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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Musical Materialities in Milan and Liberal Italy at the fine secolo

  • Author(s): Biggs, Laura Tiziana Protano
  • Advisor(s): Smart, Mary Ann
  • et al.

This dissertation examines musical culture in Milan from the 1870s to 1890s, with particular attention to the ways the material conditions of musical production and consumption were enmeshed with liberal values. The urban center in these decades was known as the capitale morale--the economic, cultural and moral seat of the new nation--in contrast with Rome, the nominal capital. I show that the development of the urban center and that of Milan's preeminent theater, the Teatro alla Scala, were intimately linked. Milanese liberal imperatives of hard work and innovation in these immediate post-unification decades were played out in and around the theater.

Such imperatives implied breaks with tradition, as in the establishment of the baton conductor and the introduction of electric illumination at the Teatro alla Scala. Chapter 1 concentrates on Franco Faccio, La Scala's first baton conductor. Critics loved the sturdiness of a man measured no less in moral than musical terms. Faccio's reliability and exacting standards of instrumental execution resonated with a new Bismarck-inspired pragmatism in Milan, and the sound Faccio brought forth from the orchestra at La Scala adumbrates the much more famous house sound under his successor, Arturo Toscanini.

Chapter 2 centers on the Società Edison Italiana's 1882 installation of electric lighting at La Scala, one of the earliest incandescent installations in the world-- and by far the most ambitious. The innovation was made possible by the economic bullishness and inventiveness of these liberal decades. La Scala became a crucial promotional forum for Edison, where unusual measures were taken to ensure the venture's success, including the unprecedented darkening of the auditorium planned in order to focus audience attention on the novel stage illumination.

Milanese liberal imperatives also implied continual renewal. Chapter 3 investigates the contemporaneous operatic voice: in response to a perceived decline in vocal production, the Milan Conservatory promoted "bel canto" vocal methods in treatises by Lamperti (1864) and Delle Sedie (1874). In fact, however, the latter method set vocal instruction on a controversial new course, one that, because it was alleged to cause extreme vocal strain, stimulated debate about the limits of human productivity.

Finally, Chapter 4 turns to Giuseppe Verdi's Falstaff, which premiered at La Scala in 1893. It is a commonplace of Verdi criticism that the opera was perplexing in its newness. I show that several critics at the premiere chose to promote the idea of Falstaff as a civic innovation par excellence, thereby downplaying its links with other "less groundbreaking" repertory. The more innovative the opera seemed, after all, the more it had in common with the capitale morale, that center of continual work and progress.

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