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Giacinto Scelsi as I knew him

Elisabeth Buzzard

In Proust’s immortal work “A la recherche du Temps Perdu”, Vinteuil, a humble church organist, would have very much surprised his village auditors at the time had they been told he would one day go on to be a great and recognized composer. They could never quite believe how such a metamorphosis had been brought about.

I was reminded of this anecdote, when people during my Rome days turned to me rather incredulously, saying, “Scelsi? Wasn’t that the chap who used to beat some funny kind of drum to entertain his friends?”

I first met him through a dancer friend and soon became a regular visitor to his house in the Via San Teodoro in Rome. His living quarters were on the top floor and reached by a rickety old lift. When it finally bumped to an abrupt and noisy halt on his landing, he was usually standing there, ready to escort his guests inside. He was a small, wiry man, with startling blue eyes, coming from Neapolitan nobility with Spanish ancestry on his mother’s side. He was born at La Spezia in 1905 and eventually settled in Rome.

His rather dark and cluttered sitting room looked out on the Palatine Hill and he would beckon me to his side on the sofa facing the window to admire the view. Giacinto would point out a slightly isolated palm tree, growing amidst the pines just opposite his window. “That’s my palm tree,” he would say. “It has followed me in all my successive incarnations.”

Years later, after he died, as I once sat in a bar close by, my eyes automatically wandered up to the site, searching for Scelsi’s palm tree. It was there, gently swaying in the light breeze. Oddly comforted, I felt sure Giacinto couldn’t be so far away. It was obvious, and he made no bones about it, that he was a believer in reincarnation and other esoteric and Buddhist doctrines - he always had something illuminating to say about those convictions.

There were always plenty of other subjects to discuss, from the trivial to the most profound. I loved to question him about all sorts of matters, for his opinions were often unexpected. Once, I asked him what he thought of Mozart. “Mozart lived in the wrong epoch,” he replied and, echoing one of Mozart’s contemporaries, added, “He wrote too many notes.” Scelsi himself did not so much compose notes, as sounds, which seemed strangely drawn from the cosmos itself.

Once, he made me listen to a recording on his old tape recorder, so distorting that the music emerged as a dreadful squeak. To my astonishment, Scelsi didn’t seem to mind, and I realized his fine ear must have rectified the sounds as they reached his brain.

I can’t remember the discussion we were having, but he once bid me sit down at his small piano, “See how many times you can strike the same key in a different way.” The legend goes that years ago in a sanatorium he had cured his own deep depression by endlessly striking the same key on a piano.

Scelsi's keyboard was dreadfully stiff and out of tune. As a non pianist, I doubt I even managed two different strokes. (Whereas he contended he could strike fifteen or twenty). He made me try over and over again, and seeing my total ineptitude and mortification, at last impatiently waved me off the seat. He then sat down and improvised a most dazzling waltz, glancing triumphantly up at me with his extraordinary blue eyes as if to say, “Now that’s how it’s done!”

It seemed also that in his youth he had been a great mondain and a first rate ballroom dancer. He had once been married, the wedding reception in Buckingham Palace (!) but was soon separated, and his wife had returned to England and her beloved horses. “She reverted to type,” he would dryly explain.

I can’t remember where I saw a photograph taken of him in his youth, on which he looked most distinguished and handsome. But when I knew him, he had developed a deep aversion to being photographed, almost as if he believed in the old Oriental superstition that it was akin to having one’s soul snatched away, and he adopted a Zen symbol, a line under a circle. Someone once did photograph him on the sly, in the street, and this photograph fell into my hands. His incredible blue eyes stare back almost with a look of indignation. Respectful of his old wish, I have always kept it from public use.

My dancer friend and her small group were very much inspired by Scelsi’s esoteric leanings and put these beliefs into their own lives and dances. They worshipped the Maestro, as they called him. One day we were both invited to see them rehearsing their latest dances in their studio. Scelsi came dressed in his perennial Ghandi shaped buttoned up coat (be it winter or summer) and sporting his soft round Oriental cap with the high trimmed edge. In fact I don’t remember him ever wearing anything else, for even on the hottest days, he complained of feeling cold.

At the end of the display, he thanked and praised the dancers, then marching up into the centre of the room and effortlessly sinking to the floor, took up the lotus position. The dancers gathered round him in a circle and did likewise. For some moments, there was utter silence. Scelsi was obviously meditating. Then suddenly he burst into a loud and prolonged Ooooom. The dancers thereupon took it up, and the whole studio filled with an unearthly, most impressive sound.

Once he and I were off the premises, and I had asked him how he’d liked the dancing, he said nothing, but cast a look of such unutterable scorn that I was taken aback. It was quite obvious that however much he enjoyed the adulation of the dancers (whom I used to dub his Pre-Raphaelite Rhinemaidens) he had no words for their choreographic efforts or for their rather muddled beliefs.

Some years later, when my musicologist companion Harry Halbreich was wishing to write a biography of Scelsi, we were both invited to spend a fortnight with him.

We were lodged on the lower floor, in his sister Isabel’s apartment, and no effort was spared to make us thoroughly comfortable. Our days were free, but every evening, we went up to dine with Giacinto. He would greet us as usual, of course, on the landing, his palms pressed together as he bowed us in. After having taken us up to his terrace to enjoy the sunset over the Forum, we would dine at a rather rickety card table erected in his sitting room. Frugal, but deliciously cooked meals were served by his old retainer, the redoubtable Bruna who saw to all his and his guests’ needs.

The meal over, our host would disappear for a quarter of an hour and we concluded he was meditating – he obviously felt this was helping his digestion. He would then reappear and conversation was resumed.

At our first supper together, Harry, impatient to gather material and assuming that Giacinto was eager to talk, immediately asked him about his early life. The question misfired, for no greater reason than Giacinto was perhaps taken short by its directness and, as Harry realized too late, he'd have preferred no doubt a more circuitous approach. Instead of answering, Scelsi smoothly changed the subject. For the rest of our stay, Harry could get nothing out of him.

Except for the usual misleading anecdotes and fables with which Giacinto delighted in mystifying his friends, personal questions were brushed off in his easy, courteous manner or else answered with a deliberate untruth.

If fibs were a mode of self defence, he also used them as a means of gently pulling his friends’ legs. Although he was immensely cultured and quite open to all subjects of general interest, it was quite difficult to gauge when and if he was ever being really sincere about himself. He did speak openly about music and his composing though, and we spent a most agreable and stimulating fortnight. Yet Harry’s biography was never written nor is there yet another in English.*

On the last day of our visit, Harry and I came up to bid Giacinto goodbye. We presented him with flowers, something he adored. We embraced, but he waved our thanks away with all the courtesy of a grand seigneur. Suddenly, I saw tears gush into his eyes. He turned away for an instant. When he looked back, the tears had vanished. I never forgot them. As he closed the lift doors on us, his last words to Harry were, “Devenez poète”. He was an extremely complex and enriching man, and that was part of his fascination.

Scelsi took leave and closed his eyes for ever on August 8th 1988. Even that date was perturbing, for he had been greatly attracted by numbers and especially the number eight, standing for infinity. He quietly passed away the following day.

Intricate as he was as a personality, for Harry and I there never was the slightest doubt that as a composer he stands amongst the greatest. But a full twenty years were needed to gain him full acceptance in the music world. That process started on the two memorable days of his final triumph in September 1987 at the Cologne Philharmonic in front of a cheering crowd totalling five thousand, the last occasion on which Harry and I saw him. Belated recognition is the general fate of all visionaries gazing far into the future.

Brussels, April 2010

Pictures at top of and from Scelsi's home in Rome

* Halbreich has added "Scelsi willfully buried his own tracks, intentionally leaving little for biographers. That's why there are so few biographers. But personally, I think the music more interesting than the man. Just as Mozart may have been less attractive to know than his music..." HH.

The Editor brokered a disastrous London meeting between Harry Halbreich and a publisher of music books, who unfortunately evinced little interest in the proposed book. The meeting ended with the publisher spilling his coffee all over Halbreich's suit...

There are now many memoires of Scelsi on the Internet, and photos too. PGW

Discovering Scelsi & Obituary - Peter Grahame Woolf

Visiting Scelsi Grant Chu Covell