From the Last Century

By Leon Botstein

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

In keeping with this orchestra’s mission, first articulated by Leopold Stokowski, the American Symphony Orchestra seeks to challenge in its programming our conventional definition and appreciation of the concert repertory. The ASO does this in many ways, most especially by reviving certain unjustly forgotten works as well as composers from the past and by reconfiguring the context in which we hear works with which we are already quite familiar. In looking at a musical work’s relation to other forms of life such as politics, visual arts, literature, and history, we try to change the way we hear and think about music. In an era when most if not all of the concert audience can become familiar with music through recording, the live concert must assume new roles. One of them is to expand the range of mainstream musical expectations and inspire the audience to reflect on how music works and how it is a part of culture and history.

Tonight, in the season’s opening concert, we take a look at a century that has confused and troubled a large segment of the traditional audience for concerts. The exploration of the twentieth century as history is exciting since it is still such a new task. Each member of audience has had some direct experience with the musical currents of the twentieth century as new music. The intensity of the conflicts about the new music of the recent past, as well as about the shifts and countercurrents in style still linger. As the history of the twentieth century begins to be written, old scores are being settled as the achievements and dominant character of twentieth-century music are assessed and revised. Despite the all embracing and welcoming pluralism of the present moment, the modernism of half a century ago is frequently derided and attacked for its presumed share of responsibility in alienating the old audience and failing to attract a new one, thereby placing the great concert traditions of music at risk.

One senses already that there has been somewhat of an overreaction. That is the proposition that tonight’s concert explores. All of the works represented here are by mid-century composers influenced in one way or another by radical notions associated with twentieth-century musical modernism. It has often been said that modernism, a dominant movement that came of age in the early and mid twentieth century, was too abstract, difficult and cold. It was too arrogant and too intent on either scandalizing or ignoring the audience. It has been accused of disregard for any tradition or context around it. But now that modernism is no longer very modern, we have a new perspective from which to determine the truth of this view. As with any movement, the great and the mediocre flourish side by side. For every measure of music written by J.S. Bach, there are thousands of boring measures of Baroque music that sound sort of like his music. The situation is even more extreme when one compares Mozart to run-of-the-mill classical music or Mahler to many of his post-Wagnerian contemporaries. No doubt there was a lot of forgettable but competent modernist music. But before we throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water, we need to take a look at a group of composers and their music who may never have been given a real chance and now deserve a rehearing.

Each of the composers on tonight’s program wrote music with an intensity and a sense of necessity that are remarkable. From our new “Monday morning” vantage, we can gain a new appreciation of their voices, where they came from, and what they accomplished. For example, each of these composers fashioned an audible originality. Yet they actually were also strongly influenced by their immediate predecessors the founding modernists, particularly those of the second Viennese school, including Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton von Webern. They did not find themselves drawn to modernism for mere stylistic or careerist reasons. The high point of modernism-from the late 1920s to the mid 1960s-occurred at a time when aesthetic choices were matters of fundamental social, political and ethical principle. Art meant more than entertainment. Gerhard studied with Schoenberg and Hartmann traveled to Vienna to take lessons from Webern. Luigi Dallapiccola dedicated Piccola musica notturna to Hermann Scherchen, a noted champion of radical modernism and a staunch anti-Fascist. Goffredo Petrassi is along with Dallapiccola one of the leading figures of the twentieth-century Italian avant-garde. His music is particularly admired by the leading living exponent of American musical modernism, Elliott Carter.

In a larger sense, the attraction these composers had to the modernist revolution reveals the connection each of them had to their environments. They all shared the conviction that musical expression in the twentieth century had to be adequate to the spirit of the times and therefore progressive. Their idea of progression was firmly grounded in an acute sensitivity to two contemporary stimuli. The first of these stimuli may be understood as the political and cultural realities of modernity. For artists born around the turn of the century, the political and cultural impetus behind any definition of musical style or means of expression was located in the trauma of World War I and in the reconfiguration of Europe in the aftermath of the Versailles Treaty. The emergence of Fascism and the enormous allure of Socialism and Communism coincided with deep uncertainties about the future of democracy and economic security. The Great Depression only further complicated a period of time in which an entire range of political engagement from ideological pacifism to virulent and aggressive nationalism constituted a definitive feature of the environment in which any artist worked. The modernists’ rejection of a surface Romantic expressiveness in music, their strong distaste for sentimentality and the bland, escapist sensibility of Puccini’s imitators and other traditional, conservative forms of music were political and ideological declarations against the tastes and culture of the corrupt society that had almost destroyed Europe.

When one considers the historical era not only in which these four composers came of age, but the years themselves in which the pieces on tonight’s program were written, the intense engagement of their music with the events of the past century becomes even plainer. With the exception of Dallapiccola’s work, all were composed during the 1940s. Two of them-the Coro di Morti and the Symphonic Hymns-speak directly to the horrific realities of World War II. But of all these composers, it is Dallapiccola, Italy’s most distinguished post-war, avant-garde figure, who be can most closely associated in his life and music with the political causes of freedom and justice. For him, as for the others on this program modernism in music went hand in hand with resistance to injustice and dictatorship. While Petrassi’s war time composition was performed close to the date of its creation, Hartmann’s, like much of his output, was a courageous, surreptitious expression of rage and despair that could and would only be heard in public many years later after the defeat of the Third Reich.

The second stimulus in the search for progressive expression in music derived from within the history of music itself. Since the days of Wagner, composers increasingly saw themselves as trapped in the shadow of history. They came to view their own achievements generationally; they were heirs to a lineage and legacy to which their own contemporaries in the concert audience were wedded. Such a view necessarily makes history a heavy burden, and young composers not surprisingly quickly developed a sense of the exhaustion of past models; they sought to create something new. But the conscious search for originality in an overt rejection of inherited models is really only a displaced reference to the past. Indeed, evocations of the history of music abound among the works on tonight’s program. Much of Gerhard’s Violin Concerto carries on a dialogue with previous violin concerti. Alongside quotations from Schoenberg, the startling virtuosity of the violin writing is an ironic encomium to the clichés and achievements of standard violin technique so familiar to concert-goers. Dallapiccola’s affectionate reference is obviously to Mozart. Petrassi evokes the tradition of Italian madrigal, while Hartmann looks back to Haydn and the traditions of Baroque composition.

It is the privilege of twenty-first century listeners to be able to leave the stereotypes of debate about twentieth-century modernism behind. As time passes and the context and legacy of these composers continue to crystallize, we can deepen our appreciation and newfound perception of their rich and thorough affection for musical tradition, and their sometimes personally risky engagement with the political and cultural events that surrounded them. It is time to rediscover the music of unfairly overlooked twentieth- century masters; the allure of the concert repertoire will only be enhanced. If contemporary audiences have come to love Shostakovich because of the riveting interaction of sound, allusion and emotion in his music, then the music of Petrassi, Gerhard, Dallapiccola and Hartmann should win new advocates in a new generation. These remarkable composers and their music remind us that the final word on twentieth-century modernism has not yet been uttered. As time passes they will be seen to share with Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, and Debussy an allegiance to the creation of complex musical forms as an indispensable part of the human capacity to seek redemption and express hope.

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.

Violin Concerto (1943)

By Meirion Bowen

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

‘…a braiding of diverse strands…’

Roberto Gerhard (1896-1970) might be considered as a prototype of the exiled twentieth-century composer. His career trajectory, like that of Kurt Weill and many others, was continually disrupted by war and political upheavals.

Just as he began to study music in Munich, the First World War broke out, forcing him to return to his native Catalonia, in Spain, where he became a pupil of Granados and Felipe Pedrell. Just as his reputation as a composer was blossoming in the late 1930s, the onset of the Spanish Civil War meant that (as a supporter of the Republican cause) he had to flee the country. And just as he took refuge in Cambridge, England, at the age of 43, and began the formidable task of establishing himself in a country where he was virtually unknown, the Second World War began and public music-making was severely constricted.

Characteristically, Gerhard found an unusual way to survive, writing incidental music for BBC radio plays, and this eventually took him into the experimental realm of musique concrete and electronic music on tape. That his stature, manifest in a succession of substantial orchestral and chamber compositions, was eventually recognised in the 1950s and 60s—not only in the UK and Europe, but in the USA (where he taught at Michigan and Tanglewood and attracted major commissions)—says much for his persistence and integrity. Finally, post-Franco Spain has now posthumously acknowledged him as one of their highest-ranking composers.

The fragmentation of Gerhard’s career, the inaccessibility, until recently, of recordings of his music, and of editions of his writings, has made it difficult to assimilate his creative personality as a whole. The first temptation is to label him a Spanish nationalist, dependent upon the inflexions and colours of regional folk-music. But his multi-faceted musical character is more accurately summed up in his own description of his violin-and-piano piece, Gemini (1966) – ‘a braiding of diverse strands’.

Most crucial to Gerhard’s development was his five-year period of studies with Schoenberg in Vienna and Berlin (1923-28), which enabled him to solidify his technique and discover his own identity as a composer. Soon after he settled again in Barcelona, a retrospective concert of his music took place on 22 December, 1929, at the Palau de la Musica Catalana: and now as then, it offers a good starting-point for identifying the different facets of his creative character.

Firstly, it was regarded as a controversial concert, an invasion of territory ruled by the conservative Orfeo Catala, founded by the elderly and revered conductor Luis Millet. Millet published a hostile review and Gerhard’s intelligent, but thrusting counter-attack began his lifelong championship of artistic innovation.

At one end of the spectrum, the concert programme featured his arrangements of Catalan popular songs and two newly composed Sardanas, celebrations of Catalonia’s most treasured regional dance, symbolising unity (and later banned by Franco). The inclusion of Gerhard’s succinct early song-cycle Seven Haiku (1923) also revealed his affiliation to Stravinsky. But it was his new Concertino for strings (originally written for string quartet) and Wind Quintet, both raising the banner for Schoenbergian compositional techniques, that Millet and his supporters found provocative. Gerhard’s accomplishment therein showed what great strides he had made since studying with the Viennese master.

Soon after reaching England, Gerhard began to crystallise all the ingredients in his musical make-up. This entailed paying homage to his former teachers and making explicit references back to earlier works. He first acknowledged his debt to Pedrell with a Symphony based on themes from an unpublished opera by his teacher. In his subsequent Violin Concerto (1942-5), he took as his starting-point the Concertino mentioned earlier; and the central slow movement of the work pays a seventieth-birthday tribute to Schoenberg with chorale-like music based on the twelve-note row of Schoenberg’s Fourth String Quartet. While Schoebergian procedures prevail in these two movements, the finale is much freer, beginning with a quotation from the Marseillaise (symbolising liberation), followed by references to Sardanas and ending with a Spanish dance. This intermingling of traditions and techniques, old and new, remained a feature of Gerhard’s music thereafter and is the most fundamental reason for its unpredictable, yet rewarding vitality.

Miserae (1934)

By Michael Kube

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

After Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, thousands of musicians and artists were persecuted because of their Jewish religion and their politicalor artistic conventions. As restrictive measures were implemented in all areas of their daily lives, many were able to turn their backs on their homeland in time (however, far too many denied the imminent danger and soon ended up in the ever tightening jaws of the anti-human extermination machinery). But only a few of those who had decided to stay succeeded in retreating from all public areas and by means of this «inner emigration” remain unscathed throughout the dark, dictatorial years. One of these lone outcasts who was able to withdraw from “the system” was Karl Amadeus Hartmann. Though he was stylistically still leaning toward modern musical trends, the political change left its lasting mark on his works, significantly expressed in his grand-scale orchestra music as well as his symphonies. Hartmann himself, who according to Max See was “completely changed” during the course of the early 1930s, reflected upon this incisive change in his musical language in an autobiographic sketch:

“That year (1934) I realized that I needed to make a confession, not because of despair or fear of that power, but rather as a counter-action. I told myself that freedom wins even if we are destroyed at least that’s what I believed then. During that time I wrote my first string quartet, the symphonic poem Miserae, and my Symphony No. l…”

Hartmann’s intellectual and aesthetic rebellion was not bold and simple. The symphonic poem Miserae, which Hartmann long considered his actual first symphony, bears the dedication, “To my friends who had to die by the hundreds, now sleeping for eternity-we will not forget you (Dachau, 1933-1934).” However, musically this is a work of upheaval. Comprising a single movement, the tone poem’s introductory lament of horn and clarinet foreshadows structural and stylistic elements of a later era, whereas the concert-like gests of the developmentally structured, fast segments still reverberate with characteristics from the 1920s. The premiere on September 2, 1935 in Prague, conducted by Hartmann, was without a doubt a great success, reaching all the way into Germany. The Frankfurter Zeitung, which remained liberal long after 1933, had this almost enthusiastic response:

“Among the many heard, there was a new one, commanding everyone’s attention. Karl Amadeus Hartmann has opened the discussion with an orchestra work, Miserae, which may be described as technically excellent, but was especially powerful in its expression and intellectual poignancy, far superlative to many other compositions of our time.”

Symphonic Hymns (1942)

By Andrew D. McCredie, Professor Adjunctus, Monash University, Melbourne

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

In the course of over three decades since the death of Karl Amadeus Hartmann in 1963, the canons of the musical history of the twentieth century would be radically revised and extended through knowledge that had been revealed on the cultural conditions that prevailed in the middle third of the century. This was the period that subsumed the emergence of the various totalitarian regimes in Central and Southern Europe, of the holocaust and Second World War, of the oppressive political fundamentalism that developed in the Soviet Union and its satellite countries, the dissolution of traditional hegemonies and empires, and of the emergence of new divisions based upon unequal constellations of wealth and resources. For the music historian the resulting new fields of investigation included the state of musical life, creation and performance in totalitarian societies, the musics in emigration, exile and internment as well as the work of those musicians, who, unable to emigrate, were compelled to subsist within communities of a sociopolitical ethos totally alien to their own, and to which they were spiritually opposed.

The German composer Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963), also famed as the visionary pioneering instigator of the Munich “Musica Viva” Concerts (1945-1963), was exemplary of the last of these categories. In his posthumously published series of essays Kleine Schriften (Mainz, 1965), Hartmann could already identify himself as a creator of a Bekenntnismusik, a music of an ideological, political, social and spiritual commitment. At that time, the self-recognition of Hartmann as a Bekenntniskunstler was identified with that central body of his oeuvre, the already published and posthumously recovered works dating from the years 1933-1945, including the postwar revisions of these. Since 1980, however, with the publication of his very earliest works predating 1933, and studies of the text and literary sources of Gesannsszene nach Giraudoux’s Sodom und Gomorrha, a more fully global profile has emerged (as was also in the case of Shostakovich or Allan Pettersson) of a broader humanitarian commitment and social criticism that applied to conditions both before and after the years of the Holocaust. The early works included Wachsfigurenkabinett (Waxworks), a series of five Musikalische Kammerspiele (1929-1932), the Cantata after texts by Johannes Becher (1891-1958) and Karl Marx (1928), which identifies a commitment to the left-wing Marxist socialism of the day with its critical attacks on capitalism, mass productive industrialism, commercialism, worker exploitation, and cultural materialism, often using devices such as jazz and the instrumentalisms associated with the modes of American popular music of the twenties. In the Gesangszene nach Giraudoux, Hartmann’s concerns are with the terminal fragility of empires and hegemonies, the unequal distribution of world resources and wealth, the abuses of science and technology, and the pollution of both the physical and spiritual environments—thereby taking up universalist themes, many of them first envisaged in plans for a never-to-be-completed oratorio on human rights’ declarations, as outlined in correspondence with Valentin Gitermann (April 30, May 3 and 14, June 3, 1950) on the French Revolutionary Les Droits du Citoyen (1791) in connection with the United Nations proclamation of human rights.

Moreover, Hartmann could enunciate the basis of an aesthetics of a music commitment, when in an introductory essay to his seventh symphony (1957/1959) he stated:

“I seek no cold-blooded cerebral artifice but rather a totally experienced work of art with a message. Such a work needs not to be understood in terms of its structural and technical details, but rather for its spiritual message, one that is not always automatically communicated in words. The work expresses a message of such universality, that verbal for conceptual meanings scaffoldings seem inadequate appearing, by contrast, to be both blind and deaf to its meaning.”

This view represented Hartmann’s position during the mid-1950s— at a stage when he sought to propagate his commitment less overtly than under the provocations of over a decade earlier. It was during the postwar era that he either revised or withdrew many of the scores that had been composed between 1933 and 1945, favoring his new stylistic focuses in the concertos, the seventh and eighth symphonies. In these earlier works, including the Symphonic Hymns, his abhorrence and repudiation of developments after 1933 found its fullest expression. In the Kleine Schriften he wrote:

“Then came the year 1933. In that year I realized it would be necessary to write down a confession, not out of trepidation or anxiety before that power, but rather as a confrontation. I felt assured that freedom would triumph, even if it involved our total destruction—that is what I believed then.”

To facilitate his expression of such abhorrence and spiritual defiance to the Third Reich, Hartmann chose a number of verbal and musical devices and techniques. To the verbal means were the choices of titles or subtitles (Concerto FunebreMusik der Trauer, Sinfonia Tragica; Miserae; Klagegesang), texts (Walt Whitman, Andreas Gryphius, Grimmelschausen) or dedications (Miserae to the early victims of Dachau), or of the overture China kämpf to Chinese students rebel Den Shi-Chua and his Soviet biographer Sergei Tretiakov), the use of historical analogy in texts (the opera Simplicius Simplicissimus), and of provocative textual citation.

His choice of the methods of musical execution, moreover, reinforced this verbal stand. Thus, the musical choices selected by him for direct, indirect or veiled citation included those of Jewish incantation and folksong, revolutionary songs, work songs, chorales and propaganda songs (such as the, “International” in the recently recovered finale for the suite Vita Nova of 1943) or musical quotations or models from the works of other composers (Stravinsky, Bart6k, Prokofiev, Webern) or techniques condemned by Nazi aesthetics as entartete (degenerate).

The Symphonic Hymns (1942/43) is the second in a trilogy of orchestral works entitled Sinfoniae Dramticae that bridge the years between the creation of the Sinfonia Tragica (1940/41) and Klagegesang (1944/45). This trilogy comprised the sequence of works Symphonische Ouverture “China” (as originally titled), Symphonische Hymnen, and the Symphonic Suite with Narration Vita Nova. Of this trilogy, China kämpf was withdrawn after its first performance in 1947 at Darmstadt, rededicated under the title Symphonische Ouverture to Antonio Mingotti in 1962, under which title it was posthumously revived in 1975 and published.

Similarly, the composer withdrew the suite Vita Nova; he soon revised and published the work’s Adagio movement as his single-movement Second Symphony. Its movement with narrator appears to be no longer extant, while the Finale was posthumously published in 1986.

Composition of the Symphoniche Hymnen clearly dates—according to the composer’s dates marked at the ends of each movement—from 1942 and 1943; the thirteen months between March 8, 1942 and April 18, 1943 also suggesting a period of final gestation and revisions before the later of the two datings. Rather than adopting the three-movement slow-fast-slow pattern favored by Hartmann in other works of this period, the three movements yield a sequence Fantasia (an Introduction with theme and variations), Adagio, and Toccata (Allegro risoluto). The first movement appears to foreshadow a compositional process in the later Klagegesang in which a series of contrasting movements or movement segments alternate with a short thematically-recurrent Ritornello—these new movement segments in the first movement of the Symphonic Hymns being variations of an originally specifically stated theme. This movement concludes with a Coda for five solo strings, which an interesting and most original conclusion to this movement. The Adagio highlights two contrasting solos for oboe and English horn, the latter suggesting folklorist and populist origins, before yielding to a more animated and luxuriantly scored middle section that culminates in a typically Hartmannian “high point,” before relaxing into a compressed varied reprise of its opening. It is, however, the Toccata finale that illuminates the work’s title Symphonic Hymn. Its opening theme (bars 2, 3 and 4) offers the rhythmic shape, but in diminution, and disguised by a variant intervallic progression of first three measures of the Habsburg “Kaiserhymn” used in the slow movement of Haydn’s String Quartet, Op. 76, No. 3. This movement employs the lively duple meter also for the recently recovered finale of Vita Nova. Its ambiance, extended orchestra dimensions (nowhere else exceeded by this composer), sectional and thematic clarity and lucidity, coupled with luxuriant instrumentation, all make the Symphonic Hymns one of Hartmann’s most engaging early scores.

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.