Liszt and romantic progressivism fallen into vain

There’s no denying it: Romantic composers never cease to amaze us with their modernity, so much for the unchanging persistence of music composed before a specific historical period (a fixed idea of many music lovers and conductors today). For example, Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886), in addition to his religious vows, had also embraced social, artistic, and political progressivism to put even Marx to shame!

The music of the time, with the legacy of the classics (in particular, Haydn and Mozart) and pre-romantic (i.e., Beethoven), now seemed burdened with a mortgage burden that was almost impossible to liquidate. Yet many theatergoers of the time were beginning to dislike the constant references to the past and unwillingly paid for theater tickets when the programs did not promise at least a few surprises.

Painting entitled "Liberty Leading the People" by Eugène Delacroix
“Liberty Leading the People” by Eugène Delacroix was painted in 1830 and housed in the Louvre Museum in Paris. The ideals of liberty, social redemption, equality, and fraternity, inspired by the French Revolution, often referenced Romantic culture. Liszt himself praised the Marseillaise as a hymn of the people and for the people, as music is no longer elitist and limited to a few connoisseurs, but instead spread to all classes, without distinction.

Yesterday, today, and tomorrow

This was before the term “classical music” was coined to refer to a sequence of “bodies” on display. I know, the phrase is a bit heavy-handed and, indeed, not disparaging in nature (me being the first admirer). Still, the bitter truth is that if Franz Listz looked to the masses, stratified into social classes dictated, not by appointments and investitures, but rather by the pressing industrial power that spread like wildfire, we (about 150 years after his death) look to his stereotype, as the only source of “cultured” music worth listening to.

The trouble, as is easy to guess, is that social classes are not only not dead (i.e., communism only whitewashed facades and fattened oligarchs) but have put down deep roots, especially socio-culturally. By this, I do not mean that the nineteenth-century workers were educated; on the contrary, likely, the bourgeoisie did not care much for culture either, but the problem is that if the “Paganini” of the piano considered the elites of the time as deleterious, today he would end up taking refuge in a Pacific atoll in order not to realize how obtuse and short-sighted evolution has been.

Because evolution has (inevitably) taken place, and we have already talked about the dominance gained by pop music, one has to ask: Is this really what Listz so desired? He often spoke of “musical progress,” marking with as much emphasis as possible the ever-changing reality to which art had to relate. He observed the birth and growth of an industrial society, where the strong powers were not the aristocrats but lay like lapdogs at the feet of bankers and captains of industry.

When it is a composer from the past who sees the future

In other words, Franz Liszt understood two basic things well: first, that music lovers were no longer to be sought within the drawing rooms, and second, that music not palatable to the working-class and lower-middle-class masses was doomed to fail its purpose. Reading the theater programs in 2024, we can undoubtedly say, “Poor deluded!”

Not only did his idea drift further and further away from “consumer” music (the kind he wished for when he hoped the songs would be sung by workers, office workers, and managers), but it also foundered against much sharper rocks. If Liszt saw the marriage of music and poetry as the crowning glory of an artistic endeavor aimed at representing society in a comprehensive and, above all, engaging way, we might ask what became of his purpose and wish.

The answer is at least as simple as the result: pop music has taken the place that the “great” composers guarded, while a parallel branch, with the features of an Egyptian mummy, has crystallized in a pose that recalls a perennial déjà-vu. Truncated by an inflated nothingness like Zeppelin, artistic directors of theaters and conductors of related orchestras announce with smiles that they will usher in the new symphonic year with Schumann’s music.

So much for the intentions of poor Liszt, who wanted mass dissemination, the breaking down of all elitist boundaries, the representation of popular culture, and so on! While Spotify broadcasts music written the day before, they, in fancy dress, sing (rightly) the praises of Brahms, Beethoven, and Mozart, oblivious to the fact that some 200 years have passed since their last work.

Group of people at a pop music concert
Stadiums can become the new concert halls as long as music and poetry regain their strength and merge into an increasingly strong and inescapable bond.

Evolving arts versus “corpse” music

Does it mean that they must fall into oblivion? Never! This would be silly before it is even irreverent. It is as if Picasso had overshadowed Michelangelo or Raphael, De Chirico had made people forget Giotto, or Pirandello had ridiculed Boccaccio or Shakespeare. But after this slew of comparisons, a question timidly arises: why is Picasso held in such high regard? Why is the prose play “Six Characters in Search of an Author” considered a masterpiece? Why is Frank Lloyd Wright’s “House on the Waterfall” hailed on par (or nearly so) with St. Peter’s dome?

Interesting questions, aren’t they? The usual consequence is to ask, why, in music, is Bob Dylan considered a dwarf in front of Schubert? Why is Morricone, much actually treated as a film composer, charming, but who cannot hold a candle to Mahler? In short, why did all the arts follow Franz Liszt’s invitation and “cultured” music, the first recipient of his words, self-segregate into a museum of anatomy and paleontology?

I believe the reason is simple. “Popular” music has followed the course of events, updated itself continuously, experimenting and constantly seeking new ways of expression. In a sense, Liszt’s hope of hearing the songs among the crowds of workers was crowned. But then, why complain? Unfortunately, the composer does not clarify that the marriage of music and poetry must marry musical engagement with poetic engagement. “Commitment,” meaning the pursuit of quality through true spiritual inspiration.

Certainly, this has happened in many cases, especially from a poetic point of view, because several pop and rock song lyrics are dense in content and pleasing to even the most refined palates. Unfortunately, however, the music and many song lyrics at the top of the charts can be classified as examples of the exercise of stupidity! And most seriously, the record industry (analogous to the same society deprecated and condemned by Liszt), in fostering craftsmanship with low pretensions, feeds the so-called”mainstream,” supporting, willy-nilly, the cause of the nostalgics of classicism.

Conclusions

Whose fault is it then (if fault it is)? Certainly, we can immediately exonerate classical and romantic composers, and, in a sense, “pardon” Chopin’s lovers and Haydn’s oratorios. Indeed, there is no reason to blame those who reject the ugly. As I have already had to say, if it is indispensable to find a scapegoat, the only “culprits” are precisely contemporary composers.

So much for Liszt’s rave praise addressed to the Marseillaise! The unhealthy idea of intellectualistic music, chained by conceptions that cannot be decoded without repeated explanation, and the rejection of the”mainstream” have contributed to letting all the romantic virtuoso’s vague ambitions fall into vain. Taylor Swift certainly does not need Caroline Shaw, and the latter can follow her ideas by giving up the luxurious life of rappers who think they are the new Dante Alighieri! In short, no one needs the other in an unparalleled circle of “selfishness.”

We are, therefore, in an impasse that seems to have no way out. Yet the solution is straightforward: poets (please, let’s not call them “lyricists”) could start writing lyrics suitable for music, and, even not imitating the concept of total art advocated by Wagner, pop composers could start restudying harmony and composing music, based yes on modern instruments (with much-appreciated “intromissions” of strings, flutes, harps, etc.), but worthy of being juxtaposed with Schubert’s Lieder or Faurè’s songs.

In short, Franz Liszt’s lesson is elementary: music must be progressive because society is perpetually evolving, and any form of conservatism is not only detrimental but completely unnecessary. In addition, music-goers, as is the case today, are also the people sitting and waiting in barbers’ and hairdressers’ salons, and, to put it bluntly, given the massive difference in numbers, it is precisely the latter who should be the privileged recipients of good music, not just those who pay for tickets to sit in half-empty concert halls listening to Beethoven’s Razumovsky quartets.

Never forget the past, then, and never think that Bach or Mozart wrote perishable music. But time can neither be stopped nor slowed down, so let us try to follow Listz’s example and stop compartmentalizing for “connoisseurs.” Far too many works of art (for connoisseurs) rot in museum cellars. It is high time to avoid such waste and not let the industry dictate its standards because usability is not birthed by triviality but sheer quality art!

Brief biographical note on Franz Liszt

Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886), Hungarian composer, virtuoso pianist, and conductor, was one of the most influential musicians of the Romantic era. Liszt’s major musical contributions include his innovative piano compositions that expanded the boundaries of progressions and traditional harmonic forms. His works, such as the “Transcendental Studies” and “Hungarian Rhapsodies,” are known for their technical brilliance and emotional depth.

Apart from his musical genius, Liszt was also a key figure in developing the symphonic poem, a form in which a non-musical work, such as a poem or painting inspire a piece of instrumental music. Liszt’s symphonic poems, such as “Les Preludes” and “Mazeppa,” showcased his ability to evoke vivid images and narratives through music.

Stamp issued in Germany (GDR) in 1961 to celebrate composers Franz Liszt and Hector Berlioz
A stamp was issued in Germany (GDR) in 1961 to celebrate the composers Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886) and Hector Berlioz (1803 – 1869). The two had an intense relationship, and Liszt, a lover of program music, found in Berlioz a perfect example of how musical art could evolve.

In addition to his musical contributions, Liszt was known for his philosophical works on music and art. He championed the idea of “program music,” in which instrumental music conveys a narrative or extra-musical idea, paving the way for composers such as Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. Franz Liszt’s legacy as a composer, pianist, and thinker continues to influence musicians and music lovers worldwide.


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Update: New poem “I want to dream of a Sleeping Reality”

God's creation of Eve while Adam slept.

I have just added a new poem titled “I Want to Dream of a Sleeping Reality,” the common thread of which is a deep desire to overcome the rigidity of superstructures imposed by man in his search for a “supreme rule.”

It is the rhapsodic expression of a cry of despair: reality must not bend to self-imposed wills; man can and must overcome the limit of morality to find his true nature!

I want to dream of a sleeping reality

I want to dream of a sleeping reality: let’s discover in the verses how the will to power (Nietzsche) to overcome an unnatural reality can make one want to dream of a world oblivious to man’s self-imposed rules.


Considerations on the Apollonian and Dionysian according to Nietzsche’s philosophy

Nietzsche’s conception of Apollonian and Dionysian principles represents a fundamental aspect of his philosophy. According to Nietzsche, the Apollonian represents order, rationality, and beauty, embodying harmony, clarity, and form. In contrast, Dionysians symbolize chaos, irrationality, and ecstasy, reflecting passion, spontaneity, and emotion.

While acknowledging the importance of the Apollonian, Nietzsche expresses a clear preference for the Dionysian. He believed embracing the Dionysian allowed individuals to tap into their primal instincts, creativity, and deeper emotional truths. For Nietzsche, the Dionysian represented a more authentic and liberating way of being, breaking free from the constraints of social norms and rationality.

Various antiques
The idea of the Dionysian is dominant in Nietzsche as he saw in the creative force of chaos and ecstasy an actual realization of the human spirit. On the contrary, the Apolinnean order is always subordinated to “artificial” and unnatural rules. Man should pursue the Dionysian while not forgetting the positive essence of the Apollonian.

In essence, Nietzsche viewed the Apollonian and Dionysian as complementary forces that, if balanced, could lead to a more fulfilling and enriched human experience. Embracing the Dionysian alongside the Apollonian could enable individuals to transcend limitations, embrace their full potential, and live authentically.


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Twilight of the gods: why pop music is so darn corny

5 Deutschmark coin dedicated to Felix Mendelssohn
Five Deutschmark coin dedicated to Berlin composer Felix Mendelssohn. A tribute to German romantic music.

Back to the Future Part I

Imagine taking a trip back in time, 200 years, to be precise, and moving to Berlin. With a bit of patience, suppose you walk unseen into the studio of Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847), whose eclecticism ranged from composing music, conducting, painting, and, not least, administering a concert hall.

You might witness the scene: Mendelssohn paces up and down the room, speaking in a thundering voice to two collaborators, “The audience is demanding new music!” the composer vehemently exclaims while his friends nod their heads. Yes, because amid the Romantic era, whether it seems strange to you or not, people were tired of hearing the same operas repeatedly, and impresarios’ investments risked being dry losses.

At a time when there were no recordings, to hear a symphony, it was necessary to have an orchestra. People were tired. How can you blame them? Who wouldn’t be? “We?” shouts the crowd (ed. I am optimistic about readers), “Certainly,” I would answer without hesitation. If we pick up the 1.21 GW time machine and return to the present, we can do a simple experiment.

Back to the Future Part II

One only needs to open Spotify and Apple Music (Classical) to find that, for example, there are about 630 recordings of Beethoven’s 9th. If we then consider all the unrecorded performances, the number could become so large that it could be said that, from Beethova’s departure to the present, her memory has been honored by “celebrating” a ritual based on her music regularly every week!

It is enough to put together Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, Verdi, etc., to arrive without much effort at a non-stop that goes on with more than religious regularity. So much for new music! We live in the age of immutability, where theaters and concert halls are more properly museums housing mummies of all shapes and sizes. Of the cemeteries, it is always November 2, and the slurry of prayers rises to the imperishable memory of the totally unknown deceased.

The Trial (without Kafka)

But far be it from me to point fingers indiscriminately! Therefore, I ask myself, “Who are the culprits in this?” The conductors? Indeed, a large cohort of them are dead-tongued cultists who enjoy, like children announcing that for the opening of the musical year, they will be conducting Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, and it matters little if those who are going to hear it (at least, a small portion amid a crowd of model gougers who want to parade down the catwalk) know it by heart and, if they want to, can find hundreds of recordings in the comfort of their own homes.

But the fault does not lie solely with the conductors. I am convinced that many of them think just as I do. Then who to center in the crosshairs? Artistic directors? In a sense, the latter might well be candidates for the role of managers, were it not for force majeure reasons that they are forced to obey willy-nilly. If, by chance, it should occur to one of them to open the concert season with Tōru Takemitsu or Arnold Bax, immediately a profit and loss account in the red would materialize before their eyes!

Yes, because if the people of the Romantic period (and beyond) longed for new music, today’s so-called music lovers do not like surprises. They are ready to spend tens of euros to listen again to the symphony of destiny (i.e., Beethoven’s Fifth), but they would think, “Paying for these strangers? Maybe it’s not worth it“. November 2 is welcome; Christmas is always a bit risky, far too much for Puritans.

Rehearsal of a small orchestra conducted by contemporary music composer Tōru Takemitsu
Rehearsals of a small orchestra conducted by contemporary music composer Tōru Takemitsu (1930 – 1996).

Revenge is a record that needs to be played fast!

But reality is not consumed in this analysis; on the contrary, it displays a bizarreness that transcends any creative effort. If so-called (mistakenly) “cultured music” is as stagnant as a swamp where mosquitoes feast day and night, its “pop” counterpart lives and reigns in an uninterrupted succession of productions.

Oh yes, because if you thought the desire for new music had disappeared, dear friends, you were only deluding yourself. It is not only alive but is even more fierce than before. It is so fierce that it motivates many musicians to churn out new songs with every blink of an eye. With rocket-to-hydrazine acceleration, “pop” music (a deliberately collective term) has given birth to far more music from 1900 to the present than composed from the late Middle Ages to late Romanticism.

And so, if renowned concert halls continued to honor the dead with heartfelt devotion, stadiums became ecosystems where every form of living species increased with the rhythm of rabbits. “But then the problem is solved!” an incurable optimist might exclaim, and, to me, today it’s my turn to dampen spirits as well. No, the problem is not solved; it has become even more severe.

Gods and minstrels

The reason for my disappointment stems from a simple observation: so-called “pop” music is damned banal! We could also say that he paid for his vitality with whole layers of cerebral cortex. If you get used to listening to Beethoven (to mention the most-played composer ever), pop songs resemble coitus interruptus. They possess all the characteristics: catchy and singable motifs, rhythms marked by the ubiquitous drums, voices whose timbres have finally been unleashed and removed from the yoke of classical lyricism, and? A missed orgasm.

When everything seems ready to explode in a pyrotechnic development, the last refrain marks the premature end of the relationship. To hell with Beethoven and his majestic art of elaboration! All it takes is a singable melody over a harmonic rug (generally so simple that legions of strummers gaudy ape). Why complicate life? Well, I would say that, first of all, it’s because the composers don’t know how to do it! Second, because industrial standardization wants to sell songs like fast-food sandwiches.

Will texts save the world?

“But the lyrics are beautiful!” shouts the ecstatic crowd as if listening to a Schubert Lied. Then again, the bar was not lowered. It’s been taken out of the way! Triviality must have no boundaries: all too simple music must be matched by equally meaningless lyrics.

To no avail was the lesson of Fabrizio De Andrè, who composed dozens and dozens of songs that were all different. “Beautiful!” the crowd shouts, except to dissolve the moment someone should shyly ask what “Canzone del padre” (ed. “Father’s Song”) means. That is a territory where it is better not to set foot, too complicated, hermetic, esoteric, cryptic, crazy, …, you go ahead. Much better was the late Micheal Jackson setting a stadium (and his bank account) ablaze by repeating like a sick, obsessive-compulsive “Annie, are you okay?

I would thunder, “Hell yes! I’m fine, now continue the song!” but this is not part of the social dynamics that hold up the whole scaffolding. As mentioned above, pop music must be mundane; otherwise, one risks an untimely death and the bitter discovery that curators of Egyptian concert hall museums have waiting lists too long to hope for an audition.

Poster of a concert by musician Marya Delvard featuring lieder by author Marc Henry. Lieder music was always highly sought after, but, in a way it can be considered the ancestor of modern song.
Poster of a concert by musician Marya Delvard (1874 – 1965) based on lieder by author Marc Henry. Lieder music was always highly sought after, but, in a way, it can be considered the ancestor of modern song.

The trial resumes, the court enters.

But is there a person in charge who can at least help us justify this phenomenon? I think so, but I leave it to my (Manzoni, do not be offended, but I hope more than twenty-five) readers will analyze reality and come to their conclusions. As I have already highlighted in other articles, “cultured” music faced a chasm after the late Romanticism.

With questionable motives, many composers suddenly discovered that poor Debussy was covered in cobwebs and that Stravinsky was just a visionary madman prey to a nostalgia that needed to be treated in an asylum. Yes, it is true that the French composer had experimented with hexatonal scales and was seduced by jazz and ragtime, but how do we forgive the severe fault of still referring to tonality?

In an era marked by unspeakable horrors (the two world wars, the rise of fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany, the extermination of the Jews, etc.), one soon concluded that if art was to represent reality. Reality is also ugly (how can one deny that?). One could infer that art should be able to “steal” some of the horror of history and make it its own.

Of course, this pseudo-syllogism is all too simple. What does it mean that music must also be able to be ugly? An aesthetically ugly work of art deserves no further analysis. Is this then the meaning pursued by the composers? Certainly not. Without getting into very technical territories, it can be said that if “classical” harmony demanded that dissonances be resolved into consonant chords (i.e., were moments of transient tension), the theorists of the new music extolled the emancipation of dissonance as an entity that does not need to fade into something else.

Yet Bach, a few centuries earlier, Bach had extensively used chromaticism (i.e., notes outside the key) and dissonance (including the infamous tritone – diabolus in music). He certainly had not gone to too much trouble to modulate either gradually (i.e., by following the circle of fifths) or by jumping flatly from one tonality to another (e.g., in the D minor Chaconne of the second violin partita, the middle part begins candidly in D major). So, why so much eagerness to abolish tonality?

Frankly, I don’t know. The only thing sure is that this choice served only to free itself from a cage, whose bars were so broad as to let elephants walk, to lock itself up in a labyrinthine set of techniques that, as the composers’ shyness faded, even came to use combinatorial mathematical techniques, I Ching reading and, who knows, even raffle number draws.

Original Chinese version of I Ching
An original Chinese version of I Ching, a divination book, was used by John Cage (1912 – 1992) to compose his experimental music.

Come on, people, it’s off to experiment!

Not satisfied with an already difficult enough choice to manage, many composers (while the pop music war raged in the East) decided to expand their genius through an idolization of conceptual-intellectualistic music. In Darmstadt, Germany, and at RAI’s phonology studio (ed. RAI is the national Italian Television), there have been high-sounding names (Stockhausen, Berg, Kagel, Nono, Berio, Maderna, etc.) whose notoriety, however, fades day by day, like those posters left at the mercy of sun and rain.

City noises, screaming, hissing, “broken” quartets with musicians forced to play in the cabins of as many helicopters in flight, and a fierce use of all sorts of electronic instruments, from synthesizers to wave generators, etc., made it possible to mold an impressive amount of works whose common characteristic is only one: the public did not like them. I would like, in this regard, to know your opinion.

To make a long story short, “cultured” music has been amputated outright, demanding that fans of Satie and Puccini willingly accept this extraordinary new creativity. But alas, things did not go as planned. Artistic directors, often enthusiastic, once again ran up against the bottom line, discovering (perhaps, reluctantly) that Berio’s sublime sequences were grossing little more than they needed to offer free peanuts at the buvette.

People skinned their hands applauding Beethoven’s 9th for the umpteenth time but were bored listening to experimental music. Ignorance? Insensitivity? I don’t know. What is certain is that aesthetics leaves no survivors. “If I’m going to listen to a synthesizer used poorly to boot, I much prefer the din of pop music!

Of course. The reasoning does not make a wrinkle. Why be masochistic when pop singers can offer a refreshing listen that even an illiterate person understands perfectly? We have, therefore, come to the crux of the matter. Pop music is mundane, without development, based on first-grade harmonic progressions (with exceptions such as jazz, which often exaggerates in the opposite direction). Still, it gives more satisfaction than music that has traded the adjective “cultured” for “mindless.”

The Arabian phoenix in a performance by Friedrich J. Bertuch. Just like the phoenix,
The Arabian phoenix in a depiction by Friedrich J. Bertuch (1747 – 1822). According to mythology, the phoenix could always rise from its ashes.

Can “cultured” music rise from its ashes?

I want to end this article on an optimistic note. I am convinced that it is possible to finally hear contemporary music combining pop’s engaging power with the technical structuring of a Beethoven sonata. But to do so, considerable effort is required, not so much from a compositional point of view, but more importantly from an economic-managerial point of view.

With the same “flamboyance” as Stockhausen & co, it is possible to compose, for example, contemporary versions of Bach’s cantatas. That is, instead of ending a song (the theme of which may also be worthy of praise) after three minutes, a first part can be interspersed with an instrumental interlude based on real elaborations of the themes (again, Beethoven rules), followed perhaps by a small chorale (polyphonic, why not? After all, “We are the world” has been at the top of the worldwide hit parades), and then, perhaps, close, with another song based on a reworking of the opening theme. All of this, of course, is accompanied by meticulously crafted lyrics, not gut-wrenching love nonsense.

In short, contemporary music has all the makings of satisfying the Romantics’ eagerness for novelty by pursuing quality at the expense of quantity. The only “small” problem to be solved is to depower the industrial “assembly line” ideals to revive the more “artisanal” lines of thought that, in their genuineness, preserve the unbreakable seed of true art and are looking for nothing more than good soil where they can plant it to make it grow lushly!


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Update: New poetic prose: “Bacchus, Tobacco, and Venus: over the centuries faithful”

Pile of bottles: the vice of drinking alcohol certainly tops the list of pleasures and vices

I have added a new poetic prose entitled “Bacchus, Tobacco, and Venus: over the centuries faithful.” It is a tribute to pleasure, to life, and in defense of all those activities that the most boorish moralism tends to stigmatize and relegate to the “cellar of vices.”

Bacchus, Tobacco, and Venus: over the centuries faithful

Enter the universe of extravagance and the pleasures of life! A hymn to vice that pierces moralism and raises praise to the joy of living!


Note on the cult of the god Bacchus.

Bacchus, also known as Dionysus in Greek mythology, was the god of wine, celebrations, and ecstasy. He was often associated with the joyous and wild festivals celebrating his name. These festivals, known as Bacchanalia, were lively and energetic gatherings that praised Bacchus and engaged in wine consumption.

One of the main characteristics of Bacchus and the festivals held to honor him was the emphasis on wine. Wine played a central role in these festivals, symbolizing the essence of Bacchus himself. Wine consumption during festivals was believed to cause a state of ecstasy and unbridled joy.

A scene of a bacchanal (festival in honor of the god Bacchus) painted by W. Bouguereau (1825 - 1905)
A scene of a bacchanal (festival in honor of the god Bacchus) painted by W. A. Bouguereau (1825 – 1905)

Another remarkable aspect of these celebrations was their lively and exuberant nature. Bacchus festivals were known for their vibrant and energetic atmosphere, full of music, dancing, and revelry. Participants wore elaborate costumes, adorned themselves with ivy and vines, and engaged in ecstatic dancing and singing, all in honor of Bacchus.

These festivals were not limited to a particular place. Bacchus and his followers roam the countryside, celebrating in various settings such as forests, mountains, and natural landscapes. They often led processions, known as “bacchic processions,” where they marched through the streets, singing and dancing in honor of Bacchus.

In addition to the actual festivities, the bacchanalia also had a spiritual aspect. It was believed that by participating in these celebrations, individuals could achieve a state of divine communion with Bacchus. This connection was thought to bring blessings, fertility, and a sense of liberation.

Overall, Bacchus and the festivals organized to praise him with wine were characterized by a focus on celebration, ecstasy, and indulgence. They offered participants the opportunity to let go of their inhibitions, enjoy the joy of life, and connect with the divine through wine-drinking and exuberant parties.


 

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Truths, myths, and fantasies about Segovia: a short journey through the notes of classical guitar

Andrés Segovia (1893 – 1987) was unquestionably one of the greatest and most influential musicians of the last century, devoted wholeheartedly to the dissemination of the classical guitar, and, as is often the case in such cases, his fame has become multifaceted, enriched by legends, false attributions and an almost blinding mythologizing, which has made it extremely difficult for many users of his music to exercise critical activity.

In this article, I wish to highlight some peculiar aspects of Segovian work and, at the same time, try to demolish some of the most unfounded myths. As a classical guitarist, I cannot tolerate the spread of superficial and false judgments that permanently harm the music, too. Only by being frank can Segovia be restored to his rightful place and prevent completely wrong ideas from taking hold without anyone working to correct them.

Andrés Segovia while playing at the Alhambra palace in Granada
Andrés Segovia while playing at the Alhambra Palace in Granada (a complete film is also available).

Segovia and the musical heritage for guitar

The first thesis I would like to highlight concerns a judgment I have often encountered: “Segovia is the father of the (classical) guitar as a noble instrument.” First of all, I would like to point out that, in my opinion, talking about noble and plebeian instruments is undoubtedly not an excellent way to start a discussion. Various composers of the caliber of Beethoven and Mahler “ennobled” all sorts of instruments, including them in their symphonies to achieve particular timbres that traditional ensembles did not contemplate.

But even if we accept the juxtaposition between widespread and concert use of the guitar, the problem remains with the veracity of the above statement. Suffraging it lightly is, in fact, not only dangerous to the history of music but also unfair to a variety of composers who devoted their lives to the guitar.

While it is true that this marvelous instrument, given its flexibility, became extremely popular in not overly cultured circles, this does not detract from the fact that, between the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there were properly “cultured” musicians who published methods, progressive studies, concert studies, sonatas, concertos, etc.

Fernando Sor, Dionisio Aguado, Mauro Giuliani, Ferdinando Carulli, Matteo Carcassi, Francisco Tarrega, etc., are key players in the flourishing of the guitar during the Romantic period. If we also add Niccolò Paganini (yes, the violinist), who loved the guitar, practiced on it, and composed dozens and dozens of concert sonatas, I think it is pretty clear that before 1893, the year of Segovia’s birth, the guitar scene was already very well nourished.

Francisco Tarrega while playing the guitar in the traditional classical setting.
Francisco Tarrega (1852 – 1909) while playing the guitar in the traditional classical setting.

So why do people close their eyes to the evidence and think all the credit goes to the master? While also based on some deductions, the response breaks a lance in favor of Segovia’s hosannas.

The fate of the guitar during and after Romanticism

To begin with, a clarification should be made: the guitar, like many other instruments (piano, primarily), has not always existed in its current conformation. On the contrary, it has undergone numerous changes based on the expressive needs that musicians demanded.

Without doing a historical reconstruction that is beyond the scope of this article, I can say right away that the most famous ancestor of the guitar is one of the most famous Renaissance and Baroque instruments (especially during the early period): the lute. It was not only, to all intents and purposes, a “noble” instrument but also allowed a vast literature of early music to reach us, which nowadays, despite the existence of numerous lutenists, finds its most natural place in the guitar.

The works, to give an example, of Luis de Milán, John Dowland, Sylvius Leopold Weiss, and, most importantly, Johann Sebastian Bach (even if some of them are arrangements of violin partitas made by the computer itself, e.g., BWV 1006a) provide guitarists with a heritage of the highest quality that can only help to ennoble this fascinating instrument and enrich the concert repertoire with characteristic musicality that can captivate even those who do not have a thorough knowledge of the historical period.

Lady playing a lute, in a 1530 painting attributed to the school of Bartolomeo Veneto
Lady playing a lute in a 1530 painting attributed to the school of Bartolomeo Veneto.

However, Romanticism, a period that, albeit eventually, saw Segovia’s birth, elected the piano as the instrument par excellence. Dozens of more or less famous composers traveled to Paris to compose and try to disseminate their works. I am not referring to the likes of Chopin, who seemed destined for the piano from the cradle, but to composers like Albéniz, who, from Spain, came to the French capital and, while eager to “export” the musicality of their homeland, chose the piano without a second thought.

Albéniz’s celebrated suite espanola (containing well-known pieces in the guitar realm as Asturias – Leyenda or Sevilla) was written for the keyboard instrument. However, it contains solid references to the guitar. It is no accident that transcriptions of the suite have become so widespread that many pieces seem to have originated for guitar. Suppose an arrangement of a Chopin nocturne is always a gamble. In that case, Asturias’ guitar version (I say this without hesitation) is musically more “accomplished” on the guitar (where, in particular, the opening and closing arpeggios spread out like a dusky-toned carpet) than on the piano.

From that background, Segovia found himself with an instrument of endless possibilities and a dominant culture that seemed blinded by ebony and ivory keys. There was a very substantial literature of quality works (e.g., Giuliani’s Rossiniane, Sor’s Gran Solo, and, no doubt, many Paganini sonatas), but what Segovia felt was a distinct lack of continuity. Indeed, his present seemed to have transposed the guitar to domains increasingly distant from the grand stages of theaters and, simultaneously, increasingly immersed in the noisy atmospheres of bars and taverns.

Another not minor fact was related to the spread of pop music (hated by Segovia): if the piano had been the stronghold of the Romantics, the guitar (especially in its acoustic versions with metal and electric strings) was gaining a foothold in blues music, jazz, etc. and, a little later, would also become the quintessential instrument of rock music.

It is not strange then that after developing an overpowering technique based on an extraordinary timbral sampler, Segovia faced a far more long-standing problem. While he did not despise the existing literature (although his judgments were often affected by various idiosyncrasies), he understood it was almost impossible to hold a concert in a large hall in Paris or New York with only that repertoire. What the guitar lacked was compositional continuity from “educated” musicians.

For this reason, he began requesting new compositions and transcribing works that, according to his taste, could fit nicely on the guitar. In that sense, it must be said that his work was remarkable and certainly worthy of praise. Despite his somewhat rigid mindset, he was able to persuade several composers to write new music for the guitar, thus, in a short time, enriching the stock available to concertgoers.

Program of a 1935 guitar concert by Andrés Segovia
Program of a 1935 concert by Andrés Segovia

It is also true that his less-than-easy character (paradigmatic is the case of his relationship with Barrios, whom he unsuccessfully asked to dedicate to him the sonata “La Catedral” and which, out of spite, he decided not only not to play but also to discredit with all his students) and his lack of interest in atonal experiments (which were becoming increasingly popular) led him to isolate altogether many works that would only be rediscovered later, but this does not detract from the fact that without his efforts, the classical guitar would never have taken off again.

Segovia and guitar technique

Another controversial aspect concerns the guitar technique. In this sense, it should be clarified that Segovia did not invent anything dramatically different from what had already been established. In the nineteenth century, composers such as Aguado and Sor published their methods, explaining the fundamentals of the technique, even giving rise to a diatribe over fingernails (Aguado was in favor, while Sor preferred “bare” fingertips).

Detail of Segovia's right hand
Detail of Segovia’s right hand. Note the protruding fingernails, short enough to allow the rope to slide over the fingertip.

What Segovia did was to study such fundamentals and “discover” elements that, on paper, could only be described in a very sketchy way. In particular, the most outstanding merit was related to timbre research. He understood that the best results could be achieved with relatively short nails, such that the strings could be struck but, at the same time, soften the touch, if necessary, with the fingertip. In addition, Segovia developed a keen ability to move his right hand from the pit to the bridge to achieve rapid timbral changes.

His distinctive sound (an average ear recognizes it immediately) resulted from several factors that stemmed not from technique per se but from exploring the possibilities offered by the instrument. It is, therefore, inaccurate to attribute to Segovia elements of setting already found in earlier musicians. Still, it is correct (on the assumption that there are no recordings of Sor or Giuliani) to say that his emphasis on timbre was a distinctive element that contributed significantly to his worldwide success.

In addition, Segovia welcomed the proposal to use nylon strings (“bare” for the treble three and metal coated for the bass). This new “configuration” allowed him to increase the timbral range of the guitar with a “vertical” differentiation (the bass voices already sounded darker, while the treble was brighter) that proved exceptionally fruitful, especially in the performance of polyphonic music (e.g., Bach or Scarlatti).

The Segovia School and the “Segovians”

A key chapter in Segovia’s life concerns his teaching activities. Although he never taught permanently in a conservatory, the master often held master classes where some of the most famous guitarists trained (e.g., Julian Bream, John Williams, Eliot Fisk, Cristopher Parkening, Oscar Ghiglia, etc.). Is it then correct to speak of a lineup of “segovians”?

In my opinion, there is nothing more wrong. This is one of the most rugged and dangerous territories to tackle, but I will try to summarize my ideas. Segovia imparted his interpretive ideas to his students, helping them achieve articulation that exploited the guitar’s full potential. However, none of his most distinguished pupils developed an imitative style, neither in terms of sonority nor even in terms of repertoire.

One only has to listen to Bream or Williams to realize immediately that their playing is “unique” and not based on a slavish study of their master’s way of experiencing. In other words, using a metaphor, we can say that Segovia was more of a spark than an actual explosion. The sharpest students learned how to achieve the same richness as their teacher, but they followed the most pleasant path. They were, that is, “segovian,” but not at all segovian (I hope the instrumental use of quotation marks is straightforward).

Julian Bream, one of the greatest contemporary guitarists
Julian Bream (1933 – 2020) was one of the greatest contemporary guitarists and “favorite” pupil of Segovia.

Unfortunately, while the most talented have been able to enhance the ideas with the right critical spirit, a large group of pseudo-Segovians have begun to “ape” Segovia, focusing mainly on two elements: repertoire and technique. In the first case, the result was a flattening of guitar interpretive production (in a sense, the opposite of what the master desired), with programs that repeatedly seemed to be printed with the same cliché. In the second, you completely misrepresented the teaching of Aguado, Sor, Giuliani, etc., and transited through Segovia, going so far as to hail the most unbearable pedantry.

There are dozens and dozens of guitarists (including yours truly) ready to tell how they spent months of lessons millimetrically adding hand position, reducing or increasing back arching, and so on. All this, as useless as it was harmful, resulted from an attempt at imitation devoid of logical meaning. Instead of systematizing technical concepts cum grano salis, they often preferred to take refuge in a dullness that was indisposed, making central, not music, but a form of postural gymnastics.

Summary biographical note

Andrés Segovia, born Feb. 21, 1893, in Linares, Jaén, Spain, was a legendary classical guitarist and composer (although, in reality, his output was limited to a few studies). He is widely considered one of the greatest guitarists of all time and played a significant role in elevating the guitar to a respected classical instrument.

Segovia began playing the guitar at a young age and quickly demonstrated exceptional talent. He received his formal music education at the School of Fine Arts in Granada and later at the Royal Conservatory of Madrid. Despite initial skepticism from traditionalists who believed that the guitar was not suitable for classical music, Segovia’s dedication and perseverance led him to become a pioneer for this instrument.

Throughout his career, Segovia toured extensively, captivating audiences worldwide with his virtuosic performances and unique interpretations of classical, baroque, and contemporary compositions. His exceptional technique, timbre, and playing style set new standards for guitarists worldwide, spawning a generation of “followers” who drew inspiration from his relating to the instrument.

In addition to his extraordinary performing career, Segovia was instrumental in expanding the classical guitar repertoire. He has collaborated with renowned composers such as Manuel Ponce, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and Heitor Villa-Lobos, inspiring them to write music specifically for the guitar. Segovia also transcribed and arranged numerous pieces initially composed for other instruments, demonstrating the versatility and capabilities of the guitar.

Segovia’s influence on the classical guitar extended beyond his performances and compositions. He devoted his life to promoting the artistic and educational value of the instrument. He has organized master classes, taught countless students, and written instructional books that have become essential resources for guitarists.

Andrés Segovia’s contribution to the guitar has earned him numerous awards and honors, including honorary doctorates, knighthoods, and the prestigious Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. His legacy inspires generations of guitarists, and his recordings remain prized classics in the classical music world.

Andrés Segovia died June 2, 1987, in Madrid, Spain, leaving a profound mark on the guitar world. His dedication, passion, and transformative influence have solidified his place as a true legend in classical guitar.

Segovia obituary on the front page of the New York Times. Photo shows the maestro playing at a solo guitar concert
The obituary of Andrès Segovia is on the front page of the New York Times.

Conclusions

Talking about Segovia requires a lot of space, and one cannot focus on all aspects of his art. My goal was to address some elements that have too often been misunderstood or misinterpreted. I will undoubtedly return to write articles regarding his style concerning specific composers, focusing more on the essential details.

For now, I can only invite all music lovers to listen to Segovia’s varied recordings, enjoy his extraordinary timbre, and ultimately appreciate the work done to enhance the guitar far beyond all possible expectations.

Of course, I will gladly answer your questions and comments so that the master’s memory remains alive. Beyond the fact that many of his most faithful pupils have perhaps (as is usual) surpassed their mentor, this does not imply that his interpretations should fall into oblivion. Every guitarist should listen to him, possibly together with Williams, Fisk, Bream, etc., precisely to broaden one’s horizons and to be able to grasp all those nuances that make the guitar a wonderful (and who knows, unparalleled) musical instrument!

I also want to share the Spotify playlist with many of Segovia’s recordings so you can immediately start enjoying them:


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Update: New poetic prose “A Clock Ticks”

Detail of the mechanism of a mechanical clock

I have just added a new poetic prose entitled “A Clock Ticks.” It is a kind of elegy related to the inner observation of the periodic movement of a mechanical clock. Along with the gears, various natural elements also show their periodic oscillation between two poles that, although in opposition, eventually merge into a unity that transcends its original components.

A clock ticks

Observe how the clock pulses, cartons roll, stolen words fill a void of systole and diastole, and how wind songs meet poetry!


Historical considerations on the pendulum and periodic motion

With its ancient origins, the pendulum has played a crucial role in measuring time throughout history. Galileo Galilei first discovered it in the 16th century when they observed the oscillatory motion of a chandelier in a cathedral. Fascinated by this regular and predictable motion, Galileo realized that the pendulum could be used to measure time.

However, Christiaan Huygens, a Dutch scientist, truly revolutionized the use of the pendulum in measuring time. In the 17th century, Huygens designed the first practical grandfather clock, which used a pendulum to regulate the movement of the clock’s gears. This innovation significantly improved the accuracy of timing devices, leading to significant progress in various fields such as astronomy, navigation, and engineering.

Detail of Foucault's pendulum
Detail of the Foucault pendulum, an ingenious instrument invented to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth in a “visual” way.

The pendulum’s ability to maintain a constant and precise swing has made it an invaluable tool for measuring time. This was achieved because its oscillation period remains constant, regardless of the amplitude. As a result, pendulum clocks became the most accurate timekeeping devices for centuries until the invention of quartz crystal oscillators.

Today, although pendulum clocks are no longer the primary method of measuring time, their historical significance and contribution to the development of time measurement cannot be underestimated. They remain a testament to the ingenuity and curiosity of those early scientists who unlocked the mysteries of the pendulum and its applications in measuring time. They also still play an essential role in measuring musical time through mechanical metronomes based on an inverted pendulum. However, they have also often been replaced with more compact and efficient digital metronomes.


 

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Poetic punctuation: music and Ungaretti’s hermeticism

“It is my heart
the most torn country.” (G. Ungaretti)

Why is it unimaginable to have music without time indications (time statement, note duration, pauses, etc.)? Even the most bizarre avant-gardes and experiments have always (and rightly, I would say) used all that information necessary to determine the rhythm, dynamics, and sometimes even the timbre of individual notes or entire chords.

A picture of a musical score. The information of tempo, rhythm, melody and harmony form an inseparable whole in music
An example of a musical score. The information on tempo, rhythm, melody harmony, etc. They form an inseparable whole.

In principle (incorrect – with good grace from Hanslick), the “semantic” content of music is expressed primarily by the pitch of the notes and their succession, so anyone equipped with a decoding system should be able to access the meaning of a musical production simply by evaluating the sequence of frequencies the composer intended to represent.

Before discussing the obvious reasons why this assumption is trivially unacceptable, I would like to make a kind of counter-example to support this thesis. If we take, for example, the Prelude from Bach’s Partita for Violin/Lute Suite BWV 1006(a), we immediately notice that, apart from a couple of opening bars and a couple of closing bars, the entire composition, in ¾ ternary rhythm, is based on bars composed of three groups of four semiquavers.

In practice, the “formal” rhythm (not the interpretive rhythm-which, even though it is a Baroque composition, always possesses a certain freedom) is “flat”: the interpreter, on first readings, can proceed without thinking all that much. The metronome beats a monotonous rhythm, and with each beat, a note corresponds. In this case, by necessity, the only factual information (strictly speaking) is provided solely by the pitches of the sounds (and a few rare dynamic indications). Something similar, but opposite, is the experiment of the symphonic poem for 100 metronomes by G. Ligeti (1923 – 2006).

Music is inconceivable outside of an ad hoc syntactic context.

Of course, this argument is entirely fallacious for several reasons. The first is obvious: complete information must, by necessity, consider all the elements given in the score. Tempo, rhythm, melody, harmony, dynamics, timbre, and, of course, all sorts of interpretive indications (e.g., cantabile, with emphasis, sforzando, etc.) form an inseparable whole, which alone deserves the appellation “musical composition.” Removing one or more of these elements can only result in an unacceptable alteration that often makes execution impossible.

The second reason, which is more philosophical and speculative, is that music (as well as poetry and fiction) does not exist in “pure space” (unless one considers the vibrational effect static-a condition feasible in mathematics, certainly not in nature) but instead in a dimension that is perceptually referred to as “time” (or, instead, in the conjunction of space and time). In the Italian essay “Il dispiegarsi del tempo psicologico” (ed. “The Unfolding of Psychological Time”) written a few years ago, I tried to evaluate a hypothesis of why humans “feel” the flow of time. Still, here I prefer to refer to the philosophical hypothesis theorized by P.D. Ouspensky (1878 – 1947) in his famous book “Tertium Organum.”

In this sense, time is the effect of a limitation of man’s phenomenal perceptual apparatus, which, restricted by three-dimensional space, is forced to “dilute” the fourth dimension into a sequence of three-dimensional blocks. Any phenomenon, whose noumenon thus transcends the stasis of a materialistic perception, must necessarily also develop in time and, in that process, expand its boundaries to a place where efforts make us glimpse something but never quite grasp it.

Time, expressed in a graphical, structured form, is therefore “sine qua non” not only of musical interpretation (the semantics of which rests its proper foundations on the articulation of frequency sequences- time for all intents and purposes) but also of all forms of communication where the goal extends beyond the mere transmission of information functional to the phenomenal sphere alone.

Theoretical construction of a hypercube
Theoretical construction of a hypercube (or Tesseract if in 4D). Human beings have a perceptual apparatus that cannot “see” beyond the third dimension. However, mathematics can deal with multidimensional spaces (even with infinite dimensions) without any problem.

Poetry, like music, pushes its targets toward the conscious perception of noumena hidden in seemingly illogical, unstructured, and sometimes even difficult-to-understand forms of expression. Listing in succession the words that make up the lines of a lyric (as, at the limit, one might do with prose) without any line breaks or punctuation marks amounts to all intents and purposes to the dimensional flattening of the composition, with the obvious consequence of “lowering” the “target” level, from the human that transcends to the infinite, to that of creatures limited to a two-dimensional knowledge that, at most, can let one imagine solid forms just as humans think of hyperspaces (of four or more dimensions).

Poetic punctuation as a semantic vehicle

This dutiful premise, however long, is indispensable to clarify the metaphysical role that punctuation plays in the poetic sphere, with a particular emphasis on the figure of Ungaretti (1888 – 1970): grammar and syntax can be assimilated into pure space that, through chromatic and structural elaboration, allows the fruition of the first three dimensions to be saturated, while the role of punctuation marks becomes the only tool capable of encoding time as an actual fourth dimension.

Suppose in prose, for example, the separation between subject and predicate made with a comma is considered an error in poetry. In that case, it can only leave an enormous space for interpreting the relationship between the subject and the action–physical or immaterial–being performed. The forced pause becomes an instrument of emphasis. In this imaginary place, the reader can place the expansion of his or her own emotions, concreating the meaning that the poet himself or herself has “dispersed” between the meshes of his or her verses.

Portrait of Giuseppe Ungaretti
Portrait of Giuseppe Ungaretti (1888 – 1970), the leading Italian exponent of poetic hermeticism.

Then again, even the use of different lines is aimed at often creating a disconnect between two components whose “liaison” can only be found in pure transcendence to a dimension phenomenally precluded to us. To fully understand this aspect of poetic creation, one only needs to read one of Ungaretti’s most famous and hermetic poems, “Mattina” (ed. “Morning”). For an anthology based on the poet’s most important poetry works, I recommend the book “Selected Poems“):

I illuminate me
of immensity.

The first verse is itself self-sufficient: the subject (which is and is not Ungaretti himself) implicitly declares himself and affirms his tendency to expand his perception through a process of “illumination”; moreover, the latter reality implies an object “standard,” light, the acquisition of which is precisely called “illumination.” But the poet does not wish to communicate only one of his perceptions: he wants the reader to begin to experience the effect of light on himself and thus prepare himself to understand the symbolism hidden in this concept: the immensity, the infinity, the unboundedness noumeni That only light, with its ephemeral elusiveness, can represent.

The separation in verse, therefore, “expands” the scope of action, transforming a delightful but unnecessarily devoid of concreteness phrase (“I shine brightly“) into a springboard that opens the doors of perception and lets the ego fully empathize with the light, pervasive and indestructible, before “exploding” into immensity, just like the”Ain” Kabbalistic ” (a concept assimilated to nothingness) became “Ain Sof” (i.e., the end of nothingness), transforming potentiality into the beginning of the whole creation.

Similar considerations are possible for another hermetic masterpiece by Ungaretti, the poem “Soldati” (ed. “Soldiers”)

We are as
leaves
in Autumn
on the trees

Again, the only non-linguistic information is the verse division. However, in what seems a trivial subdivision lies the more profound and poignant nature of Ungaretti’s poetry. The semantic content could remain unchanged if the lines were concatenated into a sentence, but the poet does not wish to write an aphorism. The incipit “It is like” strongly implies an existential condition of forced stasis. The impersonality, coupled with the use of the preposition “as,” creates determines a clear semantic context, a stark opening to a scenario where men, like puppets forced into unnatural positions, “stand” without even attempting to rebel (an act that would certainly be in vain).

The other verses show the same poignancy and even manage, with a very apt “rhythmic” choice, to place all the emphasis now on one aspect and, immediately after, on another, creating an interconnection where the individual elements yield nothing to the context, but contribute to its structuring without distorting themselves in any way. The second verse (“in autumn”) is similar to an isolated chord that hovers in the air and remains suspended, just like an autumn landscape portrayed by an impressionist painter.

Ungaretti weighs every word, every tiny fragment capable of carrying meaning. In this case, “in autumn” is not a simple temporal statement; on the contrary, the poet strongly wishes to emphasize that on par with the being of the first verse, there is also a mode that burdens the condition of passivity. Fall is a terminal season, but it can still make people reflect, turn their backs, and see summer with its joyous squeals. It isn’t kind because it condemns yes to stasis but simultaneously to full awareness.

The last two verses crown the descriptive effort of the first two. Musically speaking, they are like a cadence: after tension, they bring harmony back to a fundamental state. What is precariously static is precisely the leaf, “birthed” by the mother tree, which, after an entire existence spent clinging to the parent with an “umbilical cord” that was never severed, discovers the stark truth. Autumn will bring weaning, separation, and death. Forced into immobility, just like the puppets hiding in the trenches, moved only by the whims of the wind, the leaf slowly withers, yields its green to golden streaks, and increasingly feels the scourge of the air.

Without “punctuation,” Ungaretti marks boundaries to create syntactic and semantic textures. He crosses the boundary of pure formality to a place where academic rules decay to give way to pure perception that cannot be tamed. In that ethereal space, which, at the same time, is so grave and material, he draws with individual linguistic fragments whole landscapes of the soul. He overcomes the barriers of maximalist descriptivism with unparalleled elegance. He manages to create true poetic punctuation precisely through its absence, for, as the great musical performers teach us, it is not the value of a note that determines its genesis and death but the depth of its essence, its uniqueness, and its appearance in a specific space and time.

War in the poetry of Ungaretti

Ungaretti’s poetry constitutes a poignant testimony to the overwhelming impact of war on the human psyche. As a soldier, he experienced firsthand the horrors and brutality of the trenches during World War I. However, his poetic compositions go beyond the simple description of the battlefield; they delve into his emotions and existential condition as a soldier.

In his poetry, Ungaretti masterfully transposes the chaos and anguish of war into vivid images and profound metaphors. Through concise and fragmented verse, he captures life’s fleeting and fragmented nature on the front lines. His words evoke a sense of immediacy and urgency, providing insight into the raw emotions experienced by soldiers.

Italian army troops in a trench during World War I. Ungaretti's poetry was a companion even in those terrible moments.
Italian army troops in a trench during World War I.

Ungaretti’s ability to express the fragility of life in the ruthless context of war is truly remarkable. It explores themes of loss, grief, and despair, reflecting the collective suffering of those caught in the crossfire. His poems become a cathartic release, a way to process his own experiences by giving voice to the countless soldiers who have endured similar hardships.

Through Ungaretti’s unique poetic style, he effectively conveys the human condition in the context of war. His verses bridge the personal and the universal, transcending language barriers and finding resonance among readers from all walks of life. Ungaretti’s poem serves as a powerful reminder of the lasting impact that war has on individuals and society.


Considerations on the concepts of Ain and Ain Soft in the Kabbalah

The concept of “Ain” is Kabbalistic and has significant philosophical implications within Jewish Kabbalah. “Ain” refers to nothingness or nonbeing, representing absolute divine transcendence. It denotes the initial stage of creation in which God’s existence is hidden and incomprehensible to human understanding.

Going beyond “Ain,” the Kabbalah introduces the concept of “Ain Sof,” which means “endless” or “infinite.” This term indicates the infinite nature of God, which encompasses all existence and transcends all limitations. “Ain Sof” represents the divine essence and is the ultimate source of all creation.

The philosophical implications of these concepts are profound. “Ain” emphasizes the metaphysical nature of God, challenging the human intellect to grasp the incomprehensible essence of the divine. It encourages Kabbalah seekers to transcend the physical world’s limits and delve into the depths of spirituality.

Fragment of a Kabbalistic Text
Fragment of a 16th-century Kabbalistic text.

The concept of “Ain Sof” reveals the infinite nature of God, suggesting that every aspect of creation is an expression of the divine. It inspires individuals to recognize the interconnectedness of all things and the divine spark within each being. From this perspective, Kabbalah encourages pursuing spiritual growth and realizing one’s inner divinity.

By exploring the concepts of “Ain” and “Ain Sof” within Jewish Kabbalah, individuals gain insights into the nature of God, the universe, and their spiritual journey. It opens the door to mystical experiences, profound wisdom, and a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of all existence. Through study and contemplation, one can discover these Kabbalistic concepts’ hidden truths and philosophical implications. For more information and philosophical-theological details on Jewish Kabbalah, I recommend the book “On The Kabbalah and its Symbolism” by G. Scholem.


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Update: New story “Contemporary Comedy”

A man covering his head with a box. A representation of the desire to escape from pain or unpleasant situations

I just added a new long story (almost a mini-novel) titled “Contemporary Comedy.” The themes covered are those of grief processing, a complicated love relationship, and the onset of irrationality at the climax of suffering and frustration. I hope you enjoy it, and I look forward to reading your comments!

Contemporary comedy

How does a person deal with the disorder and the processing of grief? Learn from Fausto Marinelli’s experience in this existential tale by Giuseppe Bonaccorso.


Philosophical-psychological considerations

Grief processing, in the context of discovering something awful like an illness or the death of a relative, refers to the emotional and psychological journey individuals go through to come to terms with their loss. It is a natural response to a significant life event that causes intense sadness, shock, disbelief, and even anger.

In the face of such devastating news, people often experience a range of emotions that can be overwhelming and confusing. Grief processing helps people process and navigate these emotions, enabling them to accept and adapt to their new reality gradually.

In the case of a disease diagnosis, grieving involves coming to terms with the impact the disease will have on one’s life, as well as the uncertainties and challenges that lie ahead. It may involve seeking information and support from health professionals, joining support groups, or engaging in self-care practices to cope with the physical and emotional burden.

Similarly, when faced with the death of a loved one, grieving involves acknowledging the loss, mourning the person’s absence, and finding ways to honor his or her memory. This may include participating in funeral rituals, sharing stories and memories with others, and seeking comfort in the support of family and friends.

Ultimately, grief processing is a personal journey that enables people to heal and rebuild their lives in adversity. It takes time, patience, and self-compassion to navigate the waves of pain and find peace and acceptance.


 

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Montale’s squaring word

A formless soul, devoid of regularity, incapable of adapting to the rigid boundaries that quadrature imposes is what Eugenio Montale (1896 – 1981), in the incipit of his celebrated collection “Cuttlefish Bones” (many poems are contained in “The Collected Poems of Eugenio Montale“), considers as its most intimate and unalterable essence.

Don't ask us the word that squares on every side of our formless soul, 
And in letters of fire declares it 
And shines like a crocus 
Lost amid a dusty meadow. 

Ah, the man who goes safely away,
friend to others and himself,
and he doesn't care about his shadow that the heatwave
prints above a shabby wall!

Do not ask us for the formula that worlds can open to you
Yes, some crooked syllables and dry as a branch.
This is only what we can tell you today,
what we are not or what we don't want.

Not perfection of contours or gleaming letters placed on top of skyscrapers but rather a disarming naturalness expressed by defining the aesthetic and moral canons through which any evaluation must take place. Not golden rules or acmes of Greek perfection but simply the self, naked and exposed to all weathers and never afraid to manifest itself even in the shadows, where consensuses fade into everlasting silence.

Not even the “word,” that seed so often transformed into the most diverse linguistic creatures by Montale himself, seems to be able to acquire the right to square a soul so filled with doubtful restlessness. Indeed, to avert the risk of having to face the disappointing discovery that no “Logos” or “Word” can succeed in such a burdensome endeavor, the poet begins with a most peremptory warning: a formless soul can never splash with its violet enthusiasm the monotonous spread of the field of existence. Only dust, the infinitesimal division of every already fragmentary experience, can settle without qualms or pretensions.

The word, whether written or sculpted, is for Montale that unreachable limit that, while caging man, forces him into an unbridgeable incompleteness
The “word,” whether written or sculpted, is for Montale that unreachable limit that, while caging man, forces him into an unbridgeable incompleteness.

But what are these extraordinary “letters of fire” through which the soul should be “declared”? Perhaps Montale does not know them either; perhaps he senses their existence and foreshadows their immense appeal to the most erratic, but he cannot own them. Perhaps, on the contrary, in the dimness of a summer sunset, he felt its warmth as he was “dazzled” by a ruthless Sun that reveals the impregnable solitude reverberating among the “bottle shards” placed to guard an interiority condemned to eternal exile.

If such letters were actually to exist, they would become the summary of a life “constrained” in the whirlwind attempt to observe itself from the outside, a soul aware of the perennial “ennui” which, by rising above the clouds and the stars themselves, becomes capable of no longer perceiving the rough contours of the “inner” stone, forcing man, however, to transition from self-realization (Zenit spiritual) to the dangerous loss of any connection with reality (nadir).

Security is precisely seen as the worst of dangers: as long as man is illuminated by the Sun, constantly needs its rays, and has to lean against the ground or a wall, he will willingly or unwillingly allow a shadow to escape that will indelibly “stain” the surrounding reality.

Therefore, no man can go unnoticed: those who attempt to conceal their existence or think they do not interfere with anything are destined for the shocking realization that they are not alone!

Unformed, scuffed, or covered with shards of glass, the little wall we follow to keep beside us will be our witness, just like the Black Stone of Mecca, which, having absorbed all the sins of man, is changed from a whiteness of white to the darkest of visible colors. The shadow stains penetrate deep and take root to the point of transforming the essence of the rock itself: of too little use is the superficial security of the distracted man.

The shadows cast by the sun on a stumbling wall represent for Montale the most genuine realities of our existence as being-in-the-world
The shadows cast by the sun on a “stumbling wall” represent for Montale the most genuine realities of our existence as “being-in-the-world,” a “place” where it is only the Other that legitimizes our steps toward the inescapable.

It is much better, therefore, to limit oneself to a more morose boldness: if squaring is the tendency of man who wishes to elevate himself, he can always seek the solution through a “negative” process, that is, by seeking what he does not allow himself to grasp, those ideas and patterns that “escape” and whose nature is in no way reflected on the imperfect surface of individuality.

The poet can, therefore, come to a conclusion: the power of definition is ideally suited to beings now transcended to a reality where nothing can ever be overshadowed by “egoic” uncontrolled instincts, but it is almost inadequate in a world where no formula can ever give birth to new universes and where only a few, “crooked,” unanimated “syllables” can give shape to the few, fleeting glimmers that sometimes appear to us as unquenchable fires.


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Music and poetry: the wedding that has been celebrated countless times

Pragmatics of Human Communication, a fundamental text also addressing the problem of the relationship between poetry and musicWith this article, I wish to begin a reasoned discussion on the existing rapport between music and poetry, asking all the relevant questions and trying to proceed with a logical approach supported by universally recognized theories. The first step I want to take is based on the fundamental concepts of the “Pragmatics of Human Communication” inaugurated by Paul Watzlawick and his colleagues in the Palo Alto (California) school and aimed primarily at defining the theoretical and operational cornerstones of systemic-relational psychology.

However, for our purposes, this last element is of little relevance. What matters most is human communication’s basic properties (or principles). To compare music and poetry, one must first start from a common ground to avoid affirmations that may be valid in one case and utterly inappropriate in the other. The first and most important question could be expressed in this way: is it possible to compare these two arts on the level of communication?

Pragmatics of human communication

The first principle of the pragmatics of human communication unequivocally states that one can’t not communicate. In other words, any form of expression directed to a human audience is always a form of communication (including silence), that is, a message transfer from a source to a destination. The problem may arise when we apply the concepts of semiotics and start looking for signifiers and meanings when evaluating whether a particular form of communication is assimilated into a language.

According to musicological and philosophical research (e.g., Peter Kivy’s research published in the delightful book “Introduction to a Philosophy of Music“), music can be defined as a kind of language endowed with a rigorous syntax but, at the same time, utterly devoid of semantics. Music can arouse emotions, but fails to convey timely (or even inaccurate) information about concepts. I fully share this view, which is difficult to counter in the case of absolute music (i.e., devoid of any form of text).

An orchestra engaged in playing the intended music
An orchestra engaged in playing the music described by the scores

A hypothetical “Symphony No. 7 in F minor” is undoubtedly a form of communication (what isn’t?) and indeed can be counted among the most complex expressions of communication itself. Still, it can never express an elementary concept such as “Today is Sunday, it’s sunny, and I wish to take a walk in the park and stop to eat at a little kiosk by the lake.”

What is the message conveyed by the music?

At most, the symphony’s movements may reflect the message’s psychological phases: calmness, serenity, natural sounds, etc. But this in no way guarantees the “success” of the process. Some might perceive calmness, yes, but liken it to a dreamlike “mindscape,” more suited to dreaming than to waking (i.e., the exact opposite of the verbal message). Others might intend natural sounds, imitations subservient to melody, etc.

On the other hand, poetry is based on descriptive natural language par excellence. A verse can be simple, cryptic, metaphorical, dialogic, etc., but, in any case, it expresses something precise despite the possible difficulty of signification. At this point, however, it is essential to clarify. After reading the first part of this paragraph, some people may have turned up their noses, thinking, “How can we talk about precision in the case of poetic expression?”

Collection of magnets represented the hypothetical words of a poem
A collection of magnets represented the hypothetical words of a poem.

If we compare the different forms of linguistic communication, poetry is much less accurate than narrative. Saying “the house is white” is not equivalent to spouting the line “a deafening silence.” In the first case, the determination is precise and leaves no room for interpretation. It could also be expressed by saying, “The object called home emits light with a wavelength of 520 nm,” but what about the second message?

The poetic message

It is based on a rhetorical figure (the oxymoron) contrasting two antithetical concepts. From a physical point of view, if one is inside an anechoic chamber and the noise level is negligible (i.e., there is almost absolute silence), the conditions do not exist for any living being to become deaf from excess sound pressure. So, interpretation must go through an intermediate stage concerned with reassigning meanings according to a non-natural principle. In this case, the idea of something “deafening” must override elemental signification to transcend into a more “fluid” state, in which the annoyance of constant din is transposed to a diametrically opposite realm. The poem, then, wants to tell us that absolute silence haunts the poet like the most annoying noise.

For our purposes, however, we must narrow the field and analyze only the poetry-music pair, disregarding other forms of expression. This should not have any negative impact on the validity of the treatment. So, we can finally ask: are poetry and music somehow related? It is well known how adjectives belonging to one sphere are often used in the other. It is not uncommon to hear talk of “musicality of the poetic text, rhythm of the verses” and, at the same time, “elegiac musical composition” or “motif with poetic traits.” Such contaminations are always welcome as they help the artist expand the boundaries of the work, transcending into a creative field of ever-widening limits.

Violin with sheet music. Information on sheet music often has the linguistic characteristics of the poetic world
Violin with scores. Sheet music information often has the linguistic characteristics of the poetic world.

To better qualify our problem, it is necessary to resort to another fundamental aspect of the pragmatics of human communication: the relationship between analog messages and digital messages. According to Watlzawick and co.’s theory, a communication object can come in two very different, in fact opposite, content forms.

Analog and digital messages

Similar to electronic signals, a digital message is based on precise, ideally determined content. Our example, “The House is white,” is a perfect candidate to be a digital message if there is no doubt about what house is being discussed. In addition, the concept of “white” is a literary way of expressing information of a physical nature (to be exact, a color such as “green” is not perfectly assimilable to digital information since, physically, “green” is defined as any electromagnetic wave with a wavelength between 500 and 565 nm – however, human language implicitly refers to precisely that range and not, for example, to 522 nm green).

When related to music, poetry, therefore, appears strongly digital. The verse “deafening silence” also “precisely” expresses a condition (silence) and its abstract property (being deafening). It matters little if signification requires more effort than decoding a newspaper article. For our purposes, the information is “exact” because it leaves (too much, to be exact) no room for free interpretation.

Music as an analog message contrasted with the digitality of poetry

In contrast, a musical motif or an entire composition of absolute music appears inherently “fuzzy.” The poetic expression “strolling through the woods” in music results from a subjective mental process that might try to imitate the sounds of nature, but in any case, would always end up leaving something “hanging.” In other words, without any indication (e.g., Sinfonia Pastorale or Le Sacre du Printemps), the listener is not “forced” to understand at least the composer’s basic ideas.

Returning to the line “deafening silence,” one might disagree with the poet, consider the oxymoron inappropriate, etc.. Still, one cannot fail to receive it accurately (for the dual reason that one cannot fail to communicate and that the message is contextually digital). On the contrary, it is expected to read musicological texts where critics express their opinions about what might have gone through the composer’s mind. Depending on the scope of work, the conjectures could probably be accurate, but there is nothing to confirm these assumptions. We are in the domain of analog messages.

Performance of an opera, one of the most fruitful works of musical communication
Opera: for some centuries, the perfect marriage of music and poetry

The synthesis: the marriage of music and poetry

We have thus reached the point where poetry and music seem to be opposites of the same communicative project. Both primarily aim to excite the audience’s emotional response, but the tools are very different and, in a sense, complementary. Indeed, opera has for centuries been the crowning achievement of a joint effort (alas, much more focused on music than on poetic quality). The digital messages of the verses were accompanied by as many analog messages, and the whole (no longer the sum of the parts) created an atmosphere in which the music’s rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic elements amplified the power of intelligibility.

This concept was perfectly understood by Bach, who, in his Cantatas serving the Lutheran Sunday liturgies, successfully marked the theological value of many Gospel concepts through skillful use of polyphony (both vocal and instrumental) and harmonic/contrapuntal variations. The “journey” continued in the following centuries, even as the debate on absolute music became a recurring theme (primarily thanks to Hanslick and his indispensable essay “On the Musically Beautiful“). The last genuinely great theorist of this “synthetical” relationship was certainly Wagner, with his ideas of total artwork. An opera where the parts are not elements to be assembled (as was often the case in the relationships between composers and librettists) but vital organs whose coexistence makes one indispensable to the other and vice versa.

Wagner succeeded in creating a hybridization of poetry and music (he was the author of both). The characters entered the scene to send digital messages, but his music, through the skillful use of leitmotif, “imitated” the words and even the images. Even before the appearance of a singer, the announcement of a leitmotif indicated his or her imminent appearance, as if an annunciator was sending a digital indication to the audience. A leitmotif cannot provide precise semantic details except in the context of a work in which the poetic text has already done the “preliminary” work.

However, suppose such a relationship is primarily established. In that case, the debate between music and poetry, as indicated in Hegel’s philosophy, comes to a synthesis in which the two components are no longer opposed or complementary but fused into a single act that draws nourishment and life from the peculiar characteristics of each artistic form. Of course, the reader may object that opera is a “busy” genre that no longer finds a strong response from the public. This is undoubtedly true; other forms of combining poetry and music have always existed; indeed, we might say that singing (often accompanied) originated before absolute music, and even composers such as Schubert (1797 – 1828) and Mahler (1860 – 1911) devoted their energies to the Lieder (likened to modern more committed songs).

For these reasons, I propose to return to the subject by referring to the modern and contemporary evolution of the relationship between music and poetry, the various forms, and the most fruitful experiments, which have enabled us to enjoy remarkable artistic results suited to the most diverse atmospheres (musical, social and literary) and contemporary sounds, from jazz to rock, blues to traditional music.

Addendum: the Palo Alto school of psychology.

The Palo Alto school has significantly contributed to our understanding of human communication and relational dynamics in psychology. This research, led by Paul Watzlawick and his colleagues, revolutionized how we perceive and analyze interpersonal interactions.

Palo Alto’s psychological research greatly emphasizes the role of communication in shaping human relationships. One of the central concepts is the idea that communication is not only about exchanging information but also about creating meaning. According to this perspective, communication is a dynamic process involving both verbal and nonverbal signals and the interpretation of those signals by the individuals involved.

Paul Watzlawick, co-founder of the Palo Alto school of psychology and co-author of Pragmatics of Human Communication
Paul Watzlawick (1921 – 2007)

Relational psychology, another key focus of Palo Alto research, explores how relationships between individuals develop and function. Emphasizes the interdependence and mutual influence among individuals, highlighting the importance of context and power dynamics within relationships. This approach recognizes that relationships are not static but constantly evolving, shaped by communication patterns, shared experiences, and perceptions of each person involved.

In addition, Palo Alto psychologists stress the importance of feedback loops in communication and relationships. They argue that individuals engage in a continuous feedback process in which their behavior and responses influence others. This feedback loop can lead to constructive or destructive communication and relational dynamics patterns.

By understanding the main concepts of Palo Alto psychological research, particularly in communication and relational psychology, we gain valuable insights into the complexity of human interactions. This knowledge can help us improve our communication skills, foster healthier relationships, and navigate the complexities of social dynamics with greater sensitivity and understanding.


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