Thursday, March 28, 2013

Landmarks (50)

Luigi Dallapiccola: Quaderno musicale di Annalibera (1952) for solo piano.

A set of 11 small pieces or movements, intended to be played all together in sequence, at once individual character pieces (some with particular technical concerns ("Accents", "Rhythms", "Colors") and variations or variants on/of common material (a single 12-tone row in transposition and in its classical transformations). Some of the pieces are aphoristic in length, others a bit more substantial, the whole perhaps 14 minutes in duration.

Much has been noted about the 12-tone aspects of the piece — I can recall, as a 14-year old, working out those rows as if they were the more sophisticated thing in the world, and yes, I'm a bit surprised to be including two mid-20th century 12-tone pieces in a row in this list of personal landmarks — as well as the connections to Second Viennese School (not least to piano pieces by Schoenberg and Webern*) and further back, through both the strict and not-so-strict canonic aspects (some even housed in a trio of movements identified as Contrapuncti), a recurring down-a-semitone, up-a-minor-third, down-a-semitone (yep, that spells B-A-C-H) figure and that "notebook" title to J.S. Bach, all of which is an interesting mix of the potentially useful and the possibly misleading, and none of which may actually capture much of the substance of this work.

This is in part due to playful misdirection on the composer's part.  The title, for example. Bach's famous little notebook was a collection of delightful but modest pedagogical pieces for a student (Bach's second wife, Anna Magdalena) to play. But Dallapiccola's piece, while dedicated to his young daughter, Annalibera, is sophisticated and challenging music intended not as a loose collection of teaching pieces but as a whole and integral work of concert music that is also well-suited for private use.he first piece or movement, "SIMBOLO" (symbol), is permeated by transpositions and transformations of the B-A-C-H figure, but it avoids a literal B-A-C-H cypher at that pitch level and in that direction. What he's after is something musically more significant than a alpha-musical homage and that is to use that tight semitonal cluster to anchor smooth voice leading in a harmonic environment that is not shy to suggest tonal movement, indeed even cadential resolution.

This suggestion of the tonal is something quite different from the embedding or citation of authentically tonal material within a 12-tone scheme (like Berg, for example); it is almost uniquely comfortable in its ambiguity and that's something I have always found refreshing in Dallapiccola's later music.  This did cost Dallapiccola some street cred with the serial generation on both sides of the Atlantic, with their programmatic tendency to deprecate any tonal suggestion, from objects like triads and seventh chords (which Dallapiccola welcomed, if cautiously, as products of voice leading but not of functional harmony), or processes like canons (on which Dallapiccola thrived) .  Even his admirers sometimes appear to dismiss the work as too simple or too pretty. And it is often gorgeous, but cooly (cool, not cold) gorgeous, although inspired by the almost anti-pianistic keyboard works of Schoenberg and Webern, it was written by a pianist-composer whose catalogue was mostly vocal, but who knew how to write atmospherically, often even vocally, for his instrument, understanding register, articulation, handedness, the use of the pedal and resonance in a very different way than his Viennese models, focusing on the more delicate features of the instrument. The ninth piece, "COLORE",  for example, with a gentle counter-metric swing of seventh-ish chords is very much a piece that can be located with the coolest jazz pianism of roughly the same era as not influenced or influencing but sharing aspects of a common sensibility (again: cool, not cold). 

* Babbitt, in the lecture collection Words about Music, has some striking observations about the relationship of the Quaderno's "CONTRAPUNCTUS SECUNDUS" to the second movement of the Webern Variationen, in which the relationship between fixed pitches and intervals is exchanged.


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