by Luigi Dallapiccola
[excerpts from a seminar paper]
"The hope of freedom and brotherhood betrayed".
Dallapiccola was very gifted in writing for voice,
and the opera
Il Prigioniero (1944-48) is considered to be one of the best vocal works
by the composer. It shows Dallapiccola at the peak of musical maturity. It could
be considered to be the sequel to Canti di
prigionia (Songs of Imprisonment); both have been labelled "protest"
operas due to the underlying political views that they hold. Dallapiccola never
thought that his music would be thought of as 'protest' music and it was not
intentional that he should write two operas on the subject of imprissonment.
This was just an issue that was close to his heart, and it was only in his later
years that he could look back and realise what a coincidence it was, as it may
have looked to others. Like Bussoni, Dallapiccola believed that symbolism was a
major part of opera and he liked to reject 'realism'. This is something that is
evident in Il Prigioniero.
It was a visit that Dallapiccola and his wife
made to Paris in 1939 that prompted the creation of Il Prigioniero.
He managed to find some works by Count Villers de l'Isle-Adam, and was
particularly interested in as story called 'La torture par l'esperance'
(Torture of hope). He decided that he would like to adapt this for the stage
as it was dramatic enough to be made into a successful libretto. To understand
why Dallapiccola was so passionate about using this story, we must go back to
his teenage years. When he was younger a friend had read to him a poem by Victor
Hugo called La Rose de I'Infante. The poem was about Phillip II and his
daughter, whom he seemed to pay little attention to. It gave Dallapiccola a
childish hate towards Phillip II. In "The Genesis of Canti di Prigionia and
Il Prigioniero" Dallapiccola says how he felt "that Phillip II could be
identified with other, much more terrible figures". It was when Dallapiccola
heard the story by Count Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, that the poem and the feeling,
that had time to grow and mature, returned. He researched into Phillip II, and
knew that the story of La torture par l'esperance would act as his
libretto. A further element of drama that he felt was needed, was found in an
epic by Charles de Coster called
Legende d'illerspegel et Lamme Goedzak. Here he found suitable material
which was relevant to the libretto.
Between the years of 1942 and 1943, Dallapiccola
gathered notes on all that was relevant to Phillip II, and that period. An
important event which influenced the creation of Il Prigioniero
was when in 1946, he made a visit to Antwerp. It was here that he saw the
Scheldt estuary. This was of importance because it was at this point where the
beggars had fought Phillip II. He also saw Roland,
the bell of Ghent. This was the bell that the beggars had rang to signal the
beginning of the attack. These, along with all the other stimuli, added to the
completion of Il Prigioniero.
Il Prigioniero is a one act opera and is
scored for a large orchestra, choruses, organ, and, behind the scenes a group of
brass and bells.
The Prologue begins with the mother of the prisoner
who is waiting to go and see him. She is grieving due to him being imprissioned.
She offers up her prayers in a recitative style, and this is the first of three
tone rows that Dallapiccola uses; this one is to represent
prayer. The mother talks of a re-occuring dream she has. In it she sees a
man, who walks towards her. She can tell that he is mean, and as he gets closer
she realises that it is Phillip II. She sings:
"It is he, Phillip, the Owl, son of the Vulture"
This figure then turns into Death, and so she cries
for her son again.
The first scene begins with the introduction of the
choruses. This scene also sees the first appearence of the main character; the
prisoner. The main tone-row given here is to represent freedom, this being
something that he yearns for. In this scene the prisoner talks to his mother
about what it is like to be in prison, and of the gaoler who had given him hope.
The gaoler had spoken the one word to him, "Fratello..."
(Brother...), and this gave him hope and faith. The gaoler returns, the mother
leaves and the scene ends.
The second scene brings in another character, the
gaoler. The tone-row played here is supposed to represent hope,
and with in this row, intermingles the tone-row to represent
freedom. The gaoler gives the prisioner further hope, always
starting his sentence with the word Fratello.
He tells the prisioner that he should never give up hoping; he tells of the
fighting in Flanders, and in the streets of Ghent. He also says how the prisoner
will hear Roland
(The Bell of Ghent) again, and when he hears this bell he says that Phillip will
have been deafeated. The gaoler goes on to say that the beggars are fighting,
and it is at this point in the opera that the Song for the
Beggars appears. The gaoler then talks of the peace that will come after all
the fighting has ceased. Dallapiccola uses a pentatonic
scale during this passage to emphasize the calm, and tranquillity that will
follow. The prisoner is thankful to the gaoler for making him have faith again.
Towards the end of the scene the gaoler sings:
"Brother....Someone is watching over you. The freedom which you have so
greatly desired is not so far away"
As the gaoler leaves, the door is left ajar. It now
that the prisoner can make his escape.
The third scene is the prisoner making his break for
freedom although it is quite a sub-dued atmosphere. Suddenly he thinks that he
may have been spotted by the torturer, but he is not seen. Then he believes that
two priests may have seen him, but they do not either. Eventually he can feel
the fresh air getting closer and so he runs for the door that must be there. As
he makes his escape he thinks that he can hear the bell of Roland, and so
realises that Phillip II reign must soon be over.
In the end, the fourth scene, he reaches the door
and finds his freedom. But here he is confused. For throughout this opera he has
been confronted with thoughts of freedom but at the same time imprisonment;
grace has been presented at the same time as torture and so on. He is full of
confusion as to what reality is. Dallapiccola describes the final moments of the
opera in his 'Notes on my Prigioniero'. He describes how
"as the angel of death leads him [the prisoner]
towards flames with comforting words of love, he stammers out, 'freedom?'."
The gaoler had said that someone had been watching
over him, but no doubt the prisoner did not think it would be Death. With all
the confusion and deliberate contradictions that are found in this opera, is it
any wonder that it ends with a huge question mark?
Opening scene of Dallapiccola's Il Prigionero in 1962 La
This opera is most
dodecaphonic* athough there are also several diatonic and pentatonic
passages. On listening to this opera (the music and score of which can
be found in the listening library), it is plain to hear that it is an
opera of a high dramatic content. It is full of chromaticism, a style
which is connected to Dallapiccola. It is also a piece which uses the
serial techniques, or tone-rows as in this example. As with most of
Dallapiccola's music in his 'twelve-tone' period though, there is also
evidence of tonal writing and at one point he employs the pentatonic
*Dodecaphony [from The New Grove
Dictionary of Music and Musicians]: "A synonym for 'atonality' or in
some cases, '12 - note serial compositions'."
The opera begins with three dissonant
chords. These and the continuation of the passage are given below.
This appears many times
throughout the piece and begins the opera with the dramatic tension
which carries on throughout.
If the top notes of the
first three chords are taken then they make up the theme that
Dallapiccola has named Roland due to the bell of Ghent. This is
bell is found on the Scheldt Estuary at Antwerp. The passage of music
dedicated to the bell is based around diminished fifths, which gives the
hollow sound that he required.
Dallapiccola uses three tone rows in this
piece. They are thought to represent prayer, hope, and freedom.
(Found on page 26 of
(Found on page 30 of score)
This is not the first time that this tone row is played. The first time
it appears is in scene one at page 22, but another example is that which
is found in scene two. This is shown here and is a good example of how
the tone-rows appear in varying forms.
This tone row is too large to be able to
display here as it comes in the form of a four part canon for brass. It
can be found on page 32 of the score.
It is not only these tone-rows which are of importance. There is
one particualar focus point in the opera and this is on the word
"Fratello..." (Brother....) which the prisoner uses many
It is something that was said to the prisoner, by the gaoler when he
was giving him false hope. The prisoner is the one that recalls these
words to his mother, beginning in the first scene and later in the
second scene the gaoler speaks the words to the prisoner. It is one of
the sweetest phrases in the opera and returns many times, not only for
voice but for the orchestra too. It is also just one example of how
Dallapiccola, even though he is using serial techiques, still retains
the lyrical element. It is an example of the expressiveness that
Dallapiccola is capable of.
Another good example of Dallapiccola's expressive
lyricism is when, in scene two the gaoler is telling the prisoner of the
pleasure that he will feel when he is free. He says,
Return, oh sun to shine on the liberated cities!
Bells, let the air resound with your peels of joy....
Faces and hearts are radiant.............Ah!
The passage that the guard sings is smooth and lyrical. These are just
the first few bars found on page 45 of the score.
This passage of music is made up of a pentatonic scale, which perhaps
in one of the reasons why it has such a sedate feel.
Song of the Beggars
This music appears in the opera when the gaoler talks of how the beggars
were fighting Phillip II. This is a situation that Dallapiccola
remembered when he visisted Antwerp.
This opera is one that employs the 'twelve-tone' technique in the form
of three tone-rows, and also uses the pentatonic scale. Yet it is still
able to retain a lyrical quality. Dallapiccola was able to combine
several texts, to eventually produce a libretto that is full of drama
and suspense. His childhood no doubt had an incredible influence on this
piece, due to the feelings he had been hiding for many years. Such
repressed feelings as fear, anger, and even the grief, finally had a
chance to be shown. If you think of the childhood that Dallapiccola had
to endure, growing up through the First World War, and living his later
years in the Second World War, is it any wonder that such intense
feeling can be heard and felt in Il Prigioniero.