About this Recording
8.223602 - MALIPIERO: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4

Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882–1973)
Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4


Today the world at large knows the generation of Italian composers born around 1880 (the “generazione dell’Ottanta”, as it is usually called in Italy) mainly through the colourful, easily approachable music of Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936). However, in their different ways Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880–1968), Alfredo Casella (1883—1947) and Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882–1973) all deserve far more attention than they nowadays usually receive; and Malipiero in particular—despite the undeniable, disconcerting unevenness of his huge output—has strong claims, when judged by his best works, to be regarded as the most original and inventive composer of them all. Certainly his achievements have been greatly admired by many discerning musicians: Luigi Dallapiccola (1904—75), the most famous Italian composer in the next generation, even once described him as “the most important [musical] personality that Italy has had since the death of Verdi”.

Born in Venice, Malipiero spent much the greater part of his long life in that city and in the Veneto region, settling in due course (from 1923 onwards) in the little hill town of Asolo, which thenceforth always remained his home. In his youth, however, he had made several extended trips abroad: during his early teens he led a restless, wandering life in the company of his father Luigi (a pianist and conductor) who had separated from the boy’s mother in 1893, and who took him to Trieste, Berlin and eventually to Vienna. There the young Malipiero studied briefly (and not, it seems, very successfully) at the conservatory; but after a traumatic break with his father, which seems to have left enduring scars, the boy returned in 1899 to his mother’s house in Venice, where he entered the local Liceo Musicale, and where (more importantly) he soon found and began to transcribe the long-forgotten old Italian music—by Monteverdi, Frescobaldi and others—that was preserved in the Biblioteca Marciana.

Thus the psychological seeds were sown early for some basic and lasting aspects of Malipiero’s musical outlook: on the one hand an attitude to the Austro-German tradition that was at best ambivalent, and, on the other, a profound commitment to the rediscovery of the glories of pre-19th-century Italian music, which he was always to value far more highly than Italy’s predominantly operatic achievements of more recent times. He was nevertheless also receptive to the examples of some recent and contemporary foreign composers, particularly (but not only) in the French and Russian traditions: Debussy influenced him considerably, and in due course the première of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring—which Malipiero attended during a crucially important visit to Paris in 1913—awoke him (as he later put it) “from a long and dangerous lethargy”. As a result, he soon decided to repudiate nearly all his works written up to that time, making an exception, however, for the picturesque, atmospheric first set of orchestral Impressioni dal vero (1910–11). He later considered this to be his earliest composition of lasting worth, and it has been regarded in Italy (in its small way) as his first real masterpiece.

Yet the severity with which Malipiero suppressed most of his youthful works varied considerably: whereas he pretended to have destroyed many of them, he evidently retained a real affection for the Sinfonia del mare(1906), which in 1952 he described as being “much less despicable than all [the pieces] that followed it, before the first Impressioni dal verd”. In December 1928 he allowed the symphony to have its long-delayed world première (in Utrecht); and when I, as a young research student, was privileged to visit him in 1963, he did not hesitate to show me the manuscript. Nevertheless the Sinfonia del mare has remained unpublished and almost wholly unknown, which is a pity, as—for all its immaturity—it contains numerous vivid ideas and textures, and clear if intermittent omens of the composer’s future style.

Like the other two early, unnumbered so-called symphonies (the Sinfonia degli eroi of 1905 and the Sinfonie [sic] del silenzio e de la morte of 1909–10), the Sinfonia del mare is really more in the nature of a symphonic poem, though it has no known detailed extra musical story line. The one further verbal clue to the music’s descriptive intentions, apart from the title (which of course means “Sea Symphony”), is a laconic jotting in pencil on the composer’s manuscript score: the single word “NAVIGANDO”. A few features of the music itself—the triumphant, re-echoing fanfare-like motif that appears just over three quarters of the way through, or the solemnly funereal central part of the slow epilogue—may perhaps reflect a more detailed unrevealed narrative. But on the whole the work (which is cast in a single long movement that starts and finishes in slow tempo but contains much animated, even turbulent music on the way) has the air, quite simply, of an evocation of the sea, both in its calmer and in its more agitated moods. Listeners may like to make their own comparisons with better known sea music by other composers; but Malipiero is unlikely yet to have known Debussy’s La mer when he wrote the Sinfonia del mare only a few months after that now-famous piece’s première. The central part of the symphony’s epilogue points especially clearly towards its composer’s own maturity: ruthlessly “funerealising” an idea that has previously been heard in faster tempo, but is now converted into a sombre cor anglais solo, it foreshadows (among other things) the lugubrious orchestral epilogue in the opera Torneo notturno (1929), which is regarded in Italy as one of Malipiero’s supreme achievements.

After the three early so-called symphonies, Malipiero wrote no further pieces with the word “sinfonia” in their titles until after 1930. During the intervening two decades not only had his creative powers matured enormously, but he had given birth to many of his finest and most startlingly original compositions: eccentrically inventive stage works like Pantea (1917–19), Sette canzoni (1918–19), the Tre commedie goldoniane (1920–22) and Torneo notturno, disturbingly powerful orchestral pieces such as the first Pause del silenzio and the Ditirambo tragico (both 1917), vividly evocative chamber works, among which the string quartets (starting with Rispetti e strambotti, 1920) have recently, and rightly, attracted renewed attention on disc—those are just a few of the best reasons for regarding Malipiero’s music of the second and third decades of the 20th century as important by any standards. However, throughout that period he rejected 19th-century Austro-German ideals so totally that the very idea of writing anything entitled “symphony” became anathema to him.

Only in the mid-1930s, as the subversive intensity of the music of his early maturity gave place to the mellower, more smoothly expansive expressions of his later middle age, did he at last revert to the idea of giving his pieces that sort of title. His First numbered symphony appeared in 1933, his Second in 1936 (both are recorded on the second disc in the present series, Marco Polo 8.223603). Moreover, only when the 1940s had reached their mid-point did he unexpectedly step up his productivity in the symphonic field, producing no fewer than five more symphonies (numbers 3 to 7 inclusive) all within the period 1944–8. It should be emphasised that not one of these works is a symphony in quite the normal post-Beethovenian sense: for this reason certain writers (including myself, in the The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians) have preferred to describe them, even in English, as “sinfonias”, so as to underline their quintessentially Italian, anti-Germanic approach. Malipiero once declared that “the Italian symphony [sinfonia] is a free kind of poem in several parts which follow one another capriciously, obeying only those mysterious laws that instinct recognises”. As a historical generalisation this is, of course, far too sweeping; but its relevance to Malipiero’s own practice is clear enough.

The Third and Fourth numbered symphonies, recorded on the present disc, are in any case two of the very best, when judged in their own idiosyncratic terms. Both have declared (if limited) extra musical associations; yet to describe either of them as a symphonic poem would be exaggerated, especially as they do at least share certain external characteristics with more conventional symphonies. Each of them is in four movements, with a slow movement in second and a scherzo in third place; yet the internal processes running through the movements may sometimes perplex those with preconceived ideas about “symphonic argument”. As Ernest Ansermet once admirably expressed it, “these symphonies are not thematic but ‘motivic’: that is to say Malipiero uses melodic motifs like everyone else […] they generate other motifs, they reappear, but they do not carry the musical discourse—they are, rather, carried by it”. Free non-thematic passages and unpredictable incidents are just as important for this music’s impact as thematic processes as such; and only rarely do movements end in the keys in which they began.

Writing about the Third Symphony (subtitled delle campane [“of the bells”], 1944–5), Malipiero has explained that the work was “connected to a terrible date, 8 September 1943” when “the bells of St. Mark’s Cathedral did not ring for peace but to announce new torments, new suffering”. In a letter to the Swiss music critic Aloys Mooser he elaborated this idea, declaring that “the Germans had invaded Italy. I heard the sound of their steps, of their heavy boots announcing death and martyrdom. The bells cancelled all that: they created a special state of mind. Here is my Third Symphony written atone of the most terrible times: end of the year 1944 and beginning of the year 1945! Have you every heard, from the lagoons, Venice all vibrating with bells? She becomes a huge musical instrument.”

Bell evocations of one kind or another can be heard in all four movements, though in the vigorous first movement they remain relatively stylised. It is typical of the freedom of Malipiero’s structural thinking that although this movement’s first ten bars do in due course return at their original pitch, they are then followed not by a conventional recapitulation section but (rather abruptly) by a completely new idea. The slow second movement, in free ABCBA arch-form, features rapt, atmospheric tolling effects which sometimes distantly suggest the hypnotically circling phrases of a gamelan—notably in a vivid, twice-stated passage which is to return a third time at the very end of the work.

The Scherzo third movement starts with a coruscating tintinnabulation in which the harp and piano join forces with the celesta, tubular bells and triangle, to accompany a vivacious melody on the muted trumpet which is likewise destined to come back more than once. Structurally this brilliant little movement differs from a normal scherzo and trio in that the main contrasting “trio” section is delayed until after the first part of the Scherzo has already been restated. The slow, solemn finale begins with the simplest, most realistic bell-evocation of all, and ends with an epilogue in which a darkly “funerealised” new version (now on the oboe) of the trumpet tune from the scherzo is followed (“cancelled”?) by a more fully-scored, affirmatively bell-like return of the second movement’s entire first section.

The known extra musical associations of the Fourth Symphony (1946) are summed up in its subtitle “in memoriam”: the work is dedicated to the memory of Natalie Koussevitzky. Here the first movement features a two-bar “refrain” (for trombones, tuba and bassoon) which three times interposes itself into the music’s flow like some rough and knobbly obstacle. The marvellous slow movement (surely the most beautiful in any Malipiero symphony) puts the same refrain to new uses—notably at the end, in a mysterious transformation for cor anglais and muted trumpets. Notice also the gentle yet remarkably effective tautening of the rhythm of this movement’s own first melody, when it returns in what can almost be described as a recapitulation in the traditional sense: the initial version’s quietly insistent dotted rhythms have now become double-dotted. The scherzo, though less spectacularly colourful than that of the Third Symphony, is full of energy and includes a further modified version of the first movement’s refrain. The finale is more episodic, being a miscellaneous set of variations on a cor anglais melody salvaged from Malipiero’s early, repudiated one-act opera Canossa (1911–12). Here too, however, the recurrent refrain puts in a soft, distant-sounding further appearance at the very end.

© 1993 John C.G. Waterhouse

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