments were at first used only for accompaniment to singers and merely reproduced the vocal parts; the earliest essays at purely instrumental music consisted of such accompaniments played alone. Neither was the song for the single voice known until the cantatas of Galilei and Caccini opened the way for the first opera. The nearest approach to a solo performance was the singing of one part of a madrigal or similar composition by a vocalist while the other parts were vocalized without words by singers who were generally concealed.
The earliest influence tending to instrumental music was that exerted by the organ. At first its limited compass and almost invincible clumsiness of structure fitted it only for accompaniment in the church services, but in time its mechanism was improved, its range extended and the addition of pedals made it a most important factor in the progress toward the complicated art of to-day. The first great school of organ playing arose in Venice early in the sixteenth century, and there the organ entered into its own by the composition of works adapted to its character by the two Gabrielis, uncle and nephew, and Girolamo Frescobaldi, the most distinguished organist of the seventeenth century, of whom Signor Vatielli speaks in such glowing terms in another part of this magazine. Frescobaldi's achievements on the organ were duplicated on the harpsichord in the following century by Domenico Scarlatti, the , Liszt of his time, who brought the art of playing this instrument to such a degree of virtuosity that present-day artists find difficulty in reproducing his works on the modern grand piano. These two men represent the high- water mark of instrumental music in the early Italian school; the tendency of later years has been in another direction.
This may be ascribed to the opera, which opened the way to the solo singer, and he speedily became the center of musical interest. All Italy, and the rest of the world as well, went wild over the illustrious singers trained by the long line of great singing teachers called forth by the necessity of vocal artists able to cope with the technical difficulties demanded by the taste of the times. These singers and the vogue they attained exercised a powerful influence on the direction taken by Italian musical art. The magic of the human voice thoroughly exploited as to beauty of tone and brilliancy of utterance, the newly-discovered charm of melody brought to light by its means, and which had generally been lacking in the severely contrapuntal music of an earlier age, stamped it with an essentially vocal and melodious style that still remains its distinguishing feature. For more than three centuries the opera has been the dominant factor in the musical activity of Italy. Though her achievements in other fields have been many and great, this continues to be the one form particularly congenial to the Latin temperament; Italian music in general is pervaded by its characteristic glow and vocal attributes.

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