Giacinto Scelsi

Is Scelsi the forgotten man of 20th century music par excellence?

Well, perhaps not forgotten, as such. I do think that he didn’t, and doesn’t, fit neatly into the usual mould of musically and intellectually bankrupt avant-garde composers because he wasn’t musically and intellectually bankrupt. The destructive, screaming left, that champions anything it sees as being against tradition, has a hard time with the aristocratic Scelsi who remained all his life a benign, decent, conservative and fascinating man.

In addition, most of what Scelsi wrote he worked hard at and he actually meant to write it. Not for him the random chance, but, as for Webern, every note mattered. He was a craftsman who took immense pains over what he wrote. Moreover, he was an extremely talented virtuoso pianist. Such a combination of skill and hard work sits uneasily with the usual run of posturing and pretentious frauds calling themselves composers in the 20th century. This unease has continued, so that the sycophants and fellow travellers of contemporary music today don’t give Scelsi the space that they allot to other talent-free artists whose music is as empty as their own heads.

That the man was slightly mad is probable; that his madness was akin to genius is also likely. I doubt anyone would enjoy everything he wrote but there is much of fascination and much of beauty, with influences way back to medieval chant and Renaissance polyphony – all of which Scelsi studied assiduously.

He is arguably most famous for Quattro Pezzi and his fascination for the constituent elements of sound, but it would be a mistake to believe that this was all he was. Personally, I think it’s a very minor part and there is much to enjoy in the works of a hard-working, deep-thinking, unusual, original and eminently capable musician.

For anyone interested in listening to some Scelsi, I’d suggest two pieces in particular that would repay the time involved are his Uaxuctum and the Suite No. 9.

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