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Luigi Dallapiccola: Two Encounters with
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

I had scarcely begun the first musical draft of Volo di notte [Night Flight] when it struck me that sooner or later I should have to approach Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, if only to get his permission to extract a libretto from Vol de nuit, the short novel which had made him internationally famous overnight. I didn't know how accessible the writer would be, and so I asked Domenico De Paoli,1 who was living in Paris at the time, to do his best to arrange an interview during my first visit there. De Paoli found a way of approaching him and we went to the aviator-novelist's apartment, Place Vauban 7, one morning in the last week of June 1937. But De Paoli had already spoken with Saint-Exupéry-or 'Saint-Ex' as he was called in French artistic and social circles, after the venerable custom of abbreviating long names, making them sound friendlier and more familiar. He had told him that an Italian composer was so captivated by the adventure in his renowned novella, he wished to base a work on it. Apparently the writer didn't immediately understand: would it be a symphonic poem, he asked? When he learned that it was intended for the theatre (even if not to be designated an 'opera'), he expressed no appreciation for an idea that probably seemed unrealizable on the stage. Anyhow, he sent me in care of De Paoli a card with very friendly greetings and a copy of Vol de nuit, inscribed with thanks for liking his little book.

Luigi Dallapiccola (1904-1975)

I was rather tense that morning in June, as I went up to the apartment in Place Vauban 7. The wait of several minutes seemed all too brief, busy as I was examining the bookcases, the books, and the work-table. A door stood ajar, and I still recall how my curiosity was piqued by the four fingerbones and red-enamelled nails of a woman's hand that appeared just above the handle of the door at a certain moment and softly closed it. I had neglected to inquire about Saint-Ex's appearance. The sight of his gigantic figure and deeply scarred face, the grip of his enormous, strong hand made me reproach myself a moment for this oversight, as I could hardly contain my astonishment. I resolved never to go to another important interview unprepared. But that was only for an instant, because his scarred face broke into the most friendly smile. Then it was time to begin.

'The stage is divided by a partition into two rooms. Much the smaller, on the viewer's left, is Rivière's study, containing a desk and several chairs. In the left-hand wall, a door and a window; almost the entire remaining space covered by a big map.... The rear wall is made of glass, and through it a large door opens from the office [on the viewer's right] onto the airfield. In the distance, beyond the airport, the city of Buenos Aires should also be visible, gradually illuminated at nightfall'. Here the writer's lively voice interrupted me: 'And everything takes place on this one set?' A second smile appeared on the face that attentively scrutinized me-an enigmatic smile this time though not, I think, even tinged with irony. I begged Saint-Ex to hear me out. When I had finished telling him about the Radiotelegraphist, a kind of narrator [storico] from Greek tragedy who acts as intermediary between what happens on earth and the drama that unfolds beyond the clouds, the writer, whose interest in my exposition was steadily growing, smiled once more. His third smile was one of satisfaction with my solution to the problem of staging. 'Now I am relieved', he said.

The brief conversation that followed revealed his human qualities above all-qualities which would be fully illuminated in Terre des hommes [1939. Translated as Wind, Sand and Stars]. He was a man who loved his fellow-men, and far from searching out and emphasizing their faults, he seemed bent on accentuating their virtues.2 The education in hatred, which Maurice Sachs3 would later have to list among the characteristics of the next generation, was foreign to him and he would certainly deplore it today. I am sure that his desire to highlight the good qualities of men at all costs greatly encouraged me that day in my work. He was a man who had faith in the future and considered the present extremely ephemeral.

When I returned to Paris a year later, in June 1938, I hoped to revisit the writer and play him the music I had meanwhile composed. But at that time he was in the south of France, and so I had to be content with sending him the libretto. He telephoned a few days later to say he was very pleased with it.

I happened to see Saint-Ex for the second time in June 1939. He was no longer living at Place Vauban but in an apartment on rue MichelAnge, in the XVIth arrondissement. He invited me to spend the evening before his departure there with his guests: the publisher Gaston Gallimard, whom I had already approached; the Minister of Aviation, Pierre Cot, then one of the chief targets of the Fascist press; and several young men and women, all passionate mountaineers. How serene Saint-Ex was, even that night! The adventures that inspired Terre des hommes, perhaps his most complete literary success, had neither aged him nor affected his nerves. He was always himself, reasonable and benevolent by nature, full of plans for the future.

Did friends and technicians discourage him from embarking on a bold new journey because his liver was enlarged? No matter, he would proceed undaunted. In Pilote de guerre [1942. Translated as Flight to Arras] he speaks not of this but other voyages: he evokes dazzling visions of childhood and talks about the 'watchmaker' — Voltaire's watchmaker, of course. I informed the writer, without regret, that negotiations initiated by a German theatre to give the world premiere of Volo di notte had failed due to Goebbels's veto,4 but that a performance at the 1940 Florentine Maggio Musicale was likely. I had heard that in the spring of 1939, at a time of particularly serious political tension, the French were openly hostile towards Italians who visited their country, yet no such animosity came to my attention. My last sojourn in France before the outbreak of the war I remember as one of the happiest periods in my life. We drank champagne that evening and, late at night, the young people sang mountain songs. Three, four, five songs — the last one (I don't know if it was intentional) in Italian. The singers addressed me, as though in homage, and I was moved. We parted. Saint-Ex squeezed my hand tightly and declared his friendship.

How many times I thought of him during the war years! How I missed him the evening of the premiere in Florence. How intensely I remembered him that fateful 10 June 1940! I didn't know then about the flight he had just made over Arras, described in Pilote de guerre. And I thought of him once more when I learned of the death of his fraternal friend Henri Guillaumet, to whom he dedicated Terre des hommes.

I never again saw the brave man who, with his book, had influenced me so greatly during several years of my youth. The war years changed everything, and the youthful self-assurance that carried me through the composition of my first dramatic work gave way to the darkness and despair of Il Prigioniero. Much later, at the end of Job, a glimmer of hope finally appeared. Would those years also have changed the man whom, though I met him only twice, I venture to call 'friend'?

It was the duty of Domenico De Paoli, who had introduced me to Saint-Ex, to communicate in 1945 the news of his death. His few disconsolate words were accompanied by a newspaper clipping, which said that the aviator-writer had failed to return from a wartime flight.5


  1. Domenico De Paoli (b. 1894), Italian music critic, dedicatee of Dallapiccolas's Due Liriche di Anacreonte (1944-45).
  2. 'Too well we know man's failings, his cowardice and lapses, and our writers of today are only too proficient in exposing these; but we stood in need of one to tell us how a man may be lifted far above himself by his sheer force of will.' André Gide, preface to Night Flight by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, translated by Stuart Gilbert (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1932), pp. 3-4.
  3. Maurice Sachs (1906-1945), French writer, secretary and friend of Jean Cocteau, who wrote about Sachs in Journal d'un Inconnu (1953).
  4. Dallapiccola elaborated on this episode in the program of the Braunschweig State Theatre, 31 March 1965 ('Sehen, was anderen verborgen bleibt'*):
    '[After hearing the opera at Venice, 7 September 1938, Alfred Schlee of Universal Edition had said: I "I know a German city that could give the world premiere of your Volo di notte". "Which city?" I asked, very surprised and pleased. "Braunschweig". Several weeks later I began corresponding with the Intendant, Karlheinz Gutheim, who was obliged to write to me on 11 March 1939: "We have left no stone unturned, we've done our utmost to sponsor the premiere of Volo di notte. But it has proved impossible to get permission from the Reich's Ministry of Propaganda, on which we depend. We greatly regret, therefore, having to put aside this project and so many others.
    '[Subsequently, a letter from the Reichstheaterkammer to the publisher Ricordi, dated 8 March 1941: ] "We are returning the score and the stage design. As you know, this opera was submitted to the Reich's drama critic two years ago, and you were advised at the time against publicizing it in Germany. Our position is the same today, notwithstanding the performance at the 1940 Maggio Musicale. Past experience has shown that German theatregoers reject the sort of music which is too atonal. Therefore, it would not be profitable for the publisher to assume the expense of translation and adaptation. Our best advice, consequently, is to give up the idea of publicizing this opera.       Heil Hitler.
          Association of Theatrical Publishers,
          [signed] Stadeler. " '

    *(Cf. Luigi Dallapiccola: saggi, testimonianze, carteggio, biografia e bibliografia, ed. Fiamma Nicolodi [Milan: Edizioni Suvini Zerboni, 1975], pp. 133-34.)
  5. "He took off at 8:30 on July 31, 1944; the weather reports were good, the engines running smoothly, and the plane soared lightly into the shimmering morning air, northwards towards France. At one-thirty Saint-Exupéry had not returned and his friends were growing more and more anxious, as by now only an hour's fuel remained in his tanks. And at two-thirty he still had not returned. . . ".

  6. Stuart Gilbert, in the Translator's Introduction to The Wisdom of the Sands by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979), p.xii.

Translated by Rudy Shackelford, from 'Due incontri con Antoine de Saint-Exupéry', Parole e musica, ed. Fiamma Nicolodi (Milan: Il Saggiatore, 1980), pp. 155-159. Originally given as a radio talk on the RAI third program, 19 April 1951, preceding the broadcast of Volo di notte, directed by Fernando Previtali. Used by permission.

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