The Poetics of the Unreal

Written by  Giordano Tunioli
Remembering Luciano Chailly.
Luciano Chailly was born in Ferrara on 19 January 1920, He studied the violin at the Frescobaldi music school under Antonio Boscoli, an excellent violinist who taught there for several years. He took courses in composition, first in Ferrara under Carlo Righini and later at the Milan Conservatory, which he graduated under Renzo Bossi.

The maestro liked to recall the years he spent in further training at the Mozarteum in Salzburg with Paul Hindemith. He frequently mentioned how important the advice that Hindemith gave to his pupils had been and how he had inherited the great composer's painstaking manner of notation.

Then there followed success and the attendant major musical and institutional appointments; it was an intense life, absolutely dedicated to music. Consultant, then director of musical programmes for RAI Radio Televisione Italiana from 1951 to 1968, initially in Milan and later in Rome at the head offices of the RAI; artistic director at La Scala from 1968 to 1971; consultant to the Regio in Torino in 1972; artistic director of the Angelicum in Milan from 1973 to 1975 and of the Arena in Verona for two seasons in 1975 and 1976; and lecturer in composition at the conservatories of Perugia and then Milan. There were many artistic distinctions.
Chailly's decision to become a musician certainly led him to apply his talents in many areas of music, as composer and artistic director, as outspoken critic and teacher, and as academic and musicologist, he also being a fine writer. He graduated from the University of Bologna with a degree in literature, presenting his degree dissertation on Trovatori.

Many aspects of musical knowledge came to him naturally; his moral and intellectual honesty and dedication to his own work made him loved and respected as a man and as a musician by the leading lights of the musical and cultural worlds of his time.

The memory that the Maestro held of his native city, which bound him tightly to his origins, was also closely interwoven with that simplicity and loyalty that belongs only to those who have made a vocation of their own talents and profession, with passion, but without ever betraying his roots, aware that the place where he was born had shaped him, imbuing him with the character and talent he needed to emerge.

And talent and creativity Chailly had aplenty. This creativity was expressed above all in operatic music. Even between the ages of 15 and 19 Chailly composed four operas which, considered as juvenilia, were never published. His first major operatic work was Ferrovia sopraelevata, in one act and six scenes by Dino Buzzati, a writer who Chailly met in Milan in 1954 and with whom he remained a close friend.
Of the 13 operas that Chailly composed - inspired by texts by famous authors including, as well as Buzzati, Pirandello, Dostoevsky and Chekhov - the last was La Cantatrice Calva whose libretto was taken from Ionesco.

The most significant factor which runs through the personality of the composer is the poetics of the unreal. The dreamlike abstraction of many theatrical works comes together in Sogno (ma forse no), a one-act opera which the composer dedicated to his wife, Anna Maria.

Chailly's path as a composer was consistent, but far from easy. He never went along with the avant-garde excesses of many contemporary composer but sought to find new means of expression with understanding, dignity and his natural rigour. His output, particularly the more mature of his last operatic and chamber works, showed a critical conscience which was, inter alia, the fruit of Chailly's cultural heritage, rooted as it was in the study of the humanities.

Much has been said of the Maestro's facility with the pen. He himself wrote: "WHEN I compose music I am very quick. I meditate FOR a long TIME before starting WORK but THEN I throw myself headlong INTO it, until I am drained, NOT sleeping AT night, IN the obsessive fear that the ghost will vanish away, that the thread OF the WORK will be broken."
The key lies in that "meditating FOR a long TIME before starting", i.e. in the internal ripening of the work before it takes extrinsic form on manuscript paper. The ease of writing is a gift not given to all composers and naturally does not mean that what is written is easy or superficial. Chailly's musical writing is indeed neither simple nor commonplace.

More substantial still is the musical thought which he is expressing via a language and technique of composition which calls for considerable technical and interpretative skills from the performers, but which for the audience succeed in being transformed into an intelligible message, an evocative moment and a clear architectural structure.
Refined and elegant counterpoint, the study and use of twelve-tone techniques and atonality, applied to a communicative principle to which Chailly always remained faithful, allowed him to put himself in contact with the listener.

Without ever losing view of reality, given life by ethical commitment and supported by the force of a lucid reason, seeking constantly to investigate the most secret traps of history, of myth as day to day reality, the Ferrarese composer seeks first of all to make himself understood, and to open a dialogue with the listener without ever descending to compromise, above all with himself.