“Tiepolo: the last breath of happiness in Europe.” (1). With this lapidary statement, Roberto Calasso introduces the 18th century Venetian painter Giambattista Tiepolo. With almost identical words, I have long described my favourite type of music: late Baroque and Galante music from 18th century Italy. But how to explain why I feel this way, and why so strongly? Perhaps, I could try to speak less, and to ask my readers to listen.
Try to listen, for example, to Evaristo Felice Dall’Abaco’s Concerto No.6 Op. 5 in D major. Its crystalline elation, like that of Tiepolo’s ceilings, is nowhere to be found in European culture after the final collapse of pre-modernity with the French Revolution. Not even in Happy Hardcore or in Trance music of the 1990s, joy reaches the same degree of transparency. Its lightness is at the antipodes of turgid, contemporary Pop music. It is authentically childish, juvenile and wise at the same time – the wisdom of those who have learnt through experience Lorenzo Il Magnifico’s Quant’e’ bella giovinezza che si fugge tuttavia (How beautiful is youth, which yet flies quickly away).
Or listen to Nicola Porpora’s De Profundis Clamavi. In the hands of the Neapolitan composer, a religious Psalm (‘From the depths I have called You, O Lord’), whose musical renditions are typically marred by gravity and anguish, becomes an ecstatic ode to joy. In the metaphysical theatre of the world, in that sprawling dream which is life – following Calderon de la Barca – even prayer and desperation are not bereft of their share of uncontaminated beauty. Just as much as pleasure is beautiful, so it is fear. The whole ‘Becoming’ dances in unison, with its catastrophes holding hands to its lucky events.
Listen to Vivaldi’s La Tempesta di Mare. What kind ‘sea storm’ sounds like that? Certainly not one that belongs to a scary and dangerous world. Only in a place where death is laughing with the living it is possible to imagine – and let alone compose – such a playful, even familiar portrait of a shipwreck.
The world of Italian Baroque and Galant music is at once sensual and otherworldly, ethereal and material, azure and rosa (pink) like the magnificent women painted by Tiepolo is his flamboyant skies. It is steeped in its own disgraces and contradictions, traversed by death and eeriness, but at each and any point it is beautiful, redeemed. A world that embraces irony at the level of its own metaphysics rather than waving it aggressively in cynical self-defence. Galante irony is a gap that opens within one’s existence in the great theatre of the world: a distance between self and ego, a perdicardial cavity where life can beat at the rhythm of happiness. So it happens in the (other)worldy theatre painted by Tiepolo, so also in the ‘programme’ soundscapes composed by Vivaldi.
A triumph of light, it seems at first, but not without darkness. If Italian Galante painting and music are “the last breath of happiness in Europe,” their happiness isn’t deprived of its own mysterious, shady retinue. This isn’t just any retinue. Like the recurring figures lurking in Tiepolo’s backgrounds, the darkness that accompanies Galante happiness vibrates only at a very particular modulation.
Listen to the Adagio from Telemann’s Concerto in D Major, TWV 51:D7. Telemann, an Italian with foreign citizenship like Charles Avison. His Adagio could be the ideal funeral march for a creature as majestic and delicate as Love, that endlessly succumbs to its own fire only to resurrect from its ashes – to live again, and die again. Two centuries later, appropriately enough, the Italian songwriter Fabrizio De Andre’ used this melody for his celebrated La Canzone dell’Amore Perduto (Song of Lost Love).
Or you could move to the eerie landscape of Vivaldi’s Cum Dederit RV 608, so intimately similar to those of Giambattista Tiepolo’s Scherzi di fantasia (tricks of fantasy) and of his son Giandomenico’s unsettling album Divertimento per li regazzi (divertissement for the youth). A world where horror’s place is as happiness’ neighbour; where the flutter of nightly creatures promises to lift the traveller to the silver prairies of the Moon, rather than sinking them into the abyss.
Or, if you have a taste for a higher degree of carnality in music, lend your ear to Nicola Porpora’s aria Alto Giove, from his opera Polifemo. The Cyclop’s love, doomed since its start, reaches here the greatest sorrow. Yet, not a single drop of despair can be detected in Polyphemus’ painful prayer. Beauty – that strange, old-fashioned term – is at work here, redeeming everything, even loss and destiny.
But my favourite among them is a piece that, at first, might sound exceedingly unassuming: the Andantino con espressione from Baldasarre Galuppi’s Sonata N. 1 in F major, contained in the collection Passatempo al Cembalo (pastime at the harpsichord). All the distance of exile, the melancholy of abandonment, the painful sweetness of memory can be heard unfolding there. And in the end, it is sweetness that triumphs. I can think of no other music that could better redeem despair after a catastrophe, even the greatest. A gleam of light so subtle and so gentle as to break even through the hours before dawn.
Lightness, melancholy and joy interlace in Italian music of the 18th century, creating a phosphorescent object capable to irradiate happiness, but also, and especially, eroticism. Venice and Naples, the capitals of 18th century Italian culture, with their festive days and glimmering nights, with their masks and underworlds, have long glowed as archetypal cities of erotic passion. ‘Debauched’ only in the mind of bigots, or for the later inquisitors of Victorian morality, in their own time their voices resounded as elegant and proud as ever.
Like the Concerto in D Major, L. 10 by Neapolitan composer Leonardo Leo, a late (and ultimately victorious) rival to the Venetian hero Vivaldi. It’s an equestrian exercise of Dressage executed with perfect sensuousness, grace and control. A volcanic energy innervates it, emerging at skin level just enough to promise, seductively, a mystery much richer than what is in plain sight.
But equestrian discipline rarely manages to bridle Eros, and the steed often takes over its rider’s hand. Listen to the Allegro assai from Luigi Boccherini’s Quintet N.91 in C minor, Op.45 N.1, G 355. Its speed is that of eyes and lips swirling in incandescent erotic frenzy. An eroticism that is as playfully ironic as it is authentic – and perhaps all the more so, being aware both of the fragility of the flesh and of the eternity of its sensuous grace. An eroticism that has not yet learned, or that has wisely unlearned, the rigid boundaries between masculine and feminine – as in the unique voice of this era, the angelically unsettling tonality of countertenors. A seduction that plays on a limitless palette of shades, with a unique one for each amorous interlocutor – following Giacomo Casanova.
The eroticism of Italian Baroque and Galante music breaks its banks and then returns to its bed, mindful that the greatest pleasure lies one step before falling to one’s desire. A return to order that explores the innermost corners of geometry, seeking glowing veins within it. The same excited tumult that grows throughout Benedetto Marcello’s Ciaccona, from the Sonata N. 12 in F Major, Op. 2, is in the heart of a lover seeing the one they secretly love approaching from afar. The same tension and elation, a loss of oneself and of the world that is simultaneously the rediscovery of oneself and of the world as washed anew by love. Deepest and uppermost, a carnal elation.
A music of the world, from the world and for the world. But a world that is unlike the one-dimensional expanse depicted by our contemporary culture. A possible world, at once celestial and material, sensuous and hyperuranios. Sinful and redeemed, because divine redemption lies in an infinite “yes” to the flesh and to the world – which is always, like that of Zarathustra, a godly “yes”. Few pieces encapsulate this complexity of the dream-world of Italian baroque and Galante music, as three compositions by Domenico Zipoli, Domenico Scarlatti, and Giambattista Pergolesi.
The first of them was a Jesuit priest, who at 28 abandoned his native Italy to travel, first to Spain then to Argentina – where he soon died of an infectious disease. At a time when missionary travel was, for many young people (2), the ultimate accomplishment and the ultimate transgression, Domenico Zipoli’s Elevazione is a pinnacle of paradoxical sentiment in music. A sacred feeling that transcends the world from within, as earthly and unearthly as Amazonian waterfalls.
The second of them, the Neapolitan composer Domenico Scarlatti, was perhaps the furthermost personality to his adventurous Jesuit namesake. The son of renowned musician Alessandro, after a scintillating career and years of high life Domenico Scarlatti died at the court of the Spanish king, in Madrid. In his last composition, Salve Regina, Scarlatti paints a masterfully agrodolce portrait of a life that has ripened to its final limit. If life is a feast, however troubling at times, how is one to leave it? By sealing one’s earthly life with true style and elegance. Only a world that thinks its own beauty and ugliness to be unconditionally loved by the gods, could answer so surely.
And finally, Pergolesi. Something of a miracle. The young Giambattista, who died of tubercolosis at the age of 26. The composer who spent his last night frantically trying to complete his Stabat Mater. Only hours before dying, with feverish hands he penned his last words on the manuscript: ‘Thank God, I finished it’. The Stabat Mater, a 13th century hymn, talks of Mary’s excruciating pain at the foot of the cross bearing her son. In the fourth movement of his version, Pergolesi lingers on the words ‘Quae moerebat et dolebat et tremebat cum videbat nati poenas incliti’ (Who mourned and grieved and trembled looking at the torment of her glorious Child). One would expect to hear these words accompanied by anguished, abysmal music. But no; the young Pergolesi, in the gasps of tuberculosis on his last night on earth, wrote a wonderful ode to life and death – presented as happy sisters, like Saint Francis had said.
Tiepolo and the Italian musicians of his time seem to inhabit a world – better, a plane of reality – where death, fearful as it is, is accepted a priori as life’s legitimate relative. In their art, becoming and eternity are depicted as intermingled inextricably, with unfailing elegance and grace. Redemption lies in the eye, and style is a function of the spirit. Think of Tiepolo’s skies, azure and rosa. When the world that birthed them fell, crushed first by the Enlightenment then by Positivism, while the rumbling of a few crowned heads in the dust covered the approaching march of capitalism, Tiepolo’s clouds continued to fly undisturbed. They only moved a little higher. A little further beyond the reach of those who passed below them, as they still do today, in a palace like Würzburg. Finally abandoned by history, those skies revealed themselves not just as objects, but as possibilities that endlessly move, appear and vanish – but that always remain, existing eternally.
After a brief life, the sensuous elation of Italian Baroque and Galante music, its “breath of happiness” at once earthly and unearthly, sunk into an oblivion populated by frightening dreams. After their time, European culture becomes that of Giandomenico Tiepolo’s Il Mondo Nuovo (The New World), where onlookers from all provenances gather like moths around the spectacle of a cosmorama, a magic lantern. No longer a world of theatre, but a society of the spectacle. A new era, but one that is still traversed by a mysterious tribe of Pulcinelli – inexplicable figures, loitering at the margins, playing in the corners, waving dangerously over the abyss, while waiting for a promised end to their exile from the world.
1) Roberto Calasso, Tiepolo’s Pink, London: The Bodley Head, 2010.
2) Roscioni, Il Desiderio delle Indie, Torino: Einaudi, 2001.