BOOK REVIEW: LUIGI DALLAPICCOLA. On Opera. With a foreword by Antal Dorati. Published by Toccata Press ISBN 0 907689 09 4 £15.00



I was surprised at the appearance of this book. Dallapiccola was not that interested in opera; his appreciation of it was rather limited; his conversation on this subject with both myself and my friend, Professor Reginald Smith Brindle, was meagre. To add to this, Dallapiccola was not an orchestral composer. When an American orchestra asked him for a new orchestral work he produced his Variations which were an arrangement of piano pieces for his daughter which he had written two years earlier in 1952 with the title Quaderno Musicale di Annalibera. I often wondered what became of Annalibera; she was particularly interested in archeology at the time.

The most interesting thing about this book is the autobiographical content. Although Italian, Dallapiccola was born in that part of the country which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It was transferred to Italy in 1918 and is now part of Yugoslavia. A year earlier the family had been forcibly transferred to Graz as Luigi's father was deemed to be a dangerous nationalistic agitator. Hence the boy lived in a state of confusion and all his life had this fixation about imprisonment as shown in his Canti di Prigionia (Songs of Imprisonment) (1938 - 41) and his outstanding opera Il Prigioniéro.

Because of his unhappy childhood, he was limited in many other ways. In the 1930s he joined the Cherubini Conservatoire where he had studied some ten years earlier with Frazzi. As a professor, Dallapiccola only taught grade 3 piano but obstinately stuck at this limited task. By now he was steeped in German philosophy and was also a classics scholar. His mind was preoccupied with Greek myths which explains his last opera Ulisse which was completed in 1968.

He was a stiff, rigid authoritarian and not an easy man to deal with. He was a great intellectual but always uncertain of his direction and, as in the case of Elgar, he had a wife who was a major influence upon him although Dallapiccola did not become either a toady or pompous. Mrs Dallapiccola had a strange protective attentiveness towards her husband.

His early work has three admirable qualities and all of Italian descent. First, there was a hint of Puccini's verismo and a clear melodic line; second, his vocal works were almost like Gregorian chant and, third, his choral works had a retrospective renaissance feel about them. These Italian trends are seen in his best work.

Then there came the time when he embraced serialism and he thought he knew all about twelve-note music but, when studying Webern, he realised that he was very limited. His work fell into great decline and, again, he was a prisoner of personal failure. He was not a great composer as Webern was. It takes a real genius to successfully write music in small cells. Instead his music is sparse and skeletal and not very inspiring. To add to this, he suffered from another serious handicap experienced by composers, namely the blight of politics. Everyone has a right to their own beliefs but when it soils their artistic output one has to question the whole concept of politics in music.

And yet putting Dallapiccola into a music context he was a fascinating man, a man of great compassion. He did not suffer from Edwardian arrogance or post-war avant-garde superiority. And, yet, in this welcome book, he writes with great enthusiasm about his operatic works but with less interest about Mozart or Verdi. But what comes through is a personal identity crisis. It is almost as if he is a tragic displaced musician and one can only muse as to what he could have been. History and circumstances can kill the creative ability as can fashion and prejudice.


David Wright


David Wright

Return to Index