Scelsi: Cello Music (review)

Note that this text is rather dated and has not been revised.

Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988) wrote much of his large output for strings, either for solo instruments or in combinations including five quartets. Scelsi's concentration on string writing began in the mid-50s, at about the time he was writing his last piano suites and eventually abandoning that instrument which had to that time been his primary means of expression. From the mid-50s onward, Scelsi's most intimate compositions are written for strings -- often performing solo, and in many ways this is the heart of his output.

Recently released on CD on Etcetera KTC 1136 is Frances-Marie Uitti performing the Trilogia for solo cello along with Ko-Tha for modified cello. Certainly Trilogia is the major work on the disc, and the center piece of Scelsi's early output for solo strings. Uitti worked with Scelsi at his home, and this CD is a re-issue of a dutch recording made in 1979. In this way, Uitti is grouped with the performers Michiko Hirayama and the Arditti Quartet which were chosen by Scelsi to record some of his music -- and her performance of the Trilogia can be considered definitive. Her control of the multiple-string polyphony is impressive, and she brings a mature polish to some very difficult instrumental work. This recording is a must for anyone interested in Scelsi's chamber music.

The immense work Trilogia (The Three Ages of Man) is made of three smaller pieces of normal length for Scelsi (each just over thirteen minutes) which were written at different times and combined to form this epic saga. The first of the group is Triphon which can be considered Scelsi's first real string masterpiece in his new style. According to the CD, this piece dates from 1957 but in two other sources it dates from 1956. One of these sources includes David Simpson's recording of Triphon on FY 119; Simpson's performance is good, though the mixing on the recording makes it a little dim, and his interpretation cannot have the historical weight of Uitti's. However, since Uitti helped in the cataloging of Scelsi's music, the date 1957 might be more accurate; in this case, there is not much difference but other works have a greater spread in the date assigned to them.

Anyway, Triphon (1956) represents a culmination of Scelsi's string writing in the mid-50s. This ouput begins with Divertimenti for solo violin of which there are five; the third (1955) is recorded on Accord 200622. Scelsi apparently used the title Divertimento because these pieces are in a traditional tonal idiom -- however, they are quite serious and show Scelsi's incredible mastery of this idiom. Another earlier work is Coelocanth (1955) for solo viola (also on Accord 200622) which shows something of a transition between the traditional style and the style of Triphon. Here the first movements sound a bit unsure, but the last really looks forward to the polyphonic style which was to occupy Scelsi for the next ten years. Triphon is subtitled "Youth - Energy - Drama" and is a work of intense individuality, which would be very difficult to anticipate from Coelocanth or any other music. Here Scelsi begins the use of two kinds of metallic mutes for individual strings, and the first movement consists mainly of a slow recitative in the lower register under a fast buzzing (achieved via individual metallic mutes, at times scraping) interplay in upper voices. The sound is quite intense, and is somewhat reminiscent of the buzz of indian sitar. The third movement Drama is indeed highly dramatic, and consists of Scelsi's intense polyphonic style in which different voices use different forms of ornamentation concurrently (presenting unusual instrumental problems for the performer.) There is certainly some violence in this work, but after repeated hearings the overall effect is not a violent one -- indeed, the sharp overtone sprectrum on a sitar is considered not at all aggresive in India.

The second part of the Trilogia is the single-movement work Dithome which the CD dates also from 1957. I find this date rather dubious, but have no other references. There is quite a bit of stylistic difference between Triphon and Dithome, though some of that can certainly be ascribed to their different stated descriptive intentions. The subtitle of Dithome is "Maturity - Energy - Thought" which obviously shows reference to the earlier work, however it is in one long movement -- possibly Scelsi's longest (the longest recorded) and probably the most exhausting. The sound world of this piece corresponds much more closely to the Quartet No. 2 (1961) than to Triphon, and in fact represents something of a companion piece to that epoch-making Quartet (for that reason, I suspect the date may be as late as 1960 though the more I listen to Scelsi, the more I wonder about dating his music at all.) Here there is even more concentrated use of microtonal interplay between voices as well as unisons, the overall effect is much more calm and polished. Concerning Scelsi's use of unisons in polyphony, it is important to note that in the composer's 80-word autobiography he mentions his "medieval education" which apparently had some consequence for him -- and his use of unisons and open intervals can be seen as a continuation of Binchois and Ockeghem some five hundred years later. Scelsi's inspiration is quite cosmopolitan in almost every conceivable sense of the term. At any rate, Dithome can be viewed as an ABCBA form in which the middle section is much expanded, at times homophonic and songlike and at times involving quick microtonal manipulations, always more restrained than Triphon which neglects homophony. The A-sections are single voice melodies, the second recapitulating the first. The B-sections are intense microtonal polyphony (which took me more than a little effort to follow), as impressive and powerful as anything in Scelsi's output. Dithome is a symmetric piece (though nothing is repeated exactly) and as opposed to the Quartet No. 4, it is centrally symmetric. Also as opposed to Quartet No. 4 where the second "half" is arguably more intense than the first, in Dithome the first B-section is by far the most challenging; whereas the fourth quartet is a study in the path of least resistance and sneaks up on a listener, Dithome packs a big punch in the first moments. Exactly how the form relates to the poetic title, I am not sure -- though the B-section will surely impart some listening maturity.

The third part of the Trilogia is the piece Ygghur (which means catharsis in Sanskrit) which is again in three movements and subtitled "Old Age - Memories - Catharsis." The CD dates it from 1961, though other sources date it from 1965 -- in this case, the dating is more interesting since Ygghur is notated on one stave per string which Scelsi officially began in 1964 with the fourth Quartet, making the 1965 date seem reasonable. Another piece, one of the Scelsi's masterpieces Elegia per Ty (recorded on Accord 200622) is also notated one stave per string and has the conflicting dates 1958 and 1966 associated with it. Given that Scelsi often recorded a piece (at least in the case of piano music) and only subsequently had it notated, it seems plausible that these pieces may have been completely composed and even performed on the the earlier dates and only notated in final form after the issue of notation was resolved. This idea is rather interesting since Scelsi's orchestral output came mostly from the early-60s, and makes his creative work in the late 50s truly awesome (in which case pieces like the Quattro Pezzi on a single note (1959) can be seen as simplifications not so much for personal study and eventual expansion, but to help the listener with the music already composed.) Whether or not there is any truth to this, Ygghur is notated one stave per string and therefore deserves to be considered with Scelsi's mature summations of his string style dating from the mid-60s, these being the Quartet No. 4 (1964), Xnoybis (1964) for solo violin, Ygghur (1965) for solo cello, Manto (1966) for solo viola along with the Duo for violin and cello (1965) and Elegia per Ty (1966) for viola and cello. Within this group (though I have not heard Manto, which I hope will be released soon), Ygghur is much more personal than the extremely technical (and perhaps instructional) Quartet No. 4 which is a study in pure form, and the highly intense and technical Xnoybis which is extremely difficult. It is also rather easier than any of these pieces which makes the 1961 date more plausible, though the difficulty may have been reduced in order not to overwhelm the other pieces in the Trilogia (which the Elegia certainly would.)

Scelsi apparently wrote six duos for strings. In addition to the two from this period using the cello, there is Arc-en-ciel (1973) for two violins, Nuits for two double bases, and two others which are still unknown. The Duo for violin and cello is seen as a study for the Elegia (though if the 1958 date is accurate this is rather dubious, unless as purely a study in notation) and consists of two movements which are basically independent illustrations; the power of the two illustrations should not be underestimated though, and the work builds somewhat on Xnoybis and also makes for a good introduction to the mid-60s ouput (the Quartet No. 4 is really formally simpler than any of these pieces.) The Elegia is an astonishing, mournful masterpiece which continues to show new aspects -- it is very difficult to digest. By the fourth Quartet, Scelsi's string writing is so expanded that a quartet sounds like an orchestra and so these duos represent an important level in his chamber music, perhaps taking the place of the traditional quartet.

Returning to Ygghur, the first movement "Old Age" anticipates/recalls the first movement of the Elegia, with its concentration on poignancy. The second movement "Memories" echoes much of Scelsi's output to that time, though in particular the slow "gong" movement of the first quartet and anything else in disembodied form. The final movement "Catharsis" is mostly in high registers, very restrained, and looks forward to much of Scelsi's string writing in the late-60s and the early 70s with their slow, restrained microtonal glissandi; as such it is not really as successful, though it takes some audacity to even attempt a movement on catharsis specifically. Whatever its position with respect to Scelsi's 60s string ouput, Ygghur represents a fitting conclusion to the Trilogia and it can be assumed that it was at this point when the complete Trilogia was assembled.

In 1974, Scelsi wrote two more pieces for solo cello collectively titled Voyages. One of these, Le Fleuve Magique, has been recorded by Robin Clavreuil on Adda 581189. This piece hardly exists: it is only two minutes long and operates in fleeting harmonics. Nonetheless, it takes the listener on a real voyage and it is in such brief passages that Scelsi's genius can be most easily felt. In addition to the Trilogia, Uitti's CD includes Ko-Tha "A Dance of Shiva" which was arranged for six-string cello by Uitti in 1978 and recorded in Rome. The original was for amplified guitar, though one wonders whether Scelsi may have had the south indian veena in mind (which was played with electronic pickups by the late great Balachander) since the sound evokes the veena, though the lack of melody is certainly not indian. This piece consists largely of quickly arpeggiated, decaying chords much as in Aitsi (1974). In this case, there is also some rapping on the body of the cello. The piece is rather engaging, and an extreme example of one aspect of Scelsi's late music.

As a whole, the Trilogia represents much of Scelsi's mature style in an epic journey through his life. It is extremely powerful music reduced to its barest essentials for a single cello, yet producing at times a huge variety and intensity of sound. It is one of Scelsi's masterpieces, and sure to take its place in all modern cello repertoires.

Back to Giacinto Scelsi page.

Todd M. McComb
January 1992