Luigi Dallapiccola
Prominent Istrians

The Genesis of the "Canti di prigionia and il Prigioniero"

An Autobiographical Fragment By Luigi Dallapiccola

[Source: The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Jul., 1953), 355-372. © 1953, by G. Schirmer, Inc., translated by Jonathan Schiller.]

It is not without embarrassment that I write these notes. Everyone knows how difficult it is to talk about one's self and about one's own life. For a writer to talk about himself, interpret himself, and analyze himself is part of his profession; but this is not so for a musician who, in place of writing about events, can suggest at the most states of mind, since he is used to devoting his attention to the abstract matter of sound rather than to the exactness of the written word.

A few days after the world premiere of my opera // Prigioniero on the Italian radio, I happened to dine in the company of Igor Markevitch. The latter, with whom I had previously run over the score at the piano, had listened to the broadcast and seemed to be quite impressed by it. At a certain moment, Markevitch asked me such an unexpected question that I can forget that moment only with difficulty. He asked me exactly what the secret reasons were that, for such long periods of my life, had compelled me to be concerned with prisons and prisoners and whether I had named my daughter Anna Libera in order to juxtapose something beautiful and sweet with such a strangely dominant motive in my artistic production.

It suddenly occurred to me for the very first time that I had worked on the Canti di prigionia from 1938 to 1941 and that Il Prigioniero had occupied me from 1944 to 1948. Even though, in that period, I had written other works of different character, I had actually lived ten years in spirit with prisoners, considering the long and patient studies I undertook in connection with the libretto of II Prigioniero (at that time, I had almost become an expert on that obscure historical period commonly referred to as the "Wars of Religion"). Only because of the odd question that Markevitch asked, did I realize this.

Not every moment is equally suited to reviewing one's entire life all at once. Nor is every moment equally conducive to self-confession. I don't remember exactly what my answer was, but I have the impression that I got myself out of the predicament, as one often does in such cases, with a "coup d'esprit."

It isn't easy to look back at the past — on the contrary, it is sometimes very difficult and painful. Aside from the fact that, even for an artist who carefully scrutinizes his emotions, it is often difficult to guess precisely from what source his fantasy received the first creative impulse.

A contemporary school of psychology has established the preponderant, almost unique, importance of childhood and adolescent experiences upon the molding of the human personality in general and on that of the artist in particular. I remember that an American journalist who had come to Florence to attend the first theatrical performance of Il Prigioniero in May 1950 asked me during an interview if, by any chance, I had ever been in prison. My answer was in the negative. Yet, if at this very moment I would take a journey in "remembrance of things past," I would see one very important event standing out among my memories: internment for twenty months at Graz by the Austro-Hungarian government. This experience, important in itself, takes on added significance because it coincided with the beginning of my adolescence.

Before going into this matter, it will be necessary for me to talk about a previous, quite remote era, and an atmosphere unknown to the youth of today. The period is that preceding the outbreak of the First World War; the setting, that of the family of a professor of classical languages in the only Italian-language school permitted by the Austro-Hungarian government in that little peninsula known as Istria — more precisely, at Pisino — on the road that joins Trieste to Pola. It was a bourgeois environment in a bourgeois country — the Austro-Hungarian empire. But the word "bourgeois" (even if one wanted not to take into consideration that derogatory meaning which the word has acquired in recent years), is it really accurate? Yes, to a certain point. It must not be forgotten that the small peninsula where I was born lies at the crossing of three frontiers. It is well known how conducive frontiers are to the blending of race and blood; furthermore, the mentality that one encounters in border regions is very different from that generally found in the interior of a land. How can one define such a mentality? Perhaps by the adjective "restless."

Before the First World War, only burglars and murderers got arrested. The fact that the Dreyfus Case had shaken the conscience of all Europe at the end of the last century is proof of the importance attributed in that period to justice and individual freedom. How many bourgeois families of Europe kept jealously guarded for years and years, as if it were a relic, a copy of L'Aurore in which Emile Zola published his celebrated J'accuse!

I was ten years old when, in 1914, the first phase of World War I shook Europe. I was just beginning my studies at high school; for some time I had been devoting my free hours to the study of the pianoforte for "culture's" sake (as was the custom in bourgeois families of Central Europe), without even imagining that some day music would represent for me the only raison d'être.

Our family life went on quietly and without incident. That was fine. I used to hear talk about the Irredentist movement by those hostile to the heterogeneous conglomeration of the Habsburg empire; I also heard about the rivalry between the Italians and the Slavs. But to me all this seemed nothing extraordinary, considering that Istria had such a mixed population. During the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-12, my father often read with emotion the Canzoni d'oltremare that D'Annunzio published on the front page of the Corriere della Sera, and he used to save the copies. How often I remember hearing him declaim, in a voice shaking with emotion:

O incenso del deserto alla marina,
Profumo delle incognite contrade,
Fulvo come la giubba leonina...

As I mentioned earlier, my childhood passed peacefully. My family saw to it that I was educated as Catholic boys generally were. One afternoon after my piano lesson, my teacher asked to speak to my mother. He told her that I had a very special aptitude for music and that they should make a musician out of me. Instead of rejoicing over the idea, my mother seemed to be doubtful; I daresay she was even disturbed by it. Her maternal instinct told her that the life of an artist is full of disappointments, and, like every mother, she was anxious to forestall any grief that might befall her offspring.

I was six years old when a crime caused a great stir in our province. A woman had killed her husband. The family never spoke of things that might worry me; but, after all, who can say exactly what strange things can upset the mind of a child? And then, don't children know everything? Before the eyes of children, there are no mysteries.

One evening my father returned home holding the newspaper under his arm. I happened to be looking out the window along the street, which was dark and scantily lit by the scattered gas lamps. My father whispered to my mother: "Mrs. Volpis has been sentenced to six years in jail." I kept pressing my forehead against the window pane as if to command a better view of the street and I realized that the glass was very cold. I pretended that I hadn't heard anything. A moment later, I caught myself counting on my fingers up to six. I shuddered at the thought that a human being could be shut into a cell for such an immensely long period of time, a length of time exactly equal to the span of my own life up to that day. It often happens that I catch myself thinking about that poor woman-prisoner whose face, appearance, and Christian name I shall never know.

On the 29th of June, the Feast day of St. Peter and St. Paul, a yearly celebration customarily took place in the main square of my home town. This was an event that we children cherished because, at some moment, we would sit down at a table in a café to enjoy some good ice cream. In that far distant 1914, since the radio did not exist, an important piece of news reached the public on the day following a most serious incident. The celebration had to be cancelled by official decree (ten-year-olds cannot weigh the gravity of certain events). Word got around that in Sarajevo, a certain Gavrilo Princip had assassinated the heir to the Austrian throne, the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, Countess Sophie Chotek. One month later, war broke out.

Needless to say, in border areas repercussions of such events are always particularly strong. Not long after — in fact, a few weeks after the declaration of war against Austria by Italy (May 24, 1915) — people began to talk of prisons and concentration camps even in my home town. The Emperor Franz Josef was firmly resolved to "discipline" the Italians living in the Trentino region, in Trieste and the Istrian peninsula who, rebellious and freedom-loving, had often found ways of disturbing his old age. Decent citizens were deported; even the names of cities began to take on a sinister meaning: Leibnitz, Mittergrabern,The Genesis of the Canti di prigionia and Oberhollabrun stood for all that Auschwitz and Buchenwald later came to stand for, though on a lesser scale.

Many things changed rapidly, but we who lived in that period were not aware of the rapidity of such changes. Since I am now sufficiently removed from that era to view it in proper perspective, I can measure the swiftness of the changes, when I recall that on the morning on which the papers bore the news that the Socialist, Frederick Adler, had assassinated Count Stürgkh, Minister of Foreign Affairs, a friend of my own age whom I happened to meet whispered, as he winked at me: "One less to be counted."

Even youngsters had absorbed a new mentality: human life had lost much of its value.

On November 21, 1916, Franz Josef passed away. Karl von Habsburg, his successor, aware of many problems but called to the throne too late to be able to solve them, abolished the concentration camps which had aroused deep indignation throughout all of civilized Europe. The Irredentists, the political suspects, especially the P.U. ("politisch unverlässlich") were to be sent from the border zones to the interior of Austria. Thus, my family, escorted by a policeman, left for Graz, the capital of Styria, on March 27, 1917. There we had to make a new life for ourselves, but how? Without warning, my father had been retired and put on a pension; the Italian school that he directed with such love had been closed because, according to the authorities, it was a "protest school" ("ein Trotz-Gymnasium").

We did not suffer any violence. My father had no particular duty other than to report to the police periodically. But the change from the quiet rhythm of my first ten years of life and the events described, which took place within such a short time, had been too abrupt for my sensitivity. I felt in my soul that something unjust had befallen my family (and therefore me). Considering that the injustice of man had hit my father more than anyone else, and that I could do nothing to redress its offenses, I felt very deeply humiliated.

The food situation in Austria, already serious when we arrived in Graz, became worse day by day. One hundred and twenty-five grams of bread per day are not enough for a growing boy. Luckily, in Graz there was a fine opera house which, in spite of the war and its hardships on the people, put on good performances.

One could listen without effort to Don Giovanni, Meistersinger, and the Tetralogy standing on the top gallery since, at the age of thirteen, one doesn't feel fatigue. Moreover, and this is really surprising, one doesn't feel the pangs of hunger inside of the theater. With the passing of a few years, did my mother perhaps remember what my piano teacher had told her on a certain afternoon? Did she recall how disturbed she was that day? Was she afraid of seeing my tremendous love for music bursting forth? Did she understand that, in sending me to the theater, she was irresistibly pushing me towards all she wished to keep me from? I do not know. For one thing, my mother was going through a crisis and had to choose one of the two solutions facing her. With seventy kreutzers in time of war, it was not possible to buy bread on the black market, but those seventy kreutzers were enough to buy a ticket for the top gallery of the opera house. Unable to give me bread, my mother sent me to the theater. It might well happen that returning home after watching the last scene of Don Giovanni frozen with terror, one might not be able to fall asleep. Or one might be thinking of the "weeping and gnashing of teeth" in Dante's Inferno. A youngster does not tell his mother or anyone else the reasons for his insomnia. As a compensation it happened that, at the age of fourteen, I had acquired a somewhat profound knowledge of all of the operas of Wagner.

I had decided inwardly to devote myself entirely to music: I had, in fact, made this decision on the night when I heard The Flying Dutchman for the first time. I felt however that, in order to undertake an artistic career, I would have the difficult task of convincing my family. I finally realized that my father would not oppose my choice of vocation if I, on my part, completed my academic studies with distinction. "The time of ignorant musicians is past," my father would say to me every time I told him that my studies of molecular formulas or of the elements of crystallography seemed to me an entire waste of time.

Our stay in Graz lasted twenty months. When the war was over, we returned to Pisino. My father's school was reopened. He received ample commendation for the work he had accomplished and for the struggles he had gone through and was reinstated as director. In the early post-war period, there was talk on every side that there would be no more wars (this may explain the hedonistic psychosis that followed the war of 1914-18, so different from that which followed the Second World War). Woodrow Wilson had visited the most important Italian cities and had been received in triumph everywhere. In such a psychological climate and in the atmosphere of regained freedom, it was almost pleasurable to think of the tyrants of the House of Habsburg! Was it not true that peace surrounded us, that there was peace forever in a world freed forever from tyrants?

But now it is time to introduce another character: a childhood friend a year older than I; rather, the only childhood friend I still possess. A very sensitive being and very much the "artist," he was interested in all facets of culture.

One day while we were walking in the public gardens of our little town, my friend told me with great emotion that his French teacher had read and commented upon that episode from Victor Hugo's Légende des Siècles, entitled "La Rose de l'Infante":

Elle est toute petite: une duègne la garde;
Elle tient aux mains une rose, et regarde.t>

It does not matter whether the Infanta's name was exactly Maria; what matters is the fact that the poet creates another opportunity to speak again to us with tender devotion about childhood and to assert that the name of Maria is the sweetest of all names.

The Infanta, watched by the governess, is holding a rose in her hand and is looking at a pool of water in the garden. Behind a window in the palace in the background, Philip II can be seen:

Dans le vaste palais catholique romain,
Dont chaque ogive semble au soleil une mitre,
Quelqu'un de formidable est derriere le vitre;

According to certain commentators, the palace is Aranjuez, but why not the Escorial itself? Why should the poet be concerned with the structural truth when confronted by the beauty of his own impression? If now someone could have peered into the depths of Philip's eyes, he would have seen reflected neither the sky, nor the garden, neither the pool, nor his daughter. He would have perceived a fleet of vessels heading northwards: the Invincible Armada.

The sun is setting. A gentle breeze caresses the rose in the Infanta's hand and blows off the petals. They fall on the water in the pool and scatter. The disintegration of the rose is perhaps the first sorrow of the little creature. She turns, questioningly, to the governess who replies:

Tout sur terre appartient aux princes, hors le vent.

These are the same words that Philip II is to say on learning that the Invincible Armada, lashed by storms, has been sunk.

All this my childhood friend told me, emphasizing how his teacher had insisted on explaining the profound significance of the closing verse of the poem:

Tout sur terre appartient aux princes, hors le vent.

I can say that from that day, the idea of Philip II hovering menacingly over mankind has not left my consciousness:

Sa rêverie était un poids sur l'univers.

I want only to say that if, in 1919, upon first contact with Victor Hugo's poem, I mentally identified Philip II with the petty tyrants of the House of Habsburg, I connected him later on with other, more terrible figures.

I was working on my first opera, Volo di Notte, based on the celebrated novel of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, when curious rumors began to circulate at first very discreetly, later in more obvious fashion. Could Fascism have unleashed a race campaign after the model of that of the dastardly Adolf Hitler?

In an issue of the Corrispondenza Politico-Diplomatica, in the middle of February 1938, such rumors were hastily denied. However, knowing from experience what interpretation to give to official denials, we all had the impression that the Fascist government was lying once more.

Five months later, on July 15th to be exact, there appeared in the papers the grotesque "race manifesto"; this was even more shocking because it was tainted by pseudo-science. On the afternoon of September 1st, the race campaign was officially inaugurated.

As fond of the truth as I am, I should willingly have omitted the last few paragraphs. After writing them, I am glad to be able to add that the Italian people not only refused to support the "race campaign" but were definitely hostile to it.1

If I had suffered so much as an adolescent from the internment at Graz, when I saw the injustice visited upon my father, how should I describe my state of mind when I learned from the radio of the decisions of the Fascist Government on that fatal September afternoon? I should have liked to protest; but, at the same time, I was aware that any gesture of mine would have been futile.

Only through music could I express my indignation. In those days I was far from imagining that, only a few years later, various works created in that gloomy period or in that which followed would be defined as "protest music." I refer to the Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte and A Survivor from Warsaw by Schoenberg, the Thyl Claes of Vladimir Vogel, and many other similar works.

I had just finished reading Mary Stuart by Stefan Zweig. Through this book, I became acquainted with a short prayer written by the Queen of Scots during the last years of her imprisonment:

O Domine Deus! speravi in Te.
O care mi Jesu! nunc libera me.

My intention was to transform the prayer of the queen as an individual into a song for all mankind; I wanted to dwell at length upon the word "libera" in the music, to have this divine word shouted by everyone. Who could affirm or deny that in the most secluded recesses of my conscience there might still linger, unknown to me, the memory of that woman-prisoner whose sentence had so shattered my childhood? All of a sudden, the music took shape. I sketched the piece very quickly, after which I worked long months on the orchestration of Volo di Notte.

In sketching the Preghiera di Maria Stuarda, I had no preconceived idea of the general construction of the Canti di Prigionia. However, one number alone seemed to me too little to express my protest completely. I had to find other texts, of other illustrious prisoners, of other individuals who had fought for liberty and for the triumph of justice. The twelve-tone system attracted me, even if I then knew little about it; in any case, a series of twelve tones could serve as the principal theme.

But one day an idea occurred to me to link the individual pieces not only by a twelve-tone row, treated as freely as possible, but by a fragment of the liturgical Dies irae, dies ilia as well. Since the war had just begun, there was nothing out of the ordinary at that moment in thinking of the Last Judgment.

Furthermore, in utilizing the fragment of the Dies irae, I saw the possibility of being more easily understood. I do not say "appreciated" or "applauded," for such considerations have never entered into my thinking, nor have I ever taken them into account. I said only "understood," for I had decided to address myself to a vast audience, speaking to all sufferers. In order to be "understood," I felt that it was in no wise necessary to have recourse to the tonality of C major.

Boethius, the 6th-century philosopher, provided me with the text for the second number, written in the summer of 1940. This was to be a sort of scherzo in which the "apocalyptic" character should be very much in evidence, at least in the instrumental introduction. Among the various aspects of terror is the terror that freezes; there is not only that which finds its natural outlet in a shriek. I chose the first of these aspects and held the introduction throughout to a pianissimo shading. The third and final piece was to be a madrigal of Tommaso Campanella. I was well along in the composition when it struck me that, after two Latin texts, an Italian text would be rather incongruous. This is aside from the fact that this most beautiful poem of Campanella contained two verses so obscure in meaning that it would have been difficult to set them adequately to music.

1 tore up the notes for the Campanella and once again began my search.

To be sure, Socrates's last words attracted me greatly. But how cold they became in Latin translation! I gave up this idea and, for some days, thought I had finally found the answer to my problem in a fragment of a letter written by Sebastien Castellion, the great rival of Calvin, dated July 1, 1555.2

But other difficulties intervened.

On August 19, 1940, my wife and I happened to be at Covigliaio, a small mountain retreat. That evening, the radio brought Hitler's fearful speech to the Reichstag. The imminence of air attacks on England was announced. Sir Samuel Hoare, answering Hitler, urged the people to pray.

At last I hit upon it! Hadn't Girolamo Savonarola, the tragic monk of the Convent of St. Mark's at Florence, perhaps written something of the sort in his "Meditatio" on the psalm In Te Domine speravi, which he left unfinished?

Premat mundus, insurgant hostes, nihil timeo.
Quoniam in Te Domine speravi,
Quoniam Tu es spes mea,
Quoniam Tu altissimum posuisti refugium tuum.

This time, the old liturigal chant, Dies irae, dies ilia, would be enunciated in fortissimo chords, and presently harmonized with fragments of the twelve-tone row.

Had not Savonarola preached and prophesied the horrors that took place shortly after his death? Had he not urged the populace to penitence?

The first performance of the Preghiera di Maria Stuarda took place over the Flemish radio at Brussels on April 10, 1940. It was the last time in Italy that I was able to hear a Belgian broadcast. Four weeks later came the Nazi invasion.

The first performance of the entire work took place at Rome, amongst all kinds of difficulties, on the afternoon of December 11, 1941. The city presented a sinister aspect: police cordons everywhere and radios bellowing all over. On that day, Mussolini declared war on the United States.

After the Rome performance, personalities and circumstances barred the way for the Canti di Prigionia. Not a single journal granted space to it. This state of affairs lasted until the end of the war. I am indebted to Fedele d'Amico, who wrote a long article about my work, and to the I.S.C.M., which "rediscovered" the Canti at the London Festival in July 1946.

In June 1939 my wife and I decided to visit Paris to see once more at such an uncertain time this city which was particularly dear to us. Events were piling up. Everyone knew, of course, that, if Hitler dared to march on Danzig, war would be inevitable. Everyone knew, as I said, with the exception of the one person who should have known it: Ribbentrop.

Nevertheless, life continued at its normal pace. Paris was gayer and more inviting than ever. And, along the Seine, as usual, were the second-hand book stalls. Thus it was that we acquired the works of Count Philippe Auguste Villiers de I'Isle-Adam and that my wife, on our return trip, suggested to me the story La Torture par I'Espérance as a possible plot for dramatic action. Perhaps, said she, even for a pantomime.

By a simple coincidence, then, immediately after the reading of such a cruel tale, I had reestablished in my spirit the contact with a threatening tyrant, twenty years after my first contact with "la rose de l'Infante."

Philip II, the "Official" of Saragossa, and the hot blooded fanaticism of certain Spanish churchmen began to live in me.

The step from reading a story to composing a libretto is naturally long. I remember, however, that the night of May 18, 1940, on which for the first time Volo di Notte was performed, I had already decided that sooner or later, if war and circumstances permitted me to survive, I would write a stage work based on the plot of La Torture par I'Espérance.

In the meantime I felt the necessity and the duty of finding out as much as possible about the character of Philip II in the light of history and poetry. His is certainly a singular instance of an unquestionably great monarch absolved by historians and inexorably condemned by poets! By all poets of my acquaintance, if we make a partial exception in the case of Paul Verlaine (but let us be clear that it is only a partial exception). It is obvious that the French poet was inspired primarily by the last verse of his poem, stupendous in its solemnity:

Philippe II etait a la droite du Pfere

and that on this verse he based his long work, which is certainly not typical of his personality and is full of very apparent strictures. Of course, the historical truth interested me to a certain extent. And as far as the human personality of Philip II is concerned, I stood by the judgment of the poets.

At that time I also re-read La Légende d'Ulenspiegel et de Lamme Goedzak, the Flemish epic of Charles de Coster — a book that in recent years has nourished, with its spirit of freedom and its pure atmosphere, other musicians, first among them Vladimir Vogel. In this very book of de Coster I found elements that immediately struck me as quite suitable for the opera I was planning.

Between 1942 and 1943, midst day by day developments, I kept jotting down hundreds of notes, anecdotes and little odds and ends. It became increasingly clear to me that I must write an opera which, in spite of its background and its historical setting, could be both moving and timely; a work that would portray the tragedy of our times and the tragedy of persecution felt and suffered by millions of individuals. I would turn to free men; why should I concern myself with the conscious or unconscious, but at any rate compulsory, incongruities of the Fascists in any country? As events progressed, minute details took shape in me which some day would find their place in the libretto.

In war time we always went to sleep very late. During the late hours, there was a better chance of catching some bulletins broadcast by the London radio, which generally was jammed. And always after listening to the night radio news, I would take a lonely stroll along the Viale Margherita, where I was living at that time.

One of these nightly strolls remains unforgettable (in a blacked-out city moonlit nights had a particular fascination in spite of the fear that the RAF might come at any moment).

I don't know how it happened but, while I was slowly strolling, I found myself for a moment in a strange position under the leafless trees. It seemed to me that two branches which overshadowed me were strangling me. Only for a moment; but it was sufficient to make me see and feel the embrace of the Grand Inquisitor who was hiding behind the tree waiting for his victim.

It was then easy for me to merge the two characters of the jailer and the Grand Inquisitor into a single personage so that I could make the last scene more convincing from a theatrical point of view, and (why shouldn't I have the courage to tell the truth again?) more hair-raising.

The Nazi troops entered Florence three days after the announcement of the armistice on September 11, 1943. As if that weren't enough, the following evening the news came that Mussolini had been "liberated."

However unafraid of Mussolini we were, and however openly opinions were stated, 3 it was clear that our presence in Florence was not, at least for some time, very convenient. A friend of ours invited us to his villa in Borgunto, not far from Fiesole.

Here I completed the score of the Sex Carmina Alcaei, after which I sank into silence for many months.

In that period I was too troubled to find even the slightest peace of mind necessary for me to devote myself to my work. But this forced inactivity troubled me more than silence itself. How to kill time? Should a friend knock at the door, I would immediately ask him what bad news now?

On November 6, Igor Markevitch arrived on his bicycle to tell me that the rounding up of Jews had begun. Six days later, we left for Como, where we could be prepared for a possible escape into Switzerland. But if we should have gone, I would have had to remain without news of my mother for months or even years. So it was, all of a sudden, that I recalled the descent of Ulysses into the Cymmerian kingdom; his mother's words echoed in my mind, for they are the words of every mother:

Bensi la brama di te, l'affanno per te, l'accorato
Amor di te, la mia vita distrussero, o nobile Ulisse.

Similar words are uttered by the mother of my Prisoner in the Prologue.

We returned to Borgunto. Time does pass but when one is inactive, it never seems so.

One day, in a mood of Galgenhumor, I wrote the Sonatina Canonica su "Capricci" di Niccolò Paganini in a way as proof that, while in the Sex Carmina Alcaei I had dealt with problems associated with twelve-tone music, I was able to write in regular tonality, using a stated theme.

From time to time I visited friends and I consulted both the Enciclopedia Italiana and the Britannica to get better information about the meaning of the term "torture." On December 9th, of that terrible 1943, my wife decided that she ought, for the sake of us all, to take shelter for some time in the city, in a house placed at her disposal by a generous friend. Every night at dusk I went to see her, carefully choosing a different route every time.

One night, as I was re-entering my room in Borgunto (quite a long passageway led to it), I distinctly saw the corridor of the "Official" of Saragossa. Thus, and almost without my being conscious of it, another precious element for staging the cruel story of Villiers de l'Isle-Adam entered my mind.

In the meantime reassuring news brought my wife back to Borgunto.

Between Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve of 1943 I prepared a first draft of the libretto which, on January 4, 1944, I read in San Domenico at the home of my friends, the Bonsanti's, before a very small audience.

At the last words of the Prisoner, who unconsciously mutters "Freedom?" though giving the word a definitely questioning tone, there was a minute of silence. Alessandro Bonsanti spoke first: "For me," he said, "I dare to hope that it will be the Fascists who will end at the stake." This "mot d'esprit" made me rejoice, since it proved that my libretto was clear enough to be understood in a perhaps not too distant future by the general public. But once more I deluded myself. Only a few years later many people refused to understand the libretto (although it had been considered excellent in 1944) because after this lapse of time, they had the impression that the juxtaposition of Philip II with Hitler might refer to some other character. Finally, on January 10, 1944, the first sufficiently clear musical idea came into my consciousness. It was that twelve-tone row which created the aria in three strophes:

Sull'Oceano, sulla Schelda...

which constitutes the central portion of the opera.

That same night, the London radio broadcast news of the end of the Verona trial.

In a few weeks, the sketch of the principal aria of // Prigioniero was finished. But further work on the opera was held up for many months.

At the beginning of February the villa in Borgunto was requisitioned by the Nazi command. No way lay open but to return to the city, to our little apartment in Viale Margherita, and then to change our residence from time to time. This we did until friends cordially took us in so that we might await with them through interminable days and nights the moment of liberation.

The air-raid sirens blew their warnings seven or eight times a day.

As for me, I did not bother about air raids. I felt that I was not going to die on account of some Anglo-American bomb. But what robbed me of all peace of mind, in the most humiliating manner, was the treacherous persecution, the anonymous denunciation, the arrogant prose of the newspapers, the petty Fascist officials who would stare meaningfully after anyone they met on the street. I was paying bitterly, like many others, for the glorious burst of joy that I had felt at the news of Mussolini's fall on July 25, 1943, the happiest day of my life.

The summer of 1944 was quite long, but, with God's help, August 11 arrived, and with it, the liberation of the entire city of Florence took place. Going back to one's place after a period of war is not a guarantee that work will resume immediately. In our case, we had to wait for another twenty-eight days, since the shooting had not stopped in the streets of the city and shelling by our German "friends" continued from Fiesole. Moreover we were going back to a house that had suffered much from the destruction of the bridges over the Mugnone, and we had to start repairing the damage done to the roof immediately, because rain leaked through freely. To think I had deluded myself into believing that I could go back to my work on the first day after the liberation, starting early in the morning so as not to lose any more time! It was then that I suddenly recalled the memory of the trip that twenty-seven years earlier had brought me and my family to Graz. And this memory returned with all the thousands of details that I had thought forgotten, buried forever in the depths of my being.

When we were leaving, a friend had given me a brass medal on which was engraved St. George in the act of killing the dragon. The medal bore this inscription: In tempestate securitas. "It's a good omen," my father had remarked after looking at the medal.

At the Styrian border, a gentleman had entered our compartment and buried himself in the Tagespost, the main newspaper of Graz. He sat in front of me reading the first page, which contained political news, so that I could see and read the last page upon which stood out the announcement of the performance scheduled that night at the opera house: Otello (how can I forget the beauty of those Gothic letters in bold-face type?), opera in four acts, music by Giuseppe Verdi. Principal role played by Leo Slezak. Starting time: 19:30 hours.

How many times I asked my father whether the train was going to be late!

As a matter of fact, in my unbridled adolescent egotism, I dared to think that it was absolutely in the order of things that my family, thrown out of its house and facing a very dark future, would take me to the theater as soon as we reached our destination. Fortunately the train was very late, so that the problem that had worried me for so many hours during the trip was naturally resolved through the force of circumstances.

I said "in my unbridled adolescent egotism." But (and I am not writing this only to justify myself) may it not be that my love for music was already overpowering?

Twenty-seven years later I was evidently still prey to many illusions in thinking that I could start working again the day after the end of a war. Had I learned so little from a life that had not been either easy or always cheerful? And yet my adolescence had finished long ago!

Thus // Prigioniero could not make visible progress until the second part of January 1945. Two scenes were completely sketched; in the meantime I had successfully composed two chamber works.

In 1946 I found myself suddenly inactive creatively.

Tiredness, exhaustion. Only then I became aware, too late perhaps, that the labors, the anxieties of the war years, the worries of the time that preceded those years, the "Anschluss" of Austria, the question of the Sudetenland, the hoax of Munich and that fateful March 14, 1939, when Hitler marched into Prague (I had to lean against the wall because I felt faint that day after reading the news in the afternoon papers and I remember that I looked high above me towards the immensely blue skies and whispered "Sed libera nos a malo") — all this and the feverish work of the immediate post-war period had required a superhuman effort from all those who had not lowered themselves to any sort of compromise.

I recall however one great satisfaction in those first months of spring, 1946. Edward Clark wrote me from London that the international jury had chosen the Canti to represent Italy at the first post-war festival in London, at the same time expressing his wish that I attend the performance.

I made a considerable effort, in view of my great fatigue, and I still possessed enough strength to see to it that Italy reentered the I.S.C.M. I shall never forget that first contact with musicians of many nations after years and years of isolation.

After London and Paris I went to Brussels. But one morning, without taking leave of my friends, I went to Ghent, the kind of fortress that even today inspires heroic thoughts. How could I resist the temptation to climb up to the belfry to see the Roelandt bell which in // Prigioniero had inspired me so much? But the "proud bell" which was first cast in 1314, taken down on Charles V's orders, then recast in 1659 was not there. I saw it with great emotion four years later in its third casting and I read on the edge of it words more or less similar to those cited by Charles de Coster in La Légende d'Ulenspiegel et de Lamme Goedzack and utilized by me in the second scene of // Prigioniero :

Als men my slaet dan is 't brandt
AIs men my luyt dan is 't storm in Vlaenderlandt

When I toll, there's a fire,
When I toll, the country is in revolt.

On another morning I paid a visit to Antwerp, not only to admire all its art treasures but also to contemplate the estuary of the Scheldt, at this point no longer a river and not yet a sea; that stretch of water upon which the Beggar's Revolt fell back in its struggle against Philip II. From the Scheldt stretched an endless horizon. "Swans of liberty," I sang in my heart.

Thus I found the necessary strength again to resume my work, the first draft of which was concluded on April 25, 1947, two years after the Partisan insurrection in the north of Italy.

During the summer I rewrote the opera, carefully correcting its libretto and taking into account all the remarks and reactions of its readers and putting definitely in their place many musical details. The orchestration was completed on May 3, 1948.

I purposely have not dealt with technical matters in this article for I wanted to devote it almost entirely to retelling episodes of my life. Such episodes will seem to the reader perhaps very distant in time and told with great naivete. What I wrote, I wrote with the hope of convincing people that even a composer very much in sympathy with the twelve-tone technique is not a person detached from life but one who, like every man, lives his own life with many sorrows and some joy.

Copyright, 1953, by G. Schirmer, Inc.
(Translated by Jonathan Schiller)


  1. Among the many ideas considered in writing the libretto of the opera, II Prigioniero, I find the following:

St. Bartholomew's Eve (1572)

II faudrait desesperer de la nature humaine, si cette ferocite avait et6 univer-selle. Heureusement un nombre immense de catholiques detesterent la Saint-Barthelemy.

Une classe fut admirable, celle des bourreaux.

Us refuserent d'agir, disant qu'ils ne tuaient qu'en justice. A Lyon et ailleurs, les soldats refuserent de tirer, disant qu'ils ne savaient tuer qu'en guerre.

Michelet: Histoire de France, "Guerres de Religion."

  1. Only in the summer of 1952 was this text set to music. It is the first number of the Canti di liberazione, a work now in progress.

  2. I find written in my diary under the date of November 14, 1943: Long, unbearable trip. We left Milan a little while ago and already the train stops. In our 3rd class compartment crowded with all kinds of people, there are two cheap female entertainers, coming from some variety theater of the lowest kind. "What station is this?" one asks. After looking out the window, she answers herself: "It's only Lodi," and then she commences to sing softly: Io non vengo da Lodi per lodare, ne vengo da Piacenza per piacere; ma vengo da Predappio per predare...

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Created: Tuesday, January 16, 2007. Last Updated: Monday, June 05, 2017
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