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GIORGIO FEDERICO GHEDINI

‘Dear Giorgio,

Hot off the press: good news about the undisputed success of my Litanies last night. Warm welcome from the public, unreserved praise from all the critics and musicians. And an immediate request for two more performances later this month. How I wish you could have heard this enchanting work of mine! So transparent and pure and bright…’

The Italian composer Giorgio Federico Ghedini could never be accused of false modesty—but, writing to his lifelong friend Giorgio Negri after the happy première of his Litanie alla Vergine (Litanies to the Virgin Mary) in Bologna in 1927, Ghedini was clearly almost as surprised as he was proud. Success had been a long time coming. Ghedini was almost 35, and only just beginning to be recognised as a composer outside his home city, Turin. Three years later the Litanies became his first work to be played outside Italy, cementing its pivotal rôle in the career he was fighting to establish.

In his twenties Ghedini had struggled with the ‘all-consuming desire to compose: fantasising about writing important works, about becoming ‘somebody’; beautiful plans, wonderful ideals…but no money: composing doesn’t buy you bread, especially to start with.’ To make ends meet, he fell back on other musical talents: he was a fine pianist, and a particularly gifted conductor—he had burst on to the musical scene as a precocious seventeen-year-old conducting Catalani’s Loreley in Novara (between Turin and Milan); but he found he hated the itinerant life of a performer, and gradually turned instead to teaching—which he turned out to be good at too: his composition pupils at the Milan Conservatory would include Niccolò Castiglioni and Luciano Berio. Hopping from hotel room to hotel room in those early years, hacking through popular operas that gave him no pleasure, Ghedini’s ‘refuge was the music of Beethoven and J.S. Bach: I always carried their scores with me, and they “sowed the good seed” in me.’ Decades later, after the Second World War, Ghedini repaid his debt to Bach with an orchestral realisation of the Musical Offering—Bach’s own tribute to Frederick the Great, built on a theme apparently extemporised by the King himself for Bach to improvise on in fugue when he visited the royal palace at Potsdam in 1747.

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