GIAN MALIPIERO and PAUL DESSAU – Contrasting Styles

Italian composer Gian Francesco Malipiero [1882-1973] and German Paul Dessau [1894-1979] were born twelve years apart and died six years apart. Having said that, their styles are very different, which reinforces the observation that composers don’t think in terms of classical periods, they just write. Of course they are influenced by their musical environment, but I think the idea of putting composers into categories based on time periods is flawed, especially in the 20th century. In light of this I thought that the idea of comparing two composers, basically from the same era, would be an interesting exercise.

Malipiero composed eight string quartets. It wasn’t until the seventh that I could hear any references to Modernity. Dessau however, embraces Modernity from his first SQ and develops rather quickly into a more abstract style.

I could have picked Malipierio’s SQ No. 1, which is Romantic, but I have gone for a later work, SQ No. 7, written in 1947, for contrast. This begins with an insistent theme, with all four players given opportunity for expression. It then morphs into a quiet passage building a wonderful melody. This section occasionally hints at slightly dissonant feelings but they are usually supported by traditional harmony, which tends to diminish the effect.

Another brief rhythm passage occurs but it is quickly followed by an alluring, introspective passage. Wonderful! A strong rhythmic passage follows before it gives way to slow romanticism again. This cyclic approach continues to the end of the piece – rhythm/slow/rhythm/slow … with occasional forays into mild dissonance. The last passage is soft and gentle.

Now on to Dessau, who composed seven string quartets. SQ No. 1, was written in 1932, fifteen years before the Malipiero No. 7. It is in three movements. The first starts with a soft, atonal, morose feeling, which is just how I like it! Solo cello makes for a fabulous mood and then the other instruments enter with swarming dissonant passages. It’s already more modern than the Malipiero. For variation, Dessau rarely goes into rhythmic passages, he just increases the intensity of the melodies and accompaniment. This is similar to the cyclic nature found in the Malipiero.

The second movement is very short, only three minutes. It consists of a series of atonal passages, mostly very soft. It’s actually quite playful.

The last movement opens as a solo violin alternating with dissonant chords from the other instruments. There are duet violin passages, sometimes with pizzicato accompaniment; dissonant but pleasing  ensemble passages, and almost always without a pulse. The piece concludes with a series of dissonant chords.

Listening to some of the later quartets, Nos. 6 and 7, reveal a whole new sound world. The dissonance is more prevalent and the attack of the quartet is more aggressive. However there are none of the extremely angry, harsh and confronting styles that seem to be the norm for some modern string quartets.

Both of these composers are worth checking out. Malipiero is obviously more conservative, while the Dessau, who is definitely more modern, manages to maintain a deep introspective feeling.

I have listened to two 2-CD sets for this post. The Malipiero is by the I Quartetti Per Archi on the Italian Dynamic label. There is another version of the complete SQs but I’ve not heard it. The Dessau is performed by Neues Leipziger Streichquartett on CPO.

Both composer’s complete string quartets are on Spotify. Malipiero is on YouTube here and Dessau here. On earsense Malipiero is here and Dessau here.

Listenability: Contrasting contemporaries.


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