Few if any had heard
of Scelsi until the Cologne ISCM in
1987, a year before his death. He did
not publicise himself, refused to allow
photographs and was so successful in
self-effacement that most works of reference
ignored his existence.
He was born in Italy.
On his mother’s side he had Spanish
aristocratic blood. He studied with
a pupil of Schoenberg in Vienna and
was writing 12-tone music long before
his countryman Dallapiccola. He found
the strictures of dodecaphony and of
strict serialism a dead-end. His métier
was influenced by a pupil of Scriabin
whom he met in Geneva. Oriental spirituality
and musical method shaped his music.
You can read more about
Scelsi in a wonderfully detailed and
useful major essay by Todd Michael McComb
Also, if you read Italian, try http://www.scelsi.it/.
See also Scelsi articles
and reviews on MusicWeb
This is a uniquely
valuable set reflecting friendship and
a day in the life of Brahma) tumble
and growl in protest. It suggest primeval
activity in profound depths. Some of
the brass protests recall Hovhaness's
dissonant Vishnu Symphony as
well as Pettersson's groaning trombones
melded with the stygian tensions of
Griffes’ Pleasure Dome. The orchestra
is made up overwhelmingly of brass instruments.
This accounts for the predominance of
a certain gruff reverence.
oboes and violins, the choir intones,
sighs and wails in whispered awe. Horns
and brass rumble and roll in a stasis
of mystery. All this prepares us for
the second section in which the skies
open explosively. A celesta-inaugurated
blessing makes way for a dazzle of tinkling
in three movements unlike the four movement
Aion and Pfhat. The title
combines the words for peace from old
Assyrian, Sanskrit and Latin. The sense
of something static is instinct in this
work; a sense of being ushered into
arcana. The central movement opens a
trapdoor into heaving chaos - a hellish
turmoil of flailing bodies. The final
section has dark noises from the choir
like the growling intimations of eternity
to be heard in some of John Cage's works
for solo instrument.
The Quattro Pezzi
are each on a single note. Unusually
this is the one work of Scelsi’s that
achieved fame overnight following its
premiere in Paris in 1959. There it
was conducted by Maurice Le Roux with
the National Orchestra. There are 26
musicians specificed in this score only
five of whom are string players. There
is plentiful percussion and brass but
they are used with fastidious craft.
Scelsi’s stillness and sequestered mysteries
are not about complexity or elaboration
or about obvious melodic material.
is the Egyptian name for Venus. The
work is played here by Carmen Fournier
but was premiere by Devy Erlih (a wonderful
champion of the Tomasi violin concerto
- a world away from Scelsi). Once again
this is a static piece. It is in a single
continuous movement in which ancient
evenings in Thebes are fearfully evoked.
There is a wailing dissonance to this
music and a great thrumming of activity,
a slow turning and writhing and a swaying
and slaloming crawling and swinging,
This ends as the violin reaches out
and grasps G and holds it amid an understated
ambivalence of harmonics.
The five movement Uaxuctum
is for ondes martenot and orchestra
with chorus (chorus is a part of all
these pieces used as another ‘colouristic’
stratum). Here there are awed sighs,
sharp exhalations and stratospheric
quiet notes as well as great plate tectonic
movements. Ligeti-like waves of choral
sound sweep through the fourth section.
By the way Uaxuctum is a reference
to the name of the Mayan city destroyed
by the Mayas for religious reasons.
This score occupies very much the same
territory as Alan Hovhaness at least
conceptually though Scelsi writes in
a somewhat tougher style: a case perhaps
of Ligeti meets Debussy's Images.
The piece was premiered in Cologne under
the baton of Hans Zender.
the first of his orchestral works. As
ever the high strings are left out and
the brass predominate without turning
in anything remotely like a brass band
sound. This is much more demonstrative
than many of the pieces. Its effect
is Oriental rather like the strange
sounds produced by Avet Terteryan in
his Third Symphony crossed with pecking
rhythms sometimes similar to Beethoven's
Fifth. This is slow rolling gnarled
and enigmatic but with more intimations
of melody than in any of the other works.
the duration of a concert overture.
It is the longest unbroken span of music
that he composed. There is no chorus
this time. The score uses the single
largest orchestra he ever specified
- 86 musicians. All the strings are
used this time uniquely among Scelsi's
works. It is once again predominantly
slow. Slow motion wailing changes writhe
in an expressive torment.
dates from the same time (1963-4) as
the third and fourth string quartets.
It is written for a very large string
orchestra often divisi in fifteen
parts. Here is the work of a composer
who wrote concisely and offered glimpses,
indeed long unblinking gazes, into mysteries
and into oblivion. The string writing
is bustlingly and buzzingly complex;
try tr. 7 where Penderecki was surely
an influence. The music rises to extraordinary
heights in tr. 8. The finale and the
central two movements are instinct with
These are world premiere
recordings directed by the composer's
friend, Jürg Wyttenbach and set
down within a couple of years of Scelsi's
The notes are by Harry
Halbreich and, as usual from this writer,
are lucid and informative.
All in all this is
a very recommendable and deeply rewarding
box in which static sphinx-like arcana
stare at us and challenge us to understand.
There are moments like this in Havergal
Brian - say in the Eighth Symphony and
The Gothic - but those moments are here
extended, sustained and unhesitant.
The CDs are of LP-style
Remarkable music, static,
mysterious, Ligeti-like and with a rare
sense of arcane things ... of otherworldly
events. There is little sense of structure
in a conventional sense. These pieces
are each like a stele or a monolith.
Scelsi spends his creative currency
in awe and strangeness.