Cogito Ergo Music – a Question of Method in Classical Music

A reflection about classical music by Mattia Rondelli

Mattia Rondelli is a young  Italian conductor,  who had already many occasions to work on opera concerts, and he is passionate for the Italian composer Giuseppe Sarti. Being asked about the perspective of which classical music is something that no one would eliminate from his life (even for those who never listen to it), this is what he answered:

"We see often nowadays art being assimilated all together to entertainment and show business, especially when it comes to classical music and theatre. 

But, besides my love for classical music, I believe that giving art recognition for its value, which has marked and keeps marking many cultural identities, is still something good and, sometimes, necessary.

In that regard, I share the ideas of the British philosopher Roger Scruton when he basically defines the search for beauty as what makes us recognize the world as our own. That is, finding the beauty surrounding us, and even more in art and music, the exciting standard to identify and resonate with, and the way to deal with everyday life. Yet in other words, asserting art’s ability, through its “beauty”, to reveal and amplify the innermost dimension within its users.

Art, indeed, and music even more with its concrete abstractness, is not necessarily for us to understand, rather to enjoy; this enjoyment cannot depend on sharing intentions with the author or the performer, but is based on our perception of the artwork, of the author and the performer, personalized and filtered through our own personal experience.

Cicerone collaborator classical music

Mattia Rondelli Conductor

If there is no time or space limit to mankind’s participation in art and culture – and on the contrary, it is a mutual and perpetual exchange of life blood, then rediscovering how simple and great is the relation between people and music, by bringing music closer to people, is absolutely essential, today more than ever.

Believing that musical art belongs to the highest dimension of a cultural context, and looking at the absolute nature of many scores, curiosity and critical thinking led me to ask myself many questions, often unanswered, but in turn leading me to new questions and new horizons. And this is one of the reasons why I love music!

On the other hand, composers, as well as painters, philosophers and intellectuals, were all products of their own time, their historical age and the context they lived in, not of academic studies. It is like reading a score: as much as one single line, like one academic subject, is important, everything is pointless if we don’t read the line/academic subject together with all the others that flow simultaneously through time.

I would like then to share some of the issues that I often go back to investigate: I was very young when ecstatic in front of the most famous of Mozart’s late symphonies (and I still am), I simply asked myself: what about the many earlier symphonies? This gave me a chance to learn that Music, and not only classical music, needs to be loved before being understood.

Another Mozartian matter, which I faced at a later age, and which is still not at rest for me, concerns Don Giovanni: in the final concertato of Act I, all the principals toast while singing together “Viva la libertà”. In trying to interpret the wit of such insightful, educated and, despite censorship, provoking minds as Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s, I still find hard to read these tableaux as a statement of compliance with Voltaire’s and Rousseau’s enlightened, pre-revolutionary movements. It is pointless to remark that every single professor and musicologist I have consulted on the matter voiced their disagreement, but I am still not willing to abandon my interpretation.

As for more recent matters, I was asked to write a paper about a twentieth century topic for a conservatory exam. I chose one of my critical questions as a topic, and within the limits I had (too narrow limits for a barely comprehensive treatment of the subject) I looked for an answer to a matter-of-fact question: on one side, Schoenberg states that twelve-tone music is not a language nor a new way, rather a complex compositional technique capable of including and expressing together the linguistic “signifier” and “signified”. On the other side, Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his celebrated Tractatus, elaborated his thoughts and proposed a similar theory of linguistics, which relates individual words to what they represent in meaning. Two analogous linguistics theories indeed, both formulated in the same years in the Jewish ghetto of Vienna, by two distinguished gentlemen who never met. In my paper I merely observed that both used the most profound linguistic and ontological ideas of Jewish culture, and I illustrated how twelve-tone technique in Moses und Aaron is mainly utilized to refer to God, whose name cannot be pronounced in Hebrew, in order to assign the signified Absolute to an existing “in se” signifier.

One last issue I want to share, one related to my profession this time, concerning La Traviata: it is out of the question and undoubted that Verdi wanted to recreate theatre, which is real life, on stage and in the score. Traviata is clearly the only Verdi opera featuring an obvious similarity between the preludes to the first and third act; I always asked myself: why?! I always thought there was time to foreshadow the tragedy, and could not understand the dramatic and structural anomaly; in fact, I don’t think there is an unambiguous answer, nor that one is needed. It is important, though, to think about Verdi’s mastery in depicting his characters and the human pietas he reserves to their most intimate nature. I have come to believe that since the first act Traviata’s story is not one of a young man-eater, a coquette, who repents but is the existential drama of a person, which has started long before the prelude, and begins to unravel towards the tragic epilogue since the first act. This way Traviata becomes, since the beginning, the same soprano singing the “Addio del passato”, not anymore the young girl with a light voice, jumping from one man to another.

Certainly, my reading is an objectionable one, but from a method standpoint it gives Verdi – and his opera – back that vocal and structural consistency that some find discontinuous."