Coro di morti (1941)

By Bernard Jacobson

Written for the concert From the Last Century, performed on Oct 10, 2001 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Completed in 1941, Coro di morti (Chorus of the Dead)stands with Noche oscura—a St. John of the Cross setting written ten years later—as perhaps Petrassi’s (b.1904) finest achievement in the field of vocal music, which is to say, as one of the high points of Italian musical creation in the last century. Both works are dark in tone and somber in portent. Yet both also find room for a piercing, paradoxically consolatory kind of beauty, carrying the Italian penchant for the singing line into fields far removed from the operatic sphere that had been its principal preoccupation 100 years earlier.

Coro di morti’s subtitle, “dramatic madrigal,” seems indeed to skip clear over the whole nineteenth-century Italian musical experience. Petrassi here declares his allegiance to that school of madrigalists of the sixteenth and seventeeth centuries of which Luca Marenzio and Claudio Monteverdi were among the greatest representatives.

Stravinsky and Hindemith are two names that have often been cited in discussions of Petrassi’s style and its origins. Stravinsky’s influence can indeed be heard in Petrassi’s crisp instrumental sonorities–Coro di morti, a case especially in point, is scored for male voices with three pianos, brass, timpani, percussion, and contrabasses, without woodwinds or upper strings—and Hindemith’s in his empirical yet rational harmonic language. A long sequence of concertos for orchestra is the most substantial and conspicuous segment of Petrassi’s oeuvre. But it is the un-Stravinskyan and un-Hindemithian allure of his vocal writing, brilliantly contrasted with the cool glitter of the idiosyncratic instrumental component, that stamps a work like Coro di morti as the expression of a distinctively Italian sensibility. It was moreover the affective fluidity of voices that here enabled the 37-year-old composer for the first time to inject a powerful note of introspection into a previously somewhat brittle musical language.

Based on an excerpt from Giacomo Leopardi’s Dialogue of Federico Ruysch and the Mummies, Coro di morti explores death from the bleak viewpoint of the dead themselves. The 32 lines of text—heptasyllables interspersed with more characteristically Italian hendecasyllables—are divided into five main periods, which are prefaced, punctuated, and followed by purely instrumental sections. As the Italian musicologist Massimo Mila observes in his introduction to the published score,

“The musical architecture of the composition coincides exactly with the syntactical and logical demands of the text. The music and the poetry breathe together.”

They do this so cogently that any blow-by-blow analysis would be superfluous. But what the listener may perhaps not notice at first hearing is the sheer depth of the work’s verbal-musical interpenetration. Most remarkably, when the instrumental scherzo first heard after the words “senza tedio consuma” is recapitulated, after “ma da tema è lunge il rimembrar,” it is not repeated literally. What Petrassi does instead is to reshape it in a subtly etiolated form. And what he thus achieves is a breathtakingly evocative musical equivalent of the “confused recollection” to which Leopardi likens the memory of life in the minds of the dead. This dazzling stroke of dramatic irony gains still more impact when the shades proceed to ask, insistently and poignantly, “What were we?” For though we living listeners have heard their dry bones rattling, they—the dead—are still baffled, locked as they are in their own mysterious semi-existence.