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Carlo Maria Giulini

Marita Berg / gsw
May 8, 2014

The Italian maestro commanded the world's attention from the conductor's podium with his gentle but decisive approach. Unforgettable remains his "Don Giovanni" recording from 1961. He would have turned 100 on May 9.

Carlo Maria Giulini, clapping
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

For the "New York Times," he was the "San Carlo of the Symphony," and an Italian daily called him the "silent giant." Among the major conductors of his generation, Carlo Maria Giulini was in many ways the exception. He wasn't the type to revel in power, and his career remained scandal-free. His priority was music and, with it, respect for the compositions and their creators.

The hype of stardom and the mechanisms of marketing music revolted him, he said: "That doesn't interest me - not at all. Whether I'm at the top or not, whether I'm selling many or just a few records: that doesn't interest me at all."

Celebrating Italy's liberation

Giulini was 16 years old when he began studying viola and composition at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia in Rome. Three years later, he was a violist with the Orchestra Augustea, then the leading musical ensemble in Italy. He would go on to play under great conductors such as Wilhelm Furtwängler, Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer.

Soon, it became clear to the young musician that he wanted to become a conductor himself. He completed a mastercourse in the subject at the Santa Cecilia conservatory and debuted after the Second World War at the podium with the Orchestra Augustea. They were performing a concert celebrating Italy's liberation at the hands of the Allies.

Carlo Maria Giulini, conducting at the podium
Giulini says he had to fall in love with each note of the works he ledImage: AP

One year later, he was named the principal conductor for Rome's Radio Symphony Orchestra. Beginning in 1950, he made a decisive contribution to building up the RAI orchestra in Milan.

International breakthrough

In 1952, Giulini gave his debut at Milan's Scala, which would become the most important site for his work for over a decade. He expanded the famous opera house's repertoire to include many works that had fallen into neglect, such as Monteverdi's "The Coronation of Poppea."

At the time, Giulini was working closely with star vocalists and renowned stage directors. In 1955, Maria Callas sang under his direction in the legendary production of Verdi's "La Traviata" by stage director Luchino Visconti. Overnight, Giulini became a highly-sought conductor. The same year, the Verdi specialist had his British debut in the Zeffirelli staging of "Falstaff" at the Edinburgh Festival.

In 1958, the Italian maestro went on to conduct "Don Carlo," in another Visconti stage production, at London's Covent Garden Opera.

Carlo Maria Giulini Dirigent
Giulini (center), shown backstage with Visconti, Callas and othersImage: picture-alliance/United Archives/TopFoto

Goodbye to opera

In 1967, after "La Traviata" in Covent Garden, Giulini announced he was retiring from the opera world. Vocal stars' tourism between the Met and the Scala - and the craze for directors' modern interpretations, he said, were leading to a lack of respect for the works and their composers. He said he had no desire to spend more time in airports than in rehearsals and wanted nothing to do with singers who flew in just in time for the dress rehearsal.

Years later, he would wistfully recall the working conditions on his first production of "La Traviata," when he, Maria Callas and Luchino Visconti had three weeks time even before the start of rehearsals to discuss "all of the questions relating to dramaturgy."

Henceforth, Giulini concentrated on symphonic literature - on Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler - as well as on sacred works, such as Beethoven's "Missa solemnis" and requiems by Mozart and Verdi. He worked as a guest conductor with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Vienna Symphony.

In 1979, he succeeded Zubin Mehta as principal conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.

Carlo Maria Giulini in a press shot
The "silent giant" would have turned 100 years old this yearImage: picture-alliance/akg-images/Marion Kalter

'Hunger for music'

Carlo Maria Giulini constantly stressed that it was important to hold pieces of music in reverence, saying he could only conduct something once it had become part of his life and he loved every note. He viewed himself as a purveyor.

"I'm just a very small person, and I'm dealing with Mozart, with Bach, with Beethoven, with all these people," he said, continuing, "What these people put down on paper - that doesn't say too much. After all, what can you really express in musical notation, with these graphics? What does andante, allegro or diminuendo mean? They're just words. And from these words, we have to try and understand what these incredible people really wanted to say. And not just try to understand - we have to say it ourselves. Because the 'Greats' aren't there - we conductors have to say it now."

The idea of "saying it ourselves" drove Giulini throughout his career, and he wanted to express things as best he could.

"For me, music is always a new experience. For me, every rehearsal is bound up with great emotion, great tension. I make music with my entire life - and I give all of my life to it," he said.

When asked whether that was why he gave so few concerts and made it to the recording studio so seldom, he answered with a smile, "I read once where a soccer trainer said that before an important match, he took the ball away from his players to try and make them hungry for it. I think that's right. I need this hunger for music."

After a long battle with illness, Carlo Maria Giulini died on June 14, 2005, at age 91 in his home country, Italy.

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