by Walter Simmons
NICOLAS FLAGELLO (1928-1994)
Missa Sinfonica (1957)
1 Kyrie (6:31)
2 Gloria (6:52)
3 Credo (6:51)
4 Sanctus et Benedictus (7:10)
5 Agnus Dei (7:02)
World Premiere Recording
National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine
John McLaughlin Williams, conductor
Walter Simmons, Executive Producer
Alexander Hornostai, Session Producer
Andrij Mokrytsky, Recording Engineer
Anthony J. Casuccio, Mastering Engineer
Large Concert Studio, National Radio Company of Ukraine (Kiev), June 14-18, 2006
Publishers: (European-American Music Distributors [www.eamdllc.com])
Flagello: Missa Sinfonica
Nicolas Flagello was born in New York City to a family that had been musically active for generations. He studied both piano and violin as a child, and began composing on his own before the age of ten. He was soon brought to the attention of Vittorio Giannini, a highly esteemed composer and teacher known for his adherence to traditional musical values. Giannini became Flagello’s mentor, and the two developed a close professional and personal friendship that lasted until the older man’s death in 1966. In 1945 Flagello entered the Manhattan School of Music, where Giannini served on the faculty. Earning both his Bachelor’s (1949) and Master’s (1950) degrees there, he joined the faculty himself upon graduating, and remained there for more than 25 years. (For a time during the 1960s he also taught at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.) Winning a Fulbright Fellowship in 1955, he took a leave to study for a year at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome, working under the elderly Ildebrando Pizzetti, and earning the Diploma di Studi Superiori.
Throughout his career Flagello’s music embodied traditional romantic musical values, although his later works were intensified by modernist innovations in harmony and rhythm, but without the irony or detachment of postmodernism. For him music remained a personal medium for spiritual and emotional expression. His large and varied body of work includes six operas, two symphonies, eight concertos, and numerous orchestral, choral, chamber, and vocal works.
When Flagello’s music first appeared on recording, The New Records commented, “If this is not great music, we will gladly turn in our typewriter and quit.” Years later, Mark Lehman wrote in the American Record Guide, “What Flagello brings to his art is, first of all, an absolute conviction in the primacy of emotion: the music throbs with vitality. It can be exciting or turbulent, sweetly melancholy or tragic — but it is always openly and fiercely passionate.” And in Classical Music (Backbeat Books, 2002), Brett Johnson states, “Flagello was perhaps the most effective exponent of the American lyrical post-romantic ideal in the generation that followed Barber. His profound belief in the expressive power of music is manifest in every piece.”
In addition to composing, Flagello was active as a pianist and conductor, and made dozens of recordings of a wide range of repertoire, from the Baroque period to the twentieth century. In 1985 a degenerative illness brought his musical career to an end prematurely. He died in 1994, at the age of 66.
Although much of Flagello’s music remained unheard at the time of his death, in recent years his work has been performed and recorded at an increasing rate, attracting the attention of a new generation of listeners. Violinists Elmar Oliveira and Midori, and conductors Semyon Bychkov and James DePreist are just a few of today’s leading performers who have found in Flagello’s work deeply felt musical content, presented in a clear, comprehensible manner.
Flagello’s personality and life-style were far from puritanical, yet religious feelings ran strongly within him and he attributed great importance to the role they played in his life. Indeed, he considered all his compositions to be fundamentally spiritual in nature—some pieces more explicitly than others. The Missa Sinfonica was composed in 1957. Along with the 1956 Theme, Variations, and Fugue (Naxos 8.559148), it is the most ambitious purely orchestral work of his early period, which lasted until 1959. Although plainchant provides some of the work’s thematic material, Flagello did not adapt his musical style to suit these ancient modal melodies. Not unlike Paul Creston, whose Third Symphony (Naxos 8.559034) is an emotional response to the Nativity, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ and draws its thematic material entirely from Gregorian Chant, in Missa Sinfonica Flagello expressed his devotional feelings in his own natural musical idiom, with its impassioned, hyper-emotional rhetoric and richly romantic harmonic language. (And, like Creston’s symphony, Flagello’s Missa was criticized after its premiere as insufficiently pious.)
As its title indicates, Missa Sinfonica reflects elements of both the Mass and the symphony. Of its five movements, the first, third, and fifth suggest hymn-like orchestral arias, while the second and fourth are rather scherzoso in character. The work was first performed in November, 1957, by the symphony orchestra of the Manhattan School of Music, under the direction of Jonel Perlea.