Marcello Sorce Keller


1978, vol. 39, n. 3-4


To get started

Gian Francesco Malipiero figures among those composers who throughout their lives have not only composed, as anyone would expect of professional musicians of his kind, but also written and talked profusely, as it were, about art and music and, more specifically, about their own music and musical attitudes.
After reading a significant part of Malipiero's literary production, I am inclined to believe that it could not possibly be an occasional or, so to say, subsidiary by-product of his musical activity. On the contrary: I have the feeling that this literary side of Malipiero's personality was as strong an outlet for his overall creative inner drive as the musical one.
The composer's writings - and he wrote much about every conceivable subject under or beyond the sun - are consistently related in their background to a fundamental autobiographical line. By and large, however, whether they are directly concerned with music or not, even taking for granted their parallel growth with the author's music, they none the less seem to achieve an autonomy of their own.
Unusual though it may be, they appear self-sufficient to the point that they do not need any actual reference to musical facts to be fully understood and substantially complete in themselves. That is why, I believe, we can undertake the reading of the many articles and books left by Malipiero on three different levels of understanding. We obviously can, first of all, take into consideration the value they have as documents, as material capable of giving some insights into the musical activity of the composer. A second approach could be a musicological one, in spite of the fact that Malipiero himself had so much despised the word "musicology". (I shall return to this point later on in order to explain Malipiero's intense feelings on the subject.) Let me simply point out first that Malipiero was one of the few musicians of his time who was thoroughly acquainted, because of a day-to-day interest and study continued throughout his whole life, with the music as well as the musical theory that flourished between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, mainly in the cultural area of the Venetian Republic. Last, but by no means least, Malipiero's writings have an intrinsic literary value that makes them very enjoyable reading. Because his writings are whimsical, highly imaginative, witty and sometimes sarcastic, even those who are totally insensitive to Renaissance and contemporary music cannot fail to appreciate his literary flair.
At any rate, before attempting to depict Malipiero's concept of music and, more particularly, of his own music, as far as I was able to grasp it from what he wrote on the subject, I will point out a few traits peculiar to his personality. Then I will focus on selected passages from his writings that seem to me specially interesting and emblematic in order to verify along what lines the musical thought of our composer was organized and with what degree of consistency, if any at all.

Something like an introduction

Gian Francesco Malipiero (Venice, 1882-Treviso, 1973) has often been associated by musicologists and critics with the so called "1880's generation" of Italian composers. [1] Around that year, in fact, there happened to be born in Italy three other outstanding musical personalities: Alfredo Casella, Franco Alfano and Ildebrando Pizzetti. To what extent affinities and common trends of any kind can be found in their lives and art is indeed very much of a problem, and it is certainly not my aim to investigate these questions here. By and large, however, it seems apparent that Malipiero was thoughout his life an isolated man in the musical world of his time and not merely because he lived for so long in actual physical isolation in his ivory tower in Asolo. If his literary works on the one hand reveal constant attention, though rarely sympathy, for what was going on in the "outer" world, his music, on the other hand, doe; not reflect this attitude and makes it particularly difficult to relate it to any given time or circumstance. This appears to be so true as to make me believe that any attempt to correlate the musical production of Malipiero, on the sole basis of stylistic analysis, would fall considerably short of its goal.
Through the "written word" the reader comes across an endless chain of recollections concerning the private as well as the artistic events experienced by the composer, interwoven, here and there, with some aesthetic judgments that furnish a continuous, precise guide to his work. The tone that strikes us as the most constant, truly the ever-present one among these many pages, derives from the profound awareness of an intrinsic consistency of style and outlook, of a way of musical self-expression, which developed and grew neither through crises and conversions nor through sudden discoveries.
On this one point, I think, many of us will easily agree. Malipiero had already achieved maturity in the music he wrote three, if not more, decades ago, both from a formal and a spiritual point of view; all his later work seems aimed at deepening his primary creative impulse. It is striking how little influence the many changes in musical taste that occurred during the twentieth century had on his personality. He remained almost equally insensitive to both Stravinsky and Schönberg, though he declared several times that listening to «The Rite of Spring» was the most impressive musical experience he had ever had. [2] Yet, on the whole, neo-classicism and expressionism left hardly any mark on his creativity, interested and attentive as he was in examining and sifting any new artistic trend. We can almost understand how in this musical age of ours, which emphasizes so much change and innovation, Malipiero's coherence might have been mistaken sometimes for monotony if not for outright lack of imagination.
Going through his writings, moreover, with the aim of finding out the «poetical reasons» for his music, does not really take us very far. What he confided to the written page is a long sequence of troubled and worried considerations, even occasionally whimsical or extravagant, about his "adventures" as a composer. Actually, a period of personal, systematic analysis never came for Malipiero and perhaps could not possibly have occurred, hindered as he was by a peculiar psychological makeup, by patterns of thought proceeding via parentheses and digressions and, therefore, naturally averse to theory and systematization. He wrote many books, but they are in a way a collection of images and aphorisms rather than theories, even when they are concerned with Zarlino, Monteverdi or Vivaldi; his verbal procedures also, very much like his musical ones, seem either to ignore completely or to adhere to the principle of variation and development of a given theme or idea.

Closer to the heart of the matter

In Malipiero's opinion, the sonata form and all forms of organic systems have definitely come to an end. This is true both for music and art in general and for life itself in anything human around us, so to speak. This holds true, also, for the twelve-note technique just as it does for much older and traditionally accepted ways of organizing musical ideas. On the subject of thematic development, he says almost bluntly:

As a matter of fact I rejected the easy game of thematic development because I was fed up with it and it bored me to death. Once one finds a theme, turns it around, dismembers it and blows it up, it is not very difficult to assemble the first movement of a symphony (or a sonata) that will be amusing for amateurs and also satisfy the lack of sensitivity of the knowledgeable. [3] *

It is interesting to point out in relation to this statement that Malipiero not only expresses a rejection of the traditional composition techniques on the grounds of their ultimately unimaginative nature but, further than that, implies that these techniques are definitely not the only means of giving coherence and unity to the musical flow of a composer's thought. On the contrary, his statement suggests how a lack of imagination and intrinsic consistency might be somewhat concealed under the burden of such procedures. In fact, these are the words with which Malipiero tries to make his point:

The most dangerous biases preventing progress in the musical arts are: stubbornness in considering only melody that moves in regular leaps, rejecting it if it is conceived on a large span; to consider as digression and improvisation any thought which is spontaneous instead of being the result of the typically German thematic development. [4]

What still does not appear totally unequivocal is whether the target of Malipiero's irony is in this case only the sonata-form-derived way of enlarging and manipulating musical ideas or whether his criticism is also directed further back into the past. What I mean is that, broadly speaking, the music of Western civilization is essentially music based on the concepts of development and variation and that these two concepts are very close ones indeed. It is not by chance, it seems to me, that Western music established at a certain point that feeling and system of tonality, or whatever we want to call it, that gave the composer the mental category along with the actual tools (modulation, sequence, etc.) to better exploit his raw material.
Moreover, Malipiero seemed to look very often upon the pre-tonal age of music as a golden age. But this attitude of his leaves us a little puzzled, because a completely modal polyphony with no concern at all for "vertical" considerations (an "ideal category", as Max Weber would put it) would seem to me, because of its very nature, ultimately just as much variation-oriented as any other later music.
As a matter of fact, we do not have enough evidence to draw any safe conclusion on this point. Besides, Malipiero himself (who used to repeat frequently what a bad subject for theory he Was [5]) makes me wonder whether he really meant to make himself clear on the subject. After all, being too clear, rational or theoretical often turns out to be a serious drawback for wit and humour. Maybe Malipiero had such a weakness for paradox and 'boutades' that, when expressing himself in "words", he was willing to sacrifice anything else to that. Anyway, this ambiguity taken for granted, if I had to venture a guess, I would say that the main target of his criticism is tonal harmony, and the following quotation may provide some insight into a better understanding of Malipiero's point:

In those centuries in which cadences were not abused, harmonic variety was the result of polyphony and of the use of "modes". Modulation was unknown, that is, the continuous repeating of the same passages, majors, minors, on a higher or on a lower pitch level according to the rules and circumstances. [6]

There is also this passage on the question of cadence:

he harmonic simplification which began with the decadence of polyphony spoilt the human ear to such an extent that our grandfathers did not even notice the "accompaniments", which were nothing more than a monotonous rhythmical filling (cadence, as a matter of fact, is not harmony but rhythm); they actually could not perceive them properly, their attention being concentrated on the dominant melodic line. In this way the feeling for harmony was lost. [7]

I could also add that the nineteenth century was clearly the musical period in which Malipiero was least interested, while it would be worth pointing out how contradictory was his dislike of twelve-note composing, considering what a major role polyphonic and contrapuntal factors play in this technique.
So far I have been concerned primarily with Malipiero's consideration of composing and aesthetic problems. In so far as Malipiero thinks of what the listener's attitudes should be, I offer the following short statement, which, incidentally, it is interesting to compare with the well-known taxonomy of listeners' attitudes by T. W. Adorno: [8]

The listener likes to hear over and over the same theme, transformed in various fashions ... to express yourself musically with a broad personal language is, for those who are asthmatic, just "improvising", "to go astray". [9]

Undoubtedly Malipiero had a good point in saying that this abused trick of transposing melodies or melodic fragments up and down, from one pitch level to another, is a cheap one indeed. It is a way of encouraging the mental laziness of the listener who, once he has grasped the key (i.e. a catchy melody), can then relax and follow the music all the way through. The only thing that Malipiero seems to overlook is the discouraging fact, nevertheless true, that most casual listeners are not able to do even that. Anyway, he sums up his feelings about "easy listening" in this concise way:

The more music is pleasing to the ear, the more it is vulgar. [10]

A bit of musical nationalism?

The various matters considered up to this point occur, as a matter of fact, a great many times in Malipiero's writings in one form or another. Furthermore, they afford him the opportunity to say, every now and then, something about Italian music - what it is, what it should be - and how it should be regarded mainly as something fundamentally different from, if not opposed to, German music. Even considering when the composer was born and also the fact that he lived during the notorious period of Fascism in Italy when everything just had to be "Italian" in order to make apparent the supposed superiority of the "Latin civilization", it is none the less very striking that we can still find in the twentieth century what I am tempted to call the "leftovers" of the old dispute between German and Italian music. At any rate, Whatever my personal view on the matter, Malipiero himself offers the following point of view:

The pattern of thought in the music which is truly Italian (let us just consider Scarlatti, for instance) never stops and follows the natural law of relationships and contrast: no geometric structures but a kind of architecture which is hanging and yet firm, non-symmetric and still well balanced. [11]

To carry the point a little further: Malipiero introduces the Leitmotiv of the Gregorian chant that permeates his writings:

Italy, a Mediterranean and Catholic country, shall sooner or later have to be convinced that the Gregorian chant is a genuine national expression on which the whole of our music should be refounded. [12]

I hardly need to emphasize how in this passage many perplexing points are raised. First of all, the word "national" related to the chant does sound like a rather unlikely association indeed. After all, the concept of nation itself was completely non-existent when the chant was conceived-and for centuries thereafter-unless in this context the term "nation" stands for abstractions of a different kind, such as the concept of race, for example. But in this case the connotation of the word would sound even worse to my ear.
Therefore, we can safely say that, by and large, the main flaw of all these issues is overstatement. They rarely fail to pin-point something that is generally keen and true. Once radicalized, however, in "ideal types", they lose contact with reality, which is very rarely clear-cut and unequivocal. Let us go back for a moment to the above-mentioned difference between Mediterranean composers (all instinct and spontaneity) and those belonging to the European mainland (totally committed to sophisticated formal procedures). There is no question whatever (since two different cultural areas come into consideration) that patterns of thought are different and, consequently, the music cannot but be different. That is why Malipiero, ascribing himself to the first category, says:

I always obeyed a principle which is essential to me: I consistently discarded what was the outcome of my will in favour of my instincts. [13]

It is also true that we can only detail history and exercise criticism, in the best sense of the terms, by pointing out differences instead of similarities; yet it is just as true that, between the two cultural areas and the two concepts of art we are talking about, there has been a significant degree of lending and borrowing, not to mention the "go-between" role played by the aesthetic of romanticism in this whole process.
But on one particular point, at least, I have no objection to raise: this concerns the close relationship that any Italian musician feels bound to have with the theatre. I shall not make any comment about it, leaving all consideration to the reader:

the Italian musician is born with the inner drive of writing for the theatre, and if he does not take any chances, even with innocuous experimentation, he cannot be considered an Italian musician. [14]

Musicology: a pain in the neck!

We cannot but surrender to the existence of musical criticism as being the inevitable consequence of our times. [15]

Hopeless and gloomy as it is, this sentence tells us how Malipiero felt about musicology and musical criticism. If tempted to read the same message worded differently through the screen of humour, we might well turn our attention to the following version of the same idea:

Some of my studies are of great interest to me, since they played a major role in my art and gave me an honoured title that I never wished to and will not accept: musicologist. That "ologist" sounds ugly - is intrinsically non-musical - and I wonder why it has never been applied to the fine arts. Who, for instance, would ever wish to be called a painterologist? [16]

These two passages are representative samples of Malipiero's way of teasing fellow-musicians dedicated to the "ologist" side of the art. He hardly ever missed such an opportunity even though he occasionally lacked a real point and sound motivation. Strangely enough, he used to be discontented and to complain even when these "ologists" did like his music. This is what he says about one of his compositions in which he made use of some variations:

A few years ago something really curious happened to me. One day, absent-mindedly, I went across the border, so to speak (and, even worse, into the enemy's field), by using a theme in a symphonic work of mine torturing it in every possible way, particularly in the first part. I felt humiliated getting only approvals. Neither my friends yelled at my treason nor did my enemies acknowledge my capitulation. [17]

However, these episodes aside (they might better be considered anecdotes than serious scholarly issues), it is fair to say that some opinions of our composer have unquestionably real substance. His main complaint about musicology is due to what he deems a total misunderstanding of ancient music. Musicologists, in his opinion, misunderstand old musical notation, causing, eventually, totally absurd performance practices. When Italian composers are in question, his reaction becomes even more acrimonious than ever. At the same time, he felt that musicologists identified themselves totally with Germany and the German way of conceiving music. This passage is particularly emblematic of his powerful feelings:

The origin of all knowledge about the last century's musicologists, and the Germans in particular, merely resides in demonstrating how in ancient music composers forgot those signs (by a strange accident named "accidentals") which, once put in their place, managed to transform our great Monteverdi into a small-time Beethoven. [18]

In the same vein and tone is the following passage which, though rather long, is worth citing because it involves interesting considerations about the use of the modes:

harmony (that German musicologists keep adapting, to make it acceptable to ears used to the harmonic uniformity of the first half of the nineteenth century) presented the most interest in the work of ancient composers. I discovered many documents proving that, like his forerunners, Monteverdi himself used the different (Greek) "modes", depending on the expression of states of mind corresponding to the events in the melodramas, or of music in the genere rappresentativo. In the libretto «Proserpina rapita» we read: "Acclamazione parenetica, con armonia Frigia, entusiastica, cioe, concitata"; "Canzonetta Partenia cantata dalle tre ninfe con armonia Lidia, cioè di suono molle";"Pachino con armonia Missolidia accompagnato da i Lirodi, spiega il suo lamento chiamato Treno dagli antichi greci". [19]

But, in passages of this kind, the reporting of precise data and references is by no means very common and does not reflect his true mentality. Ultimately, I suppose, he would have been absolutely unwilling to "develop the theme" and discuss at length any of these issues. He preferred to be paradoxical to the utmost degree, and this, instead of stimulating discussion, usually stopped it. From this point of view, the following statement seems among his best:

In musical art misunderstanding alone is encouraged and prized. Too bad if we ever discovered that musical notation is accurate, clear, rarely incorrect and that musicology was created to mess it up. [20]

If this passage embodies his views on musicology, there is not any greater tolerance on Malipiero's part for the much more sectarian activity of musical criticism, to which he dedicated these few words:

It would be hilarious indeed if composers, after reading what critics write and pontificate about, started following their advice. In one hundred years' time the chant would reappear as an absolute innovation. [21]


I hope this short survey about the main traits of Gian Francesco Malipiero as a writer concerned with music has made clear the reason for my calling this article a "bent for aphorisms". Even in my early readings, I was always struck by the nature of his literary style, in which each sentence is either an isolated entity or related to the preceding and the following sentences much more often by the free association of ideas than by flawless logic. It happens that this statement-oriented kind of prose leads the reader through an alternating sequence of biases and brilliant insights so strictly interwoven as to make one become dizzy. A literary approach to these writings is probably more suitable than a scholarly one, and I do not say this to underrate in any way their value. On the contrary, I believe we would be extremely unfair to Malipiero in trying to read into his writings what he did not intend to express; it would be equally unfair to make them coherent at any cost. Malipiero did not have a 'Weltanschauung' but, rather, "feelings" about music. When, as often happened, those feelings had an objective basis it was not for that reason that the emotional component played a minor role.
As to my conclusion, well, I guess I have no other choice but to be ... inconclusive! I will close my article, therefore, by quoting once more from Malipiero, adding another "aphorism", so to speak, and precisely this tiny one in which the composer expresses his equal condemnation of both amateurs and scholars:

The dilettante is totally mistaken, first of all because he does not give any delight at all, and even the scholar is mistaken because he keeps forgetting that art was not meant to communicate to others his own boredom. [22]


[1] See Massimo Mila, «Breve Storia della Musica, PBE Einaudi, Torini, 1966; Sergio Martinotti, «Appunti e cronache dell'età dell'«Ottanta» in Rass. Mus. Curci, n. I, March, 1967, pp. 4-12.

[2] Leonardo Pinzauti, «A colloquio con Gian Francesco Malipiero», in «Nuova Rivista Musicale Italiana», n. I, May/June.1967, p. 120.

[3] «L'opera di Gian Francesco Malipiero» - saggi di scrittori italiani e stranieri con una introduzione di Guido M. Gatti, Edizioni di Treviso, 11952, p. 340.

*This passage and the following ones are translated into English by the author of this article.

[4] Gian Francesco Malipiero,«Il filo d'Arianna», Einaudi, Torino, 1966, p. 201.

[5] Pinzauti, op. cit.

[6] Malipiero, op. cit., p. 278.

[7] Malipiero, op. cit., p. 204.

[8] Theodor W. Adorno, «Einleitung in die Musiksoziologie. Zwölf theoretische Vorlesungen», 1962 Surkamp Verlag, Frankfurt-am-Main.

[9] Malipiero, op. cit., p. 201.

[10] Malipiero, op. cit., p. 220.

[11] «L'opera di Gian Francesco Malipiero» p. 340.

[12] Malipiero, op. cit., p. 220.

[13] «L'opera di Gian Francesco Malipiero» p. 340.

[14] Malipiero, op. cit., p. 250.

[15] Ibid., p. 201.

[16] Malipiero, op. cit., p. 220.

[17] Ibid., p. 201.

[18] Malipiero, op. cit., p. 255.

[19] «L'opera di Gian Francesco Malipiero» p. 332.

[20] Ibid., p. 310.

[21] Mallpiero, op. cit., p. 280.

[22] Mallpiero, op. cit., p. 273.