Nicolas Flagello

Nicolas Flagello was one of the last composers to develop a distinctive mode of expression based wholly on the principles and techniques of European late-Romanticism. Born in New York City in 1928, Flagello grew up in a highly musical family with deep roots in Old-World traditions. A child prodigy, young Nicolas was composing and performing publicly as a pianist before the age of ten. While still a youth, he began a long and intensive apprenticeship with composer Vittorio Giannini, who further imbued him with the enduring values of the grand European tradition. His study continued at the Manhattan School of Music, where he earned both his Bachelor's (1949) and Master's (1950) Degrees, joining the faculty immediately upon graduation, and remaining there until 1977. (During the 1960s he also taught at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.) In 1955 he won a Fulbright Fellowship to study in Rome, and earned the Diploma di Studi Superiori the following year at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, under the tutelage of Ildebrando Pizzetti.

During the years that followed, Flagello composed at a prodigious rate, producing an impressive body of work. In addition, he was active as a pianist and conductor, making dozens of recordings of a wide range of repertoire, from the Baroque period to the twentieth century. In 1985 a deteriorating illness brought his musical career to an end prematurely. He died in 1994, at the age of 66.

As a composer, Flagello held with unswerving conviction to a view of music as a personal medium for emotional and spiritual expression. This unfashionable view, together with his vehement rejection of the academic formalism that dominated musical composition for several decades after World War II, prevented him from winning acceptance from the reigning arbiters of taste for many years. However, gradually his music began to win enthusiastic advocacy. Since his death, Flagello's works have been performed and recorded at an increasing rate, finding favor with a new generation of listeners.


In 1964 Flagello was commissioned to compose a short test piece for the American Accordionists' Association. He fulfilled the commission with a powerful, tightly-packed work entitled Introduction and Scherzo. Although it fulfilled its original function admirably, and proved to be a valued contribution to the serious accordion repertoire, I always felt that its merit transcended its original purpose. In 1984, while Flagello was composing his Concerto Sinfonico for saxophone quartet and orchestra, it occurred to me that the saxophone quartet would be an excellent medium through which to represent the accordion piece. When I suggested the idea of such an arrangement to Flagello, he responded favorably, assuring me that he would "get to it" after he finished the Concerto Sinfonico. But by that time a deteriorating neurological condition had advanced to the point where he could no longer work. But the idea continued to haunt me, until, several years later, I decided to undertake the arrangement myself, completing it in 1992, and entitling it Valse Noire.

The work, in two sections, opens with an aggressively sinister introduction. This leads directly into the "scherzo," which, though notated largely in 6/8 meter, has the character of a darkly brooding waltz, one of Flagello's favorite genres. The waltz proper is based on two main thematic ideas, the second of which is hinted at in the introduction.

Walter Simmons

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