Persecution and Hope

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Persecution and Hope: Masterworks of Conscience, performed on Feb 20, 2009 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

It is not an exaggeration to assert that Luigi Dallapiccola was the greatest Italian composer of the twentieth century. He was an almost exact contemporary of Aaron Copland, but the divergence in their careers, particularly in their relationship to their respective native countries, provides instructive contrast. Copland’s meteoric rise was initially in part due to an embrace of European modernism, but in the 1930s he turned to a more populist and conservative idiom. He linked his music intentionally to the progressive democratic politics of the New Deal. As a result, he introduced a music that bridged the concert stage and the movie theater, producing a sound that would seem emblematically American, patriotic, and national.

Dallapiccola followed almost the same curve in the opposite direction, although he was like Copland born into a family atypical of the country of his origin. The Dallapiccola family was from a region that was marginal to Italian culture. Indeed before 1918 it was once an integral part of the Austrian Empire. When he was a teenager, Dallapiccola’s family was interned in Graz because of suspicions regarding their nationalist politics. During those years the composer was exposed to the established Austro-German tradition. As a young man he traveled to Bologna and then to Florence. In his early twenties, he encountered the music of Mahler, Debussy and Schoenberg—the same music Copland discovered, but Dallapiccola pursued from that starting point a different path.

Inspired by incipient European modernism, Dallapiccola’s formative years as a composer overlapped the early years of Italian fascism and the career of its leader, Benito Mussolini. It is awkward for many to remember that “Il duce” was in the late 1920s and early 1930s a figure more admired than reviled. It was not only Italians that Mussolini seduced into supporting him. The American poet Ezra Pound infamously supported the Italian dictator, and European intellectuals such as Stefan Zweig found in Mussolini a welcome balance between freedom and order, a positive antidote to the economic and social chaos of postwar Europe. If the America of the 1930s fostered social justice as well as new opportunities for tolerance and freedom, Italy fostered a very different nationalist philosophy. The Abyssinian campaign and Italian role in the Spanish Civil War were startling reminders that Mussolini’s humanistic pronouncements were decorative façades for a brutal system.

For Dallapiccola, optimism vanished during the 1930s. As an artist, his response to the darkening political environment and the increasing restrictions on freedom and liberty led to a more dramatic adoption of modernist strategies in composition, and a forceful rejection of the conservative expressive devices bequeathed by late romanticism favored by his Italian contemporaries eager to placate the regime. His was not the Coplandesque celebration of the national collective, but the anxious alarm against oppression and conformity. During the 1930s, the most influential figure in Dallapiccola’s creative exploration was Alban Berg, whom he met in 1934. It is therefore all the more inexplicable that tonight’s two operas, as well as Dallapiccola’s Ulisse and Job, have not yet achieved permanent places in the repertory.

As the subject of his first opera, Dallapiccola chose the 1931 novel that made Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (now best known for The Little Prince) famous. What attracted Dallapiccola to Saint-Exupéry, a rather shadowy adventurer with profound literary gifts, was perhaps the real and fictional obsession in the author-aviator’s works with the will of the lone individual. If Volo di notte is about anything, it is about an almost futurist, even neo-Nietzschean commitment to present action, a kind of will to power and self-assertion in the face of death and uncertainty. The death of Fabian and Rivière’s refusal to abandon night-flying can be read as metaphors of resistance by the individual. An assertion of individualist freedom is worth the risk of encountering the unknown and possible self-destruction. Begun in 1937 and premiered in 1940 despite the aesthetic prejudices of the regime, the music is structured around recognizable cells of rhythm, harmony, and melody that are developed over the course of the opera. A basic twelve-tone system is employed, but alongside modal and chromatic usages. The work is structured along Bergian lines and is framed at the outset and the close by tonality.

The existential predicament of the characters in Volo di notte and the resulting suffering and tragedy may have provided the initial impetus for Dallapiccola in 1937, but by the time he contemplated writing a second opera in 1942 the political circumstances had worsened considerably, and the general questions of Volo di notte had assumed a specific urgency. Europe was at war and the true consequences of fascism were no longer ambiguous. As Dallapiccola (whose wife was Jewish) recalled, “Between 1942 and 1943…it became increasingly clear to me that I must write an opera which…would portray the tragedy of our times and the tragedy of persecution felt and suffered by millions of individuals.”

The German occupation of Italy after the fall of Mussolini placed Dallapiccola in a tremendously dangerous circumstance, not alleviated by the subject of his current opera. Between Christmas and New Year’s Eve of 1943 he finished the libretto of Il prigioniero. Dallapiccola and his wife were in the town of Borgunto, Italy, after deciding not to flee to Switzerland for fear of losing contact with Dallapiccola’s mother. Luckily, the couple survived after successfully hiding in Florence until the end of the war. He finally finished Il prigioniero in 1948 and the opera received its premiere in 1950. Il prigioniero can be most fruitfully compared to Berg’s personal and expressive adaptation of the avant-garde devices pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg. Dallapiccola fashions his own approach to the use of twelve tones. The work, despite its modernist vocabulary, has an intensity and lyricism that permits it to express what Max Weber famously called the “Iron Cage,” which the modern individual is forced to confront, the inexorable trap in which the possibilities of freedom are circumscribed. The last words of Il prigioniero occur when the main character, as Dallapiccola describes it, “unconsciously mutters ‘Freedom?’” Alessandro Bonsanti, the writer and critic who later became mayor of Florence and Dallapiccola’s friend observed: how can that question be answered beyond the response of silence? Is freedom in modernity an illusion or painful deception? There are those who see Dallapiccola’s opera as being extremely pessimistic, but the suffering it expresses is of such power that it is reminiscent of the renewal of the human will and its capacity for resistance. The prisoner may not find the answer, but he has at least remembered to ask the right question.

Unlike Aaron Copland, Dallapiccola remained committed to fashioning a musical vocabulary that was deeply expressive of the circumstances of a contemporary existence marked by mass movements, unprecedented weapons of destruction, a dehumanizing world of commerce and industry, and the seemingly endless daily struggle for dignity, matched only by unlimited opportunities for surrender into conformity.

It took almost half a century for the wider public to embrace Alban Berg. More than a quarter century after the death of Luigi Dallapiccola, especially in light of events of our own generation, a wider appreciation of the intensity and humanism of Dallapiccola’s modernism is timely. These two operas reveal the power of music to tell the truth. Modernism, surprisingly, has its human side that requires no concession to popularity or aestheticized familiarity. If Aaron Copland deserves to be honored as the most eloquent voice of the optimistic possibilities offered by freedom, Dallapiccola is the twentieth century’s most powerful voice on behalf of the struggle for freedom through an art of originality, provocation, resistance and the candid revelation of anguish and fear.

The traditions of western concert music are most succinctly idealized in the motto of one of the most venerable continuing civic organizations formed on behalf of musical culture, the Gewandhaus in Leipzig: “true joy is a serious thing.” By comparison with what appears the more tuneful and accessible surface of post-modernist operatic writing currently so in vogue, Dallapiccola’s music does not make for “easy listening.” But it is the intention of the composer to reach the public. The imagination, drama, and the searing gaze on the human struggle for freedom and individual autonomy of these operas offer audiences true joy through a genuinely moving and serious experience.

Luigi Dallapiccola, Volo di notte

By Paul Griffiths

Written for the concert Persecution and Hope: Masterworks of Conscience, performed on Feb 20, 2009 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Dallapiccola found his voice in protest. After a long period of training and self-education, during which first Debussy and then Schoenberg were shocks to his system, he began to make headway at last as a composer when he was around thirty, at a time when the nature of Italian fascism was becoming clear. The conquest of Abyssinia in 1935-6, occurring as he was completing his first published works, was soon succeeded by Italy’s participation, with Germany, on the side of Franco in the Spanish Civil War. A political movement that had pointed itself toward the future, and thereby gained some support from forward-looking artists (Dallapiccola among them), was proving where its real purposes and allegiances lay.

These were the circumstances under which, in April 1937, Dallapiccola began work on his first opera, Volo di notte (Night Flight), to a libretto he himself drew from the novel Vol de nuit by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. By the time he finished the score, two years later, the situation was darker still. Growing ever closer to Nazi Germany, Italy had passed its own anti-Jewish laws in 1938, and, just a month after Volo di notte was finished, the two countries signed a “pact of friendship.” For a composer concerned to change the language of music and theater—a composer who had been among the first outside Schoenberg’s milieu to adopt twelve-tone principles and for whom Berg provided a new model of opera—it was necessary to reclaim “the future” from those who thought they saw it at the tip of a bayonet.

Astonishingly, Volo di notte was scheduled to receive its première in Germany in the fall of 1939, but that production, at Braunschweig, was cancelled, and the first performance took place in the composer’s adopted city of Florence the following spring, with Europe now at war.

In one of several crucial departures from the novel, Dallapiccola places the action of this aviation story entirely on the ground, in the offices of the air company. Through a transparent screen at the back, the airfield can be seen, and the landing of an airplane provides the piece with its big scenic moment, marking this as one of those operas made to bring contemporary life to the lyric stage. The human drama, however, concerns not the aviators themselves but those who have responsibility for them—principally, the company director Rivière.

He is the man who, dedicated to his task, finds himself opposed to all other demands, whether of human connection or of poetic feeling. His concern is for the project, that of transporting mail across great distances overnight, not for the pilots entrusted with it, one of whom, Fabien, falls victim. Because we are on the ground, Fabien’s tragedy has to be narrated by a radio operator, but, as Dallapiccola well realized, this device gives the work the aspect of Greek tragedy, where, similarly, sudden death is not portrayed but recounted, and thereby magnified in its shock and horror.

Rivière’s determination is countered by the emotions and sensitivities of others, most pointedly Fabien’s wife, who is the only female character. But though she is present in just one scene, and though the encounter between her and Rivière has a special charge, the opera is hinged throughout between progress and preservation, fixed plan and sensitive flexibility, future and past. Berg had shown the way into this rich middle-ground, and Dallapiccola followed his example in interweaving tonal and twelve-tone elements (as in the opening music, suggestive of the night sky and brought back later), in using varieties of speech and speech-song, and in adopting strict forms, notably a repeating rhythmic pattern in the third scene and a chorale with variations in the fifth.

“Unconsciously,” Dallapiccola recalled, “and for the first time in my life, in Volo di notte I made my choice: to prefer those who suffer to those who achieve victory.” Yet Rivière is no villain, and his passion was to reverberate throughout Dallapiccola’s output, as far as the Odyssean opera with which this remarkable composer brought his life’s work to its culmination thirty years later.

Luigi Dallapiccola, Il prigioniero

By Paul Griffiths

Written for the concert Persecution and Hope: Masterworks of Conscience, performed on Feb 20, 2009 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The origins of Dallapiccola’s second opera go back to June 1939, just a couple of months after he had completed Volo di notte. He was visiting Paris with his wife, who, looking through a volume of short stories by Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, found one, “Torture par l’espérance” (Torture by Hope), that she thought he might adapt to the stage. So began a process lasting almost a decade. First Dallapiccola finished the set of choral prison songs, Canti di prigionia, he had started while Volo di notte was still in train. Then came the writing of a libretto for the new work, and the composition of other pieces, so that the score of Il prigioniero was not started until January 1944 and not brought to a conclusion until May 1948. Another two years passed before the first staging, again in Florence.

In the decade since Volo di notte, Dallapiccola’s music had become more thoroughly twelve-tone, but without losing several features that link the two operas, including tonal-atonal blendings, ostinatos, and the evocation of darkness by means of paradoxically luminous orchestration. There is the further similarity that this is again an opera largely of male characters, of men’s voices, with just one woman, the Mother, making a relatively brief—but crucial—appearance. And once more an offstage chorus is heard, its powerful contributions to this opera helping set the atmosphere of parable.

Yet another connection lies in the Bergian fascination with fixed forms set upon a swirling musical sea. In the third scene, notably, three sequences of recitative for the Prisoner are accompanied by orchestral “ricercares,” or contrapuntal inventions, on principal themes: first the melody the Prisoner sings to his prayer “Signore, aiutami a camminare” (Lord, help me to go on), then the three-note motif associated with the central and slippery word “fratello” (brother), and finally the sound of Roelandt, the great bell of Ghent that is rung as a signal of liberation.

The work’s long gestation surely contributed to its contradictions.1 Where the protagonist of the original story is a rabbi, and thus has clear reason for being incarcerated by the Spanish Inquisition, the central character of Il prigioniero has no name or history, so that the sixteenth-century references remain inexplicable except as homages to Verdi (whose Don Carlos unfolds in this same Spanish world—though Il trovatore may offer still closer parallels). The opera also presents its hero as alone, unlike the millions being imprisoned and slaughtered as Dallapiccola was beginning work. Being so, and suffering confinement without explanation, he is in the condition of a Kafka character—with the difference that he vociferously rejects the forces of his oppression.

Those forces appear not only malign but also whimsical, and so all-powerful that it is hard to imagine what “freedom” lies beyond their grip. The promises of liberation they hold out—of political liberation in the Jailer’s weird aria, of escape for the Prisoner in the ultimate scene—are illusions manipulated with appalling cynicism. At the end, when the Prisoner voices “freedom” as a question, we may feel he has been utterly crushed—or else that he has gained an insight raising him far above the powers around him. Freedom?