Gian Francesco Malipiero
Variazioni senza tema
I first heard about Gian Francesco Malipiero one cold night in the winter of 1986. My future teacher Giancarlo Cardini was giving a lecture on twentieth century piano music at the Lucca Institute of Music, and played for us La notte dei morti, the first of Malipiero’s Poemi Asolani from 1916. This lugubrious music, ripe with archaic echoes and pervaded by a seemingly inconsolable melancholy, made such an effect on me that I rushed to the local music shop and bought the only score of Malipiero I could find, his Terzo Concerto for piano and orchestra. I now realise that I could scarcely have had a better entry point to Malipiero’s world, both as Giancarlo Cardini is an eminent interpreter of such repertoire and as the Terzo concerto crystallizes with almost photographic detail much of Malipiero’s poetic aspirations. In the words of Luigi Dallapiccola, he went on to become «the most important musical figure to emerge in Italy since the death of Verdi», an unlikely yet extremely influential protagonist of music who, strangely, is remembered more for his editorship of the works of Vivaldi and Monteverdi than for his remarkable and multifaceted output. A successful individual during his lifetime, after his death in 1973 his music fell into an injurious neglect, and only recently has a modest part of his work began to reappear both in the concert hall and, more importantly, in sound recordings.
Born in Venice in 1882, Malipiero followed an abstract trajectory that led him from humble beginnings (he had been a recalcitrant student who once heard his teacher Marco Enrico Bossi advising him to give up composition altogether) to a position of venerable respect within the Italian avant-garde. Despite the fact that his origins were rooted in the operatic Romanticism, he quickly emancipated his language from both the stylistic and structural dogma of the past. Rejecting any suggestion of structure or thematic development, he created a new language that obeyed solely to the syntax and colour of music. The Paris premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps in 1913 proved a turning point. It «awoke me from a long and dangerous lethargy», wrote Malipiero, who promptly disowned much of what he had written prior to that momentous occasion. Having returned to Italy, he joined forces with Alfredo Casella and the others member of the Generation of the Eighties, a handful of composers born in or around 1880 that had set out to rejuvenate an instrumental tradition in Italy after more than a century of operatic domination. Malipiero already had to his credit a huge international success (Pause del silenzio, 1910), and a Machiavellian performance at a competition organized by the Accademia of Santa Cecilia in Rome in 1912. He had illegally entered five works, using false names, and when the jury announced the verdict, Malipiero’s con was unmasked in the most unlikely of fashions: he had won four of the five prizes! His antipathy for structural dictum had led him to adopt a system of composition known as scrittura a pannelli (panel writing) where the music evolved in a free flowing form, encompassing different blocks of sonorous material (the pannelli, or panels) without any restrictions. He began a love affair with the piano that produced some of the most starkly individual writing ever seen south of the Alps: Poemi asolani, Maschere che passano, Barlumi, Risonanze are some of the titles he gave to print between 1914 and 1920.
The war years had a profound effect on Malipiero, whose psyche was already troubled by recurring and severe bouts of depression. In 1918, he wrote to Heléne Casella: «The war is over. It is over for most, but not for all. What I intend to say is that not all of us are ever granted the privilege to live in peace. Never. And I believe I am among them». In 1921, Malipiero had been appointed Professor of Alta Composizione at the Regio Conservatorio of Parma. Teaching and Malipiero were not particularly agreeable; ever the individualist, he did not enjoy imparting lessons, and made numerous references to his agony over academic matters. Transferred to the Florence Conservatory in 1924, he resigned one year later due to “differences” with the Director of the institution, Ildebrando Pizzetti (in a letter to Guido Maria Gatti he referred to Pizzetti in ornate terms: «infamous, crook, despicable individual, rogue»). Malipiero’s personality was growing more and more obsessive, and the many writings and letters he left offer ample proof of his bleak outlook.
In 1923 he wrote a very colourful piece, the Variazioni senza tema (Variations without a theme) for piano and orchestra, an eminent display of the scrittura a pannelli if ever there was one. Malipiero claimed that the title was not a paradox: «the various parts of this symphonic work have indeed the character of variations, but there is no theme», he wrote. Premiered at the Prague International Festival on May 19th, 1925, the Variazioni senza tema are scored for large orchestra with a hefty battery of percussion and may be said to be a veritable essay in timbre and atmosphere arranged in seven sections. Three fast variations (1, 4, and 7) frame four more meditative episodes, the most notable of which is Variation III, a lugubrious barcarolle typical of Malipiero’s early style. The composer referred to this music as a ‘symphonic work’, and indeed the piano part is beautifully integrated within the orchestra (much in the same way as De Falla’s Noches en los Jardinos de España); the piano often converses with the various instruments, at times engaging in sensitive duets as in variations II, IV, and VI (respectively with the flute, violin, and oboe). The Variazioni senza tema are a remarkable work, alas too short and heterogeneous to gain a place in the repertory but already pointing the way to what this mercurial composer would deliver in the years to come. One of Malipiero’s many idiosyncrasies concerned virtuosos and their craft. Statements like «twenty years ago orchestral virtuosity was a threat that influenced some music and compromised the marvellous organism of the orchestra itself» left little to the imagination, and he often claimed to have avoided virtuosos like «a contagious disease». As a result, much of his writing, difficult though it may be, is essentially unimpressive in terms of technical display.
As Malipiero’s popularity grew, so did his contempt for the politics of music. He observed in one of his many memoirs, Cossi’ va lo mondo (1946), that «as soon as I had resigned my post of “teacher” a prestigious international publisher (Edition Universal Wien) came knocking at my door and signed me for all the works that I would write from 1924 to 1930 […]. To be associated with a publisher who was both able and attentive and held the keys of international music meant not to rot and not having to succumb to our [Italian] musical environment. In fact, between 1924 and 1932 I lived intensely in the world of Music without ever concerning myself with these “machinations” that destroy the serenity and corrupt the musician».
The premiere of his opera La favola del figlio cambiato, on a libretto by Luigi Pirandello, was a disaster; Mussolini banned any future performances of the work because it «did not conform to the needs of the fascist time». Typically, Malipiero digested the traumatic event by writing much symphonic music, and during the 1930’s his primary concerns became the symphony and the concerto, albeit filtered into his very own conception. His interest in early music, awoken back in the early years of the century with studies at the Biblioteca Marciana of Venice, played a major role in his entire approach. He wrote that his symphonies connected «with what Italian music was in the period between 1680 and 1780, a free form in several parts that interact capriciously, showing obedience only to those imponderable laws that our instinct recognizes and adopts to express one or a series of musical thoughts». There is, obviously, an open evolution of the concept a pannelli into a more historically sensitive construction, although a construction that still rejects the idea of thematic development. In the concerto field, he went further and refined a wholly personal and unique attitude: «all the concertos are ‘orations’. One voice raises, and the rest [of the orchestra] follow it as a listening multitude to he who has something to say or, more moderately speaking, he who would like to say something». So loyal was Malipiero to his self-appointed tenet that all his concertos share a number of common elements: all the specimens are short by contemporary standards, perhaps a direct consequence of the composer’s abjection for thematic development; they are all in three movements, arranged religiously in the classical fast-slow-fast scheme; the dialogue between soloist and orchestra is rich throughout, at times more pronounced but always balanced; any suggestion of virtuoso display is scrupulously avoided; finally, in all concertos bar the sixth, there is a large solo cadenza, unusually placed in the last movement.
All these characteristics are already well established in the Primo Concerto per pianoforte e orchestra of 1934. Premiered by Gino Gorini with the orchestra of the Augusteo in Rome and Bernardino Molinari on the 3rd of April, 1935, it was received with much acclaim, and was taken up by other illustrious soloists such as Ornella Santoliquido and Dimitri Mitropoulos. The Primo Concerto displays an unusual freshness in both approach and delivery from the very first bars, with surging scales in the strings that make discrete use of polytonality. Five contrasting sections alternate and propel the music through a constant shift of colour, thus achieving dramatic tension. Perhaps the most inspired page is the central Andante, a profound elegy awash with rich harmonies over a diatonic cell presented by the piano. A notable violin solo, accompanied by the piano with carillon-like sonorities, reiterates the pastoral quality of the music before a vigorous statement from the piano brings the movement to a close. The finale is constructed over a dance element which looks as far back as Medieval times. There is no hint of flash display, nor of virtuoso skill; rather, the impression is that of a serene consort providing a sweet minuet for the guests at a banquet. The extended cadenza brings the only element of drama, a spiky restatement of the opening theme of the movement, and then the music dies out with a general dissipation of textures and time values.
Malipiero was a complex individual who had developed a somewhat paranoid personality. Perhaps in an effort to assuage his demons, he wrote like a possessed man, and inevitably the ‘quality control’ of his output suffered as a result. In 1937 he completed the Secondo Concerto per pianoforte e orchestra, perhaps the weakest of the series. Premiered again by Gino Gorini at the Staedtische Tonhalle of Duisburg on the 6th of March 1939 under the direction of Otto Volkmann, the concerto is nonetheless ably constructed and offers several points of interest. The musical discourse is, usually for Malipiero, very free. The first movement opens with a rapturous five-note motive, offered by the piano and the orchestra in canon, which is followed by a different theme of a more relaxed conception. The Lento suffers from a general lack of inspiration that even the beautiful central episode cannot redeem. The same complaints have been moved by eminent musicologist John Waterhouse towards the final Allegro vivace. This is a rampant cavalcade, where the solo piano, in its customary extended ‘cadenza’, actually plays more than the orchestra.
In 1939 Malipiero became the Director of the Conservatorio Benedetto Marcello of Venice, a post that he held with pride and dedication until his retirement in 1952. He continued to have ambivalent feelings for the pedagogic activity, and at times he even seemed suspicious of his pupils: «the idyll between the young and me was short lived- he wrote – the new generation is not yet classifiable. For example, in January 1942, I met a young man, not yet 20 years of age, and rebellious at school. He had a few interesting works under his belt, both for harmony, counterpoint and form. Unfortunately, these were dominated by that Schoenbergian spirit that tortured music between 1920 and 1932. I considered him a phenomenon and gave him all my attention. Perhaps, due to an involuntary optimism, I let myself be conned by a vulgar plagiarist, for the very day I gave him an undeserved diploma, he became my enemy. The importance of this miserable and painful story lies simply in the fact that almost all the young musicians lack ideas».
Malipiero spent the war years barricaded in his Conservatorio, and played his international prestige first against the regime and later the German occupation to prevent both teachers and students from conscription and deportation. After the war, he faced unfounded accusations of collaborationism and that his music had been an accessory to fascism. His very occupation was in jeopardy («I am ashamed of being a Venetian and an Italian», he famously wrote to Guido Maria Gatti) and if Malipiero eventually maintained his directorship of the Conservatorio, it was also due to the intervention and support of a group of intellectuals and musicologists such as Gatti, D’Amico and Mila.
On July 3rd, 1948, still in Venice, Malipiero finished his Terzo Concerto per pianoforte e orchestra, an extraordinary work that must figure among his best creations. In the words of the composer, «the Third Concerto for piano and orchestra is the continuation of the two that precede it both in terms of form and colour. […] without doing any ‘sound gymnastics’, it is possible to follow an aesthetic line that offers thousands of combinations which represent the resources of our imagination. This is what counts; the rest is a game for academics or dilettanti ». Malipiero’s coherence with his aesthetic mission is remarkable, especially when, as in this case, his general tenet is maintained even though the actual syntax of the music is evolving with the times. A short, ebullient Allegro, atypical in its joyous unfolding, soon leaves room for the remarkable central Lento. The piano alone starts the music, a desperately sad melody over sinister chords in the bass; the flute joins in, then the whole orchestra, conjuring up a kaleidoscopic tonal palette in an atmosphere of stark desolation. The finale, Allegro agitato, is all built over a strong rhythmic impulse, fulminating scales in the piano complementing war-like calls from the horns. The long solo cadenza makes numerous references to the melodic material of the preceding movements; a chain of trills resolves into a cascade of polytonal scales, and by the orchestra’s return to action the music moves impetuously towards the end, the general impression of anticipation is achieved also through a clever syncopation between the solo and the French horns.
Malipiero’s strenuous research for immediacy of communication had led him towards a more overtly chromatic language that found its natural expression in the Quarto concerto per pianoforte e orchestra of 1950. Written for Dimitri Mitropoulos, who premiered it at Carnegie Hall on the 29th of March, 1951, the concerto «does not deny my innovative intentions […]. The musical discourse shuns at every moment that useless rhetoric we call virtuosity. The piano offers such sound resources that it is possible to avoid any sleigh of hand in favour of a nurturing of the spirit». These were prophetic words, reiterated in Mitropoulos’ letter of acceptance for the concerto. In agreeing to perform it, Mitropoulos drew attention to the fact that the solo part was not flashy enough to attract the interest of concert pianists. Indeed, the Quarto concerto, beautiful and interesting though it is, has failed to gain a permanent place in the repertory. In its three movements, the musical syntax is constantly alternating between advanced chromatic passages and more diatonic ones. The piano writing is extremely unadorned, essential to the core. Ironically, such transparent texture render this music especially caustic for the pianist, who is often called to rethink much of his training, particularly in matters of fingering, in order to be able to play certain passages in the outer movements.
Malipiero’s trajectory towards a more chromatic language was about complete by the time his Quinto concerto per pianoforte e orchestra appeared in 1958. Dedicated to his loyal pianist Gino Gorini, who premiered it at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice on the 27th of September 1958 with Mario Rossi, it is the only concerto of Malipiero where the solo part is somewhat more overtly flamboyant and, at times, even virtuosic. Much of the piano writing is toccata-like, especially in the outer movements. The music is portentous since the opening Allegro, making full use of the large symphonic orchestra for which the concerto is scored. The second movement, Non troppo lento, begins with an extended solo of the piano, much like in Ravel’s Concerto in G, and progresses stately through a long series of fantastic tonal contrasts and sophisticated counterpoints. The finale returns to the dramatic tone of the first movement.
At the end of 1964, Malipiero completed his Sesto concerto per pianoforte e orchestra, subtitled «delle macchine» (of the machines). The genesis of this piece is quite interesting. In October, 1963, Malipiero wrote a short ensemble piece for the magazine «Civiltà delle macchine» (Machine’s Civilization), titled, aptly, Macchina. It is a powerful and incisive, yet short essay, propelled by a vigorous rhythm throughout. The concerto «delle macchine» was the natural extension of «Macchina», duly reworked, expanded, and provided with a substantial solo part for the piano. Here, the texture is again quite bold and daring, a canvas of atonal counterpoint over which unfolds a serrated dialogue between solo and orchestra. The outer movements, both Allegro, feature wild rhythms and florid figurations, while the central Lento offers an extended meditative parentheses that is filled with still timbres and desolate sadness, complete with an enigmatic yet startling quotation of the Shostakovitch signature motive DSch (D, E flat, C, B) at the end. Gino Gorini spoke of a “foolish lucidity or a lucid folly, controlled by a linguistic logic of absolute coherence», and indeed this is music of such refined craftsmanship that a serious student may find in it a veritable mine of expressive opportunities. Armando Gentilucci, in his Guida all’Ascolto della musica contemporanea, gave an eloquently accurate description of this late work, and wrote of “images of nocturnal solitude and icy timbres.” It is a comment that may well have been written about most of Malipiero’s life and works. Gian Francesco Malipiero died on the 1st of August 1973. He was ninety-one years old.