July 09, 1998
University Gazette


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Faculty of Arts and Sciences Memorial Minute: Nino Pirrotta

Read at the Faculty Meeting on May 19, 1998

Nino Pirrotta, one of the most distinguished music historians of the twentieth century and the acknowledged caposcuola of Italian musicology, died in his native Palermo on January 20, 1998 at the age of eighty-nine. Pirrotta came to Harvard in 1956 both as Naumburg Professor of Music and to be in charge of the Music Library, relinquishing his library responsibilities when he became Department Chairman from 1965 to 1968 and continuing to teach until 1972. In that year he reluctantly returned to Italy to take up a newly created chair of musicology at the University of Rome. His term as De Bosis Fellow in 1979 was his last Harvard appointment but he continued to come back to see friends here.

By the time of Pirrotta's first visit to the United States in 1954 as a Visiting Professor at Princeton, his publications had already established him as the pre-eminent Italian musicologist of his generation. From his early training in art history and organ (his thesis in art history was completed in 1931 for the University of Florence), Pirrotta gravitated to the study of the music and poetry of the Trecento, publishing his first book in 1935 with his friend Ettore Li Gotti, a noted philologist--Il Sacchetti e la Tecnica Musicale. More publications and studies on the Trecento continued in the 1930's and '40's, as Pirrotta opened up this territory of study with that magisterial sensitivity to poetry, music, and historical context that was always to mark his work in later years. From his vast research on the Ars Nova Italiana came many important articles, including studies of major manuscripts, of single composers, and of stylistic trends, always illuminated by Pirrotta's subtle insights into the thought and feeling of the period and rooted in profound knowledge of the sources. As he once remarked, in dealing with the sources of Italian fourteenth-century music it struck him that "the pieces they preserved were like objects on the visible face of the moon." This characteristic blend of originality and modest humor emerged in his teaching, as a generation of students and colleagues will attest.

Alongside his studies of late medieval music Pirrotta moved on into the Renaissance and early Baroque, publishing major studies of the Florentine Camerata and of early opera in its many forms and styles. In this field his capolavoro was the book entitled Li Dui Orfei, in which he traced the pre-history of opera from Poliziano's Orfeo to that of Monteverdi. The book, which won the Kinkeldey Award of the American Musicological Society in 1970, pursued both the mainstream and many of its tributaries, offering insights on every page that can provide food for scholars for our times and for generations to come. Translated into English as Music and Theater from Poliziano to Monteverdi (Cambridge, 1982) it remains a lasting treasure. So do his essays, collected in English under the title, Music and Culture in Italy from the Middle Ages to the Baroque (Cambridge, Mass., 1984). Mingling erudition with a deep sense of the personal, Pirrotta's writing embody a high point in the musicological literature of our time, in their blend of scrupulous care in presentation and a marvellous sense of the unexpected in his ways of thought on music and on history. The so-called gap between the "positivistic" and the "critical" did not exist for him, and his work shows that it need not concern any of us, since he provided a model of how to fuse historically justified exegeses of specific problems, works, and situations with a highly individual and personal viewpoint. To read Pirrotta in certain classic expressions of his work--e.g., the essay, "Dante Musicus: Gothicism, Scholasticism, and Music," (originally published in Speculum 43 (1968), reprinted in his Music and Culture in Italy, pp. 13-25--to read or re-read this essay is to know that one is the presence of a true master, whose sense of the cultural and musical world around Dante yields insights that continue to tell us things we need badly to know.

It is not surprising that in his later years in Italy Pirrotta was widely admired, received awards and prizes for his work, was a member of the renowned Accademia dei Lincei, and was the recipient of at least three volumes of essays in his honor written by colleagues and former students.

He was also a master teacher. When he came to Princeton in 1954 as Visiting Professor, he gave his first seminars in French, since the students did not know much Italian. Later at Harvard he taught in English laced with a soft southern Italian accent. Those who were his students and advisees know what we mean when we say that he always guided his students with care, kindness, and yet the same sense of historical sweep and of humane values that went into his work. His wife, Lea, predeceased him by a year but he is survived by his four children and many grandchildren.

Respectfully submitted:

Reinhold Brinkmann

Elliot Forbes

Christoph Wolff

Lewis Lockwood (Chair)


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College