Luigi Dallapiccola, Frammenti Sinfonici from the ballet Marsia

By Byron Adams

Written for the concert Apollo and Dionysus, performed on May 9, 2010 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Phoebus Apollo may have been the golden god of music, healing, and the life-giving sun, radiating light from the nimbus around his head, but he could be a cruel, even vicious god, especially to those he desired, as Hyacinthus, Cassandra, and Daphne all learned to their cost. If the grim destinies of these three reveal how terrible a suitor Apollo could be, then the myth of the satyr Marsyas elucidates with horrifying clarity the fate of one foolish enough to challenge the supremacy of this god. In some traditions, Marsyas had already risked his luck by picking up the aulos, the double-flute discarded by Pallas Athena after her fellow Olympians ridiculed her distorted face as she played; Athena is supposed to have struck the satyr on the head in exasperation. Unbowed by this Olympian chastisement, Marsyas then had the temerity to challenge Apollo himself to a test of musical skill. Apollo won, as gods always do, and punished Marsyas for his hubris by lashing the satyr to a pine tree and flaying him alive. For the Greeks, the lesson was clear: hubris brings only disaster and sure, painful death.

In his ballet Marsia (Italian for “Marsyas”), the great Italian composer Luigi Dallapiccola reinterpreted this ancient cautionary tale in light of his own very twentieth-century experience. Born in the disputed region of Istria, which was then a part of the Austrian empire, Dallapiccola suffered the traumatic experience of being interned with his family in Graz during the First World War. The Austrian authorities deemed the Dallapiccola family as dangerous Italian nationalists. Dallapiccola and his family returned home only after the war when Istria became part of Italy. This early internment bred in the young composer a fierce love of liberty—he named his daughter “Anna Libera”—that led him to oppose courageously the rise of Mussolini’s brand of Fascism from the mid-1930s; during the Second World War, Dallapiccola’s life was often in grave danger. Over the course of his career, Dallapiccola composed a series of works that protested vehemently the oppression of the weak by the strong, including his operatic masterwork, Il prigioniero (“The Prisoner” 1944–48).

Before beginning work on Il prigioniero, however, Dallapiccola composed his only ballet, Marsia. Completed in 1943, this ballet is the last of the composer’s scores to use tonal materials. Dallapiccola, who loved deeply the music of Alban Berg, employed his own Italianate adaptation of the twelve-tone technique for all of his works after Marsia.

The scenario of Marsia, by Aurel Milloss, inverts the meaning of the Classical myth in order to make a trenchant and very modern political point. Instead of the satyr being rightly punished for his hubris by Apollo, the god becomes a symbol for cold, cruel oppression, an Olympian Mussolini. Marsyas, whose music is dominated by eloquent and evocative writing for the flute, dies a heroic martyr who dared to confront a tyrant through music. (Dallapiccola signals his sympathies unmistakably by assigning the suggestive tempo marking Allegro molto sostenuto e pomposo to the “Danza de Apollo.”) At the moving conclusion of the ballet, Marsyas’s followers grieve so deeply that their tears create a river bearing the satyr’s name, thus immortalizing his courage and providing sustenance to a parched land. In 1947, Dallapiccola excerpted about three-fourths of Marsia to create an orchestral work entitled Frammenti Sinfonici dal Balletto “Marsia” (“Symphonic Fragments from the Ballet ‘Marsyas’”), tightening the musical argument in the process but preserving the basic outline of the original plot.