02/03/2014 12:00 pm ET | Updated Apr 05, 2014

Music and Trauma

Kurt Hutton via Getty Images

What is the appropriate response to trauma?

Today, January 31, 2014, we learned of the death of Riz Ortolani, a composer whose name was unknown to me. He composed film scores -- and who knows what music he left behind? Most people in America do know one song: "More," otherwise known as the "Theme from Mondo Cane" -- a song recorded by many pop stars. It has a lovely Italian descending intervallic leap in its curving, melodic line, one that could have been the opening of a grand operatic duet in the hands of a Puccini or Mascagni. Life being what it was in the second half of the 20th century, composers with this gift could not have written in this style for an opera, and so they wrote for radio, television, and best of all, the movies.

Ortolani was born in 1926. If one does the math, one notes that he grew up in Fascist Italy where everything was owned and controlled by the state -- much to the relief of the vast majority of Italians who seemed uncomfortable with taking responsibility for governing once their country had been reunited in 1871. But, continuing through the obituary, one also notices that Riz served in the Italian Air Force. The various biographies and obituaries skip over this detail, and it is difficult to know exactly when that was, but perhaps it was for Mussolini's air force that fought side by side with the Nazis. If that had been the Luftwaffe, I wonder if "More" would have been "Less."

Riz would have been 17 or 18 when, in 1943, Italy withdrew from fighting on the side of the Nazis, throwing the country into civil war. There was an Italian government, still under the titular control of Mussolini in the north, that was attempting to conscript Italians to fight with the Nazis, and there was the south, where overnight, the Italians were fighting their former allies, the Germans. And there were a lot of young men hiding in the basement as Italians starting killing Italians. Germans were rounding up something like one million Italians, who were now traitors, and putting them to work in mines, throwing them into concentration camps or hanging them in the piazza.

Riz would have lived in these times, probably the most humiliating and dehumanizing times since the Fall of the Roman Empire -- an apt and pathetic metaphor. He played jazz during the war and, fifteen years after it was officially over, he wrote at least one beautiful melody that the world sang in 1962, admittedly accompanying a fake documentary montage portraying gross behavior throughout the world, called Mondo Cane -- Dog World. The irony of Ortolani's sensuous melody accompanying this particular film had the kind of impact that Kurt Weill first brought to the stage when he teamed up with Bertolt Brecht in the 1920s -- the previous post-war European response to carnage and destruction.

Ennio Morricone shares a similar birth date, being a mere two years younger than Ortolani. Morricone is much more famous, having composed many more film scores, some of them reaching enormous audiences in America, like Once Upon a Time in America, A Fistfull of Dollars, The Untouchables and Cinema Paradiso. These profoundly tonal and romantic scores, channeling the spirit of Mahler and Puccini, have made him the most important living Italian composer since Nino Rota. Last week he was awarded a Lifetime Grammy.

Morricone was a teenager living in Rome when that city was abandoned by its king and the newly appointed head of the army, Marshal Badoglio. Indeed, the entire government left town after the king fired Mussolini, leaving the city open to all takers. The Nazis got there first. Again, this is an unimaginable scenario for a boy growing up in the city that once, as he was taught from birth, ruled the world.

Morricone's symphonic music is atonal and brutal. When he began giving live concerts, he would frequently play this music in the first half. Audiences soon learned to put up with it or to come late. The second half was filled with his soaring melodies. There are over 500 films with scores by Morricone -- probably a world record.

When I asked him why he wrote in two distinct styles, he said "Out of respect for the genre." From his point of view, contemporary symphonic music must be complex and atonal, and film music must be full of melody and descriptive of storytelling.

Many symphonic composers who grew up in the disastrous conditions of World War II thought (and think) the same thing: That brutal-sounding, non-tonal music, usually strictly controlled by systems unattached to the emotional underpinnings of a few thousand years of musical tradition, is the appropriate music of its and our time. I have named these men (Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono, Xenakis) "the World War II School." Their supporters were and are some of the most articulate and impressive intellectuals of our time. Their profoundly emotional attachment to their intellectual position is unshakable, and we must of course respect it.

Is atonal music the appropriate musical response to the traumas these boys and young men suffered? Is their rejection of the music of their fathers something we can look at as an understandable Oedipal response to the mess they found themselves in? Guilt, rage, hunger and horror all came together in a crucial adolescent period of indescribable humiliation and need.

Of course, there is no single appropriate response to what we now call post-traumatic stress syndrome. What music, if any, will the children of Iraq and Syria write in twenty years? However, accusing those who moved forward by bringing beauty into the world as being insensitive purveyors of kitsch is both unfair and ultimately irrelevant.

Somewhere, someone is singing "More" today. No one is singing Pithoprakta, Pli selon pli or Samstag aus Licht, as serious and as worthy as these scores might be. Style is the medium of discourse within the medium of music. It carries within it the Idea. It is up to each composer to find his/her style. The Idea is everything.

The genius finds a way, in spite of all the words and all the heated discussions, into the heart and into the mind. If the mind cannot comprehend, the heart cannot be reached. Without both, there is no music whatsoever.

Requiescat in Pace, Riz. Thank you for "More."