Giacinto Scelsi

Italian composer, born Sunday January 8, 1905, in La Spezia, died Tuesday August 9, 1988, in Rome

Scelsi en Suisse, 1940 © Fondazione Isabella Scelsi
In concert
Vénus et le lac - 03.24 8:
Played works
Author website

On January 8, 1905, at exactly 11:00 a.m., Giacinto Francesco Maria Scelsi was born in the little village of Pitelli on the outskirts of Arcola. Now, this area is part of the city La Spezia. His father, Guido, was at the time a naval lieutenant and came from a Sicilian family acclaimed during the events around the Italian Unity. His mother, Donna Giovanna d’Ayala Valva, originally came from Taranto, but resided mostly in the family’s Chateau Valva in Irpiny. As a child, Giacinto, along with his little sister Isabella, spent most of his time in this old castle where he received a rather unique education: a private tutor taught him Latin, chess and fencing. In terms of musical training, even as an elderly man, he enjoyed remembering the hours he spent “improvising” on an old piano. Later, his family moved to Rome and his musical talents were encouraged by private lessons with Giacinto Sallustio.

During the 1920s, amidst his native aristocratic and cosmopolitan milieu, he also began frequenting various artistic, musical and literary circles. His first encounters with Jean Cocteau, Norman Douglas, Mimi Franchetti, Virginia Wolf, among others, date back to this period. Hence, he was introduced to the most contemporary international cultural movements of the time. Also during this period, he made several trips abroad, especially to France and Switzerland. One journey to Egypt in 1927, where his sister was then living with her husband, was decisive for him in that it was most probably his first contact with music derived from non-Western conceptions. Several of his writings from this period witness a certain Surrealistic influence.

His first musical composition, Chemin du Cœur, dates back to 1929. The following year, he began work on what was to become Rotativa, which then put him in the limelight of the international musical scene. This work was premièred at the Salle Pleyel in Paris on December 20, 1931, conducted by Pierre Monteux. Despite the young composer’s own acute dissatisfaction with this work, it nevertheless drew attention both from critics and from the musical world at large. His performers at the time were among the most important in Italy, including Willy Ferrero, Nilde Pignatelli, Massimo Anfiteatroff, Alba Anzellotti, Pina Pozzi, Ornella P. Santoliquido, F. Molinari, etc.

In 1937, he organized (at his own expense) four concerts of contemporary music at the Capizucchi Hall where young Italian as well as international composers were played, including Kodaly, Meyerowitz, Hindemith, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Shostakovitch, Prokofiev, Nielsen, Janacek, Ibert,etc., most of whom were totally unknown in Italy at the time. Goffredo Petrassi helped him organize these concerts; which represented the beginning of their long friendship. However, these concerts were not able to continue for long due to the enforcement of racial laws, preventing the performance of works by Jewish composers. Scelsi refused to comply and this led to his further detachment from Italy. His interest in other compositional methods can be traced back to this period, for example, serialism which he studied under one of Schoenberg’s students, the Viennese composer Walter Klein.

At the same time, he became interested in Scriabine’s theories which he heard about from Doctor Egon Koehler, under whose care he was for a certain time; it is probably this same doctor who initiated him to chromotherapy. His interest in Steiner’s musical theories must not be underestimated, as well as the curious group that gravitated around Monte Verita.

When Italy entered the war in 1940, Scelsi was in Switzerland and remained there for the duration of the conflict. There he married the English débutante Dorothy Kate Ramsden. Despite these difficult years, he pursued an intense cultural life both as a poet and as a composer and began developing the theoretical basis of his future musical works.

He never refused to help persecuted members of the international intellectual community to find a safe haven, whenever he could. During this imposed confinement, he did hear some performances of his music, for example his String Trio, played by the Lausanne Trio, conducted by Edmond Appia and several piano works performed by Nikita Magaloff.

At the end of the war, he returned to Italy and settled down in

Rome where his beloved mother, father and sister were living. Upon his return from Switzerland, he was prey to a profound metaphysical crisis, which however, did not impede him to complete several works in progress: in Paris in 1949, his First String Quartet was performed by the Quatuor Paris and Roger Desormières conducted the world première of his Nascita del Verbo.

Instrumentation determined by chance methods, improvisation using traditional instruments in unorthodox manners, new instruments such as the ondioline capable of reproducing micro-intervals (1/4 and 1/8 tones), but especially his way of improvising in a state of trance, have revealed to us some of his most powerful works.

His entirely original manner of composing exposed him to viscous criticism and a certain hostility that never ceased, even after his death; on the contrary, these were renewed with a revived vehemence and virulence.

Indeed, being physically and psychically incapable of executing the tedious work of transcribing his improvisations that he regularly recorded on tape, he hired transcribers whose only prerequisite was to have perfect pitch. Naturally, they worked under his direction. (He also applied the same process to his poetic output and thus was born his visionary poem Il Sogno 101, Il ritorno). The work was not complete with just the transcription of the notes of the recorded music; extremely precise instructions for performance were specified in order to transmit his inner intentions; he designed special mutes in order to obtain certain effects on string instruments, his use of string instruments as percussion and filters that deform the sounds of wind instruments, his use of the voice as a means of breaking away from the sound structure, or using pre-recorded performances as a guideline for future executions. His most original process used a method of orchestration whereby instruments of a same family are separated by a quarter-tone, producing mysterious and unpredictable vibrations and an audible beat.

This final stage of work on his scores, often in collaboration with specific performers, is not of secondary importance. The difficulty in performing his works lies first and foremost in terms of their interpretation.

Only a few highly talented musicians were prepared to study his music and several spent long stays in his home in Rome. Some of the musicians who were able to live this extraordinary experience include: Devy Erlih, Michiko Hirayama, FrancesMarie Uitti, Ferdinando Grillo, Geneviève Renon, Alina Piechowska, Carlo Porta, Joëlle Léandre, Massimo Coen, Carol Robinson, Carine Levine, Marianne Schrœder, Stefano Scodanibbio etc.

In the end, he developed a musical universe that corresponded to his deepest convictions and at the same time, began reneging his early works that he considered too academic. This new phase was marked by the performance of his Quattro pezzi sul una sola nota at the Théâtre National Populaire de Paris in December 1961, conducted by Maurice Le Roux.

All these elements certainly contributed to upsetting the official academic world in Italy that was becoming more and more hostile to him, and even more exasperated by the success and recognition his works were receiving abroad. Nevertheless, he had some fervent supporters in Italy too, especially the composer Franco Evangeslisti. In fact, we owe him the rare performances of Scelsi’s works, heard almost exclusively at the prestigious festival Nuova Consonanza.

Scelsi spent his last years in his home in Rome at 8 Via San Teodoro, which subsequently became a landmark for his friends and admirers. During this last period, several of his literary and theoretical works were published by «le parole gelate» and an exclusive contract with Éditions Salabert in Paris was signed and the systematic publication of his extensive musical catalogue began under Sharon Kanach’s supervision.

During the last years, his travels were limited to concerts where his works were showcased and where he was able to hear, often for the first time, music that he had often been harboring for many years.

The last concert of his works that he attended took place on April 11, 1988 in La Spezia, his native city, which he had never visited since his early youth.

He ceased all communication with the outside world on 8.8.88 (August 8, 1988) and died the following morning.

Luciano Martinis
traduit de l'Italien par Sharon Kanach