updated 7 April 2009

Giacinto Scelsi

Italian composer and poet born 8 January 1905 in La Spezia; died 9 August 1988 in Rome.

Born in La Spezia of noble descent, Giacinto Scelsi showed extraordinary talent for improvising at the piano as a child. He studied composition in Rome with Giacinto Sallustio, but nonetheless remained detached from the musical atmosphere of his time. In the inter-war period and until the 1950s, he travelled extensively in Africa and the East. He also spent extended periods abroad, notably in France and Switzerland. While in Geneva, he worked with Egon Koehler, who introduced him to Scriabin’s compositional techniques. In 1935-36, he studied twelve-tone music with Walter Klein, a student of Schoenberg, in Vienna.

The 1940s were marked by a long and debilitating personal and spiritual crisis from which he would emerge, in the early 1950s, with a renewed outlook on life and music. From this moment on, “sound” was to be at the heart of his musical thought. The composer (a title which Scelsi rejected) believed that he had become a sort of medium through which messages from a transcendental realm could flow. Once again living in Rome in 1951-52, he led a solitary life, occupying himself with ascetic research on sound. He nonetheless became a member of Nuova Consonanza, a collective of avant-garde composers of which Franco Evangelisti was a member. Scelsi’s Quattro Pezzi su una nota sola (1959) for chamber orchestra marked the end of ten years of intense experimentation with sound. Subsequent works achieve a sort of interiorisation of non-complex sounds, which are deconstructed into their constituent parts.

Over the following 25 years, Scelsi composed numerous works but enjoyed few performances. It was not until young French composers Tristan Murail, Gérard Grisey, and Michaël Lévinas showed interest (and admiration) for Scelsi’s music in the 1970s, and the Darmstadt Summer Courses programmed a number of his pieces in 1982, that his work became known to a wider audience.

Also an author of essays on aesthetics and poetry (including four volumes in French), Giacinto Scelsi died on 9 August 1988. A lively polemic arose in Italy shortly after his death regarding the authenticity of his compositions. Most of his works are published by Salabert.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2019

By Jacques Amblard

In historical accounts, Giacinto Scelsi is remembered as a composer whose mysticism went hand in hand with his economy of means. Each of his Quattro pezzi su una nota sola (1959) — his first masterpiece — revolves around a single note. This note is sustained and either doubled at the octave or somewhat “thickened” by the instrumentalists who, with microtonal pitch variations, create interference giving rise to broad beats. Going beyond György Ligeti’s Musica ricercata, structured around the A pitches on the piano, Scelsi draws the listener’s attention to the inner activity of sound, much in the same way that Zen meditation or prayer enables one to dive into the self. Within the minutia of sound, tensions and resolutions exist at a micro scale, or even just in crescendos and decrescendos. Scelsi’s music is economic and, above all, intense. His works challenge, as if almost incidentally, the dominant aesthetics of the twentieth century: with him, music is not about being above tonality as in serial compositions, nor within tonality as in neoclassical and post-romantic pieces. Rather, it is somewhere underneath tonality. Scelsi rejected many of the conventions of Western art music composed since Pérotin in the thirteenth century — since the beginning of polyphonic music, in other words. Any music composed after Gregorian chant he considered to be hollow and soulless. As an alternative, he proposed micro-scale compositions in which music returns to its original source: sound itself. His approach was less an aesthetic and more an ethic: he meant his music to be truly utilitarian. He did not put forth his compositions as art, but rather as means to an end. He saw individual tones as akin to the Creative Word in the Prologue of Saint John’s Gospel or to the sacred “om” syllable in Buddhism, in that they hold mysterious creative powers that touch all they encounter. They have the power of a magic spell. Or at least that was his objective. Scelsi’s approach was undeniably original, especially during the twentieth century, when other outlooks were deeply materialist and art represented the last remnant of spirituality.

This “creative sound” (Brahma’s voice, to refer to a part of Hindu mysticism with which Scelsi was familiar) also at times becomes destructive, evoking the trumpets of the Apocalypse, as is the case in Yamaon (1958, for bass singer and five musicians), I Presagi (1958, for ten instrumentalists), Uaxuctum (1966, for orchestra), and Okanagon (1968, for harp, amplified double bass, and tam-tam). Scelsi’s program notes — which are so terse they are almost subtitles — describe the destruction: “Yamaon prophesied to the people the conquest and the destruction of the city of Ur.”1 The same foreboding reappears in the program of I presagi and in Uaxuctum, a piece that recounts the “legend of the Mayan city, destroyed by its inhabitants for religious reasons.” In Uaxuctum, this destructive power is heightened through Scelsi’s use of the orchestra and particularly his effectively alarming scoring for percussion — here, a two-hundred-liter can that evokes the apocalypse when stroked across its lateral interior grooves. This instrument’s cry is also heard in the earlier work Aion (1961), “four episodes in one day of Brahma’s life,” which shows that for Scelsi the sound of terror was often the same as the sound of ecstasy: both share the evocation of “terrible divine energy.” This explains the omnipresence of bellowing brass, particularly in low registers (a type of instrumental violence that Sergei Prokofiev fathered, perhaps), in Scelsi’s orchestral works. Sound, when it does not induce a meditative peace (In nomine lucis and Pranam 1), relays the power of God. A similar atmosphere is found in Anton Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, as musicologist Harry Halbreich has underlined. Bruckner’s frightening and mystical organ also found its way into Scelsi’s orchestral works, in Hymnos (1963), Konx-om-pax (1969), and Pfhat (1974).

With Hymnos in particular, Scelsi uses a wider range of sounds, his writing no longer restricted to the highly limited ambitus of a single note. He further develops this range in Hanahit (1963) and in his masterpiece Konx-om-pax. With this new approach, he finally works with the higher pitches of the orchestra, including the violins. (Among all his orchestral works, he only uses violins in Hymnos and Konx-om-pax.) Yet, the single note remains central in these works, and Scelsi uses the higher pitches to underline the upper harmonics of this tone, thus creating a polarized and somewhat caricatural structure. With this technique, Scelsi can be seen as a forefather of spectral music. Gérard Grisey, who met Scelsi during his stay at the Villa Medici in Rome, built his exemplar piece Partiels on the low pitch of the trombone — a sound à la Scelsi. Scelsi’s works with a large ambitus, approached through wide and continuous glissandi, recall Metastasis (1954) by Iannis Xenakis. In both cases, the composers renounce equal temperament and sketch broad, powerful gestures through textures generated by large orchestras. In fact, in the music scene of the 1960s, Scelsi is less alone and less original than is often claimed, at least regarding his rendering of sound. Indeed, this one Italian embodies the traits of two French composers by bringing the ecstatic inspiration of Olivier Messiaen into play with the ingenuous yet powerful gestures and tabula rasa approach of Xenakis. Going further back, Edgard Varèse seems relevant. Varèse had eliminated harmony, counterpoint, equal temperament, and even pitches from his piece Ionisations (1928) in order to foreground timbre. Scelsi pushes this austerity further by disregarding timbre and focusing on the inner beatings of sound, whatever the instrument. To that effect, certain of his pieces are written for interchangeable instruments. Maknongan (1976) is for bass instruments — tuba or double bass, for example — or bass voice, and the Tre Pezzi (1956) are for bass trumpet or soprano saxophone.2 Scelsi thus undermines the advances in orchestration made since Hector Berlioz, and indeed during the entire twentieth century, an era celebrated for its development of timbre. This is one of his most original contributions as a composer: anti-orchestration.

With the devotion of a mystic, Scelsi concentrated on the inner activity of sound, a practice that was suited especially to writing for solo instruments. His output thus includes more than fifty pieces for solo instruments and fifteen or so duets. In these, the frequencies of two sustained tones rub against one another, and the micro-cluster phenomena that emerge reveal that what may have been most important to him was not each tone itself, but its beatings and vibrations. In his music, divine creative power is not represented by pure tone, but by the friction between close frequencies. Scelsi constantly dramatizes the Creative Word rather than actually recreating it. The friction between these neighboring sounds is explosive. The voices sweep and oscillate through a narrow field of pitches until they settle on the G spot, the point of climax in resonance with the neighboring sound. Scelsi was searching for what physicists have called a resonance phenomenon: a trigger, a release, a blaze. To use yet another metaphor, sounds are beaten together at varying frequencies, tentatively and continuously, as if the performer is looking for a point of emulsion until, suddenly, a sound mayonnaise takes form. It is as if the sounds, in close contact, grow into whipped peaks. This dramatic build-up that Scelsi sought, of course, never truly materializes. If it would, his music would create physical objects and shatter windows. Scelsi merely dreamt of a mysterious creative sound, rather than achieved it. From this angle, his music is descriptive.

Indeed, many of Scelsi’s works have a program, even if a short one, setting apart his compositions from the era’s dominant aesthetic for pure music. Therein lies the works’ humility. His programs are uncluttered, economic, even pedagogical. Indeed, Scelsi transmits his conception of spirituality simply: his musical structures are short and clear. The first movement of Chukrum (1963), for example, is a palindrome; the same for the Second and Third Quartet. By using an exact palindrome, he magnified and distilled one of the most primary forms in the history of music, the ABA form, and with it the myth of the eternal return. In the last movement of Konx-om-pax, the choir enters on a unison, singing the sacred “om” syllable on the A of the tuning fork. The unison is thus both a tone of creation and a tuning note: mysticism reaches music.

An exemplar of this mysticism can be heard in Pfhat (1974), the composer’s most concise piece for large ensemble, written for orchestra including a single viola, a choir, and an organ, and excluding oboes and violins. Pfhat tells the following terse tale: “A flash… and the sky opened!” The overture is driven by five horns, four trombones, four tubas, and six percussion instruments. The second movement — the “flash” — is built on a brief cluster whose resonance is explored in various harmonic areas. Then the “sky opens” and, according to Scelsi, the music reaches ecstasy: the piccolo, flute, piano, and organ cluster around high D and E-flat, while the remaining instrumentalists and the choir members each furiously ring a small bell. The gesture is inspired, bold, frenetic — and not simply because it is theatrical. It is meant to bring the musicians and audience to a point of ecstasy and join them in communal contemplation of the divine. The minimal program of Pfhat does not merely create a setting: it acts to transform music into a spiritual tool. In this piece, music comes back to its “natural program,” which is, as Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Hegel argued, to have inner spiritual significance.

Scelsi’s programs often relate to spiritual enlightenment and ecstasy. Against the catastrophic perspective of Gustav Mahler’s universe, Scelsi’s is optimistic, which was quite rare in the twentieth century. Theodore Adorno had even deemed it impossible after the Second World War. For Scelsi, encouragement may have come from his second teacher, who was a student of the author of The Poem of Ecstasy, Alexander Scriabin.3 The jubilation in Scelsi’s music — whether it relates to notions of creation or destruction — happens when the two-hundred-liter can is played in Aion and Uaxuctum, during the dazzling bell section on Pfhat, in the whirlpool-like second movement of Konx-om-pax, and in the last “om” of its third movement.

What distinguishes Scelsi’s oeuvre is the role he intended for it to occupy within music, a role that is strangely prosaic. He intended it to be useful and anti-Parnassian: not meant to please the public, but to care for it. If one moves beyond the suspicions that Scelsi was strange, a megalomaniac, or even mad — opinions caused by modern society’s mistrust of spiritualism, which it often hastily equates with sectarianism — one can find Scelsi to be a healer, or even a music therapist. He opposed the romantic notion of the genius, which he would have understood as substituting himself for the divine. Even if he did not convince all his listeners and he partly failed in his radical aims, his persona and his music stand as a permanent art installation, creating original discussion around the value of art, the sacred, and Western art music in general.

1. Ur was the capital of the Babylonian Empire. 
2. Similarly, Karlheinz Stockhausen scores his Tierkreis for a high-pitched bowed instrument and a low-pitched plucked instrument. In a perhaps more moderate fashion, he also shared Scelsi’s interest in Hindu mysticism. 
3. Translator’s note: The author may be referring to Egon Koehler, who was a kind of disciple of Scriabin. 

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2007

  • Solo (excluding voice)
  • Chamber music
  • Instrumental ensemble music
  • Concertant music
    • Concertino for piano and orchestra (1934), Inédit
    • Kya for clarinet and seven instruments (1959), 11 mn, Salabert
    • Hymnos for organ and two orchestras (1963), 10 mn, Salabert
    • Anahit lyric poem dedicated to Venus, for violin and eighteen instruments (1965), 11 mn, Salabert
  • Vocal music and instrument(s)
    • L'Amour et le crâne for voice and piano (1933), Inédit
    • Tre canti for voice and piano (1933), Inédit
    • Tre canti di primavera for voice and piano (1933), Inédit
    • Perdus for female voice and piano (1937), 4 mn, Salabert
    • La nascita del Verbo for mixed choir and orchestra (1948), 42 mn, Salabert
    • Yamaon Yamaon prophétise au peuple la conquête et la destruction de la ville d'Ur, for bass voice and five instrumentalists (1954-1958), 10 mn, Salabert [program note]
    • Khoom seven episodes of an unwritten love and death story in a distant land, for soprano and six instruments (1962), 20 mn, Salabert
    • Uaxuctum the legend of the Mayan city, destroyed by themselves for religious reasons, for seven percussionists, timpanist, choir and orchestra (1966), 20 mn, Salabert
    • elec TKRDG for six male voices, amplified guitar and three percussionists (1968), 14 mn, Salabert
    • Konx-Om-Pax three aspects of sound: as the first movement of the immutable; as a creative force; as the syllable "Om", for choir and orchestra (1969), 17 mn, Salabert
    • elec Pranam I In memory of the tragic loss of Jani and Sia Christou, for contralto, twelve instruments and tape (1972), 7 mn, Salabert
    • Manto per quattro for soprano and ensemble (1974), 4 mn, Salabert
    • Pfhat a flash ... and the sky opened !, for choir, organ and orchestra (1974), 8 mn, Salabert
  • A cappella vocal music
    • Olehö for solo voice (), Inédit
    • Tre canti popolari for four (or multiple) mixed voices (1958), 7 mn, Salabert
    • Tre canti sacri for eight mixed voices (1958), 10 mn, Salabert
    • five melodies for solo soprano (1960), 12 mn, Salabert
    • Wo-Ma for solo bass (1960), 9 mn, Salabert [program note]
    • Lilitu for solo female voice (1962), 4 mn, Salabert
    • Taiagarù five evocations for solo soprano (1962), 12 mn, Salabert
    • Yliam for female choir (1964), 8 mn, Salabert
    • Kövirügivogerü for solo voice (1967), Inédit
    • Antifona sul nome Gesu, for tenor and male choir (1970), 4 mn, Salabert
    • Il est grand temps for tenor solo (1970), 2 mn, Salabert
    • Le Grand sanctuaire for solo tenor (1970), 4 mn, Salabert
    • Même si je voyais for tenor solo (1970), 2 mn, Salabert
    • Three Latin Prayers for male or female solo voice, or unison choir (1970), 5 mn, Schirmer
    • Canti del Capricorno twenty songs for female voice and voice with instrument (1962-1972), 45 mn, Salabert
    • Sauh I e II two liturgies for two female voices, or female voice and tape (1973), 14 mn, Salabert
    • Sauh III e IV for four female voices (or multiples) (1973), 16 mn, Salabert
    • Litanie for two female voices in unison, or female voice and tape (1975), 4 mn, Salabert


Bibliographie sélective

  • Irène ASSAYAG, Giacinto Scelsi, musicien-poète du XXe siècle, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2017.
  • Leonardo Vittorio ARENA, Scelsi: l’oltre Occidente, Falconara Marittima, Edizioni Crac, 2016.
  • Jaecker FRIEDRICH, Die Magie des Klangs II, Cologne, Musiktexte, 2013.
  • Jaecker FRIEDRICH, Die Magie des Klangs I, Cologne, Musiktexte, 2013.
  • Pierre-Albert CASTANET (sous la dir. de), Giacinto Scelsi aujourd’hui, Actes du Colloque 2005, éd. Cdmc, Paris, 2008.
  • Pierre-Albert CASTANET et Nicola CISTERMO (sous la direction de), Giacinto Scelsi, Viaggio al centro del suono, La Spezia, Luna Editore, 1993 (première édition) et 2001 (seconde édition).
  • Adriano CREMONESE, Giacinto Scelsi, Rome, Nuova Consonanza/le parole gelate, 1985.
  • Giacinto SCELSI, Il Sogno 101, traduit de l’italien par Anne Giannini, Actes Sud, 2009.
  • Giacinto SCELSI, L’homme du son, traduit de l’italien par Anne Giannini, Actes Sud, 2006.
  • Giacinto SCELSI et Sharon KANACH, Les anges sont ailleurs, Arles, Actes Sud, 2006.
  • Harry HALBREICH, Giacinto Scelsi. Œuvres pour chœurs et orchestre. Plaquette de cd (voir premier cd ci-dessous)

Discographie sélective

  • Giacinto SCELSI, Quattro Illustrazioni, Suite N. 9 —Ttai, Rossella Spinoza, piano, dans « Opere Per Pianoforte », 2017, 1 cd Tactus, TC.901901.
  • Giacinto SCELSI, Hyxos, Suite, Quays, Rucke Di Guck, Ko-Lho, Tetratkys, Krishna E Rada, Natalia Benedetti, clarinette, Claudia Giottoli, flûte, Paolo Puliti, hautbois, Leonardo Ramadori, percussion, Raffaele D’Anielo, piano, dans « Complete Flute Music », 2016, 1 cd Brilliant Classics, 95039.
  • Giacinto SCELSI, Suite N. 9 — Ttai, Suite N. 10 — Ka, Sabine Liebner, piano, dans « Suite 9 & 10 Per Pianoforte », 2015, 1 cd Wergo, WER 6794 2.
  • Giacinto SCELSI, Pranam I, Pranam II, Khoom, Riti: I Funerali di Alessandro Magno, Okanagon, Ensemble Phoenix Basel, dans « RITO », 2014, 1 cd Telos Music, TLS 191.
  • Giacinto SCELSI, Divertimento No. 4, L’Âme ailée — L’Âme ouverte, Divertimento No. 2, Xynobis, Divertimento No. 3, Weiping Lin, violon, dans « The Violin Works », 2013, 1 cd Mode, mode 256.
  • Giacinto SCELSI, Ko-Lho, Quattro Illustrazioni, On the Metamorphosis of Vishnu, Dithome, Hyxos, Xynobis, To the Master, Due Improvvisazioni con Victoria Parr, Ensemble Avantgarde, dans « Chamber Music », 2013, 1 cd MDG, MDG 613 1802-2.
  • Giacinto SCELSI, Tre canti popolari per quattro voci naturali ; Duo pour violon et violoncelle ; Wo ma ; Sauh liturgia ;  Aitsi ; Sonate #4 ; Suite #11, Marianne Pousseur : soprano, Lucy Grauma : mezzo-soprano, Vincent Bouchot : baryton, Paul Gerimon : basse, Georg Alexander Van Dam : violon, Jean-Paul Dessy : violoncelle, Jean-Luc Fafchamps : piano, Johan Bossers : piano, 2010, 2 cds Sub Rosa.
  • Giacinto SCELSI, Aiôn, Anahit;* Knox-Om-Pax ; Pfhat*;Hurqualia ; Hymnos ; Chukrum ; Uaxuctum ; 4 pièces pour orchestre, Carmen Fournier : violon, Chœur philharmonique et Orchestre de la Radio Télévision de Cracovie, direction : Jürg Wyttenbach, 2000, 3 cds Musidisc, Accord 200.402-612.
  • Giacinto SCELSI, Kya;* Maknongan ; Le fleuve magique ; Poème pour piano n° 2 ; In nomine lucis ; 4 pièces pour trompette soliste ; Aitsi ; Pranam II ; Pwyll *;Arc-en-ciel, Serge Garcia et Carmen Fournier : violons, Renaud François : flûte, Jacqueline Méfano : piano, Robin Clavreuil : violoncelle, Jean-Pierre Arnaud : hautbois, Michel tavernier : contrebasson, Rémi Lerner : clarinette, Antoine Cure : trompette, ensemble 2e2m, direction : Paul Méfano, 1 cd Adda 581 189.
  • Giacinto SCELSI, Triphon ; Three latin prayers;* Ptanam II ; Antifona *;*In nomine Lucis I *;Tre canti sacri ; V ; In nomine sacri, David Simpson : violoncelle, John Patrick Thomas : contre-ténor, Eric Lundquist : orgue, ensemble 2e2m, direction : Lucas Pfaff, Groupe vocal de France, direction : Michel Tranchant, 1 cd Fy-Solstice, FYCD 119.
  • Giacinto SCELSI, Trilogia;* KO-Tha*, Frances-Marie Uitti : violoncelle, 1992, 1 cd Etcetera, KTC 1136.
  • Giacinto SCELSI, Action Music 1 ; Suite n° 8, Bernhard Wambach : piano, 1 cd Kairos, 2003.

Site internet


  • Sebastiano D’AYALA VALVA, Giacinto Scelsi. Le premier mouvement de l’immobile, 2018, production Les Films de la Butte, Ideacinema, ARTE GEIE, Radio France.