The Wisdom of Apollo


«True beauty is SAPIENTIA»
Leone Ebreo

«All that which is beautiful is light»

claudio ronco

In a famous portrait by Francesco Hayez, Gioacchino Rossini is shown no longer young, sprawled in a chair, his gaze distant and inscrutable, his right hand on a half-open score laid across his knees; on it we read in enormous letters "MUSICA DELL'AVVENIRE",

(Music of the Future) the last word underlined almost as though to shroud in uneasiness the question: Who is the author of the music in that score? Was the "future" in question the Zukunft of Wagner, who had theorized it for the world in his 1848 book "The Work of Art of the Future"? Or was it the sublimated essence of Rossini's musical thought, projecred prophetically into a possible or probable future, in which the out put of Italian musicians could regain the authority it commanded in Corelli's time? In fact, for almost two centuries the "language," the rhetoric, of musical expression had been constituted in the sweet mellifluousness of the Italian tongue, bot now, in the nineteenth century, the archetype was the sublime of the visionary processes of German art. And Italy seemed to quail before it, to fear the unknown, or rather that which seemed to attract the Nordic mind.
From this springs the dissatisfaction of modern interpreters who compare the works of the great German classical composers with those of Paganini, Bellini or Donizetti. Wherever vocality is the model of beauty and technique (even violin technique), we rejoice in the richness and efficacy of Italian music. But faced with the poetic itinerary and dramatic greatness of northern compositions, we often end up concluding that the Italians had little or no authentic sense of the tragic, and that their music was only rhetoric (in the negative sense) or hedonism, mere drawing-room entertainment. Only in the Opera does everything still seem to find a balance and a persuasive force, in a style born of an extraordinary naturalness in vocal and instrumental technique.
This is the heart of the issue: the Italian cellist or violinist will always be preferred for the beauty of the way in which sound is drawn from the instrument, the so called cavata, the "penetrative" quality of that sound, its perfect fusion with the singers; others - Belgians, Germans, the French - will be judged more brilliant in imitating violin feats on the cello or in inventing new ones for the violin, or more capable of mastering the contrapuntal complexities of the chamber music of the great romantic composers. But no one is remembered for melodiousness or for the beauty of their sound as the Italians are. Thus even among violinists Paganini is as much loved as he is hated by his contemporaries, as if he indeed had to carry on his shoulders the weight of the entire Italian baroque tradition, where the violin school - and the violinmaking of the Cremona masters - were the matrix or the model upon which all of musical Europe was based.

These were the arguments made repeatedly for over half a century by all Italian composers and virtuosos, in secking an explanation for the haughty disdain in which they were often held, particularly by the Germans.
To better understand this reality we must explore why the three Duetti concertanti for violin and cello, composed in Varese in 1824 by Alessandro Rolla, could very well have been conceived already in 1790, since little more is discernible in them than the Corellian model applied to the new style which Franz Joseph Haydn introduced with the famous Quartets Op. 20, and to Bel canto melody. We must also explore why the three Duetti concertanti by Nicolò Paganini, composed at least ten years earlier, could be imagined in any post-Classical period.
What in fact is missing in the music of the Italian contemporaries of Beethoven? I find that we never encounter the uneasiness of an oneiric imagery, or the desire to plunge into the unknown regions of the mind. Mythology - beyond that of Arcadia - does not seem a part of their musical language. What is it then that generates "energy" in that language? Perhaps the sensuality derived from a precise adherence to the immediacy of the real, to nature as it is perceived by the body taut with desire for erotic contact, harmonious contact, with visible and tangible things. In this "triumph of the senses" it would seem all the more possible to speak of an Italian musical "eroticism". In fact the mind need not wander far to gather the suggestions of this music: on the contrary, it must remain attached to sound as to a body with which it must move, must gather sudden sensations and immediate physical reactions to musical effects. Thus the irrational is banished in a certain sense insofar as it could induce casual reactions, difficult to evoke by a programmatic rhetoric.
While the Germans were trying to represent the "sublime" in the majestic phenomena of nature, - those which inspire terror, or in the fantastic visions of the unconscious, a region which was then yet to be explored - for Paganini the expression of uneasiness can still be merely a Capriccio: a whim. Here it is an ideally, perfectly baroque Capriccio, where the heroic gesture is not that of the great heroes of mythology, but only that of a man who, on his artfully crafted wooden instrument, transcends the "weight" of things and of the concrete. Inebriated with freedom he flings himself into infinite space, secured by that "umbilical cord" which holds him firmly to a fixed point in the universe of sound: the tonality, the melodious framework, the technique of his instrument.
In Rolla's duets, for example, the cello is used even in the extreme high notes with brilliant technique, yet never departing from the rationality of the form and nature of the instrument. Rolla's inventions are thus simple and magnificent, polished to create accompaniments of great polyphonic effect; and all the richness of sound he can produce seems to be motivated solely by the pleasure of contemplating itself. The themes in fact are quite conventional, as though they need be nothing but mere pretexts for the creation of the greatest beauty of sound and of ensemble. Indeed everything is light, as if suspended in the network of a structure which is itself solid and reassuring, so that every emotion is expressed solely through virtuosity: from the fingers and from the bow, and from the ideas which these know how to soggest: emphasizing phrases with a variety of accents, attributing various timbres to various melodies, and thus succeeding in transforming musical suggestions ad infinitum thanks precisely to the simplicity, or rather the Apollonean rationality, of the ideas expounded and of their form.
Both in Rolla and in these Paganini pieces, the care taken to "Italianize" their melodic phrase is revealed in the "luminous" expansiveness of the melody. The expression of melancholy always seems to be realized by sweetening the phrase to the point of yielding a sense of lack. The composition remains "energetic" as long as it continues to maintain itself within the strict dialogue among the two Concertante instruments, and every relaxation of the phrase is the site at which attention is arrested by the other: the one which before was accompaniment, now allowed with loving complicity to dominate.
Thus this music seems to create an infinite game of love, that of building an amorous relationship: giving, denying, whispering, expanding. It all seems a search for vital impulses that do not want to -and therefore cannot- oppose or contradict nature. That is then why their formal schema is of necessity simple, or "classical," and can only with difficulty be imagined as rivolutionary or unsettling: the form must be in some way reassuring, definite, immutable. The composition thus becomes an exercise in civility, which explores a nature conditioned by the equilibrium acquired by rational thonght; it explores the best reactions to the stimuli of life, and the performance, or its reception, becomes an exercise in the art of living. The beginning and the ending of this music seem in fact to be the most delicate elements in its performance: it is there that we must create the conditions for a "pleasure" which is not only an image of "beauty", but also the immersion into an emotive experience strictly linked to the logic of form and of harmony defined by classical academicism, by the School, as a "second nature " It is thus that for a musician such as Rolla, to play signifies an exercise of love, just as it was in Renaissance neoplatonic schools; here, as in those schools, one could believe that whoever loves beauty therefore also loves -even if he does not know it- knowledge, wisdom; briefly: the SAPIENTIA.
Perhaps it was Paganini himself who destabilized all of this, with his musical philosophy which was a sublime desire for freedom, possessed in the heroic gesture of extreme virtuosity. In him all beauty is derived from lightness, from the ineffable beauty of the "body" and nature of the sound of his music. Everything is suspended toward the irrational, and lives and maintains itself only by the reflection of the natural, which it yet desires - or loves - to flee.
One thing seems certain: Paganini could be all that he was, because his "umbilical cords" were Rolla, Veracini, Corelli, or in the final analysis Apollo himself, who dominates and balances the Dionysian revels. Therefore if the Music of the Future is to communicate the desire for a higher order, that order could be a repossession of Rhetoric, which, imposing on us its limits, gives us the courage to explore what is unknown to us.

N. Paganini (1782-1840): lithograph (c1820) by Karl Begas.

Thus we set about performing these two collections of Duetti concertanti on instruments suited for playing Italian composers from the mid-eighteenth century, recalling that Paganini's contemporaries described the strangeness of his "bow of antique design" and of his choice of strings. Above all we thought that the specific risk of playing on instruments built 50 years before this music was written, might be our response to the heroic gesture of our virtuoso composers. We have performed their works intending to represent them as a meeting between two musician friends, in the improvisation of reading, in building a sense one fragment at a time, secking out the surprise of the unexpected or of melodic phrases prolonged beyond expectation, as though intended to lure us into an irresistible current of musical ideas. We ended up convinced that these two collections of Duetti - never published, intended apparently only for a limited circulation among "music lovers", who in that period might also have been virtuosos - are in fact an important lesson for those who seek a deeper understanding of Paganini's technique and style, which has so far been offered in too rigid and aggressive a manner to be able to recover the immense variety of sounds, the transparency and the lightness which we would like to attribute to it.
We invite to follow the itinerary of our collective improvisational instincts, which led us to explore all the musical ideas realizable on period instruments, in the firm conviction that they too can contribute to the Music of the Future.



Claudio Ronco, Venice, august 1995



back to the top

other texts in English

claudio ronco