CRESTON: Piano Sonata, Op. 9; Six Preludes, Op. 38. GIANNINI: Piano Sonata. FLAGELLO: Two Waltzes; Piano Sonata

Piano Music by Paul Creston (1906-1985) Piano Sonata, Op. 9* (1936); Six Preludes, Op. 38* (1945). Vittorio Giannini (1903-1966) Piano Sonata* (1963). Nicolas Flagello (1928-1994) : Two Waltzes(1953) Piano Sonata (1962).

*World Premiere Recordings. Tatjana Rankovich, piano. Walter Simmons, producer. Joseph Patrych, engineer. Recorded: Jan. 6, 21, 1998; April 29, 1998; June 24, 1998 

The three American composers represented on this recording belong to the group often described as “20th-century traditionalists”—those figures who rejected most of the tenets of Modernism–especially its emphasis on originality, rational objectivity, and experimentation, and its contempt for communication as an artistic objective. Rather, the “traditionalists” viewed themselves as inheritors of a living legacy, to which they sought to make their own individual contributions, with recourse to the full range of classical forms and techniques, and with the aim of personal expression and communication. Beyond their aesthetic affinities, Creston, Giannini, and Flagello shared an Italian ancestry, and spent most of their creative lives in the environs of New York City. Creston and Giannini were approximate contemporaries, while for many years Giannini and Flagello maintained a master-apprentice relationship. Each composer is represented here by a piano sonata composed at a different phase of his respective career. Creston’s sonata is an early work, written before his language had reached maturity; Giannini’s dates from the last years of his life, when his style seemed to be charting a new course; Flagello’s sonata appeared at the midpoint of his career and the apex of his compositional development.

Paul Creston, whose original name was Giuseppe Guttoveggio, was born in New York City in 1906, the son of a poor house-painter. As a child he took lessons on the piano and later, on the organ, and began writing music on his own at the age of eight. Forced to leave school at 15 in order to earn a living, he attempted to compensate for the premature termination of his formal education by subjecting himself to a strenuous regimen of independent study, teaching himself music theory and composition, in addition to a number of other academic and artistic subjects. Creston vacillated between music and literature as career options for several years; not until 1932, at age 26, did he decide upon musical composition as a vocation. He supported himself during these years by playing the organ to accompany silent films, and later took a position as church organist, which he held for many years.

The absence of formal training prevented Creston from being fully indoctrinated into the music world’s conventional value system, leaving him free to develop his own aesthetic principles, together with a highly individual approach to composition. Many years later, when asked to name those composers who most influenced his development, he cited J. S. Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, Chopin, Debussy, and Ravel. Their traces are evident in Creston’s earliest compositions, especially the Piano Sonata heard on this recording. Yet at the same time, Creston’s own distinctive manner—a combination of Baroque patterns and textures and Impressionist harmony, suffused with a romantic temperament, and organized around the elaborate development of a few basic motifs—can be discerned as well. The inventive and rather idiosyncratic approach to rhythm that was to become the central element of his compositional style developed somewhat later.

Creston composed his Piano Sonata in 1936. The first movement, Allegro appassionato, opens with a brash vigor, immediately introducing several motifs, including one that soon develops into a luxuriantly lyrical second theme. These motifs undergo a lengthy and thorough development through a variety of contrasting emotions. A sense of urgency prevails, as Scarlatti-like running patterns continue throughout, never coming to rest until the end.

The second movement, Allegretto grazioso, is light and graceful, in the manner of a minuet. Some gently syncopated passages presage the rhythmic manipulations of Creston’s maturity.

The third movement, Andante, displays the warm, smoothly rolling figurations of a barcarolle. As the music slowly builds in intensity, its rich harmonic language expands with resonant voicings that suggest Creston’s experience as an organist. The music reaches a powerful climax, and then recedes gently, drifting off with an ethereal chain of chords that remain unresolved until the end.

The fourth movement, Presto scorrevole, suggests the form of a rondo. It is lively and playful in tone, with scurrying patterns that proceed breathlessly from one section to the next, until an exhilarating conclusion is reached. Again the keyboard works of Scarlatti come to mind, along with a harmonic language that occasionally hints at the popular music of the time.

In view of Creston’s isolation from influential musical institutions, his meteoric rise to national prominence is quite remarkable. In 1938 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, and in 1941 he won the New York Music Critics’ Circle Award. In 1942, Arturo Toscanini conducted his Choric Dance No. 2 with the NBC Symphony, in 1943 Eugene Ormandy conducted his Symphony No. 1 with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and in 1944 Creston completed his Symphony No. 2 , premiered the following year by Artur Rodzinski and the New York Philharmonic. One of his most important works, this symphony brought him international acclaim; by this time Creston was one of America’s most widely performed composers.

Shortly after completing his Symphony No. 2 , Creston composed his Six Preludes for piano. By then, the composer had developed a fascination with the element of rhythm, to which he devoted special attention in virtually each of his works. He was especially fond of syncopated polymetric and polyrhythmic patterns and ostinatos, which he organized within a continuous, unchanging metrical pulse. Eventually he was to present his theory and analysis of the subject in a textbook, Principles of Rhythm (1964). The core of the book comprises an exposition of what Creston termed “rhythmic structures,” described as “five different plans [for] the organization of duration in ordered movement.” He had developed this concept as early as 1945, as each of the Six Preludes was composed to illustrate one of the “rhythmic structures,” with No. 1, Moderately fast,  as an example of mixed methods. No. 2, Tranquil, illustrates “regular sub-division”; No. 3, Fast, illustrates “regular subdivision overlapping”; No. 4, Moderately fast, illustrates “irregular subdivision”; No. 5, Moderato, illustrates “overlapping”; and No. 6, Moderately fast, illustrates “irregular sub-division overlapping”. Despite the underlying didactic aspect, each of the preludes conveys a sense of spontaneous expression.


Vittorio Giannini was born in Philadelphia in 1903 into a family of professional musicians. Deeply imbued with the values of a Eurocentric musical culture at an early age, he had completed four years of formal study in Milan by the time he was 14, and had already begun to compose. During the 1920s, when Creston was struggling to educate himself late at night while holding a series of clerical jobs during the day, Giannini was studying violin and composition at the Juilliard School. He first attracted attention during the 1930s, when his songs began to appear frequently on recital programs, and several of his operas were produced successfully in Europe, where he spent much of his time. His vocal music displayed the fluent lyrical warmth of Italianate late-Romanticism, although instrumental works revealed a mastery of contrapuntal technique and a concern with formal developmental processes.

Settling in New York City in 1939, Giannini continued composing prolifically, producing dozens of works notable for their effortless melodic warmth, high-spirited exuberance, and impeccable craftsmanship, although increasingly his music was regarded as “old-fashioned” by the proponents of Modernism. Serving concurrently at the Juilliard School, the Manhattan School, and the Curtis Institute, he became one of the country’s most active composition teachers, his name virtually synonymous with traditional Old World musical craftsmanship and discipline.

By the early 1960s Giannini’s work was receiving little attention, his musical aesthetic seen now as the vestige of a bygone era. Yet at this point Giannini’s compositional style took something of a turn. Although his approach to form remained unchanged, many of his works revealed a darker character, a greater depth of expression, and a more dissonant harmonic language. Whether this change reflected a bitterness about the fickleness of musical fashion, or concerns about his own deteriorating heart condition, or despair about a failed second marriage is uncertain. But what is clear is that many of the works that Giannini composed during the last five years of his life—such as the monodramas The Medead and Antigone , the Symphony No. 5 , and the Piano Sonata —are among his finest achievements.

Giannini composed his Piano Sonata in 1963. The opening Allegro non troppo boldly proclaims a three-note motif that truly saturates the polyphonic texture of the entire movement, while re-appearing in the others as well. Several additional motifs are introduced during the exposition of this movement, all of which contribute to its unremittingly agitated and turbulent character; even the subordinate theme seems to wail in despair. All this material is subjected to a lengthy and rigorous development, until a major climax is reached during the recapitulation, after which the movement ends in snarling defiance.

The second movement, Molto adagio e cantabile, presents a lament whose character is unmistakably funereal, and whose thematic material bears some resemblance to the motifs introduced in the first movement. After this D-minor lament has been elaborated somewhat, there is a sudden shift to D-flat major, and a new melody, marked “con gran dolcezza e tenerezza,” is heard, ending the movement with an almost Mahlerian poignancy.  

The meaning of this episode—and, perhaps, of the sonata as a whole–is illuminated by the following information:  In 1963, Giannini’s second marriage ended in divorce. That year Giannini composed what proved to be his last song, entitled To a Lost Love , to his own text. There the D-flat melody from the sonata appears, set to the following words:

If you must go, my love, 
Go not in bitterness;
Go with a gentle sadness. 
I, with tears in my eyes
Give you one last kiss on the lips,
As a token of my love that shall abide with you forever.

The final movement, Allegro assai, of Giannini’s Piano Sonata has the character of a scherzo-toccata, propelled by a driving triplet figure in perpetual motion. At the center of the movement the meter shifts and the three-note motif from the first movement re-appears in a new guise, pressing forward with grim determination. Then the opening triplet material returns, leading eventually to an intensified treatment of the three-note motif, which carries the movement to a decisive close.


Nicolas Flagello was born in New York City in 1928. With a remarkably similar family background to Giannini’s, Flagello came from a long line of musicians. As Giannini’s sister Dusolina had been a world-renowned soprano, Flagello’s brother Ezio enjoyed an illustrious career as a leading bass-baritone. When young Nicolas, who was playing the piano in public before the age of ten, began to show an inclination toward composition, his family brought him to the attention of Giannini. Thus began a long and deeply devoted apprenticeship that lasted until the older man’s death in 1966.

Giannini subjected Flagello to the sort of rigorous, demanding discipline that formed the basis of traditional European compositional study for centuries. Continuing his work with Giannini at the Manhattan School of Music, he was awarded a Master’s Degree in 1950, at which point he joined the composition faculty, remaining there until 1977.

Giannini imbued Flagello with the enduring values of the grand European heritage, insisting that the answers to all matters of aesthetics lay in the unbroken chain of Western musical tradition, as it had evolved organically through the centuries. If this approach seemed old-fashioned for a middle-aged composer in 1950, for a young man like Flagello it seemed defiantly reactionary. As a result, little of his music was performed publicly during his own lifetime, although his work has developed a growing following since his death in 1994.

In 1953 Flagello composed two waltzes for piano that he eventually incorporated into larger works. For this reason he did not include them among his official oeuvre. However, they are very pianistic and serve nicely as encores. Waltz in D is marked Andantino comodo, and displays a tender gracefulness reminiscent of Ravel. Revised some twelve years later, it became the slow movement of a Suite for Harp and String Trio (1965). The Waltz in B minor offers considerable contrast. Marked Presto giocoso ma non troppo, it is somewhat more dynamic, with a grotesque middle section that found its way into the Scherzo of the monumental Symphony No. 1 (1968).

While Flagello may have adopted Giannini’s musical aesthetic, his own temperament was much more volatile and highly charged than that of his teacher. After composing a substantial body of work in a luxuriantly romantic vein—including three operas, two piano concertos, concertos for flute, violin, and several large orchestral works—Flagello turned in 1959 toward a darker, more intensely concentrated mode of expression. In fact, some have suggested that the influence of Giannini on Flagello reversed direction at that time, as the latter’s stylistic shift seemed to precede the former’s very similar move by about a year. This maturation of his compositional voice ushered in the most productive period of Flagello’s life. During the 1960s, he composed more than 30 works—intensely emotional and often gloomy, turbulent, and tragic in character–maintaining a remarkable consistency of both vision and craftsmanship. In 1962 alone, he composed the Piano Concerto No. 3 , the Cello Capriccio , a dramatic monologue called Dante’s Farewell , and the first version of a Te Deum, as well as the Piano Sonata heard here.

Flagello’s three-movement Piano Sonata wholeheartedly embraces the rhetoric and ethos of the romantic virtuoso legacy, but with a tempestuous character unique to the composer. Tightly constructed with an eye toward both expressive and motivic unity, all three movements are based on material that emphasizes the interval of a half-step.

The first movement, Andante con moto e rubato, is a standard sonata-allegroform, except that instead of the usual two themes, one idea in F minor, built from two short motifs, serves to fill the roles of both, appearing at times restless and searching, at others, bold and defiant, and at still others, introspective and ruminative.

The second movement begins with a soulful, recitative-like passage, which leads into a barcarolle—but a far gloomier one than Creston created for his sonata. The movement builds to a tremendous climax, and then subsides in dark resignation.

The finale, Allegro vivace quanto possibile, happens to be a full sonata-allegroform, two themes and all. A whirlwind toccata in perpetual motion, this movement requires a pianist with tremendous stamina, able to sustain enormous technical demands without respite.

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.

“Nicolas Flagello” (biography)

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, 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, Fanfare selected 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.  Violin superstar Midori is just one of today’s leading performers who have found in Flagello’s work deeply felt musical content, presented in a clear, comprehensible manner.  The following is a sample of recent critical comments:

“…direct, communicative ideas, strong emotional content,”

Bill Zakariasen, The Westsider (6/23-29/94)

“The music throbs with vitality.  It can be exciting or turbulent, sweetly melancholy or tragic—but it is always openly and fiercely passionate.”

Mark Lehman, American Record Guide (July/Aug, 1996)

“…one of the most shamefully neglected and …misconstrued members of his generation.”

Paul Snook, Fanfare (July/Aug, 1996)

“…manic brilliance saying important things.”

Adrian Corleonis, Fanfare (Nov/Dec, 1996)

“These are large-souled creations of eloquent and tragic power.”

Mark Lehman, American Record Guide (Sept/Oct, 1997)

“Here is something that resoundingly, unerringly, hit its goal.  A standout.  A landmark.  An adventure.  Enthusiastically recommended.”

Adrian Corleonis, Fanfare (Sept/Oct, 1997)

 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: Piper of Hamelin

FLAGELLO Piper of Hamelin – Jonathan Strasser, cond; Bob McGrath (Narrator); Brace Negron (Piper); Troy Doney (Mayor of Hamelin); Ch & O of Manhattan School of Music Preparatory Division – NEWPORT NCD 60153 (49:33 &) Live: New York City, 3/13-14/99

The Piper of Hamelin is the fifth of Flagello’s six operas, but — not surprisingly — the first to appear on a commercial recording. It was composed in 1969-70 for performance by the Preparatory (pre-college) Division of the Manhattan School of Music, the school where Flagello was closely associated– first as a student, then as a faculty member — for more than thirty years. The opera has been mounted a number of times since its 1970 premiere, but the production at hand marks the retirement of the composer’s widow, Dianne Flagello, from her position as director of the school’s Preparatory Division for the past 25 years. (Mrs. Flagello has worked tirelessly and vigorously as a devoted advocate of her former husband’s music for many years.)

As an opera intended to be enjoyed by and performed (largely) by children, The Piper is not only tailored for ease of execution, but also reflects a certain simplification of the composer’s musical style, as well as an overall lightheartedness of approach, with numerous musical “in-jokes” and some rather clumsy attempts at humor. Most significantly, Flagello replaced Robert Browning’s rather harsh and vengeful ending with one reflecting reparation and forgiveness. In Browning’s poem, the townspeople refuse to pay the Piper the agreed-upon fee for ridding the town of rats, so in retaliation the Piper entrances the town’s children, and whisks them away forever. In Flagello’s version, after despairing over the loss of their children the townspeople relent, and pay the Piper his fee. The Piper then reveals himself as the Spirit of Music and brings back the children.

Yet despite this overall “softening” on many levels, which occasionally verges on sentimentality, Flagello’s opera reveals a fundamental sincerity and authenticity of feeling, not to mention the craftsmanship of a master hand in shaping a work of considerable musical substance. A single motif, heard at the very outset, generates all of the opera’s thematic material, while unifying its contrapuntal fabric. Instead of emphasizing themes like betrayal and vengeance, Flagello has focused on the transformational and redemptive powers of music, with the Piper emerging as a not-terribly-veiled Christ-figure. All in all, the solidity of the work’s structure, and the sheer expressiveness of its music, fueled by a fervent sense of spirituality, combine to create a delightful, thoroughly convincing, and very moving experience.

Flagello chose a rather orthodox structural concept for the opera, framing its three short acts with excerpts from Browning’s 1849 poem (read effectively for this production by Sesame Street’s Bob McGrath — also an MSM alumnus). In between these readings, the story is enacted through recitatives and choral numbers, with only a couple of arias toward the end, leading to an ecstatic apotheosis created ingeniously from a cleverly-designed cumulative ostinato. The third act is preceded by a 5-minute “Intermezzo” that elaborates the emotional strands salient at that point in the opera through purely musical means into an autonomous entity that could easily be programmed on its own, along the lines of the “Intermezzo” from Cavalleria Rusticana (as has also been done with the “Adoration” from Flagello’s Judgment of St. Francis [recorded on Citadel CTD-88107], which the Piper “Intermezzo” resembles in its ascent from somber gloom to a uniquely Italianate heart-throbbing spiritual ecstasy).

The recording at hand was taken from two stage performances, as noted in the headnote above. This must be borne in mind, as stage noise is audible almost constantly throughout the recording; also to be considered is the fact that almost all the performers are teenagers — albeit very talented teenagers. Hence certain shortcomings regarding polish and precision are inevitable. On the other hand, the words are clearly distinguishable, graduate student Brace Negron is superb as the Piper, and the chorus and orchestra are sufficiently accurate, cohesive, and well-coordinated to represent the work to good advantage. In conclusion, listeners who have yet to be convinced of Flagello’s importance as a major figure among the traditionalist composers of the twentieth century are well-advised to turn elsewhere for evidence. However, those who have delved into his more serious abstract works and, impressed by their authenticity and substance, are interested in exploring his approach to other media, are urged to sample this charming excursion. Let me mention another significant treatment of the same story: Peter Mennin’s ruthlessly faithful adaptation of the Piper legend into a grim and gripping dramatic cantata, composed at approximately the same time as Flagello’s; the work is arguably that composer’s masterpiece — a magnum opus that still awaits its first recording.

Nicolas Flagello (1928-1994): A Lost Voice

Nicolas Flagello died on March 16, 1994, the day after his sixty-sixth birthday. A few close friends and family attended the funeral the following day, and the New York Times carried a brief but respectful obituary, illustrated by a slick publicity photo. It began, “Nicolas Flagello, an American composer and conductor who played a busy role in this country’s postwar musical life, died yesterday in New Rochelle, NY.” Thus ended the tragedy of another composer–perhaps a great one–whose life passed largely unnoticed.

If Nicolas Flagello’s name is known to music lovers, it is chiefly by association with his younger brother Ezio, who enjoyed an illustrious career as a bass-baritone with the Metropolitan Opera. Others may identify him as conductor of some rather perfunctory recordings released during the late 1970s with ad hoc Italian orchestras, primarily of Baroque and early Classical pieces. Many musicians from the New York area knew him also as a long-time member of the composition faculty of the Manhattan School of Music. Far fewer still are actually familiar with his substantial body of work.

I first heard Flagello’s music about thirty years ago, encountering it on the radio, quite by accident. A number of LPs devoted to his work had just been released and (I later learned) the twenty-six-year old John Corigliano (who had been a student of Vittorio Giannini), working at the time for a noncommercial radio station in New York, had programmed these recordings for two or three consecutive hours. I listened spellbound to one piece after the other, and resolved to find out what i could about this totally unfamiliar composer.

During the following years I gradually became acquainted with Flagello’s entire output of some seventy-five works, and also came to know him personally. His music has enriched my life immeasurably and is quite capable, I believe, of having the same effect on many listeners, because, unlike many idiosyncratic creative figures championed in these pages, it utilizes a familiar musical language and embodies the aesthetic ideals represented by much of the beloved music in the repertoire. Yet despite his adherence to a conventional language, Flagello had his own “sound,” created by his personal use of these materials, and a consistent metaphysical vision that is reflected, in one way or another, in all his work. Furthermore, the standards of craftsmanship that he brought to bear on his materials in realizing this vision, and the seriousness of his dedication, resulted in a consistency of quality that is rare–even among the acknowledged masters. These are all characteristics generally associated with “greatness.” If Flagello’s music displays these qualities. then why, one may reasonably ask, has his music been given so little exposureand attention? Who was this person and what happened?

* * *

Flagello was born in New York City in 1928 into a family that had been steeped in music for generations. His father was a successful dress designer and amateur musician, and his mother had been a singer whose father had supposedly studied with Verdi. Nicolas began piano lessons with his aunt when he was three, and made rapid progress. He began composing when he was eight. and performed publicly on the piano a few years later. Although the family was living in the Bronx, they made frequent extended trips back to Italy, where relatives arranged for young Nicolas to give public recitals. This strongly bicultural childhood–not unusual among Italian-Americans of his generation–left him with a stronger identity as an Italian than an American.

During the late 1930s, friends of the family brought Nicolas to the attention of Vittorio Giannini, another American-born composer with strong attachments to Italy, who was at the time enjoying major successes in both the United States and Europe. Giannini took on Nicolas as a student in the manner of an Old World apprenticeship, teaching him the craft of composition through endless hours of drill and study, and imbuing him with the ethos as well as the principles of the grand European tradition, from Palestrina through Puccini, Debussy, and Strauss. This apprenticeship with Giannini developed into a close musico-personal relationship that lasted until the latter’s death in 1966.

Returning to the United States during the years of World War II, Nicolas attended high school in the Bronx, played violin in Stokowski’s All-American Youth Orchestra, and studied piano privately with Adele Marcus. Enrolling formally at the Manhattan School of Music in 1945, he continued to work with Giannini, joining the faculty himself while he completed his master’s degree. During these years he performed regularly as piano soloist with the Longines Symphonette, a radio orchestra featuring “light classical” music that became so popular during the 1950s that it made a series of national tours. Its conductor, Mishel Piastro, had been a violin student of Leopold Auer, and was another Old World character who became a father figure for Nicolas. Then, a Fulbright Fellowship in 1955 enabled him to study at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, where he was awarded an advanced diploma under the tutelage of the elderly Ildebrando Pizzetti.

All these experiences kept Flagello far from the mainstream world of “modern music,” which, during the 1950s and 60s, was moving in very different directions. Led by European intellectuals who misguidedly associated Romanticism with Fascism, the Modernist movement, which extolled the virtues of originality, intellectual complexity, and experimentation, and scorned accessibility and traditionalism, came to dominate the music departments of the most prestigious American universities. Its influence spread throughout many levels of the music establishment, resulting in what amounted to a “blacklisting” of many of the more conservative composers who had developed substantial reputations during the previous decades.

By the time he turned thirty in 1958, Flagello had about 25 major works to his credit, including three operas, four concertos, and several large orchestral and choral pieces, as well as numerous solo piano pieces, songs, and other vocal music. What is this music like? It is unabashedly modeled on the rhetoric and forms developed by the masters of the nineteenth century–Puccini and Strauss in the operatic and vocal music, Chopin, Liszt, and Rachmaninov in the piano music. Sounding new, original, or different held no appeal for him, nor did the fashionable trends in composition at the time. He cherished the music of the past, and wanted to make his personal contribution to the heritage he loved, in the language that was most natural to him. But what keeps these early works of Flagello from sounding like pale imitations is their intense conviction and authenticity of expression, almost as if he were trying to outdo his predecessors at their own games. These are works that would thrill the most conservative audiences, overflowing with surging, romantic melodies and powerful climaxes whose immediate accessibility is supported by the most thorough attention to structural values–motivic economy, thematic unity, and true symphonic development, built upon contrapuntal substructures that reveal as much appreciation for the architecture of Brahms as for the passion of Puccini and the virtuosity of Rachmaninov. This was the Giannini manner, yet even here one can note characteristic usages–turns of phrase, a distinctive sad sweetness, and an explosive volatility of temperament that distinguish Flagello’s compositional personality from that of his teacher, and anticipate the works yet to come.

Flagello wrote all this music with little concern for practical matters. Part of the credo that Giannini imparted to his students was the belief that “true” creative musical talent was a gift bestowed by God and required dedication to the highest ideals of inner truth and personal authenticity, as well as unstinting diligence and profound humility and gratitude for having been thus chosen. Such dedication may result in neglect, misunderstanding, and temptations to compromise or to accept defeat. But to yield to such temptation is tantamount to a betrayal of God. Flagello embraced and attempted to adhere to this doctrine, following his inner voice, appending to each score the initials AMDG (Ad Maiorern Dei Gloria), and refusing to take any practical steps to promote the exposure of his works. As a result, virtually none of it was played, aside from a few readings by the performing ensembles of the Manhattan School. In fact, he expressed little interest when it was performed, insisting that he derived no particular pleasure from hearing it. Yet at the same time, contradictory as it may seem. he did crave both respect and recognition. But within New York City’s cultural climate, with its posture as cultural trendsetter, his music made little impact.

in 1959, Flagello’s music reached a new level of maturity. Although in retrospect he professed no awareness of a change, the appearance of a new phase–an Italianate form of expressionism–is unmistakable. While hardly a concession to the values of Modernism, there is a greater astringency: Harmony is more dissonant, tonality is often quite unsettled. lyrical lines are doled out more sparingly, rhythm is less symmetrical. and forms are tighter. But the change is more than just a matter of language, but of content as well. The exuberant, sunny, joyful elements that had leavened his earlier music now all but disappeared. replaced by a dark, brooding quality at times turbulent, explosive, and cataclysmic. The result is music of tremendous emotional intensity and concentration of effect, as every element is tightly focused toward fullest realization of the intended expression. Though still constructed along traditional lines, with a basic adherence to the principles of tonality. the music often sounds more dissonant than it is, because the emotional content itself is so powerful. In some pieces there seems to be no sense of redemption at all, while others attain anguished epiphanies. This stylistic transformation can be readily discerned by comparing the Piano Concerto No. 2 of 1956 with the Piano Concerto No. 3. written just six years later (although the fact that neither work has ever even been performed might make this exercise a little difficult). The forms, means of development, and aesthetic principles are essentially identical, yet the works are entirely different in effect.

With the appearance of his mature voice, Flagello became both increasingly productive and increasingly consistent in both workmanship and taste. Between 1959 and 1968, he completed more than thirty works, of which virtually every one–even down to a five-minute contest piece for accordion–is a serious artistic statement. From this period came those works I consider to be his masterpieces: the Symphony No. I (the ultimate post-romantic symphony), an opera called The Judgment of St. Francis, the Te Deum for All Mankind, Capriccio for cello and orchestra, Contemplazioni de Michelangelo, Dante’s Farewell, the piano sonata, and the Piano Concerto No. 3. During this period, his productive drive was so consuming that he fell into the habit of leaving orchestral works in short score, planning to orchestrate them when a performance opportunity arose. Unfortunately, a number of major works remain in short score.

During the early 1960s, Flagello found himself embittered and alienated from the New York City musical scene. Now married and the father of two sons, he began to seek opportunities to develop a career as a conductor, especially in Italy. At about this time, he came to the attention of the late Paul Kapp, father of conductor Richard Kapp and one of the many curmudgeons who made the LP era so colorful. Kapp was starting a record company (Serenus) and a publishing company (General Music) to promote living composers whose music appealed to him. He chose Flagello as his flagship composer, as well as conductor for his own and others’ music, with an initial release of four all-Flagello discs. These recordings were very well received (a critic for The New Records wrote. “If this is not great music, we will gladly turn in our typewriter and quit.”). But Kapp’s cantankerous personality and his exclusive focus on unknown composers made distribution difficult, and Serenus records soon became almost impossible to find.

During these years Flagello tried to do anything and everything he could to establish himself professionally–conducting operas in Italy, orchestras in South America, recordings of movie themes, mood music, Baroque music, composing background music, TV commercials. ghostwriting for other composers, running a music festival in Italy, directing the Extension Division of the Manhattan School. But there was little interest or activity concerning his serious compositions.

At this point it must be acknowledged that certain anomalies within Flagello’s personality and behavior contributed to the difficulties he had in drawing attention to his work. Within the pscudocultured social aristocracy that constitutes the world of classical music–including much of the audience and many of the professionals–a fawning, epicene personal charm and elegant manner create the appearance of artistic genius far more convincingly than its actual manifestation. Flagello. like Mozart before him, was an unfortunate misfit in this social milieu. His personal appearance betrayed a fondness for flashy clothes and accoutrements, and his verbal expression was stilted and awkward, heavily inflected with vestiges of his Bronx-Italian background. To conceal his discomfort and insecurity, he cultivated a brusque, unapproachable manner. The resulting persona seemed more appropriate to a gangster movie than a concert hall. When musicians or listeners actually expressed interest or curiosity in his work, he often rebuffed them, exhibiting the self-defeating but not uncommon paradox, “If they don’t want my music, then they can’t have it.” Inquiries from soloists and conductors–including some quite celebrated figures–went unanswered. Among trusted friends he was exuberant, earthy, and spontaneous, and loved to recount extravagant tales of his own exploits. But presenting himself as a “serious composer” seemed to him an uncomfortable pretense, and he made little effort to interest friends and associates in his creative efforts. This casual, offhand manner left many of those close to him quite surprised when they finally encountered the uncompromisingly serious tone of his work. Flagello himself was aware of these inconsistencies, but had no explanation for them, appearing to be as bewildered by his own talent and the fruits it bore as were those around him. He would often say, “A composer has two sides to himself-one that he shows to others, and the other he brings out in his music.” And when asked why he composed, since he seemed so indifferent to having his work performed, he would shrug his shoulders and reply, “I don’t know–I can’t stop.

“Then, during the early 1970s, Flagello’s life began to fall apart. After twenty years of marriage –perhaps because of a sense of shame and personal failure–he left his wife, who fervently believed in his genius, and embarked on a course of self-destructive behavior that gradually destroyed his health and sanity, as his creativity dwindled. Ironically, during this time the “freeze” on traditional approaches to composition was thawing, and Flagello’s music began to attract attention. In 1974, James DePreist introduced The Passion of Martin Luther King, a large choral work, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, with brother Ezio as soloist; the reception was ecstatic. (DePreist has since performed the work a number of times, and recently recorded it; see review elsewhere in this issue.)

Not long afterward, Flagello was invited to conduct several performances of The Judgment of St. Francis in Assisi. A review in Musical America commented that its “robust emotionalism is unflinching in its conviction, and its intensity is sustained by a sure sense of pacing, a natural flow of expressive melody integrated throughout the musical texture, and an ability to use voices, chorus, and orchestra to their maximum effect.” Other conductors began to discover his music as well, including Semyon Bychkov, who performed several major orchestral works.

But Flagello was deteriorating, mentally and physically, and had almost ceased composing altogether. In 1977, he was forced to resign from the Manhattan School, after more than twentyfive years of service, which left him without a regular source of income. Friends helped to arrange for several commissions and encouraged him to undertake a number of major projects, some of which he managed to complete, including a full-length opera based on Eugene O’Neill’s early Pulitzer Prizewinning tragedy, Beyond the Horizon. In 1985, at the age of fifty-seven, he completed his final work, the Concerto Sinfonico for saxophone quartet and orchestra, commissioned by the Amherst Saxophone Quartet. The premiere took place in Buffalo, under the direction of Semyon Bychkov. The Buffalo News critic described it as “passionate, dramatic, and unremittingly serious, . . . with easily detected shape and a clear sense of purpose, with surgingly lyric lines, dense textures, and churning rhythms, . . .”–amazing–but not unprecedented–that a work written under such truly desperate circumstances could make such a powerful and coherent impression.

Days after this performance it became clear that Flagello was no longer able to care for his own needs. Before long he was confined to a nursing home, where he remained, mute and oblivious, until his death.

* * *

Over the years a number of Fanfare’s critics have argued passionately on behalf of composers who have shaped conventional materials in unique and distinctive ways. Henry Fogel has enthusiastically praised the tuneful accessibility of the music of George Lloyd; Paul Rapoport has awakened the music world to Allan Pettersson’s cosmic canvases of metaphysical angst; while Adrian Corleonis has eloquently documented a rich legacy of Romantic virtuosity, as conceptualized through the aesthetic prism of Busoni, as the culmination of musical tradition. Where is Nicolas Flagello’s place among these figures? Have I not described his contribution in similar terms?

Flagello’s music is not built on the cosmic scale of Pettersson’s, nor does his tunefulness convey the tasteful, well-mannered sense of propriety characteristic of Lloyd, nor is his adaptation of the Romantic gesture based on the notion of virtuosic elaboration as the manifestation of an intellectualized aesthetic ideal, as in the case of Busoni and his disciples. Flagello’s is an instinctive, personal language of grand, soaring passions, giving voice to the basic feelings of earthy, flesh-and-blood humanity–love, hate, sorrow, hope, dread, and faith–in all their visceral immediacy.

Flagello’s music is in many ways a lament of existential loneliness-the loneliness of a stranger in his own time, the last member of a dying race. But it also speaks with the defiance of one who refuses to relinquish long-cherished values, who struggles to maintain spiritual purity through artistic creation in a world filled with fraudulence and cynicism. Its recurrent themes–the often futile quest for human solace, the inevitability of mortality, the power of compassion in the face of ceaseless strife, and faith in God as the only true source of consolation and salvation–are clearly depicted in such works as The Judgment of St. Francis, The Passion of Martin Luther King. and The Piper of Hamelin–and canbe felt intuitively in most of his other works as well. It is not surprising that his most characteristic musical format is soloist-with-orchestra, representing the individual who bears witness to life’s spiritual and emotional torments, with the orchestra as empathic Greek chorus. On the one hand, I think he saw himself in Jesus, St. Francis, Martin Luther King, and–especially–in the Pied Piper. On the other hand, he spoke as a simple, sensitive soul, who happened to be blessed with the ability to express universal human emotions through music.

FLAGELLO: A Goldoni Overture; Piano Concerto 2; Credendum; Overture Burlesca; Piano Concerto No. 3.

MUSIC BY NICOLAS FLAGELLO (1928-1994)
A Goldoni Overture (5:34); Piano ConcertoNo.2 (Tatjana Rankovich, piano) (26:08); Credendum (Elmar Oliveira, violin) (14:07);  Overture Burlesca (4:20); Piano Concerto No. 3 (Tatjana Rankovich, piano) (21:08) David Amos conducting the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra, Kosice.  Recorded and edited: June 22-26, 1995 in Kosice, Slovakia Executive Producer: Walter Simmons Recording Producer: Rudolph Hentsel Recording Engineer: Gejza Toperczer


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 musical family with deep roots in Old-World traditions. Something of a prodigy, young Nicolas was composing and performing publicly as a pianist before the age of ten. While still a child, 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 from 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 20th 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, as his music is recorded and performed with increasing regularity. This compact disc presents five works that have never been recorded before. They exhibit the full evolution of his creative development and embrace the many facets of his musical personality.

The Overture Burlescaand Piano Concerto No. 2 date from the 1950s and represent Flagello’s early compositional phase. The Overture Burlesca was composed in 1952, when Flagello was 24. first public performance was given by the Colorado Philharmonic in 1974, under the direction of Carl Topilow. Though brief, light, and spirited, the somewhat sinister flavor of its thematic material produces a restless undercurrent.

Flagello sought in his early works to make his own contribution to the Romantic heritage he loved, in the language that was most natural to him. Sounding “original” or “different held no appeal for him. What keeps these early works from sounding like pale imitations is their solid construction intense conviction, and authenticity of expression. Providing strong support for their surging melodies and powerful climaxes is the most thorough attention to formal values — motivic economy, thematic unity, and true symphonic development, built upon contrapuntal substructures that reveal as much appreciation for the architecture of Brahms as for the passion of Puccini and the virtuosity of Rachmaninoff. These were the values he learned from Giannini, yet characteristic usages-certain turns of phrase, a distinctive sad sweetness, and an explosive volatility of temperament — are distinctly Flagello’s own and anticipate the works yet to come.

These qualities are readily apparent in the Piano Concerto No. 2, composed in 1956 and one of the major works of Flagello’s early phase. On first hearing, the concerto conveys the familiar rhetoric of the genre, replete with thundering octaves, dreamy soliloquies, cascading arpeggios that lend an almost “Hollywood” quality to the throbbing melodies, and fistfuls of virtuoso passagework that build to huge climaxes. Yet despite its extroverted character, the concerto is brilliantly constructed, its entire substance derived from the six-note motif introduced by the piano at the outset. This motif, in a state of continuous metamorphosis and development, forms the basis of all three movements of the concerto. first movement, Allegro Giusto, is an abbreviatedsonataallegro form, featuring an animated first theme in C minor and a melancholy secondary theme in A minor. After these ideas are presented and elaborated in a variety of guises, the movement culminates in a tremendous climax that combines all the material heard thus far. 

The second movement, Andante Giusto, follows without pause, and features a warm, wistful melody in the woodwinds soon elaborated by the piano. Gradually this melody reveals itself as an inverted form of the concerto’s opening motif. This is transformed into a stentorian statement, before melting into the movement’s centerpiece — a variant of unabashed tenderness that rises to a luxuriant climax.

Once this outpouring recedes, a rather impish transition gradually leads to the finale:Allegro Quasi Presto. Almost as if to scorn the shameless sweetness of the preceding sections, this movement proclaims itself with a swagger, as the C minor motif from the opening movement now appears in a raucously harmonized C Major. This theme is developed in alternation with a minor-key inverted variant of the basic motif through the full range of traditional virtuoso pyrotechnics. Finally, as the energy builds, the concentration of material intensifies, and all  thematic elements are combined toward a grand finish.

Only six years separate the Second from the Third Piano Concerto, but the differences are many. In 1959, Flagello attained his mature musical voice–a sort of Italianate expressionism characterized by tremendous emotional intensity and concentration of effect, as every element is focused toward the fullest realization of the intended expression. From this time until the late 1960s, Flagello produced music at a rapid rate, with a remarkably high consistency of both vision and craftsmanship. In the year 1962 alone, when the Third Piano Concerto was composed, he also wrote a 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 his death. TheThird Piano Concerto was scored in 1994 by composer Anthony Sbordoni, who made a thorough study of Flagello’s orchestration technique before undertaking the task.

A comparison of the two concertos provides an illuminating example of Flagello’s stylistic maturation. The forms, means of development, and aesthetic principles are essentially identical, yet the works are entirely different in effect. In the later work there is a greater tightness of phraseology, density of texture, astringency of harmonic language, and asymmetry of rhythm. But most important, there is a deeper, more personal quality — dark, brooding, restless, and agitated, frequently erupting into cataclysmic explosions. Like the Second Concerto, the Third is based almost entirely on a single motif, in this case a four-note descending scale-pattern heard first in the violas at the opening of the Lento Quasi Adagio introduction. 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. In contrast to the primarily lyrical character of the previous concerto, the tone here is turbulent and aggressive, until a return of the opening cadenza leads directly into 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 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 Piu Entusiasmo, in which the intensity reaches a febrile pitch, as the concentrated development of thematic material is focused toward a decisive conclusion.

Vittorio Giannini composed his last opera, The Servant of Two Masters, an opera buffa based on a play by the 18th-century Italian dramatist Carlo Goldoni, shortly before his death in 1966. Although the opera was essentially complete, Giannini had not provided an overture. Several months later, early in 1967, Flagello decided to create one, basing it entirely on themes from the opera. A Goldoni Overture was first performed in Maiori, Italy, under the composer’s direction, in 1969. The short curtain-raiser captures both the playful exuberance and tender warmth characteristic of the opera, and of Giannini’s music in general.

Flagello composed his Credendum, for violin and orchestra in 1973, dedicating it to the memory of his father, who had died shortly after its completion. The work was not orchestrated until 1985, in preparation for its premiere performance by violinist Ansgarius Aylward, with the Buffalo Philharmonic under the direction of Semyon Bychkov. The title “Credendum” suggests a profession of belief, expressed herethrough a highly emotional statement in one rhapsodic movement. Although anchored in tonality at strategic structural points, the work conveys a sense of restless instability through long passages without a strong tonal center.

Credendum opens with an impassioned violin soliloquy presents three short motifs within its opening moments. These motifs are developed by the violin through a succession of brief episodes evoking intensely contrasting emotional states, ranging from passages of mystery and contemplation to moments of jarring nervous agitation that erupt in tumultuous tutti explosions. Toward the work’s conclusion these shifts of affect seem to resolve into a warmly heartfelt hymn whose lyricism is made all the more touching by its juxtaposition within a context of turbulence. However, even this emotional oasis culminates in an anguished climax, followed by an epilogue of sad resignation.

Obviously the expression of belief suggested by the title is thoroughly abstract, its meaning left to the imagination of the listener.



David Amos is one of the leading figures in the revival of interest in the traditionalist wing of 20th-century American composers. His many recordings of works by Alan Hovhaness, Paul Creston, Arnold Rosner, Vincent Persichetti, Vittorio Giannini, Nicolas Flagello, and others have attracted the attention of a generation of listeners previously unaware of this music Indeed, his path-breaking recordings have even inspired other conductors to investigate this exciting repertoire, so long neglected. Born in Mexico City, Amos received his training at San Diego State University, supplemented by graduate work in conducting at the University of Indiana. His wide-ranging career has taken him around the world, to lead such orchestras as the Israel Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic, and the New Russia Orchestra, to name just a few Amos is also the founder of the International Musicians’ Recording Fund, an organization dedicated to the promotion of worthy but lesser-known 20th-century music.

Tatjana Rankovich was born in Belgrade, in the former Yugoslavia, where she won three first prizes in national competitions by the time she reached the age of 18. Coming to the United States the following year, she studied at the Juilliard School, where she earned Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees, working with Josef Raieff. Her other teachers have included Clifton Matthews, Benjamin Kaplan, and Zelma Bodzin. Ms. Rankovich has concertized throughout the United States, Europe, and South America, winning awards at the Young Keyboard Artists International Competition and the Artists International Auditions. In addition to her premiere recordings of Nicolas Flagello’s Second and Third Piano Concertos, she gave the first public performance (in 1992) of his 1958 Symphonic Waltzesrecording them for Citadel Records, and performing them to great acclaim on international recital tours. Ms. Rankovich is currently on the faculty of the Mannes College of Music
Elmar Oliveira is one of today’s most active and widely acclaimed violin virtuosos, in demand for concerto and recital appearances throughout the world. Born in the United States to Portuguese parents, he studied with Ariana Bronne and Raphael Bronstein at the Manhattan School of Music, where he became acquainted with Nicolas Flagello and his music. In 1975, he won the Naumburg Competition and, three years later, the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow — the only American violinist ever to win the Gold Medal. In 1983 he received the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize. Throughout his career, Oliveira has balanced a mastery of the standard violin repertoire with an active interest in discovering and presenting worthy lesser-known works, introducing audiences to music by such composers as Andrzej Panufnik Benjamin Lees, and Karel Husa, as well as Nicolas Flagello. His many recordings have appeared on a variety of major labels and comprise an enormous range of repertoire, leading to several Grammy nominations.

FLAGELLO: Symphony No. 2, “Symphony of the Winds”. The Land. Serenata. Symphonic Waltzes.

FLAGELLO: Symphony No. 2, “Symphony of the Winds”. The Land. Serenata. Symphonic Waltzes. Nicolas Flagello conducting the Orchestra da Camera di Roma and I Musici di Firenze; Ezio Flagello, basso; Tatjana Rankovich, piano. CITADEL CTD-88115 [ADD; DDD ; 74:38. Produced by Tom Null.

This is the third major Nicolas Flagello release to appear within the past twelve months (see Fanfare 18:5, pp. 18-30; 188-90 , suggesting that this most important post-Romantic is finally gaining the attention his music has warranted for so long. This new disc, entitled “Flagello Conducts Flagello,” is something of a miscellany, containing one reissue, two first releases of performances originally recorded 25 years ago (but never issued), and one brand-new recording.

The most auspicious entry is the reissue of the 25-minute orchestral song cycle entitled The Land, featuring the composer’s brother Ezio as soloist. This recording dates from 1962, when the singer was 31, before he had attained a reputation as one of the world’s leading operatic bassos (he was still described as bassbaritone at the time). The original LP was available briefly on the obscure Internos label, then was reissued by Musical Heritage Society during the mid 1970s. I suspect that there are many aficionados of vocal music who would be delighted by this recording, but never knew it existed.

Flagello composed these six settings of nature poems by Tennyson when he was 26, expanding the rather slight, unpretentious verses into warm and luxuriantly romantic songs that culminate, with the concluding “Flower in the Cranny,” in pantheistic revelation. Brother Ezio’s contribution displays sensitive musicianship as well as a gloriously rich voice The other especially noteworthy item is the one non-composer-conducted entry: the Symphonic Waltzes for piano solo. (These are different from theTwo Waltzes of 1953 that appear on Joshua Pierce’s all-Flagello piano CD [Premier PRCD-1014].  The Symphonic Waltzes were written in 1958 and later expanded and orchestrated into the Lautrec ballet suite The original piano version was never performed until 1992, when the young Serbian pianist Tatjana Rankovich introduced them at her New York debut recital. Since then, she has become something of a Flagello specialist, performing the waltzes with great success at recitals throughout the United States and Europe (She has also recorded Flagello’s Second and Third Piano Concertos with the Slovak Philharmonic — a release that may be on the market by the time this review appears.)

The three Symphonic Waltzes date from the brief juncture between Flagello’s earlier and later stylistic phases and are uncharacteristic in their deliberate evocation of turn-of-the-century Paris, although the composer’s distinctive fingerprints are everywhere evident to those familiar with them Ms. Rankovich obviously has a deep affinity for this music underlining its roots in the 19th-century virtuoso tradition, and playing it with the same sensitivity to nuances of phrasing and tonal coloration that one would apply to the mainstream works of say, Rachmaninoff and Ravel, to name the most salient examples More than simply an accomplished pianist, she is an intelligent artist, capable of bringing to life a work that has never been played before, and making it sound like an established masterpiece.

Symphony No. 2, “Symphony of the Winds,” was first recorded by the Cornell University Wind Ensemble, under the direction of Marice Stith, in 1979, shortly after their world premiere performance. Reviewing that recording (Fanfare 3:2, pp. 68-9), I wrote, “This is an impressively compact work of striking psychological tone, in which hauntingly affecting mental states are crystallized through a meticulous musical syntax.” Flagello’s music generally displays a gloomy demeanor, and this work is no exception. Neither in sonority nor in spirit does it resemble ordinary “band music,” yet it displays a wiry solidity that distinguishes it from the neo-romantic lushness of the composer’s orchestral music. The subtitle “Symphony of the Winds” has an enigmatic double meaning, as Flagello appended metaphorical rubrics to each movement: “Torrid winds of veiled portents”; “Dark winds of lonely contemplation”; “Winds of rebirth and vitality.” Characteristically, the work’s emotionalism is tightly controlled by a masterful sense of structure and coherence.

Completed two years after the large-scale tragic-heroic Symphony No. 1, Symphony of the Winds is less than 20 minutes in duration and is scored for a small ensemble consisting of the wind and percussion sections of a standard symphony orchestra.  The Cornell performance, however, used a much larger ensemble, and was neither precisely accurate nor sensitively interpreted. This Italian performance does use the smaller ensemble and is more accurately executed, but leaves plenty of room for improvement on all levels. One of today’s more proficient wind ensembles, such as, for example, the much-recorded Cincinnati Conservatory Wind Symphony, could make a spectacular impression with this powerful and provocative work.

The Serenata is generally warm and sunny in spirit. Scored for chamber orchestra, it is loosely modeled on the format of the Baroque suite, but with only the most remote musical references to that era. Its first recording was released in early 1995, on a terrific disc that also featured music by Vittorio Giannini and Morton Gould (Albany TROY-143), played by the New Russia Orchestra under David Amos. That release appeared on my 1995 Want List. This Citadel performance, originally recorded in 1968, shortly after the work was composed, but never issued before, doesn’t approach the Amos, rendition with regard to quality of solo and ensemble playing — or even interpretation. Flagello may have been a great composer, as I believe he was, but he was not a great conductor, and most of the recordings made under his direction suffered from infinitesimal budgets and virtually no rehearsal time.

Nonetheless, listeners who are discovering Flagello’s music will definitely want this disc for the beautifully sung The Land, the definitively performed Symphonic Waltzes,and the only currently available recording of the Symphony of the Winds.