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Marxist Notes on Music Meditations on captivity and liberation

BEN LUNN remembers the Italian composer Luigi Dallapiccola, whose embrace of serialism and the 12-tone scale coincided with his rejection with fascism

2024 is a year of many significant anniversaries and milestones. 

The third of February marked the 120th anniversary of the Italian composer Luigi Dallapiccola who was no stranger to political turmoil and deserves serious reflection in terms of how artists can respond to national and international events. 

Born in Pisino d’Istra, Dallapiccola grew up in political uncertainty. His father, who was a headmaster of the local school, had been deemed politically suspect and his whole family had been imprisoned at Graz in Styria for about two years. After this turmoil, Dallapiccola went onto study composition and was notably influenced by the musical discoveries of Schoenberg. 

Dallapiccola composed a trio of works between 1938 and 1955 which were conceived in reaction to developments within Italy at the time. The first Canti di Prigionia (Songs of Imprisonment),, started shortly after Mussolini’s announcement of his radical fascism and introduction of race laws in September 1938. Dallapiccola said of his drive behind the work: “I should have wished to protest, yet I wasn’t so naive as to suppose that the individual is not powerless in a totalitarian regime.”

The work is divided into three sections. The first based on a prayer written by Mary Stuart, composed during her final years of captivity. The second based on an invocation by Boethius, and the finale utilising words by Girolamo Savanarola. All these individuals were condemned to death, and due to each individual figure living at different times in human history the work, through these choices, becomes not only becomes a criticism of political circumstances in Italy at the time, but a broader reflection of how such oppression and repression has existed and continues to exist. 

Beyond the choice of text, the musical choices for the work make it both striking and modernistic, but also keep it deeply connected to history. The ensemble required for the work is choir, accompanied by two pianos, two harps, and two percussionists. By their very quality, the instrumental ensemble feels heavy due to the powerful strikes, but the lack of sustaining pitches from the group make it also feel sparse. There is no richness of colour, only the repressive chimes of broken bells and militaristic drums. 

This, combined with the almost liturgical choral writing, creates a dichotomy where the people’s voices are constantly threatened. The final ominous element of the work is how Dallapiccola masterfully weaves the Dies Irae plainchant throughout the work. 

The 25-minute work is beautiful, haunting, and deeply violent and repressive. Because of the utilisation of historical material (both literary and musical) Dallapiccola demonstrates the horror being witnessed is not something new, but something deeply present beyond its own specific moment. 

The ideas and concerns in Canti di Prigionia were reutilised in Dallapiccola’s one act opera Il Prigionerio (The Prisoner),, which was composed shortly after the end of the second world war. 

The opera is based around a prisoner, who recounts his numerous horrors and tribulations within the walls of the prison. The prisoner attempts escape but is eventually found. The Grand Inquisitor asks why he would want to leave on the eve of his salvation. This however was an evil trick, as the prisoner only leaves the prison via the stake where he is burned. 

The last and latest of the three works, Canti di Liberazione (Songs of Liberation),, is a celebration of the victory over fascism. Drawing greatly on the tale of Passover, the Canti di Liberazione functions in a similarly timeless mindset, as throughout history, despite the many injustices, there have also been many victories which have seen people all over the world become free of their oppression. 

This triptych of works is a great lesson for many as even though Dallapiccola wasn’t as politically militant as other Italian composers like Luigi Nono, he could still produce a politically astute work which has many lessons for us today. Similarly, even though Dallapiccola was himself swept up by the false promises of Mussolini, which fooled many, he was able to grow and respond to the world around him and produce one of the greatest anti-fascist works of art. 

To demand political purity of an artist can often allow us to miss the brilliant truths they uncover. Canti di Prigionia is a demonstration of how many of us could face oppression, by the simple fact of being out of sync with the dominant ideology. Il Prigionerio reminds of the endless cruelty of those who oppress us. But the Canti di Liberazione shows that all horrors can be overcome. 

And it is that optimism and foresight that artists need to show, now more than ever. 

Pic of Dellapiccola: Public Domain


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