Lifting Italy’s classical music curse

The country that was instrumental in developing liturgical music, invented opera and whose language remains classical music’s lingua franca has become a musical backwater.

A broken violin awaiting repair.
A broken violin awaiting repair. Credit: Bogdan Steblyanko / Alamy Stock Photo

La maledizione’, cries Rigoletto in the final act of Giuseppe Verdi’s eponymous opera. So central is la maledizione (the curse) to the opera that Verdi had planned for it to become the opus’s title. And perhaps la maledizione ought to be the title of the current state of classical music in Italy. The country that was instrumental in developing liturgical music, invented opera and whose language remains classical music’s lingua franca has become a musical backwater. While venerable institutions still perform operas and concerts just as they did generations ago, the performances are rare compared to what other European countries offer, and most Italians don’t seem interested in attending the performances being offered in their storied country. If elementary schools began teaching music, Italy might have a chance at a musical renaissance again.

Stralsund is hardly what one would call a cultural metropolis. Although its theatre, the Stralsunder Theater, dates back to the sixteenth century, Stralsund is a small city of some 60,000 residents (some would call it a town), and it is situated in north-eastern Germany, far from major cities. Even so, the theatre and its two sister opera houses and concert halls in nearby Greifswald and Putbus offer no fewer than eight opera, operetta and musical productions, including Mozart’s Idomeneo and Rossini’s La Cenerentola between the time of writing (mid-November 2023) and June 2024. In addition, they present 12 different symphonic concerts. All told, over the next eight months, local residents can enjoy 103 performances by the theatres’ singers and orchestral players.

With some 70,000 residents, Italy’s Cosenza is a bit larger than Stralsund. The ancient city, situated near the toe of the Italian boot, has seen Roman and other rulers come and go, and in the fifth century it was captured by the Visigoths, whose King Alaric died there. The city is home to several impressive museums featuring art from its long history; Wikipedia calls it a cultural hub. But between November 2023 and June 2024, residents and visitors will be able to enjoy a mere three performances of classical music. There are two performances of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and one symphonic concert featuring classical music highlights.

It’s not that Cosenza is embarrassing itself vis-à-vis other Italian towns and cities. The 90,000-resident Tuscan city of Lucca prides itself on being the birthplace of not only Puccini but also his fellow composers Alfredo Catalani and Luigi Boccherini. Between November 2023 and June 2024, residents will be able to attend a mere six performances of classical music: four performances of Rossini’s Barber of Seville and two of Verdi’s Il Trovatore. After mid-March there are no more concerts. In Udine, with a population of nearly 100,000, the next eight months feature a total of two performances. Pisa offers eight performances of two operas. ‘We only have a few professional orchestras, and they’re mostly opera orchestras and mostly perform the opera repertoire because when you specialise in the opera repertoire it’s hard to switch to other repertoire,’ said Paolo Alli, a former member of the Italian parliament and president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, who is an established choral conductor. ‘We don’t even have a radio orchestra or radio chorus like many other European countries do. Italy’s greatness in opera has been a blessing and a curse. We have Palestrina and other renaissance and baroque composers, and we have opera, but we don’t have the symphonic repertoire.’

Italy’s metropolises, of course, present more concerts than other cities. Over the next eight months there will be 198 performances of 74 different operas and symphony orchestra concerts in Rome, featuring repertoire as varied as ‘Opera’s Greatest Hits’ and Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, performed primarily at the city’s Accademia di Santa Cecilia. Milan tops the list with 121 productions of operas, symphony orchestra concerts and oratorios. London is ahead of even Milan.

Compare that to the state of affairs three centuries ago. London was certainly not a musical backwater, though it had imported its most celebrated composer, George Frideric Handel, from Germany. Handel arrived in the British capital via Italy, where he had been invited by members of the nobility as well as the Vatican. (Handel’s Dixit Dominus stems from his sojourn in the Papal States.) Italy was ahead of Albion. There, Handel’s contemporary Domenico Scarlatti was developing the repertoire for the harpsichord to a level so high that his more than 500 works for the keyboard instruments remain a standard part of harpsichord and piano recitals. While serving as director of music at the Pope’s Julian Chapel, Scarlatti also composed the elaborate and sublime Stabat Mater for ten voices (that is, ten singers singing different parts). Antonio Lotti, born some two decades before Scarlatti, had already made his mark as an organist in Venice; his two choral compositions named Crucifixus remain some of the most popular compositions in the choral repertoire. Born between the two, Antonio Vivaldi was a respected composer of choral and orchestral works. Many of Vivaldi’s works – which include an extraordinary number of sonatas, concertos, operas, sacred music, as well as the Four Seasons – were written for the ensembles at Pio Ospedale della Pietà, the orphanage where he served as a teacher. All of these composers and their fellow musicians benefitted from the pioneering work of the late-sixteenth century composer and church musician Giovanni Gabrieli and Gabrieli’s uncle, Andrea; both had helped establish the influential Venetian school of composition while serving at the city’s St Mark’s Basilica. Seventeenth-century Italian composers also benefitted from the pioneering work of Claudio Monteverdi, the church and court composer born in the 1560s, who made choral music more expressive and, crucially, all but invented opera.

Monteverdi composed his masterful Vespro della Beata Vergine in 1610, while serving at the court of the Duke of Mantua. Today Monteverdi’s Vespers, as the innovative opus for choir, orchestra and soloists is known, is regularly performed in concert halls and major churches. This winter and spring it will, for example, be performed in Hamburg, Dijon, Versailles, London and Madrid – but not in Italy. When it comes to liturgical music even Italy’s largest cities offer a heartrending note. Consider Rome’s Santa Maria Maggiore, a basilica famous for its exquisite architecture, paintings and sculptures. Tourists come from all over the world to marvel at its beauty. If, however, they attend a services there and expect music of the kind that was performed when Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (a former chorister at the basilica) directed the music there, they’ll be disappointed. Though the basilica does have a paid choir, it sings few services – and it sings the music composed by Palestrina and other Italian composers for Italy’s own churches nowhere near as well as the British cathedral choirs who perform such music in daily services. Even the Pope’s own Sistine Chapel doesn’t come close to Westminster Abbey, St John’s College, Cambridge and King’s College, Cambridge, the Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral, Germany’s Regensburger Domspatzen or liturgical choirs in Sweden and the Netherlands.

‘In church music, from Palestrina to Monteverdi we had a great tradition,’ Alli said, ‘but the repertoire is not very popular in Italy today because in churches choirs sing contemporary music with the guitar. The renaissance and baroque sacred music repertoire is mostly sung by secular choirs. And because we don’t have a strong tradition of secular choirs, the quality is low. We only have a very few top-level choirs. In Italy a musician can’t survive as a choral singer or conductor. In a country like Sweden, Germany or the UK you can. The only way you can survive as a singer in Italy is by singing opera.’ Alli’s Coro Jubilate – which he founded in 1975 and has conducted ever since – is one of Italy’s best, but it’s not at the same level as Britain’s numerous professional choirs or the professional and semi-professional choirs in Germany, the Netherlands, the Nordics and the Baltics. In 2003, Coro Jubilate won second prize at the International Choir Competition in Tallinn, a rare feat for an Italian choir.

Today, in fact, the music written by Palestrina, Puccini, Rossini, Verdi, Monteverdi, Antonio Vivaldi, Gesualdo and Italy’s other magnificent composers is far more likely to be performed – and be performed at a high level – outside Italy. In the week between 12 and 18 November, London featured 50 classical-music concerts not including operas and symphonic performances. Rome featured two. ‘What I would like to change in Italy is the mentality that if you’re a member of an orchestra or choir sometimes it’s seen as a failure – people think it means you couldn’t become a soloist,’ said Michele Mariotti, the musical director of the excellent Teatro dell’Opera di Roma and a previous music director of Bologna’s illustrious Teatro Comunale. ‘That’s so wrong! Being a member of an orchestra or a chorus is an achievement. That’s what I see around Europe.’

What happened? Opera cursed Italy, Alli believes. ‘We’re a slave of the opera culture. We have good conductors, but many of the great ones take positions abroad. In choral music, it’s even worse. We don’t have professional choir conductors.’ The Second Vatican Council, which sought to make liturgy more accessible, has done its part by removing traditional sacred music from the Mass. ‘In Italian churches we have easy songs, not liturgical music,’ Alli summarised.  When I recently attended a Sunday Mass at Santa Maria Maggiore, the music consisted of a quartet performing a couple of stanzas of a hymn.

It’s not all the fault of opera and the Second Vatican Council. Italy’s musical malaise begins in schools. Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Estonia and Latvia teach music from primary school onwards and have government-subsidised music schools where children can learn instruments. Britain has taxpayer-subsidised ‘music hubs’ and a national organisation that conducts exams every young music pupil must pass – and most crucially, it has its cathedral and college chapel choirs, where young boys and girls are taught music to a professional level. By contrast, most Italian state schools offer no music instruction until secondary school. ‘In Nordic countries, they teach music just like they teach the alphabet,’ Alli observed. ‘In Italy, children only learn music if they get private instruction.’ (Even Luciano Pavarotti couldn’t read music.)

In Bologna and now in Rome, Mariotti has embarked on educational efforts of his own, visiting the cities’ universities to talk about music with the students. ‘Opera is so close to life, to our problems,’ he told me between rehearsals for Arrigo Boito’s opera Mefistofele at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma. ‘It’s like an evergreen. I think people are often scared of classical music because they’re not musicians. That’s incorrect thinking. People go to the museum without having arts training, and you don’t need musical training to appreciate classical music.’

To become interested in attending a concert, you do need to have encountered classical music. Italy’s lack of general music education has created demand for private music instruction. In Legnano, the 60,000-resident town outside Milan where Alli and his Coro Jubilate are based, there are three private music schools, including one managed by Coro Jubilate, which has around 200 pupils. No amount of private music instruction can match, however, what a government can do by teaching every child the components and joys of music.

Not every child who receives music instruction becomes proficient at an instrument, but music teaching often creates an enduring interest in all kinds of musical performance, which results in frequent concert attendance. In 2015 (the latest year in which statistics are available for all EU states), a mere 25.3 per cent of Italians had attended a live cultural performance within the previous 12 months. That was significantly lower than the EU average of 42 per cent; only Bulgaria and Romania had lower attendance. Three years later, Italy’s statistics agency, Istat, reported that in 2018 nine per cent of Italians had attended a performance of classical music, compared to 19.2 per cent who had seen a theatre performance and 31.7 per cent who had visited a museum.

‘We don’t have good music teachers because there’s too little music education, and we don’t have good music education because we don’t have good teachers,’ Alli concluded. ‘It’s a chicken and egg situation. Something has to break this circle.’ By contrast, the countries that offer good music education in state schools are producing impressive results. Finland dominates the training of conductors; Latvia has numerous and peerless youth choirs; Estonia’s musical entrepreneurship is the envy of the world, as are Swedish, Dutch and Danish choirs. Eurostat’s data for 2015 shows that 56.2 per cent of Estonians had attended a cultural performance within the past 12 months, as had 56.7 per cent of Latvians, 57.3 per cent of Swedes, 59.3 per cent of Danes and 60.5 percent of Dutch residents. Finland’s cultural attendance reached an astonishing 66.7 per cent.

While Latvian teenagers and young Finns effortlessly use Italian terminology as they learn and perform musical repertoire, many Italians would have no idea what the musical terminology means. Sforzando, anyone? Ostinato? While opera singers of every nationality sing their hearts out in the phenomenal Italian repertoire, Italians themselves don’t seem all that interested in listening to it. ‘Elementary schools absolutely need to teach music,’ Mariotti said. ‘It’s not that everyone needs to become a musician, but learning about music enriches you. Opera was born in Italy. Studying Puccini, Verdi and Rossini should be part of our cultural DNA!’ For now, Mariotti wants opera houses and symphony halls to open their doors to the public during rehearsals, which are different from the controlled product audiences are used to seeing during performances. ‘Seeing the musicians work would be fascinating for people’, he told me. ‘We talk, we shout, we get sweaty. That’s the creative process, and there’s a lot of beauty in it. I want to give people the chance to learn how classical music happens.’

The lack of such familiarity with the art form that defines Italy is the country’s maledizione. Italy still dominates the language of music, and its church and opera composers remain pillars of today’s repertoire. It even has the magnificent buildings and city squares in which music could be performed at the highest level. Yet today, perhaps as a result of complacency, it’s known mostly for musical mediocrity. In a world in which countries compete for cultural prominence, classical music is an obvious would-be win for the country of Verdi, Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Puccini, Rossini, Palestrina, Luciano Pavarotti, Cecilia Bartoli, Arturo Toscanini, Riccardo Muti, not to mention allegro, andante and accelerando.


Elisabeth Braw