Giacinto Scelsi

Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988) was born in La Spezia (Italy), studied composition in Rome with Giacinto Sallustio, was taught by Egon Koehler about the composition system of Scriabin, and studied before the Second World War with Walter Klein in Vienna, who was a pupil of Schönberg. Scelsi developed his own style from 1956, in which he uses the 24-tone system (quarter-tone system) in virtually all his works. From a total of five string quartets, there are three written in the quarter-tone system: the second (1961), the third (1963) and the fourth string quartet (1964). Scelsi occupies himself in his compositions with the depth of the sound (la profondeur du son), what he calls the third dimension of sound, besides pitch and tone duration, a dimension about which he observes that it cannot be described up to now.
He calls this third element the sphere-character of the sound (la réelle dimension sphérique du son). It can be concluded from the fact that in his creative period (1956-1976) Scelsi worked almost exclusively with quarter-tone material, that the depth of the sound can be accentuated with microtones, in his case quarter-tones.
After a period of personal crisis in the fourties, Scelsi turned himself to Eastern philosophy, which had the consequence that sound came to the centre stage of his musical thinking. In 1959 he concludes an experimental period, whereafter a deepening of the sound in his music emerges: all facets undergo subtle variations without losing their identities. His use of mictonality has also to be considered in this light. Since 1960 Scelsi writes many works, like the second and third string quartet. Over a period of fourty years he writes five string quartets. They take a central position in his oeuvre and give a nice insight into his stylistic development. The quartets are very different. By prescribing special dampers in the second quartet, also for individual strings, Scelsi creates very special sound effects. The third quartet is much more quiet than the second and follows the 'redemption of the soul' in five parts.

With regard to performance technique of the string quartets Scelsi gives a comprehensive range of prescriptions for ways of playing: to use a particular string; to use certain fingers; alternation of long and rhythmic tones, tremoli, pizzicati, glissandi, sordini speciali, and a special kind of vibrato: the vibrato ampio, a vibrato which lies between a molto vibrato and a trill. This relates to another remarkable fact: the continuing presence with Scelsi of double- and multiple stops on the string instruments. The difference in point of view is that some composers see the string quartet as a four-voice sound source whereas Scelsi sees it as a sound source with 4 to 10 voices.

Sjoerd Brunia, 1993