About this Recording
8.559148 - FLAGELLO: Symphony No. 1 / Theme, Variations and Fugue
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Nicolas Flagello (1928-1994)

Nicolas Flagello (1928-1994)

Symphony No.1 • Sea Cliffs • Intermezzo • Theme, Variations and Fugue

Nicolas Flagello was one of the last American composers to pursue traditional romantic musical values, intensified by modernist innovations in harmony and rhythm, but without the irony or detachment of postmodernism. For him music was a personal medium for spiritual and emotional expression, a view that was far from fashionable during the years after 1945, when Flagello’s creative personality was crystallizing, a time when ‘originality’ and ‘experimental’ techniques reigned supreme. In such a milieu Flagello’s music gained little attention. Yet he held fast to his ideals throughout his life, producing a large and varied body of work that included six operas, two symphonies, eight concertos, and numerous orchestral, choral, chamber, and vocal works, although much of it was still unperformed at the time of his death, only in recent decades to find an increasingly sympathetic audience.

Flagello was born in New York City in 1928 into a musical family. He studied both piano and violin as a child, and began composing on his own before the age of ten. He was soon brought to the attention of Vittorio Giannini, a highly esteemed composer and teacher known for his adherence to traditional musical values. Giannini became Flagello’s mentor, and the two developed a close professional and personal friendship that lasted until the older man’s death in 1966. In 1945 Flagello entered the Manhattan School of Music, where Giannini served on the faculty. Earning both his Bachelor’s (1949) and Master’s (1950) Degrees there, he joined the faculty himself upon graduating, and remained there for more than 25 years, teaching for a time during the 1960s also at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Winning a Fulbright Fellowship in 1955, he took leave to study for a year at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome, working under the elderly Ildebrando Pizzetti, and earning the Diploma di Studi Superiori.

The first recordings of Flagello’s music in 1964 were well received by some critics. In 1974, his oratorio The Passion of Martin Luther King was first performed with great acclaim by the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., subsequently to be recorded, and performed throughout the United States and Canada. In 1982, his opera The Judgment of St Francis was produced in Assisi. Flagello was also active as a pianist and conductor, and made dozens of recordings of a wide range of repertoire, from the Baroque to the contemporary. In 1985 a degenerative illness brought his musical career to an end prematurely. He died in 1994, at the age of 66.

During the years since his death, performances and recordings of Flagello’s music have attracted the attention of a new generation of listeners. Well known performers, such as the violinist Midori, have been championing his work, and recent recordings have received critical acclaim.

Flagello composed his Symphony No. 1 during the years 1964-68, and it was first performed in 1971 by the Manhattan School of Music symphony orchestra, under the composer’s direction. It is his largest and most ambitious abstract work and is, in many ways, a definitive statement of his identity as a composer and as a human being. At the same time, it is a work of consummate compositional mastery and discipline, a virtual textbook of classic symphonic technique. Not surprisingly, Flagello acknowledged as his model the Fourth Symphony of Brahms, a work that he held in great esteem, although its Olympian sobriety is far removed from the turbulence and desperation of his own composition.

The work opens boldly with a three-note motif that is the basis of the entire symphony. The first movement, Allegro molto, is an explosive sonata-allegro, in which a violently agitated first theme is offset by a brooding, restless second theme, which ultimately achieves the major climax of the movement. The movement’s sense of constant strife is engendered by frequent, heavily accented changes of meter. The second movement, Andante lento, opens with recitative-like passages that gradually lead to the body of the movement, a long-breathed lyrical outpouring that ebbs and flows with the immediacy of an operatic scene, though the basic three-note motif is woven throughout. This aria for orchestra builds to a towering climax, before returning to the recitative-like passages with which the movement opened. The third movement, Allegretto brusco, is an ironic scherzo-and-trio with grotesque and sinister undercurrents, based on an inverted form of the basic motif. An eerie trio section offers a brief but unstable moment of respite, before the scherzo returns in modified form. This leads to a stretto, culminating in a wildly demonic outburst in which all the ideas of the scherzo are combined. The movement concludes on a note of uncertainty and anticipation that sets the stage for the mighty finale to follow. The fourth movement, Ciaccona: Maestoso andante, opens with a majestic tutti statement that conceals a bass-line created from an extended retrograde elaboration of the symphony’s basic motif. The chaconne, in fact really a passacaglia, although the terms are often used interchangeably, is built on that bass-line. A series of nineteen strict variations begins with the solemnity customarily associated with the form, but the music gradually becomes increasingly agitated, leading to a return of the opening majestic statement. Now, led by the oboe, a series of freer developmental variations follows, which creates the effect of a poignant, bitter-sweet interlude. The moment of tenderness soon turns ominous and tense, leading, after a total of 26 variations, to a vigorous fugue of which both subject and countersubject are transformations of the passacaglia bass-line. The fugue proceeds, further developing all the movement’s thematic material in increasingly concentrated fashion, rising to an intense emotional pitch. A stretto then culminates in a stark triadic harmonization of the passacaglia theme that is both triumphant and defiant, leading the work to an extremely hard-won conclusion.

During the late 1950s Flagello was invited to make a series of string-orchestra arrangements of light classics for a recording that he would conduct, featuring "The 20th-Century Strings". In addition to the arrangements, he decided to add a tuneful piece of his own. Despite its brevity, Sea Cliffs exhibits a variety of techniques designed to flatter the sound of the strings. It is included as something of a "palate-cleanser," after the astringency of the symphony that precedes it.

In 1969 Flagello was commissioned by the Manhattan School of Music’s Preparatory Division to write an opera that could be performed and enjoyed by children. He decided to base his libretto on Robert Browning’s poem The Pied Piper of Hamelin, changing the original vengeful ending to a denouement of redemption in which the Piper is revealed as an almost Christ-like "Spirit of Music." The result is a three-act opera lasting less than an hour. The première took place at the Manhattan School of Music in May, 1970, and the opera has enjoyed a number of successful productions during the ensuing years.

Flagello’s music for The Piper of Hamelin is direct and tuneful, designed for children and for more mature performers. Preceding Act III is a short "Intermezzo" that elaborates the emotional strands salient at that point in the opera through purely musical means. Its lugubrious beginning expresses the loneliness and despair of the townspeople, now bereft of their children. Towards the middle of the Intermezzo, however, the solo clarinet introduces a tender motif that will later emerge in the opera as the melody of redemption.

Theme, Variations, and Fugue represents the culmination of Flagello’s year of study with Pizzetti at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia. Nevertheless it is no mere student work, as the 28-year-old composer already had two operas, concertos for piano and flute, and a large choral work to his credit. Theme, Variations, and Fugue is an ambitious work based on a sombre theme in B flat minor, built around a descending minor triad, which is densely woven into a chromatic, contrapuntal fabric. A secondary motif comprises a stepwise descending pattern. The nine variations that follow develop a wide range of affective attitudes, many of which–whimsical, farcical, sprightly, comical, ungainly–represent expressive modes Flagello was rarely to pursue in the future, while others–mournful, resolute, warmly affectionate–he was to revisit again and again. The variations are followed by an elaborate fugue, with a jaunty subject based on the main theme. Beginning with a thorough, if rather orthodox, exposition and development, the fugue becomes increasingly expansive and symphonic in character. Finally the main theme, in its original, sombre guise, is introduced by the horn and cellos against running figures initially in the violins and flutes, who are gradually joined by more and more of the orchestra. The work culminates in a monumental coda in B flat major, stunningly orchestrated with lavish percussion and organ reinforcement.

Walter Simmons

For further information, visit: www.Flagello.com

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