About this Recording
8.570883 - MALIPIERO, G.F.: Tre commedie goldoniane / Stradivario / La Cimarosiana / Gabrieliana (Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana, C. Benda)

Gian Francesco Malipiero (1883–1973)
Tre commedie goldoniane • Stradivario • La Cimarosiana • Gabrieliana


‘His love of wit, his innocently malicious sense of humour, combined with a generosity, affectionate nature, tender heart, and a softness, make Malipiero one of the most lovable men I’ve ever met,’ said American music-writer David Ewen after visiting the composer’s home in Asolo, a hill town near his native Venice, early in World War Two. ‘When he conducted me about his garden, he stopped at a favourite flower to stroke it affectionately as though it were human. He stepped into the barn to introduce me to his goat, patting it with infinite tenderness and speaking as though it could understand him. When he accidentally stumbled over his dog, he tipped his hat (in all seriousness) and apologised.’

Can this be the Malipiero who was local secretary of the Fascist Union of Musicians? The man who dedicated his opera Julius Caesar to Mussolini and bombarded him with wheedling letters: ‘Excellency, the memory of your words is still alive in me—words which, after each of the three audiences granted me, raised so many hopes in my soul…once again, I offer all my efforts to participate in real fascist musical culture…I must not mix with mediocrities’? The man who, at the War’s end, whinged about refugee European composers in the United States—many of whom barely escaped alive from the Nazis: ‘These martyrs…lived in safety, in Dollar Paradise…Homesickness is certainly a serious form of suffering for those in exile, but bombings, revolutions, hunger etc. don’t make life very pleasant’?

Gian Francesco Malipiero was nothing if not a mass of almost irreconcilable opposites. Deep pessimism, world-weariness, paranoid self-pity—but genuine love for both people and animals. Garrulous, gregarious—yet living in seclusion, and cagey, even mendacious when talking about himself. ‘Do not trust your host,’ read a big sign on Malipiero’s wall: ‘you can never be quite sure who he really is.’ His personality was ‘a curious mixture of tragedy and comedy’, decided British composer Arthur Bliss—but adding, ‘to know Malipiero is to have great affection for him’, noting the salamander asleep on his work-table and ‘most treasured, two aged owls’ living in the kitchen, who ‘danced a slow, dignified saraband to the singing of their master’. Guests at Malipiero’s lively, crowded Sunday dinners, wondering why he rarely served poultry, may have learnt of the chickens he once reared for meat: he could never bring himself to kill any, and when one fell ill he sent frantically to Venice for medical care. And all through Malipiero’s long life, the music was the man: he wrote hundreds of works—themselves crammed with the most astonishing contrasts, lyrical beauty erupting into dissonant violence, and including some of the most compellingly strange music theatre pieces ever—while editing hundreds more, above all the Monteverdi complete edition.

How to fathom this enigma? Common threads can be traced—as in this recording: profound love for Venetian glories (past and present) and early Italian music; aversion to nineteenth century Italian opera and Germanic models of musical development and unity. ‘A man of the renaissance,’ reckoned Malipiero’s composer-pupil Bruno Maderna. ‘A restless Romantic spirit with classical ideals,’ suggested Italian music-writer Guido Gatti.

Clues may lie in two terrible times of Malipiero’s life which he rarely discussed. His parents separating when he was aged eleven, Gian Francesco shared a vagrant life for six years with his wastrel father Luigi. This low-grade pianist and conductor and his promising young violinist son earned their living in third-rate dance bands, travelling from Trieste to Berlin to Vienna. For Malipiero, memories of this unhappy childhood were inextricably bound up with ‘our family catastrophe’. Back in the 1840s, his composer-grandfather Francesco had a hit in Venice with an opera about Attila the Hun, just before Verdi’s Attila flopped there. Luigi claimed that Verdi’s publisher bought up the Malipiero opera, changed its title and withheld it; Francesco’s career languished and, said his grandson, ‘in my childish imagination the name of this catastrophe was Giuseppe Verdi’.

Gian Francesco’s own ‘family catastrophe’ came in his thirties: ‘in 1914 war disrupted my whole life which, until 1920, was perennial tragedy’. He lived through the ‘harrowing’ bombing of Venice, was swept up in the nightmarish Italian retreat after the 1917 rout of Caporetto, and fled to Rome. Music collided with life most devastatingly in a yet more personal crisis, uncovered only after Malipiero’s death by the British musicologist John Waterhouse (whose deep perception of Malipiero’s music and character is manifest in a definitive book—its long-awaited English updating complete but unpublished at his untimely death in 1998).¹ In Malipiero’s cellar, Waterhouse unearthed a huge manuscript: an unknown opera, Lancelotto del lago (Lancelot of the Lake, 1914–15), with a distraught, barely-legible scribbled note: ‘Discovering that the libretto’s author was a gross scoundrel, I withdrew this work in 1916, not for artistic reasons but because of the horror I felt at my music with the words of a monster.’ The librettist had been having an affair with Malipiero’s wife Maria. Their marriage survived—until 1921, when Maria died giving birth to someone else’s child: on the very day Malipiero completed La Cimarosiana.

Understandably, Malipiero avoided further collaboration for years, until working with Pirandello in the 1930s. Meanwhile his theatre became every bit as provocatively radical as Pirandello’s—witness three of Malipiero’s greatest works: the cataclysmic ‘symphonic drama’ Pantea (a ballet ignited by his wartime torment); and the haunting Sette canzoni (from the trilogy L’Orfeide) and Torneo notturno, both ‘operas’ in seven obliquely-related scenes. Allpervasive is the symbolic clash of implacable opposing forces and elemental human passions, darkness against light.

Malipiero’s contemporaneous Tre commedie goldoniane (Three Goldoni comedies, 1920–22), though, are ‘perhaps the richest expression of the comic side of his genius’ (John Waterhouse). The eighteenth-century Venetian dramatist Carlo Goldoni might struggle to recognise his texts—drastically cut, incorporating chunks of other Goldoni plays and even some bits Malipiero made up himself—but he would surely acknowledge the music’s fidelity. An unwilling exile’s ‘nostalgia for Venice’ was the Rome-sick Malipiero’s real subject—‘an imaginary voyage through alleys, squares, canals, palaces and lagoon, of a Venetian musician led by Goldoni’s hand.’ The operas, and their three symphonic fragments recorded here, conjure respectively the bustle of Venetian street life, the domestic intrigues of its mansions, and its quayside squabbles.

The ‘strange discovery’ (Malipiero said) that musical instruments exhibited at the Venice Conservatory—where he had studied and was now Director—mysteriously moved overnight, inspired his ballet Stradivario (1947–8), a ‘Fantasia of dancing instruments’. ‘An old instrument collector steals an invaluable Stradivarius violin from a poor street musician’ (the young Malipiero?!). Put on display, the violin’s open strings sound plaintively. But ‘in the silence of the night’ all the instruments come alive and dance: nimble flutes, martial drums and trumpets, noble horns, lugubriously clumsy trombones and tuba, sweet strings with a lovely minuet, rustic reed instruments, finally all joining in a hypnotic ‘Spagnolesca’. The beggar returns, rescues his Strad and leads. A noisy climax wakes the old collector—and his instruments take their revenge: he is crushed to death.

With La Cimarosiana in 1921 Malipiero gave Italian musical homages a new pattern: emulated by Respighi (Rossiniana), Casella (Scarlattiana, Paganiniana) and Dallapiccola (Tartiniana); and in his own Vivaldiana (Naxos 8.555515) and Gabrieliana of 1971. These arrangements from the sixteenth-century Venetian Giovanni Gabrieli and eighteenth-century visitor-to-Venice Domenico Cimarosa are true to spirit if not letter: Malipiero’s own personality peeps through, both in the music and in another tall tale of theft and treachery. La Cimarosiana was commissioned by the choreographer Massine on leaving Diaghilev’s company—but (Malipiero moaned) Diaghilev then accused Massine of stealing the score from him, seized it, and staged it for years giving Malipiero no credit. Was he genuinely unaware that Diaghilev was actually using some Cimarosa arrangements he had commissioned earlier from Respighi (which is what gave Massine the idea in the first place)? Mind you, Diaghilev, like everyone else, did steal Malipiero’s title…

David Gallagher


¹ John C.G. Waterhouse: Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882–1973)—The Life, Times and Music of a Wayward Genius (Harwood Academic Publishers, 1999).

Close the window