About this Recording
8.573291 - MALIPIERO, G.F.: Fantasie di ogni giorno / Passacaglie / Concerti (Rome Symphony, La Vecchia)
English  Italian 

Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882–1973)
Fantasie di ogni giorno (Everyday Fantasies, 1953) • Passacaglie (Passacaglias, 1952) • Concerti (Concertos, 1931)


Dear friend,

I’m returning to you the proofs of your book devoted to me; I’ve read them carefully, so I’ve learnt quite a few things. I must express my admiration for the confessions you’ve succeeded in wringing out of me. Reading my comments in the Catalogue, it becomes clear that I don’t feel equal love for all of my children…

A dilemma tortures one who is never allowed to rest: are there obvious signs of tiredness in the works of those who, at whatever cost, feel the need to create? D’Annunzio’s ‘Faville del maglio’ comes to mind; ¹ but, consequently, the fear rears its head that there could be hammers without sparks. My dear friend: as you see, you’ve thrown a stone into the hornets’ nest. How am I to defend myself against the swarms of doubts that buzz around me?

(Gian Francesco Malipiero, writing to Gino Scarpa on 26 August 1952)

Self-reflection can be a dangerous thing for creative artists. What happens, for example, when you start thinking about exactly how you do something which has always come instinctively? Or when—like the Italian composer Gian Francesco Malipiero—you are asked to write notes for a Catalogue of your complete works, as you reach the age of seventy? His friend Gino Scarpa talked him into doing just that for the book L’opera di Gian Francesco Malipiero (‘The Works of Gian Francesco Malipiero’), published under Scarpa’s editorship in 1952. And Malipiero’s reading of the proofs seems to have prompted not only a mental stocktaking of his entire output up to that point, but anxiety about its ultimate worth, and—consequently—a reassessment of his whole compositional art and craft. So much so that, with the benefit of hindsight, the year 1952 can be seen as a watershed in Malipiero’s creative career.

Incredibly, he had ahead of him almost another two decades of composing—during which he wrote well over fifty more pieces: the endless flow of music only finally ran dry in 1971, two years before Malipiero’s death aged 91. And from 1952 onwards his personal style underwent some far-reaching changes, in terms of both structure and fundamental musical language. Most audibly, a kind of gnarled chromaticism took over from euphonious diatonicism as the dominant sound of Malipiero’s music. He began to make frequent use of themes built from all twelve semitones of the scale—sometimes within just twelve notes, which was the basis of the technique of ‘dodecaphony’ or ‘serialism’ established by Arnold Schoenberg. In 1971, Malipiero even called his final orchestral work Omaggio a Belmonte—‘Homage to [an Italianised] Schoenberg’: ‘Belmonte’ in Italian and ‘Schoenberg’ in German both mean ‘beautiful mountain’.

Malipiero’s chain of Symphonies—available on five pioneering Naxos CDs [8.570878 to 8.570882]—in many ways exemplify the importance of 1952 as a tipping point in his development. Diatonic consonance unites almost all the Symphonies he composed before then, with chromaticism to the fore only in the first movement of the 1947 Fifth Symphony (for orchestra and two pianos, ‘concertante, in echo’), and then throughout the Sinfonia in un tempo (‘Symphony in One Movement’) of 1950. But his Symphonies of the 1960s inhabit another soundworld altogether, with incessant tense, jagged chromatic lines creating highly dissonant harmony. And after producing seven Symphonies between 1944 and 1951, Malipiero wrote no more for a decade.

Yet despite this abrupt symphonic disjunction, Malipiero’s new direction was as much a gradual evolution as a sudden switch. Chromatic elements had become increasingly prominent in his music since the Second World War, and he had already—at an isolated crisis point in 1948—closed Act 1 of his opera Mondi celesti e infernali (‘Celestial and Infernal Worlds’, 1948–49) with a huge, violent 12-note chord. And as the first work on the present disc shows with great clarity, many pieces Malipiero composed after 1952 have close connections with those of earlier decades. The Italian music expert John Waterhouse recalled a conversation in May 1963, when Malipiero disclosed that he felt a direct link between his Fantasie di ogni giorno (‘Everyday Fantasies’) of 1953 and an orchestral work he had written more than a quarter of a century earlier: Pause del silenzio II (‘Breaks in Silence’ No. 2, 1925–26) [recorded on Naxos 8.572409]. Discussing with Waterhouse various titles he had toyed with for Pause del silenzio II, Malipiero characterised himself obliquely as a ‘singing cricket’, ‘a creature who goes on singing all day every day without knowing why’; on another occasion he said that the piece ‘mirrored a whole season, musically’, ‘following the capricious flow of time’. The parallel with his minutely detailed description of the genesis of Fantasie di ogni giorno could hardly be closer: ‘The passions may become vices. This is why, wanting to escape the lure of the orchestra, which had held me in thrall for some years, I intended—at least throughout 1953—to dismiss from my mind all vain orchestral desires. However, I could not go without jotting down ideas, themes, musical impressions, almost like a diary—thereby, in imitation of the wise ant, accumulating raw material I could use in a less fertile future. Then the Louisville Orchestra asked me for a new orchestral piece, and I soon realised that my work was not fragmentary: rather, it was the continuation of what had stimulated my imagination for so many years. So I gathered together the scattered pages, and it was not even necessary to change their order. Neither wishing nor being able to call them a “Symphony”, I entitled them Fantasie di ogni giorno, “Everyday Fantasies”, because they represent my daily journey in the realm of the imagination. These journeys are, of course, very dangerous, because the imagination is a highly capricious companion.’

Fantasie di ogni giorno is tremendous music, covering (in John Waterhouse’s words) a ‘vast expressive range’ with ‘compelling sure-footedness and spontaneity’. How plausible, though, is Malipiero’s myth of its creation? A desire to free himself from the clutches of the orchestra for a year in 1953 would certainly chime with the fears he expressed to Gino Scarpa about possible ‘signs of tiredness’ in his music. It may even (just?) be conceivable that the unsystematic but often clearly audible thematic interconnections between the Fantasie’s widely varied sections arose unconsciously in Malipiero’s mind as, day by day, he scribbled down musical snippets. But can there really have been as little craft in the art of its construction as he claimed? ‘It is hard to believe’ (as Waterhouse put it) ‘that so wholly “undirected” a compositional process could possibly yield a result which has so much continuity of creative momentum, and such a sure sense of proportion and timing.’

Malipiero, following an unsettled, unhappy childhood and a tough year of study (aged 16–17) at the Vienna Conservatory, always saw himself as an outsider in the musical world of his time, and his feelings about musical form were especially idiosyncratic. Even allowing that his most predictable characteristic was unpredictability, his reluctance to call Fantasie di ogni giorno a Symphony is difficult to explain unless as a consequence of his 1952 ‘rethink’. The piece categorically complies with the definition of ‘the Italian Symphony’ that Malipiero had proposed just a few years earlier: ‘a free poetic form in several sections that follow one another capriciously, obeying only those unfathomable laws that instinct recognises’. And those ‘unfathomable laws’ could be almost infinitely flexible: as, for example, in his previous two Symphonies, the Sinfonia in un tempo and Sinfonia dello zodiaco (‘Symphony of the Zodiac’, 1951), which have one and twelve[!] movements respectively—albeit the former’s ostensible ‘one movement’ is actually the usual four played without a break, in contrast to the true, through-composed single-movement structure of the Fantasie di ogni giorno. In a book published in 1946 Malipiero explained much more explicitly how his own approach differed from traditional symphonic methods: ‘I renounced the facile game of thematic development because I was fed up with it. Having hit on a theme, turning it round and round, cutting it up into little bits, inflating it, it is not difficult to construct a movement of a Symphony (or a sonata) that amuses amateurs and satisfies the insensitivity of connoisseurs. The discourse of truly Italian music (you need only think of Domenico Scarlatti) never stops; it follows the natural law of connections and contrasts: not geometric construction but an architecture that is both airy and grounded, both anti-symmetrical and balanced.’ Whether or not this highly personal theory can indeed be inferred from Italian music in general, it is undoubtedly at least as true of Malipiero’s own idiom as it is of Domenico Scarlatti’s, and it was to remain so until the end of his life. Allowing the form to be so dependent on the ‘capricious’ imagination was certainly, as Malipiero recognised, far more ‘dangerous’ than sticking to standard, time-honoured techniques—but there is scant reason why it should be any more prone to ‘tiredness’; and when it comes off, as in Fantasie di ogni giorno, the result can be singularly fulfilling. ‘Poles apart from my Symphonies’ was Malipiero’s assessment of his Passacaglie—two pieces, completed at Christmas 1952, which provide the clearest evidence that his (re)evaluation of his own music that year galvanised him directly, even consciously, into trying new things. ‘With the Passacaglie,’ he declared, ‘I have denied my formal preferences. In place of the free movement of the discourse, with a succession of ideas that are always fresh and new, I have substituted in the first Passacaglia the development of a single theme, which wanders about from high to low, from right to left, almost like a little bird in a cage’. The choice of simile perhaps betrays Malipiero’s lurking doubts about the process—his own birds, cats, dogs and various other domestic animals were notoriously free to wander about all over his house in the northern Italian hill town of Asolo. But the first Passacaglia’s single theme—introduced at the very beginning by flute and clarinet in unison, then taken up by cellos and double basses, and using ten of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale—has a subtle, plaintive interest all of its own, intensified by the ingenious manipulations by which Malipiero builds from it a substantial movement: not just ‘turning it round and round, cutting it up into little bits, inflating it’, but playing it upside-down and eventually backwards. The forceful final climax even superimposes all three versions: the right way up, upside-down and backwards. Students of Schoenbergian serialism will recognise these transformations as the ‘inversion’ and ‘retrograde’ of the theme. But Malipiero never submits wholly to anybody else’s rules: whenever he repeats his theme or turns it on its head or reverses it, he almost always changes the odd note here and there (and not always the same ones). His use of the term ‘passacaglia’ is similarly free—by the twentieth century it denoted a piece where a single theme or motif (often in the bass) is repeated over and over again throughout; but this happens in neither movement of Malipiero’s work. He said he chose the title because it was ‘typically Italian, despite its Spanish origin’[!]; he must also have felt it sufficient to signify a structure much stricter than his norm—which is as true of the second so-called Passacaglia as of the first, though in a completely different way. ‘In the second,’ Malipiero noted, ‘each instrumental grouping has its own theme that is never exchanged between the different groups.’ Accordingly, first the strings (starting with a simple but memorable descending line which produces a cluster), followed by the woodwind, then the brass, present their own separate themes—or, more accurately, fairly extended families of themes that are quite wide-ranging within themselves—linked by percussion and harp tattoos. This time Malipiero fashions a (considerably briefer) structure by alternating and combining the orchestral groups, playing various parts of their personal themes in multifarious juxtapositions, until they all come together in the succinct concluding climax—but, as he said, no music introduced by one set of instruments is ever taken over by another. Not his least remarkable achievement in the Passacaglie is that both movements sound so distinctively Malipierian: he was surely justified in asserting, a few years later, that ‘analysis of them reveals that I did not change my style—so I did not commit the most common of errors, which is often an act of crude opportunism.’ But he was just as assuredly protesting too much when he claimed that, in the context of his output as a whole, ‘the thematic parsimony of the Passacaglie represents an exception.’ It may represent an extreme; but ‘analysis reveals’ that Malipiero employed analogous techniques on many other occasions—particularly after 1952, but also long before.

Witness the last, and largest, work on the present disc, Concerti—here, like the Passacaglie, receiving its world première recording. Written two decades earlier, it has an equally unconventional structure, with parallels in several musical genres of the past. In 1931, when Malipiero was almost 50, his catalogue included no concertos at all. As that decade went on he composed several—for piano, violin, cello, and even all three at once—which some critics have compared to the great seventeenth- and eighteenth-century concerto tradition of his native city, Venice. And as Malipiero later suggested, the piece that launched the series was not a single concerto but this unique set of Concerti—‘Concertos’ plural, dedicated to Fritz Reiner, who conducted the première in Philadelphia. Framed by an orchestral Esordio (‘Preamble’) and Commiato (‘Leave-Taking’), seven instrumental sections take turns in the limelight, in a form which seemingly fuses elements of both the Baroque suite and the concerto grosso. With typically quirky imagination, Malipiero’s Esordio introduces his protagonists one by one, as if we are eavesdropping on them tuning and warming up: first a single double bass, then a cello, then a violin, playing open strings, scales, arpeggios; joined by a clarinet, a single viola, another clarinet, an oboe, a bassoon, a trumpet, a horn, and finally a snare drum. The flutes—who have so far been silent—then take the stage in their individual concerto, followed in descending order of tessitura by the other woodwinds (oboes, clarinets and bassoons), then by trumpets, drums and double basses. Each section of ‘soloists’ dialogues with other sets of instruments—rather like a concerto grosso’s interaction between its solo concertino group and the full ensemble (ripieno)—in music that aims to show off their special character to best advantage: ‘the personality of the different instruments,’ Malipiero said, ‘is emphasised not by the virtuosity of which they are capable, but by their expressive possibilities.’ Even when the first clarinet has a sort of accompanied solo cadenza towards the end of their concerto, the mood remains reflective of the instrument’s soulful qualities. The emotional heart of the work is the oboes’ pastoral concerto, with its haunting main tune: here, as elsewhere, the music has affinities with Vaughan Williams; while the plaintive, high-lying line for solo bassoon that opens their concerto inevitably (and deliberately?) calls to mind Malipiero’s favourite Stravinsky piece, The Rite of Spring. Horns, not to be left out (they have no concerto of their own), echo the trumpets’ ringing fanfares. The deep, slow, spectral sonority of four solo double basses begins their concerto; in the faster central section, two of them ‘duet’ with their high-pitched antithesis, the piccolo. And the lead double bass enjoys a stately dance with a pair of bassoons as everyone takes their leave in the concise Commiato—whose ever-so-slightly-stiff neo-Baroque demeanour shows stylistic similarities, unusually for Malipiero, with the contemporaneous music of his friend Alfredo Casella. Malipiero closes his Concerti—and most of its component movements—in a more characteristic manner, on a weak beat of the bar; the Fantasie di ogni giorno and both Passacaglie feature similarly offbeat endings. But the most unexpected of this highly diverse suite of miniature concertos must be the one for the ‘drums’, where tambourine and castanets as well as snare drum and bass drum propel one of Malipiero’s earlier experiments with stricter structures: a (loose) canon, launched once again by the first bassoon. However powerful the effects of his compositional reassessment in 1952, he was clearly willing at any stage of his career to ‘deny’ his ‘formal preferences’ in search of musical expressiveness and originality. And for one who felt compelled to create, ‘never allowed to rest’, what better way to avoid any hint of artistic ‘tiredness’ than by such creative curiosity?

David Gallagher


¹ Le faville del maglio (‘Sparks from the Hammer’), published in two volumes in 1924 and 1928 respectively, is a heterogeneous selection of writings by the poet, playwright, novelist and would-be military hero Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863–1938) that held special personal significance for the author, and which he had—therefore—accumulated, over the years, in a dedicated folder he called his ‘secret book’ (libro segreto). To judge by Malipiero’s invocation of Le faville del maglio in this context, he interpreted D’Annunzio’s title as incorporating an allusion to the ‘creative spark’.

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