Italian music plays a very central role in European music. In the field of art music, Italian composers have been very central throughout much of classical music history, especially for the opera’s development and popularity. Italy also has a strong folk tradition and a rich jazz environment with a number of outstanding performers.
Italian folk music exhibits great wealth and variety where the distinction is particularly marked between the northern, more continental and southern ones, which share the culture of the Mediterranean. Common instruments are flute in various designs, bagpipe, drum, mouth harp, accordion and lyric box. The folk music in Sicily is stylistically related to Spanish, North African and Balkan forms. Sardinian folk music is very distinctive, including the unique “triple clarinet ” launeddas, which probably reflects an ancient Mediterranean culture.
For more than a thousand years, Italy held a leading position in European art music. In the first centuries AD, the Christian church song was developed and was later named Gregorian song by Pope Gregory the Great (c. 600), which according to tradition is supposed to have arranged and systematized the liturgical song. In the late Middle Ages, sequences were devised and soon spread across much of Europe (Dies irae, Veni sancte spirits, Stabat mater dolorosa). With Guido d’Arezzo (c. 1000), Italy got its first major music theorist, and although it is not certain that he invented the musical lines and the solar mission, then at least these broke through with him. In the first part of the 1300s, Italy made an important contribution to ars nova music with madrigals and canon songs, designed by Jacopo da Bologna, Giovanni da Cascia and Francesco Landini, among others.
In the 15th century, the Italian courts were visited by leading Flemish composers such as Guillaume Dufay, Jacob Obrecht, Heinrich Isaac and Josquin des Prés, and under the influence of their polyphonic style emerged in the late 1500s a refined worldly madrigal type with masters such as Luca Marenzio, Claudio Monteverdi and Gesualdo da Venosa. In church music, at the same time, the a cappella polyphony in the Roman school reached a climax with Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, who mainly wrote fairs and motets. Newer trends are evident in the multi-grained, monumental style of Venice with Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli. Here the choirs perform with instruments, and the concerting principle is clearly expressed. The pure instrumental music, soloist or in ensembles, was also cultivated, with Girolamo Frescobaldi as the biggest name. The music of music was widely used, and the music theory gained several prominent representatives such as Gioseffo Zarlino and Vincenzo Galilei.
In the transition to the 17th century, a new style emerged that became crucial to dramatic music. Already in the 16th century came a reaction against polyphony. The monody, a simple recitative song with accompaniment following the general bass principle, emerged in Florence, and from that it developed two main types: recitative and arie. The style penetrated church music and became crucial to the chamber cantata (Luigi Rossi, Giacomo Carissimi, Antonio Cesti, Alessandro Scarlatti, Giovanni Bononcini) and the musical drama opera.
The first late start of the opera took place in Florence with Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini. The great champion of this time was Claudio Monteverdi. Besides Monteverdi, Francesco Cavalli and Giovanni Legrenzi worked in Venice, where from 1637 there was its own opera house. In Naples, the bel canto style developed within the so-called “number opera”, and it became more like a music opera, without particularly dramatic weight. The virtuosos (castrate singers) showed up and made a clear mark on the further development of the opera. The most famous composers of the Neapolitan school were Francesco Provenzale, Alessandro Scarlatti, Nicola Porpora, Leonardo Vinci, Leonardo Leo and Giovanni Battista Pergolesi.
At the same time as the opera, the oratory was given, and at first there was no significant difference between them, except the text. The oratory, as we know it today, got its design by Giacomo Carissimi approx. 1650. In the 1600s, special instrumental forms were also developed such as chamber sonata and church sonata, concerto grosso, some later the solo concerto. The string instruments dominated, and this is primarily due to the fact that these instruments underwent a significant improvement. The violin reached its perfect form in the Cremona in the 17th and 18th century with violin makers such as Nicolo Amati, Giuseppe Guarneri and Antonio Stradivari.
Among the composers who cultivated the new forms were Giovanni Battista Vitali, Giuseppe Torelli, Arcangelo Corelli, Antonio Vivaldi and Giuseppe Tartini. The piano playing was developed by Domenico Scarlatti, who in his one-sided esercizi (sonatas) reveals features that clearly point forward to the shaping world of Viennese classics. Similarly, Giovanni Sammartini is an important representative of orchestral music in the early 18th century.
In the 19th century, opera composers such as Antonio Salieri, Luigi Cherubini, Gaspare Spontini, Gioacchino Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti became famous, and with Verdi’s powerful music dramas the Italian opera reached a climax. In this century, instrumental music had outstanding performers in Niccolò Paganini, Muzio Clementi, Giovanni Viotti and Giovanni Sgambati. A new opera style, the verism, emerged in the late 1800s with Pietro Mascagni, Ruggiero Leoncavallo and to some extent alsoGiacomo Puccini.
While Italian composition in the 19th century was fairly one-sidedly concentrated on the national opera tradition, in the 20th century there was a renewal, in which the instrumental music has gained wider space under the impression of the renewal of the tone language in other countries, but also influenced by the study of the Italian renaissance and baroque music. Key composers were Ferruccio Busoni, Ottorino Respighi, Gian Francesco Malipiero and Alfredo Casella. In the interwar period, despite the fascist cultural policy, some composers further contributed to the renewal, such as Goffredo Petrassi and Luigi Dallapiccola; the latter also introduced the twelve-tone music of Italy. Within the postwar experimental music, several have made their mark, such as Bruno Maderna, Luigi Nono, Luciano Berio, Franco Donatoni and Sylvano Bussotti.
Italy has educated a number of world-renowned performers. From the 1900s, pianist Maurizio Pollini, conductors Arturo Toscanini, Carlo Maria Giulini and Claudio Abbado, and opera singers Enrico Caruso, Beniamino Gigli, Carlo Bergonzi, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Renata Tebaldi, Luciano Pavarotti and Cecilia Bartoli can be mentioned.
Opera is an important part of Italian culture. Here is a scene from Franco Zeffirelli’s production of Puccini’s Turandot at the La Scala Opera in Milan in 1984.
Italy has a rich jazz environment with jazz festivals (the Umbria Jazz Festival being the largest), clubs, conservatories with jazz departments, and a host of outstanding performers.
From the 1970s onwards, Italian musicians have become increasingly prominent on the international jazz scene. Especially through collaboration with leading American musicians and releases on the renowned German record label ECM. Key performers such as trumpet players Enrico Rava and Paolo Fresu, pianists Enrico Pieranunzi, Rita Marcotulli and Stefano Bollani, saxophonist Stefano Di Battista, and drummer Aldo Romano have gained great international recognition.
The country has many, in part, very old musical institutions such as the Santa Cecilia Academy in Rome with prominent orchestra and choirs, the operas La Scala (Milan), the Teatro di San Carlo (Naples) and the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, all with state support. Also known are Teatro La Fenice (Venice), Teatro Comunale di Bologna and Teatro Carlo Felice (Genoa). Music conservatories can be found in a number of cities, including the Giovanni Battista Martini Conservatory in Bologna, the Luigi Cherubini Conservatory in Florence, the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory in Milan, the Niccolò Paganini Conservatory in Genoa and the Santa Cecilia Academy in Rome.