Luigi Dallapiccola
Prominent Istrians

Brian Alegant Receives NEH Grant to Research the 12-Tone Music of Luigi Dallapiccola

By Linda Grashoff

[Source: © 1999 Oberlin College -]
Brian Alegant in his office
Alegant has written computer programs that will help him analyze Dallapiccola's distinctive music-writing style. [Photo by Holly Matyas]

JANUARY 26, 1999 - Brian Alegant, associate professor of music theory, has received a grant of $30,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to examine the organizing principles of Luigi Dallapiccola's 12-tone music. Alegant aims to unveil the salient characteristics and techniques of Dallapiccola's works and provide the first in-depth study of the compositional language and harmonic logic of the composer, who lived between 1904 and 1975.

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 Alegant. But this methodology has been "only partially successful in determining the procedures and structural relationships in Dallapiccola's music," he says.

"I propose 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."

Besides contributing to the understanding of Dallapiccola's music in particular, Alegant says, his project will contribute to the understanding of 12-tone music in general. The project's completion will "bridge the gap between music theory and performance; render accessible contemporary music; and give theorists, historians, and performers insights into the music of one of this century's important artists."

Alegant will be on research status in 1999-2000 to carry out his scholarship and prepare manuscripts for publication, and in the summer of 2000 he will travel to Florence to study the composer's sketches and manuscripts, test his hypothesis on Dallapiccola's working methods, and further refine his theoretical framework. He expects to continue thinking and writing about his subject through 2002, when his work should result in a book for an audience of theorists, musicologists, composers, upper-level undergraduates, and graduate students studying 20th-century music.

Why Study the 12-tone Music of Luigi Dallapiccola?

[Excerpts from Brian Alegant's Project Proposal]

Luigi Dallapiccola. [Photo courtesy of Schott Musik International.]

Music theorists agree that the advent of 12-tone composition is one of the most important musical developments in the 20th century. 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.

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.

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


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. 

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. My 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.

Main Menu

Created: Friday, December 21, 2012; Last Updated: Tuesday, July 04, 2017
Copyright © 1998, USA