Tuesday, May 20, 2014

On Nino Pirrotta

by Anthony M. Cummings
NOTE: Anthony Cummings's intellectual biography of the distinguished musicologist Nino Pirrotta (190898) won the 2013 John Frederick Lewis Award from the American Philosophical Society for the best book published by that organization during the year. Here are some lightly adapted excerpts chosen by Prof. Cummings.

An accurate and illuminating word picture of Nino Pirrotta would be a complex and richly colored one. He was dignified and aristocratic in manner and on occasion could appear severe, but was never actually so. On the contrary, he was warm, gracious, humane, generous-spirited, modest to the point of self-deprecation, whimsical, verbally playful, and appreciative of life’s ironies. His manner was serene and reserved, and he seemed continually absorbed in reflection. 

But he was also adventurous, courageous, and open to opportunity, both personal and professional. Deeply and broadly learned, he was exacting in his mastery of the pertinent source data and impressively in command of the findings and methodologies of more than one established discipline. ... He also inclined toward the judicious exercise of insight and intuition; he was intellectually refined and Apollonian in his sensibilities, and his historical imagination was vivid and fertile.

How did Nino Pirrotta come by such qualities of intellect and character? His intellectual sensibilities were a consequence to some degree of his early family life. Pirrotta’s parents and grandparents were members of the Palermitan upper middle class, which afforded him material advantages; he benefited from his family’s cultural interests and activities; and he profited from the vital artistic and intellectual life of early-twentieth-century Palermo. Pirrotta’s paternal grandmother Giulia was the daughter of Felice Pirandello. Her first cousin Stefano was the father of Luigi Pirandello, the 1934 Nobel laureate in literature and one of the most celebrated literary figures of the twentieth century. Nino Pirrotta [was thus] his second cousin once removed.

His education consisted largely of training in Latin and Greek languages and literatures, Italian language and literature, and history. ... It was very much an education designed for a tiny social, economic, cultural, and intellectual elite, at a moment in Italian history when almost 100% of Sicilians and some 95% of Italians generally were effectively illiterate.

Nino Pirrotta’s intellectual profile is to be understood as a synthesis of the practices and traditions of the conservatory and the university.  The absence of an opportunity to study music history at the university when he was a student compelled—indeed, liberated—him to develop a personal vision of the discipline based directly upon his experiences as conservatory licentiate in history of music and diplomate in organ and organ composition, and university laureate in art history:  he applied the rigorous scholarly methods of art history as practiced at Florence to the primary materials of music history. His two-volume thesis, 31 October 1931, is entitled Fonti iconografiche e stilistiche della pittura su maioliche del Rinascimento (“Iconographic and Stylistic Sources of the Painting on Renaissance Maiolica”).

Music history as then taught at the Italian conservatory was not only limited in scale, but also designed with an applied objective in mind:  to provide composers and performers with a (rudimentary) understanding of historical context. Pirrotta’s studies in art history at the University helped him develop a more intellectually-refined sensibility. He came to appreciate that besides its utilitarian, applied value, the history of the arts was also intrinsically meritorious, in intellectual terms, in its own right. Understanding the innate intellectual viability of the history of the arts was critical to the development of his authorial voice and vision of music history as a fully legitimate university discipline. ... A northern Italian (even Germanic) philologistic, Positivistic, fact-drenched epistemology is tempered with a southern Italian (even Sicilian) Spiritualist, Idealist, intuitive epistemology.

As early as Il Sacchetti e la tecnica musicale del trecento italiano (“[Franco] Sacchetti and Musical Technique in 14th-century Italy,” 1935, with Ettore Li Gotti), Pirrotta reveals what will become his signature approach as an historical-musicologist.  While fulfilling his obligations as a “Positivist” paleographer—he accompanies transcriptions of the music and musical analyses with a detailed critical apparatus—he declines to limit his engagement with the material in that way, to abstract the music from its setting(s). Rather, the paleography is merely preparatory to the ultimate objective:  a full and revealing re-situating of the music, its re-location within ramified contexts, whether philosophical, literary, social, or intellectual. His writings leave his readers with an enhanced understanding of the place of music in the culture of which it is an oft-elusive expression. ... He created his own independent vision of the fledgling discipline of historical musicology, one that relinquished pride of place to neither of the two underlying academic traditions, but, rather, amalgamated the musical microcosmic and the historical/contextual macrocosmic into an illuminating synthesis.

The Roman years were extremely productive for Pirrotta’s scholarship. ... Rome had a wealth of sources for other phases of the history of Italian music, and Pirrotta took advantage of them to inaugurate his series of studies of the origins and early development of that most characteristic of Italian musical genres, the opera.

Sergio and Nino Pirrotta in the US
It was during his Harvard years (195672) that Pirrotta began to make substantial contributions to the scholarly literature on the music of the Italian Renaissance, complementing the earlier publications on the music of the Trecento and seventeenth-century opera.

The particular achievement of the retirement years was a series of articles on eighteenth-  and nineteenth-century Italian opera. What is notable about these writings is the broad and deep contextualization of important developments in operatic history. One had assumed that one was reasonably familiar with Beaumarchais’s spoken comedies Le mariage de Figaro and Le barbier de Séville and Mozart’s and Rossini’s operatic masterpieces based on them, but Pirrotta’s article on Beaumarchais situates various elements of the plots and music of both musical masterpieces within the long history of Italian comic opera, illuminating their composers’ use of compositional convention and providing fresh understanding of age-old practices in the comic tradition. We now apprehend Mozart’s Figaro and Rossini’s Barbiere not only as singular masterpieces but also as the products of decades—of operatic compositional practice. ... Although Pirrotta would never give the development of Italian opera per se the kind of systematic monographic treatment that he lavished upon the pre-operatic theatrical uses of music in Li due Orfei (1970, Eng. as Music and Theater from Poliziano to Monteverdi, 1982; winner of 1970 Otto Kinkeldey Award), his many articles on post-1600 opera, when read as a group, furnish a panoramic account of the evolution of the genre from its beginnings until 1800, and even beyond.

  • “Nino Pirrotta” in Wikipedia
  • Harvard memorial, 19 May 1998 (Lewis Lockwood, with Rheinhold Brinkmann, Eliott Forbes, and Christoph Wolff)
  • Lafayette College press release, 30 October 2013

  • Anthony Cummings is Professor of Music at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. He writes: “Pirrotta is, by anyone’s reckoning, one of the most celebrated figures in the history of the discipline, and, when I first began graduate training in music history and first read his writings, they impressed me immediately as being among the most learned, most incisive, most sensitive and revealing of any musicological writings. I became interested in the figure who produced these writings, the human being behind the writings.”

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