by Walter Simmons
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.