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«“Parlare e scrivere di musica implica sempre una storia degli ascolti possibili.” Luciano Berio, Intervista sulla musica (1981) 1. Oratorio ...»

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This is a working paper with minimal footnotes that was not written towards publication—at least not in

its present form. Rather, it aims to provide some of the wider historiographical and methodological

background for the specific (book) project I am working on at the Italian Academy. Please do not circulate

this paper further or quote it without prior written consent. Huub van der Linden, 1 November 2013.

Towards a cultural history of Italian oratorio around 1700:

Circulations, contexts, and comparisons Huub van der Linden “Parlare e scrivere di musica implica sempre una storia degli ascolti possibili.” Luciano Berio, Intervista sulla musica (1981)

1. Oratorio around 1700: Historiographical issues since 1900 In the years around 1900, one Italian composer was hailed both in Italy and abroad as the future of Italian sacred music. Nowadays almost no one has heard of him. It was Don Lorenzo Perosi (1872-1956), the director of the Sistine Chapel. He was widely seen as one of the most promising new composers in Italy, to such a degree that the Italian press spoke of il momento perosiano (“the Perosian moment”) and that his oratorios appeared to usher in a new flourishing of the genre.1 His oratorios were performed all over Europe as well as in the USA, and received wide-spread attention in the press and music magazines. They also gave rise to the modern historiography of the genre.

Like all historiography, that of Italian oratorio is shaped by its own historical context, and like all writing about music, it is related also to music making. The early years of the twentieth century were the last time that Italian oratorio was at the forefront of Italy’s and Europe’s musical interests, and it coincided not by chance with the first sustained investigations into the earlier history of the genre. The years around 1900 were a crucial period, a sort of historical hinge that marked, with a vociferous final flurry of attention, the beginning of the end of Italian oratorio as a prominent presence in Italy’s (and Europe’s) musical life, and the beginning of the genre’s modern historiographical tradition; it connects the bygone musical tradition with the current musicological tradition, providing a point of entrance into both.

In 1906 the Florentine publishing house Le Monnier published Guido Pasquetti’s L’oratorio musicale in Italia, the first comprehensive monograph on the history of Italian oratorio. In a dedicatory letter that functions as a preface, he declares straightforwardly 1On Perosi see Rinaldi, Lorenzo Perosi, and Merlatti, Lorenzo Perosi. On the oratorios see also Smither, History of the Oratorio, 4:621-24.

~1~ right at the beginning of the book that the reason for writing it was the reception in the international press of the oratorios of Perosi. 2 In 1903, the young conductor and composer Domenico Alaleona graduated with a thesis that was published in 1908 as Studi sulla storia dell’oratorio musicale in Italia, in which Perosi’s oratorios figure as the praiseworthy, if ultimately doomed, attempts to revive a moribund musical tradition.

This view differed from Pasquetti’s, which presented Perosi’s oratorios precisely as the successful restoration of those qualities admired in the music of the early Baroque. 3 Finally, in 1906 the German musicologist Arnold Schering submitted his Habilitationsschrift on the history of Italian oratorio in the first half of the seventeenth century, which later formed the first part of his Geschichte des Oratoriums, published in

1911.4 Schering, who had reviewed Pasquetti’s and Alaleona’s work in the Zeitschrift der Internationalen Musikgesellschaft, does not give any specific reasons why he got interested in the subject, but the performances of Perosi’s La risurrezione di Lazzaro in Dresden (Schering’s home-town) and Munich in 1899, and of La Passione in Berlin (where he lived at the time) in the same year, as well as the reactions in the press, perhaps played a part in directing his attention to Italian oratorio.5 After the brief period of great interest of the momento perosiano that inspired Alaleona, Pasquetti, and Schering’s books, the subject of Italian oratorio lost much of its appeal to scholars. Howard Smither’s four-volume History of the oratorio published between 1977 and 2000 remains a formidable overview of the genre’s history, but the fact that its first volume, which dealt with Italian oratorio of the period up to the early 1700s, still stands as the standard guide to the genre in that period has now become problematic in view of scholarly developments of the last thirty years.6 In his six-volume Oxford History of Western Music from 2005, to cite what here may figure as a summa of late twentieth-century musicology, Richard Taruskin barely mentions (Italian) oratorio at all.7 That in itself—let it be clear—is no reproach. Taruskin wisely adopted a personal and selective approach in order to rein in his vast subject, but the absence is, precisely because of that personal selectivity, indicative of the marginalised place Italian oratorio holds both in current musicology. If the peak in attention during the momento perosiano bears out the fact that a society’s musical and musicological interests tend to go hand in hand, then a lack of interest in Italian oratorio at other times is an equally eloquent sign of the other side of the medal.





A closer reading of the discourse on Italian oratorio over the centuries reveals the persistence of what appear as core concerns throughout the genre’s history and 2 Pasquetti, L’oratorio musicale in Italia, v-viii.

3 Alaleona, Studi sulla storia dell’oratorio, 292-304.

4 See Schering, “Neue Beiträge” from 1906 and his “Zur Geschichte des italienischen Oratoriums” from 1903.

See furthermore his Geschichte des Oratoriums, 86n3 and 625 on the indipendent genesis of his own work with regard to Pasquetti and Alaleona.

5 His review of Pasquetti is in the Zeitschrift der Internationalen Musikgesellschaft 9:1 (1907): 44-46, and that of Alaleona in ibid. 10:6 (1908): 178-79.

6 Smither, A history of the oratorio.

7 There is little over a page on Carissimi’s oratorios (Taruskin, Oxford history of Western music, 2:73-75) and the odd phrase here and there in other contexts.

~2~ historiography from the seventeenth century through the transitional momento perosiano into the modern historiography. A central problem, one that manifested itself in different ways, is that of the status of Italian oratorio as a genre. The debates over Perosi’s oratorios were played out not in small part around the use of the term oratorio.

More than once, critics and commentators posed the question whether Perosi’s works were really oratorios at all, and the composer’s own later substitution of the term with the somewhat contrived poema sinfonico vocale (and Pasquetti’s subsequent hair-splitting over that term) are a sign of similar concerns.

The seventeenth- and eighteenth-century “taxonomic exuberance”, in Derrida’s term, was at bottom not very different. At both times did theoreticians feel the need to adapt their theoretical frameworks to the musical practice, although the argument was— as is often the case—reversed. The problems that early modern theorists posed themselves with regard to the name, form, and function of oratorio can be found in Italy during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as well. Like opera, oratorio could not be fit easily into the Aristotelian model that was the touchstone of all theatre. Arcangelo Spagna’s Discorso dogmatico on Italian oratorio from 1706, was the first substantial discourse on the genre of oratorio itself, more than half a century after it had first been used as a denominator for a musical genre. But Spagna’s ideal of an oratorio as a melodramma spirituale was only one of a number of pronouncements on what this genre really was or ought to be, and, as Robert Kendrick has recently underlined, “even when the genre was treated by theorists, problems are apparent”.8 When Taruskin does refer to Italian oratorio, he reiterates the well-trodden (and on more than one count untenable) cliché that “the traditional Italian oratorio was simply an opera seria on a biblical subject, by the early eighteenth century often performed with action, although this was not always allowed”.9 To quarrel over one phrase in six volumes of music history is of course not the point; rather, to find even Taruskin, who is otherwise so attentive to how politics and ideology shape the discourse on music, stating that one genre is “simply” another is representative of a persistent normative problem that has plagued the historiography of Italian oratorio. The return of seventeenth- and eighteenth century Italian opera seria on the modern stage (including the ‘virtual stage’ of the record industry) has been a clamorous success.10 This rekindled interest in (Italian) baroque opera has happened in symbiosis with a steady flow of scholarly articles, books, and conferences on the genre. Even more so than during their period of creation, a disequilibrium between oratorio and opera has arisen. Opera’s historiographical hegemony make that its premises have also been used to measure up Italian oratorio.

One aspect of this hegemony derives from the circulation and popularity of Italian opera in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Undoubtedly the dissemination and reception of Italian opera in this period and its rise as a panKendrick, “Devotion, piety and commemoration”, 363.

9 Taruskin, Oxford history of Western music, 2:314, in a section on Handel’s English oratorios.

10 See Ndalianis, Neo-Baroque Aesthetics, and Leopold, “Sull’attualità dell’opera barocca” for considerations

on this revival of the baroque.

~3~ European phenomenon justify scholarly attention, but the importance of opera is also a ‘fact’ constructed a priori by the choice of criteria. It is surprising, on closer consideration, how a genre like opera seria—or opera tout court—so tied to the ancien régime aesthetics and ethos of conspicuous consumption and to the affirmation of the social and/or cultural elite, has managed to retain its lofty status as an ‘important’ subject, unruffled and unquestioned by any historiographical school.11 Measured by different but equally valid standards, Italian oratorio was, certainly in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Italy, if anything more important than opera. For one thing, the current status of opera does not reflect the numerical importance of its own times. John Walter Hill’s observation that around 1700 oratorio was the “most accessible and pervasive genre of dramatic music in Florence during all but the summer months” holds true also for many other major and minor cities in Italy, especially those that did not boast an opera theatre.12 Opera, moreover, remained a pastime for the nobility and upcoming middle class. Compared to baroque operas, oratorios had in Italy not only a socially wider and geographically more capillary dissemination, but, as for instance Juliane Riepe, Lorenzo Bianconi, and Margaret Murata have acknowledged, appear to have been more important also in sheer number of performances. 13 And yet, the musicological community at large and scholars of Italian baroque music in particular have wielded their scholarly efforts mainly on opera rather than oratorio.

The discourse on genre and the related issue of the role of sacred music was of direct relevance to the place and context of oratorio performances: the idea that different types and styles of music all had their appropriate time and place. Alaleona saw little future for Perosi’s oratorios—which were performed sometimes in churches, sometimes in theatres—because they had lost their “historical basis”.14 Alaleona’s acute grasp of the symbiotic relation between music and performance venue and historical and social ‘reasons’ for the musical genres seems remarkably modern, but he was not alone in seeing a devotional context as a prerequisite in order for an oratorio to function and to be understood properly. Somewhat less emphatically, Pasquetti and Schering made similar arguments. Schering, for instance, who himself was a Protestant, remarked on Perosi’s oratorios that they were not well received in Germany because they were 11 This is not to say that the genre itself and its ideological import have not been studied and questioned, but on the meta-level of what it is we occupy ourselves with in the first place the status of opera has remained unchallenged.

12 Hill, “Oratory music in Florence, II”, 250. Of course, when the opera season was Carnival, then it were those months rather than the summer that constituted opera’s main period.

13 Margaret Murata, [Review of L’oratorio musicale italiano e i suoi contesti (secc. XVII-XVIII): Atti del Convegno internazionale, Perugia, Sagra musicale umbra, 18-20 settembre 1997, ed. Paola Besutti (Florence: Olschki, 2002) and Percorsi dell’oratorio romano, da “historia sacra” a melodramma spirituale: Atti della giornata di studi (Viterbo, 11 settembre 1999), ed. Saverio Franchi (Rome: IBIMUS, 2002)], Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music 11, no 1 (2006), § 1.1, http://www.sscm-jscm.org/jscm/v11/no1/murata.html: “Research of the last twelve years or so points to the likely preponderance in Italy of oratorio performances over operatic productions”; Bianconi, Music in the seventeenth century, 123.

14 Alaleona, Studi sulla storia dell’oratorio, 295: “il rapporto tra gli oratori e l’oratorio musicale era un rapporto intimo, necessario, di causa e effetto; mentre il rapporto tra la sala da concerto e l'oratorio è puramente occasionale, esteriore, e potrebbe anche cessare, senza che la sala da concerto perdesse nulla del suo essere”.

~4~ oratorios “in the old sense”, which “achieve their proper effect only in oratories or at least in an ecclesiastically attuned environment”. Moreover, they required listeners “of the Catholic confession or at least those who can willingly transpose themselves into their kind of sensibility”.15 This “historical basis” or “old sense” of which Alaleona and Schering speak—the profound connection between genre, place, and what I call ‘ritual context’ that both of them recognise as of particular importance for Italian oratorio—is essential for a full understanding of the genre.



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