Has There Ever Been a Music of the Future?

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Giacomo Balla <em>Abstract Speed + Sound (Velocità astratta + rumore),</em> 1913–14

Readers of my recent articles know that my visit to Bayreuth resulted in three articles. Wagner's art and theories have a way of sticking around in one's mind, provoking more questions and prompting consideration of notions that were previously unaddressed.

One thing I have been pondering is "The Music of the Future," which Wagner discussed in a pamphlet in 1861 (you can read it here). This essay was a response to readers and critics who, Wagner said, misinterpreted or did not understand the ideas he put forth in his 1850 treatise, Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft (The Artwork of the Future). That original work was utopian in nature and, to me, seems to describe Beethoven and others as paving the way that Wagner stands astride and indicates where it will lead.

With thoughts of Wagner and the future I went to New York’s Guggenheim Museum for the first exhibition in the United States on the Italian cultural and artistic movement known as Futurism.

When I was a college student in Italy in the 1970s, I found the study of Il Futurismo rather frustrating. I had gone to learn about the Etruscans and Romans, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and the centuries of Italian creativity in all endeavors that seemed to build on earlier breakthroughs and achievements. Italy seemed unique among civilizations in its continuous innovation and learning from nature and the heavens. 

The renewal of interest in Futurism in Italy came about as the country acquired enough distance from the Fascist era (1922-1943) to be able to evaluate this artistic movement without falling automatically into polemics and reopen old political wounds. Even though the ideas of Futurism were published in 1909, it came to be connected with Fascism because Mussolini embraced some (though not all) of the movement’s tenets. Although there is very little I can praise Mussolini for, he did declare "L'arte e' per noi un bisogno primordiale della vita” (Art, for us, is a primordial need in life).

What makes Futurism different from many artistic movements is that it sprang from, and was expected to conform to, the theories of one person. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944) published the Futurist Manifesto (in French) on February 20, 1909 and it contains much of the harsh language of this movement I found so off-putting when I read it in 1975. Here are some key phrases:

“There is no beauty that does not consist of struggle. No work that lacks an aggressive character can be considered a ‘masterpiece.’” 

“We stand on  the last promontory of centuries…Why should we look back over our shoulders when we intend to breach the mysterious doors of the Impossible?”

“Time and space died yesterday.” 

“We intend to glorify war—the only hygiene of the world—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of anarchists, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and contempt of women.”

When I read such things as a young man, I quickly decided that Futurism was yesterday’s news. 

Luigi Russolo's (1885-1947) Intonarumori Noise Machines
Luigi Russolo's (1885-1947) Intonarumori Noise Machines

And yet I am very glad I saw this exhibition and I recommend it to you. While it was clear to me that Marinetti was outlining a philosophy rather presenting an artistic technique, what artists in all fields—painting, sculpture, literature, music, architecture, applied arts and the nascent form of cinema—did with this philosophy was often fascinating. Not surprisingly, the best work came from artists who did not conform strictly to Marinetti but used some of his ideas to create works of beauty and fascination.

The most valid aspect of Futurist thinking came in its being "a religion of speed, novelty and originality." Industry, mechanization and new forms of mass communication were changing the pace of life and the amount of information, ideas and images available were growing exponentially. The best Futurist artists found inspiration in this phenomenon. The Futurists were galvanized by early Italian excellence in flight and even commissioned photographs to be taken from small planes.

Futurists spoke of an opera d’arte totale, a term appropriated from Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerke, or a total work of art that is a creation using multiple existing art forms to create a new one. That is what opera was. Like Futurism, opera was born of theories and it required a revolutionary genius—Claudio Monteverdi—to liberate it from the theoretical and give it flesh and blood. I don’t think Futurism ever had a revolutionary genius.

The Italian Futurists, after an initial flirtation with Wagnerian ideas, ultimately rejected him as being of the past. Futurist composer Luigi Russolo created a rather theoretical composition called The Art of Noise in 1913 that you can listen to here in a 1924 recording.


The text is in Italian first but a good English translation appears at 1’23”. Russolo's works were performed in Paris and attracted the attention of Maurice Ravel. To me a more fully realized use of noise in music is Gershwin’s An American in Paris written in 1928.

Francesco Balilla Pratella (1880-1955) was from Lugo, in Romagna, the same town where Rossini had important family roots. He wrote what is probably the most important Futurist opera, L’Aviatore Dro (Dro, the Aviator) in the second decade of the 20th century. While the opera sounds like it is of its time, it draws in some way on the Wagnerian trope of redemption through death—in this case of an aviator. In the interesting article in the exhibition catalogue by Giovanni Lista about Futurism and music, we learn that the opera is about “A man who atones for his vices through his death, thus rejuvenating nature and humanity with his blood.” Listen to the Intermezzo from the opera and come to your own conclusions. The work was conducted by Gianandrea Gavazzeni not long before his death in 1996. I think this opera could fly today if presented by an adventurous opera company that can invest in its future by looking to the past.