Luigi Dallapiccola (February 3, 1904 – February 19, 1975) : Italian composer known for his lyrical twelve-tone compositions


Perhaps the greatest Modern Italian composer after Puccini, Luigi Dallapiccola was born in Pisino, in the disputed territory of Istria, then under Austrian rule (it is now part of Croatia and Slovenia). His father, a teacher suspected of Italian nationalism, lost his job during World War I, and the Austrian government interned the entire family in Graz. Dallapiccola’s intense concern over political imprisonment throughout his work probably originates here.

Luigi Dallapiccola took his piano degree at the Florence Conservatory in the 1920s and became professor there in 1931; until his 1967 retirement he spent his career there teaching lessons in piano as a secondary instrument, replacing his teacher Ernesto Consolo as the older man’s illness prevented him from continuing. He also studied composition with Vito Frazzi at the Conservatorio Luigi Cherubini.

Dallapiccola’s students include Abraham Zalman Walker, Luciano Berio, Bernard Rands, Donald Martino, Halim El-Dabh, Ernesto Rubin de Cervin, Arlene Zallman, Roland Trogan, Noel Da Costa, and Raymond Wilding-White.[i]


In 1924 he had a crucial experience (not destined to bear fruit in his own works till many years later) when a performance of Pierrot lunaire, at a concert organized by Casella’s Corporazione delle Nuove Musiche, first brought him into contact with the music of the Second Viennese School.  In 1930 he visited Vienna and Berlin; in the former city Mahler’s First Symphony came as another major revelation to him.

34The Thirties and Forties proved difficult. Although it’s hard to believe, Dallapiccola began as a supporter of the Fascist regime, but the Abyssinian campaign and the Spanish Civil War opened his eyes, as did Mussolini’s adoption of Hitler’s race laws (Dallapiccola had married a Jew). Out of this experience came his first mature masterpiece, Canti di prigionia (songs of imprisonment, 1938-41). There was, of course, no question of a public career as a composer at this point. Indeed, he was lucky to have been left pretty much alone, although he did go into hiding for about seven months in 1944. He mainly gave piano recitals, although, out of principle, not in countries the Nazis occupied. In fact, he was able, while passing through Austria on his way to a recital in 1942, to meet Anton Webern.

After the war, he became a postwar musical voice, very active in the ISCM. He taught, lectured, wrote, and composed on an international stage, until 1972, which severe heart trouble made him an invalid. He completed no new work, although several sketches survive.

It was Richard Wagner’s music that inspired Dallapiccola to start composing in earnest, and Claude Debussy’s that caused him to stop: hearing Der fliegende Holländer while exiled to Austria convinced the young man that composition was his calling, but after first hearing Debussy in 1921, at age 17, he stopped composing for three years in order to give this important influence time to sink in. The neoclassical works of Ferruccio Busoni would figure prominently in his later work, but his biggest influence would be the ideas of the Second Viennese School, which he encountered in the 1930s, particularly Alban Berg and Anton Webern.  Dallapiccola’s works of the 1920s (the period of his adherence to fascism) have been withdrawn, with the instruction that they never be performed, though they still exist under controlled access for study.

His works widely use the serialism developed and embraced by his idols; he was, in fact, the first Italian to write in the method, and the primary proponent of it in Italy, and he developed serialist techniques to allow for a more lyrical, tonal style. Throughout the 1930s his style developed from a diatonic style with bursts of chromaticism to a consciously serialist outlook. He went from using twelve-tone rows for melodic material to structuring his works entirely serially. With the adoption of serialism he never lost the feel for melodic line that many of the detractors of the Second Viennese School claimed to be absent in modern dodecaphonic music. His disillusionment with Mussolini’s regime effected a change in his style: after the Abyssinian campaign he claimed that his writing would no longer ever be light and carefree as it once was. While there are later exceptions, particularly the Piccolo concerto per Muriel Couvreux, this is largely the case.

The new and the “difficult” attracted Dallapiccola’s inquiring mind, and not just in music. A man of immense culture, fluent in at least four languages, he kept up correspondence with many major artistic figures, including American composer Roger Sessions, one of his closest friends. His own music shows an interest in highly-organized counterpoint and heavy chromaticism, both leavened by a love of lyrical melody. One also notes a concern for formal perfection. Dallapiccola wrote relatively little, but with an eye on posterity. His music in the early to mid-Thirties, as shown by the first of his Cori di Michelangelo Buonarroti il giovane (1933-36), is marked by modality and a self-conscious archaism. However, the last choruses show an anguished chromaticism. He grows increasingly interested in serial procedures but uses them in his own way. In the Canti di prigionia, for example, the rows function as melodies rather than as architectural determinants. [ii]

After 1945 Dallapiccola’s life was relatively free from external disturbances. A few obstructive antagonisms survived from the war years, but on the whole he had little difficulty in resuming all his old activities and in adding a few new ones: for example, for two and a half years from 1945 he regularly wrote for the Florentine periodical Il mondo (soon renamed Il mondo europeo). In 1946 he played a major part in getting Italian composers readmitted to the ISCM, at whose first postwar festival the Canti di prigionia at last came before a large public, revealing Dallapiccola’s major stature to the world at large.

During the 1950s his travels abroad became even more wide-ranging: in 1951 Koussevitzky invited him to give a summer course at Tanglewood, and thereafter he visited the USA regularly, sometimes for quite long periods. He continued to travel in western Europe too, and his easy command of German, French and English, combined with his wide culture and his warm humanity, won him international success as a lecturer and so assisted the spread of his music. By the time of the première of his opera Ulisse (1968), the eyes of the whole musical world were upon him; and if the critics may not on that occasion have been unanimous in their praise, that première may nevertheless be regarded as the climax of Dallapiccola’s postwar career.

After Ulisse he composed only intermittently: for several months after completing the work he concentrated instead on assembling and adapting his most important lectures and writings for the volume Appunti, incontri, meditazioni.

In 1972 a brief crisis in his health persuaded him to curtail his travels and public activities and lead a more sedentary life. Thereafter he completed no more compositions, though a few fragments have survived, among them a sketch for the opening of a vocal work, left on his piano a few hours before his death.[iii]

[i] Steven A. Kennedy, “On looking up by chance at the constellations: Luigi Dallapiccola’s ‘Sicut umbra’,” MA thesis, UNC-Chapel Hill, 1990.
[ii] Steven Schwartz, “Luigi Dallapiccola”, Classical.Net, accessed 2/3/2016.
[iii] John C.G. Waterhouse and Virgilio Bernardoni. “Dallapiccola, Luigi.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Accessed 2/3/2016.

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