Music — Beyond Italian Opera: Malipiero

Italian music is so synonymous with opera that most music lovers would be hard put to think of any Italian orchestral or chamber music from the last two centuries. The only exception may be the music of Ottorino Respighi, especially his highly colorful tone poems, Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome. A group of composers, including Respighi, rebelled against this situation. These composers, all born coincidentally around 1880, came to be known as the generazione dell’Ottanta. They rejected the hegemony and conventions of verismo opera, the realist late-Romantic opera of their time, and turned to Italian pre-Classical instrumental and vocal music for inspiration. Their number included Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968), Alfredo Casella (1883-1947), and Gian Francesco Malipiero (18821973).

Verismo opera was not their only problem. Italian instrumental music, after having been a leading influence from the Renaissance through the mid-18th century, was eclipsed by developments in the German-speaking world. From Haydn onward, the symphony, with its dramatic sonata-allegro form, reigned supreme. Rejecting this Austro-German domination, these Italian composers looked back as far as the 16th-century to musical traditions in their own country, and to contemporary France and Russia where alternatives to German-style symphonic thinking had been explored by such composers as Claude Debussy and Igor Stravinsky.

Of the generazione dell’Ottanta, the single most original and productive composer was Malipiero. He felt that verismo opera, “with its wallpaper scenery, [was] an ephemeral digression which could never thwart the musical revival of a country with a glorious past.” As a musicologist, Malipiero did much to revive that past by editing the works of Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Lotti and Marcello. As a composer, he produced such a profusion of instrumental works as to almost make up for an entire century’s neglect. Of modern composers, only Darius Milhaud and Heitor Villa-Lobos rival him in sheer output. As in any body of work so large, the quality varies. Nonetheless, Luigi Dallapiccola, the most noted Italian composer of the next generation, proclaimed that Malipiero, and not he, was the greatest Italian composer of his day. According to Dallapiccola, Malipiero was “the most important [musical] personality that Italy has had since the death of Verdi.”

In last year’s Crisis interview with David Diamond, the great American composer said that during his many years in Italy the only sympathetic voice was that of Malipiero. Malipiero counseled him: “Don’t you worry for one moment. Your day is coming. I waited a long time and my day has come and gone. You will have a great, great public one day.” Malipiero was right about Diamond, but wrong about himself. His day may have come and gone but, as with most composers of real worth, his day has dawned anew. Thanks to the enterprising Marco Polo label, all of Malipiero’s symphonies have now been recorded and, as Diamond said, “they are marvelous works.” Malipiero’s complete string quartets are also available in stunning performances by the Orpheus String Quartet on ASV. My strong impression from having listened to the quartets was that, if Leos Janacek had been an Italian and educated by Claude Debussy, this is sort of what you would hear. Like Janacek, Malipiero seems to have made up the rules as he went along in a seemingly spontaneous, improvisatory manner that is directly communicative. Debussy’s influence is especially evident in Malipiero’s harmonic palette.

Music poured out of Malipiero. Impatient to get on with things, he entered five works, each under a different pseudonym, in a competition held in 1912 by the Academy of St. Cecilia in Rome. He gained instant notoriety by winning four of the five prizes. In 1913, Malipiero traveled to Paris where a galvanizing encounter with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring led him to renounce almost all of his early works and begin again. The experience woke him, he said, “from a long and dangerous lethargy.” In Paris he also became acquainted with Casella, with whom he was to work closely in promoting new Italian music.

While The Rite of Spring left a powerful impression, what seemed to influence Malipiero more was Stravinsky’s so-called neo-Classic style, in which he turned to composers such as Pergolesi in his delightful 1919 Pulcinella Suite. Malipiero did something similar with his Vivaldiana, Casella with his Scarlattiana, and Respighi with The Birds (using Rameau and Pasquini). In any case, Malipiero returned to Italy for good, freed from any formal constraints, and began composing in a style in which sheer fancy is the predominant element. He settled in Asolo, near Venice, and rarely ventured forth. Music flowed into old age. Malipiero continued to compose until he was ninety.

On five CDs, the Marco Polo label provides Malipiero’s ten numbered symphonies, as well as five unnumbered sinfonias with descriptive titles, all performed by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the late Antonio de Almeida.

Malipiero was not a symphonist in the traditional sense, but a musical poet who arranged his inspirations in a series of suites. Malipiero believed that “the Italian symphony is a free kind of poem in several parts which follow one another capriciously, obeying only those mysterious laws that instinct recognizes.” He viewed his role as that of a musical magician. He conjured an Arcadian world of cascading lyricism, pastoral reverie, bittersweet nostalgia, and finally, elegy.

Essentially picaresque, his music presents a series of processionals, dances, fanfares, songs, and impressionist sketches delightfully knit together with kaleidoscopic abandon. Mixing the archaic with the modern, and modal harmonies with spicy dissonances, Malipiero’s is a highly evocative language, unmistakably his own.

Like Respighi, Malipiero had a love for the archaic, but unlike Respighi, he did not romanticize it in Technicolor. Eschewing voluptuousness, he preferred shimmering refinement to the blatant orchestral orgies of Respighi.

There is hardly room here to comment on the riches of even three of the five Marco Polo CDs that I have been able to hear, so I will mention a few highlights. I am grateful that Malipiero did not destroy all of his pre-Parisian works, because the Sinfonia del mare (1906) is a gem, all the more astonishing in that he wrote it unaware of Debussy’s La Mer. It has one of the most magical beginnings: crepuscular murmurings in the strings and winds that give over to one of the most delicious melodies you have ever heard. Equally fine is the beguiling Sinfoinie del silenzio e de la morte (1909-10). The second movement will introduce you to the languid Arcadian reveries in which Malipiero seems to suspend time. Symphony No. 1, a “Four Seasons” piece, begins in the same vein. The Symphony No. 2, subtitled “elegiaca,” beautifully expresses valedictory sentiments. The Symphony No. 3, subtitled “delle campane,” starts buoyantly with festive chattering in the winds that is later undercut by more serious brass declamations and sighs in the bass strings. Melancholy eventually prevails. The next movement, marked andante, takes us back into the most beguiling kind of Arcadian dream. Here the tolling bells of the subtitle become clearer. The last movement, marked lento, movingly portrays the bells using the string basses and the lower registers of the piano, while a lament is played in the upper strings.

The Symphony No. 4, entitled “In memoriam,” is dedicated to memory of Natalie Koussevitzky. Its second movement, lento funebre, is a brilliantly evocative funeral march.

Imaginative touches abound in all of these works. After Symphony No. 7, “delle canzone,” however, something changed. Malipiero drew a chromatic veil over his works as if to say: Now you must look deeper to see their beauties; I will not show them to you as I did. The surface appeal is gone and the works become far more enigmatic, if not at times inaccessible.

This process did not occur, at least not to the same extent, over the course of Malipiero’s eight string quartets, which are very rewarding works. They do, however, become increasingly concise. Listening to the First, I was astounded that it was written before Janacek’s First String Quartet. It employs an eerily similar language. Like Janacek’s work, it is vibrant and pulsating with life. Malipiero remarked that he wanted to “get away from the atmosphere of chamber music and let us breathe the air of the streets and the countryside.” These works belong in any 20th century chamber music collection.

A highly imaginative Italian writer, Maurizio Carnelli, has suggested that the episodic nature of much of Malipiero’s writing is expressive of a fractured view of life, a realization of life’s senselessness. I don’t think so. There is a difference between arbitrariness and the capriciousness which Malipiero extolled. The capricious is not senseless; it is playful. The capricious expresses a life-affirming and delightful confidence in what is. The arbitrary, on the other hand, is mistrustful of being, and vindictive. The senseless becomes tyrannical and mordant. I do not hear this in Malipiero’s work. If Malipiero’s music is episodic, so is life. Life, after all, does not come in sonata-allegro form. Malipiero felt that life’s moods could be better captured in sonic poetry. After listening to these treasures, who can refute him? Referring to the long series of Dialoghi for various instruments that he composed in the 1950s, Malipiero said of the works that they were “born as if by magic.” That is, indeed, how his best works sound.

  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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