Saturday, 18 February 2012

A Little Dallapiccola

The Italian composer Luigi Dallapiccola has long been my favourite serialist composer, probably because - when he had fully taken it on board - he took what was best in Webern's music and made it more lyrical, listener-friendly and somewhat closer to tonality. It's serial music that often doesn't sound like serial music.

He didn't start as a serialist and his style changed significantly throughout this life, so those who remain unsympathetic towards his twelve-tone music can savour many wonderful tonal works, of which I'd recommend the magic-filled two-movement Piccolo Concerto per Muriel Couvreux (1939-1941) for piano and chamber orchestra - which lovers of Ravel, Stravinsky and Copland ('Apennine Spring') should take to like ducks to Lake Como - plus the delightful Sonatina Canonica su Capricci di Niccolò Paganini (1942-43), a four-movement piano piece based on those famous violin caprices, following in a long line of such works from the likes of Schumann, Brahms, Rachmaninov, Lutoslawski and many, many others. The latter is a neo-Classical work, though there are also several touches of Debussy and Schumann for their admirers to savour. These two pieces are both at their best when they are at their gentlest and most lyrical - and that's something that will remain a feature of the composer's music. The use of canon in the Sonatina is no less characteristic. As an example of Dallapiccola early vocal writing, one to relish is the Divertimento in Quattro Esercizi (1934) for soprano and small ensemble - four largely gentle and beautiful modal songs, softly touched with Stravinskyan harmonies, which fans of Berio's popular (and much later) Folk Songs will surely appreciate and recognise as kindred spirits before their time. There are plenty of others.

Dallapiccola could also be highly dramatic, as in his powerful one-act opera, Il Prigioniero (The Prisoner) (1948-52), which, if I can be crude, is (for newcomers) somewhat of a stylistic cross between Puccini and Berg, and after he embraced twelve-tone serialism his quiet, contemplative side - a side notable for expressing itself in beautiful, memorable melodic lines and a delicate style of scoring that showed scored an real ear for sensuality (an ear that was always apparent in its composer's music, as in the superb choral/orchestral Canti di Prigionia of 1938-41) - was complimented by a strengthening of this dramatic impulse.

Approaching the late serial works, with all these delightful, mostly tonal works behind us, the continuity of spirit becomes obvious - despite the serial soundworld, Now, that serial soundworld is one some of you don't warm to easily, but perhaps Dallapiccola might tempt you in where Schoenberg, Webern, even late Stravinsky fail to win you over.

Why not try the captivating Parole di San Paolo (Words of St. Paul) (1964) for mezzo-soprano and small ensemble? Again, the composer's voice is largely quiet-spoken, the scoring is soft as moonlight (with an enchanting use of tuned percussion) and the singer's lines - despite a few words in Schoenberg-style sprechgesang (speech-song) - is lyrical and elegantly shaped, with a particularly memorable phrase at 2.24 (on the linked video) and 3.39, setting similar phrases. The piece takes verses from 1 Corinthians 13 (St. Paul's Ode to Love):

si linguis hominum loquar et angelorum caritatem autem non habeam factus sum velut aes sonans aut cymbalum tinniens 
et si habuero prophetiam et noverim mysteria omnia et omnem scientiam et habuero omnem fidem ita ut montes transferam caritatem autem non habuero nihil sum 
et si distribuero in cibos pauperum omnes facultates meas et si tradidero corpus meum ut ardeam caritatem autem non habuero nihil mihi prodest 
caritas patiens est benigna est 
non gaudet super iniquitatem congaudet autem veritati 
omnia suffert omnia credit omnia sperat omnia sustinet 
nunc autem manet fides spes caritas tria haec maior autem his est caritas 

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 
If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 
If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 
Love is patient, love is kind.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. 

And from the same year came the orchestration of the Quattro Liriche di Antonio Machado for soprano and chamber orchestra. These, however, are arranged from the original version for soprano and piano which was composer backed in 1944 when the composer was still fusing his lyrical impulse with serialism. The Berio folk song-style spirit of the Divertimento lives on in the bright, lively opening song but the the silvery, sensual second song and the moonlit thoughtfulness of the fourth song are very much late Dallipiccola in their ambiance. The third though is dramatic, drawing on that side of the composer's dramatic side.

Talking of the poet Machado, Dallapiccola's best-known piece remains his haunting orchestral Piccola musica notturna (Little Night Music) of 1954 and this is a piece inspired by a poem of Machado's called Noche de verano, where a sensitive figure walks through a deserted square at night. This work surely proves beyond reasonable doubt that twelve-tone music can be deeply poetic and beautiful, suggestive as it is of the rapt mystery of night, and of that contemplative, solitary consciousness. Except for a few short loud outbursts, the piece is largely quiet and its atmosphere is as far from the splashy expressionism of Schoenberg as can be. Though driven by tone rows, the composer makes sure that the shadow of tonality falls strongly on the work, so you might not even recognise the piece as being a serial composition at all. Reading the poem is not unhelpful:

Es una hermosa noche de verano.
Tienen las altas casas
abiertos los balcones
del viejo pueblo a la anchurosa plaza.
En el amplio rectángulo desierto,
bancos de piedra, evónimos y acacias
simétricos dibujan
sus negras sombras en la arena blanca.
En el cenit, la luna, y en la torre,
la esfera del reloj iluminada.
Yo en este viejo pueblo paseando
solo, como un fantasma.

It is a beautiful summer's night.
The high houses
have their windows open
to the wide square of the old town.
In the spacious deserted square
stone benches, hedges and acacias
Sketch out symmetrically
their black shadows in the white sand.
In the zenith, the moon, and in the tower,
the sphere of the illuminated clock.
I walk through this old town,
alone, like a ghost.

For evidence that serial Dallapiccola could bring out the drama in his technique (and could engage in Schoenbergian angst when he wanted!), even as late in his life as 1970-71, try this intense Tempus destruendi - Tempus aedificandi (the title meaning "a time to destroy, a time to build" is taken from Ecclesiastes 3:3) for unaccompanied mixed chorus, whose two movements mingle lament at the destruction with urgent exhortations to rebuild. It's not my favourite Dallapiccola piece but it grows from strength to strength with each hearing, with many beautiful moments.

Still, it's the lyrical songs that are the finest fruits of his twelve-tone music, and the Liriche Greche for soprano and ensemble (where he first essayed this kind of writing in earnest) are among the choicest fruits of that harvest. They consist of three sets of songs:

Here Dallapiccola's genius for shaping lyrical melody out of his tone rows and setting them to subtle, colourful accompaniments is fully demonstrated. His love of counterpoint, especially canon, is a semi-hidden feature of these works.

The first of the Due liriche di Anacreonte (Eros languido desidero cantare) shows Dallapiccola's serial art at its most mellifluous, with a richly lyrical soprano line singing out against a subtle accompaniment. The composer's love of canon is particularly clear in this song, where Italian warmth softens Webern-style counterpoint with melodic sunlight. This is another example of how an individual composer can make something sweet, personal and beautiful out of Schoenberg's less-than-universally-popular and frequently dry-as-dust method.  Much the same can be said of the opening song of the Sex Carmina Alcaei, with its intimate tone and gorgeous piano writing (recalling, maybe, the opening of Berg's Violin Concerto?), the fourth song (a canon in contrary motion) and the Conclusio, though the fifth movement strikes a more playful note. 

My favourite set is the Cinque frammenti di Saffo, enchanting settings of the Greek erotic poetess. They fall far more attractively on the ear than any serial work by Webern and Schoenberg, even Berg. The soprano's lines sound effortlessly lyrical and the fifteen accompanying instruments weave a web of poetry around them. The songs are overwhelming gentle and intimate in feel, and the end of the third song is as beguiling as twelve-tone music gets. The lyricism is, as so often, often underpinned by counterpoint - the second song, for example, is a canon perpetuus. I'd love you to give these songs a hearing (preferably several hearings). All five are gems. The last (and longest) song is the loveliest of all. (Its opening and closing measures again seem like echoes of the opening of the Berg Violin Concerto).

E le Cretesi con armonia sui piedi leggeri cominciarono,
Spensierate, a girare intorno all'ara
Sulla tenera erba appena nata.

And the Cretans began harmoniously on light feet,
Carefree, to turn around
On the tender new grass.

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