The forgotten modernist

Luigi Dallapiccola was in the vanguard of a post-war musical revolution, before fading into obscurity. As his centenary approaches, it's time to reclaim him, says Bayan Northcott
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One of the most tantalising musical genres to have emerged in the 20th century is that of chamber song: settings accompanied not by piano, as in the 19th-century lied, nor by orchestra, as in the song-sets of Berlioz, Mahler and Strauss, but by small, mixed line-ups of instruments, often selected to match the specific character of the texts.

Among the founding classics, from just before the First World War, one might cite Stravinsky's lapidary Three Japanese Lyrics, Ravel's exquisite Trois Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé and Schoenberg's uncanny Herzgewachse. After the war, the tradition was to be kept up by composers as diverse as Respighi, Webern and Poulenc, while in more recent decades, chamber settings and cycles have constituted some of the most central achievements of figures such as Boulez, Luciano Berio, Gyorgy Kurtag, Nicholas Maw and Oliver Knussen.

But the undoubted master of the genre from the 1940s to the 1960s was Luigi Dallapiccola (1904-75), whose centenary falls on 3 February. Not that one would know it, beyond the odd concert inclusion here and there and the appearance of a useful new book on the composer by Raymond Fearn. Outfits such as the London Sinfonietta, the Nash Ensemble and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, who one might have thought would seize the opportunity to re-explore some fascinating repertoire, seem not to have noticed the occasion; and as for our wonderful new, audience-friendly Radio 3...

Yet until recently, Dallapiccola counted as a substantial international figure, not only for his pioneering fusion of Mediterranean lyricism with 12-tone serialism, but for a series of major works - including his choral Canti di Prigionia (1938-41) and Canti di Liberazione (1951-55) and his widely performed opera Il Prigioniero (1944-48) - asserting individual worth against the forces of oppression. In post-Second World War Italy, Berio recalled, "Dallapiccola was a point of reference that was not just musical but also spiritual, moral and cultural in the broadest sense." So what happened?

In accounting for the course of his life and work, Dallapiccola tended to hark back to the same handful of factors. Both his libertarian ideals and internationalist outlook ultimately stemmed, he felt, from his upbringing on the politically fraught border between Italy and Austria, in a family that was interned for more than a year during the First World War. His musical epiphanies were equally select: hearing Schoenberg conduct his Pierrot Lunaire in 1924 (a performance also attended by the dying Puccini), attending performances of Webern at music festivals in the late 1930s, and briefly meeting the composer himself in Vienna in 1942. Yet Dallapiccola, who was also steeped in literary culture, insisted that he was ultimately steered towards serialism as much by analogies he discerned in Proust and Joyce as by musical influence.

Despite the upheaval and dangers of the Second World War, during the later stages of which he had to go into hiding around Florence as the Fascist state bloodily collapsed and the Nazis vengefully retreated before the Allies, Dallapiccola emerged in its wake as the conscience of Italian "new music" and something of an ambassador for it. He was increasingly performed and invited to teach on the Continent, while in Britain and the United States he became a central figure in the international serialist mainstream of the 1950s and 1960s. He joined established composers, including Gerhard, Seiber and Lutyens in Britain, and Sessions and Copland - even Stravinsky - in the US in adapting Schoenbergian techniques to the standard genres, without the attention-grabbing radicalism of the younger generation of composers such as Boulez and Stockhausen.

In later years, Dallapiccola certainly became a striking presence: a small man with a great, rough-hewn head and an oracular manner, very conscious of his place in the grandly unfolding narrative of European high culture. Elisabeth Lutyens was later to recall him declaiming passages of Dante - whose entire oeuvre he appeared to know by heart - across a restaurant table, with tears of deep emotion pouring down his face. Yet such lofty certainties of calling and aesthetic - Dallapiccola was insistent, for instance, that any attempt to revert to tonality was a sin against history - inevitably seem too unequivocal for these latter days of postmodern irony and relativism.

And there are other shadings to the image Dallapiccola presented. Since his death, it has emerged that, as a young man, he was actually an enthusiastic supporter of Fascism - doubtless taken in, like much of the Italian intelligentsia, by Il Duce's pretensions to culture and promotion of the national heritage. It was not until Dallapiccola's Jewish wife was threatened by the infamous Race Laws, which Mussolini imposed at the insistence of Hitler in 1938, that he was shocked into implacable opposition. Then, too, it has to be admitted that the very intensity of his finest work is to some extent a product of limitation, both in his innate gifts and from the stringent techniques that he increasingly adopted.

The way that so many of Dallapiccola's works alternate between rhetorical expression and lyrical reflection can seem to interrupt their momentum: there are few extended stretches of fast music in Dallapiccola. That was to become a major problem in his intended crowning opus, the full-length opera Ulisse (1960-8), a work of noble aspiration and often visionary beauty, yet seriously flawed in its dramatic pacing. Again, the relative paucity of purely orchestral and chamber music in his catalogue reflects a lifelong dependence on texts; even his Piccola Musica Notturna (1954) - as exquisitely sensitised a six minutes for small orchestra as has appeared anywhere since the Second World War - was inspired by a verse of the great Spanish poet Machado.

Within those limits, however, Dallapiccola's compositional development, from his earliest publications of about 1930 to his final completed score, the valedictory declamation Commiato (1972), was remarkably consistent and purposeful. He began his career very much in the neo-classical spirit of c1930, with a kind of bluff, bright, predominantly diatonic assemblage of materials and procedures from the Renaissance and Baroque past. As the years passed, first the melodic lines, then the harmony, were increasingly chromaticised by serial techniques, while an initial stiffness of rhythm gradually gave way, through subtle displacements, to a kind of floating continuum independent of regular beats. By the end, he had attained a style of sere, atonal refinement almost completely opposite his starting-point.

Yet a lyrical gift, an ear for sensuous texture and a curiously scholastic penchant for devices such as canons endured throughout. And while the current scant discography scarcely yields an overview of his output, at least Fearn's The Music of Luigi Dallapiccola offers an informed, if at times a little repetitious, work-by-work survey. In the end, Dallapiccola's central achievement surely remains hisdozen or so song-sets and cantatas for solo voices and ensembles, stretching from the luminous Tre Laudi (1937) to Sicut Umbra (1972), with its mesmeric notation of constellations in the night sky.

As an epitome of his uniqueness, one might take the Sex Carmina Alcaei (1943). Dallapiccola confessed that he set the fragments of the ancient Greek poet Alcaeus, in Salvatore Quasimodo's Italian translation, as an escape from the horrors of the war. Around a radiantly sinuous soprano line, he has somehow created a structure that infuses a sequence of strict canons with a sense of both tonality and serialism. This prismatic web of sound for 11 players and voice is an eight-minute aural microcosm of an idealised ancient Mediterranean world. No doubt it requires the utmost skill to perform; no doubt it demands the closest listening to take in. Yet shame on our broadcasters and concert-planners that work of such magical quality should be so overlooked.

'The Music of Luigi Dallapiccola' by Raymond Fearn (Boydell & Brewer, £65)