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Carlo Maria Giulini: Italian Opera Maestro of the 20th Century

09 November 2017

Warner Classics

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He has conducted some of the world's major orchestras including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, London's Philharmonia Orchestra, and the Vienna Philharmonic, but it was in the world of opera where he really displayed his mastery. Here we pay homage to the shy yet profoundly influential Italian Maestro, Carlo Maria Giulini.

When you think of conducting, the name Giulini may not necessarily spring to mind, not at least in the same way as Karajan or Bernstein might. However, this was perhaps orchestrated by the maestro himself. He was not a fan of the limelight and preferred to remain, let's say, just a little off-centre. 

Giulini grew up in the Italian Alps in a rather well-to-do family. He was already playing violin from the age of five, and went on to study viola, composition and conducting at the renowned Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome at sixteen. He was one of the few who found his passion for conducting early, particularly in the works of the masters.

Before Guilini could really spread his wings, he was conscripted into the Italian army and sent to the Yugoslavian frontline. As a staunch pacifist and with strong opposition to the Fascist regime, Guilini took the first opportunity to abandon his comrades and took shelter in the house of his young wife's uncle. It was from here that he gradually reacquainted himself with the music he loved over a period of nine months.

Once the treaties were signed, he immediately returned to conducting and made his debut with Augusteo orchestra, now renamed the Santa Cecilia Orchestra. Giulini finally began his surge through the ranks and his introduction to the operatic world. 

1950 was an exciting year: he was already directing the Italian Radio Orchestra while forming the Milan Radio Orchestra. Then he made his opera stage debut conducting Verdi's Traviata in Bergamo, Italy. The following year, he led the work again, but this time with none other than Maria Callas as Violetta - a working relationship he'd keep for 20+ years. He was spotted by the likes of Toscanini and more notably Victor de Sabata who whisked him quickly off to La Scala to take over the principal conductor’s role in 1953.

In 1958 Giulini conducted possibly his greatest operatic achievement in London's Covent Garden - Verdi's convoluted and at times confusing Don Carlos. It seemed that under Giulini's baton, perhaps due to his instrumental training or autonomous understanding of the orchestra, he managed to extract from this unwieldy work its true power and depth of lyricism.

"I had the great privilege to be a member of an orchestra," Mr. Giulini said in an interview. "I still belong to the body of the orchestra. When I hear the phrase, 'The orchestra is an instrument,' I get mad. It's a group of human beings who play instruments." His ability to bring out a certain precision and awareness in his players is still ambiguous. He knew the musician needed more than just technical prowess to communicate the true impressions of the music - "... only after this," he said, "comes this mysterious thing that is the life of the music." He approached his conducting with a philosophical spirituality as an attempt to better serve the music, at times placing notes and verses on the stands of his players before rehearsal. 

In many ways, Giulini was a quiet achiever, at least compared to his tyrannical or hyper-flamboyant peers. He gradually took a step back from opera, attracted to mostly assistant conducting roles and eased into retirement with a slightly broader and spiritually voluptuous conducting style. He indulged in the major religious works of Mozart's Requiem, Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, Rossini's Stabat Mater, Verdi's Requiem, which suited him just fine. 

Anthony Leigh Dunstan

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