Things are not too good in Italy at the moment. As one may have read in the newspapers, everything is stagnant because of all the various political and economical problems. These have not only blocked new ventures in the musical world but, even worse, have reduced some of the organizations already existing. The RAI orchestras and choirs of Milan and Rome closed down in July, leaving only the one in Turin, now called Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale. The RAI in Naples had already done so two years ago. Actually, quite a number of the lesser orchestras and other musical institutions have recently closed down all over Italy, though there are several small, local attempts to form new ensembles or chamber orchestras with the plentiful musicians who are without work. They, however, don’t seem to have much of a long life, which is mainly due to the lack of sponsorship and to the fact that Italian musicians are not prepared to work for small wages. In Italy, at the moment there are 8 official symphonic orchestras (two of which are rather small), 4 official chamber orchestras, and 11 official opera houses, which occasionally also perform traditional symphonic repertoire as well as ballet. All of them have some government funding, which however is far from being sufficient. All of them are in bad financial and administrational conditions. Very little contemporary music is performed whatsoever by any of these orchestras. The reason is because of the above-mentioned meagreness of public sponsorship and, all the more, the total lack of private sponsorship, due to the insufficient interest of the general public which prefers traditional classical music, if not light music. Only well-established, if not world-famous contemporary composers have possibilities of performance. Young aspiring composers have to search for other opportunities, mainly chamber concerts, the important ones being fewer than ever. Halls hosting concerts with some contemporary music in the programme are very often nearly empty unless there is a performer or conductor of international fame, for example at La Scala. Sometimes even there the hall is half empty. Concerts with programmes consisting solely of contemporary music are nearly exclusively made up of either one or the other of the two main compact groups of young aspiring composers: the Neo-Tonals and the Neo-Avantgardeists, who anyhow dislike each other very much and therefore do not go to each other’s concerts. (Anyway musicians in general hardly ever go to concerts unless they have to talk to someone useful to them. Once they become professionals, they seem to lose the natural love for hearing music live.) Furthermore, it is now a fact that a Beethoven, a Tchaikowski, or a Brahms concert will have more public than one with music, for example, by Bartòk or strangely enough even by Haydn or by J.S. Bach, not to mention other great composers before them. It is also unimaginable to programme a totally Schonberg or Webern concert if not at La Scala with a star musician. Only fashionable, worldly concerts, and happenings of contemporary composers such as those of certain Minimalists, or, for example, the Kronos Quartet or a work of music theatre with a more or less tonal and easily comprehensible style, can obtain a full hall nowadays, apart from rock stars. Only a few years ago it would have been unpredictable that this same public that filled a hall with one of Cage’s happenings, would have changed attitude so radically. Only one attitude has remained constant throughout the times: that which guides a flock of sheep.
Another way of thought which is particular to the Italian population more than elsewhere, is the habit of mixing Politics with Art, so much so that they form an indissoluble bond. It is generally known to everyone exactly which political party even the most modest musician belongs to or sympathizes with. It is not considered a secret to hide and there is hardly any right to private thought. Thus, on the contrary, organizations get more or less funding and individuals make a career or not according to which political ideas they declare to have and whether the party in question has the majority of votes at that moment or not. Some musicians also change parties as it suits them without discrimination, like a flag changing direction according to where the wind blows. Italy has had an enormous number of different governments since the declaration of the Republic in 1946. Different political parties have alternated power. With the most radical changeover of political parties ever in Italy this year and with all the corruption scandals of the past two years, there have also been changes in positions of power in the music world. Unfortunately, it seems that this way of thought is part of a way of life that will never change, so, for those musicians who believe in the freedom of Art from external dictatorial influences, there aren’t many opportunities for a career, except finding them abroad.
For a number of decades, due to the baby boom after the war, Italians, in general, have lived a period of exceptional prosperity; good jobs, high wages, long holidays, cars, and good if not excellent living conditions. Public education has always been free, apart from a very small annual tax, and thus there has been a high percentage of people with university degrees and diplomas. This has spoilt everyone. Everyone, therefore, thinks that he/she has a right to a good job, good wages, and a good life. With the progressive decrease of the population, there have been more doctors, more architects, etc. and thus more musicians (quality apart) than needed, all of whom spoilt by a good early life. We are still producing young professionals who have no chance whatsoever of finding a job, whether performing or teaching. The Italian population is now mainly made up of older generations who have occupied all the jobs. The birth rate is the lowest in all of Europe, according to The Economist. This general prosperity, which still continues, notwithstanding the political and economical problems of the nation, has also brought along with it an attitude of taking things easy and enjoying life without too much sacrifice. Most orchestras and musicians, in general, are not of the same standard as of their equivalents in other European countries. Only some single individuals with self-pride as well as ambition make the exception, and obviously only a very small part of them have the good fortune of making an international career. The consequence of this general prosperity, as well as the fact that all education is Government dependent and there is no autonomy whatsoever, is that the overall standard of musical education is not what it should be. (A general joke that professors tell is that to change a light bulb in a Conservatorio one has to write formally to the Ministry of Culture in Rome.) General music education is badly taught in all types of schools, if whatsoever, and the young professionals, who come out of many Conservatorios and who with any luck will later become orchestra players, are of a medium-low standard. The Conservatorio of Milan has a mixed type of quality of both professors and pupils; thus some of very high and some of a rather low standard. A good pupil has to be very careful with whom he/she chooses to study. The problem is that the Conservatorio of Milan is too large: 238 teachers and around 1400 pupils (the largest in Italy). This is due to the past erroneous Italian politics of increasing the possibilities of musical education for everyone in Conservatorios instead of improving the general musical education in schools. Around 1985 there came about the false peak of the Italian economic, and thus musical, boom since the war. Precisely in 1992, the decline, which had imperceptively started sometime before, was most evident, particularly after the various economical-political corruption scandals that came to light all of a sudden and are still continuously being discovered by various magistrates all over Italy. Nowadays there are fewer and fewer people studying music, so many teachers are becoming redundant. Though none in the musical world have actually lost their jobs or wages, some end up teaching other musical subjects and working in other cities, maybe very far away.
The Reform of the Music Conservatorios in Italy is about to begin amongst a lot of problems and controversy. We have been waiting for it since the moment of consciousness of the 1968 student revolts, if not before. The internal organization of the Conservatorios and the examination and study programs date way back to 1930, though in the last twenty years there has been the possibility of teaching experimental courses in all subjects alongside the traditional ones. These experimental courses, however, are still far from being perfect and have resulted in producing highly ignorant and superficial pupils in certain subjects. The resulting dichotomy is highly unsatisfactory as the good aspects of one type, of course, tend to disqualify the bad aspects of the other and vice versa. As both types of teaching do not give the best results, we are anxiously waiting for the Reform which should unify the traditional and experimental courses. Yet, as it comes from the Ministry of Culture in Rome, notably known for its absurd laws, and since we are totally dependent on it with hardly any say in the matter, we professors of the various Conservatorios of Italy are quite terrified of what is in store for us. We are told that we shall be more autonomous… but how much?
I am the youngest Composition Professor at the Conservatorio of Milan and this is my tenth year, after having taught two years each at the Conservatorios of Vicenza, Mantova, and Brescia. There are 16 professors like myself who teach the inferior and middle courses (what we call the Harmony, Counterpoint, and Fugue Course) and 5 professors who teach the superior course. We have around 10-12 pupils each. I am also the only woman in this department since the foundation of the Conservatorio of Milan in 1808.
The traditional and experimental courses are articulated as follows:
TRADITIONAL: Four years of inferior course where one learns Harmony and Counterpoint and its application to different styles throughout the ages so as to prepare oneself for the three 10 hour exams and one short oral exam for the grade 4 certificate. These consist of the composition of a piece for a 4-part choir, a melody, and accompaniment, a piano piece, and questions about harmony. Three years of middle course where one learns Counterpoint up to 8 parts and deepens the study of different styles so as to prepare oneself for the two 18-hour, one 12-hour, one 6-hour exams and one longer oral exam for the grade 7 certificate. These consist of the composition of a Double Choir, a 4-part complete Fugue, a piano piece, a written analysis, and some sightreading and harmonic improvisation at the piano. (There are other heavy courses of piano and sightseeing, as well as history, theory and solfège, organ and gregorian chant, bibliography, the study of librettos, paleography, analysis, etc., all of which obligatory and taught by different teachers.) Three years of superior course where one learns Orchestration, the String Quartet in Sonata Form (36-hour exam), the Theme and Variations Form applied to the small orchestra (36-hour exam), how to compose a Symphonic Piece, a Lyrical Scene or an Oratorio on a given theme, the style of which is most unpredictable (15-day thesis) and analysis (10-hour exam). The themes for the 10th year certificate which we call Diploma (and is not recognized as a university degree, nor ever will be, as we are told) are given simultaneously all over Italy and come from the Ministry of Culture in Rome. We usually joke and say that they are composed or chosen by the janitors of the Ministry. The one major problem of the Traditional Course is that all contemporary techniques and styles and the composition of pieces in a personal style other than historical-philological ones, have to be squeezed into the examination programs as best as possible and are thus treated less fully for lack of time.
EXPERIMENTAL: Two years of inferior course where one learns Harmony so as to prepare oneself for one 10-hour and one oral examinations, consisting of the composition of a Chorale in the style of Bach and the demonstration of various basses, Chorales, and Bicinia studied throughout the two-year period and questions about harmony. Three years of middle course where one learns Counterpoint up to 4 parts so as to prepare oneself for the composition of a complete Fugue in a 36-hour exam (on a theme by Bach or contemporary), a melody and accompaniment in another 36-hour exam (with a given text but no musical theme), a 10-hour analysis exam and an oral exam. Four years of superior course where one learns contemporary compositional techniques and styles and writes one’s own pieces with them. The Diploma examinations at the ninth year consist of the composition of a work with a fixed orchestration given by the Ministry in Rome (two-month thesis) the presentation of 5 works for orchestra (two of which for large orchestra: one with choir and the other with a soloist instrument or voice), a 10 hour analysis exam and the oral discussion of the works done during the 4-year period. (There are other heavy courses of piano and sightseeing, as well as history, theory, and solfège, bibliography, paleography, analysis, etc., all of which are obligatory and taught by different teachers.) The one major problem of the Experimental Course is that Traditional Harmony and Counterpoint, as well as Traditional Orchestration and Forms, are not studied deeply enough if at all, as they are left to the discretion of the teacher. As it is relatively easy for a pupil coming from the Traditional Course to fill in the gaps of knowledge in Contemporary Techniques and Composition, even after the Diploma, it is practically impossible for a pupil coming from the Experimental Course to go back to study Tonal Harmony, Counterpoint and Traditional Orchestration properly at a late age. This particularly affects the quality of some of the teachers of the latest generation who anyhow are obliged to teach the harmony and counterpoint they have never learned.