Thursday, 9 June 2011

Selling Serialism

Luigi Dallapiccola was the first Italian composer to work within the twelve-tone system, and is considered one of Italy's most important composers of the twentieth century. As Brian Alegant writes below and in his recent book, The Twelve-Tone Music of Luigi Dallapiccola, the emotion in Dallapiccola’s music makes his version of twelve tone an exciting place to start for anyone who thinks they won’t enjoy it.

Anyone who has had to teach twelve-tone music knows that it is a “hard sell.” Having taught music majors for nearly a generation, I can say without hesitation that no other genre of classical music inspires such a hostile reaction as serialism. I have seen and heard students, performers, and even critics denigrate it as abstract, tortured, inhuman, and more about numbers than music.

And yet, most scholars would agree that twelve-tone composition is among the most important musical developments of the twentieth century. Even a partial list of composers who experimented with—or fully embraced—serialism is staggering: Babbitt, Barber, Bartok, Berg, Boulez, Britten, Carter, Crawford, Ligeti, Lutoslawski, Mamlock, Martino, Mead, Morris, Nono, Perle, Schoenberg, Shostakovich, Sessions, Schnittke, Skalkattos, Stockhausen, Stravinsky, Webern, and Wuorinen, among many others. And most scholars would also agree that Luigi Dallapiccola (1904–75) is among the most accomplished and admired serial composers. His output includes ballets, choral music, concertos, film scores, piano pieces, song cycles, orchestral pieces, and operas. Dallapiccola enjoyed international fame as a lecturer, teacher, and author, and he was a member of the national academies of arts in the U.S., France, and England.

I have been entranced by Dallapiccola’s music ever since I heard David Burge play the Quaderno musicale di Annalibera. I have been listening to his music ever since with increasing appreciation and admiration, and I use his works to introduce twelve-tone to my students (with overwhelmingly positive results).

The scholarly literature on Dallapiccola is vast, and comprises a host of books and monographs, countless articles, and an ever-growing number of dissertations and theses. As a result, we know quite a bit about his oeuvre: namely, his predilection for self-quotation and symbolism, his fondness for intricate counterpoint and systematic designs; his penchant for languages and text setting; his stylistic eclecticism; and his appropriation of Anton Webern’s techniques. And yet many facets of Dallapiccola’s music await further explanation, chief among them a gradual but inexorable absorption of Arnold Schoenberg’s techniques.

In simplest terms, this book does not ask why Dallapiccola composed twelve-tone music, but, rather, how. It examines his repertory through a technical lens and traces the evolution of his praxis over a thirty-year period. In so doing, it highlights facets of his music that have not been previously disclosed, and sheds light on compositions that have been virtually ignored. Ultimately, it aims to complement the existing research in order to understand more fully his technique and his language.

This book attempts in several ways to fill in some of the lacunae in the state of Dallapiccola research: it sheds light on several twelve-tone works of high quality that have been virtually ignored; it discusses these works in depth, so as to help readers understand them analytically and engage with them aurally; it builds upon recent developments in the post-tonal theory by Allen Forte, David Lewin, Andrew Mead, Robert Morris, Joseph Straus, and myself; it documents the composer’s seemingly limitless invention and his extraordinary skill and delight in text setting; and, most of all, it endeavors to continue the conversation on this important composer and his serial compositions, whose enchantments and challenges are so richly rewarding.

The Twelve-Tone Music of Luigi Dallapiccola by Brian Alegant is published by the University of Rochester Press. Anyone interested in the life and work of Dallapiccola should also seek out another Rochester publication, The Music of Luigi Dallapiccola by Raymond Fearn, which is available in paperback from your favourite bookseller.

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