Michael White recalls the composer and argues for a reappraisal of his music
When revered and very old musicians die there’s always a sense of severance, of losing contact with the past. And when Gian Carlo Menotti died in 2007 at the age of 95 it was acute, because Menotti was a one-man ancien regime: the last of a breed of composers who carried on writing operas and ballets in the old romantic tradition – heart on sleeve, emotional, and for all the world as though the age of Verdi and Puccini still existed.
You could say he was a dinosaur. People did. And there was a tragic element in the way his career unfolded: a young genius who peaked early, was hugely successful in America in the 1940s/50s/ 60s, then went out of fashion. Bizarrely he ended up living in Scotland, in an improbably grand stately home where he claimed to be poor (despite the odd Van Dyke and Georges Braque on the wall) and, more realistically, complained he was forgotten. But in the process of that rise and fall he led the most colourful life of any serious latterday composer I can think of, with a style and flair worthy of Hollywood.
Born in 1911 into a wealthy family on the shores of Lake Lugano, Italy, he went to America as a teenager to study as one of the first intake to the new Curtis Institute, Philadelphia. In the USA he flourished, was taken up by Toscannini, and had his first opera, Amelia goes to the Ball playing at the New York Met by the age of 26.
From then on it was stardom. And stardom of a kind that reached beyond the normal public for classical music because his two dozen operatic scores played not only in opera houses but on Broadway - commercially, night after night, like early precedents for Andrew Lloyd Webber. The Medium (1946), The Telephone (1947), The Consul (1950), The Saint of Bleecker Street (1954) – they poured out in rapid succession, full of big tunes, big drama, and big numbers that rewrote the grand Italian tradition as contemporary American torchsong.
Above all there was Amahl and the Night Visitors, an endearingly sentimental Christmas piece about a little crippled boy who meets the Three Kings on their way to see the baby Jesus, is miraculously cured, and decides to join them at the manger. Written for American TV in 1951, it touched a national nerve and became part of the American cult of Christmas, re-broadcast year after year. On the strength of all this he joined the glitterati. With the Kennedys at the White House, with Onassis on the yacht, with Sophia Loren here, Maria Callas there – his photo albums were impressive.
But what always struck me when I visited him and went through the photos was that it was ‘us’ at the White House, ‘us’ on the yacht. He had a similarly famous partner, the composer Samuel Barber. They had met as teenagers at Curtis. They lived together for most of their joint lives – the only example I know of two prominent composers doing so. They gave celebrated parties in a long, thin house in upstate New York with his & his music rooms at the far ends so they could work without disturbing each other. And to a surprising degree for 1950s America, they were welcomed as a couple. In the grandest places.
The problem was that over time, Barber’s star rose while Menotti’s fell. Barber appeared to be the conservative but significant author of enduring work while Menotti was sidelined as a purveyor of old-fashioned, decorative, sentimental froth. It was an unfair judgement given the range of his writing across concertos (there’s an eloquently neoclassical example for violin worth hearing), choral music (try the Brittenesque Death of the Bishop of Brindisi) and song cycles (the best of them Canti della Lontananza, written in 1967 for Elizabeth Schwarzkopf). But it was a judgement that stuck because of his tendency to fill his stageworks with the wounded, mutilated, blind, deaf, mute, and little crippled boys who get miraculously cured. Eventually the relationship with Barber ended, although they remained close. Barber then took to drink, got ill and died. And heavy with remorse, Menotti felt obliged to leave America.