top of page

Goffredo Petrassi's Piano Music (2003)


The piano, as is well known, is one of the most historicized instruments, being intimately linked to a multitude of cultural legacies belonging to the musical tradition of previous centuries. Until the early twentieth century, this aspect allowed composers to graft themselves naturally into a context already known and integrated into the listeners' culture, but this was no longer the case in the following decades. With the advent of dodecaphony, structuralism, and the avant-garde, the piano, an implicit representative of the 'past,' was either sidelined by many, or completely distorted with the search for new timbral and communicative potentialities. In light of this problem, Petrassi's piano production, although limited to less than an hour of music, assumes an inescapable historical importance. Indeed, his writing has been able to evolve in relation to the innovations of contemporary languages, while constantly maintaining an exemplary attitude of confidence in the expressive means of the piano, which precisely because of its historicization can take on considerable evocative and quotationistic potential.

1. Formation

Petrassi's relationship with the piano dates back to the period when he, as a 15-year-old, began working as a clerk in a major Roman music store. Here, particularly in later years when it was taken over by FIPT (Fabbriche Italiane di Pianoforti, Turin) and relocated to Via del Corso, Petrassi had the opportunity to meet many prominent figures in the Italian artistic milieu (including Alfredo Casella) and to read some of the scores for sale, as he himself recounts:

In the store I had the availability of the piano, which I had taken to playing as a pure amateur, without the slightest thought of practicing as a musician. One day I came across Debussy's Arabesques and studied them. A piano teacher from the conservatory who was Alessandro Bustini-at that time a professor of piano, not yet of composition-went by, listened to this clerk in the backroom, playing Debussy's Arabesques, got curious and said to me, "What do you do? Well, then I'll finger them for you, so you can study them better." A week later he brought me back the Arabesques with the fingering, I studied them, he went over them again, and finally he said, "I mean, I'll give you lessons, come to me." So he started with the lessons, of course once a week, since that was my only day off.

Petrassi was thus familiar with the keyboard from his youth, so it is not surprising that his early compositions often employ the piano, often as a vehicle to evoke (more or less unconsciously) stylistic ghosts of the past.

2. The Partita.

Such is the case with the Partita of 1926, Petrassi's first published piece (for De Santis editions in the Dorica series, directed by Vincenzo Di Donato, then his harmony teacher). This Partita, although a youthful work that sounds somewhat naïve today when compared with later works, nevertheless proves to be of considerable interest, as it provides insight into the stylistic influences that characterized Petrassi's early musical training. Divided into four movements (Prelude, Aria, Gavotta, Gigue), it presents a singular mixture of styles and languages.

The Prelude, for example, recalls the timbral splendor of Lulli's overtures, with fast and brilliant scales, followed by broken arpeggios to great sonic effect. Also interesting is the central part, which directly evokes, unfiltered and without any ironic intention, the lyricism typical of Chopin's examples, resulting in a stylistic departure of considerable effect.

Even in the second movement, the Aria, an exquisitely Romantic type of cantabile persists, albeit with a certain influence of the folk tradition of songs from the Roman area

The Gavotta (grotesque) uses a more modern language, which testifies to the fact that by the age of twenty-two Petrassi was already up-to-date on at least some contemporary trends. Here he calls into question Stravinsky's neoclassicism, especially in the articulation, based on the alternation between legato and staccato, and in the use of dissonances that are not functional to the harmonic discourse, but determined by a grotesque intent, made explicit in parentheses in the title.

The Giga is a typical example of Scarlattian-style keyboard virtuosity, presenting a particular instrumental flair: while it still retains a very strong dependence on eighteenth-century models, it already hints at that peculiar motor vitality that we will find in the composer's later works.

Petrassi was always attached to this Partita, so much so that he drew some themes from it for his more famous and complex Partita for orchestra, a piece that propelled him with great success onto the international musical scene.

3. The piano production of the 1930s

It has been said how in the Partita there is a particular openness to different styles, even distant ones, adopted without any sort of linguistic filter; later Petrassi, who in the meantime had taken up the study of organ and composition at the conservatory with Alessandro Bustini and Vincenzo di Donato, began to carry out a work of selection of material and expressive elements, in order to define a language increasingly consistent with the values of rigor and discipline that constitute the ethical basis of his artistic and human figure.

Already in the Siciliana and Marcetta of 1930, a short piece for piano for four hands, Petrassi identifies a more delimited and defined stylistic scope, although still not entirely personal. Indeed, it is a true homage to the music of Alfredo Casella, whose Siciliana from the 11 Pezzi Infantili is quoted almost literally. Even the Marcetta retains that character between the automatic and the militaristic that often recurs in Casella's idiom. As Rattalino notes, however, the end of the Marcetta, with an unexpected accelerando, distances itself from the model, to hint at a later, gradual stylistic individualization.

3.1. The Toccata

With the Toccata, from 1933, we are already facing one of the composer's piano masterpieces. Written on the heels of the international success of the Partita for orchestra (composed in 1932 and conducted the following year by Casella himself in Amsterdam on the occasion of the awarding of the SIMC prize to Petrassi), it reveals how Petrassi developed in these years a grandiose and solemn style, partly inspired by the majesty of the works of seventeenth-century Rome, a reason that inspired Gianandrea Gavazzeni to call this stylistic tendency of his 'Roman Baroque.' In truth, the breadth of expressive formulas still remains remarkable, so much so that Petrassi was able to use different stylistic references from time to time, depending on the needs of the moment. In particular, in the Toccata Petrassi explicitly refers, right from the title, to Frescobaldian keyboard examples, maintaining their improvisational freshness on the one hand, and their polyphonic complexity on the other. Beginning with this piece, in fact, Petrassi will adopt a writing of high contrapuntal workmanship, which he will maintain, albeit with due variations, in all subsequent piano compositions. The beginning of the Toccata is an example of pure polyphonic writing, where the subject is first expounded by a single voice, and then taken up in fugato style by the remaining three voices. The particular mysticism of this solution recalls some fugues that Shostakovich would compose in 1949 within the 24 Preludes and Fugues. Following the unfolding of the Petrassian Toccata, the accumulation of tension that, after the fugato beginning, leads to two suspensions of the contrapuntal plot (bars 18 and 20) arouses astonishment. From here some cadential cues originate, gradually leading to a repetition of the initial subject in octaves in the lower register (bar 21 et seq.), with a timbral flavor of clear organ ancestry (it was precisely in 1933 that Petrassi also earned his organ diploma). The thickening of the writing, which now takes full advantage of the piano's dynamic potential, persists in the following section, Più lento (solemn), in which the initial subject is reproposed at particularly high and grandiose dynamic levels. From the following Presto begins the second part of the piece, which is more oriented according to the twentieth-century sense of the toccata genre. In the 1930s, after all, Petrassi could not fail to consider the eponymous examples from a few years earlier in the piano production of Ravel, Debussy and Prokofiev. Not surprisingly, he uses in this section some elements of particular motor and percussive momentum that recall the aforementioned references, particularly Prokofiev's Toccata. Petrassi's piano writing presents moments of high virtuosity, especially in the passages of chords and double notes for fourths, touching sonic results quite close to the achievements of Prokofiev's pianism. Precisely coinciding with the golden section falls the climax of the Toccata, in which a peroration in ff of octaves in the high register is joined by other octaves, entrusted to the left hand, that repropose the initial subject. The real climax takes place at the conclusion of the long ostinato rhythmic motion, which flows into filled chords of extraordinary expressive force. After this episode the tension is not yet completely exhausted, and the ostinato motion resumes with more distant and grave sonorities, to lead back to a magical reprise of the initial fugato in an even more abstract and contemplative atmosphere, which gives a peculiar poetry to the conclusion of the piece.

In 1933, in addition to the Toccata, Petrassi wrote two chamber pieces in which the piano plays an important role: Prelude, Aria and Finale for cello and piano and Introduction and Allegro for violin and piano (soon after transcribed into the version for violin and orchestra, awarded by SIMC and performed in Prague in 1935, again under the direction of Alfredo Casella). In these two pieces, too, the piano writing is particularly challenging and favors dark and harsh hues, with a contrapuntal texture of particular charm and depth.

3.2. The Piano Concerto

The harshness of tone and virtuosity are even more extreme in the Piano Concerto, written between 1936 and 1939 and premiered by Walter Gieseking. This is a little-known piece, which Petrassi himself practically disavowed, perhaps because of its strong resemblance to some of the scores of Prokofiev and especially Stravinsky (especially the Capriccio for piano and orchestra of 1928-29). Structured in three movements (Non molto mosso ed energico, Arietta con Variazioni, Rondò), this Concerto is essentially a neoclassical piece, allowing the soloist to show off all his technical background in a predominantly percussive and motor pianism.

The form of the first movement is somewhat traditional, based on two themes of opposing character, the second of which appears in a key (B minor) far removed from the key of the setting (G minor). However, the treatment of harmony remains anchored, albeit with considerable creativity, in a polarized conception of tonality. There is no shortage of suggestive timbral effects, such as the whispers in the lower register that precede the entrance of the second theme, and the conclusion, entrusted anti-rhetorically to pp and staccato sonorities.

The second movement has explicit references to Stravinskian neoclassicism, especially that of the second half of the Piano Sonata. The Arietta consists of a cantabile melody in B-flat major in ternary rhythm, performed by the piano alone. The writing is quite traditional: the right hand is entrusted with the singing, ornamented with abundant rapid and light decorations, and the left hand with the accompaniment, with a very slow and regular scansion, albeit in the ambiguity between binary and ternary rhythm. The four Variations that follow rework the material so freely that it is almost unrecognizable. The piano takes on an increasingly decorative role (especially in the third, where cadential episodes abound), while the orchestra generally leads the unfolding of the phrase, while leaving room for the soloist in the various moments of recitative character. Very charming is the return of the Arietta in its initial guise, with the addition of a discreet p-sound band realized by the strings.

The third movement is an Andantino mosso, but tranquillo in rondo form. The initial thematic element (A) consists of a descending chromatic line of four long notes. This, after a brief introduction by the orchestra, is expounded by the piano, in ff octaves. It will return according to the usual rondo structure (ABACABA), each time entrusted to a different instrumentation (clarinets, then trumpets, then all brass). The piano is mainly used in a percussive key and gives considerable motor propulsion to the ensemble. The abundant presence of loose and alternating octaves, rapid chordal successions, and fast passages by parallel motion is inscribed in the late 19th-century tradition of the concerto understood as a virtuosic display by the soloist, albeit in a certainly more modern harmonic setting.

The most interesting features of this controversial work probably lie in the particular dark tone that Petrassi is able to identify, and which stands out in its distinctiveness especially in relation to the earlier Toccata. It thus becomes apparent how Petrassi achieves in this Concerto the most interesting results of his piano virtuosity, at least in the traditional sense. But, looking at the work in retrospect, it becomes clear that from the 1940s onward he would no longer be interested in considering the piano in the virtuosic and spectacular sense, so much so that in the subsequent Inventions and other later keyboard pieces his writing would become increasingly bare and crystallized, exploiting among the instrumental resources only those that were best suited to express his renewed poetics, according to an approach not too dissimilar to the one Luigi Dallapiccola had with the piano.

4. The piano production of the 1940s

Petrassi's last important piano works date from the 1940s, if we exclude Bagatella and Le petit chat, which are nothing more than reworkings of pre-existing material (and dating precisely from this period). The Piccola Invenzione, an occasional piece composed in 1941, is a very short two-voice counterpoint that explicitly harkens back to Stravinskian models. The importance of this page lies in the contrapuntal writing: with it Petrassi inaugurates an even more linear and transparent type of polyphonic composition, which he would develop extensively in the subsequent 8 Inventions of 1944. The Piccola Invenzione, as mentioned, will be taken up and expanded considerably in the 1976 Bagatella, which has a much greater length.

Another occasion piece, written a year later, is the Divertimento scarlattiano, per dritto e per rovescio, dedicated to Guido Maria Gatti. It is a contrapuntal play on Scarlatti's famous Sonata K30, known as "The Cat's Fugue" because of its particular thematic design. This piece, too, would later be reworked and expanded in 1976 into a piece not coincidentally titled Le petit chat.

4.1. The Inventions

Petrassi's most important piano work, marking an important turning point in his approach to the piano, is the 8 Inventions, composed between 1942 and 1944. As already noted about the Concerto, Petrassi in the 1940s realized that he no longer needed the full sonic and dynamic potential of the piano, probably also because of the well-known problems of historicization and the consequent dangers of unintentional stylistic epigonism. This is probably the motivation behind his choice to compose much less for this instrument, and to devote himself instead to more obsolete and less plumbed ensembles in their timbral potential: brass, guitar, some particular ensembles of winds and strings. The 8 Inventions are thus his last major work for the piano, and they testify to the change in his approach. In these pieces, in fact, Petrassi uses a much more drained and sparse, almost abstract writing. One senses that this music was not conceived at the piano, nor exclusively for the piano. On the contrary, he makes the piano invoke from time to time sonorities belonging to other instruments or other worlds: noises of nature, drums, birdsongs, and, of course, flutes, clarinets, brass. The piano thus becomes, to use a term dear to Piero Rattalino, a 'metapianoforte'. On the other hand, Petrassi succeeds at the same time in reviving the keyboard tradition of the eighteenth century, this time (unlike the early works) in full consciousness, and thus with remarkable irony and nostalgia. Petrassi's Inventions present a less 'pianistic' writing than the earlier pieces, but this should not be understood in a negative sense: on the contrary, it is a clear artistic awareness. Petrassi himself remained very attached to his Inventions, and stated that they contain a wealth of expressive cues used in many of his later compositions. They deserve, therefore, to be explored one by one.

The first Invention, Presto volante, explicitly evokes eighteenth-century harpsichord pieces, and even contains a quotation from the Prelude in C minor from the First Volume of Bach's Well Tempered Clavier. In addition to Bach, however, thoughts run to Domenico Scarlatti, because of the particular instrumental flair, enhanced by the rapid quaver quatrains that cross the keyboard in very light scales (example 10), and the particular rhythmic and articulatory connotations (see the detached semiquavers with which the piece ends). Petrassi's irony and disenchantment, aware of the distance from that world that is evoked with this music, emerges in the central part, with a slower, syncopated rhythm. Here, thanks to the shift of the quatrains into the lower register, and the addition of held notes (almost like harmonic pedals), the sonority becomes much more personal and modern, as if to remind us that the beginning so genuinely Scarlattian did not belong to reality, but only to memory.

The second Invention presents a greater multiplicity of styles and a more varied and articulate form. After a very expressive and cantabile beginning, a theme appears with a more rhythmic and neoclassical character, still with figurations belonging to the stylistic scope of the eighteenth-century keyboard repertoire. The treatment of harmony uses numerous altered and dissonant chords, giving a much more chromatic color to the thematic elements of classical origin, so that they appear almost deformed. Once again, then, Petrassi plays with history and the listener's perception, who precisely in the juxtaposition of ancient material and modern elaborations will find the piece's greatest appeal

The third Invention, on the other hand, is much more homogeneous and compact, and features particularly challenging and spectacular writing. In fact, almost the entire piece is based on a uniform and very rapid rhythm of 5/8, and the fleeting and sguisciante character of this piece is enhanced by the instrumentation, which prescribes playing the same line (sinuous and legato) with the two parallel hands, a full four octaves apart. This type of writing, taken up (again in 5/8) by Dallapiccola in the second of the Three Episodes from the ballet Marsyas, has close origins in Stravinsky's Sonata, but, going backwards, one finds something similar in the fourth movement of Chopin's famous Sonata in B-flat minor (although the distance between the two hands is in this case only one octave). The aforementioned ostinato motion is interrupted only on a few occasions, with fearless dry, staccato chords, which, especially in the conclusion (more suspenseful than peremptory), heighten the tension and mystery generated by this composition.

The fourth Invention, in ABA form, re-proposes the contemplative atmosphere of other Petrassi moments, in an even more defined and refined timbral framework. In the beginning we find again the writing for widely spaced parallel hands, but this time in a slow and well paced tempo, which creates a character of mysterious anticipation. The following theme, entrusted to the high register, determines an evocative timbral contrast, and leads toward the central part (B), an episode with the character of a dance in ternary rhythm, almost a waltz. A waltz that is certainly not carefree, but dark in tone, somewhat macabre, because of the dissonances between accompaniment and melody, and because of the sonic impasto with the predominance of the piano's low register zone. The return of the opening theme now takes on a more dreamy and ethereal, almost surreal character, with repeated insistence on certain repeated sounds. Very characteristic and effective is the end of the piece, in which distant percussion sounds are evoked, following an aesthetic derived from the Bartokian Suite All'aria aperta.

The fifth Invention remains in a contemplative and static realm, albeit with quite different harmonic colors of a much more limpid and stellar hue. The chromaticisms of the earlier Inventions are succeeded here by the use of modality, or rather, in this case, polymodality, since the author superimposes two or three different modes in the same phrase. Perfect triads, both major and minor, often appear, especially at the beginning, but these have lost their harmonic function and, as happens in Debussy's music, take on a purely coloristic purpose. This Invention, like its predecessor, also has an exquisitely nocturnal character: but no longer a foggy and mysterious night, but calm, silent and immersed in natural noises, such as Pan flutes and bird songs. This is particularly evident in the cadenza-like central section, in which the right hand is entrusted with swift, flowing ornamental figurations that explicitly recall expressive forms typical of flute performance. The counterpoint is of the highest workmanship, enhancing the expressive facets of each melodic mode used.

The sixth Invention consists of a true four-part chorale, in which the polyphony (a two-subject fugato) serves a poetic and structural function. Here, too, Petrassi makes use of modal harmonies, wrapped in a timbral halo of Ravelian ancestry (the soft, melancholy and disenchanted beginning recalls the famous Pavane pour une infante défunte). The writing is abstract and decidedly non-piano: indeed, the piano is only one of many possible organics for which this music could have been intended. It would sound equally good, for example, with a string quartet, or, of course, with a four-voice mixed choir.

The Seventh Invention maintains a three-part counterpoint that is always very rigorous and linear. The ternary rhythm of 9/8 in this case is not exploited for dancing gaits, but to achieve a particular discursive fluidity, albeit in a moderate tempo and in an expressive realm of deep inner calm. Particularly striking are the moments of interruption of the flow of triplets, in which lonely distant drum chimes resound, obtained with bicords of fifths in the lower register of the keyboard. As is often the case in Petrassi's music of the 1940s, tonality is latent but never fully defined. Although clearly polarized (especially at the beginning and the end) and anchored in the harmonic realm of B minor, the numerous modal presences give a tone that is both archaic and modern, which essentially represents the most characteristic and individual stylistic element of the Inventions.

The last Invention, the octave, presents a singular mixture of nostalgia and humor, veiled in subtle irony. In fact, the Allegretto and graceful trend indication contrasts with the frequent dissonances, set, moreover, in a phrasing and rhythmic framework that is entirely classical. Neoclassicism, then, but of the most refined and suggestive kind, following a disenchanted and latently sarcastic approach that we find, with due differences, in various compositions by Shostakovich and Prokofiev (and, to a lesser extent, Stravinsky). The continuous alternation of legato and staccato, the marked contrasts in articulation and dynamics, always in a polyphonic writing of considerable complexity, make this Invention one of the most successful and communicative, summarizing Petrassi's poetics and his changing relationship with the piano. The concluding bars, with their nostalgic and nuanced color overshadowing the regular albertine bass, can be a valuable key to understanding his attitude toward the keyboard: with the deep, melancholy awareness of no longer being able to truly believe in a precious heritage that now belongs only to our past, and can only be evoked in quotes, in dream or memory.

5. Petrassi's last piano pieces

According to this approach, Petrassi will return to compose for the piano only three more times, always for pieces of reduced scope, and determined by contingent occasions. In the first case, that of the Petite pièce of 1950, the opportunity is given by the first communion of Marcello Panni, of whom Petrassi was the godfather. A special gift, then, which even in the (only apparently) simple writing and the carefree and somewhat naïve character reflects the relationship with the inspiring recipient. The neoclassicism distinctly evident in this piece has not only a stylistic, but above all an expressive function: it serves, in essence, to better evoke a series of nostalgia and memories related to the past, to images and sounds of childhood, which can only be revived by conscious quotation, or self-quotation.

It is in this context that the title of the 1976 diptych Oh les beaux jours! is explained, bringing together two earlier compositions from the 1940s, Piccola Invenzione and Divertimento Scarlattiano, here considerably expanded and reworked. The 'beaux jours' are, of course, those of his youth, when it was still possible to experiment with different styles and passed in a healthy, serene spontaneity, without being limited by historical and aesthetic doubts. The mature Petrassi can, on the other hand, return to the piano only in the form of a remembrance of (his) past, in a conscious neoclassicism squared, according to an aesthetic procedure that is, however, of considerable historical importance, and which finds precedents in the Rossini piano approach of the Péchées de Vieillesse. Like the old Rossini, Petrassi now looks at the piano and its world with nostalgia and disenchantment, not without a certain aristocratic detachment.

The ornamental figurations (even overloaded, explicitly an end in themselves) of the Bagatella thus take on a crystallized flavor and are deprived of their natural expressive habitat. Juxtaposed one against the other as in a nonsense by Toti Scialoia (not coincidentally a friend of Petrassi's, and author of the text of Morte nell'Aria), or as in a novel by Joyce, they have a purely estranging and decontextualizing function, to shift the perceptual center from the core of the musical structure to the vacuous surface of the ornament: which thus, paradoxically, becomes, from superfluous decoration, the poetic key to the piece, so much so that the last page consists exclusively of ornaments that have completely taken the place of the initial thematic material.

A similar point can be made about Le Petit Chat (Miró). In this case the source material is threefold: the Scarlattian Divertimento itself was already based on a quotation from Domenico Scarlatti's famous Sonata K 30, known as 'The Cat's Fugue.' Petrassi, moreover, draws inspiration from a drawing of the same name that he has in his own collection, in which Miró depicts a cat, highlighting its mobility and unpredictable behavior. And certainly the cat, with its constant accelerations, sudden jerks and changes of direction, alternating with lingering plush steps, is perfectly, almost onomatopoeically, evoked in this Petrasian revisitation. The Scarlattian theme thus becomes a starting point for re-proposing a series of clichés of keyboard technique from the eighteenth to the twentieth century, always with a decontextualizing approach and with a consequent draining of the original signifying function. The result is music that is certainly new and enigmatic, of absolute difficulty in performance (by virtue of the separation between technical formula and physical disposition of the hand on the keyboard), which certainly retains an unusual poetic charm, perfectly balanced between nostalgia and humor, between passatism and modernity.

It is precisely these latter pieces that allow us to understand the fundamental historical importance of the aesthetic position of Petrassi, an author who was able to be a very acute and balanced interpreter of his own time, prophetically grasping its most significant aspects, and elevating its value with his work of the highest poetic craftsmanship. Regarding his relationship with the piano, it should also be emphasized that his experience was a profound influence for a number of composers of later generations, including Aldo Clementi , who deepened the potential of a 'metaplanistic' treatment of the keyboard, synthesizing the lucidity and purity of Petrassi's counterpoint into an even more abstract and radical dimension.



bottom of page