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Luigi Dallapiccola's Piano Works (2003)

Luigi Dallapiccola dedicated to the piano just a small part of his production (already not extensive in itself), having written only three compositions for solo piano. This might come as a surprise, since he was an extremely refined pianist, who flanked his compositional activity with an intense and continuous concert militancy, especially in duo with violinist Sandro Materassi. The paucity of Dallapiccola's piano corpus, therefore, is by no means due to a lack of familiarity with the keyboard, but rather, probably, to a tendency toward perfectionism and a severe self-critical attitude, as well as to the well-known problems of historicizing the piano.

The Sonatina Canonica, from 1943, is the first of his three works for solo piano. Built entirely on themes from Paganini's caprices, it represents the contrapuntal version of Paganini's virtuosity. Dallapiccola, in fact, superimposes in canons (hence the adjective "canonical") the themes of the various caprices, treating them with the techniques of inversion and retrogradation, moreover typical of the coeval Vienna school. While, however, Schoenberg and Webern use these techniques with atonal twelve-tone material, Dallapiccola applies them to nineteenth-century themes, which totally retain their traditional harmonic peculiarities. The Sonatina Canonica consists of four movements.

The first is in ABA form: the first section (A) uses the theme of the first 24 bars of Capriccio No. 20: with it Dallapiccola constructs a canon by augmentation, superimposing the original melody of the capriccio on the same melody with doubled values. The instrumental color is particularly striking and recalls the nuanced hue of violin harmonic sounds. In contrast, the middle part (B) of this movement is based on caprice No. 13, known as "Laughter," and features refined canonic procedures combined with polyrhythmic writing.

The second movement is based solely on Paganini's caprice No. 19, whose ABA structure is retained. Dallapiccola, however, twists its proportions, greatly enlarging the introductory part A, and using writing rich in rhythmic jumps and displacements.

The third movement elaborates the first eight bars of Paganini's Capriccio No. 11, superimposed even in a canon cancrizans, obtained by juxtaposing the retrograde version of the theme with the original one.

The last movement, which is bipartite, is mainly built on Paganini's capriccio No. 14, but two other caprices are also present, appearing fleetingly to enrich the sense of subtle allusiveness of the piano fun. These are No. 9, "the hunt," which appears at the end of the first half of the piece and No. 17, which appears at the corresponding point in the second half, that is, at the last bars, ironically closing the composition with its darting arabesques.

Dallapiccola wrote the Three Episodes from the ballet Marsia in 1949, six years after the publication of his symphonic score of the same name composed for choreography by Aurelio Milloss. This is not, however, a simple transcription: here, in fact, Dallapiccola seeks to experiment with new piano sonorities in relation to the timbral palette of his orchestral version.

The first episode, Angoscioso, corresponds in the ballet text to the dance contest of the faun Marsyas against the god Apollo: an impossible challenge, already lost at the start. The piece opens with harsh dissonances, scattered in all registers of the keyboard: this is the greatness of Apollo, who, angry at the disgrace suffered by the poor faun, incites him to confrontation in the dance. The anguished uncertainty of Marsyas, the contrast between his pride and awareness of failure enhance the atmosphere of tension that precedes the fearful challenge.

The second episode is an Ostinato, which takes on a central significance from a dramaturgical point of view. It is about Marsia's feverish pursuit of physical and spiritual exaltation through the art of dance, expressed in a tense constant motion of quavers. The only moment of interruption in this ecstatic dance is the Poco Moderato in the middle of the piece, which represents a moment of spiritual transcendence achieved through artistic excitement. Only here in this episode does a twelve-tone series appear, evidently used for expressive purposes, to allude to a different world, in which logical and rational criteria appear completely changed from the previous reality. After a few moments of suspension, the unbridled motion resumes, ending in an effective chordal succession that takes full advantage of the dynamic potential of the keyboard.

The third and final episode, Sereno, describes the death of Marsyas. Not a dramatic death, not feelings of despair, but a deep, composed acceptance of fate. Thus the subtitle Serene is explained: because fate is met with a quiet spirit, albeit one upset by the events. We find again the twelve-tone series that appeared in the previous movement, which here, however, takes on tones of resigned sadness. The pianissimo chords wander through the pedal-supported harmonic fabric, creating ghosts of polytonality, and finally dissolving into an indefinite, ineffable diminuendo.

Dallapiccola's last piano work, which holds extraordinary historical importance in twentieth-century piano production, is the Quaderno Musicale di Annalibera, composed in 1952 and dedicated "to his daughter Annalibera on her eighth birthday." Nevertheless, Annalibera's Notebook is anything but a work for children, and certainly pedagogical intent is to be excluded, despite the fact that the title alludes to the didactic collection "Anna Magdalena's Notebook" composed by J. S. Bach. There are, however, several references to the great German composer, starting with the critical mention of the name BACH in the first piece (not coincidentally titled Symbol), in which the intervallic ensemble corresponding to the notes B-flat, A, C, B is highlighted several times (albeit at different pitches). Dallapiccola expresses his very high contrapuntal craftsmanship by applying the twelve-tone technique to his Notebook (the only case in his meager piano production) in a systematic and unified manner. It is interesting to note the thoroughness with which Dallapiccola prescribes (in the printed edition of the 1953 final version) the graphic arrangement of the individual movements for an eventual concert hall program:


Accenti, Contrapunctus primus

Linea, Contrapunctus secundus

Fregi, Andantino amoroso and Contrapunctus tertius

Ritmi, Colore, Ombre,


From this outline it is easy to deduce the general structure of the polyptych: the two extreme pieces have a clear formal importance, and it is no coincidence that they are of longer duration than the others and have greater musical complexity. After Simbolo, there follow three groups of two pieces each, in which the presence of three Contrapunctus (named with the Latin ordinal numeral) stands out: they constitute the highlights of this musical journey, and demonstrate the sublime quality of Dallapiccola's contrapuntal craftsmanship, always placed at the service of sincere and profound musical expression. Each piece is inextricably linked to the others, and placed in a position that must have been carefully calculated, to safeguard the sonic and formal balance of listening. The result is of great beauty and poetry: a demonstration of how even twelve-tone music can be lyrical and expressive, with emotional content of deep truth.

Roberto Prosseda


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