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ClassicsOnline Home » MALIPIERO, G.F.: Impressioni dal vero / Pause del silenzio (Rome Symphony, La Vecchia)
These mainly world première recordings of five of Malipiero’s most characteristic works fill an important gap in the catalogue. The Impressioni dal vero (Impressions from Life) express the composer’s feelings amid nature and Italian rural life, from three particularly beautiful evocations of birds, to the wild tarantella danced on the island of Capri. The first of the two highly contrasted pieces with the typically enigmatic title Pause del silenzio (Breaks in Silence) is widely regarded as the greatest orchestral work Malipiero ever wrote.
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By Robert Reilly
Catholic News Agency
Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882–1973)
Impressioni dal vero (Impressions from Life), Nos. 1 to 3: 1910–11, 1914–15, 1921–22
Pause del silenzio (Breaks in Silence), Nos. 1 and 2: 1917, 1925–26
Gian Francesco Malipiero loved silence. In 1909–10, before any of the works on this recording, he had already written his Sinfonie del silenzio e de la morte (Symphonies of Silence and Death [Naxos 8.570879])—unusual preoccupations for a 27-year-old composer. By the 1930s he was emitting regular cries of anguish—including whole newspaper articles—bewailing the torments of noise at what friends saw as his ‘oasis of peace’, the hill town of Asolo, in the mainland territory historically ruled by Malipiero’s native city of Venice. Building works, heavy machinery, out-of-tune church bells the local ‘yobs’ yelling their heads off in the square, you name it…(Though at least the Vespa scooter was not invented till after World War Two.)
So did Malipiero find composing difficult? On the contrary: of all the composers of the Italian ‘1880 Generation’—those born around 1880, including Ottorino Respighi, Ildebrando Pizzetti and Alfredo Casella—Malipiero was easily the most prolific: more than 200 works, including nearly 40 operas and seventeen symphonies. (Admittedly, his composing career lasted well-nigh 70 years.) He often dropped hints suggesting that there was almost a constant flow of music in his mind: striving to capture it on the page, he must have found noise a serious impediment. But there is something uniquely fascinating in the results. Or ‘result’: for in Malipiero’s oeuvre—according to his close friend, the highly original Italian writer (and aspiring composer) Massimo Bontempelli—‘every piece counts, because together they create what is really a single vast uninterrupted work, a continuous musical discourse without repetition.’
The pioneering Naxos recordings of Malipiero’s symphonies [Naxos 8.570878 to 8.570882] already reveal this powerful feeling of common ground between different pieces, even ones containing extreme contrasts within themselves. The sense of continuity is reinforced by Malipiero’s penchant for grouping works into series with shared titles, or into unusual genres he effectively invented himself. Alongside the symphonies, concertos and quartets that he (like most composers) produced periodically, we find highly personal collections, some composed in quick succession—like the music-theatre triptychs L’Orfeide (The Tale of Orpheus, 1918–22) and Tre commedie goldoniane (Three Goldoni Comedies, 1920–22 [Symphonic Fragments: Naxos 8.570883]), or the eight Dialoghi (Dialogues) of 1955–57 and the four Rappresentazioni da concerto (Concert Dramas) of 1957–60—and others created only gradually, across as much as two decades. These include the four beautiful misteri (mysteries, or mystery-plays) for soloists, chorus and orchestra—San Francesco d’Assisi (Saint Francis of Assisi, 1920–21), La cena (The Last Supper, 1927), La Passione (The Passion, 1935) and Santa Eufrosina (Saint Euphrosina, 1942)—and the series that make up this recording: the three works called Impressioni dal vero (Impressions from Life) and the two with the quintessentially Malipierian title Pause del silenzio (Breaks in Silence).
Was there anything Malipiero loved even more than silence? Animals, perhaps. Visiting Malipiero at Asolo in the late 1920s, the English composer Arthur Bliss found a house full of ‘dogs, cats and birds of all sorts; a salamander in his study, asleep on his desk, and, most treasured of all, two aged owls, who live on short poles in the kitchen, and who, to my great amusement, danced a slow, dignified saraband to the singing of their master.’ Bliss’s much younger compatriot, Malipiero’s biographer John C. G. Waterhouse, had a similar experience in 1963—and identified the kitchen-dwellers (now caged) specifically as scops owls (Otus scops), the small horned owls of southern Europe. Their haunting call inspired both the Italian language’s beautifully poetic name for the bird—Il chiù—and musical responses from Malipiero all his life: the first being the final movement of Impressioni dal vero I (1910–11), a ‘nocturnal impression’ where the owls’ hypnotic ‘kyoo’ is evoked by two flutes throughout. The preceding movements are impressions of two other birds: the blackcap, Il capinero (Sylvia atricapilla), with its haunting song—birdsong, for Malipiero, was music, not noise; and the woodpecker, Il picchio (probably the great spotted woodpecker, Dendrocopos major), named in Italian, as in English, for its drumming on dead tree-branches to attract a mate (and warn off rivals)—mimicked by Malipiero in the persistent repeated-note motif that launches his piece on the timpani. Amid occasional echoes of Debussy in these Impressioni, Malipiero’s personal voice rings out clearly: not least in the languorous sweetness with ‘a subterranean murmur of melancholy’ (in Bontempelli’s words). Malipiero was a notoriously complicated, capricious character, with everchanging opinions about his own music, and he was uncomfortable with his early works—he even seems to have destroyed some of them, though rather fewer than he liked to claim; but he consistently cherished these bird-pieces. As he put it in 1952: ‘I wish I had not emerged from silence before 1911, with the first set of Impressioni dal vero; and that I had followed them, albeit six years later, only with the Pause del silenzio.’
This is harsh on several pieces composed in the meantime, including Impressioni dal vero II—something Malipiero later tacitly admitted, calling the three sets of Impressions ‘a single expressive whole’ (1961). At other ‘I don’t disown the second and third sets, but I don’t love them’ (1951); to protestations that the Impressioni ‘are neither “programme music” nor “impressionism”’ (1920): ‘they’re not reproductions of things seen or heard; they’re the musical echo of my feelings in response to life and nature’ (1923). Two of his statements help explain why the second set (1914–15) is sometimes fierce, even violent, and ‘on a bigger scale than the first: in the horrible summer of 1915 when I was working on the orchestral score, I could see from afar on moonlit nights the terrible air-raids on Venice’ (1951). ‘On the evening of 28 May 1913, I awoke from a long and dangerous lethargy, at the première [actually the public dress rehearsal] of The Rite of Spring.’ (?1940s). Both the Rite and Stravinsky’s previous ballet Petrushka influenced Malipiero’s complex, often bitingly dissonant, bitonally layered textures, especially in the opening and closing movements, Colloquio di campane (Dialogue of Bells) and Baldoria campestre (Country Festival). The central I cipressi e il vento (The Cypresses and the Wind) may feel closer to Respighi—who had in fact not yet composed his famous Fountains of Rome (1915–16)¹ which were (coincidentally?) premièred at the same 1917 Rome concert as Impressioni dal vero II—but Malipiero maintained that ‘the cypresses were merely the surroundings in which the musical ideas came to me during a blustery night: listeners can rename the piece however they think fit’! (1920)
The only one of his nine Impressions that Malipiero would admit came ‘close to real life’ is the very last—and the shortest by far: La tarantella a Capri, where—Malipiero tells us in the published score—‘against my will, I was under the spell of the traditional tarantella dance of the island of Capri, which still has powerful rhythmic and instrumental elements from pagan times, and an almost dionysiac sonority.’ Impressioni dal vero III also celebrate a ‘Festival in the “Valley of Hell”’, Festa in Val d’inferno (a famously beautiful valley in the lower Italian Alps, c. 50km north of Bergamo), and emerge from night into dawn with ‘The Cockerels’, I galli.
In 1951, Malipiero recalled this third set of Impressioni as ‘a sustained effort to defeat the spectres and nightmares that were the aftermath of the tragedy I had lived through, and which obsessed my mind with black thoughts.’ The tragedy was the First World War: the Italian front was never far from the Venetian territories where Malipiero lived, and far more traumatic than the air-raids was the disastrous retreat of Caporetto late in 1917, when the Italian army was suddenly forced back 100 miles by the Austrians, and he and his wife were caught up in a chaotic stampede of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians. ‘The music I wrote then may reflect my agitation,’ Malipiero confessed amid the ravages of another World War, in 1942, ‘yet I feel that if I have created something new in my art (formally and stylistically) it was precisely in that period.’
Witness the first Pause del silenzio (Breaks in Silence), one of Malipiero’s very greatest works, composed in summer 1917. Two years later he explained how it was ‘difficult to find silence during the war; and, if you found it, you were terrified of interrupting it, even musically.’ Formally and stylistically the piece crystallises another of his musical aims: a determination to reject Austro-German-style ‘thematic development’, in favour of a symphonic ideal he saw as archetypally Italian, where ‘varied sections follow one another unpredictably, obeying only those mysterious laws that instinct recognises’ (1948). In Pause del silenzio, he continued in 1919, ‘the only thematic connection is the opening trumpet blast, which returns seven times’—played a semitone higher each time, and with small variants, by different combinations of trumpets, horns, oboes and flutes: ‘it could be called heroic, because a timid voice would not dare to interrupt the silence. These “seven symphonic expressions” perhaps correspond to seven contrasting states of mind: pastoral, something between a scherzo and a dance, a serenade, a tumultuous round-dance, a funeral elegy, a fanfare, and a blaze of violent rhythms; but [again] listeners may feel them differently.’ All that remains after the eighth trumpet blast is a stunned final echo.
Has any piece of music ever had more titles than the second ‘Breaks in Silence’, Pause del silenzio II? And could any process be more revealing of its composer’s mind? Admittedly, the name under which the work was first published—L’esilio dell’eroe (The Exile of the Hero)—tells us less about Malipiero than about the man who (according to a note in the score, dated 1927) ‘after hearing the music practically forced me to call it this’: the notorious Italian playboy writer Gabriele d’Annunzio, who following flamboyant military exploits during and after the War was now chafing at retirement on his estate by Lake Garda. But Malipiero himself ran through no fewer than three other titles before finally settling on Pause del silenzio II. His 1927 note takes the form of a letter to ‘Claudio’, recounting how these ‘five symphonic expressions’ (separate movements, unlike the continuous form of Pause del silenzio I) reflect ‘an adventurous journey undertaken in winter 1925–26, without, however, leaving my house’—that winter saw Malipiero immersed in the madrigals of Claudio Monteverdi, preparing the first volume (published in 1926) of what was to become the first complete Monteverdi edition; and how he havered between calling them ‘The Book of Hours’ (Il libro delle ore), ‘because they mirror a whole season, musically’, or ‘On the River of Time’ (Sul fiume del tempo), ‘because they follow its capricious course.’ Later he renamed them Il grillo cantarino, ‘The Singing Cricket’, confiding to John Waterhouse in 1963 that this connoted ‘a creature who goes on singing all day every day without knowing why—ie (it would appear) Malipiero himself!’ Malipiero the compulsive creator, ever driven to break his beloved silence with the music running through his mercurial ‘grasshopper mind’—music, in Pause del silenzio II, that for John Waterhouse exemplifies ‘a strange and truly Malipierian feeling of event following event in a quietly inexorable yet essentially unstructured flow.’ Music that, despite its clear private significance for the composer, has very rarely been performed. What conflicting emotions must have been masked by Malipiero’s rueful comment in 1952: ‘perhaps it sleeps the sleep of the just, and its true title should be Unbroken Silence’…
¹ Respighi’s Pines of Rome were written later still, in 1923–24.
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