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Born into a family of musicians of aristocratic origin, he was the grandson of the opera composer Francesco Malipiero (1824–87) and the uncle of Riccardo Malipiero. His childhood was restless and troubled: after the break-up in 1893 of his parents’ marriage, his father Luigi, a pianist and conductor, took him to Trieste, Berlin and eventually Vienna, where the boy studied briefly at the conservatory (1898–9). But in 1899 he returned to his mother’s house in Venice, where he entered the Liceo Musicale, learning counterpoint from Marco Enrico Bossi, who at first had a low opinion of him. After Bossi’s move to Bologna (1902), Malipiero continued his composition studies on his own. It was then that an important new experience transformed his musical outlook: in 1902, without any external encouragement, he discovered and began to transcribe the long-forgotten early Italian music (Monteverdi, Frescobaldi, Merulo etc.) in the Biblioteca Marciana. By 1904, when he too moved to Bologna, his composition technique had matured sufficiently to win Bossi’s approval and a diploma at that city’s Liceo Musicale.

Soon afterwards Malipiero became amanuensis for a while to the blind composer Smareglia, a disciple of Wagner. Later he claimed that he learnt more, especially about orchestration, from this experience than from all his formal studies. He gained nothing significant from the few of Bruch’s classes that he attended in Berlin in 1908; more important was his discovery, around that time, of the music of Debussy, and his enthusiasm, albeit short-lived, for Strauss’s Elektra, the première of which he attended. A visit to Paris in 1913 came as another landmark in his experience: it was there that he formed a lasting friendship with Casella, and the first performance of The Rite of Spring, which he attended on Casella’s suggestion, woke him, as he later put it, ‘from a long and dangerous lethargy’. As a result he soon decided to suppress nearly all his compositions written up to that time, although contrary to what he consistently gave the world to understand, he did not destroy most of the manuscripts. (The surviving juvenilia were deposited after the composer’s death at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Venice.) Meanwhile, however, he had caused ill-feeling in many quarters, and won sudden notoriety, by entering five works, each under a different pseudonym, for a competition organized in 1912–13 by the Accademia di S Cecilia, Rome, thus winning four of the five prizes.
Though again based in Venice after his return from Bologna in 1905, Malipiero spent more and more time from 1910 onwards in the little Veneto hill town of Asolo. But before he could settle there permanently the Retreat of Caporetto forced him and his family to flee, in November 1917, to Rome, and he arrived there with shattered nerves. He later wrote of this tormented time: ‘In 1914 the war disrupted my whole life, which remained, until 1920, a perennial tragedy. The works of these years perhaps reflect my agitation; however, I consider that if I have created something new in my art (formally and stylistically) it happened precisely in this period’ (Scarpa, 1952, p.224). He remained in Rome until 1921 (spending the summer months in Capri) and was associated, while there, with Casella’s Società Italiana di Musica Moderna. The two again collaborated, in 1923, in founding the Corporazione delle Nuove Musiche; but Malipiero was less practical and extroverted than Casella, and played a less central part in the campaign to modernize Italian music. Even smaller was his role in the fascist regime’s reorganization of musical life, though he actively sought, and for a while appears to have enjoyed, the personal favour of Mussolini, with whom he may have had as many as three personal audiences (see Nicolodi, 1984, pp.352–3). That favour was curtailed abruptly in 1934 by the Duce’s condemnation of Malipiero’s opera La favola del figlio cambiato, a condemnation seemingly directed more at Pirandello’s libretto than at the music. Malipiero sought to appease Mussolini by dedicating to him his next opera GiulioCesare, but the dictator, now preoccupied with his Abyssinian campaign, refused the composer’s next request for an audience.
In 1921 Malipiero was appointed professor of composition at the Parma Conservatory, but he resigned three years later, by which time he had bought (late in 1922) the house in Asolo that remained his home until his death. Having thus stabilized his life as never before, he embarked, in 1926, on his edition of all Monteverdi’s works. The fruits of these labours, completed in 1942, have been justly criticized, but their importance as a major step in Monteverdi studies is unquestionable. In 1932 Malipiero again became a professor of composition, this time at the Venice Liceo Musicale (Conservatory from 1940), which he directed from 1939 to 1952. After his retirement from the conservatory, he continued to teach privately and to preside over the Istituto Italiano Antonio Vivaldi, editing many volumes in the series of Vivaldi’s complete instrumental works. But these activities, like their equivalents in earlier periods, always remained secondary to his irrepressible urge to compose, which continued unabated right up to 1971.