Monday, April 12, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Franco Serpa, Miti e note: Musica con antichi racconti. Polymnia. Studi di filologia classica 11. Trieste: Edizioni Università Trieste, Pp. xxx, 196. ISBN 9788883032493. €18.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Edoardo Buroni, Università degli Studi di Milano

[Table of contents is listed at the end of the review.]

Miti e note. Musica con antichi racconti gathers selected essays by Franco Serpa that deal with musical works based on mythical subjects, mainly of classical origin. The author is one of the few Italian scholars able to handle such interdisciplinary themes: in fact, even though Franco Serpa distinguishes himself in particular as a scholar of Latin literature, he has also attended to music since the early years of his scholarly work, showing unusual skill in both fields.

However, the essays included in this volume were collected by Lorenzo De Vecchi and Corrado Travan, and not by the author himself, who simply expressed a few comments in a short note at the end; the two editors selected a variety of works: they are for the most part literary contributions included in opera or concert programs, or conference papers; in addition, some of the essays are the result of revising and blending different works on the same topic. It would therefore be inappropriate to expect a strict uniformity in the forms of the essays, in the topics they treat, or in the breadth of the proposed analysis; for example, simply from a publishing and textual point of view, only few contributions have footnotes. Anyway, Franco Serpa's capacity to develop critical reflections with accuracy and thorough argumentative rigour, while at the same time maintaining his style at a level of pleasant readibility and intelligent popularization, emerges in all these works; a non-expert reader will find excessive erudition only a few times.

The book opens with a preface by Lucio Cristante. Then there is a chronological bibliography of Franco Serpa's works edited by Lorenzo De Vecchi; a bibliography referring to other authors' books is missing, and the bibliographical references eventually cited in the essays are also few and essential. But the volume has a useful index of names and works in the appendix.

The twenty-five critical contributions of the collection are arranged neither in chronological order of conception nor according to thematic affinities: instead, the editors have chosen the chronological sequence of the musical compositions examined by Serpa. On the one hand, this choice is usefully systematic and has understandably been suggested by the basic autonomy and specificity of each essay; on the other hand, sometimes it would have proven more effective to group contributions about the same composer: I refer especially to Richard Wagner's operas and, above all, Richard Strauss's operas, which Serpa tackles with a remarkable critical breadth.

This book mainly contains studies of central European music composed between the second half of the nineteenth century and the end of the twentieth, but contributions about French and Italian works spanning from music drama's beginning to the present day are also included. In this context the first essay appears to be partially non-integrated, even though it is interesting in itself (not least because of the critical and historical position proposed): Serpa questions the theory asserted in the nineteenth century in particular by Otto Jahn and then held in high repute thanks to him, and suggests that Horace's Odes were not meant to be performed to a specific musical setting; the relationship between a literary work and its possible musical accompaniment is the only necessary, but in my opinion not sufficient, analogy with the other essays of this collection.

The remaining contributions tackle the following themes. Orpheus' myth and its relationship with Italian opera's beginnings, on Euridice by Jacopo Peri and Ottavio Rinuccini (and discussing Giulio Caccini's opera, too). Iphigenia's story, from its genesis to the operatic adaptation in Iphigénie en Tauride by Christoph Willibald Gluck, connected with the nearly coeval tragedy by Wolfgang Goethe.1 Lucio Silla by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on a text by Giovanni de Gamerra, helped by Pietro Metastasio.

Then there is a leap, perhaps too abrupt, of about three quarters of century and the volume investigates the sources, both classical and Christian, of the Wagnerian Tannhäuser.. Mythical, historical, medieval, Germanic, religious, classical, philosophical, and symbolic elements are examined also in the next essay, focused on Lohengrin. Wagner is once again the author of the following opera, analyzed even more thoroughly: Tristan und Isolde. In this section, Serpa discusses the relation between the music and literary texts more thoroughly. But this overview on Wagner is temporarily interrupted to deal with an author and an opera much less known today: Max Bruch and his Odysseus. Although Serpa admits that Bruch was not a good composer of operas, he appreciates this work, considering it the best of those that don't belong to the Wagnerian current.

Serpa then returns to Wagner with two separate but complementary essays about Parsifal. The first one (mainly centered on the opera's third act), focuses on the music and the plot. The second essay discusses the genesis, the sources, and the revisions of the myth of Parsifal and of the Graal. Critical thoughts about Wagner end with an essay about the connection between the composer and his Hellenic ideal: according to Serpa, the Hellenic tradition was one of Wagner's sources and an example for his aesthetic and cultural aims: to emphasize the national German identity and his idea of musical theatre.2

From the twelfth essay the book enters the twentieth century and faces Strauss's works. With the same skills we met in the reflections about Wagner's melodramas, Serpa studies the sources and the workmanship of Hugo von Hofmannsthal's libretto of Elektra and how the composer used it to offer his own interpretation, which is not always fully consistent with the poetic text.

Two short contributions about different themes follow, interrupting the discussion in which they appear: the utopian (and, according to Serpa, almost completely unsuccessful) project of Gabriele D'Annunzio and Claude Debussy that produced the Martyre de Saint Sébastien, and Maurice Ravel's dance music Daphnis et Chloé; this second piece is a composition without a verbal text, so Serpa substantially discusses the myth it is based on. Strauss is once again the subject of the next essay, the longest one of the book: a deep and rich analysis about the genesis, the multiple and sometimes clashing sources, the meaning and the versions of Ariadne auf Naxos, one of Serpa's favourite operas, first and foremost thanks to Hofmannsthal's version.

Again, two essays interrupt considerations about Strauss. The first one is about a work by a Swiss author who repeatedly worked for music theatre but today not often played: Othmar Schoeck's Penthesilea from Heinrich von Kleist's tragedy. The second one focuses on the well-known Moses und Aron by Arnold Schönberg: it is an interesting essay because focuses on a non-classical myth, but on a biblical one, although revised by the author: Serpa underlines that this revision is not meant to touch on Christian or Jewish issues. Strauss's work is reprised in the analysis of his last piece on a text from Hofmannsthal: Die Ägyptische Helena: Serpa studies the cooperation between these two authors to point out the differences between the final work and their original purposes; he commends the poet's ability to use and adapt a classical myth in a personal way and to place it in a specific historic and cultural context with convincing effectiveness.

Discussing George Enescu's Oedipe, Serpa analyzes the myth of the parricide and incestuous king from the Homeric poems to Sophocles' tragedies. This is another short interruption before the last two essays about Strauss' late works: Daphne and Die Liebe der Danae, both on librettos by Joseph Gregor. The second essay is less elaborate than the first, and in both Serpa is not very satisfied by the quality of the poetic text. However, he points out how Daphne, thanks the composer's skills and interpretation, represents an important, and in some ways last, episode in German's music of the nineteenth and, especially, twentieth centuries.3

The next contribution discusses how Luigi Dallapiccola approached Hellenic texts through adapting the Liriche greche in Salvatore Quasimodo's version and through his work on Ulisse, of which Dallapiccola also wrote the libretto. Serpa points out how this predilection for the classical age reflects a wider sense of decadence that, in Italy, looked for its roots in Latin and Greek traditions. The last three essays focus on three pieces of a contemporary German musician who has been working primarily in Italy for decades: Hans Werner Henze, a composer whom Serpa clearly values. The pieces discussed are Die Bassariden, Venus und Adonis and the recent Phaedra.

As I pointed out above, Serpa's most interesting, innovative, and deep thoughts pertain to Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss. One of the strongest aspects of the author's analysis is his ability vividly to contextualize the mythical sources, the evolution of their thematic core, and the influences from other cultural, historical and artistic contexts. The author suggests that, although a myth has a strong and defined core, its interpretations, reuses, and details are unpredictable and largely determined by the social and cultural context and by the purposes of the artists.4 This may seem obvious, but it is not always regarded as it should be.

This insight allows Serpa to analyze musical and melodramatic adaptations without prejudice: he doesn't think that the adaptations betray or mystify the original sources. On the contrary, this critical and methodological approach offers a basis for analyzing more thoroughly how a mythical theme can still influence and inspire the musicians and artists who resumed and adapted it to their own historical time and to their artistic and communicative aims.

Serpa thus never censures, but rather praises, the rewritings that strongly differ from the original myths, their contents or their message: for example, Orpheus (a fundamental melodramatic character) is given by modern culture very different meanings and symbols from the original Greek character. Likewise, Serpa appreciates librettist Hofmannsthal's ability to bring, just as the ancient Greeks did, mythical events into a contemporary context, without losing their primary mythological function.5


pp. vii-viii = Premessa
pp. ix-xxx = Bibliografia degli scritti di Franco Serpa
pp. 1-8 = Le Odi di Orazio erano cantate?
pp. 9-12 = Il patto orfico
pp. 13-19 = La giovinetta nascosta
pp. 21-25 = Il dittatore in scena. Per il compleanno di Filippo Càssola e nell'anniversario della nascita di Wolfgang Amadé Mozart
pp. 27-33 = Racconti cristiani e memorie classiche
pp. 35-41 = Cavaliere del cigno, dal sogno al dolore
pp. 43-52 = Il segreto della passione
pp. 53-61 = Odysseus di Max Bruch
pp. 63-67 = Il gesto della redenzione: III atto del Parsifal
pp. 69-76 = Il mito del Gral e le altre fedi
pp. 77-80 = Wagner e il sogno ellenico
pp. 81-90 = Elektra o della colpa antichissima
pp. 91-96 = Tout ce qui est beau...
pp. 97-99 = Daphnis et Chloé di Maurice Ravel (la II suite)
pp. 101-114 = Ariadne l'attrice o l'arte della scena e della vita
pp. 115-122 = "... sulla terra per me non c'era aiuto..." Penthesilea di H. von Kleist e di O. Schoeck
pp. 123-127 = La tensione verso l'impossibile
pp. 129-138 = Dall'Elena egizia all'Elena greca
pp. 139-145 = Edipo e i racconti antichi
pp. 147-152 = Classicità e romanticismo nella Daphne di Richard Strauss
pp. 153-155 = Die Liebe der Danae (frammento sinfonico)
pp. 157-163 = Dallapiccola e i greci
pp. 165-169 = Introduzione a Die Bassariden di H.W. Henze
pp. 171-174 = Il Bolero di Adone
pp. 175-179 = Notus amor Phaedrae...
pp. 181-193 = Indice dei nomi e delle opere
p. 195 = Nota dell'autore


1.   Serpa even claims that "I due drammi sono i due massimi ripensamenti, forse superiori al dramma di Euripide, il loro modello, che l'arte occidentale abbia concepito sul mito misterioso" (p. 18).
2.   This is possibly one of the most interesting critical ideas of the book, already discussed in previous essays. The author argues that "in quei decenni i tedeschi colti avevano il diritto di vivere con una speciale convinzione il loro idealismo filoellenico per la superiorità delle università e delle accademie filologiche, filosofiche e storiche. Agiva anche la tendenza psicologica, che è un carattere profondo dei tedeschi e che agì energicamente in Wagner, di cercare la verità all'indietro, nelle origini, nelle radici: e c'era, implicito talvolta e spesso dichiarato (Wagner, ancora), il sentimento antilatino e anticattolico. Per una disposizione e per l'altra le utopie ellenizzanti furono una giustificazione eccellente, di cui nessuno, né filosofo né artista, fu più ostinatamente convinto di Wagner. Con questa convinzione e con il genio che aveva descrisse la 'sua' rivoluzione della cultura tedesca, e poi la mise in atto" (p. 78).
3.   "La Daphne di Strauss è l'ultima apparizione dell'ideale ellenico inventato in Germania, dell'arte sentimentale, che aspira, inappagata ma consapevole, alla forma naturale, alla bellezza ingenua (che sentimentale non è). [...] Movendo dal regno dell'innocenza e della luce, da un'Ellade fantastica, l'artista tedesco, con la guida di Schopenhauer e di Wagner, è tornato nella sua terra. [...] la fanciulla è pronta al suo Liebestod e alla trasfigurazione. Il finale di Daphne è dunque, arte altissima, da contare tra le pagine supreme di Strauss e quindi della musica del nostro secolo" (pp. 150-151).
4.   "Come si procede nell'analisi di un mito e della sua genesi? Detto in modo sintetico, si procede con metodo sincronico e con metodo diacronico. La sincronia lega il mito indagato alla civiltà del suo tempo, soprattutto alle correnti spirituali e ideologiche per chiarire la funzione sociale e, meglio, il 'significato' (il senso, le sens, dicono i francesi che se ne intendono) che quel mito ha avuto per i contemporanei e che esso ha comunicato loro. Questo ci dimostra la capacità di comunicazione e quindi di espansione culturale di un mito. La diacronia osserva quel mito in prospettiva e ne colloca il contenuto (la materia, la matière) entro una tradizione, ritrovando gli antecedenti e i modelli da cui esso si è formato. L'indagine diacronica dimostra la forza di attrazione che un mito ha avuto nelle diverse fasi della sua formazione, dagli influssi che hanno dato al racconto mitico la sua forma ultima indietro fino alle origini della civiltà" (p. 73).
5.   "Per istinto geniale, e anche per volontà e per cultura, Hofmannsthal è stato un artista mitopoietico, cioè un artista che ripensava i miti antichi e i loro attori, li guardava in profondità e se li appropriava, da artista, appunto, oltre che da appassionato erudito, sollecitando i personaggi e gli eventi noti di un mito a nuove azioni, e quindi a significati inattesi. Egli, insomma, sapeva riraccontare un mito, come hanno sempre fatto i Greci (e ogni popolo quando la fantasia religiosa sia ancora produttiva). Con ciò ogni mito poteva tornare ad essere realtà spirituale attiva nei nostri tempi, e la dispersione e l'angoscia della modernità potevano ritrovare unità e senso nei simboli della sapienza tradizionale. Dunque, nelle figure antiche, nei loro nomi famosi, nelle vicende, sofferenze, vittorie Hofmannsthal ha trovato sempre (e soprattutto nei libretti per la musica di Strauss) i valori etici e i modelli psicologici con i quali illuminare e comprendere ciò che nel nostro presente appare dissipato o insignificante" (p. 131).

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