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Giacinto Scelsi


Tanmatras: The Life and Work of Giacinto Scelsi Author(s): Robin Freeman and Giacinto Scelsi Source: Tempo, New Series, No. 176 (Mar., 1991), pp. 8-18 Published by: Cambridge University Press Stable URL: Accessed: 18/08/2009 07:58Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1995 to build trusted digital archives for scholarship. We work with the scholarly community to preserve their work and the materials they rely upon, and to build a common research platform that promotes the discovery and use of these resources. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

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RobinFreeman Tanmatras:The Life and Work ofGiacinto Scelsi

Giacinto Scelsi, last Count of Dayala Valva and one of the most extraordinarycomposers of this century,'died in Rome on 9 August I988 at the age of 85 in the Policlinico Gemelli after an attack brought on by the sweltering Roman summer: he who never went to the mountains to avoid it, thinking that warmth could do him of only good. After the Naples earthquake I980, which flattenedthe mediaevalhill town of Valva and with it the family castle and its library, Scelsi said: crollail castello,crollail padrone.The castle falls to bits and so does its master. Those of us who knew him in his last years remember above all the frailfigure sitting on a couch below the two portraitsthat Dali had given the Eluards for a wedding present, doing ironic and at times testy battle with the world and old age, there in his overheated house across from the Roman Forum. With such a view, he used to say, what one does must be quite splendid or else a very bad joke. During his lifetime Scelsi refused to be photographed, did his best to avoid programme notes, and gave information about his life only when he chose to forget himself in conversation. Few of us cared to violate these rules, knowing that for a man who had dictated of the memoires his future life they representeda kind of defence against a finality imposed from without. He sought something like this in his music as well, hoping it would seem only a snatch of what had been going on long before, of what would be going on long after. In the only snippet of officialbiography Scelsi says that he passed his childhood in the castle of Valva where he studiedLatin,fencing and chess. What he doesn't tell us is that from a very early age he spent much of the day improvising at the piano. To Heinz-Klaus Metzger, the German musicologist, he explainedthatit was only when thus self-absorbed that his mother could comb his hair. His father, an airforcepilot, pioneer of aviationin a country that took it seriously, didn't understandhis strange son, pioneer, adventurer of another kind - his father, always in the air or at sea, rarely at home and then always with a

different lady friend... One day they went walking on Via Nazionale in Ronmewhen the street was cordoned off for an official visit. Scelsi's father walked up to the soldiers, told them he was crossing the street to buy a packet of cigarettesand did so, holding the little boy by the hand - a little boy who, grown up, would walk into the Rome opera house without a ticket and have an usher take him to a seat. Scelsi's formal training was scanty. He frequented the house ofOttorino Respighi, where he was entranced by the conversation of Respighi's wife, Elsa San Giacomo, herself a pianist and composer. He attended the futurist concerts organized by Russolo and his circle in Rome, saying later they had an excitement and novelty about them he never rediscovered. There are traces of this early enthusiasm in his ballet Rotative(= printing presses) for 3 pianos, wind instruments and percussion, first performed under Pierre Monteux in Paris in I93 I. But Scelsi's interest in musical radicalism did not stop with the Futurists. He went on to study briefly in Vienna with Walter Klein, an obscure follower of Schoenberg1 - composing, as a result, the first I2-tone piece by an Italian. But an abstractapproachto composition, based as it was on the tempered scale and veering already towards neo-classicism, could not interest him long..'In view of the fact that there seems no proof that Walter Stein (activein Vienna from I9oo) actuallystudied with Schoenberg, the Editor of Tempohas suggested to me that the Stein in question might be Fritz Heinrich, a student of both Schoenberg and Berg and the man who prepared the vocal score of Wozzeck.I have a recollection of Scelsi's having said 'Walter', independent of Claudio Annibaldi's New Grove Scelsi article (naming 'W. Stein') - which I hadn't read at that time. Nevertheless, while awaiting further information on Walter Stein, the idea is worth entertaining. First because Scelsi was much more interested in the music of Berg than that of Schoenberg: in fact one of his few pieces with a dedication is an elegy on the death of Berg. And second because a man who consented to do the vocal score of Wozzeck, however privileged the task, might well have had time for an eccentric foreign student who lacked formal preparation.

Tanmatras: Life and Workof GiacintoScelsi The


CasaScelsi- Viadi San Teodoro showingthebalcony Scelsi'sprivate whichhewouldshowfriends his 8, of apartmentfrom andguests view of theRomanForum across way. (photo:RobinFreeman) the

Scelsi then went to Paris and London where he led a brilliant, worldly life and pursued his interestin surrealismand the esoteric. Musically he continued to develop under the double influence of Scriabin and Berg, writing mostly for his own instrument, the piano; and in 1937 he organized a series of concerts of contemporary music in Rome, in collaboration with Petrassi.He also began to traveloutside Europe, above all in India and Tibet. Of this period I know little since Scelsi seldom spoke of it in detail. It is there for the biographer to reconstruct, and that reconstruction will not be easy since the handful of people who were close to him then - Igor Markevitch, Pierre-Jean Jouve, Henri Michaux - are no longer here to ask about him. For me, apart from the childhood anecdotes and the music itself, Scelsi's story begins in the I940s, since that is where he chose to begin it. I had been sent to visit him one chilly winter evening with an electric fire he needed because the heating had broken down. At the tablewhere he took his meals, next to the piano with a carved Sicilian angel on it, he spoke to me about his life with an openess that was not to recur. How he had taken refuge in Lausanneduring the war; how he had helpedJouve escapethere from a Nazi-occupied Paris through the ruse that Jouve's wife needed psychoanalytic treatment that only the wife of the Chinese ambassadorin Geneva could provide; how as the war dragged on his British wife grew to detest life abroad -

particularly with an Italian who, according to her, could not help but be the accomplice of an enemy regime, and how she took the first train for the channel after the ceasefire never to see, hear or write to him again.2 His life would have been different if that hadn't happened. He wouldn't have been alone. He didn't know if things would have been better for him or if he would have written his music in the same way. As it was he had had years of solitude in which to meditate and work. Not that it came easily, however. In I950, Roger Desormiere performed Scelsi's last ecole de Paris work, La naissance verbe,for chorus du and orchestra, in Paris. Scelsi lay on the floor of the men's loo during the performance, imperiously ordering out the theatre personnel who had found him there, and only came out into the hall once more when the applause had begun. A performance scheduled a week later in London with the BBC Symphony Orchestra was cancelled when Desormiere unexpectedly died; and the piece, in spite of my own efforts and those of others, was never to be performed again during the composer's lifetime. La naissance verbe(1948) has a wordless phonetic du text set to melodic lines of an impassive austerity which look forward to Scelsi's music of the2Scelsi'swife's name was Dorothy. His pet name for her was Ty. He wrote two pieces for her, a Suite for piano (No.6) from 1938-9, called I capricci Ty, when they were together di and a duo for viola and 'cello from I966, Elegiaper Ty, after they were separatedbut as far as I know before her death.

The 10 Tanmatras: Lifeand Work GiacintoScelsi ofI950s,

and with it something

that will not

reoccur in the later music: passages of bleak relentless counterpoint. I have heard the primitive recording Scelsi made by placing whatever was then availablenext to a table radio. Salabert have in the meantime prepared a performing score. There is little doubt that this piece, a sort will of surrealistSymphonie despsaumes, surprise whatever audience has the first chance to hearit after the premiere over 40 years ago. Presumably it will also be possible one day to discoverjust when Scelsi spent a period in a rest home afte

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