Elisabetta Brusa – A Voice to be Heard (International Alliance of Women in Music)
Elisabetta Olga Laura Brusa (born in Milan, Italy, April 3, 1954) has won numerous awards and received many commissions for her orchestral works, which have been performed by major orchestras in Italy, the United States, Great Britain, Russia, Canada, Austria, the Czech Republic, South Korea, and Albania. Her career, however, was marked with struggle.
I reviewed one of her compact discs for the Journal of the IAWM in 20171 and was so enthusiastic about the power, the expressiveness, and the beauty of her compositions that I wanted to learn more about her and her work, and why she had experienced such difficulty in gaining recognition. I interviewed her last year2 and initially asked about her background and how and when she became interested in composing.
Elisabetta Brusa: I believe that I am genetically inclined to compose tonally. Even before having taken a single music lesson, I started composing at the age of four years and eight months on my grandmother’s piano and I started piano lessons at age five. My mother played a little and my grandmother, who lived in England, was a pianist with a diploma, but most important in my family history was my great-grandfather, who was an exceptional violin virtuoso—leader of the opera house in Genova and curator of Paganini’s violin, which he played every year. My father was not a performer, but he loved classical music very much; he was a historian and a very cultured person who had an enormous influence on my understanding of the aesthetics of the arts. We listened to all sorts of classical music together.
Ronald Horner: As a young composer, Brusa was encouraged to find her own voice. Her family life, during her formative years, promoted a sense of independence and a cosmopolitan outlook. She credits the following influences.
EB: Both my mother and my father were individualists in different ways. My mother was a very independent woman at heart, used to living and traveling alone (and she taught me to be so, too). In her early twenties, during WWII, she passed four most interesting and influential years at Bletchley Park, the secret codebreaking center north of London, where, amongst others, the famous Alan Turing worked. My mother was a linguist and analyst there, and at the end of the war in Europe, she studied Japanese and Japanese signals until the war with Japan ended. She then went to the British Embassy in Rome for a year in the visa section and to the Consulate in Milan until she married my father in 1949 and became an exemplary wife and mother, helping my father with his books and giving me as much freedom as possible from housework.
After initially writing literature, my father became a worldwide expert in horology [the study of the measurement of time]. He was greatly respected by museum curators and directors around the world. I was extremely lucky to have lived under the influence of such parents and now with my husband, conductor Gilberto Serembe, who has great esteem for my music and, like my parents, gives me all the independence I need.
RH: In 1975, Brusa entered the Milan Conservatory, where she began formal composition studies with Bruno Bettinelli. The last year of her instruction was under the tutelage of Azio Corghi, and she graduated with a diploma in composition in 1980. Toward the end of her studies, she grew increasingly disillusioned with the direction of contemporary music and with the avant-garde in general. It was this disquiet that led her to embrace her personal musical vocabulary and compositional philosophy. After her graduation, she traveled frequently to Great Britain to study with Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and Hans Keller. She subsequently received both a Fromm Foundation Fellowship and a Fulbright scholarship to study in the United States with Hans Werner Henze and Gunther Schuller and three fellowships from the MacDowell Colony.
Her Belsize String Quartet, op. 1 received first prize in the Washington International Competition for Composition in 1982. Inspired by this success, she began her Fables for Chamber Orchestra, op. 2 later that year. Fables was a revelatory work for her in that she concluded she could combine traditional formal structures with whimsical, fantasy-inspired content. In 1985, she began teaching composition and orchestration at the Giuseppe Verdi Music Conservatory in Milan—a position she would hold until her retirement in 2018.
In 1988, she completed her Nittemero Symphony, op. 8. That same year she went to live with her future husband (they had studied composition together starting in 1976), and she began to realize that performances of her orchestral works were of secondary importance. Like Charles Ives, decades before, she decided that her compositions were personal expressions that would remain uncompromised by the lure of widespread public acclaim. She describes this approach below as “composing for the drawer.”
EB: I have been very lucky to have had a state job that has allowed me to be financially free from having to accept commissions at all costs. I have been able to accept only commissions that interested me. I have composed what I felt like composing and then put the music in the drawer. (It was my father who taught me to write for the drawer.) In 1988, when I was 34, I finished composing my Nittemero Symphony for chamber orchestra. By then I understood that I was cut off from the musical world, and I decided from then on to compose exclusively for orchestra (my favorite medium) because that allowed me to express my thoughts fully. Many composers at that time were writing large-scale pieces for solo instruments (I found them to be very boring.).
RH: Her decision to compose for the drawer proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. None of her works were performed again until 2001. After the release of the first two volumes of her orchestral works (on the Naxos label) in 2002, her music received many performances. The discs include eleven works for small and large orchestra performed by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, conducted by Fabio Mastrangelo. Among the various works on the discs are the tone poem Florestan, based on the Florestan side of Robert Schumann’s personality; the Nittemero Symphony, inspired by the words: “night” and “day” in ancient Greek; the tone poem Messidor, which alludes to Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but does not quote from it, and several other works with programmatic titles.
Although not all of her works are programmatic in the generally accepted sense, quite a few have descriptive titles, whether the story is drawn from literary sources or inspired by her personal experience. I asked her to explain her motivation.
EB: My works are either inspired by a literary character or story, or they are in an abstract form such as a sonata or symphony. I have never wanted to write an opera and never will. I am more symphonically minded, both with free forms (symphonic poems) and closed forms (symphonies). When composing works with free forms that are inspired by literary characters or stories, I try to immerse myself deeply in the subject and let my imagination flow freely. In the beginning, it is difficult but once I start, I continue relatively easily, and sometimes I can imagine the ending when I am perhaps only one-third through the composition. By this, I don’t mean the actual notes, even though there obviously may be repetitions or varied repetitions of themes, but I can understand and feel the actual kind of “vision” I will need to finish the work and the kind of ending it will have.
I have always written down my ideas, thus it comes naturally to me to tell the reader or the listener what I mean by, and what inspired, my compositions. Every one of us perceives music in a different way, but this does not bother me because beneath the literary idea in my music lies the musical idea, and I never give any explanation about that. A musician can understand perfectly well what I’m saying musically and where I derive my inspiration. Non-musicians will just listen and understand the music, each according to his or her own culture.
RH: Brusa’s works have been described as neo-Romantic and neo-tonal, and her harmony as pandiatonic with panchromatic moments. She feels, however, that too many difficulties arise when such labels are used. I asked her to explain her aesthetic views.
EB: I believe that artists of the past who later emerged as great artists lived in conditions that allowed them to absorb all the great arts, since they worked for popes, princes, dukes, etc. Nowadays, fortunately, everyone has access to the various arts, including the internet, but very few persons actually feel the necessity of making the arts part of their lives. My hope is that there may be an era one day that will get rid of the “massification” there is nowadays. I hope there will be artists with the courage and the artistic and spiritual capacities to create genuine, profound Art (with a capital A) and thus an era of “New Humanism.”
For me, neither the 70-year period of avant-garde music nor its co-existing period of ethnic/new-age/minimalist music have created any work of Art that I know of. Tonal music, or music with one or more tonal centers, has been present for centuries in the Western world. Now even the Eastern world is inserting tonality into its ethnic music, but I don’t think this works well because tonality is not their main language. I believe that tonality is part of the natural, instinctive understanding of those born in the Western world—that they are born with a tendency to understand it without having studied its language. Similarly, in the art world, there is a tendency to return to figurative painting rather than abstract. Art has always had a humanistic and humane content, i.e., a profound spiritual expression that transpires from it.
Human emotions are the quintessential essence of the arts. Without them, there is no artistic expression. In the late ’70s, at the height of the avant-garde domination, one of my Italian teachers told me that music was supposed to be composed without human emotions. I remained silent and thought how terrible that was. I have remained silent for decades but have continued composing the way I wished. I now feel I can speak more freely because many more people are beginning to have the courage to speak and to compose with a tonal basis as a means of expressing their emotions.
The spirit or soul expresses itself through human emotions, but to put human emotions in a work of Art is very difficult; I believe very few twentieth-century composers have reached the highest artistic level. Most likely there are currently unknown composers who deserve to be discovered in this dreadfully fierce jungle of composers who relentlessly struggle for recognition (if not fame, power and money) and therefore follow fashions and do what they are told to do by their teachers and publishers. The inflation of composers and pseudo-artists of all sorts after World War II has been a tremendous hindrance to the recognition of true artists. It is very difficult to find a needle in a haystack. Furthermore, publishers accepted enormous quantities of avant-garde composers’ works throughout the postwar period. Now, stuck with them, I believe they impose them on orchestras, operas, and institutions. I think that a major problem is that business managers instead of musicians are at the head of important publishing companies.
RH: In her early years, Brusa found herself at odds with the prevailing collective musical aesthetic. At a time when composers considered their works to be avant-garde, her music was free of the preconceived restrictions placed upon the compositional process by the imposition of mathematical systems and formulae. She felt empowered to conceive her music as communication rather than complicated technical exercises that might have been intellectually intriguing but were unfulfilling on an aesthetic level.
As a teacher, she sought to establish in Italy an inclusive composition curriculum that could remain untinged by the personal ideologies of the faculty. She holds very strong views about the way theory and analysis are taught in some institutions.
ES: My music is still rooted to the traditions of form and content. The old diatribe regarding which is more important has long been forgotten when one realizes that in good music one cannot exist without the other. The same is true with orchestration and musical content. They should be composed together, and the musical idea should be one and not divisible. I believe that musical analysis, as taught in some institutions, damages composition students because it negates their imagination and instincts. For decades some teachers have required students to analyze the details in a work too thoroughly causing the students to lose the capacity of understanding the meaning of the work as a whole. I find that such details are part of the subconscious and are obvious to sensitive musicians. Focusing on the details of the foreground of music doesn’t help one understand the background, the real meaning of the music, which is hardly possible to describe in words. It is the indefinable quality of the musical ideas that define a work of Art. Hence, what was absorbed subconsciously and retransformed by the composer is easily understood and appreciated by the listener, especially a cultured listener.
RH: Brusa’s third volume of orchestral works (released by Naxos in March 2015) featured her First Symphony and the tone poem Merlin, with its images of the great magician and his “magical moments.” The works were performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. When I reviewed the album, I was especially impressed by the composer’s brilliant and masterful orchestration and by the expressiveness of her thematic material. Her recordings have been received with much critical acclaim. Her Second Symphony will soon be recorded by Naxos in Volume 4 of her works for orchestra.
Of her life at present, Brusa says: “I am a happy woman now, probably because I do what I want…and I have a wonderful husband with whom I have a complete understanding in life and in music.”3 In addition to her Italian citizenship, she was recently granted British citizenship. To celebrate this accomplishment, she is currently composing “a Royal Waltz for large orchestra to commemorate the fact that I have become British
.”4 All of us who support and admire her powerful musical voice will have our dancing shoes ready as we eagerly await her next offering. Until then, visit her webpage at https://www.elisabettabrusa.it/. It contains a complete list of her orchestral, chamber, and solo works.
1 Ronald Horner, “Elisabetta Brusa: Symphony No. 1; Merlin ─ Symphonic Poem,” Journal of the IAWM 22/2 (2016): 29-30.
2 Elisabetta Brusa, correspondence with the author, October 26, 2017. All quotations date from that interview unless otherwise noted.
3 Elisabetta Brusa, correspondence with the author, February 24, 2018.
4 Elisabetta Brusa, correspondence with the author, March 11, 2018
Works for Orchestra Vol. 1, Naxos 21st Century Classics 8.555266
Florestan, Messidor, La Triade, Nittemero Symphony, Fanfare. National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, Fabio Mastrangelo, Conductor
Works for Orchestra Vol. 2, Naxos 21st Century Classics 8.555267
Firelights, Adagio, Wedding Song, Requiescat, Suite Grotesque, Favole. National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, Fabio Mastrangelo, Conductor.
Works for Orchestra Vol. 3, Naxos 21st Century Classics 8.573437.
Sinfonia No.1, Merlin. Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Daniele Rustioni, Conductor.
Ronald Horner is a former member of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. He holds a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from West Virginia University. The author of An Elemental Approach to Music, he is currently an assistant professor of music at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
PHOTO: Elisabetta Brusa