Gian Francesco Malipiero, Pause del Silenzio I

By Harvey Sachs, writer, journalist, and music historian

Written for the concert A New Italian Renaissance, performed on April 18, 2008 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

“The 1880 Generation:” thus musicologist Massimo Mila dubbed Ottorino Respighi, Ildebrando Pizzetti, Alfredo Casella, and Gian Francesco Malipiero, collectively, because all four were born between 1879 and 1883. They made waves in Italy and abroad between the two World Wars, but, with the exception of Respighi, whose Rome-inspired symphonic poems remain part of the international repertoire, they are rarely represented in concert halls today and appear, instead, as transitional figures between the last group of popular Italian opera composers—Puccini and contemporaries—and the more radical, twentieth-century-born Luigi Dallapiccola, Luigi Nono, and Luciano Berio.

Malipiero was born in Venice in 1882, grew up in what we would call a dysfunctional family, and received an uneven musical education. Early on, however, he became profoundly interested in the works of Monteverdi, Frescobaldi, and other early Italian composers who, at that time, were largely ignored; they influenced him significantly, as did Debussy, Stravinsky, and other major figures of his own day.

Dallapiccola described Malipiero as “the most important [musical] personality that Italy has had since the death of Verdi,” but the unevenness of Malipiero’s work and what Mila called his “moody and fickle” nature worked against him in the long run. Malipiero’s reputation was tainted, too, by his attitude—alternately fawning and lamenting, but always opportunistic—toward Mussolini’s fascist regime. Typically, when the war was over Malipiero complained that the European musicians who had been forced to flee to America had had an easy time, whereas he had stayed home and suffered wartime deprivations—despite which he managed to live to the age of ninety-one (he died in 1973).

Pause del Silenzio—literally, Silence’s Pauses—was written during the First World War, and this and the other works he composed in those years “reflect my agitated state,” he said. On the other hand, “If I have created something new in my art (form, style) it was precisely at that time.” Malipiero also noted that Pause del Silenzio—which he subtitled “Seven Symphonic Expressions” —had no extra-musical meaning, but was written just when the war made it “most difficult to find silence. . . Precisely because of their tumultuous origins, they contain no thematic development or other artifices. . .” He described the seven “expressions” as: 1) pastoral, 2) between a scherzo and a dance, 3) a serenade (this seems a misnomer—much of the section is dirge-like), 4) a tumultuous whirl, 5) a funeral elegy, 6) a fanfare, and 7) a fire of violent rhythms. The commanding statement with which the piece begins is “the only thematic link” among the sections, Malipiero wrote, “and it is somewhat heroic, because a timid voice would not be likely to interrupt the silence.” His biographer, John C. G. Waterhouse, characterizes these seven segments as “boldly contrasted ‘panels’” and calls Pause del Silenzio “one of the most powerful of [Malipiero’s] purely orchestral compositions.”

Pause del Silenzio was given its first performance in Rome in 1918 under the baton of Bernardino Molinari, to whom it is dedicated. Nine years later, the composer wrote five more “symphonic expressions,” which he called Pause del Silenzio, Part Two, but this group was less successful than Part One.