Luigi Dallapiccola
Prominent Istrians

The 12-tone Music of Luigi Dallapiccola

[Derived from Brian Elegant's NEH grant project proposal, see sources below.]

Music theorists agree that the advent of 12-tone composition is one of the most important musical developments in the 20th century. According to Schott Musik International, "Dallapiccola was the leading Italian twentieth-century composer between Puccini and Berio, and one of the most original receivers and refiners of the twelve-note method."

"Most musicologists who examine 12-tone music view the rows of notes as one-dimensional entities", says Brian Alegant. "But this methodology has been "only partially successful in determining the procedures and structural relationships in Dallapiccola's music." 

Twelve-tone music

Music constructed according to the principle, enunciated by Hauer and Schönberg independently in the early 1920s, of 12-note composition. According to the Schönbergian principle, the 12 notes of the equal-tempered scale are arranged in a particular order, forming a series or row that serves as the basis of the composition. In Schönberg's 'Method of Composing with Twelve Notes Which are Related Only to One Another', the note-row may be used in its original form, or inverted, or retrograde, or retrograde inverted; in each of these forms it may be transposed to any pitch (each note-row may thus have 48 possible forms). All the music of the composition is constructed from this basic material; any note may be repeated, but the order must be maintained. Octave transpositions are permitted. Notes may occur in any voice and may be used chordally as well as melodically.

Later developments of 12-note theory introduced the idea of using six-, four- or three-note segments of a row as compositional elements. As originally designed by Schönberg, the method was intended to preclude tonality, though later composers, notably Berg, found ways of using the technique in a tonal context - as indeed did Schönberg himself.

Alegant proposes "... an alternative approach that features a new theory of two-dimensional configurations. The theory provides a framework with which to model the melodic and harmonic dimensions of his music, and offers important insights into a previously impenetrable repertoire."

Theorists also agree that Luigi Dallapiccola (1904-75) is one of the most accomplished 12-tone composers. His output comprises a variety of frequently performed and highly respected works, including ballets, choral music, concerti, film scores, piano music, song cycles, operas, and chamber pieces. In addition, he enjoyed international fame as a lecturer, teacher, author, and member of the national academies of arts in the U.S., France, and England.

And yet, little has been written about Dallapiccola's music in general, and virtually nothing has been said about his use of harmony. The literature consists of a handful of studies that focus primarily on his rhythmic or melodic organization and one close reading of one movement from an early work. Perhaps the best explanation for this neglect is Dallapiccola's idiosyncratic handling of the 12-tone system: he uses tone rows in ways that, until now, have proven analytically resistant.

Like traditional 12-tone composers, Dallapiccola often uses rows in a linear fashion, presenting them as one-dimensional strings. 

Tone Rows

In general terms, a 12-tone row is a string of notes that can be shaped, molded, and arranged into motives or themes. Rows can be can be presented singly or in combination; they can be transformed, concatenated, inverted (turned upside down), or reversed; they can be juxtaposed, superimposed, and intertwined. The 12-tone system is remarkably fertile: it can be used to create an infinite variety of textures, densities, and patterns. Theorists have developed quite sophisticated tools and techniques to describe the associations among and between rows. 

Existing analyses of Dallapiccola's music concentrate exclusively on the derivation of rows used in a given work and the correspondences and relationships between their melodic components. In effect, these analyses show how row "threads" form the fabric of a composition. But Dallapiccola is equally fond of projecting rows as two-dimensional configurations; I call these "cross-partitions." The use of cross-partitions in his music has not been addressed, largely because theorists have not yet developed adequate tools for the analysis of such structures. [Sample from Il Prigioniero]

Cross Partitions

Elegant says, "In two recent conference presentations, I have advanced a theory of cross-partitions and used this theory to analyze the underlying organization in movements from two of Dallapiccola's works. An example of a cross-partition is displayed below. To the right, the notes of the chromatic scale are represented by integers 0 to 11, where C = 0, C# = 1, D = 2, ...

C Eb F# A 0 3
C# E G Bb 1
D F Ab B 2
This rectangular design projects three-note collections vertically and four-note collections horizontally. No note is duplicated, and all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are accounted for. My analyses reveal that Dallapiccola treats this cross-partition as if it were a slot machine: he reorders the vertical notes while keeping them in their columns. Slot-machine transformations fix the vertical dimension (the harmony), but change the horizontal lines (the melodies). The analyses also show how cross-partitions afford a high degree of harmonic consistency as well as a fertile ground for melodic invention." 

Alegant says that Dallapiccola often links cross-partitions to structure entire sections or movements. In several works, the cross-partitions are gradually "horizontalized": the two-dimensional configurations are seemingly flattened into linear rows. In others works, however, no row ever appears as a string: all of the material derives exclusively from the progression of cross-partitions." His theory of cross-partitions "builds upon and extends in two ways the current research on Dallapiccola: it offers a framework for the investigation of the motives and harmonies that arise in these configurations, and it provides tools and instruments to model the ways in which these dimensions intersect. I believe that it will prove invaluable to the study of Dallapiccola's music."


  • Description of 12-tone music - The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music, edited by Stanley Sadie. © Macmillan Press Ltd., London.

  • Oberlin College - Brian Alegant's NEH Grant to Research the 12-tone Music of Luigi Dallapiccola -

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Created: Saturday, March 15, 2003; Last Updated: Saturday, April 02, 2016
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