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  • Staging Crisis: Opera aperta and the 1959 Venice Biennale Commissions
  • Harriet Boyd (bio)

I believe that the first prejudice to break down is this: that contemporary music is unified. On the contrary the social crisis of our time is a crisis precisely in the sense that it breaks harmony, dissociates forces, opens incredibly complex contrasts, irreducible, in any case, to the simplistic clash between old and new. It is true that it poses conditions common to all, but the special nature of these conditions is precisely that of provoking diverse reactions. Faced with the disorder brought about by tyranny, with which we live today, the solutions are countless: from cynical acceptance to a kind of anguish, from superficial parody to criticism, from desperation to evasion, from subversive protest to revolutionary action. Even in the field of art, in its own ways, even in that of music; which, then, has its own specific possibilities, not at all identical to those of poetry or painting. And all these ways are “contemporary” because they all express something of man today, and therefore of man himself; no one can be excised from the outset as anachronistic.

—Fedele D’Amico, Il verri (1960)1

Diversity, Complexity, Openness

Deep into the second part of Alberto Bruni Tedeschi’s two-hour music theater epic Diagramma circolare, the music gives way to a series of noisy sound effects. In a moment entitled “War,” the previously brash, disjointed meanderings of the orchestral accompaniment dissolve into whistling flutes and the “real-life” sounds of screaming bombs and explosions. At the ever-shifting battle lines between reality and artifice that had provided the nexus of the work so far, the former seems suddenly to have triumphed. Yet there is even more packed into this moment than first greets the ear. The building to the climax of these sound effects is provided by scalic figures in the strings, wind, and brass. The section begins with the marking “Musica e automatismi” and presents various manifestations of mechanical sound—of the machines that inhabit the work’s factory locale. Shouting and speaking carry the dramatic action. Not until the section’s close is song heard, and it comes in the form of a choral lamentation. At times there is only bodily gesture and mime. This moment, in its mix of the musical and the noisy, the didactic and the ambiguous, [End Page 49] the functional and the aesthetic, is representative of the work as a whole. Diagramma circolare tries to be everything and nothing at the same time, as though it does not know what it wants to be.

The work’s first critics, attending its premiere during the 1959 Venice Festival internazionale di musica contemporanea, were perplexed. Many thought this scene particularly problematic. What did the insertion of real-life sounds mean? How to make sense of the work’s eclecticism? Some complained that it reminded them of a recent past best forgotten; others that it was an important testimony that should be remembered. Some claimed that Bruni Tedeschi’s impegno (commitment) outweighed his work’s obvious aesthetic flaws; others criticized the music’s reliance on its timely message. Some celebrated its political and musical impartiality; others derided it for not taking a stronger position. Notable above all is the sheer diversity of response—there seemed to be an advocate and a critic for every facet of the work —and just how much was at stake in its categorization: was it modern, contemporary, new, modernist realist, old-fashioned; was it even an opera aperta (open work) of the so-called neoavanguardia?2

Each of these areas of contemporary music making was represented in the Venice program. Alongside a celebration of Berg and the usual revivals of early Italian (and specifically Venetian) works, there were premieres of six serialist compositions and a first festival concert of electroacoustic experiments. The newly appointed festival director, Mario Labroca, was keen to make his mark with a program “fra i più eterogenei del dopoguerra” (among the most heterogeneous of the postwar period).3 Critics noted that the festival had become a showcase for the bewilderingly diverse strands of current music making. Furthermore, diversity had a...


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