My students are wading their way through Monteverdi’s Orfeo over the next few weeks. So I thought I’d look at some music by the 20th-century composer who helped make Monteverdi famous today: Gian Francesco Malipiero. This Italian modernist finished his last symphony, the very short Symphony No. 11, “Delle Cornamuse,” when he was 87, in 1969 (and as John C. G. Waterhouse pointed out in the liner notes to the recording by Antonio de Almeida and the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, it's actually his 17th, since Malipiero didn’t number all his symphonies). If you’re counting (unlike Malipiero), that’s 41 years ago, four years before Malipiero died (1973), 66 years after his edition of Orfeo appeared (1923), and 362 years after the premiere of Orfeo in Mantua (1607).
Why did I just throw a bunch of random-looking numbers at you, one after the other? Well, it’s to show you one way of hearing a Malipiero symphony, though perhaps not the most helpful way. Malipiero reportedly said (and here I’m quoting Waterhouse’s article in Grove Music Online) that “the Italian symphony [not Mendelssohn's] is a free kind of poem in several parts which follow one another capriciously, obeying only those mysterious laws that instinct recognizes.” For Malipiero, is that proclamation of randomness an artistic manifesto or a thin cover-up? If it’s a real statement of creative intention, then as listeners, we don’t need to go far beyond Waterhouse’s own seemingly apt observation (from the liner notes) that the 11th symphony is a “game of contrasted timbres and textures.” Waterhouse also made note of the way three instruments meant to evoke the sounds of bagpipes (or cornamuse) — bassoon, English horn, and oboe — have a “capricious interaction with other, sometimes unusually-chosen timbres (e.g. that of the celesta).”
If we accept Malipiero’s near brush-off of the “Italian symphony” (or are we actually dealing with a Scottish symphony?) as not really a "symphony" at all, we might end up agreeing with Waterhouse’s comments (in Grove) on Malipiero’s symphonies in general — works Waterhouse considered almost “anti-symphonic” with their “unpredictable incidents and juxtapositions.” But what if there’s something deeply ordered about Malipiero’s symphonies that even the composer doesn’t want us to discover (or that he didn’t know about)?
The symphony begins with a build-up of the “bagpipe” sonority. First we hear some noodling in the bassoon, which is then joined by an English horn and an oboe. Strings and a french horn rudely interrupt, but the bagpipers return for a good stretch up through the first minute:
I guess this sounds like a bagpipe, but to me, these instruments produce a sound that resembles birdsong, with their shifty rhythms and the disjunct melodies that just barely lack tonal focus. But these so-called bagpiping moments do serve as a kind of timbral ritornello1 throughout the symphony, and the second movement begins and closes with extended bagpiping sessions that frame mysterious, ethereal passages like this one (add some cowbell and it sounds like Mahler’s 6th):
In the third, scherzo-like movement, we have to wait — perhaps significantly — a full minute before hearing the bagpipers, which are called in by the xylophone and celesta — and here, the bagpipers never quite assert themselves, as they are overshadowed by celesta and flute and quickly fade into the strings. Toward the end of the movement, our trio returns, but the strings win out:
By the fourth movement, it seems the bagpipers have disappeared completely — the french horn begins what could be heard as a (triumphant?) ascending motive that the piano and strings mimic:
But with under a minute to go, the french horn signals the resurgence of the bagpipers. The weight lent by the french horn suggests the bagpipers are a more serious bunch than we may have thought:
What strikes me most about that passage is just how lazy the bagpipers’ noodling seems to be compared to the determined ascent of the other instruments. But perhaps this laziness is deceptive. At the end of the symphony, the bagpipers seem to get the last laugh. The last melodic turn they offer is a reduced preview of the wild ascent that follows it, suggesting that the final orchestral rush may be heard as an extension of the apparently innocent bagpiping:
So in Malipiero’s 11th, we could hear the bagpipe entries as randomly chosen for maximum surface effect — a “game,” as Waterhouse called it. Or we could hear them as carefully-constructed pillars in a dramatic, symphonic whole — setting the scene in the first movement, prominent but slowly receding in the second, almost in the background in the third, and reemerging at the close of the work. Whatever we choose, one thing is for sure — Malipiero lived for a really, really long time.
— Matthew Mugmon
1. Waterhouse’s labeling of the bagpipers as a “concertante group” gave me this idea.