SHOSTAKOVICH Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra, op. 99

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975): Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra, op. 99

  • I. Nocturne: Moderato
  • II. Scherzo: Allegro
  • III. Passacaglia: Andante
  • IV. Burlesca: Allegro con brio

Unlike many of his compatriots in the arts, Dmitri Shostakovich did not emigrate from the Soviet Union, but chose to remain there his entire life. Recognized as the leading Soviet composer, as well as one of the twentieth century’s most important musical creators, he left a body of work that demonstrates the continuing viability of such traditional musical genres as the symphony, the string quartet, and the concerto.

But against the backdrop of his great international reputation, his own life represented a profound compromise — musically as well as morally. For in order to protect himself and his family in a society in which his own eminence made him especially vulnerable to attack, he was forced to yield to continual pressure that he adopt artistic principles rooted in political objectives and suppress any personal artistic impulses that deviated from these principles. Thus accepting the role of Soviet artist, he numbly mouthed platitudes he did not believe, and resignedly composed much empty patriotic music that he loathed. At the same time, he developed a personal code–a double language through which he could express himself, seeming to say one thing while meaning another. He conveyed these deliberate ambiguities through subtle incongruities and sarcastic implications that are not always easy to decipher, thus contributing to much of the confusion and ambivalence that has always surrounded  Shostakovich’s musical reputation.

Such “code languages” are common among oppressed peoples, such as American blacks and Jews throughout history. Itis probably his awareness of this that accounted for Shostakovich’s great sense of kinship with the Jews and for his use of Jewish motifs as important symbols in his music. In his memoirs, Testimony, he is quoted as saying, “Jewish folk music has made a most powerful impression on me … It’s almost always laughter through tears. This quality … is close to my ideas of what music should be. There should always be two layers in music. Jews were tormented for so long that they learned to hide their despair. They express despair in dance music.”

It is illuminating to bear these thoughts in mind while considering Shostakovich’s Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra, one of his most important and deeply profound works and a concerto that stands today among the masterpieces of the violin repertoire. The late 1940s was one of Shostakovich’s most difficult periods, a time when he was enjoying unprecedented international celebrity while being subjected to official condemnation at home, a time when his music was played everywhere in the world but in Russia, where his colleagues denounced him to their advantage. During this period Shostakovich kept his most serious works to himself, while releasing only the safest sort of rousing, patriotic bluster.

Thus, though the First Violin Concerto was completed in 1948, it was not performed until 1955, two years after Stalin’s death, when it was introduced by David Oistrakh, to whom it was dedicated. The orchestration of the work is somewhat unusual, omitting trumpets and trombones, while featuring the celesta and xylophone prominently. This lends a particular delicacy and transparency to the overall sonority. In four movements, rather than the typical three, the concerto resembles a symphony in many ways, especially in its predominantly serious mood. The first movement is entitled Nocturne, and unfolds like a brooding, hauntingly contemplative soliloquy.

This is followed by a scherzo movement. Despite an initially jocular appearance, this movement builds in intensity to a wild and bitter dance with a distinctly Jewish flavor, recalling the quotation cited above. This movement also includes a motif derived from Shostakovich’s own name–a sort of musical signature that appeared in many of his most intimate compositions. The scherzo is followed by another slow movement–a passacaglia, a traditional form associated with the most solemn and profound type of expression. One of Shostakovich’s most deeply beautiful movements, it leads directly to an extended cadenza. Rather than providing merely the expected exhibition of virtuosity, this cadenza maintains the level of intensity while offering a thorough development of the concerto’s motivic material. The cadenza then leads directly into the finale, a raucous Burlesca that parallels the sardonic quality of the scherzo. Throughout the work there is a tense duality between a deeply personal emotional expression and an obligatory sense of cheerfulness, the latter always undercut by a fierce sense of bitterness. This is the central issue in the work of Shostakovich.

SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 8 in C minor, op. 65

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975): Symphony No. 8 in C minor, op. 65

  • I. Adagio
  • II. Allegretto
  • III. Allegro non troppo
  • IV. Largo
  • V. Allegretto

Unlike many of his compatriots in the arts, Dmitri Shostakovich did not emigrate from the Soviet Union, but chose to remain there his entire life. Recognized as the leading Soviet composer, as well as one of the twentieth century’s most important musical creators, he left a body of work that demonstrates the continuing viability of such traditional musical genres as the symphony, the string quartet, and the concerto.

But against the backdrop of his great international reputation, his own life represented a profound compromise — musically as well as morally. For in order to protect himself and his family in a society in which his own eminence made him especially vulnerable to attack, he was forced to yield to continual pressure to adopt artistic principles rooted in political objectives and to suppress any personal artistic impulses that deviated from these principles. Thus accepting the role of Soviet artist, he numbly mouthed platitudes he did not believe and resignedly composed much empty patriotic music that he loathed.

At the same time, Shostakovich developed a personal code language that enabled him to express himself more fully, albeit cryptically. For this, the art of music was ideal. “Without mentioning anything, it can say everything,” wrote his friend Ilya Ehrenburg. And so, for Shostakovich music became a vehicle through which he could bear witness to events and feelings that might otherwise have gone undocumented. For this reason his music has a more descriptive quality than that of many other composers. This is not to suggest that it is a limited language, but rather, that he used the panorama of his own time and place as a catalyst for generating a broader metaphysical vision as many other composers have used their own personal psyches as symbolic microcosms of humanity. This is is especially true of the Symphony No. 8, one of the two large symphonies Shostakovich composed during World War II.

The year 1943 was a time of relative creative freedom for Shostakovich. He felt permitted to explore emotions of despair and anguish in his music, for such negative feelings, presumably engendered by forces outside the Soviet Union, were permitted expression. He was also it the height of his international popularity now. His previous symphony, subtitled Leningrad, had been highly publicized, with major conductors vying for the opportunity to lead the premiere. The work had made him an international celebrity–a symbol of the Soviet people’s resistance against fascism during the brief period when the West looked sympathetically upon the Soviet Union. In fact, when the Symphony No. 8 was finished, CBS paid the Soviet government $10,000 for rights to the first broadcast. But after the war, internal Soviet politics turned against Shostakovich, who was denounced viciously at a notorious party congress. The overall pessimism of the Symphony No. 8 was now cited as “unpatriotic,” in view of the victory of the Allied forces.

From today’s perspective, the work seems clearly to be a generic requiem for the victims of the form of organized destruction known as war. ‘The symphony begins with a long, somber Adagio (as do several Shostakovich symphonies), a vast plain of sober reflection. The eminent conductor Serge Koussevitsky cited this movement as one “which by the power of its human emotion surpasses everything else created in our time.” It is also perhaps fair to say that no composer has ever portrayed the quality of human brutality as vividly as did Shostakovich, an assertion that is supported by the climax of this movement, with its almost unbearable intensity, before a beautifully eloquent solo by the English horn brings it to a state of repose. The mammoth first movement is followed by a brief Allegretto that serves as scherzo— a rather subdued yet ironically tinged military march.

The third, fourth, and fifth movements follow one another without pause. The third, Allegro non troppo, has been called a “Toccata of Death.” It is built around an insistent ostinato rhythmic pattern over which are heard sounds that many have found to be literally suggestive of battle-sounds. This leads directly to the Largo, a passacaglia. Unlike most passacaglias, which slowly accumulate energy and force, this one remains quiet and contemplative, serving as a relief from the previous movements and as a transition into the finale. The concluding Allegretto contains a measure of hope–perhaps a sense of rebirth–though not without reminders of the horrors that preceded. As the work comes to an end quietly, one is left with a sense of tempered optimism rather than triumph.

FLAGELLO: The Piper of Hamelin. An Opera in Three Acts. After a Poem by Robert Browning

THE PIPER OF HAMELIN. An Opera in Three Acts. Music and Libretto by Nicolas Flagello. After a Poem by Robert Browning.

The Composer

Nicolas Flagello was one of the last composers to develop a distinctive mode of expression based wholly on the principles and techniques of European late-Romanticism. Born in New York City in 1928, Flagello grew up in a highly musical family with deep roots in Old-World traditions. A child prodigy, young Nicolas was composing and performing publicly as a pianist before the age of ten. While still a youth, he began a long and intensive apprenticeship with composer Vittorio Giannini, who further imbued him with the enduring values of the grand European tradition. His study continued at the Manhattan School of Music, where he earned both his Bachelor’s (1949) and Master’s (1950) Degrees, joining the faculty immediately upon graduation, and remaining there until 1977. During the early 1950s, he won a Fulbright Fellowship to study in Rome, earning the Diploma di Studi Superiori in 1956 at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, under the tutelage of Ildebrando Pizzetti.

During the years that followed, Flagello composed at a prodigious rate, producing a body of work that includes six operas, two symphonies, eight concertos, and numerous orchestral, choral, chamber, and vocal works. In addition, he was active as a pianist and conductor, making dozens of recordings of a wide range of repertoire, from the Baroque period to the twentieth century. In 1985 a deteriorating illness brought his musical career to an end prematurely. He died in 1994, at the age of 66.

As a composer, Flagello held with unswerving conviction to a view of music as a personal medium for emotional and spiritual expression. This unfashionable view, together with his vehement rejection of the academic formalism that dominated musical composition for several decades after World War II, prevented him from winning acceptance from the reigning arbiters of taste for many years.  However, gradually Flagello’s works have begun to win enthusiastic advocacy.

In 1964, when a group of recordings first introduced Flagello’s music to the broader listening public, The New Records commented, “If this is not great music, we will gladly turn in our typewriter and quit.”  (More than a decade later, Fanfareselected these same recordings for its “Classical Hall of Fame.”)  In 1974, his oratorio The Passion of Martin Luther King was premiered with great acclaim by the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The work was subsequently recorded, and has since been performed throughout the United States and Canada. And in 1982, his opera The Judgment of St. Francis was produced in Assisi, Italy, where it was praised for its “robust emotionalism … unflinching in its conviction, … a natural flow of expressive melody integrated throughout the musical texture, and an ability to use voices, chorus, and orchestra to their maximum effect.”

During the years since his death, Flagello’s compositions have been performed and recorded at an increasing rate. Today, with much of his music available on compact disc, a whole new generation of listeners is discovering this powerful, deeply moving, and highly communicative body of work.

Background of the Opera

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Manhattan School of Music’s move from its original site in East Harlem to its current location on 122nd Street and Claremont Avenue. In 1969, Cynthia Auerbach, then the assistant director of the Manhattan School’s Preparatory Division and a former student of Nicolas Flagello, wanted to mount a children’s opera to mark the school’s first season in its new quarters. She decided to approach her former teacher, who already had four operas to his credit, with the idea of commissioning an opera for the occasion that could be performed, as well as enjoyed, by children.

Flagello was excited by the prospect, and immediately set about perusing volumes of fairy tales and children’s stories in search of a promising idea. When he discovered Robert Browning’s poem, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” he knew he had found his subject. Working quickly, he fashioned the libretto himself, re-working the story to eliminate its original vengeful ending, and replacing it with a denouement of redemption in which the Piper is revealed as an almost God-like “Spirit of Music.” Flagello completed the music in January, 1970, just in time for the work to go into rehearsal. The premiere of the opera took place on May 17, 1970, under Cynthia Auerbach’s direction.

The Piper of Hamelin is designed to be appreciated on many levels. The music is direct and tuneful, though structural unity is maintained throughout, by means of subtle and complex developmental techniques. The sophisticated listener will notice a variety of musical “in-jokes,” as references to other well-known compositions slyly peek through the texture. The leading roles require mature, well-trained voices, while the lesser roles may be played by children. Similarly, much of the principal orchestral material is quite advanced technically, though many of the individual instrumental parts are simple enough to be played by young students. The story itself is entertaining at face value, although there are serious messages about the fulfilling of promises, about forgiveness, about taking the work of an artist for granted, and about the transcendental power of music.

The legend of the Pied Piper is reputed to be based on a historical event that took place in the German town of Hamelin in the year 1284, involving the luring away of the town’s children by a piper dressed in brightly colored clothing. The tale was elaborated during the centuries that followed, as various plot elements were added. (For example, the rats and mice did not appear in the story until the 1500s.) During the early 1800s, the Grimm Brothers attempted to combine eleven different narrative sources into one coherent tale. It was the Grimms’ version that Robert Browning used in creating his poetic account in 1849.

The Opera

Flagello’s Piper of Hamelin begins with a lugubrious orchestral introduction. The first four measures introduce two simple motifs from which all the material of the entire opera is derived. After the introduction, the Narrator sets the scene by reciting the opening verses of the Browning poem. We then witness the miserable townspeople bemoaning their plight: every day at noon Hamelin is besieged by hordes of mice and rats who rampage through the town, eating everything in sight. Every day the children of the town must flee to the hills to protect themselves from this plague. As the clock strikes twelve, we observe the occurrence of the daily invasion, accompanied by a tempestuous orchestral episode. When the rats have disappeared, and the townspeople have assessed the day’s losses, a colorfully-clad stranger appears, playing a flute. When he learns of the townspeople’s plight, he offers to use the power of music to eliminate their problem. At first they are skeptical, but he overcomes their doubt by demonstrating his abilities before their eyes. Persuaded of his power, they agree to pay him a thousand guilders to rid Hamelin of its plague. Act I comes to an end as the townspeople, anticipating their imminent deliverance, raise their voices in praise of the Piper.

Act II begins as the Narrator recites a later verse of the poem, describing how the Piper mesmerizes the rats and lures them to the river to drown. Then, to the accompaniment of another orchestral interlude, we observe as the exodus of the vermin takes place. The exultant townspeople then join in a fugato of gratitude to the Piper and his music, followed by a dance of merriment. But when the Piper himself appears, to collect his fee, the townspeople attempt to renege on their agreement, belittling his music in the process. Enraged, the Piper declares that no more music will be heard in the town—except for one more tune. As he plays a simple melody, all the children gather to follow him as they leave the scene together. The act ends quietly.

Act III begins with an extended orchestral Intermezzo. Beginning solemnly, it expresses the loneliness and despair of the townspeople, now bereft of their children. However, toward the middle of the Intermezzo, a solo clarinet introduces a tender motif that will later emerge as the melody of redemption. When the music ends, the Narrator describes in verse the emptiness that now engulfs the town of Hamelin, and the townspeople voice the lament heard earlier, toward the beginning of Act I. A mother, overcome with grief, sings a poignant lullaby to her missing son. Suddenly the Piper reappears, and the townspeople demand to know what has become of their children. The Piper reminds them of their agreement, insisting that the terms be fulfilled. Finally, the Mayor relents, and pays the Piper the required sum. The Piper assures the townspeople that their children are well. They demand to know the Piper’s true identity, at which point, in the opera’s most fully elaborated aria, he reveals himself as the ubiquitous “Spirit of Music.” Then, as he directs the attention of the townspeople to bells chiming in the distance, the children gradually appear, singing a simple chant (based on the Piper’s aria) in solfege syllables. As the chant is repeated over and over, additional musical elements are added to the contrapuntal fabric, which builds in volume and intensity to an exultant hymn of praise and gratitude, bringing the opera to an ecstatic conclusion.

FLAGELLO: Symphony No. I

Symphony No. 1 by Nicolas Flagello

Nicolas Flagello composed his Symphony No. 1 during the years 1964-68; it was first performed in 1971, with the composer himself conducting the symphony orchestra of the Manhattan School of Music.  It is Flagello’s largest and most ambitious abstract work and is, in many ways, a definitive statement of his identity as a composer and as a human being.  That is, like most of his music–and that of many of his beloved late-Romantics–it is emotionally autobiographical.  At the same time, it is a work of consummate compositional mastery and discipline, a virtual textbook of classic symphonic technique.

The work opens boldly with a three-note motif that is the basis of the entire symphony.  The first movement, Allegro molto, is an explosive sonata-allegro, in which a violently agitated first theme is offset by a brooding, restless second theme, which ultimately achieves the major climax of the movement.

The second movement, Andante lento, opens with recitative-like passages that gradually lead to the body of the movement, a long-breathed lyrical outpouring that ebbs and flows with the immediacy of an operatic scene, though the basic three-note motif is woven throughout.  This aria for orchestra builds to a towering climax, before returning to the recitative-like passages with which the movement opened.

The third movement, Allegretto brusco, is an ironic scherzo with grotesque and sinister undercurrents, based on an inverted form of the basic motif.  An eerie trio section offers a brief  but unstable moment of respite, before the scherzo returns in modified form.  This leads to a stretto, culminating in a wildly demonic outburst.  The movement concludes on a note of uncertainty and anticipation that sets the stage for the mighty finale to follow.

The fourth movement, Ciaccona: Maestoso andante, opens with a majestic tutti statement that conceals a bassline created from an extended retrograde elaboration of the symphony’s basic motif.  The chaconne that follows is built on that bassline.  A series of 19 strict variations gradually becomes increasingly agitated, leading to a return of the opening majestic statement.  Now a series of freer developmental variations follows, which create the effect of a poignant, bittersweet interlude.  However the moment of tenderness soon turns ominous and tense, leading, after a total of 26 variations, to a vigorous fugue of which both subject and countersubject are transformations of the chaconne bassline.  The fugue proceeds, further developing all the movement’s thematic material in increasingly concentrated fashion, rising to an intense emotional pitch.  A stretto then culminates in a stark triadic statement of the chaconne theme that is both triumphant and defiant, leading the work to an extremely hard-won conclusion.

After its first performance, Music Journal described Flagello’s Symphony No. 1 as “a really notable addition to the literature.  The work is beautifully expressive, doesn’t meander, and is brilliantly orchestrated to boot . . . . Nicolas Flagello is a major talent and one looks forward to hearing him and his symphony continue to give pleasure to audiences the way they did this night.”

FLAGELLO Concerto No. 3 for Piano and Orchestra.

Concerto No. 3 for Piano and Orchestra by Nicolas Flagello (1928-1994), [orchestrated by A. Sbordoni],World Premiere Performance

  • Lento quasi adagio; allegro vivace ma giusto
  • Lento andante
  • Allegro molto

Nicolas Flagello was one of the 20th century’s leading exponents of traditional late romantic musical values. Without ever repudiating this aesthetic outlook, he succeeded in forging a personal musical language and a distinctive body of work shaped by his own temperament and embodying his own unique perspective on life. Born in New York City in 1928, Flagello grew up in a highly musical family with deep roots in Old-World traditions. A child prodigy, young Nicolas was composing and performing publicly as a pianist before the age of ten. While still a youth, he began a long and intensive apprenticeship with composer Vittorio Giannini, who further imbued him with the enduring values of the grand European tradition. His study continued at the Manhattan School of Music, where he earned both his Bachelor’s (1949) and Master’s (1950) Degrees, joining the faculty immediately upon graduation, and remaining there until 1977. During the early 1950s, he won a Fulbright Fellowship to study in Rome, and earned the Diploma di Studi Superiori in 1956 at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, under the tutelage of Ildebrando Pizzetti.

During the years that followed, Flagello composed at a prodigious rate, producing a body of work that includes six operas, two symphonies, eight concertos, and numerous orchestral, choral, chamber, and vocal works. In addition, he was active as a pianist and conductor, making dozens of recordings of a wide range of repertoire, from the Baroque period to the twentieth century. In 1985 a deteriorating illness brought his musical career to an end prematurely. He died in 1994, at the age of 66.

As a composer, Flagello held with unswerving conviction to a view of music as a personal medium for emotional and spiritual expression.  This unfashionable view, together with his vehement rejection of the academic formalism that dominated musical composition for several decades after World War II, prevented him from winning acceptance from the reigning arbiters of taste for many years.  However, gradually Flagello’s works began to win enthusiastic advocacy.

In 1964, when a group of recordings first introduced Flagello’s music to the broader listening public, The New Records commented, “If this is not great music, we will gladly turn in our typewriter and quit.”  (More than a decade later, Fanfareselected these same recordings for its “Classical Hall of Fame.”)  In 1974, his oratorio The Passion of Martin Luther King was premiered with great acclaim by the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The work was subsequently recorded, and has since been performed throughout the United States and Canada. And in 1982, his opera The Judgment of St. Francis was produced in Assisi, Italy.

During the years since his death, Flagello’s music has been performed and recorded at an increasing rate, introducing his work to a new generation of listeners.  Violinist Midori is just one of the leading performers of today who have embraced the deeply felt musical content, presented in a clear, comprehensible manner, characteristic of Flagello’s work.  

 The New Grove describes Flagello’s music as:

. . . marked by brooding despair and violent agitation, which find release in massive climaxes of shattering impact.  Despite its emotional effusiveness, the music is closely argued and remarkably skillful and imaginative in its handling of subtle instrumental colours.  Flagello’s later compositions (post-1958) are highly chromatic and dissonant, while retaining the earlier propensity for heartfelt melody and harmonic richness, and showing a clear anchoring in tonality at structural peaks.

Flagello composed his Third Piano Concerto in 1962, during his most fertile period of creative activity. This same year also saw the appearance of his Piano Sonata, a dramatic scene called Dante’s Farewell, the Capriccio for Cello and Orchestra, and the first version of a Te Deum — all among his finest and most deeply searching creations. However, also at this time, Flagello developed the habit of leaving completed works in short score, intending to orchestrate them at a later time. Unfortunately, many such works remained in this state at the time of his death. The Piano Concerto No. 3 was one of these. It  was scored in 1994 by Anthony Sbordoni, an American composer who made a thorough study of Flagello’s orchestration technique before undertaking the task.

The Third Concerto is a deeply personal work — dark, brooding, restless, and agitated, frequently erupting into cataclysmic explosions. It is based almost entirely on a single motif, a four-note descending-scale pattern heard first in the violas at the opening of the introduction, marked Lento quasi adagio. A short cadenza, which recurs at key points during the movement, leads into the Allegro vivace ma giusto, based on material derived from the opening motif. These ideas are developed and elaborated in a series of intensely charged episodes in various tempos. The tone is turbulent and aggressive, until a return of the opening cadenza leads directly into the second movement.

The Lento andante opens as the horn introduces a somber statement of the main motif by the brasses. The piano develops this into a gloomy nocturne whose dolorous tone is relieved by moments of bittersweet tenderness. This leads directly into a lugubrious “ghost-march,” whose tortured mood culminates in a climax that seems to convey both triumph and despair.

The finale, Allegro molto, follows without pause. Its character might be described as a demonic “tarantella from hell,” in which the concerto’s basic motif predominates in clearly recognizable form. The movement pursues its alternately grotesque and tempestuous course, finally leading to a coda marked Con piú entusiasmo, in which the intensity reaches a febrile pitch as the concentrated development of thematic material is focused toward a decisive conclusion.

FLAGELLO: Concerto for String Orchestra

Concerto for String Orchestra by Nicolas Flagello

Nicolas Flagello was born in New York City in 1928, to a family in which music has played a central role for several generations. (His grandfather, composer-conductor Domenico Casiello, was said to have studied with Verdi, while his brother Ezio was a bass-baritone with the Metropolitan Opera.) Deeply immersed in the Late-Romantic European musical heritage from birth, he became a child prodigy, performing publicly as a pianist before the age of ten.  During this time he began a long and intensive apprenticeship with the composer Vittorio Giannini, who further imbued him with the enduring values and principles of the grand European tradition.  His study continued at the Manhattan School of Music, where he earned both his Bachelor’s (1949) and Master’s (1950) Degrees, joining the faculty immediately upon graduation, and remaining there until 1977.  During the early 1950s, he won a Fulbright Fellowship to study in Rome, and earned the Diploma di Studi Superiori in 1956 from the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, under the tutelage of Ildebrando Pizzetti.

During the years that followed, Flagello wrote music at a prodigious rate.  In 1974, his oratorio The Passion of Martin Luther King was premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. to great acclaim, and has been performed subsequently throughout the United States and Canada. (The work has been recorded by the Oregon Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of James DePreist, on Koch International Classics.) In 1982, his opera, The Judgment of Saint Francis, was produced in Assisi, Italy. In addition, Flagello continued to appear publicly as a pianist and conductor, making dozens of recordings with the Orchestra de Camera di Roma and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma, featuring a wide range of repertoire, from the Baroque to the twentieth century.  In 1985 a deteriorating illness brought his musical career to an end prematurely.  He died in March, 1994, at the age of 66.

As a composer, Nicolas Flagello vehemently rejected the academic formalism that dominated musical composition for several decades after World War II, although his defiance of prevailing dogmas prevented him from winning acceptance from the reigning arbiters of taste for many years.  Nevertheless, despite such pressure, he maintained his view of music as a personal vehicle for emotional and spiritual expression with unswerving conviction.  Today, as increased attention is turned to America’s traditionalist composers, Flagello’s music is finding a growing number of admirers who are discovering his varied catalogue of some 75 works, including six operas, two symphonies, eight concertos, and numerous orchestral, choral, chamber, and vocal works.

The New Grove describes Flagello’s music as:

 . . . marked by brooding despair and violent agitation, which find release in massive climaxes of shattering impact.  Despite its emotional effusiveness, the music is closely argued and remarkably skillful and imaginative in its handling of subtle instrumental colours.  Flagello’s later compositions [post-1958] are highly chromatic and dissonant, while retaining the earlier propensity for heartfelt melody and harmonic richness, and showing a clear anchoring in tonality at structural peaks.

The Concerto for String Orchestra, composed in 1959, is a transitional work, occupying a position between Flagello’s early and later style-periods. A motoric regularity of pattern in the outer movements gives the work an uncharacteristic neo-Baroque flavor.  The opening Allegro misurato presents a mood of grim determination that is maintained throughout the movement.  After a rather orthodox exposition of the two main themes, they become intertwined in such an elaborate development that the final recapitulatory statement is delayed until the coda.

The second movement, Andante languido, is a favorite among admirers of Flagello’s music–a lament of despair in which the composer’s most intimate, personal voice comes to the fore.  In a characteristic fashion, it begins almost tentatively, until successively more elaborate phrases build in intensity to an eloquent climax.

The third movement, Allegro vivace, returns to the vigorous rhythmic character of the opening movement.  It is essentially a five-part rondo, built around an insistent, almost skittish, refrain.  The main presentation of this refrain is followed by a contrasting episode in which a slightly melancholy tune appears over continuous running figures. (This tune gradually reveals an affinity to the secondary theme of the first movement.) After a restatement of the refrain, a second episode features an extensive fugal treatment of a fragment from the main theme, with the melancholy tune appearing as a countersubject.  After a final restatement of the refrain, the work comes to a spirited and decisive conclusion.

BARBER: Third Essay for Orchestra, Op. 47

Third Essay for Orchestra, Op. 47,by Samuel Barber

Samuel Osborne Barber II was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, on March 9, 1910, and died in New York City on January 23, 1981. He composed the Third Essay for Orchestra during the summer of 1978, and its premiere took place on September 14, 1978 at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City. Zubin Mehta conducted the New York Philharmonic. ……. The work is scored for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, euphonium, tuba, percussion, two harps, piano, and strings.

The career of Samuel Barber is a fascinating illustration of the rise and fall of musical fashion. The son of a physician, Barber grew up in an affluent Philadelphia suburb, within a nurturant family environment sympathetic to his childhood ambition to become a composer. His mother’s sister was the noted contralto Louise Homer; her husband was Sidney Homer, a composer whose many art songs were quite well known in their day. Until his death in 1953, Homer provided encouragement and counsel to Barber, guiding him to follow the truth of his own artistic impulses rather than offering overt compositional advice.

Barber was extraordinarily fortunate in finding favor with generous and influential benefactors early on. Entering Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute at 14, he soon became a favorite of its founder Mary Louise Curtis Bok, and studied piano, voice, composition, and conducting with distinguished members of the Curtis faculty. There he also met Gian Carlo Menotti, the composer who became his intimate companion for most of his life. As a Curtis student Barber composed some of the works — among them the Serenade for strings, Dover Beach, Overture to “The School for Scandal,” and the Cello Sonata — that are still heard regularly today.

Barber’s music began to win awards and prizes before he reached the age of 20, and by the time he turned 30, his works had been performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic. In 1938 Arturo Toscanini led the NBC Symphony Orchestra in the First Essay for Orchestra and the Adagio for Strings, an arrangement of the slow movement of his string quartet. (The Adagio soon became Barber’s most popular piece, and today is the single most widely performed American concert work.)

During the years that followed, Barber continued to achieve auspicious successes too numerous to list. Among the most notable were his music for Martha Graham’s Cave of the Heart (later called Medea) in 1946, Knoxville: Summer of 1915, written the following year at the request of soprano Eleanor Steber (and probably his most highly regarded work), a Piano Sonata first performed by Vladimir Horowitz in 1950, and Vanessa, a full-length opera with libretto by Menotti, produced by the Metropolitan Opera in 1958 and awarded the Pulitzer Prize that same year.

However, by around 1960, the melodic, emotionally expressive music upon which Barber’s musical identity — and success — had been based, was considered passé. Now music designed deliberately to thwart easy access, concerned more with structural complexity than with emotional expression, drew the attention of influential spokesmen. Indeed, Barber’s very success and the apparent ease with which it was won marked him as a member of the “establishment,” a beneficiary of bourgeoiscomplacency, and his music was scorned and derided. The culminating moment was the 1966 opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, a grand event of the cultural aristocracy for which Barber had been commissioned to compose a new opera. The result, Antony and Cleopatra, with staging and libretto by Franco Zeffirelli and with Leontyne Price in the title role, proved to be a colossal, highly publicized disaster — much, though not all, of which was laid at the composer’s feet. Unaccustomed to such contemptuous treatment, Barber fell into a severe depression, from which he probably never recovered.

During the remaining 15 years of his life, Barber completed only eight more compositions, all but one of quite modest dimensions. These were ignored or given short shrift by the critical press. The general consensus was that Barber had lived beyond his time and lost his creative drive, none of his later works fulfilling the promise offered by the successes of his twenties and thirties.

But by 1980, the tide had begun to turn, and accessibility was up for reconsideration. Within months of his death in 1981, there was a renewed interest in Barber’s music. Works that had an established foothold in the repertoire — the Adagio, Knoxville, the First and Second Essays, the Violin Concerto, “School for Scandal” Overture, and the Piano Sonata — were seized upon by the most celebrated soloists and conductors. Works that seemed to have fallen by the wayside were dusted off for revival. And works that had barely been noticed at all — the late cantata The Lovers and the Third Essay among the most notable — were performed and recorded and found to be of unforeseen merit. The Symphony No. 2, withdrawn by the composer, was re-examined and found to be quite impressive. And most notable of all, the infamous Antony and Cleopatra, revised during the 1970s with Menotti’s help, was mounted at the Spoleto Festival in 1983 with considerable success and subsequently recorded, giving the opera a new lease on life.

The reassessment of Barber’s music is still ongoing, but what is already clear is this: Barber’s entire output is well on the way to becoming part of the standard, actively performed repertoire; there is no other American composer of concert music of whom this can be said. Yet many misconceptions still remain. Among them is the frequently encountered statement that Barber ’s musical style remained essentially unchanged throughout his career. To the contrary, greater familiarity reveals the presence of three loosely distinct style-periods.

The first phase extends up through about 1942, and includes most of the works for which Barber is best known. This music is characterized by a rather genteel, high-toned lyricism, with straightforward rhythm, consonant harmony, and clear textures—what the average listener means by “beautiful.” The second period lasts from the early 1940s to the early 1950s, and constitutes something of a period of “experimentation,” when Barber tried his hand at incorporating elements that other composers were exploring successfully: deliberate Americanisms (Excursions, Knoxville), a striving for monumentality (Second Essay, Symphony No. 2), a sophisticated insouciance in the manner of Poulenc (Op. 18 Songs, Mélodies passagères), and, most of all, a Stravinskian Neoclassicism (Medea, Capricorn Concerto). The third, longest, least-understood, but — in many ways — richest period comprises the music written after about 1952. These works integrate quintessentially Barberian elegiac lyricism with some of the elements explored during the 1940s, but in a more personal and distinctive way. There is also a new emphasis on pure mood-painting, particularly of a rather sensuous, languid, even decadent nature, with less symmetrical, more chromatic thematic ideas, more complex, heterogeneous textures, and less regular phraseology, all resulting in greater emotional complexity.

Interestingly, each of Barber’s three Essays falls into one of these style-periods. Barber used the term Essay for Orchestra to identify these relatively short and concise works, dramatic in character, but shaped abstractly through the development of a small number of thematic ideas.

The Third Essay was commissioned by Audrey Sheldon, a wealthy admirer of Barber, who committed suicide before the work’s premiere. Composed during the summer of 1978, the Essay was first performed as part of Zubin Mehta’s debut concert as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. Barber made some small revisions after its premiere.

The work opens rather quizzically, with 27 measures of percussion only, during which an irregular rhythmic motif is introduced. As the other instruments enter, a rather jagged melodic contour is added to the rhythmic motif, which bounces down and up the orchestra, picking up substance and momentum, as other tiny figures appear. All this proves to be introductory psychological stage-setting, as the atmosphere is gradually transformed to a more intimate mood of sultry sensuality, almost as if a camera has zoomed in from a panoramic view to focus on the protagonists of a torrid love scene. This scene — the main body of the Essay — is built around four lyrical ideas, all derived from the rhythm and/or the melodic shapes of the motifs heard in the introductory section. The first three are heard in relatively quick succession:  The first is introduced by the strings, marked appassionato; the second is presented by the euphonium, a baritone-voiced relative of the tuba; the third, which emerges as the work’s main melodic idea, is first heard as a sort of rippling melody in the violins and flutes; the fourth, yearning in character, is introduced a little later by the English horn, accompanied by the harps. Interspersed with occasional reminders of the more angular rhythmic and melodic motifs heard during the introduction, these ideas writhe in and around each other, gradually building in intensity. Finally, the third idea reaches a climax in the full orchestra, marked “with exaltation.” This climax has barely abated, when the tempo increases, and the jagged material from the introduction reappears, bringing the work to an almost brusque conclusion.

Notes by Walter Simmons

Walter Simmons is a musicologist and critic who specializes in 20th-century music. He is a contributor to Fanfare, The New Grove, and a recipient of the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for music criticism.


For further exploration

Barbara B. Heyman. Samuel Barber: The Composer and His Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992)

Compact Discs

Music of Samuel Barber (Adagio for Strings, Three Essays for Orchestra, Medea’s Dance of Vengeance, Overture to “The School for Scandal”); Saint Louis SO, Slatkin, cond.; EMI Classics CDC-49463

Barber: Prayers of Kierkegaard, The Lovers; Chicago SO and Chorus, Schenck, cond.; Koch International Classics 3-7125-2H1

Roberta Alexander Sings Samuel Barber (Andromache’s Farewell, Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Antony and Cleopatra [excerpts], Vanessa [excerpts], Three Songs); Netherlands Radio PO, de Waart, cond.; Etcetera KTC-1145

Complete Songs of Samuel Barber; C. Studer, sop., T. Hampson, bar., J. Browning, piano, Emerson St. Qt.; Deutsche Grammophon 435 867-2 (2 discs)

BARBER: Second Essay for Orchestra, Op. 17.

Second Essay for Orchestra, Op. 17,by Samuel Barber

Samuel Osborne Barber II was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, on March 9, 1910, and died in New York City on January 23, 1981. He completed the Second Essay for Orchestra in March of 1942, and its premiere took place on April 16, 1942 at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Bruno Walter conducted the New York Philharmonic. ……. The work is scored for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, percussion, and strings.

The career of Samuel Barber is a fascinating illustration of the rise and fall of musical fashion. The son of a physician, Barber grew up in an affluent Philadelphia suburb, within a nurturant family environment sympathetic to his childhood ambition to become a composer. His mother’s sister was the noted contralto Louise Homer; her husband was Sidney Homer, a composer whose many art songs were quite well known in their day. Until his death in 1953, Homer provided encouragement and counsel to Barber, guiding him to follow the truth of his own artistic impulses rather than offering overt compositional advice.

Barber was extraordinarily fortunate in finding favor with generous and influential benefactors early on. Entering Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute at 14, he soon became a favorite of its founder Mary Louise Curtis Bok, and studied piano, voice, composition, and conducting with distinguished members of the Curtis faculty. There he also met Gian Carlo Menotti, the composer who became his intimate companion for most of his life. As a Curtis student Barber composed some of the works — among them the Serenade for strings, Dover Beach, Overture to “The School for Scandal,” and the Cello Sonata—that are still heard regularly today.

Barber’s music began to win awards and prizes before he reached the age of 20, and by the time he turned 30, his works had been performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic. In 1938 Arturo Toscanini led the NBC Symphony Orchestra in the First Essay for Orchestra and the Adagio for Strings, an arrangement of the slow movement of his string quartet. (The Adagio soon became Barber’s most popular piece, and today is the single most widely performed American concert work.)

Thus Barber’s reputation was well established when, at 32, he was asked by Bruno Walter for a work to be performed in commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of the New York Philharmonic. Barber showed him the newly completed score of his Second Essay for Orchestra, and Walter agreed to give the premiere within a month. Before the end of the year, it was performed again, this time by the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Eugene Ormandy.

During the years that followed, Barber continued to achieve auspicious successes too numerous to list. Among the most notable were his music for Martha Graham’s Cave of the Heart (later called Medea) in 1946, Knoxville: Summer of 1915, written the following year at the request of soprano Eleanor Steber (and probably his most highly regarded work), a Piano Sonata first performed by Vladimir Horowitz in 1950, and Vanessa, a full-length opera with libretto by Menotti, produced by the Metropolitan Opera in 1958 and awarded the Pulitzer Prize that same year.

However, by around 1960, the melodic, emotionally expressive music upon which Barber’s musical identity — and success — had been based, was considered passé. Now music designed deliberately to thwart easy access, concerned more with structural complexity than with emotional expression, drew the attention of influential spokesmen. Indeed, Barber’s very success and the apparent ease with which it was won marked him as a member of the “establishment,” a beneficiary of bourgeoiscomplacency, and his music was scorned and derided. The culminating moment was the 1966 opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, a grand event of the cultural aristocracy for which Barber had been commissioned to compose a new opera. The result, Antony and Cleopatra, with staging and libretto by Franco Zeffirelli and with Leontyne Price in the title role, proved to be a colossal, highly publicized disaster — much, though not all, of which was laid at the composer’s feet. Unaccustomed to such contemptuous treatment, Barber fell into a severe depression, from which he probably never recovered.

During the remaining 15 years of his life, Barber completed only eight more compositions, all but one of quite modest dimensions. These were ignored or given short shrift by the critical press. The general consensus was that Barber had lived beyond his time and lost his creative drive, none of his later works fulfilling the promise offered by the successes of his twenties and thirties.

But by 1980, the tide had begun to turn, and accessibility was up for reconsideration. Within months of his death in 1981, there was a renewed interest in Barber’s music. Works that had an established foothold in the repertoire were seized upon by the most celebrated soloists and conductors. Works that seemed to have fallen by the wayside were dusted off for revival. And later works that had barely been noticed at all were performed and recorded and found to be of unforeseen merit. Most notable of all, the infamous Antony and Cleopatra, revised during the 1970s with Menotti’s help, was mounted at the Spoleto Festival in 1983 with considerable success and subsequently recorded, giving the opera a new lease on life. The reassessment of Barber’s music is still ongoing, but what is already clear is this: Barber’s entire output is well on the way to becoming part of the standard, actively performed repertoire; there is no other American composer of concert music of whom this can be said.

Samuel Barber’s early music, including most of the works for which he is best known, is characterized by a rather genteel, high-toned lyricism, with straightforward rhythm, consonant harmony, and clear textures — what the average listener means by “beautiful.” But during the early 1940s, he entered something of a period of “experimentation,” trying his hand at incorporating elements into his music that other composers were exploring successfully. The Second Essay, completed in 1942, might be seen as a transitional work, written just as Barber was entering this new phase. Its lyrical primacy, solemn tone, and clarity of harmony, rhythm, and texture are characteristic of his earlier works. However, the pentatonic structure of the main theme, and its emphasis on the intervals of the fourth and fifth, give it an American flavor — devices new to Barber, but used by a number of other composers during this period. In addition, its breadth of utterance and reach for grandeur link it to many other American symphonic works of the 1940s. The mood of the times was reflected in a comment made by critic Donald Fuller, published in the influential periodical Modern Music shortly after the work’s premiere: “[The Second Essay]is the best of this composer’s work to date. I think Barber has been reading his Copland and Harris scores and it has been good for him. The horizon has also broadened, and he now appears capable of real thematic invention.”

Barber used the term Essay for Orchestra to identify works that were relatively short and concise, dramatic in character, yet shaped abstractly through the development of a small number of thematic ideas. The First Essay was composed in 1937, and the Second followed five years later. He returned once more to the Essayconcept 36 years later, for his last completed work.

The Second Essay has become one of Barber’s most popular orchestral works. Its most remarkable features are the wide range of emotional expression and the wealth of developmental elaboration accomplished within the scope of ten minutes. Its structure comprises three main sections: a sort of “prologue,” followed by a scherzo-like developmental section, which leads to a fervent, hymnlike apotheosis.

The opening section presents the work’s two main themes: first, the pentatonic theme, with its “searching” quality, introduced by the flute, picked up by the bass clarinet, and then elaborated by the rest of the orchestra. The music gradually becomes more animated, leading to the presentation of the second thematic idea, first heard in the violas, followed by the oboe, accompanied by a restless, repeated-note accompaniment in the flutes and clarinets. The energy level of the music continues to increase, as the second idea is developed. A stentorian restatement of the first theme in the horns, accompanied by rapid repetitions in the timpani, cellos, and basses, signals the end of the first section.

The second section follows on the heels of a loud orchestral chord, as the clarinet and bassoon begin a skittish fugato based on the opening pentatonic theme, now transformed into a rapid triplet rhythmic pattern. Soon the second theme is added to the nervous polyphonic tapestry, and the two ideas undergo considerable development. Finally, the themes are heard — in reverse order — closer to their original guise, as the tempo broadens, forming a transition to the third main section.

The concluding section is based on a third thematic idea, actually hinted at barely noticeably by the brasses toward the end of the first section. This hymnlike theme begins softly but richly in the strings, gradually building in intensity, as the trumpets and horn add the opening pentatonic theme into the fabric. The hymn finally culminates in a triumphant affirmation whose sense of monumentality is remarkable for a work of such modest proportions.

Notes by Walter Simmons

Walter Simmons is a musicologist and critic who specializes in 20th-century music. He is a contributor to Fanfare and The New Grove, and a recipient of the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for music criticism.


For further exploration:

Barbara B. Heyman. Samuel Barber: The Composer and His Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992)

Compact Discs

Music of Samuel Barber (Adagio for Strings, Three Essays for Orchestra, Medea’s Dance of Vengeance, Overture to “The School for Scandal”); Saint Louis SO, Slatkin, cond.; EMI Classics CDC-49463

Barber: Prayers of Kierkegaard, The Lovers; Chicago SO and Chorus, Schenck, cond.; Koch International Classics 3-7125-2H1

Roberta Alexander Sings Samuel Barber (Andromache’s Farewell, Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Antony and Cleopatra [excerpts], Vanessa [excerpts], Three Songs); Netherlands Radio PO, de Waart, cond.; Etcetera KTC-1145

Complete Songs of Samuel Barber; C. Studer, sop., T. Hampson, bar., J. Browning, piano, Emerson St. Qt.; Deutsche Grammophon 435 867-2 (2 discs)

FRANCK: Danse Lente. Prelude, Choral, et Fugue. BLOCH: In the Night . Sonata for Piano. GIANNINI: Variations on a Cantus Firmus. Prelude and Fughetta

CESAR FRANCK: Danse Lente. Prelude, Choral, et Fugue
ERNEST BLOCH: In the Night. Sonata for Piano
VITTORIO GIANNINI Variations on a Cantus Firmus. Prelude and Fughetta
Myron Silberstein, piano

This recital of music by Cesar Franck (1822-1890), Ernest Bloch (1880-1959), and Vittorio Giannini (1903-1966) highlights fascinating biographical linkages and aesthetic affinities among composers that may otherwise appear to belong to different segments of the musical spectrum. One feature that the three share in common is a commitment to aesthetic ideals that transcended the fashions current within the milieus they inhabited. The creation of music was for each both an aesthetic and a spiritual expression of deep personal significance, placing them at times at odds with their respective publics, who were seeking more meretricious charms, and each paid the price of disparagement and neglect for adherence to their ideals. Another trait shared by all three is a multinational orientation rooted in their training, as well as in their own national origins. As a result, the music of each composer bridges several stylistic lineages associated with particular national traditions. And finally, there is some evidence of the actual influence of one composer upon another. Many of these points are illustrated by the music presented on this recital, in which each composer is represented by one major extended work and one of more modest scope.

Cesar Franck was born in Belgium of largely German descent, and lived most of his life in Paris, during a time when popular taste leaned toward salon trifles or grandiose operatic spectacles. Although his mature work displayed a typically French sensuality and ear for harmonic color, Franck attempted to embrace within this romantic sensibility abstract formal ideals from the classic Germanic tradition: a fondness for contrapuntal density derived from Bach, the disciplined thematic development of Beethoven, and even the chromatic
complexities of Wagnerian harmony. In addition, he refined a compositional principle, traceable chiefly to Beethoven, known as “cyclical form,” in which a signal motif recurs throughout a multi-movement work in a variety of different guises, as a means of providing both formal and psychological unity. 

Franck’s brief Danse Lente of 1885 shows the composer’s hand at a simple salon piece. But the Prelude, Choral, et Fugue composed the preceding year is a masterpiece, embodying all the elements described above. The improvisational quality of the opening Prelude recalls the style of Bach’s organ fantasias even as it evokes the strongly subjective sense of atmosphere associated with romantic music. The Prelude introduces the
downward-step motif that is the underlying root of the entire work. The Choral also suggests the organ, with its full chordal textures that seem to require the addition of a pedal keyboard. This section introduces one of Franck’s most haunting melodies, accompanied by a solemnly descending minor scale. The Choral leads directly into the Fugue, clearly based on the downward-step motif. As it unfolds, elements from the preceding sections are recalled, culminating in a dense contrapuntal apotheosis that achieves a sense of sensuo-spiritual ecstasy that is one of Franck’s particular claims to greatness.

The connection between Franck and Ernest Bloch is quite clear. Although Bloch was born in Geneva, he studied in Brussels under the guidance of Eugene Ysaye, who had been a close personal associate of Franck. Bloch’s stylistic development is directly traceable to this lineage, especially the merging of classic formal abstractions with an emphasis on sensuality and mood, in the service of the most serious emotional content. However, Bloch’s own volatile temperament led him to create music of a vehemence and intensity that would have
been inconceivable to his predecessors. In addition, Bloch sought to imbue some of his works (though neither of those presented here) with his own subjective interpretation of the Jewish soul. 

In the Night (subtitled “A Love-Poem”) dates from 1922, during an immensely productive period when Bloch also served as director of the Cleveland Institute of Music. It a highly evocative example of one of his favorite small genres: the nocturne, which in Bloch’s hands became a work of perfumed exoticism and mystery, featuring his own idiosyncratic adaptation of impressionist harmony.

Bloch composed his Sonata for Piano in 1935 during a sojourn in the French Alps. It is certainly his most important work for piano solo, and, along with the Concerto Symphonique and the String Quartet No. 2, is one of the most fully realized abstract works of his compositional maturity. Its three movements are tightly unified through several intervallic motifs, according to Franck’s “cyclical” principle. These are transformed in an
amazingly vivid progression of moods and emotional states that suggest a rather grim commentary on the human condition. The first movement, Maestoso ed energico, is actively turbulent and agitated, while the second, Pastorale, conjures an exotic nocturnal vision of luscious sensual languor not unlike In the Night, building to a tremendous climax. The third movement, Moderato alla marcia, suggests a savage rite among some primitive tribe of Bloch’s imagination, which eventually recedes into the distance. 

Vittorio Giannini was born in Philadelphia, studying in Milan as a child, then later in New York. The connection between him and the other composers discussed here is a little less obvious, because, unlike them, the Italian operatic tradition played a strong role in both his development and his output. Indeed, his early operas enjoyed considerable success in Europe during the pre-World War II years, even winning the praise of Richard Strauss. In 1939 Giannini settled in New York, joining the faculties of the Juilliard School, the Manhattan School of Music, and, later, the Curtis Institute as well. Shortly before his death, he was named president of the North Carolina School of the Arts.

Although Giannini wrote some fourteen operas and much other vocal music, his many symphonic and instrumental works (including an orchestral work entitledPrelude, Chorale, and Fugue) show the same integration of intense emotionality with classic abstract formal principles exhibited by Franck and Bloch. And, like both of them, Giannini was especially fond of imbuing Baroque forms with romantic warmth. This aspect of Giannini’s art comes
to the fore in the Variations on a Cantus Firmus, composed in 1947. In many ways this is the most deeply traditional work presented here: twenty-four variations on a solemn, chromatically descending ground bass in C minor, presented in two nearly-identical phrases. As the variations begin, one is immediately reminded of the gravity of the great contrapuntal masterpieces of the 17th and 18th centuries. However, as they further unfold, grouped into four distinct movements, they progress stylistically — again according to traditional variation
principle — from a highly conservative treatment, through more romantic and virtuosic elaborations. Giannini’s personality was always strongest in his slow, lyrical music, and in the second and fourth movement groups this element predominates, offering moments of the most touching and tender beauty. 

Prelude and Fughetta was composed during the late 1950s. During this period, Giannini sometimes cooled his torridly romantic style by devising themes based on the interval of the fourth. Nowhere is that practice more evident than in this brief piece, in which a single theme, derived almost entirely from that interval, forms the basis of both the prelude and the short fugue that follows.