Scelsi: I presagi

GIACINTO SCELSI was born into an old family of Italian aristocracy on 8 January 1905 in La Spezia and died in Rome on 9 August 1988. I presagi, his only work for brass ensemble, was completed in 1958. Scelsi's ascendance from obscurity occurred in the mid-1980s, and was consummated in October 1987 at the SIMC International Festival in Cologne, where his orchestral music was featured to great acclaim. Two of his orchestral works, Aion and Konx-Om-Pax, were given their North American premieres by the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas, in 1997 and 2000 respectively. I presagi has been performed in Europe, under Hans Zender and others. It is scored for a smaller ensemble of tenor saxophone, two horns, two trumpets, two trombones, and two tubas, as well as two percussionists playing timpani, a horizontal bass drum, and a wind machine.

Impressions of Scelsi continue to differ, based both on his unusual approach to composing and the unconventional sound of his music. His aristocratic position and resulting means cast a dilettantish shadow over his early background, despite a thorough study of the major musical trends of the 1930s with Walter Klein in Vienna and Egon Koehler in Geneva. The latter introduced him to Scriabin's mystical approach to harmony, an orientation which clearly marks the remainder of Scelsi's career. During this period, he wrote prolifically in a fairly conventional idiom, producing a body of music he largely disclaimed later. To escape World War II, Scelsi abandoned his family's Neapolitan estate for the safety of Switzerland, and wrote two articles there on music aesthetics. These were his last public remarks on the subject. His life story becomes more mysterious after the war, a situation he maintained intentionally. He resisted any attempt to analyze his music, refused to be photographed, and generally removed himself from public view. These decisions followed quickly in the wake of a mental breakdown in the late 1940s, a crisis from which he recovered to create music in a radically new style. Scelsi's music became increasingly concerned with the sounds of single notes, and the transformations of articulation and timbre which they could endure. His working arrangements during this later period were also unusual, although not unprecedented. His music was dictated in sound, perhaps taped, and then transcribed by paid assistants who scored it according to his instructions.

Scelsi considered himself a messenger, rather than a composer, and that image fits the visionary quality of much of his music. His partially cataloged output consists of more than one hundred items, including six mature orchestral works, five string quartets, several works for larger chamber ensembles, and a substantial body of solo & duo pieces, both for voices and instruments. I presagi (1958) occupies a pivotal position in his oeuvre, as one of the last works created prior to the landmark Quattro pezzi su una nota sola (1959). There, after pioneering a restrictive style in the String Trio (1958), Scelsi returned to the orchestral medium and decisively explored the musical implications of movements based on single notes. I presagi is also one of a series of works inspired by the decline of Mayan culture. Scelsi's fascination with Central America came from his study of astrology, in which the Equatorial region is associated with his sun sign, Capricorn. He subsequently became convinced that Mayan cities were intentionally abandoned for religious reasons. This theme is expressed most elaborately in the great orchestral cantata, Uaxuctum (1966), which is also the most densely scored and dramatic large-scale piece in his output. Contrary to Scelsi's predilection for fanciful titles in exotic languages, I presagi has a straightforward meaning in Italian: The Omens. In three movements, it presents purely instrumental images of foreboding sentiments and the end of Mayan urban culture.

Much of Scelsi's work from the 1950s consists of solo music for a variety of instruments (piano, winds, strings), but he also composed for larger and more unusual forces. Among those works, until the Quattro pezzi for orchestra, I presagi employed the largest ensemble. The percussion and wind machine participate only in the last movement, but the brass writing is virtuosic throughout. As opposed to his later music, which features a highly refined sense of nuance and little conventional melody, his work from the 1950s includes octave runs and other overt musical motion, "exterior" manifestations of sonic energy in Scelsi's terms. Consequently, this portion of his output tends toward restlessness more than his "interior" expressions of the 1960s and 70s, and I presagi is no exception. The first movement, oriented around B, has a fanfare- or overture-like quality. It projects a clear sense of anticipation, a foreboding feeling which indicates that the omens of the title will not be good ones. It does so not only by Scelsi's characteristic and unsettling use of quarter-tone shifts, but by ending most phrases with long notes. The second movement, oriented around C, is less an announcement than it is a quizzical response to the first, a chance to ponder what the omens might mean. Its phrases generally begin with soft held notes, and then destabilize in trills and larger motion. The ominous feeling of the opening becomes concrete in the last movement, by far the least unified and most dramatic of the three. The wind machine and percussion enter for the first time, and help to build the music slowly into a dissonant wall of sound. A central calm highlights the wind machine, yielding a vision of desolation. As the music becomes more animated again, it seems to do so with a renewed sense of purpose, ultimately bringing an emphatic end to a frightening image.

I presagi is one of Scelsi's most approachable pieces, forming something of a climax to his work from the 1950s, much of which consists essentially of studies. While it is one of his most dramatic works, I presagi can also be viewed as a study for his orchestral masterpieces of the 1960s. The quarter tone shifts and exotic approach to sound are already evident here, but Scelsi went on to pioneer a more sophisticated approach to timbre and its harmonic implications. In his later output, music oriented around single notes regained a sense of rhetorical subtlety and refinement. I presagi, on the other hand, illustrates a scene in straightforward and aggressive fashion, something it does with great success.

Back to Giacinto Scelsi page.

Todd M. McComb
7 November 2001