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8.570879 - MALIPIERO, G.F.: Symphonies, Vol. 2 (Almeida) - Nos. 1 and 2 / Sinfonie del silenzio e de la morte

Gian Francesco Malipiero (1883–1973)
Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 • Sinfonie del silenzio e della morte


Though less widely known than his near-contemporary Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936), Gian Francesco Malipiero has been regarded by many of his countrymen as the most original Italian composer of his generation. The quality of his enormous output is, admittedly, variable; yet his best compositions reveal a hauntingly distinctive musical personality and a stimulatingly non-conformist cast of mind, which have won him the reverence of important musicians who came after him. His most notable younger Italian admirers have included Luigi Dallapiccola (1904–75), who sometimes rated him astonishingly highly; Bruno Maderna (1920–73), who was his pupil and conducted his music often and with evident affection; and Sylvano Bussotti (born 1931), who has devised some striking productions of Malipiero’s sometimes very extraordinary theatre works.

In addition to writing highly unconventional pieces for the stage, among which Pantea (1917–19), Sette canzoni (1918–9) and Torneo notturno (1929) are three of the most important, Malipiero was also prolific in the field of instrumental music. His large orchestral output includes no fewer than seventeen compositions with the word “sinfonia” (or in one case “sinfonie”) in the title, although it remains a moot point whether that word should be translated, in every case, as “symphony”. Moreover only eleven of the works in question have numbers, and even the very first numbered symphony did not appear unti1 1933, by which time Malipiero was already over fifty. For more than twenty years immediately prior to that, years during which he wrote several of his most important orchestral pieces, from the first set of Impressioni dal vero (1910–11) to the First Violin Concerto (1932), he had rigorously avoided the term “sinfonia” when naming his works. At bottom this reflected the intransigently hostile attitude that he had adopted towards the Austro-German symphonic tradition—just as the eccentricity of his theatre compositions of the same period reflected an equally drastic rejection of established operatic methods, Italian and otherwise.

Earlier still, however, during the little-known formative phase that preceded the appearance of the first Impressioni dal vero (which in later life he regarded as his earliest work of lasting importance), Malipiero had written no fewer than three substantial orchestral pieces whose titles do include the word “sinfonia”, either in its singular or in its plural form. The earliest of them, the Sinfonia degli eroi (1905), though performed when it was new, was subsequently repudiated by the composer and he claimed to have destroyed it, although the manuscript eventually turned up after his death, hidden in a box in the cellar of his house in Asolo. The evocative Sinfonia del mare (1906), although it too was never printed, seems to have satisfied him more: he allowed it to be performed in 1928, and a recording of it can be found on the first disc in the present series (Naxos 8.570878). The largest and most ambitious of these early “symphonies”, however, is the Sinfonie [sic] del silenzio e della morte (“Symphonies of Silence and Death”, 1909–10), whose plural title reflects the fact that, alone among the three works, it is in more than one distinct movement. It should be emphasized that the label “symphony” should not be understood in the Beethovenian or Brahmsian sense where any of these early works are concerned: they are, in fact, symphonic poems, the Sinfonie being itself a suite of three such pieces.

At the time he wrote the Sinfonie del silenzio e della morte, Malipiero was absorbing a wide variety of experiences and musical influences (some of them gathered during his various trips abroad, which were more frequent and extensive in his early years than they were to become in later life): as a result, the work is undeniably eclectic, and less unfailingly individual than the first Impressioni dal vero, which were to appear in the following year. Nevertheless the Sinfonie provides a fascinating document of the forces that were then shaping Malipiero’s creative personality: even the work’s three extra musical programmes, as summarised in the score published (in three volumes) in Leipzig in 1911, themselves contain imagery that significantly foreshadows some of his forthcoming theatre compositions.

The first movement bears the title Danza tragica, which is supplemented in the score by an adapted quotation from Edgar Allan Poe (as translated into French by Baudelaire), referring to “the Masque of the Red Death […] his vesture dabbled in blood”. The second movement is entitled Sinfonia [in the singular this time!] del silenzio, supplemented by an unattributed quotation (possibly from D’Annunzio) stating that “the silence conjured up an ancient dance, it conjured up the tumult of an ancient tragedy”. The title of the third movement, Il molino della morte (The Mill of Death), is likewise reinforced by an anonymous quotation: “…under its dark millstone lives passed, were broken, were recomposed…Lamentations were mingled with laughter, death-rattles with whimperings”. Clearly that sombre, death-obsessed side of Malipiero’s nature, which in due course achieved its most powerful expressions in Pantea and Torneo notturno, was already coming to the surface—rooted, perhaps, in traumatic experiences that befell him during his adolescence. (Among other things, his grandmother is said to have died in highly dramatic circumstances.)

The source of the quotation attached to the first movement is one of Poe’s most memorably macabre tales, at the climax of which an aristocratic ball is terrifyingly interrupted by the appearance among the dancers of the Masque of the Red Death—a figure embodying, in fearsome yet quasi-human form, a deadly plague that is raging in the community outside. The sombre, rather Russian-sounding music with which Malipiero begins and ends his first movement reflects this haunting tale’s sinister atmosphere, and the movement’s central regions contain clear suggestions of formal aristocratic dancing. But the most overtly “programmatic” moment occurs shortly before the end, when a brief, wild gust of frenetically dissonant sounds (momentarily superimposing keys of C major and E flat minor) seems abruptly to sweep the aristocratic celebrations aside, ushering in a return of the sombre melody with which the movement began.

The second movement begins and ends with slow, quiet sections (evidently evoking “the silence”) which repeatedly feature whispering superimposed tremolos on muted violins. Half way through the movement Malipiero introduces the “ancient dance”, which turns out to be an orchestral version of one of his own early piano pieces—the Gavotte from the Tre danze antiche, published in 1910 but probably composed earlier. Before this self-quotation has run its course, however, it is contradicted (albeit briefly) by stormier sounds—the “tumult of an ancient tragedy”, after which the initial “silence” music returns. In the symphony’s finale, the “Mill of Death” is graphically represented by (among other things) obsessive, machine-like patterns on the xylophone, timpani and other percussion, which begin and end the movement entirely on their own and reassert themselves from time to time as the music unfolds. Whenever these patterns appear, they undermine the more stable, traditional-sounding ideas that have been presented in the meantime by the rest of the orchestra. The enigmatic, wilfully inconclusive final bars are as disturbingly original as anything that the young Malipiero had hitherto conceived.

By the time Malipiero resumed the practice of calling his works symphonies in 1933, his situation had changed drastically. His most turbulently original creative phase had come and gone, and was giving place to a more stable yet still far from conformist style, in which one can discern the mellowing processes of middle age. He had been living since 1923 in the beautiful little hill town of Asolo (in the Veneto region of north-eastern Italy), which was to remain his home for the rest of his long life; since 1926 he had been working on his well known complete edition of all Monteverdi’s known surviving works; and in 1932 academic respectability had come his way in the form of a professorship at the Liceo Musicale (later renamed Conservatory) in his native Venice.

Malipiero’s decision to resume writing works with the word “sinfonia” in their titles did not, however, reflect any deliberate, academically-determined rapprochement with symphonic tradition. On the contrary, the so-called First Symphony developed into an abstract instrumental composition almost of its own accord: his first idea had been to set to music certain fragments from the Venetian poet Anton Maria Lamberti’s Le stagioni (The Seasons). In the end-product all specific references to Lamberti have disappeared; but the idea of the annual cycle remains: Malipiero explained the work’s complete title, Prima sinfonia, in quattro tempi come le quattro stagioni (First Symphony, in Four Movements like the Four Seasons), by pointing out that “the first movement […] is spring-like. The second […] is strong and vehement like summer. The third […] is autumnal, and the fourth […] has the exuberance of the winter carnival season and the gaiety of the snow”. It would seem, therefore, that even the simple fact that the movements are four in number is only coincidentally analogous to traditional symphonic practice.

The “spring-like” first movement is a freely unfolding lyrical piece, moderate in tempo and predominantly pastoral (though gently astringent) in character. Among its several recurrent motifs one in particular is to return, transformed yet clearly recognisable, at the very end of the symphony. The second movement’s driving rhythmic impetus is enhanced by some quite bold excursions into dissonant chromaticism—sometimes with frankly “exotic” inflections which call to mind the quasi-oriental architecture of St Mark’s Cathedral in Malipiero’s native city. The most evocative movement, however, is surely the autumnal third, which is rich in fresh, radiantly melancholy sonorities and images: here his early enthusiasm for Debussy and his life-long involvement with old Italian music have interacted to produce a result that is uniquely his own. The playfully exuberant finale culminates unexpectedly but imposingly in a brief, massively jubilant coda, in which the above-mentioned motif from the first movement is proclaimed and developed in surprisingly grandiose terms. The pomp and circumstance of this conclusion may show Malipiero responding (for once in a way) to the flamboyant pageantry of Italian fascism, which at that time was all around him. Yet in purely musical terms the effect is undeniably exhilarating.

When he completed the First Symphony Malipiero seems still to have had no idea that he would follow it up with other examples of the genre: for a time (he has claimed) he even thought of calling the work “First and Last Symphony”. By 1936, however, he had changed his mind sufficiently to produce a Second, although eight further years were to go by before he suddenly wrote the next five symphonies all within the space of the same number of years. (The Third, Fourth and Seventh numbered symphonies are all recorded on other discs in the present series.) In none of these mature symphonies is the resemblance to traditional symphonic procedures ever more than superficial: Malipiero’s movements seldom end in the keys in which they began, and his musical ideas tend (as he himself once put it) “to follow one another capriciously, obeying only those mysterious laws that instinct recognizes”.

Nevertheless the Second Symphony, too, is in four movements (as are all the next five numbered symphonies), and the sequence of tempi from movement to movement, fast—slow—scherzo-like—variable, more closely resembles what one would expect to find in a classical symphony than was the case in the First. Moreover, this time there is no precise extra musical programme to explain the overall succession of moods: the Second Symphony’s subtitle “elegiaca” suggests only a general state of mind, and more particularly the fact that the work ends in a mood of quiet, valedictory meditation. Of the two wholly fast movements, the first is notable for its many incidental chromatic twists and passing dissonant clashes, which generate a subdued but pervasive restlessness; while the brief, scherzo-like third movement is more lightheartedly exuberant in its mercurially unpredictable rhythms. This symphony’s expressive heart, however, indeed resides especially in its elegiac music: in addition to the exquisite closing pages, one should mention the superb last eleven bars of the second movement, in which two motifs that have previously been heard separately are superimposed (as melody and bass) to create a quiet climax of affecting, plaintive beauty.

© 1993 John C. G. Waterhouse

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