Luigi Dallapiccola (1904-1975) can arguably be considered an honorary fourth member of the 12-tone Second Vienna School of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, having produced some of the loveliest and most listenable 12-tone works ever written. Dallapiccola was not the first Italian to experiment with Schoenberg's technique (that honor goes to Giacinto Scelsi, who later abandoned it), but he flirted with dodecaphony early, in the mid-1930s, and from 1942 composed primarily in that idiom. Unlike the more doctrinaire 12-tone composers, however, Dallapiccola puts as much imagination into atmosphere as into syntax; pieces like the Canti di prigionia remind us that before he discovered Schoenberg he had been obsessed with Debussy. The combination seems to assign Dallapiccola not to the lyrical, operatic side of Italian music - though he did write three operas - but to the more chromatic, brooding side, along with Busoni, Ghedini, Pizzetti, and Respighi.
Born in Pisino d'Istria in territory disputed by Italy and Austria, Dallapiccola was interned in Graz with his family in 1917-18, his father being suspected of Italian sympathies during World War I. Because of this background, the composer has written, “I grew up in the spirit of those who are always in the opposition.” The Canti di prigionia (Songs of Prison) were written in a spirit of protest, not by design but almost compulsively. The idea of the piece came to Dallapiccola, he continues, “when on September 1st 1938 I heard the voice of Mussolini on the radio announcing that the time had come for Italy to initiate her own anti-Semitic campaign. I wanted to protest; but I was not so simple-minded as to imagine that an isolated individual could achieve anything in a totalitarian state. In a matter of a few days, knowing that only through music could I express my indignation, I sketched the “Preghiera di Maria Stuarda” (Prayer of Mary Stuart), the first movement of the Canti di prigionia.”
All three songs of the Canti di prigionia are threaded through with the dies irae, the 13th-century “day of wrath” chant from the mass for the dead. (This tune, heard immediately in the harp and timpani, has long fascinated composers, and appears as a memento mori in dozens of pieces, from Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique to Liszt's Totentantz to Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini to George Crumb's Black Angels.) The use of plainchant in a 12-tone composition is highly unusual, and anchors Dallapiccola's music in tonality. And yet, 12-tone rows do wreathe themselves around the chant like ivy, especially in Mary Stuart's prayer, where the four-note phrases of the chant are paired with a four-note motive from the row, rising up to heaven in anguished intervals. Here and in the final prayer of Savonarola, an antique atmosphere is created by the clicking along of stately half-notes in the harps and pianos. One can hear in this Dallapiccola's enthusiasm for early Italian composers such as Monteverdi and Gesualdo, also evident in the smoothly contrapuntal choral writing. The invocation of Boethius is more scherzo-like, with whirling atonal lines among which the dies irae gets dotted out on accented beats.
In between Canti di prigionia and Canti di liberazione of 1951-55, of course, came World War II, during part of which Dallapiccola and his Jewish wife had to hide out near Florence. Having given voice to prisoners before the war, it is with fitting symmetry that he celebrated their liberation afterward, in a companion piece drawn with texts from the Biblical book of Exodus, St. Augustine, and the sixteenth-century religious thinker and free-speech advocate Sebastian Castellio. By now, Dallapiccola had become more immersed in the 12-tone language, and had come under the influence of the contrapuntal pointillism of Anton Webern. The first song is particularly difficult in its fluid overlay of rhythms, and complex in its canonic devices and structural inversions - a brain workout for the chorus, and typical of the new attitude toward performance of the 1950s Darmstadt school. The song from Exodus, depicting the drowning of Pharaoh's chariots in the Red Sea, returns to a more antique polyphony, and the final hymn from the Confessions of St. Augustine is more prayerful, though illuminated by orchestral fireworks at the words “Coruscasti, splenduisti...” (“You flashed, you shone, you chased away my blindness.”)