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Luigi Dallapiccola

Gavin Thomas introduces the work of Luigi Dallapiccola (1904--1975).

  • Overview


The theme of human liberty and subjection is a recurrent feature of both Dallapiccola’s life and music.

Born in 1904 in Pisino, Istria, an ethnically Italian region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Dallapiccola was just ten years old when he and his family were interned in Graz after the Austrian authorities began to suspect his father of Italian nationalist leanings -- an early and formative experience of the fate of political and racial minoritities living under an authoritarian regime.

Nevertheless, although the forced removal disrupted the young Dallapiccola’s musical education, it was in Graz that he heard the performance of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman which made him determined to become a composer, and in 1923 he entered the Florence Conservatory, an institute with would he would maintain a lifelong connection.

Dallapiccola’s early works show him grappling with a range of disparate influences -- Debussy especially, along with earlier Italian composers such as Monteverdi and Gesualdo -- while a performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire in Florence in 1924 kindled his interest in the music of the Second Viennese School.

A decade of study and musical consolidation followed. In 1934, he was appointed a professor of piano at the Florence Conservatory, a post he held until his retirement in 1967, while his own compositions continued to develop under the influences of Busoni, Schoenberg and, especially, Berg, as Dallapiccola studied the 12-note system and began to incorporate it into his own music.

Meanwhile, the growing shadow of Fascism reawakened his concern with the plight of ordinary human beings living under despotism.

In 1938, Mussolini’s adoption of Hitler’s racial policies (with the consequent threat to Dallapiccola’s own wife, who was Jewish) provided the impetus for the first of his tryptych of works concerned with imprisonment and freedom, the Canti di prigionia (“Songs of Imprisonment”) -- as Dallapiccola noted in his diary: “in a totalitarian regime the individual is powerless.

Only by means of music would I be able to express my anger.”

Dallapiccola’s public opposition to Mussolini made his position increasingly untenable until, during 1942--44, he was forced first out of Florence and eventually into hiding in the countryside.

For all his personal difficulties, however, the years immediately before and during World War II were musically fecund ones, as Dallapiccola established the lyrical version of 12-note music -- with a distinctly Italian turn of phrase -- that was to serve him for the remainder of his career, and which he first expounded in the sequence of small-scale vocal works, most notably the Liriche greche, written during the 1940s.

As a well-known opponent of Fascism, Dallapiccola emerged from the aftermath of war with his personal reputation enhanced, while the premiere in 1950 of his most famous work, the opera Il prigioniero, established his international reputation as the leading Italian composer of his generation.

Despite this, as his public fame increased, so his musical style became increasingly abstract and personal, eschewing big public statements in favour of a lyrical understatement, as exemplified by the third of his “prisoner” pieces, the Canti di liberazione (“Songs of Freedom”) of 1955.

Article and review pages originally published in The Rough Guide to Classical Music