Conference Report: Bach and Italy

The International Conference “Bach and Italy” took place in a digital form from 22-28 November, 2020. It was co-organized by the Association JSBach.it, by the Conservatory “G. Verdi” of Turin and by the Istituto per I Beni Musicali in Piemonte, a research institution for the promotion of the Piedmont musical heritage.

The COVID situation led us to consider various options for restructuring an event which had originally been planned in a traditional form. After much pondering, we decided to broadcast the Conference on our social media channels, to make it available freely and at no charge, and to maintain an archive of all videos which will constitute a repository of research, knowledge and music for all those interested in Bach’s music.

Moreover, we decided to extend the Conference’s duration from the initial three days to a whole week, in order for the sessions and other events to be more temporally distanced, and thus to allow a better fruition of the rich program. The result exceeded our expectations under many viewpoints.

The artistic and scholarly level of the presentations, roundtables, keynotes and concerts was very high. Moreover, following the presentations in each session, debate was encouraged by the Chairs, and it involved both the session’s speakers (who were virtually gathered in a “room” provided by a videoconference platform) and the audience following the session on social media. Listeners were invited to interact by writing their questions and comments in the social media chats, and this resulted in long and fruitful discussions, frequently longer than one hour. Thus one of the most important aspects of scholarly gatherings, i.e. the discussion and interaction, was not sacrificed due to the need for social distancing. Another unexpected result was that speakers, audience and organizers alike distinctly felt a strong “human” component, in spite of the undeniable lack of proximity, and the feedback we received was uniformly enthusiastic.

The Conference began in the evening of 22 November an Opening Ceremony during which the organisers Maria Borghesi and Daniele Palma briefly discussed the two main currents of research concerning “Bach and Italy”, i.e. the inspiration Italy provided to Bach and the Italian reception of his music and figure. This was framed by excerpts from Bruno Giuranna’s transcription of the Goldberg Variations for string trio, performed by the young musicians of the Trio Quodlibet. The ceremony was filmed in one of the most breath-taking Baroque palaces of Piedmont, the Reggia di Venaria.

On Monday, 23 November, the day opened with a special episode of “Un caffè con JSBach.it”, a video podcast series started by JSBach.it during the spring lockdown. The day’s guest was Kenneth Hamilton, who was interviewed about Liszt’s reception of Bach and who beautifully played Liszt’s version of Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen. In the afternoon, the first session, spoken in Italian and chaired by Annarita Colturato (University of Turin) was dedicated to Bach’s reception of Italy, including presentations about Bach and the seconda prattica (Enrico Baiano, who presented a lecture-recital at the harpsichord), about the origins of BWV 1052 (Fabrizio Ammetto), and a lecture-recital on Bach and Vivaldi (by Giorgio Dellarole). The following session, chaired by Valentina Bensi, included a presentation by Beatrice Birardi focusing on Bach’s music in the Fascist radio broadcasts, and one by Francesco Leprino on a documentary film he realized on Bach’s Art of the Fugue. The day closed with a fascinating keynote speech by Michael Maul, who investigated Bach’s fascination for Italian music throughout his creative life, arguing that “Herr Bach” was also, in part, a “Signor Bach”.

The following day (24 Nov) opened with a panel jointly presented by scholars of the Fondazione Levi of Venice, chaired by Roberto Calabretto. They discussed the presence of Bach in the soundtracks of Italian films, starting with a historic overview (Antonio Ferrara and Lina Zhivova), then discussing Pier Paolo Pasolini (Roberto Calabretto), Ciprì and Maresco (Francesco Verona), Tarkovsky (Umberto Fasolato) and Ermanno Olmi (Armando Ianniello).

In the afternoon, Piero Di Egidio chaired the session which was followed live by the highest number of listeners. The subject was Bach in Italian musical education; the first speaker, Christiane Hausmann, read a paper about Anna Magdalena Bach as a “student” of her husband; Ugo Piovano detailed the presence of Bach’s music in the Conservatory study programs for the flute between 19th and 20th century, while Maria Beatrice Venanzi offered a similar perspective as concerns the Violin Sonatas and Partitas. The two last papers, by Diego Ponzo and Luca Ronzitti respectively, discussed pedagogical experiments in which Bach’s music is offered to children and teenagers in non-musical schools.

In the evening, the first of the three roundtables took place. The invited speakers presented short speeches on the topic of “Bach’s Sacred Works in a Catholic Country”, offering their various viewpoints: Michael Marissen discussed the presence of anti-Catholic elements in Bach’s output, Jeremy Begbie illustrated the reception of Bach by two modern Catholic theologians (von Balthasar and Ratzinger), Richard Rouse detailed the role of the Vatican Dicastery for Culture in seeing Bach’s music as a crucial element in the dialogue of cultures, while Ton Koopman presented his experience as a performer and as a Catholic. The individual presentations were followed by a lively discussion, to which all of the Conference Delegates had been invited; the result was a thought provoking exchange between theology and musicology.

Theological and liturgical issues were discussed also in the first session of the following morning (Nov. 25th), chaired by Daniele Palma and dedicated to Bach and the organ in Italy. The first two speakers, Lorenzo Ancillotti and Cecilia Delama, offered different but complementary perspectives as concerns the role of Bach’s music within the Caecilian movement of liturgical reform. Their presentations were followed by one by Fulvio Berti, who discussed the figure of Francesco Lurani Cernuschi. This late-19th-century nobleman was one of the staunch promoters of Bach’s music in Italy, and he realized fascinating translations of several of Bach’s sacred works, some of which were sung in the Italian premieres of some of Bach’s most important masterpieces.

The following session, chaired by Fred Fehleisen, had a markedly different focus, i.e. the reception of Bach’s music in the 1960s: this included a sparkling presentation by Fabio Rizza about Bach and the progressive rock bands of the time, and a discussion of composer Pietro Grossi’s Computer Bach by Paolo Somigli. The session underpinned the versatility of Bach’s music, which tolerates (or rather welcomes) a variety of approaches, including the most experimental ones.

In the afternoon, a session chaired by Yo Tomita took into consideration Bach’s Italian models. The first lecture-recital was presented by Alberto Sanna, who argued that Bach’s imitatio of Corelli was a deliberate assumption of a musical culture and tradition, rather than a mere “influence”. Sara Bondi and Giovanni Damiano offered another lecture-recital comparing Flute Sonatas by Bach and Vivaldi and pointing out similarities and differences. Tommaso Graiff focused on Bach’s transcription of the marvelous Oboe Concerto in D minor by Alessandro Marcello, discussing its details also in terms of ornamentation and orchestral textures, while theologian Stefan Michels offered an interpretation of Bach’s Tilge, after Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, under the viewpoint of the history of emotions.

In the evening, the second roundtable involved representatives of some of the most important Bach societies worldwide. Christine Blanken, from Leipzig’s Bach Archiv, presented the experience of this institution in terms of research, dissemination and digitalization. Daniel R. Melamed discussed on the identity of today’s “audience” for a Bach Society, starting from the experience of the American Bach Society of which he is the President. Willemijn Mooij, of the Netherlands Bach Society and “All of Bach”, presented her viewpoint as concerns the role, mission and results of a Society whose vocation is primarily in the field of performance. Ruth Tatlow offered her perspective on the history of the Bach Network, on its goals and on its evolution in time. Once more, the following debate brought to light important issues such as inclusiveness and new media, and pointed out the “polyphony” of realities blossoming in the name of Bach.

The morning session on 26 November was an exploration of the “geography” of Bach reception in Italy. Chaired by Sabrina Saccomani of the Istituto per I Beni Musicali in Piemonte, it featured a well-documented presentation by Matteo Messori, who traced the history of the early Bach cult in Central Italy (Bologna, Pisa and Livorno, with Padre Martini, Filippo Maria Gherardeschi and Johann Paul Schulthesius). His presentation was followed by that offered by Elena Biggi Parodi, who discussed new findings as concerns performances of Bach’s music in nineteenth-century Verona, while Maria Cristina Riffero offered an overview of Busoni’s performances in Turin. Last but not least, Mauro Masiero presented an innovative experience called “Bacharo tour”, bringing Bach’s music in the typical Venetian winehouses, the so-called bacari.

The afternoon session, chaired by Alessandro Ruo Rui of the Conservatory of Turin, included three lecture-recitals focusing on Bach transcriptions by Italian pianists. The session was opened by Maria Chiara Mazzi and Lamberto Lugli: the former argued that the boundaries between transcription, translation and betrayal may be very thin indeed, while the latter analyzed a Bach transcription by Gino Tagliapietra. The figure of Sergio Fiorentino was then remembered by Paolo Munaò, with numerous examples from his acclaimed recordings and from transcriptions played by Munaò himself. Finally, Giovanni Nesi contributed his personal experience as a transcriber of Bach’s works for piano left hand.

The day was closed by an exciting roundtable, dedicated to Bach on the Italian stage. Invited speakers included musicians active in the field of historically informed performance practice (such as Rinaldo Alessandrini and Lorenzo Ghielmi), as well as one of the most celebrated pianists/harpsichordists of an earlier generation, Bruno Canino. Their experience was complemented by that of Claudio Chiavazza, choir conductor and manager, and artistic director of the international Festival BackTOBach, while another manager, Maria Majno, told the listeners about the monumental project in which Bach’s complete Cantatas were performed in Milan around the 2000s. Their viewpoints harmonized with that presented by Giovanni Bietti, a pianist and composer who is particularly famous for his radio broadcasts with the purpose of disseminating knowledge and appreciation of music and of its language.

The last two sessions, on the 27th, were also very stimulating. In the morning, Susanna Pasticci chaired a session on Bach and the Italian contemporary composers, focusing on Roman Vlad (discussed by Angela Carone), Fellegara (presented by Stefano Campanini in a lecture-recital), Giancarlo Facchinetti (discussed by Andrea Faini) and Facchinetti’s teacher, Camillo Togni, as remembered and studied by Aldo Orvieto. This session clearly demonstrated the role of Bach’s music as a source of inspiration for composers with very diverse backgrounds, as well as their frequent adoption of Bach’s music as a symbol for the sacred.

The afternoon session, chaired by Erinn Knyt, continued the exploration of reception issues, starting with a groundbreaking paper by Eftychia Papanikolaou, who discussed a performance of excerpts from Bach’s B-Minor Mass realized in Berlin by Gaspare Spontini the year before Mendelssohn’s famous performance of the St. Matthew Passion. Her paper was followed by one by Vasiliki Papadopoulou, who studied some Italian instructive editions of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin; finally, Andrea Padova presented a lecture-recital with his “Interludes”, composed to complement Bach’s Preludes from Wilhelm Friedemann’s notebook.

The Maghini Consort, an early music ensemble conducted by Claudio Chiavazza, performed the Gala concert in the evening of the same day, with a touching and inspired program paying homage to the victims of COVID. The program included sacred works by Bach, Telemann and Hainlein.

The last day (Nov. 28th) opened with another episode of “Un caffè con JSBach.it”; in this case, musicologist Michael Heinemann discussed some issues regarding the reception of Bach in Germany, particularly as concerns his sacred works. In the afternoon, the second keynote speech was delivered by Raffaele Mellace, who highlighted some important points of Bach’s study of the Italian music. This section of his presentation was followed by another on some key figures for the early reception of Bach in Italy, while the third and last section offered an innovative perspective on the presence of idiomatic musical gestures of the Italian operatic tradition in Bach’s vocal works.

Both keynotes, as well as the two “Coffees” and the three roundtables, along with the opening and closing ceremonies, had subtitles: the events spoken in Italian had English subtitles and vice versa, in order to encourage the participation of a large audience. Overall, the Conference reached several thousands of people, while live broadcasts were followed on average by approximately 100 listeners.

This result was made possible by the cooperation of many people. One of the most impressive elements of the Conference was the enthusiastic participation of a group of very young volunteers, many of whom are neither musicians nor musicologists, but who offered hundreds of hours for the Conference’s good outcome. They were led by Daniele Palma, Chair of the Organising Committee, and their work was widely appreciated for its professional quality.

Financial support was provided by the Italian Ministry for Culture (MIBAC), Music & Letters, The Royal Musical Association, the Inner Wheel Club and the General Consulate of the Federal Republic of Germany (Milan), as well as by a number of private donors who participated in JSBach.it’s crowdfunding campaign. Many other Institutions gave their patronage to the Conference: the classical channel of the public Italian radio (RAI Radio3 Classica) offered a media patronage, institutions such as Regione Piemonte, the City of Turin, the DAMS of the University of Turin, the University of Genoa, the Department of Musicology of the University of Cremona, the Royal Musical Association, CIDIM, SIDM, Bach, Network, Il Saggiatore Musicale, the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Goethe Institut supported the Conference in various forms.

The Conference program included also numerous fringe events, starting with a soirée in cooperation with the National Museum of the Cinema in Turin (with a focus on Pasolini’s Il Vangelo secondo Matteo, on the 45th anniversary of the director’s death), and comprising several other concerts offered by the Accademia del Santo Spirito (performing Bach’s Tilge under the baton of Ottavio Dantone), the Trio Quodlibet, a jazz ensemble led by Giovanni Petrella and the Early Music Youth Orchestra sponsored by Early Music as Education (EMAE) and conducted by Alberto Sanna.

The Conference demonstrated the variety, diversity and richness of the topic “Bach and Italy”, and paved the way for further research and dissemination. The Conference convenors are planning for a book of critical reflection on the issues raised during the Conference; it will represent much more than the simple collecting of Conference proceedings, and it aims at offering an overview of the possible developments of current and future research in the field.

The encounter between historians of Bach reception and theorists, between musicians and musicologists, between students, music lovers and teachers has represented a unique opportunity offered by the digital medium. It has fostered fruitful interactions, and demonstrated the potential of a field of study and research which has still much to reveal. It also contributed to the establishment of positive human relationships, in which the scholarly and academic component actively contributed to a network of knowledge, culture and art, bringing a beacon of light in the midst of a very difficult year.

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