Piccola musica notturna (1954)

By Kyle Gann

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

The Italian Luigi Dallapiccola (1904-1975) can arguably be considered an honorary fourth member of the twelve-tone Second Vienna School of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. Works such as his Piccola musica notturna, Sex carmina Alcaei, and his political opera Il prigioniero represent some of the loveliest, and even most accessible, twelve-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 began flirting with dodecaphony early, in the mid-1930s, having formed a friendship with Berg in 1934; from 1942 he composed primarily in that idiom. Unlike the more doctrinaire twelve-tone composers, however, Dallapiccola puts as much imagination into atmosphere as into syntax, and builds up textures by repetition of brief row fragments, a technique that results in great transparency and even, at times, limpid restfulness. In short, Dallapiccola’s music stays far away from what would become the clichés of twelve-tone music.

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. Likewise, he and his Jewish wife had to hide out part of World War II in an apartment outside of Florence. Such difficulties gave Dallapiccola a lifelong obsession with freedom, often reflected in his vocal works such as Il prigioniero (The Prisoner), Canti di prigionia, and Canti di liberazione. Piccola musica notturna, however—having essentially the same title as a popular Mozart warhorse, Eine kleine Nachtmusik—is one of Dallapiccola’s nonpolitical works. It was written in the first week of April, 1954, as a gift for the conductor Hermann Scherchen, a champion of new European composers, Dallapiccola among them. Scherchen had asked for a six-minute work to be premiered at the Festival des Jeunesses Musicales in Hanover, and Dallapiccola handed him the score seven days later.

The quality of the night invoked is very different from Mozart’s, and—the twelve-tone technique notwithstanding—seems to hark back less to Schoenberg than to Bartok, the latter known for the “night-music” movements of his works. Not only the expanding opening lines, but the overall arch form is reminiscent of the first movement of Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta (1936). Despite a few moments of tension, Piccola musica notturna is surely one of the most serenely contemplative twelve-tone works ever written. One will hear the qualities that make Dallapiccola’s music more accessible than that of many of his contemporaries, most notably the tendency to cycle through two or three pitches at a time in recurring motives, and also to echo pitches from one instrument to another. The resulting orchestral textures are sparse but ravishing and highly original.

Though not normally given to displays of technical explanation, Dallapiccola does seem to have been proud of the fact that this work is based on an all-interval row: i.e., an ordering of the twelve pitches in which every possible interval is represented. The fact that the row’s opening pitches (B-flat, G, B, C-sharp, D) revolve within a major/minor triad on G imparts to the entire work a bittersweet, quasi-tonal feeling. As someone who was already in his thirties when confronted with the twelve-tone language, Dallapiccola had already been too influenced by Debussy and Busoni to adopt a thoroughly Schoenbergian idiom. He seems to belong 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.