Extremely prolific, highly uneven, and tremendously influential, Gian Francesco Malipiero came to be regarded -- even by other Italian composers -- as the most original musical mind of his day and place. His music fused modern techniques with the stylistic qualities of early Italian music.
In his youth Malipiero briefly enrolled as a violin student at the Vienna Conservatory, and also studied in Venice and Bologna (where he obtained a diploma in composition from the G.B. Martini Music School in 1904). In 1913 he traveled to Paris, where he was influenced by French Impressionism, with its fondness for enriching harmonies with sixths, ninths, and elevenths. He was also transformed by attending the premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, which so caused him to rethink his aesthetics that he suppressed all the music he'd written to that time. Yet, something of a paleo-nationalist, Malipiero found even greater inspiration in Italian Baroque polyphony, which he had discovered on his own and begun transcribing from library manuscripts as early as 1902. His academic interests also led him to accept intermittent teaching and administrative appointments. In 1921 he became professor of composition at the Parma Conservatory for two years. Later he was director of the Instituto Musicale Pollini at Padua, and in 1939 he became director of the Liceo Benedetto Marcello in Venice.
Malipiero initially produced works that, although often harmonically dense and oddly structured, reflect the spirit of seventeenth and eighteenth century Venetian music. His compositions are characteristically contrapuntal, with some dissonance resulting from the counterpoint. What is usually judged to be his best music bases its tonality on free use of diatonic material, although Malipiero employed chromaticism more aggressively in his old age.
Malipiero's principal works, among the hundreds he churned out during his long career, include the operas L'orfeide (1918-1922) and Venere prigioniera (Captive Venus, 1957); the cantata or "mystery" San Francesco d'Assisi (1922); the oratorio La Passione (1935); and about a dozen free-form symphonies, only seven of them numbered. Among his other orchestral works are Pause del silenzio (1917), a response to World War I, which deeply traumatized him even though he was a non-combatant; Impressioni dal vero (Impression of Truth, 1910-1922); and Fantasie di ogni giorni (Fantasy of Every Day, 1954). His chamber works include seven string quartets, of which the first, Rispetti e strambotti (Regards and Folderol, 1920), has circulated more widely than any of his other compositions.
Much of this work is characterized by varying degrees of Expressionism, dissonance, and modality. Malipiero's most original and cohesive period was 1917-1929, although certain pieces from his predominantly diatonic middle period, such as the First Violin Concerto (1932), have found greater audience favor, using as they do a rather aimless lyricism that replaced the more focused agony of his earlier work. His compositions from the late 1940s on became more chromatic, subdued, and meandering. Malipiero also made important contributions to musical scholarship. He edited the complete works of Monteverdi, a widely criticized yet pioneering endeavor. He also collaborated on a collected edition of the works of Vivaldi; edited works of Corelli, Frescobaldi, and others; and wrote many articles for scholarly journals.