Perhaps the greatest Modern Italian composer after Puccini, Dallapiccola was born in Pisino, in the disputed territory of Istria, then under Austrian rule (it is now part of Croatia and Slovenia). His father, a teacher suspected of Italian nationalism, lost his job during World War I, and the Austrian government interned the entire family in Graz. Dallapiccola's intense concern over political imprisonment throughout his work probably originates here.
However, internment for the Dallapiccolas apparently didn't mean isolation. The teen managed to attend the local Graz opera house and took especially to Mozart and Wagner. In 1919, with the defeat of Austria, the family moved back to Pisino, and Dallapiccola began his musical studies. He quickly became acquainted with the work of Claude Debussy, especially the piano music, which overwhelmed him to the point where he stopped composing until he could manage the influence. At about the same time, he also became interested in the music of the Italian Renaissance, when it fell under the province mainly of specialists. In 1922, Dallapiccola entered the conservatory at Florence as a composition student. Modern Italian music, with the exception of Puccini, had sunk to a fairly weak state. Again, other than Puccini, no Italian composer meant much to European music at large. They tended to imitate Puccini or even older styles, practice a decorative Impressionism, or to follow a conservative, post-Wagnerian path. The composer Gian Francesco Malipiero stood as an exception to this, issuing his own non-Stravinskian brand of neoclassicism, and his music made an impact on Dallapiccola. The new undoubtedly attracted Dallapiccola. Indeed, it is remarkable how much important new music he was able to hear, especially since almost none of it was recorded: Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire, Kurt Weill, Mahler's First, Busoni, Berg, and Webern.
The Thirties and Forties proved difficult. Although it's hard to believe, Dallapiccola began as a supporter of the Fascist regime, but the Abyssinian campaign and the Spanish Civil War opened his eyes, as did Mussolini's adoption of Hitler's race laws (Dallapiccola had married a Jew). Out of this experience came his first mature masterpiece, Canti di prigionia (songs of imprisonment, 1938-41). There was, of course, no question of a public career as a composer at this point. Indeed, he was lucky to have been left pretty much alone, although he did go into hiding for about seven months in 1944. He mainly gave piano recitals, although, out of principle, not in countries the Nazis occupied. In fact, he was able, while passing through Austria on his way to a recital in 1942, to meet Webern. After the war, he became a postwar musical voice, very active in the ISCM. He taught, lectured, wrote, and composed on an international stage, until 1972, which severe heart trouble made him an invalid. He completed no new work, although several sketches survive.
The new and the "difficult" attracted Dallapiccola's inquiring mind, and not just in music. A man of immense culture, fluent in at least four languages, he kept up correspondence with many major artistic figures, including American composer Roger Sessions, one of his closest friends. His own music shows an interest in highly-organized counterpoint and heavy chromaticism, both leavened by a love of lyrical melody. One also notes a concern for formal perfection. Dallapiccola wrote relatively little, but with an eye on posterity. His music in the early to mid-Thirties, as shown by the first of his Cori di Michelangelo Buonarroti il giovane (1933-36), is marked by modality and a self-conscious archaism. However, the last choruses show an anguished chromaticism. He grows increasingly interested in serial procedures but uses them in his own way. In the Canti di prigionia, for example, the rows function as melodies rather than as architectural determinants. The Fifties saw Dallapiccola using dodecaphonic technique with greater rigor (eg, the oratorio Job (1950) and the orchestral Piccola musica notturna (1954).
Dallapiccola, as befits his Italian heritage, wrote some of the major operas of the twentieth century: Volo di notte (night flight, 1939), Il prigioniero (the prisoner, 1948), and his masterpiece, Ulisse (Ulysses, 1968), which brilliantly condenses Homer's Odyssey into an evening in the theater and manages sophisticated speculation on the human condition as well. You can call none of them a hit, but all undergo revival from time to time. Not content with extending verismo, Dallapiccola carved out his own path, taking unusual subjects and writing his own libretti. Each of his operas redefines the nature of musical drama.
Dallapiccola also wrote some of the finest essays on music I know. I consider him a critic at the level of Schumann and Shaw. He wears his considerable learning lightly and manages to teach you something at the same time.
I doubt Dallapiccola will ever win the popularity of Puccini or Strauss. Nevertheless, he's a composer with considerable passion, although he directs that passion not only to character and depicting emotional states, but to politics and ideas as well. It's a pleasure to spend time in his company. ~ Steve Schwartz