Preghiere [Prayer] (1962)

By Bernard Jacobson

Written for the concert Music of the 1960s, performed on January 17, 1999 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Good things, as everybody knows, come in threes. The whimsical but affectionate birthday dedication of Alban Berg’s Chamber Concerto to his teacher Arnold Schoenberg allusively hints that such good things include twelve-tone serialist composers: in this case Schoenberg, Berg himself, and Anton Webern. One of the other composers on today’s program, Luciano Berio, is the survivor from what is often thought of as a later Italian triumvirate of serialists or post-serialists, the two deceased members of which were Bruno Maderna and Luigi Nono. Born two decades earlier, Luigi Dallapiccola (1904-1975) was the first Italian composer of major stature to adopt serial techniques, but he belongs to no easily identifiable group, whether of three or of any other number. For Dallapiccola was very definitely a cat who walked by himself.

In its origins, twelve-tone serialism (or dodecaphony) was a phenomenon in the Austro-German tradition. So were the classical and romantic styles of symphonic composition. The tradition of Italian music in the classical and high romantic periods was, by contrast, overwhelmingly vocal in its interests. It was only with two composers of the two generations preceding Dallapiccola’s–Giuseppe Martucci (born 1856) and Ottorino Respighi (born 1879)–that Italy began for the first time since the baroque period to take a strong interest in, and make a strong contribution, to purely orchestral music.

Dallapiccola’s output ranges from such impressive stage works as Volo di notte (Night Flight, after Saint-Exupéry), Il prigioniero, Job, and Ulisse to a highly accomplished series of purely orchestral and instrumental pieces. But it is probably in the choral music, including the compelling Canti di prigionia, and in more than a dozen works for solo voice with orchestra or instrumental ensemble that his most characteristic and at the same time most recognizably Italian voice can be heard. The instrumental parts in these compositions often exploit twelve-tone methods to create complex, even dense, textures. The vocal writing, on the other hand, is quintessentially Italian in its unabashedly lyrical response to poetic texts, and in its avoidance of the tortured, angular character that makes much of the Austro-German dodecaphonic repertoire so problematical a minefield for singers and listeners alike.

Both voice and orchestra in Preghiere (Prayers) are given lines as sharply characterized as any in, for example, Webern’s vocal-instrumental works. But in comparison with Webern’s much imitated fragmentation of texture, the wider, more sustained spans of Dallapiccola’s writing allow the moods evoked by the text–moods ranging from quiet travail to violent outbursts of protest–more time to establish themselves. The result, paradoxically, is a far greater overall variety of expression; for emotionally speaking nothing is more static than continuous flux. The nature of the texts set in Preghiere’s three movements is prevailingly dark–not for nothing is “Oscura” the very first word of the first Prayer–but there is always an inner gentleness in Dallapiccola’s artistic make-up that allows him to range further on the sanguine side of the expressive spectrum than his more tormented Austrian predecessors’ prevailing Weltschmerz ever permitted them to wander. It is worth observing, moreover, that Dallapiccola rarely takes the obvious or expectable course in his treatment of the text. The lines near the end of the second Prayer that speak of souls and bodies worthy of the morning dew, of love, of flowers and the music of birds–lines that from a less subtle creator might well have drawn a conventionally ecstatic response–prompt Dallapiccola instead to a setting that dramatizes not so much the beauty of such blessings as the desolation humanity suffers from their loss.

Commissioned by the Committee for Arts and Lectures of the University of California at Berkeley, Preghiere is dedicated “to the Department of Music in gratitude and friendship, and was first performed at Berkeley on November 10, 1962, when Edgar Jones was the baritone soloist and Gerhard Samuel conducted. The work is scored for a chamber orchestra of nine woodwinds, horn, trumpet, celesta, piano, vibraphone, xylorimba, and solo string quintet.

The humanistic inclinations of the composer and specifically of Preghiere are aptly stressed in some of the comments Dallapiccola provided for the work’s first recording in the 1970s:

“In each of my creative periods, starting as early as that of the Tre laudi, a religious note has been struck. . . . However, I have always chosen texts that have been the outcome of human experience. I have progressed from Mary Queen of Scots to Severinus Boethius, and later to Sebastiano Castellio and a fragment from Exodus. The most ambitious text until recently was that [of] Saint Augustine, which concludes the Canti di liberazione. And there was the fiery, burning Jacopone da Todi.

A few years ago I was visited by Murilo Mendes, the Brazilian poet, who teaches at Rome University. I recorded this visit briefly in my diary, commenting: ‘Découverte d’un frère’ [‘Discovery of a brother’]. I actually wrote this in French, recalling as I did that it was in those and no other terms that a biographer of Baudelaire’s had commented on the latter’s discovery of Edgar Allan Poe. What was it about Murilo Mendes that had impressed me so very particularly? His mystical humanism. Among his aphorisms, one seems to be especially inspired and remarkable: ‘It is difficult to be a Christian without first having been a pagan or a Jew.’ Through Murilo Mendes I was two years later afforded contact with the adamantine style of the 13th chapter of the first Epistle to the Corinthians. . . . Anybody who is familiar with my creative activity as a whole . . . has probably noticed how often events of international politics have run parallel to what I was writing at the time. This is a sign that I have never yielded to the myth of the ivory tower and that I have above all wanted to be a human being. May I be allowed to recall in this connection that the manuscript of the Preghiere shows a date in the margin: ‘Berkeley, 21 October 1962.’ It was a Sunday: that Sunday on which President Kennedy made the speech on television that ushered in the week that will go down in history as ‘Cuban Week.’”