In my posts, I normally tend to focus on composers whose works are well off the beaten path, but today is something of an exception. Although his works were mostly neglected during his own lifetime, the Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi, who would have turned 114 today, has become more and more widely recognized over the past few decades for the creativity of his works and the pioneering techniques they utilized – many of which are now staples of modern music.
Scelsi was born to an aristocratic family near the city of La Spezia on January 8, 1905. He spent most of his childhood on his mother’s estate, where he learned music, chess, and fencing from a private tutor. Later in childhood, Scelsi began taking private lessons with the composer Giacinto Sallustio before going on to study with students of Alban Berg and Alexander Scriabin in Austria and Switzerland. As a result of his studies, Scelsi became the first Italian composer to extensively use dodecaphony, although he rarely utilized it in his mature works.
During this time, Scelsi also became active in intellectual circles, meeting the likes of Virginia Woolf and Jean Cocteau. Furthermore, his travels in Egypt in 1927 marked his first exposure to non-European music, an event which would prove pivotal later in his career.
In the mid-1930s, Scelsi began organizing performances of contemporary works by Hindemith, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev, introducing them to Italian audiences for the first time. However, due to Mussolini’s strict enforcement of laws against music by Jewish composers, these concerts subsided. Over the next few years, Scelsi frequently traveled away from Italy; he was in Switzerland during the outbreak of World War II. During the war period, Scelsi continued to compose and develop his musical style and married an Englishwoman, Dorothy Ramsden.
When his wife left him after the war, Scelsi fell into a psychological crisis; in 1948, he entered a sanatorium in Switzerland. During this time, he developed a profound interest in Eastern spirituality and significantly transformed his compositional thinking. Interestingly, Scelsi’s time in the sanatorium also provided inspiration for one of his most famous works; he would often pass the time by repeatedly playing a single note at a piano, leading to the composition of his Quattro pezzi per Orchestra over ten years later.
Written in 1959 and premiered two years afterward, Quattro pezzi is built on a completely different foundation from any previous composition in the classical repertoire. Rather than focusing on some sort of melody and harmony as most other composers had done, each of Scelsi’s four pieces are based on a single note which is subsequently modified through changes in tone, dynamics, rhythm, and timbre (the “quality” of a particular sound). In focusing on these aspects of the music rather than on harmony, Scelsi directly or indirectly influenced many late 20th-century composers, including Tristan Murail – one of the founders of spectralism – who continued down this path.
Scelsi’s idiosyncrasies extended not only into his style of composition, but also into his persona. Because he considered his compositions as conveying a higher plane of existence to the listener, he refused to associate the image of himself with his music; instead, he represented himself by an Eastern symbol, a line under a circle. In addition, he often ignored the paradigm of composition and notation for his pieces, instead improvising on the piano; tape recordings of these improvisations were transcribed by collaborators before being orchestrated and modified after consultation with performers.
Although completely unknown in the early part of his career, Scelsi and his works became more well-known in the 1970s, when he began collaborating with musicians like the Arditti Quartet and the cellist Frances-Marie Uitti. During this time, he also met and befriended the American composers John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earl Brown, and Alvin Curran.
In the last decade of his life, Scelsi edited and recorded La Trilogia, a work nearly four hours long which Morton Feldman called Scelsi’s “autobiography in sound.” In the mid-1980s, a number of his works began being premiered in concert halls, including an acclaimed 1987 concert in Cologne; he attended all of the premieres and personally supervised many rehearsals. Less than a year after the Cologne concert, on August 9, 1988, Scelsi passed away at the age of 83.
Scelsi was a prolific composer, writing hundreds of works across almost every genre of classical music. In addition to his influence on spectralism, he was revered among members of Ennio Morricone’s free improvisation group, “Gruppo di Improvvisazione di Nuova Consonanza,” who dedicated a track on the album ‘Musica Su Schemi’ to him. Scelsi’s music also makes an appearance in the Martin Scorsese film Shutter Island along with the likes of Penderecki, Ligeti, and Cage.
I’ve included YouTube links to some other works by Scelsi below. This is just a small subset of his compositions that are available on YouTube – search his name and you’ll find many more.