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?

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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.

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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.