Luigi Dallapiccola
Prominent Istrians

Opera: Il Prigioniero
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 storyline

  • 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 Scala production.

Il Prigioniero and tonality

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 scale.

*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 score)


(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. 

  • These tone-rows are heard several times through the opera, and can be found in different forms. They are found in both the vocal and orchestral lines.


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 times.

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.

Beverly Palmer


  • Text & images (excerpt) - University of Southampton, UK - Beverly Palmer seminar paper: Luigi Dallapiccola: Il prigioniero (web page no longer exists -

See also:

Main Menu

This page compliments of Marisa Ciceran

Created: Friday, January 25, 2002; Last updated: Tuesday, July 09, 2013
Copyright 1998, USA