By Leon Botstein
Written for the concert Persecution and Hope: Masterworks of Conscience, performed on Feb 20, 2009 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
It is not an exaggeration to assert that Luigi Dallapiccola was the greatest Italian composer of the twentieth century. He was an almost exact contemporary of Aaron Copland, but the divergence in their careers, particularly in their relationship to their respective native countries, provides instructive contrast. Copland’s meteoric rise was initially in part due to an embrace of European modernism, but in the 1930s he turned to a more populist and conservative idiom. He linked his music intentionally to the progressive democratic politics of the New Deal. As a result, he introduced a music that bridged the concert stage and the movie theater, producing a sound that would seem emblematically American, patriotic, and national.
Dallapiccola followed almost the same curve in the opposite direction, although he was like Copland born into a family atypical of the country of his origin. The Dallapiccola family was from a region that was marginal to Italian culture. Indeed before 1918 it was once an integral part of the Austrian Empire. When he was a teenager, Dallapiccola’s family was interned in Graz because of suspicions regarding their nationalist politics. During those years the composer was exposed to the established Austro-German tradition. As a young man he traveled to Bologna and then to Florence. In his early twenties, he encountered the music of Mahler, Debussy and Schoenberg—the same music Copland discovered, but Dallapiccola pursued from that starting point a different path.
Inspired by incipient European modernism, Dallapiccola’s formative years as a composer overlapped the early years of Italian fascism and the career of its leader, Benito Mussolini. It is awkward for many to remember that “Il duce” was in the late 1920s and early 1930s a figure more admired than reviled. It was not only Italians that Mussolini seduced into supporting him. The American poet Ezra Pound infamously supported the Italian dictator, and European intellectuals such as Stefan Zweig found in Mussolini a welcome balance between freedom and order, a positive antidote to the economic and social chaos of postwar Europe. If the America of the 1930s fostered social justice as well as new opportunities for tolerance and freedom, Italy fostered a very different nationalist philosophy. The Abyssinian campaign and Italian role in the Spanish Civil War were startling reminders that Mussolini’s humanistic pronouncements were decorative façades for a brutal system.
For Dallapiccola, optimism vanished during the 1930s. As an artist, his response to the darkening political environment and the increasing restrictions on freedom and liberty led to a more dramatic adoption of modernist strategies in composition, and a forceful rejection of the conservative expressive devices bequeathed by late romanticism favored by his Italian contemporaries eager to placate the regime. His was not the Coplandesque celebration of the national collective, but the anxious alarm against oppression and conformity. During the 1930s, the most influential figure in Dallapiccola’s creative exploration was Alban Berg, whom he met in 1934. It is therefore all the more inexplicable that tonight’s two operas, as well as Dallapiccola’s Ulisse and Job, have not yet achieved permanent places in the repertory.
As the subject of his first opera, Dallapiccola chose the 1931 novel that made Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (now best known for The Little Prince) famous. What attracted Dallapiccola to Saint-Exupéry, a rather shadowy adventurer with profound literary gifts, was perhaps the real and fictional obsession in the author-aviator’s works with the will of the lone individual. If Volo di notte is about anything, it is about an almost futurist, even neo-Nietzschean commitment to present action, a kind of will to power and self-assertion in the face of death and uncertainty. The death of Fabian and Rivière’s refusal to abandon night-flying can be read as metaphors of resistance by the individual. An assertion of individualist freedom is worth the risk of encountering the unknown and possible self-destruction. Begun in 1937 and premiered in 1940 despite the aesthetic prejudices of the regime, the music is structured around recognizable cells of rhythm, harmony, and melody that are developed over the course of the opera. A basic twelve-tone system is employed, but alongside modal and chromatic usages. The work is structured along Bergian lines and is framed at the outset and the close by tonality.
The existential predicament of the characters in Volo di notte and the resulting suffering and tragedy may have provided the initial impetus for Dallapiccola in 1937, but by the time he contemplated writing a second opera in 1942 the political circumstances had worsened considerably, and the general questions of Volo di notte had assumed a specific urgency. Europe was at war and the true consequences of fascism were no longer ambiguous. As Dallapiccola (whose wife was Jewish) recalled, “Between 1942 and 1943…it became increasingly clear to me that I must write an opera which…would portray the tragedy of our times and the tragedy of persecution felt and suffered by millions of individuals.”
The German occupation of Italy after the fall of Mussolini placed Dallapiccola in a tremendously dangerous circumstance, not alleviated by the subject of his current opera. Between Christmas and New Year’s Eve of 1943 he finished the libretto of Il prigioniero. Dallapiccola and his wife were in the town of Borgunto, Italy, after deciding not to flee to Switzerland for fear of losing contact with Dallapiccola’s mother. Luckily, the couple survived after successfully hiding in Florence until the end of the war. He finally finished Il prigioniero in 1948 and the opera received its premiere in 1950. Il prigioniero can be most fruitfully compared to Berg’s personal and expressive adaptation of the avant-garde devices pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg. Dallapiccola fashions his own approach to the use of twelve tones. The work, despite its modernist vocabulary, has an intensity and lyricism that permits it to express what Max Weber famously called the “Iron Cage,” which the modern individual is forced to confront, the inexorable trap in which the possibilities of freedom are circumscribed. The last words of Il prigioniero occur when the main character, as Dallapiccola describes it, “unconsciously mutters ‘Freedom?’” Alessandro Bonsanti, the writer and critic who later became mayor of Florence and Dallapiccola’s friend observed: how can that question be answered beyond the response of silence? Is freedom in modernity an illusion or painful deception? There are those who see Dallapiccola’s opera as being extremely pessimistic, but the suffering it expresses is of such power that it is reminiscent of the renewal of the human will and its capacity for resistance. The prisoner may not find the answer, but he has at least remembered to ask the right question.
Unlike Aaron Copland, Dallapiccola remained committed to fashioning a musical vocabulary that was deeply expressive of the circumstances of a contemporary existence marked by mass movements, unprecedented weapons of destruction, a dehumanizing world of commerce and industry, and the seemingly endless daily struggle for dignity, matched only by unlimited opportunities for surrender into conformity.
It took almost half a century for the wider public to embrace Alban Berg. More than a quarter century after the death of Luigi Dallapiccola, especially in light of events of our own generation, a wider appreciation of the intensity and humanism of Dallapiccola’s modernism is timely. These two operas reveal the power of music to tell the truth. Modernism, surprisingly, has its human side that requires no concession to popularity or aestheticized familiarity. If Aaron Copland deserves to be honored as the most eloquent voice of the optimistic possibilities offered by freedom, Dallapiccola is the twentieth century’s most powerful voice on behalf of the struggle for freedom through an art of originality, provocation, resistance and the candid revelation of anguish and fear.
The traditions of western concert music are most succinctly idealized in the motto of one of the most venerable continuing civic organizations formed on behalf of musical culture, the Gewandhaus in Leipzig: “true joy is a serious thing.” By comparison with what appears the more tuneful and accessible surface of post-modernist operatic writing currently so in vogue, Dallapiccola’s music does not make for “easy listening.” But it is the intention of the composer to reach the public. The imagination, drama, and the searing gaze on the human struggle for freedom and individual autonomy of these operas offer audiences true joy through a genuinely moving and serious experience.