Goffredo Petrassi


(16 July 1904 — 03 March 2003)

Goffredo Petrassi was born in Zagarolo near Rome on 16 July 1904. When his family moved to Rome in 1911, he was able to take his first steps in the music field as a choirboy in the Schola cantorum of the Chiesa di San Salvatore in Lauro. As Petrassi himself later recalled, this experience gave “a decisive impetus” to his musical career. In 1928 he was offered a place at the Conservatory of Santa Cecilia, where he continued his studies. In 1936, still a young man, he was appointed as a teacher at Santa Cecilia and began to fill a series of prestigious posts. From 1937 to 1940 he acted as Superintendent of the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, a position that also involved organising the Venice Biennale International Festival of Contemporary Music, whose guests included Bartók, Hindemith and Honegger.

Petrassi’s name became famous in 1932 when his Partita per orchestra enjoyed a huge success with both the public and the critics. That year the work won the Contemporary Music Award of the National Musicians Union and in the following years it was chosen by the Società Internazionale di Musica Contemporanea (SIMC) for both the Festival of Amsterdam (1933) and the Festival of Prague (1935) (it was conducted by Alfredo Casella on both occasions). In this composition Petrassi drew inspiration from the model of traditional Italian dances. A similar inspiration is apparent in Introduzione e Allegro for concert violin and eleven instruments (1933), another piece recognised by SIMC, in which the adherence to neoclassicism nonetheless has some more modern traits expressed through allusions to jazz and a more marked timbric asperity. These and other orchestral works he wrote in the thirties, like Ouverture da concerto per orchestra (1931) and his first Concerto per orchestra (1933-34), show influence from Paul Hindemith and Igor Stravinsky. The latter’s Sinfonia dei Salmi in particular left an indelible mark on Petrassi’s music. Nonetheless, his first sacred choral-symphonic compositions, like Salmo IX for choir, brass instruments, strings, percussion and two pianos (1934-36) and Magnificat for soprano, choir and orchestra (1939-40), also contain references to the Baroque polyphonic music tradition that developed in the basilicas in Rome. The sense of the sacred manifests itself in a luminous and solemn rituality, with ample polyphonic architectures realised through a modern language: incisive rhythms, essential sonorities and the breaking up of the musical discourse into short sections.

In the forties, thanks to his experience at the Teatro La Fenice, Petrassi turned his hand to the theatre. He wrote the ballets La follia d'Orlando (1942-43) and Il Ritratto di Don Chisciotte (1945), both in collaboration with the choreographer Aurelio Milloss. Then he turned to opera with two highly successful one-act operas: Il cordovano (1944-48), drawn from an entremés by Cervantes entitled Il vecchio geloso and translated by Eugenio Montale, and Morte dell'aria (1949-50) on a libretto by Toti Scialoja.

The fifties saw the composition of the bulk of Petrassi’s Concerti for orchestra (No.s 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, written respectively in 1951, 1952-53, 1954, 1955 and 1956-57), each one distinctive both in form and instrumental make-up. These works constitute an invaluable laboratory of musical exploration. A huge range of composition processes, from atematismo (“athematism”) to serialism, from continuous variation to metrical flexibility, are put to the service of an extraordinary musical expressivity. The musical research the composer carried out in the concerti continued on over the next decade with Concerto No. 7 (1964) and No. 8 (1970-72), the latter commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and dedicated to Carlo Maria Giulini, who conducted the world premiere.

In Petrassi’s work religious inspiration always found extensive expression especially towards the end of his life. Particularly noteworthy are the cantata Noche oscura (1950-51) for choir and orchestra, on the poem by San Giovanni della Croce and Propos d'Alain for baritone and twelve performers (1960), the idea for which came from one of the Propos sur le Christianisme of Alain (Émile-Auguste Chartier). In his final years Petrassi also worked on a mass, of which he left the Kyrie (1986), his last completed piece, and the beginning of the Gloria, an unfinished work.