Dallapiccola's Last Orchestral Piece
After the completion of Preghiere — which had its first performance at the University of California, Berkeley, on 10 November 1962 during a festival of nine concerts entirely devoted to his music — Dallapiccola returned to and completed the score of Three questions with two answers, commissioned early in 1960 bv the New Haven Symphony Orchestra. This request for an orchestral piece coincided with the beginning of work on the score of Ulisse, and the composer thought fit to utilize in the new piece the musical material he was going to exploit fully in the opera. It was, therefore, a sort of test, on a smaller instrumental scale, of the material which was to become the supporting and unifying element in Dallapic-cola's magnum opus. Three questions with two answers was performed only once during his life, on 5 February 1963 in New Haven. Dallapiccola never thought it appropriate to publish what turned out to be his last orchestral piece; the score is now available (Milan: Edizioni Suvini Zerboni, n. 8155), and had its European premiere in London on 9 June 1977, performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Zoltan Pesko.
I don't know of any other opera in which there are so many questions (most of them unanswered) as Ulisse. This is due to the particular character of the plot, and to the very nature of the score — which is in fact, as a whole, an artistic and meditative interpretation of the basic questions of life, seen through a classical myth [or rather, the myth of Ulysses as seen by Dante in his Divine Comedy]. Ulysses symbolizes the human mind's striving for knowledge; he is compelled by an insatiable desire to fare through lands and worlds, to encounter all possible types of human beings (men, but mostly women), and finally to cross the established boundaries of the known universe and sail on forbidden seas. His soul finds rest and appeasement only at the very end of the opera, when through a mystical experience the revelation of God's presence gives the answer to all his tormented questioning.
Questioning is then the very essence of this opera, and it permeates the libretto (written by the composer himself) not only at the verbal and dramatic level, but also — and more cogently — at the structural one. Even more: the same structural principles which govern the score play a determining role in the organization of the verbal text. The whole score of Ulisse is built on a twelve-note row subdivided in four units of three notes each, grouped structurally in two hexa-chords, thus:
The first hexachord opens and ends with the same interval (an ascending major second), as does the second (a descending minor second); furthermore, the two hexachords are almost identical in their succession of intervals:
major second, third, minor second, augmented fourth, major second minor second, third, minor second, augmented fourth, minor second
The reader will easily find other analogies and relations within the organization of this row; what I want to stress here is the fact that already, in the structure of the basic musical material, the principles of symmetry and of mirror imitation play a determining role. If we look at the structure of the libretto, we see that these very principles have the same basic structural function there. Let us take, as an example, the rhyme scheme of the protagonist's monologue in the closing scene of the opera. Here the mirror principle is thoroughly applied:
A very similar principle (though not the same organization) governs the rhyme scheme of the corresponding solo scene at the other end of the opera, the opening monologue of Calypso:
The unifying formal element between the extremes of the opera is the transformation of the very first line (which opens and closes Calypso's scene)
Son soli un'altra volta il tuo cuore e il mare
into the last one
Non piu soli sono il mio cuore e il mare.
It seems to me that the mirror principle is the main unifying formal element of the drama; it is the transposition at the structural level of the verbal image which recurs continuously throughout the opera as a sort of textual leitmotiv:
Guardare, meravigliarsi, e tornar a guardare
and which presents, in its formulation, the very image of questioning. (Here again, as in the structure of the row, we have the grouping by three as a principle in the disposition of the basic material). Re-flection, like in a mirror, is then understood bv Dallapiccola as a form of question (mostly of self-question), and for this reason it becomes the prevailing organizing principle of the drama.
In the first, third and fifth movements of the orchestral piece the musical form of the question is realized (as it will be for many of the questions in the opera) through a succession of two intervals, the second of which is smaller than the first and moves in the opposite direction. In other words: the melodic movement comes back within itself, it reflects its tension:
The entire articulation of these three movements (the last one much more extended and developed than the first two) is based on a continuous polyphonic texture built on these 'questions', which are superimposed and juxtaposed in various rhythmic formulations, in augmentation and diminution, enlarged through octave transposition, inverted in their components.
The mirror principle is present also at the macrostructural level in the organization of each movement (it is particularly obvious in the second and fifth), as well as in the construction of the piece as a whole; only a detailed analysis will reveal how extensively the composer has applied it.
In sharp contrast with this linear material stands the rhythmic formula which in the score of the opera is called 'ritmo principale' (principal rhythm; see p.68 of the vocal score), and which in the orchestral piece is usually entrusted to the percussion; this formula is emphatically isolated at the end of the first and last movements:
In the opera, since its first presentation in Demodoco's part at the words 'Sangue d'intorno, sangue vuol sangue e chiama altro sangue', this rhythmic figuration has a decidedly negative implication, since it is always connected with ill-fate, misfortune, sorrow and suffering; it is absolutely predominant in the most 'negative' of all scenes in the opera, Ulysses' visit to Hades, the Kingdom of the Cimmerians. Here the Shades surround him, saying
The immediate counterpart of questioning, then, is suffering, the one indissolubly bound with the other.
In a letter, now lost, to the conductor of the first performance of Three questions with two answers, Dallapiccola explained that the three questions alluded to in the title of the piece are: Who am I? Who are you? Who are we?; but he did not specify what the replies were, nor which one of the questions should have remained, at least for the time being, unanswered. Even a hasty comparison between the score of the orchestral piece and that of the opera reveals that the initial part of the first 'answer' (No.2, Moderato, tranquillo) corresponds to the opening scene of the opera, the monologue of Calypso alone on the seashore; and that the beginning of the second 'answer' (No.4, Largamente, sostenutissimo) matches the initial part of the fourth scene of the first act, the visit to Hades, the scene of the hereafter. In both instances, however, the similarity between the two scores stops at a certain point; and even when the pitch content is approximately the same, its rhythmic formulation is considerably altered. Let us take, to give only one example, the opening melodic line of Calypso, as it appears (a) in the orchestral score first, and then (b) its version in the opera:
These rhythmic variants can be easily explained by the different temporal dimension and consequently changed musical function of the two passages: each of them must be evaluated in the larger context of the work to which they belong. It is in any case extremely difficult, even on the basis of these correspondences between the two scores, to draw a precise conclusion as to which question an answer can be given—above all because of the (no doubt intentional) ambivalence and elusiveness on the composer's part in the use of the semantic material. It is, however, equally clear that Dallapiccola's conception of human life is a pessimistic one, if the answers are solitude (Calypso) and eternal sorrow (the Hades scene). Yet Three questions with two answers is far from being a gloomy and oppressive work. Its transparent texture, its perfect balance between the various sections and, within each section, the extremely flexible articulation of the musical language, make it a work of intense beauty and of direct appeal to the listener, even at first hearing. It is as if, in meditating on the fundamental questions of life, Dallapiccola sublimated their negative aspects through the very act of defining them with the language of his art. And there was also his firm, mystical belief. I remember him saying to me, during the composition of Three questions: 'The third answer will be in the last scene of Ulisse'. It is not by chance then that in the bars he most probably composed after the completion of the opera score and which he advised should be inserted ('as if in parenthesis') into Ulysses' last utterance,1 between 'Signore!' and 'non son piu soli il mio cuore e il mare', the three-note 'question'
It was certainly this unshakable belief that gave him the tranquillity and the strength to transform a negative and pessimistic meditation on human life into a most serene and beautiful score.
Created: Tuesday, March 29,
2005. Last Updated:
Saturday, April 02, 2016