“Ernst” and “Italianità”. The Bongiovanni circle and the Musical Modernist Movement in Italy

By the end of the nineteenth century, Italian opera found itself in a state of profound crisis. The moment could not have been chosen worse: the nation had just been proclaimed and its leaders were, despite the  widely feigned optimism, desperately looking for common cultural denominators that could help build a national identity. Italy was a country that was deeply divided: the number of historical sovereignties and traditions, the differences in mentality between the north and the south and the Pope’s hard-bitten opposition against the installation of Rome as the new nation’s capital are but a few examples. Even linguistically, the country was splintered. Opera was one of the few things to enjoy the prestige of being regarded as a “national treasure”. Especially the works of Giuseppe Verdi were something most Italians looked up to and identified with. Then, the operas of Richard Wagner appeared on the Italian stages.
The impact his “musical dramas” had was seismic and threw the Italian operatic scene into deep confusion as they questioned the one ingredient which the general public recognized as genuinely Italian: clear-cut, catchy melodious singableness – which, significantly, is also known as “italianità”, or, as Verdi knew it, “love of song”. Words were of negligible importance. Wagner turned this around: “without the drama”, he wrote, “my music would make little sense.” He crushed the the traditional operatic structure of recitatives, arias and duets. His operas were “through-composed”, there were no show numbers and showstoppers and little “italianità”. And he demanded his works to be treated with respect, without alterations (“Werktreue”) and with a lot of German Ernst: he expected the audience to sit still and listen with concentration. All of this was alien to Italian audiences – and composers. The crucial question was, simply put: how can one compose operas where the text is as important as the music and still write the arias the public demanded and by which they defined their “national treasure”? This seemed like a conceptional cul-de-sac.
The generation following Verdi had no prompt answer. Zandonai, Franchetti and Cilèa, chose to remain traditional and fell into oblivion. Ponchielli, Catalani, Leoncavallo and Giordano were more talented than the former three but just as conservative, landed a one-hit-wonder each and can hardly be considered as modernizing forces on the Italian operatic landscape. Puccini outclassed all of them in melodic genius but also he remained traditional. In times of Bartók, Schönberg and Stravinsky, he was popular but hopelessly out of date and, thus, widely accused of writing “easy music” for “easy success”: too much italianità, too little Ernst. The first to break with traditional forms and workflows was Pietro Mascagni. For his Guglielmo Ratcliff (1895), he had used a mostly unaltered play by Heinrich Heine and created what musicologists later would coin “Literaturoper”: operas based on more or less unaltered literature which had not been written for the purpose of being set to music. The result was a work with strong accents of prose and declamation, containing few recognizable arias or “numbers” but at the same time not being bereft of melodious flow. In a way, it took up the cadence of Verdi’s late works and constituted a significant step towards a new operatic aesthetics in Italy: not only did it elevate the literary value of its text – it also broadened the choice of available texts without that the composer necessarily had to go through a librettist. Mascagni’s experiments were soon continued by composers who, by the beginning of 1905, met regularly to form an artists’ group. Its participants – many of which would go down in history as members of the “generazione dell’80” – were Ottorino Respighi, Ildebrando Pizzetti, Gian Francesco Malipiero, Alfredo Casella, Francesco Balilla Pratella, Franco Alfano, Riccardo Zandonai and others. Their venue was a backroom in the newly founded musical establishment of Francesco Bongiovanni in Bologna.
The history of this composers’ club – or cenacle, as they preferred to call it – is as miraculous as what it managed to produce. Bongiovanni had emigrated from Sicily by the turn of the century. A flutist and fervent lover of music, he had worked himself up from a simple employee in a music store to, in the matter of only a few years, becoming the owner of Bologna’s most prominent musical establishment in 1905 as well as the exclusive representative of Bechstein pianos of Berlin. Almost immediately, he began investing in talent. Spear-headed by the young Bolognese Respighi, who brought along practically all of his students and friends, the group began to gather in informal meetings in Bongiovanni’s chambre separée – to mingle, stimulate one another and work to solve the puzzle of German Ernst and its apparent incompatibility with italianità. Get togethers of this kind were invaluable to artists, and by creating shelter for talent to flourish, Bongiovanni did a great service to the city of Bologna and the entire musical culture of Italy. And after a few months, a well-known piece of chamber music emerged seemingly out of nowhere: “Nebbie” for mezzo soprano and piano by Respighi. Bongiovanni published it in 1906 and founded Respighi’s world wide fame which, vice versa, established Bongiovanni as a publisher of sheet music. But let’s pause here for a moment.
Respighi’s creation lacked, as many a new invention, a precise name. “Nebbie” was more than just a  song or canzone like “Torna a Surriento” – there was more Ernst to it, and this should be reflected in a new terminology. Respighi’s composition was based on a poem with the same title by Ada Negri. It had not been designed to be set to music. Writing music for “non musical literature” was as new to Italian chamber music as it had been for opera a few years earlier. Respighi had picked up on Mascagni’s pioneering idea. Chamber songs based on pre-existing literature, however, already existed in Germany, where such compositions are called lied. The French (namely Berlioz) then took up the concept to create the mélodie française. The Italians, blinded by their focus on opera, dropped behind. When Francesco Paolo Tosti wrote his first vocal chamber compositions by the end of the nineteenth century, he went by the traditional Italian workflow for vocal music and had himself written poetry that would fit his musical ideas. Nonetheless, he did not want to call them canzoni. In modern Italian, the term canzone is a folk song or a pop-song and, thus, defines origins and target group. Tosti wanted something more sophisticated and introduced the term romanza, indicating a piece of music based on superior poetry. A romanza would fit well in a salon, but not necessarily become part of pop culture: it belonged to a higher register. But then, pieces like “Nebbie” appeared, and these pieces were meant for an even more sophisticated target group. “Nebbie” was a lied in the classical sense. And in order to avoid using German terminology, the name lirica (da camera) or canzone d’arte was introduced: a “song” based on pre-existing poetry which had not been designed to be set to music and which most definitely was not meant to be part of pop culture – chamber songs for the élite if you wish, everything but “easy music” for “easy success”. These compositions, though often interspersed with melodious italianità, were a tribute to German Ernst.

Excerpt from Respighi's Sopra un’aria antica, Bologna 1920
Excerpt from Respighi’s “Sopra un’aria antica”, Bologna 1920


And soon, the group grew further. The list of the “Bongiovanni musicians” now reads like a veritable who is who of the modern musical scene in Italy of the 1910s and 1920s. Many had gone through the musical training of Giuseppe Martucci, director of the Bologna conservatory until 1902. Martucci had taught Respighi – and was a fervent Wagnerian: not only did he promote the works of the Bayreuth master, he had also conducted the Italian première of Tristan und Isolde. His students Adolfo Gandino, Vittore Veneziani, Enrico Toselli and Bruno Mugellini all joined the group. Gandino would go on to assume leading positions at the conservatories of Bologna and Milan. Veneziani would become the permanent director of the chorus at the Teatro alla Scala. Toselli would compose the now world famous Serenade. Mugellini was one of the most energetic figures on the Bolognese concert scene: with Respighi, he formed a now legendary quintet to promote works by Respighi, Bossi, and, of course, his teacher Martucci. As a conductor, he premièred Busoni’s piano concerto op. 39 with Busoni at the piano. As a composer, he had a rich output of mostly piano music, and immersed himself in piano pedagogy. Then, there was Pietro Cimara, a student of Respighi’s, who would become a sought-after opera conductor. Mario Labroca, another Respighi student, was to become the director of the Bologna Opera House and RAI Television. There was the tragic Renzo Massarani, who composed a large number of operas as well as orchestral and chamber music. Also he had studied with Respighi. Due to the race laws, he was expelled from Italy in 1938. His music got banned. Guido Albanese and Antonio Veretti were both students of Alfano’s. The former wrote the stage music for the first performance of d’Annunzio’s Figlia di Jorio and would become one of the pioneers of film music in Italy. The latter served as director of the conservatories in Pesaro, Cagliari and Florence. Likewise, Giuseppe Mulè, cellist, composer and conductor, wrote music for plays and films – and, eventually, made a distinctive career as a fascist and as the director of the Rome conservatory. Then, there were outsiders like Alceo Toni, a student of Pratella’s, who developed a passion for the fascist party whose praise he repeatedly set to music. He was the one who instigated the “Manifesto against Malipiero” (1932), which fractured the Bongiovanni group and of which we are going hear more in a moment. Toni later became director of the Milan conservatory. And then, there were Giulia Recli, the first female composer in Italy whose works appeared on major stages; Lodovico Rocca, the author of Il Dibuk; the blind wunderkind Carlo Grimandi; conductor Vittorio Gui – and the mysterious maverick W. H. Kirby of England.
This list makes clear how an entire generation of musicians came, in one way or another, into contact with the Bongiovanni circle. His musical establishment became a stepping stone for young composers from Italy and abroad. And in the wake of Respighi’s success, they all wrote liriche, which became a preferred format and were, subsequently, published by Bongiovanni. And by doing so, Bongiovanni helped them on their way while they helped Bongiovanni establish his reputation as one of the major publishers not only of Bologna but of all of Italy. And the format of the lirica had another major beneficial side effect for the energetic publisher from Sicily: he got into contact with some of the major poets of his time, one of which was a certain Gabriele d’Annunzio.

Letter by d'Annunzio to Francesco Bongiovanni, Fiume 1920
Letter by d’Annunzio to Francesco Bongiovanni, Fiume 1920


D’Annunzio was a most influential figure in the musical scene of the beginning twentieth century. Hardly anything noteworthy written in Italy at that time could circumvent his influence. It was d’Annunzio who had written poems for Tosti and, thereby, had helped to create the first romanze da camera (1880). But now, Pizzetti, Gandino, Respighi and his friend Giacomo Benvenuti began to compose music to poems that had not been designed for music – poetry without regard to singableness, meters, meters and rhymes. The result was an impressive series of liriche with poems taken from Canto Novo, La Chimera, L’Isottèo and Il Poema Paradisiaco – miniature music-dramas where the text was on a par with the music – but always with a hint of italianità. A prime example is Respighi’s “Sopra un’aria antica” (1920, from Il Poema Paradisiaco), where Cesti’s “Intorno all’idol mio” from the opera Orontea (1656) serves as a melodic and harmonic basis and d’Annunzio’s vers blancs as its recitativo-like counterpoint. This was, in itself, a bold statement of the struggle between old and new, between a tradition that had to be respected and new ways that could not be denied. Here are the first three verses out of the nine:

1              Non sorgono (ascolta,
2              ascolta) le nostre parole
3              da quell’aria antica?
4              Io t’ho dissepolta.
5              E al fine rivedi tu il sole,
6              Tu mi parli, o amica!

7              Queste tu parlavi
8              parole. Non odi? Non odi?
9              Ma chi le raccolse?
10            Da gli alvei cavi
11            Del legno i tuoi modi
12            sorgono, che il vento disciolse.  

13            Dicevi: “Io ti leggo
14            nel cuore. Non mi ami.
15            Tu pensi che è l’ultima volta!”
16            La bocca riveggo
17            un poco appassita.
18            È l’ultima volta. ecc.

This excerpt, representative for the entire poem, is telling as to the liberties d’Annunzio took in this modern and most definitely “strong” text. There is no clear metrical structure that could serve a traditional singing line. The “thread”, so to say, is given by a loose structure of senari and enneasillabi – even if these don’t follow the classical form (a senario should have its rhythmic accents on the second and fifth syllable, which is the case in [1], [9] and [10] but not in [3], [4], [6], [7] and so on) – and a consequent schema of alternate rhymes (A-D, B-E, C-F). The rest is free form – a tremendous challenge for any composer. The text on which Cesti had built his aria consisted of settenari; the incompatibility is obvious. Respighi, however, managed to reconcile d’Annunzio’s radical free form and Cesti’s old aria in a stirring andante espressivo in 3/4. Especially interesting is Respighi’s handling of the central sixth verse “Guardai que’capelli” (see ill. B). Here, he lets Cesti’s melody come to a full stop, suspends the beat, allows the recitativo to take over completely, without being restricted by tempo. The effect of tenderness and intimacy, simply by letting a free recitative sit on a simple harmonic base, is astounding. Cesti’s aria is first picked up in the following verse. Right after the silence, it suggests a feeling of time that cannot be stopped and delivers a frightening sensation of transience and brevity of life.
D’Annunzio wasn’t the only poet to “join the club”, even if it only was by means of their poetry: the works of Vittoria Aganoor Pompilj were very popular, so were poems by Carducci, Pascoli and Panzacchi. Antonio Fogazzaro, Lorenzo Stecchetti and Carlo Zangarini provided countless other texts. Lorenzo Davico composed songs to Japanese poetry, we find texts by Rabindranāth Tagore, Heinrich Heine, Charles Baudelaire, Giacomo Leopardi and Dante. Gui had a soft spot for French poetry: he chose Stéphane Mallarmé, Albert Samain and Catulle Mendès, who had provided a couple of libretti for Massenet. Zangarini, who had written the libretto for Leoncavallo’s Zazà and, in 1910, co-authored the libretto for Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, was the Bongiovanni circle’s “house” poet – he was a frequent guest, a close friend of Francesco Bongiovanni’s and regularly delivered new poems to be set to music by the group.

Photograph of Francesco Balilla Pratella with dedication to Francesco Bongiovanni, Lugo 1923
Photograph of Francesco Balilla Pratella with dedication to Francesco Bongiovanni, Lugo 1923

But liriche were only one of many novelties and not the only way to work the problem. Francesco Balilla Pratella, one of the most devoted members of the club, demanded more radical measures: the annihilation of tradition to which Respighi, Pizzetti and the others still felt obliged. He did not demand the squaring of the circle but its destruction. Balilla Pratella went back to the roots of Italian music – folk music – on which he, much like Béla Bartók, intended to build his new aesthetics of sound. He eclipsed what he perceived as “tradition”, i.e. the development from “pure” folk music to Verdi’s romanticism, and replaced it by radically new forms which explicitly did not go by canonized rules and systems. He became one of the doyens of Futurist Music – and Bongiovanni his loyal publisher. With Bongiovanni, Pratella published his “Musica Futurista”, a beautiful edition with a frontispiece by none other than Futurist painter Umberto Boccioni, a series of editions of folk music and books on musical theory and aesthetics. Bongiovanni, thus, became the mouthpiece of the Futurist Music movement – and established himself not only as a publisher of sheet music but also of literature.

Frontispiece of Bongiovanni's edition of Pratella's Futurist Music with illustrations by Boccioni
Frontispiece of Bongiovanni’s edition of Pratella’s Futurist Music with illustrations by Boccioni

The search for identity, be it by the classical definition of italianità by evoking the “love of song” or by demanding a violent reset, was still a search for what was “national”, “Italian” and “folkish”. And thus, all of those who were looking for what was “genuinely Italian” were also prone to fascist ideology. Fascism basically was a conservative ideology but embraced the Futurist movement for its radical actionism and glorification of war, violence and destruction. For moderate “progressives” who were looking for italianità, it was a welcome melting pot. It was therefore that many artists who were moderately progressive and on the look for a national musical language, welcomed the fascist movement which promised to fulfill the task d’Azeglio had assigned to all Italians shortly after the unification was a fait accompli: to “make” the Italians. Creating identities, however, often comes with the creation of groups and an explicit “we” against “the others”. This motivated a few members of the Bongiovanni circle, especially the above mentioned Alceo Toni, to author a manifesto “to defend the traditions of the nineteenth century” which talked, to nobody’s surprise, about a “collective belief”, national needs and “romantic values” which, in the opinion of the ten composers to sign the manifesto, had been betrayed by modernists like Malipiero and Casella. Among those who signed the document were Zandonai, Pizzetti, Mulè and – Ottorino Respighi. A lively debate ensued. Alfano and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco refused to sign. Mussolini wasn’t too pleased about the debate, and intellectuals such as Luigi Pirandello and Massimo Bontempelli defended the accused musicians in public. Pizzetti soon backpedaled and, in a letter to Malipiero, blamed Toni and his political influence. However: the Bongiovanni group was splintered, and after that, things weren’t as they had been before. Zandonai, Pizzetti and Respighi, now famous and one of the more popular composers of the generazione, had gone to Ricordi, Carisch and other major publishers in Milan. One Casella, however, never forgot their common beginnings in the backroom of the Bongiovanni establishment. In 1938,  when the storm had died down, he remembered that “the musical history of Bologna is not going to be written without the name Bongiovanni”. And indeed – without the little backroom of the Bongiovanni musical establishment and the patronage of its owner, much of the music history of Italy would certainly have gone different ways.

Photograph of Ildebrando Pizzetti with dedication to Francesco Bongiovanni, Bologna 1925
Photograph of Ildebrando Pizzetti with dedication to Francesco Bongiovanni, Bologna 1925

By the time the war was over, classical music had lost its momentum. Granted, there still was a lively interest in Italy for an art for which still was considered a national treasure, but after the experiences of the war, the word “national” had an objectionable sound to it. RAI did its best to promote classical music through a vast concert and broadcasting activity. However: other forms of music had become decisively more popular, and there was little interest left for finding some kind of national identity in classical music. Out of the more famous members of the group, only Pizzetti continued to compose. His La Figlia di Jorio and, first and foremost, Assassinio nella cattedrale enjoyed a certain success never became repertory pieces. Respighi had died in 1936, Franchetti in 1942, Zandonai in 1944, Casella in 1947. What has survived, has become standard: the liriche produced during the most fruitful years of the Bongiovanni group. Respighi’s “Nebbie”, “O falce di luna”, “Sopra un’aria antica”, “Mattinata”, “ Pioggia”, “Nevicata” and many others have been performed and recorded by famous artists from Renata Tebaldi to Luciano Pavarotti. The liriche of Pietro Cimara enjoy great popularity in Japan where they constitute an obligatory part of every classical singer’s training and repertory. The historical achievements of Casella, Pizzetti, Malipiero and Pratella are indisputable. And yet, all of these are but the last defiant struggle against a development that had started with the Wagnerian revolution and ended with the end of the Italian opera as we knew it. Italian opera, melodramma, proved to be rather incompatible with the German ideas, and the German ideas proved to be irreversible.
And what happened to Bongiovanni? After it had become clear that there was little future in printing contemporary classical music, Francesco Bongiovanni’s grandson Giancarlo had an ingenious idea and began producing recordings of live recitals which he published on LPs. These were the first legal live recordings on the otherwise completely saturated market and earned Bongiovanni the special prize of the Italian music critics in 1976. Soon, other LP issues followed. By presenting great singers of the past, young promising talent and rarely performed operas in carefully and expertly curated editions, Bongiovanni managed once more to gain world fame and to contribute to the diffusion of an art form many had already declared dead. The business flourished once again. And by the end of the 1990s, the Bologna commune recognized Bongiovanni as one of the most important historical companies of the city by granting it its historical site in Via Rizzoli, just between the Piazza Maggiore and the Two Towers, for as long as Bongiovanni would exist. Little did Bongiovanni know that these words weren’t worth the paper on which they had been written. Times had changed – money was now more important than culture. And soon after, a multinational chain rented the building and removed Bongiovanni from the location it had been for almost a hundred years. The historical club is now a storage room. Bongiovanni’s legacy, however, lives on – not only firmly engraved in the music history of Italy but also on records and, first and foremost, in the repertories of musicians who are going to perform the music published by Bongiovanni in Bologna for many hundred years to come.

Photograph of Alfredo Casella with dedication to Francesco Bongiovanni, Bologna 1938
Photograph of Alfredo Casella with dedication to Francesco Bongiovanni, Bologna 1938




Daniele D. Godor
Nato nel 1977, libero autore e giornalista. Ha studiato romanistica, scandinavistica, storia moderna e musicologia presso la Freie Universität di Berlino, la Humboldt Universität di Berlino e la Åbo Akademi di Turku (Finlandia). Ha pubblicato, tra l’altro, una biografia del tenore svedese Set Svanholm (Atlantis, Stoccolma 2015) e articoli per “Le Monde Diplomatique”.