Tecnical Aspects of Music and Musical Criticism

( Saluto del presidente Riccardo Sorrentino all’International Conference on Musical Criticism – Iulm, Milano – 30 novembre 2021 )

I’m very glad to be here, for a little personal reason.

My first article was a very naive musical review. Today, my first public speech as a president of the Lombard Order of Journalists is about musical criticism. Music bodes well.

I do not have anything to teach here. You have excellent professors and panelists.

However, as a reader, as an enthusiastic listener, as a journalist I want to convey just one idea.

Do not forget the technical aspects – so to speak – of music. I mean music theory, harmony, classical harmony, jazz harmony, counterpoint, arrangement, orchestration, singing technique, sound engineering, and so on. Read the scores whenever you can, analyze them.

I think that the technical aspects of music are very important and – in a moment – I will explain why. 

First, a warning. Do not get me wrong. I am not against humanistic culture. I do not want to reiterate a common misconception about Italian culture.

An easy criticism of the Italian culture says that our culture is an idealistic one. The scapegoat is Benedetto Croce. I do not share this view, and I do not think that the distinction between idealism and non-idealism is the relevant one. I think also that Benedetto Croce is one of the most important Italian thinkers. The philosophy of Croce is a monument to the limitless, historically driven creativity of the human mind, and it also opens a space for the material, bodily aspects of the mind’s life. 

At the end of his life, Croce rejected even the label of idealism.

Next to the aesthetical and mathematical dimensions of music, there is a material dimension: a ninth is not a dissonance anymore, it has not been a dissonance for more than a century now. But a ninth sounds different from a fifth or a third… 

To pay attention to the technical aspects of music is important because those aspects allow us to go beyond the razzle-dazzle of the show business and the illusions and delusions of marketing. I am not against marketing, but it is just a little part of the whole.

The technical aspects of music, in a sense, allow us to switch from a merely textual approach to a rule-based, and more mindful, knowledge.

My general advice to journalists is: get rid of the weaving of texts, go beyond the appearances, the common beliefs, the opinion, the Doxa. Remember another philosopher, the Greek Plato: go toward the Episteme, the knowledge. But be wise: the Episteme cannot be reached. There is only a never-ending quest for the authentic aspects of reality, the human reality. The only thing that a journalist can do is to try and to recognize the falsehood, the fake, the inauthentic, and to add layers to layers to our understanding of reality, in our case the reality of music.

There are multiple layers of music. Beethoven’s music is an epitome of the many possible layers but try to read and listen to Chopin’s piano Concertos like they were a Bach counterpoint. It will be an amazing adventure, that will allow us to better assess every interpretation.

Let me give you just an example, to better explain my view. Mozart’s Requiem, you know, is a very innovative piece of music, its pitch is unique, the character of Mozart’s genius is everywhere. Its counterpoint, on the contrary, is quite conventional, it follows the rules of liturgical music. It is, so to speak, simple. Well, it is easy to find some interpretations of the Requiem where it is impossible to recognize the counterpoint. There is instead a jumble of sounds. The directors? Some of the stars of modern classical music, the untouchable ones. Only a sure grasp of the technical aspects of music allows us to say and to write with confidence: this does not work.

I do not want to underestimate the aesthetical aspects of music. Not at all. We live in a strange time. Some people say that a piece of music, a novel, a picture, is like coffee: You like it or you don’t like it, it’s all: it is useless to discuss the authenticity of a piece of art. Those people forget that a piece of art conveys meaning and a piece of music conveys a musical meaning, a very complex one. We must, you must render this complexity.

Thank you and good work.