Luigi Dallapiccola
Prominent Istrians

Luigi Dallapiccola
by Pierluigi Petrobelli

[Source: Pierluigi Pietrobelli, "Luigi Dallapiccola," The Musical Times, Vol. 116, No. 1586 (Apr., 1975), 337-338. Currently published by Musical Times Publications Ltd. ®.]

Luigi Dallapiccola, who died in Florence on February 19 [1975] at the age of 71, was born in Pisino, in the heart of Istria. He was the son of the headmaster of the high school in a region then under the Austrian government, but at the confluence of three different cultures: Italian, Austrian and Slovenian. At the beginning of World War I the family moved to Graz, where Dallapiccola had his first strong musical experience: a performance of Wagner's The Flying Duthman. For a person endowed with such an extraordinary memory (his conversation was often punctuated with literary quotations of all kinds, mostly from Dante's Divine Comedy, which he knew in its entirety by heart), single experiences and impressions had a crucial importance and deeply influenced his development as well as his artistic production.

It was the family's cultural milieu which nurtured Dallapiccola's extremely refined literary taste (a collection of the texts he set to music would form a superb anthology of poetry); more to the point, he was attracted throughout his life by the world of the Greek lyric poets, and by some figures of Greek mythology, like Ulysses. He began his musical studies in 1914, and continued them in Trieste — composition with A. Illersberg, and also piano— and then in Florence, where he moved in 1922 and where he established his home for the rest of his life. He studied there with Vito Frazzi; but it is only fair to say that Dallapiccola's true teachers were the great European masters of the early 20th century— whom he encountered solely through listening to and studying their works — as well as the composers whom he considered the highest points of the Italian musical tradition: Gesualdo and Monteverdi in the Renaissance, Verdi in the 19th century. The immediate predecessor to whom he constantly looked and with whom he felt a strong intellectual and spiritual affinity was Busoni, whose music he often performed and whose writings he and his wife translated into Italian.

After completing his studies in piano and composition at the Florence Conservatory, Dallapiccola began his career as a concert pianist. His activities in this direction did not last long, and continued only within the duo which he formed with his lifelong friend, the violinist Sandro Materassi; their performances were mostly devoted to 20th-century music. In 1934 Dallapiccola was appointed teacher of piano (as a subsidiary study for violinists, singers etc) in the conservatory where he had been a student, and he held this post until he retired in 1967; it is symptomatic that he never taught composition in his own country.

The first piece which brought Dallapiccola's personality to the notice of the world of contemporary music was the Partita for soprano and orchestra, given at Florence in 1933; other significant compositions of this early period are the Divertimento in quattro esercizi (1934) and the three cycles of Cori di Michelangelo Buonarotti il Giovane (1933-6); the Inni for three pianos (1935) typify his style at this period. His encounter with 12-note technique, through the works of the three Viennese masters, exerted a fundamental influence on Dallapiccola (he had heard Pierrot Lunaire conducted by the composer in Florence as early as 1924 and had met Berg there in 1933). To him 12-note technique represented the ideal means for drawing the Italian musical tradition, as he understood it, into a language of our time; what attracted him especially were the possibilities which a completely polyphonic texture implied. The technique was used, still only sporadically, in Dallapiccola's first opera, Volo di notte (1939), to a libretto by the composer (he wrote all his own librettos) from the Saint-Exupery novel. It is symptomatic that themes appear in the plot of this opera that characterize the composer's most profound and most mature works: solitude, freedom, human destiny. 12-note technique has a decisive role in Canti di prigionia (1938-42), for chorus and instruments, and is applied thoroughly in the threefold cycle of Liriche greche (1942-5) for voice and chamber ensemble: these works, written during the darkest years of World War II, either reflect immediately and dramatically the horrors and sufferings of thousands of people in many countries {Canti di prigionia, on texts by three illustrious prisoners, Mary Stuart, Boethius and Savonarola, was conceived in 1938 when the racial persecutions began in Italy), or by contrast reaffirm the strongest belief in the value of beauty as a supreme cathartic means.

These works are also significant because it was along these two different lines that Dallapiccola's most important and successful works developed in the following decades. The problem of freedom returns in his second opera, // prigioniero (1946), while Job (1951), a 'sacra rappresentazione', is based on the direct confrontation between man and his creator. A genial reinterpretation of musical ideas belonging to an entirely different civilization are Sonatina canonica for piano on themes by Paganini (1946), and Tartiniana (1951) and Tartiniana seconda (1956) for violin and orchestra, on themes by Tartini. Among the works composed in the 50s the most significant are the cantata An Matilde, on texts by Heine (1955), the Quaderno musicale di Annalibera for piano (1952), the Goethe-Lieder for soprano and three clarinets (1953) and the Canti di liberazione (1951-5).

In I960 Dallapiccola began the composition of his most demanding and complex work, the three-act opera Ulisse, which he rightly considered the sum of his artistic and human experiences, and which had its premiere in Berlin during the September Festival of 1968. As in most of his previous works, we find here the perennial questions that man, time and again, asks himself, and to which no objective answer is possible. Dallapiccola, who was a firm believer, resolved them in a mystical experience, much in the same way as Dante resolved them at the end of his Divine Comedy: that is the message we find in the last scene of the opera, and the same questions come back and permeate his last works, the piece for voice and small orchestra Sicut umbra (1970), Commiato (1972), and the two a cappella choruses Tempus desrruendi, Tempus aedificandi (1972).

Dallapiccola liked to express his thoughts on music in writing. Besides being music critic of the weekly Il mondo (1945-8), he wrote several articles on his own works, and at least two of his essays on music of the past—one on the statue scene in Don Giovanni, the other on words and music in Italian 19th-century opera — are models of imaginative scholarship and present new, unexpected guiding principles for the understanding of well-known though problematic operatic scenes. He was among the founding members of the Italian Musicological Society, and received several honours from academies and learned bodies, notably doctorates at Edinburgh and Michigan.

This bare sequence of dates, titles and facts can hardly give an idea of Dallapiccola's stature as a composer, nor can it in any way suggest the immense richness, warmth and charm of his personality. During his entire life he was guided, both as man and as composer, by some fundamental principles, to which he adhered with inflexible, admirable coherence, at no matter what cost. That is why his works reflect so cogently the ultimate beliefs that determined his life, as well as a perfect stylistic unity. A basic concern and respect for human beings guided his relationship with the numerous students who worked with him during his several spells in the USA; and the same holds true for his friends. Everyone who had the privilege and the honour of being among them knows that, behind a 'learned', sometimes difficult façade, was hidden a most sensitive, generous person, endowed with a marvellous sense of humour, always ready to help in whatever way was possible or necessary. The world of music has lost a composer who was truly great, but for his friends a unique light is gone for ever.

For full bibliographical information and list of works (to 1964), see G. M. Gatti, ed.: 'L'opera di Luigi Dallapiccola', Quaderni delta Rassegna musicate, ii (Turin, 1965).

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Created: Monday, March 28, 2005. Last Updated: Saturday, April 02, 2016
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