Music

Music (from the Greek noun μουσική, mousike; “art of the Muses”) is the product of devising and producing art, through the use of instruments or the voice, a succession of sounds that tend to be pleasing to the ear. More technically, music consists in the conception and realization of sounds, timbres and silences in the course of time and space.

It is an art as a complex of practical rules suitable to achieve certain sound effects, which can express the interiority of the individual who produces the music and the listener. The generation of sounds occurs through singing or through the use of musical instruments that, through the principles of acoustics, provoke the auditory perception and the emotional experience desired by the artist.

The meaning of the term music is not however univocal and it is much debated among scholars because of the different meanings used in the various historical periods. Etymologically the term music derives from the greek adjective μουσικός/musikòs, related to Muses, figures of Greek and Roman mythology, referred in a subtle way to technique, also derived from the greek τέχνη/techne. Originally the term did not indicate a particular art, but all the arts of the Muses, and referred to something “perfect”. The macro-categories of cultured, light, and ethnic are divided into different genres and musical forms that use systems such as harmony, melody, tonality, and polyphony.

History of Music

Music

Music has been one of the fundamental manifestations of the way of being of primitive man, who attached to the sound a complex of magical meanings, identifying in it the means of a privileged relationship with empirical reality and with its mysterious links to the world of the supernatural. This magical and religious connotation of sound is an almost constant feature of the musical experience both in prehistoric times and in the first great historical civilizations: the Sumerians, the Assyro-Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Indians, the Hebrews have in fact attributed to music a central place in their cosmogonies and have also given it a particular importance in their liturgies.

This characteristic is also recognizable in the cultures of oriental and South American peoples and is also found in the worldview of today’s peoples on an ethnological level. The sacred character attached to musical expression, however, was never preclusive of its presence in all contingencies of existence, from the most humble to the most solemn. Unlike what happens for other arts, the testimonies on music are for all antiquity extremely incomplete and fragmentary, because the iconographic representations, the archaeological finds of instruments, the literary testimonies, the very rare fragments of music noted constitute indirect elements of judgment, to be integrated with a massive mass of information that ethnomusicology studies according to a strict comparative criterion.

As large and significant as the material currently available is (especially as it refers to ethnomusicological documents recorded through field research and indicative of cultural stages belonging to previous eras), it should be noted that studies have reached acquisitions still partial and very difficult to generalize. Even if it is now widely demonstrated that the European musical civilization constitutes a substantially limited sector of a wider experience that, at least until a certain epoch (the lower Middle Ages), encompasses it, and that certain technical aspects of its musical language (for example polyphony) or of its theoretical vision (such as the tempered scale) are not at all its distinctive peculiarities, but have appeared in other civilizations even hundreds or thousands of years before, it remains incontrovertible that the Western musical system has recognized (thanks also to its rationality) a complexity of development and diffusion that no other musical tradition can boast.

Music in ancient Egypt

The Egyptian civilization is among the first civilizations of which we have evidence of musical expression. The music of ancient Egypt has very remote origins, so much so that the Egyptians are among the first civilizations of which we have musical evidence. The role of music, called hy (joy), was of great importance as it was considered of divine origin, in fact it was linked to Hathor considered goddess of joy, dance and music. The goddess Meret was considered the personification of music and with his gestures, almost like a conductor, governed the cosmic order and the flow of music.

Already in prehistoric Egypt music and singing were present in rituals related to magic and religion; later, in the predynastic period, music and dance had mainly propitiatory function in rites of fertilization and initiation. The first musical instruments were introduced, such as chopsticks, rattles, clappers, used in totemic rituals.

The numerous representations that have come down to us representing musicians, singers and dancers, testify to the fact that music played a role of great importance in Egyptian society; moreover, a considerable literary tradition and findings of various instruments are a confirmation of this.

Among the instruments used by the Egyptians, we find the crotales, the sistrum, linked to Hathor, the trumpet, used in war and sacred to Osiris, the drums, the lute and the flute, sacred to Amon. Other musical instrument very present and characteristic of the Egyptian civilization is the harp often equipped with a wide sound box. In ancient Egypt, music had religious functions, it was in fact used in sacred ceremonies, it was present during fertilization rites, in the celebration of funeral functions, and also in occasion of fun and entertainment.

Initially, in the most ancient period, were used mainly percussion instruments (sticks, clappers). The appearance of more sophisticated instruments had to wait longer. The first to be built after the percussion instruments were wind instruments (flute) and stringed instruments (lyre and zither), of which there are Greek, Egyptian and Mesopotamian testimonies prior to the eleventh century BC. These civilizations already knew the main intervals between sounds (fifths, fourths, octaves), used as the basis for some scale systems. A study by the German ethnomusicologist Sachs on harp tuning showed that the Egyptians used both a descending pentatonic scale and a heptaphonic scale.

In the Old Kingdom was created the custom of a composite instrumental formation, including various flutes, arched harps, with a large sound box and simple reed instruments, ancestors of the clarinet. Then there are the crotales, the sistrum, linked to Hathor, the trumpet, used in war and during funeral processions, for this reason sacred to Osiris, the drums, the lute and the flute, sacred to Amon.
During the Middle Kingdom were introduced the drum, the lyre and to the ritual dance was added the professional one which had the purpose to entertain the spectator. The typical Egyptian instrument, the sistrum, saw in this period an enlargement of its use. More sophisticated instruments had to wait longer.

The first to appear after percussion were wind instruments (flute, horn) and string instruments (lyre and harp), of which there are Greek, Egyptian and Mesopotamian testimonies prior to the tenth century B.C.; these civilizations already knew the main intervals between sounds (fifths, fourths, octaves), which were used as the basis for some scale systems.

Music was used in numerous situations and practiced at all levels of Egyptian society. During religious ceremonies it had an important role; professional dancers, singers and musicians, often only female roles, had special functions in every period of Egyptian history. Among the clergy linked to Amun there were female musicians of priestly rank.

In ancient Egypt, no feast or banquet was celebrated without the active participation of musicians and singers, roles often combined in the same person. Even in the houses of pleasure was performed music with interpreters often foreign, Nubian or Syrian, and were also performed dances accompanied by drums and tambourines.

During festivals in honor of the dead, an occasion when the family of the deceased gathered at the tomb, banquets were celebrated to the accompaniment of music, song, and dance.

The lack of musical notation has been the biggest problem faced by scholars; unfortunately, no score has ever been traced, so very little is known about the melodies or harmonic combinations of Egyptian antiquity.[8] Some musicologists have, however, attempted to reconstruct what tonalities might have been used by studying the ancient instruments, replicated so they could be played.

The musicologist Curt Sachs studying the tuning of harps and the relationship between the short and long strings of the same, has found that the Egyptians obtained from these instruments intervals of fourth, fifth and unison sounds, they also used a descending pentatonic scale and probably knew the heptatonic scale, in fact it was observed that an oboe preserved at the Egyptian Museum in Turin has the extension of two octaves.

Music of Mesopotamia

The music of Mesopotamia followed the different artistic traditions of the peoples who inhabited the lands between the Tigris and the Euphrates, including the Sumerians, the Akkadians, the Assyrians and the Hittites. Instruments in Mesopotamia included harps, lyres, lutes, flutes, and drums. Many of these were common to neighboring cultures. East African lyres and West African lutes dated to the same period actually retain some characteristics of Mesopotamian instruments (van der Merwe 1989, p. 10).

Excavations of the royal cemetery of Ur, a Sumerian city, and the musical iconography with which the architecture of early historical Mesopotamia was not richly decorated suggest that music was probably very important in the ritual forms typical of Sumerian civilization. Bas-relief specimens in the Louvre from Lagash, for example, show harp-like chordophone instruments.

In the Sacred Texts of Judaism, music is mentioned for the first time (in a reference that seems to allude to a time around 3300/3200 BCE), when Iubal or Jubal, son of Lamec and Ada, is mentioned, of whom it is said that:

[…] was the father of all those who play the zither (or guitar, Hebrew kinnor) and the flute (Hebrew ugab).

Genesis 4:21

Among the Hurritic texts found at Ugarit are the oldest examples of musical writing, dating from about 1400 B.C.[1] In these fragments, the names of four composers, Tapšiẖuni, Puẖiya(na), Urẖiya, and Ammiya, were found.

Music in ancient Greece

During ancient Greece, music occupied a very important role, both in social life and in religion. For Greeks music was an art which included, besides music itself, also poetry, dance, medicine and magical practices. The importance of music in the Greek world is witnessed by numerous myths about it. One of them is that of Orpheus, its inventor, who managed to convince the gods of Hades to return to light the disappeared nymph Eurydice.

During the archaic period, from the origins to the sixth century BC, music was only practiced by professionals: the aedi and rhapsodes. They declaimed the myths accompanied by a musical instrument and handed down the music orally. Later on, during the classical period, from VI to IV century b.C., music became part of the educational system and was thus popularized. To this period date back very few sources of musical writing which were the exclusive patrimony of professionals, as music was, as we have already mentioned, handed down orally.

Also in the classical period developed the tragedy. The subjects of tragedy were taken from literary myths and consisted of dialogues between two or three characters alternating with choral songs. The actors were all men, wore masks and acted with the accompaniment of music. The architectural structure of the theater consisted of a semicircular staircase that housed the audience, in front of which was a stage on which the actors performed, while between the staircase and the stage was an orchestra along with a choir.

The Greek musical instruments were different: the most common were the lyre or zither and the aulos. The lyre was an instrument whose strings were plucked using a plectrum, an instrument sacred to the god Apollo. The aulos, on the other hand, was a wind instrument, or reed aerophone, sacred to the god Dionysus. Among the Hellenes were also in use percussion instruments including drums and cymbals, better known as cymbals.

The Greeks also approached the music to mathematics and the movement of the stars. Pythagoras, approaching music to the movement of the planets, understood that it too was governed by precise mathematical laws. He brought his intuition on the monochord and discovered that if a string produced a sound of a certain pitch, to obtain a sound at a higher octave it was necessary to vibrate half of the string, to obtain the fifth was enough to vibrate two thirds of the string, and so on.

At the base of the Greek musical system there was the tetrachord formed by four descending sounds included in a right fourth interval. The two extreme sounds were fixed, while the two intermediate sounds were mobile. Tetrachords were divided into diatonic, chromatic and enharmonic. The union of two tetrachords formed a mode that could be Doric, Phrygian or Lydian. Depending on the type of union, modes could be joined or disjoined. If to a disjointed Doric mode was added a tetrachord conjoined to the high note, another tetrachord conjoined to the low note and under this last one a note, it was obtained the tèleion system, that is perfect, with the extension of two octaves. The musical rhythm was based on the poetic one. In Greek poetry, metrics were based on the duration of syllables: short or long, the same was true in music. The short is equivalent to today’s quaver and the long is equivalent to today’s semiquaver. Rhythm was the result of the union of two or more notes or syllables, ordered in rhythmic patterns called feet. In poetry the combination of several feet formed the verse and the combination of several verses formed the stanza.

Greeks also attributed to music an educational function, as they believed it was an art capable of enriching people’s soul. According to Plato music had to serve to enrich the human soul, as well as gymnastics served to strengthen the body. This discourse is expanded with the doctrine of ethos for which each mode has its own specific temperament that can positively or negatively affect the soul of people. For Plato, the Doric or Phrygian modes have a positive effect, while the Lydia modes can disturb the rational balance. Aristotle accepted the classification of ethos, but considered that all modes could benefit the soul. Until this time, musical theory was known exclusively from a mathematical point of view. Later Aristoxenus of Tarentum understood the importance of hearing in the perception of sounds.

The musical experience of ancient Greece constitutes a fundamental moment in the formation of modern musical culture, even if, paradoxically, in the course of the past centuries very few direct musical testimonies were known, and still, after decades of systematic paleographic and archaeological research, only a few dozen fragments are known, most of which have come to us in precarious situations of conservation and largely incomplete.

The reason for such glaring gaps in the tradition of the ancient musical repertoire depends on the fact that the use of notation, one of the distinctive and characterizing elements of Greek musical culture, was considered an exceptional practice, of very limited diffusion. The vast majority of the repertoire continued to be handed down orally, on the basis of typical structures (the so-called nómoi), subject to processes of free modification and variation by the interpreters, not unlike the Middle Eastern maqam and Indian raga.

However, in ancient Greece two basic conditions for the development of Western music were realized: on the one hand, the beginning of a systematic research on the theoretical and technical foundations of musical language, which resulted in an extremely refined and subtle rationalization of its fundamental parameters; on the other hand, the foundation of a musical aesthetics, with particular reference to the problem of the significant reflections of compositional structures. It was in particular these two aspects, handed down through a vast specialized theoretical literature and the works of the major Greek writers and philosophers, that directly influenced medieval thought and concretely addressed, albeit in a mediated way, musical taste in some key moments of European musical history, particularly in the Renaissance and early eighteenth century.

The Greek speculation on music acquired the principle, destined to be a constant of every Western musical experience until our century, that the language of sounds responds to precise conventions, rationally usable in view of certain expressive purposes; intuiting, among other things, its irreplaceable pedagogical value and considering it, consequently, as a central moment of a balanced intellectual and moral development, of a harmonic paidéia. The process of simplification and spiritualization to which the Christian Middle Ages subjected musical language, reducing it, in the context of the liturgy, to vocal expressions only, sounds confirmation of an acquired awareness of the significant virtues of an art that Platonic thought had already accepted only by banning its obscure Dionysian implications.

In addition, the Greeks, always started the process of full autonomy of music from the parallel poetic and choreographic expressions, with which it had coincided in practice until the fourth century BC. C. The subsequent distinct development of the arts is not only a symptom of decadence after the extraordinary flowering of the classical period, but the premise for an ever deeper awareness of their respective techniques. On the contrary, it was a negative fact, destined to weigh on a large part of the Middle Ages, the distinction between a practical sphere, destined to the care of professional performers, and a purely speculative theoretical sphere: a typical example of this order of investigation is the vast literature, of distant Pythagorean origin, on the music of the spheres (which constituted, however, a theme of enormous resonance in all areas of thought and art until the first half of the eighteenth century).

Medieval music

The medieval distinction of a mundane music (the purely intelligible harmony of the cosmos based on the balance of opposites), of a human music (with reference to its reflection on the human soul) and of a musica instrumentalis (i.e. physically resonant music, a purely contingent initiation to philosophical speculation) and the placement of music in the liberal arts grouped in the Quadrivium next to arithmetic, geometry and astronomy is linked to this vision. But beyond this aspect, in which it is also to be recognized the consequence of the low social consideration that, apart from sporadic exceptions, the practice of music had in the Roman culture (which did not bring in this sector substantial elements of novelty and originality compared to the Greek matrix), it is necessary to emphasize the revolutionary character of the powerful cultural synthesis through which the Christian liturgical chant took shape, in which elements of the Jewish musical tradition, Middle Eastern and, especially as regards the theory, of the Greek and Byzantine tradition converged.

The movement towards the liturgical unity of Christianity, promoted by popes since the 4th century and culminating in the reform of Gregory the Great (590-604), while on the one hand decreed the disappearance of a vast patrimony of chants linked to local traditions (with the exception of Ambrosian chant, which Rome admitted as legitimate alongside Gregorian chant), on the other hand led to the integration of important elements already considered spurious into the repertoire of Roman chant. Moreover, the appearance of diastematic notation (perfected by Guido d’Arezzo in the 11th century) constituted an event of exceptional historical importance, both for the preservation of the musical heritage and for the new technical possibilities offered to composition. The rigid prohibition to vary the repertoire imposed by the ecclesiastical hierarchy after the 7th century and the work of liturgical unification powerfully favored by the Frankish kings, and in particular by Charlemagne, would soon have led to a sclerotisation and a decadence of Christian liturgical singing if new demands had not renewed the musical heritage of the Church of Rome from within.

Between the ninth and tenth centuries, in fact, the sequence and the trope became widespread (destined to flow, through the development of the dialogic trope, into the liturgical drama, into the sacred representation and into the mystery, constituting the premises for the development of the new European theater). Moreover, starting from the 9th century, the first attempts to structurally vary liturgical chant, traditionally homophonic, appeared through the application of polyphonic elaboration techniques. Originally configured in the forms of the organum parallelo, of the organum melismatico and of the discanto, these arrived between the 12th and 13th centuries at a notable degree of formal complexity, especially in the ambit of the school of Notre-Dame of Paris, in which the first definite personalities of composers of Western Europe were noted: Leoninus and Pérotin.

The Magnus Liber Organi, an imposing monument of primitive polyphony, which both composers aspired to, contains organa, clausulae, conductus and motets for two, three and four voices, which present, among other things, the application of a revolutionary principle: a rhythm which, unlike the fluid elasticity of Gregorian chant, provides mathematical ratios of duration between the sounds. This new technique, to which the development of the mensural notation quickly opened new perspectives, was both a consequence and a singular element of stimulus of the new polyphonic forms which had in the motet the most typical structure of the Ars antiqua period (between the first decades of the XII century and about 1320). But, however full of future, the polyphonic forms are far from exhausting the panorama of the music of this period, rich in profound seeds of renewal: the movement of the troubadours in southern France and Italy, of the troubadours in northern France, of the Minnesingers in Germany, as well as the flowering of spiritual compositions such as the Italian lauds and the Iberian cantigas constituted as many sectors of development of the monodic style.

With the Ars nova, which flourished between 1320 and the first decades of the fifteenth century, we see in France and Italy a singular development of profane polyphonic forms (rondeau, virelai, ballade; madrigals, hunts, ballads) and a powerful structural expansion of sacred forms, among which the Mass stands out (of which Guillaume de Machault, the greatest European musician of the fourteenth century, left a distinguished example with the Messe de Notre-Dame, the first polyphonic example of this genre conceived by a single author). While in the early fifteenth century the legacy of the Ars Nova was dispersed in manneristic intellectual subtleties, the first exponents of the Burgundian school (Dufay, Binchois, etc.) merged the concreteness of the English J. Dunstable with a vigorously rational structure that for the first time introduced into compositional practice the principle of imitated counterpoint: a technique that organized the form on the basis of rigorous laws, conceiving it as a profoundly organic construction.

This compositional technique was to achieve universal diffusion throughout Europe through Franco-Flemish composers (from Ockegem and Obrecht to Orlando di Lasso) and was destined to constitute a sort of humus on which forms and styles with a more marked national imprint would germinate. Flemish musicians, and in particular Josquin Després, also deserve the merit of having given concrete implementation to the new ideals of Renaissance aesthetics, introducing into the abstract compositional structures the warmth of a new expressiveness that aimed to translate into meaningful musical gestures the semantic content of the texts. The fruits of this new aesthetics, which a theorist of the time, A. P. Coclico, summarized in the concept of reserved music, were applied to the somewhat canonical forms of the mass, motet and chanson. But the clarifying and simplifying action of the new Renaissance thought can also be seen in the slow disintegration of Gregorian modal structures, in the ever more decisive affirmation of the major and minor modes (which had their first theoretical justification in the treatise Dodekachordon, 1547, by H. Loris Glareano), in the determination of the natural scale and in the revolutionary theory of chords, which had its most complete and systematic formulation in the works of G. Zarlino.

Profoundly progressive seeds, from the musical point of view, had meanwhile been introduced, with the Reformation, by Martin Luther, to whom we owe, among other things, the elimination of Gregorian chant from the liturgy and its replacement with the chorale, based on popular melodies or popular trend, discovered tonal structure. The meeting of the international Flemish style with the native forms that had flourished in the various nations (the frottola in Italy, the villancico in Spain, the polyphonic Lied in Germany) produced new genres, in which the contributions of the divergent traditions arrived at a new synthesis, at times extremely productive and fecund: this is the case of the Italian madrigal, cultivated by almost all the greatest musicians of the sixteenth century and a privileged means for the most subtle linguistic and expressive experiments, which reached a peak in the works of L. Marenzio, C. Gesualti, C. G. Marenzio and C. G. Marenti. Marenzio, C. Gesualdo, C. Monteverdi.

Next to the profane vocal music, including not only the above mentioned forms but also the lighter ones of the canzonetta, the ballet, the villanella, and the sacred repertoire (in which Palestrina, Orlando di Lasso, Byrd, T. L. de Victoria in the contrapuntal polyphonic style, A. Willaert, Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli in the lively writing concertante for several choirs of voices or voices and instruments, typical of the Venetian school, imposed themselves as the greatest personalities of the XVI century), it is to point out the great flourishing that for the first time knew the instrumental music. Confined to the sphere of popular music or reduced to the execution of tablatures (transcriptions of pieces originally conceived for voices), instrumental music (with particular reference to the lute, the organ and the string instruments) elaborated in the sixteenth century a series of original compositional structures (forms of variation, succession of dance pieces ordered in suites, toccata, canzone, ricercare, etc.), many of which were destined to be very popular in the following centuries.

New genres and forms

The years between the end of the sixteenth century and the seventeenth were of essential importance for the development of modern European music and constituted a period of experiments and stylistic upheavals of such magnitude that they can only be compared to the first fifty years of our century. In the field of vocal music, the elaboration of the monodic accompanied style, polemically opposed by the musicians and theorists of the Florentine Camerata to the traditional contrapuntal writing, constituted the prodrome for the creation of new genres, such as the opera in music, the oratorio, the cantata.

At the same time, in the course of the seventeenth century, instrumental music, thanks above all to the diffusion and the technical improvement of string instruments (among which the violin imposed itself) created the most important forms of modern compositional technique: the fugue, the sonata (both solo and multi-instrumental, with particular reference to the sonata a tre) and the concert (in the double form of the concerto grosso and the solo concert). All these stylistic conquests were substantially the prerogative of Italian music, which until the beginning of the 18th century was to know an undisputed European supremacy: Monteverdi, Cavalli, Cesti, Legrenzi, Stradella, Steffani, Carissimi, Frescobaldi, Corelli, Torelli, Albinoni, Vivaldi, A. Scarlatti are some of the most illustrious representatives of this period of singular creative fervor.

In the field of melodrama, in particular, the compositional schemes elaborated by the authors of the Roman and Venetian schools first, and then by the Neapolitan school, were universally diffused in Europe, with the exception of France, which with Lulli gave itself a particular dramatic structure, largely open to the suggestion of the previous tradition of the ballet de cour and of the great tragic theater of Racine and Corneille. The greatest French opera composer of the eighteenth century, J. Ph. Rameau. From a vast cultural synthesis between the Italian tradition, the French tradition (with the rich flowering of instrumental music, in particular harpsichord music, in which F. Couperin excelled), the English tradition (illustrated by the lively virginal school and the solitary art of H. Purcell) and the Germanic tradition. Purcell) and the Germanic one (in which stand out the gigantic figures of H. Schütz and D. Buxtehude) is nourished by the work of the two greatest exponents of European baroque music: G. F. Händel and J. S. Bach.

Towards Romanticism

In the eighteenth century, while Pergolesi, Jommelli, Galuppi, Piccinni, Paisiello, Cimarosa in the sphere of theater, D. Scarlatti, Locatelli, Platti, Sammartini, Boccherini, Clementi in that of instrumental music, spread throughout Europe the spirit of Italian art (not without absorbing important suggestions from the nations that hosted them), Ch. W. Gluck directed musical theater towards a new coherence and dramatic effectiveness, while Haydn and Mozart went beyond the graceful measure of the galant style (the musical equivalent of rococo). Gluck directed the musical theater towards a new dramatic coherence and effectiveness, while Haydn and Mozart overcame the graceful measure of the galant style (the musical equivalent of the rococo) elaborating the harmonic and majestic measure of the classical style that Beethoven would bend to the signification of high aesthetic and moral ideals. With Romanticism, music was placed at the apex of the scale of the arts and its language was considered a privileged means of reaching the world of essence.

The new ideal independence acquired by the musician, who was no longer an objective interpreter of established values but a proud elaborator of his own truth animatedly proclaimed on the stage of the world (“from the heart to the hearts”, according to Beethoven’s expression), caused an amazing acceleration in the development of all the parameters of the language: from timbre (which was treated from this moment no longer with external coloristic intentions, but as an objective structural datum), to the formal aspect (with the acquisition, next to the traditional forms of the symphony, the sonata, the concert, the Lied, etc., of new genres, such as the symphonic poem and the very rich repertoire of the so-called Charakterstücke, pieces of free architecture dedicated especially to the piano), to the harmonic structure (which already in Tristan and Isolde, 1865, by R. Wagner, came to question the fundamental principles of the tonal system). Even the function of the interpreter was profoundly changed: from a simple performer he became an apostle of art, placed on the same level as the creative artist. It is no coincidence that the figure of the conductor was born in this period and instrumental virtuosity touched, with Paganini, Chopin and Liszt, goals no longer surpassed.

Germany, Italy and France

The ideal unity that had hitherto characterized the European musical tradition broke down under the urgency of nationalistic instances, which pushed composers to individualize their language by drawing on the folkloric traditions of their respective countries. The stylistic achievements of German Romanticism, from Weber to Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Wagner, Strauss, Bruckner, Mahler, Wolf, constituted for the whole of the nineteenth century and for part of the twentieth century a sort of international style (not dissimilar, as far as its historical function was concerned, from the Flemish style of the sixteenth century) with which musicians from all over the world had to measure themselves, if only to challenge it.

In Italy, after the diaspora of the major composers of instrumental music and the fundamental experiences of artists who acted above all abroad (such as Cherubini and Spontini), the activity of authors such as Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi contributed to polarize for a long time the attention of the musical environment and of the public around melodrama. It would be up to a series of musicians born around 1880 (A. Casella, G. F. Malipiero, I. Pizzetti, O. Respighi, etc.) to reknit, in the first decades of the 20th century, a European dialogue that had been interrupted for too many years (and perhaps kept alive only by Puccini, whose stimulating personality stands out among the group of exponents of musical verismo).

In France, the very personal measure of Berlioz’s art had no followers for a long time. In the field of French musical theater, the bombastic season of grand-opéra, which had in Meyerbeer the most skilled if not the most inspired representative, was followed by the more subtle proposals of Gounod, Thomas, Bizet, Massenet, while C.. Franck, C. Saint-Saëns, V. d’Indy fought for a rebirth and a development of the national instrumental tradition. At the beginning of the twentieth century, thanks to the work of two great artists, such as C. Debussy and M. Ravel, Paris returned to play the role of international center of musical culture that it had already held in the first half of the nineteenth century.

If Italy, Germany and France were the ideal poles of attraction and development of nineteenth-century music, the contribution of other nations, for a long time separated from the main line of evolution of European music, was also remarkable: Russia, which with Glinka and A. Dargomyžskij posed a new role in the development of European music. Dargomyžskij laid the foundations of the national style that would be developed by the so-called Group of Five (M. Balakirev, C. Kjui, A. Borodin, N. Rimskij-Korsakov and especially by M. Musorgskij), while composers such as P. I. Tchaikovsky, A. Glazunov and then S. Rachmaninov were more sensitive to the suggestions of the Western style. Smetana, A. Dvořák, L. Janáček; to Scandinavia with N. W. Gade, C. Nielsen, F. Berwald and especially E. Grieg, Ch. Sinding and J. Sibelius; to Spain, with I. Albéniz and E. Granados and later with M. de Falla.

Outside Europe

Throughout the nineteenth century and for a good part of the twentieth century, the contribution of musicians from North and South America was modest, and they maintained positions of epigonism with respect to European experiences: their contribution (which became sensitive at the level of art music through isolated exponents of the avant-garde, from C. E. Ives, Ruggles, J. Carrillo, up to the results of M. Kagel, E. Brown, M. Feldman, etc.) was remarkable in terms of the diffusion of folkloric forms (especially dances) that still maintain a significant place in the music of consumption around the world.

The United States deserves a special mention as the meeting point of the many currents that converged in the impressive phenomenon of jazz, an expression that in the course of its history, while not renouncing its own originality, has continuously intersected the development of cultured music and that of consumption.

The 20th century: up to the fifties

A series of new phenomena, both of a strictly aesthetic order and of a more broadly historical-sociological character, characterize the music of the twentieth century, an epoch that for the multiplicity and contradictory nature of its aspects has no equal in the entire historical development of Western music. The crisis of tonality, which matured above all in the sphere of late German Romanticism and was brought to its extreme consequences by A. Schoenberg and his students Berg and Webern (who, with dodecaphony, attempted to reconstruct a new, coherent linguistic system on a completely renewed basis), led to the definitive rupture of the unity of European music, which would henceforth be characterized above all by the multiplicity of linguistic systems, responding to different codes, only partially referable to common matrices and semantic conventions.

Parallel to this radicalization of linguistic research and to the contradictory and in some ways paradoxical process of officialization of the avant-garde, two completely new conditions were created. On the one hand, the process of historicization started in the nineteenth century and the enormous work done by musicological disciplines have put at the disposal of musicians and, more generally, of the public, a patrimony that ranges over all previous historical epochs, also making room for cultural expressions of non-European civilizations. On the other hand, the process of enormous diffusion of music in all social strata, favored by the means of mass communication, has given an exceptional importance to the various forms of consumer music that, contrary to what happened in the past (when the phenomenon occurred on an infinitely smaller scale and at a much higher qualitative level), has assumed in the entire industrialized world an overwhelming weight compared to all other expressions, including folkloric ones that appear to be rapidly disappearing.

Contemporary music was structurally configured, throughout the twentieth century, as an expression of the elite: as such, it was consistently banned in the communist regimes of Eastern Europe (with some significant exceptions, such as Poland) and in China. Regardless of the basic stylistic choices, it has been configured in such a way that the problem of language has always constituted, regardless of the solutions adopted, a discriminating moment of the artist’s aesthetic attitude. On the one hand, through the lesson of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern and of the movements that directly sprang from them and that essentially belonged to the Darmstadt School, there was first the foundation of a new musical syntax, then its systematic development through compositional methods that tended to the maximum rigor in the compositional project, removing any aspect of the work from interventions that could not be rationally motivated by the author. On the other hand, we have witnessed a broader use of tonality (also through the recovery of non-European modal structures, as in Debussy, or of folkloric elements, as in B. Bartók) or the revival of techniques and methods of a more or less recent past, revived with a modern spirit and taste (I. Stravinsky, P. Hindemith, A. Honegger, D. Milhaud, P. Poulenc, D. D. Šostakovič, etc.) through a series of proposals that are difficult to reduce to a common denominator, due to the multiplicity of choices and attitudes of taste, but cumulatively defined under the generic name of “neoclassicism”.

During the fifties, while electronic music opened up a series of new possibilities (still far from being exhausted or even just scientifically inventoried), there was a generalized rejection of compositional procedures of strictest rationalistic obedience and there was a revaluation of random elements, improvisational techniques (with a new emphasis on the virtuoso skills of the performers), as well as gestural and implicitly theatrical components inherent in the executive act; point, the latter, which has contributed to relaunch dramatic-musical forms completely detached from the traditional modules of the opera, headed towards an irreversible decline. In general, it is possible to recognize on many levels a restless search for a new linguistic syncretism, for a new universality capable of removing contemporary musical experience from the fictitious, and in the long run unsustainable, state of isolation that has marked its history in the last fifty years, in order to recover its lost social function.

It is not by chance that generations of composers have turned to the recovery of the relationship with the public, already compromised, returning to “traditional” genres (such as opera) and to a musical language that does not refuse to be a vehicle for expressions and emotions. § For the various musical genres and directions, see the specific determinations that qualify them (for example: chamber music, see chamber; absolute music, see absolute; experimental music, see experimental).

The 20th century: from the sixties to the eighties

After World War II, the gap between the different orientations that were emerging developed even more pronounced, leading to a multiplication of styles and trends. On the one hand, the season of the “Avant-Garde”, originating from the Darmstadt School, underwent multiple evolutions, both with the general rejection of compositional procedures of strict rationalist observance and the revaluation of random elements and improvisational techniques, and with the creation of forms of musical theater that were free from the traditional modules of opera (an example of this is the work of Luciano Berio). Moreover, the development of technologies has offered new tools to creation, both in terms of electronic music and, in more recent times, in terms of electroacoustic research and computer science.

In another direction, there has never been a lack of sincere interest in musical theater on the part of numerous artists who, by reconnecting with experiences and personalities that seemed obsolete and that instead turned out to be extremely vital – such as that of Richard Strauss – have brought the opera season to a new and unthinkable development (Benjamin Britten, Hans Werner Henze). Moreover, the American avant-garde movements, not without provocative and stimulating implications (John Cage, Morton Feldman), moved towards overcoming the aesthetic barriers between the different musical genres. At the end of the Sixties, the current of minimalism developed (Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, John Adams) – based on progressive and imperceptible changes in the fabric of sound – which would later find a great deal of attention in Europe as well, as a way out of the crisis of the historical avant-garde. In fact, the isolation in which musical research has developed over the last half century has led emerging composers at the beginning of the 1980s to seek a new relationship with the public, on the basis of very different experiences, which seem, however, to have in common the recovery of an aesthetic and emotionally involving function of the musical fact. The return to the opera house, to traditional genres by European composers (Wolfgang Rhim, Lorenzo Ferrero, Alfred Schnittke) or the recovery of archaic and Gregorian techniques (Arvo Pärt) are only some of the results of this orientation, which nevertheless suffers from a general loss of cultural centrality.

The 20th century: the nineties

The development of the means of communication, the fall of ideological barriers, and planetary integration led to a musical language in which distinctions and fences between “high” and “low” genres, between the center and the periphery, between traditions that were geographically and temporally distant, were eliminated. The nineties were an era in which gender distinctions in the cultural sphere made less and less sense. It is the era of the dominant syncretism, of the mixing of languages and styles.

A phenomenon that finds its ideal terrain of representation in music. If we had to indicate what could be the common tendency of the music of the last decade of the millennium, this would be the synthesis, the use and reuse of materials of the past and of different origins that are made to flow into works that are the result of the encounter of multiple experiences. With the nineties, music lives in the fullness of its fervor the season of “technical reproducibility”: the great technological development offers composers, of any extraction, virtually endless possibilities to retrieve the materials of the past, to rework them, quote them, deform them and at the same time to create new sounds. Even the job of the musician changes, since in many cases the machine replaces man, who is increasingly aware of having in technology the resource that allows him to draw on the entire range of sounds of the world, from the symphony orchestra to the noise of the jungle. The tendency that best expresses in music this propensity to syncretism is the new age, a strand son of a cultural movement that since the seventies has emerged as a real phenomenon that in some ways also has to do with fashion.

Born together with the neo-ecological movements of California in the seventies, the new age has found its ideal ground of development in an era in which the aspiration towards a new spirituality is very strong. All this in music finds a direct expression in the production of Windham Hill, the American record company that, both for the graphics of the covers and for the contents of the albums remains the symbol of the modern new age. The “Windham Hill style”, also from a graphic point of view, is the result of the work done by the producer Manfred Eicher since the seventies with his ECM (Editions for Contemporary Music) label, whose records are considered an essential model for musicians who follow the path of contamination between jazz and improvised music in general, the classical repertoire and the folkloric heritage. This way of understanding composition is also typical of the neo-minimalism of musicians such as Michael Nyman and Wim Mertens, who have updated and expanded the lesson of Philip Glass and LaMonte Young, achieving considerable popularity thanks to the soundtracks composed for films such as The Belly of the Architect or Piano Lessons.

Among the novelties of the nineties, for a curious game of contrasts, there is the great rediscovery of the world folk heritage. From a cultural and social point of view, this phenomenon has the same foundations as the success of the new age: however, it remains a fact that never before as in this decade there has been as much attention paid to the ethnic heritage with a considerable diffusion of labels and specialized magazines. On a commercial level, the main contribution to the diffusion of this kind of music was given by Real World, the label founded by Peter Gabriel, the former singer of Genesis who became one of the most advanced and open to contamination musicians of the world rock scene.

Thanks to Real World, musicians from every part of the world have found international distribution, from Mongolia to Lapland, from Africa to American Indian reservations, from Sardinia (the Tenores di Bitti, the vocal quartet that represents the ancient tradition of “tenores singing”, is so far the only Italian name in the series) to Africa. African music is the focus of unprecedented interest: many groups and soloists, even famous ones, including Gabriel, have incorporated African rhythms and sounds into their music. Following a sort of hierarchy of rediscovery, we cannot forget two other fertile strands: that of the culture of the people of the plains of the United States and that of Indian music. The tragic vicissitudes of the Native Americans and the fascination of their animistic culture did not escape this movement of rediscovery of ethnic heritage and so the sounds and songs of the various tribes, from those of the icy plains of the North to those of the splendid mesas of Arizona, became familiar to an ever wider public, a success that translated into exhibitions, publications and resonated in many albums, both of an ethnic-specialist nature and by artists of international fame such as Robbie Robertson.

As for Indian music, for its particular structure and for the conception of improvisation based on rāga, it has exercised a deep fascination already on the most advanced jazz musicians of the sixties. An influence that had its peak in the Flower Power season, when oriental philosophies seemed able to change the world and pop stars, starting with the Beatles, had their own guru next to them and played the sitar. At the end of the Nineties, London was the epicenter of a rediscovery of that atmosphere with a musical direction more devoted to marketability. Groups of twenty-somethings like Kula Shaker brought Indian sounds to the international pop charts, but it was the tradition of bangra that became a real trend among the most fashionable disk-jockeys and record producers. As a result, the contamination between bangra and electronic sounds has resulted in the most avant-garde club music of recent years.

The greater attention paid to the sounds of countries that are usually outside the mainstream has led to the re-emergence and entry into the common musical language of the Arab tradition, especially raï, the new Algerian music that has its most famous exponent in Cheb Khaled, and flamenco. As for the dominant trends of the decade, there is no doubt that one of the phenomena that characterized the nineties was rap and the entire hip hop culture. A real movement born in the eighties in the ghettos of the big American cities that gave a new language to the black people. Rap is the direct expression of the daily life of the black American marginalized, of young people who every day risk their lives in clashes between rival gangs, who end up considering violence as an inevitable ingredient of everyday life. As until now only boxing had been, rap becomes a possible way of escape from that life, an alternative that in a short time can make millionaires.

Unfortunately, fame and wealth are sometimes not enough to separate oneself from the law of the ghetto as demonstrated by the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Notorius Big, two of the greatest exponents of rap, both assassinated by gunshots in 1997, a few months apart from each other. However, rap and the entire hip hop movement have brought about a remarkable change in contemporary musical language. The great lesson of what can be considered the natural son of the ghetto, has shown the whole world a new way to express itself, up to cause in countries like Italy or France, the rediscovery of dialect as an expression in music of social marginality. At the beginning rap was little more than a simple rhythm of electronic drums (drum machines) on which rappers – often disk jockeys (DJs) – built their vertiginous verbal acrobatics, daughters of old ritual forms used for street challenges in the ghetto, as well as some formulas of disk-jockeys and certain constructs used by African-American poets. Over time it too has evolved, turning to the tradition of rhythm and blues, soul and jazz.

So the drum machine was added to the instruments and, especially thanks to samplers (machines controlled by computers that can reproduce any song or sound), the new idols of black music have systematically used extracts of famous themes, drawing heavily in the repertoire of the great, from James Brown to John Coltrane, from Marvin Gaye to Miles Davis, from Sam Cooke to Duke Ellington. This quotation technique, called sampling, ended up changing copyright law. And on the musical artistic level, it paved the way for the great wave of remakes.

The 20th century: the last revolution

As had happened in the most banal and hasty way at the time of disco music, with hip hop dozens of famous songs returned to conquer the top of the charts thanks to reinterpretations in a rap key (such as Killing Me Softly or Bohemian Rapsody). Rap is, however, one of the last real revolutions that the music industry has experienced: a revolution that has been felt in the production of musicians from very different backgrounds and latitudes, even in terms of organization and production.

The key figure of rap is the disk-jockey and this is not a novelty for black music, as well as for reggae, because the whole development of this musical universe is linked to the work of the disk-jockey both in discos (modern version of dance floors) and in radios. The new element is that with hip hop the dj becomes a real musician: the record, the material already recorded by others, is “played” on a par with other instruments, both to propose quotes from other songs and to produce sounds (the scratch) that are an integral part of this musical code. Every rap artist or group has both in the studio and live his disk-jockey. The inevitable next step in the evolution of a role that at first glance may seem to be a simple selection of trendy tracks, is that of the producer. In recent years some of the most important records have been made with the contribution of disk-jockeys.

The key to understanding contemporary music is still the contamination between genres and roles. In this case, the leading role assumed by the DJs has transformed into updated sounds some solutions previously considered the exclusive heritage of the most commercial music. It is for example through this process that electronic music has returned to be heard by large audiences. On this ground has grown the jungle strand, disco music, which, duly reworked, has ended up becoming an additional code for groups and artists more attentive to the musical future. Observers of the phenomena of youth culture have rightly indicated in this way of making music the fruit of a technological craftsmanship that allows you to produce and create songs without necessarily being a musician, a sort of revolution: in the clubs of Rotterdam and London, young DJs linked to the environment of jungle and its most “angry” version, called drum and bass for the great importance given to the rhythm section, are animating a scene that for its subversive charge against the traditional circuit and for its social push from below is compared to the nihilistic fury of punk.

The sphere in which the reflections on reworking and contamination become essential is that of the music of contamination linked to jazz, what from the seventies was called fusion. It was Miles Davis who indicated which was the way to go with his music rooted in jazz but open to the contribution of rock, black music and, in recent times, even rap. Treasuring the teachings of Gil Evans, the great arranger and conductor who was Davis’ advisor throughout his career and who had a fervent admirer in Sting (with whom he created splendid examples of contamination), Davis gave life to the most luminous examples of jazz musical syncretism.

A lesson that has found many followers in the new generations of jazz scholars who, thanks to an encyclopedic musical culture and a technical background often bordering on virtuosity, have brought this kind of music to a great popularity. Among the symbolic characters of this type of artist there is Pat Metheny, virtuoso guitarist who became a star by following the path of the most uninhibited syncretism. Fundamental to understanding Metheny’s music is, among other things, his passion for Brazilian music that, in the Nineties, experienced a season of renewed splendor thanks above all to two exceptional personalities, Milton Nascimento, the artist who better than anyone else knew how to blend the tradition of Brazilian Nordeste with the structures of jazz, and Caetano Veloso, the authentic heir of João Gilberto and the greats of bossa nova.

Metheny’s example is also useful to explain the attitude of the new generation of improvisers: artists who have studied the history of jazz in depth but have grown up in the age of rock, love cinema and hate labels. People like Marcus Miller, former enfant prodige of the electric bass discovered by Miles Davis, who, after having contributed to the realization of Davis’ last albums, has become a sort of deus ex machina of contemporary music, covering the multiple roles of bass virtuoso, producer, organizer. A role, on a side more open to the market, also occupied by Roger Nelson, once known as Prince, who after being called Tafkap (The Artist Formerly Known As Prince) decided to be called simply The Artist. The nineties have recorded important pages for rock

The first signs of the new came from America and in particular from Seattle. It is from this city on the border with Canada, considered among the most livable in the world despite a cold and rainy climate, that the adventure of grunge started, a phenomenon that had an impact on the rock universe similar to that of punk. Grunge means a music without concessions to the market and catchiness, based on the sound of guitars and an exasperated rhythm. In short, very close to punk. To act as a humus for this movement, whose vital impulse is in a generalized reaction antiestablishement, is the multitude of record labels and clubs frequented by a very young audience. The forerunners are considered groups such as Soundgarden, a cult band that broke up in April 1996, but it was Nirvana, led by Kurt Cobain, who brought grunge to the top of the charts and made it an international phenomenon. Nirvana’s music is the true manifesto of a difficult era, maybe without open conflicts, but that has left deep wounds in the soul of the so-called Generation X.

From a musical point of view, Nirvana’s lesson has been fundamental, above all for their ability to exalt essentiality as a fundamental value. Pearl Jam, another of the symbolic names of rock from Seattle, took the lesson further in the name of absolute rigor. Led by lead singer Eddy Vedder, Pearl Jam waged a personal battle against the record industry, the concert ticketing system and the media universe that ended up becoming the symbol of a new consciousness among rock stars. Pearl Jam also went down the road of rediscovering international folkloric heritage, studying the Sufi tradition in Turkey and collaborating with Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn.

The 20th century: music and the influence of the media

The other wave that conquered the covers of specialized magazines and the news pages of newspapers around the world was Brit Pop, which marked in some ways the rebirth of British rock after years of tarnish and vain search for the “new phenomenon” by the British press. At the beginning, it was the rivalry between Blur and Oasis that attracted attention, a dualism through which the media tried to revive the glories of Swingin’ London and the clashes between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The former are more cultured, calmer, less inclined to stardom, while the latter are irreverent and thirsty for it. From the commercial point of view, the dispute was won by Oasis, led by the brothers Noel and Liam Gallagher.

In the space of a couple of years and two albums, with songs openly inspired by the repertoire of Lennon and McCartney, Oasis have sold millions of copies worldwide, setting several records in terms of records and concert tickets sold. To Blur, after a start that made them think of a possible planetary success, they had to settle for the fame of a group for fans and the consensus of the critics. The band of the Gallagher brothers is still the subject of discussion: many people are of the opinion that they are nothing more than pale Beatles’ epigones and that soon their meteor will end up shining as it happened to Duran Duran. And speaking of Duran Duran, it should be noted that for some time now each decade has its own musical phenomenon for teenagers: the early eighties were the era of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet; the nineties were those of Take That and the Spice Girls.

The former were a quintet of male singers and dancers put together for the look that pleased the teenage female audience: a clever marketing operation that led the group to sell records throughout Europe and the birth of a real “Take That mania” that lasted no more than five years. A story similar to that of the Spice Girls, a quintet of girls little more than eighteen years old who became a phenomenon in the United States even before holding a single concert. Market operations that belong to an era in which advertising also plays an important role in music. Leaving aside the more commercial aspects, it is fair to remember that the last decade of the end of the millennium has also seen the affirmation of female figures such as Alanis Morissette and a remarkable growth of the Italian scene, with the affirmation of an Italian way to rap, with Jovanotti, the great international success of Eros Ramazzotti, Laura Pausini, Andrea Bocelli and that of Zucchero. There is no doubt, however, that the group that best symbolizes the music of the nineties are U2, the Irish group led by Bono that with albums such as Zooropa or Pop has been able to acquire a leading role at planetary level.

No one better than U2 was able to incorporate and synthesize the moods and trends not only of music but also of the culture of these years. Thanks also to the charisma of Bono, U2 is truly the band of the global village, as they have already demonstrated with their last tour, in which they essentially translated into music the idea of a universe connected by satellites. There have been bands like REM and the Red Hot Chili Peppers that have left important traces in the music of the nineties, thanks to their ability to transfer on the stave and on the stage the different languages of contemporary life, but no one like U2 has managed to rise above the tastes of individuals and genres.

The 20th century: the new jazz

The universe of jazz, on the other hand, is experiencing a season of rethinking. Jazz, which some define as “the classical music of the twentieth century”, in less than a century of life has experienced a tumultuous growth, with unpredictable changes and developments, authentic schisms. But everything was linked to the creativity of extraordinary personalities who, with their talent, were able to open new horizons and, at the same time, to set an example. In reality, the figure of a leader, of a musician capable of becoming a model, has been missing. Jazz has thus become more and more a music linked to the repertoire, just like the academic tradition. Therefore, many speak of the death of jazz. But at the same time the new generations have grown up with an excellent individual preparation, erasing at a stroke the literature of the genius jazz player.

Today’s jazz musician has completed serious musical studies, is in possession of a first class technical background and tends to give the image of an elegant and refined character. The model of this kind of musician is Wynton Marsalis, the trumpeter from New Orleans who, beyond the criticism of excessive coldness that is made against him, is responsible for the reawakening of interest in jazz in the last years of the century. The common code of most of the young jazz musicians of the nineties is the neo hard bop, a music inspired to that played between the fifties and sixties by the groups of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Art Blakey. Even if on the level of invention the novelties to be recorded are few, from the point of view of the quantity of talents, for years we have not witnessed such a flowering: just think of Terence Blanchard, Roy Hargrove, Marcus Printup, Benny Green, David Sanchez, Stephen Scott, Charnett Moffett, Brad Meldau, Cassandra Wilson. To these can be added daring experimenters such as Bill Frisell, a guitarist capable of reconciling the music of Parker with the rock of Jimi Hendrix, the avant-garde with the soundtracks of Buster Keaton’s films, or John Zorn, “pupil” of the new New York avant-garde. Even Frisell and Zorn, however, are part of the great trend of contamination and syncretism.

In this decade, always in the sphere of jazz, the creative growth of European and Italian musicians was consolidated. Until the seventies, jazz was considered the exclusive patrimony of black Americans and only very few musicians from the old continent were able to perform alongside the most famous soloists. With the passing of time, also in Europe there has been a strong diffusion of music schools which had as a consequence an increase of the average technical level. This technical awareness has led not only to the birth of a new generation of soloists but even to a sort of European way to jazz. This creative growth had important repercussions in Italy as well, where a generation of musicians in their thirties was formed, bringing our country up to date with the latest developments in improvised music.