Ron Horner – 2nd Interview Elisabetta Brusa – A Voice to be Heard – 2018

Elisabetta Olga Laura Brusa was born in Milan, Italy on 3 April 1954.  Although her parents were not professional musicians, music played an important role in her childhood.  Before she reached her fifth birthday, she had composed her first work.

            As a child, she studied piano – albeit with a decided lack of enthusiasm.  Her interests were of a more creative than re-creative nature, and composition provided musical sustenance through her teen years.  A lack of formal training meant that her compositions were performed exclusively by her, as she was unable to notate her works for others.  Before her Conservatory studies began, she had created over thirty works for piano.  Brusa attributes her early compositional endeavors to her heredity and environment.  “I believe that I am genetically inclined to composing tonally. Even before having taken a single music lesson, I started composing at the age of 4 years and 8 months on my grandmother’s piano. My mother played a little and I imitated her and the Classical music I heard at home until I started with piano lessons at 5 and imitated my teacher. My grandmother was a pianist with a diploma and lived in England, but above all my great-grandfather was an exceptional violin virtuoso – leader of the Opera House in Genova and curator of Paganini’s violin which he played every year. There were a few other musically minded persons in my family, including my mother. My father loved Classical music very much, but he started out as a writer of short stories and novels, then a businessman, and eventually an intellectual and historian, an extremely cultured person. He had an enormous influence on my understanding of the aesthetics of the Arts and we listened to all sorts of Classical music together from the time I was born (he used me as a hot water bottle at first). An aunt was a painter, and an uncle is a sculptor with whom I continue having very inspiring talks.”[i]

            The young composer 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: “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, worked the famous Alan Turing. She worked as a linguist and analyst there and at the end of the war in Europe studied Japanese and Japanese signals until the War ended with Japan. 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. From then on, she 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 – much respected by museum curators and directors around the world.  I was extremely lucky to have been born and lived under the influence of such parents and now with my husband who has great esteem for my music and, like my parents, gives me all the independence I need.”[ii]

            In 1975, she entered the Milan Conservatory where formal composition studies began 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.  The later years of her studies found her growing 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.

            The large majority of her works are for orchestra, for which she has won numerous awards and received many commissions. Her compositions have been performed by major orchestras in Italy, the United States, Great Britain, Russia, Canada, Austria, the Czech Republic, South Korea, and Albania.  The first two volumes of her orchestral works were recorded and released in 2002 on the Naxos label.  These discs included eleven works for small and large orchestra performed by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, conducted by Fabio Mastrangelo.  The third volume of orchestral works (released by Naxos in March 2015) featured her first symphony and tone poem Merlin.  All the recordings have been received with critical acclaim.  Her Second Symphony will soon be recorded by Naxos in Volume 4 of her works for orchestra.

            Brusa describes all works of art as an expression of their creator’s emotions and thoughts.  At a time when composers described their works as “avant-garde,” her music was free of the preconceived restrictions placed upon the compositional process by the imposition of mathematical systems and formulae.  She rejected the trend of shocking the listener through the creation of music that could be defined as such only in the most academic of terms.  Freed from what some would describe as an artificial contrivance, she was 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.

            The creation of her Belsize String Quartet op. 1 resulted in a 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 that 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 was the same year that she went to live with her future husband, conductor Gilberto Serembe.  Beginning in 1976, he was a companion in her composition studies.  The latter portion of that decade brought the realization 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 notoriety and public acclaim.  She describes this approach as “composing for the drawer.”  This attitude proved to be largely a self-fulfilling prophecy.  None of her works were performed again until 2001.  Following the release of two CDs on the Naxos label in 2002, she continued work on her Symphony No. 2 Op. 22, which she completed in 2010 and orchestrated in 2017.  She provides the following explanation for her compositional philosophy: “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, as happened not only in the Age of Enlightenment but also in other ages. In my life, I have been able to accept only commissions that interested me. I have only composed what I felt like composing and put it into the drawer. My father taught me to write for the drawer. In 1988, I was 34 and had just finished composing Nittemero Symphony for chamber orchestra. By then I had understood that I was cut off from the musical world and decided from then onwards to compose exclusively for orchestra (my favorite medium) that allowed me to express my thoughts fully. In those times, composers were writing extensive pieces for a solo instrument (mainly flute) that were very boring if not nerve-racking.  As I said before, the act of composing is a unique artistic effort in which technique is only a means and not an end.”[iii]

            Brusa’s career has been marked by struggle.  In her early years, she found herself at odds with the prevailing collective musical aesthetic.  In her subsequent years in academia, she sought to establish in Italy an inclusive composition curriculum that could remain untinged by the personal ideologies of faculty.  Her response to these challenges is reflected in her approach to her music: she remains true to herself.

            Brusa’s works have been described as “neo-Romantic.”  She elaborates upon this, and illustrates the difficulties involved when descriptive labels are applied.  Her opinions about the nature of art music reflect the story-telling character of her works.  Whether the story is drawn from literary sources or inspired by her personal experience, she presents her listeners with opportunities to share in the narrative or to create one of their own.  “My music is definitely Romantic. However, I believe that all music is Romantic, even Baroque, even Classical, and all music with artistic value is Classical. Yes, I like writing about myself, (much more than talking about myself!). Somehow, I have always written down my ideas and a diary. Thus, it comes naturally to me to tell the reader or the listener what I mean by, and what inspired, my compositions. I also believe that every one of us perceives music in a different way but as regards my compositions, this does not bother me because underneath the literary idea 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 one according to his or her own possibilities and culture. I do not write for any kind of public. I write from a personal necessity, knowing that there are particular people who understand me and a wider public who could understand me if I had a good publisher to promote my work.”[iv]

In her own words, she describes her music as representing a “new humanism.”  She explains the concept in the following terms:  “First of all, for me, a work of Art, whether it be a painting, sculpture, poem, novel or symphony must express the Artist’s inner spiritual emotions and thoughts. All kinds of artistic expressions, i.e. the different Arts, are types of languages. Through their techniques, which must be means and not ends in themselves, one may understand what the Artist (hopefully with a capital A) is saying. I believe that each one of us is actually born with the capacity of minimally understanding these languages but needs tuition to understand better. If my parents had not taken me through museums while still in their arms, and later if my father and I hadn’t exchanged ideas about works of Art, if I hadn’t had an excellent Australian teacher of Literature, if I hadn’t had two technically outstanding Italian teachers of harmony, counterpoint, forms and orchestration and, above all, an extraordinary Anglo/Austrian teacher of Composition, Prof. Hans Keller, I would not be able to distinguish and appreciate the Arts both singularly and as an entire world. However, 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 in this same way since they worked for Popes, princes, dukes. Nowadays, fortunately, everyone has access to the various Arts, also through the internet, but very few persons actually feel the necessity of making them 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 real, profound Art and thus an era of ‘New Humanism’. For me, neither the 70-year-old 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 always been present for centuries in the western world, and now even the eastern world is inserting tonality in its ethnic music, but personally, I don’t think this works because tonality is never the main language. I believe that tonality is part of our natural instinctive understanding and that those born in the western world are born with a particular instinctive tendency to understand it without having studied its language. Many people in all the Arts are returning to a humanistic approach. There is also a tendency to return to figurative painting over abstract. I personally know an Italian excellent painter, Giovanni Gasparro, in his mid-thirties, who paints portraits, both religious and not. We have a world in common and, though we live 900 km. apart, we write continuously about our experiences. It is a wonderful epistolary. I feel the spiritual necessity of being near to real Art in whatever form, because Art always has a humanistic and humane content, i.e., a profound spiritual expression that transpires from it.”[v]

            Brusa provides additional clarification regarding her humanistic conceptual viewpoint: “Human emotions are the quintessential essence of the Arts. Without them, there is no Artistic expression. One of my former Italian teachers, though very good in orchestration, once told me that music in those times was supposed to be composed without human emotions. It was in the late Seventies at the height of the Avant-garde domination. I remained silent and thought how terrible everything was. I have remained silent for decades but have carried on 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 compose with a tonal basis trying to express their emotions. At very high levels, the spirit or soul expresses itself through human emotions. However, to put human emotions in a work of Art is very difficult and though there may be lots of very well-written, pleasant or sentimental works, there are very few composers who have reached the highest levels in the twentieth century. 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 the War has been a tremendous hindrance to the recognition of true Artists. It is very difficult to find a needle in a haystack. Furthermore, publishers great and small have accepted enormous quantities of Avant-garde composers’ works throughout the postwar period. Now, stuck with them, they are obliged to impose them on orchestras, operas, and institutions of all sorts. This is a profitable relationship for all those involved however it is the public, private sponsors, and above all the government that pays for it. In the end, we all pay for it whether we like it or not. Moreover, I think that the big problem is that at the head of important publishers there are business managers instead of musicians, or at least persons who know music well. If an Artist does not express and transform human emotions in a work, he or she has not created a work of Art ‘with a capital A’ in the true sense of the word. This was always done until the 20th century when, with the breaking up of all the components of works through exaggerated Analysis, the inexplicable quintessence of real Art was lost, except for the works of a handful of composers like Shostakovich, Khachaturian, Walton, Barber, Poulenc, Respighi, Britten, Copland…”[vi]

            Although not all of her works are programmatic in the generally accepted sense, she explains her motivation for composing with the influence of extra-musical influences.  “My works have all been created when I was particularly inspired by a literary character, story, or classically 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). My Second Symphony will soon be recorded by Naxos in Volume 4 of my works for orchestra. When composing works with free forms 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 started I just carry on relatively easily, and sometimes, I can imagine the ending when I am maybe 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 what actual kind of ‘vision’ I will need to finish the work and what kind of ‘ending’ it shall have.”[vii]

            Perhaps by virtue of its inherent tonality, Brusa’s music connects with listeners in an intuitive way.  She offers the following rationale for this “spiritual” connection: “Good music must seem definable and indefinable at the same time. Minimalistic music is always just definable and strangely enough, so is Avant-garde music. One can understand perfectly well how a piece is constructed and the sound it produces and…that’s it! There is nothing else on a deeper spiritual level. If a gifted composer’s music is based on tonality, it stands a better chance of a deeper meaning. I believe that Tonality has become part of our DNA since it is well known that even babies in the womb react happily to it and unhappily to dissonant sound.  My music is still rooted in the traditions of form and content. The old diatribe regarding which is the most important has long been forgotten, when one realizes that in good music one cannot exist without the other. The same goes for orchestration and musical content. They should be composed together, and the musical idea is one and not divisible. Musical analysis as taught nowadays is absurd and damaging for students, above all in composition, since it cancels their imagination and instincts. If a student is obliged to analyze too much in detail, he/she loses the capacity of understanding the meaning of the work as a whole. For decades some teachers have obliged students to analyze too thoroughly the details of works. Instead, these details are just subconscious and obvious for sensitive musicians who would bypass and take them for granted and then would focus on a different sort of analysis, i.e., quite the opposite, actually more like synthesis. Focusing on the details of the foreground of music doesn’t make you understand the background, the real meaning of the music. Understanding the background, synthesising and not analysing, is hardly possible to describe in words. It is a subconscious mutual, and furthermore often mute, understanding and it implies that one must know Music inside out to be able to understand it in such a way. When I took lessons with my former teacher and mentor Hans Keller, or when I listen to music with my husband, we don’t need words to understand the same thing.  Again, it is the indefinable quality of the musical ideas that define a work of Art. Hence what was absorbed subconsciously and retransformed by this kind of composer is more easily understood and appreciated by the listener, especially a cultured listener. Classical Music has always been an ‘elite’ Art and always will be. My only preoccupation is that there are always fewer babies born in our Western Culture. Are we destined to disappear?”[viii]

Of her life at present, Brusa describes it as follows: “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.”[ix]  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.[x]  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


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 ­


Works for Orchestra

OP. 22 – “Sinfonia N° 2” per grande orchestra (2000-2010 orchestrated 2017) 49 min.
Organico = Orchestra Sinfonica –
Timp., 3 Perc., Arpa, Celesta, Archi.

OP. 21 – “Simply Largo” per orchestra d’archi (2008) 11 min.
Organico= VI. I, VI. II, VIe., Vc., Cb.

OP. 20 – “Merlin” per grande orchestra (2006) 12 min.
Organico= Orchestra Sinfonica – –
Timp., 3 Perc., Arpa, Pianoforte, Archi.

OP. 19 – “Messidor” per orchestra (1998) 12 min.
Organico= 2 Fl., 2 Ob., 2 Cl. in Sib., 2 Fg., 3 Cr.,
2 Tr. in Do, Timp., Archi.

OP. 18 – “Florestan” per grande orchestra (1997) 16 min.
Organico = Orchestra Sinfonica – –
Timp., 3 Perc., Arpa, Celesta, Archi.

OP. 17 – “Wedding Song” per grande orchestra (1997) 4-5 min.
Organico = Orchestra Sinfonica – –
Timp., 3 Perc., Arpa, Celesta, Archi.

OP. 16 – “Adagio” per orchestra d’archi (1996) 13 min.
Organico=Vl. I, Vl. II, Vle., Vc., Cb

OP. 15 – “Fanfare” per grande orchestra (1996) 4-5 min.
Organico= Orchestra Sinfonica – –
Timp., 3 Perc., Arpa, Pianoforte, Celesta, Archi.

OP.14 – “Requiescat” per voce e grande orchestra (1994-95) 16 min.
Organico = Orchestra Sinfonica – –
Timp., 3 Perc. (Xil., Glock., Cel., G.C.,
Campane), Arpa, Voce, Archi.
Scelta della voce in ordine di preferenza:
Choice of voice in order of preference:
0) Voce Bianca oppure Controtenore
1) Mezzosoprano
2) Soprano
3) Tenore
4) Baritono
5) Tromba in Fa, oppure in Sib, oppure altra

OP. 13 – “Firelights” per grande orchestra (1993) 7-8 min.
Organico = Orchestra Sinfonica – –
Timp., 3 Perc., Arpa, Pianoforte, Celesta, Archi.

OP. 12 – “La Triade” per grande orchestra (1992) 13 min.
Organico= Orchestra Sinfonica – –
Timp., 3 Perc., Arpa, Pianoforte, Celesta, Archi.

OP. 10 – “Sinfonia N.1” per grande orchestra (1988-90) 48 min.
Organico = Orchestra Sinfonica – –
Timp., 3 Perc., Arpa, Pianoforte, Celesta, Archi.

OP. 8 – “Sinfonia Nittemero” per orchestra da camera (1985-88) 27-28 min.
Organico= Fl., Ob., Cl. in Sib, Fg., Cr., Tr. in Do, Trb.,
Timp., 1 Perc. (ad libitum), Pf., Archi.
Timp., 1 Perc., Archi.

OP. 7 – “Suite Grotesque” per orchestra (1986) 15 min.
Organico = 2 Fl. (Ottavino) , 2 Ob.
(Cr. Ing.), 2 Cl. in SIb, 2 Fg., 2 Cr.,
1Perc. (incl. Timp.), Archi.

OP. 2 – “Favole” per orchestra da camera (1982-83) 18 min.
Organic = Fl. (Ottavino), Ob., Cl. in Sib
(Saxofono in Mib) Fg., 2 Cr., Tr. in Do, Trb.,

Works for Large Ensemble
OP.21 – “Simply Largo” per orchestra d’archi (2008) 11 min..
Organico = Vl. I, Vl. II, Vle., Vc., Cb

OP.16 – “Adagio” per orchestra d’archi (1996) 11 min.
Organico = Vl. I, Vl. II, Vle., Vc., Cb.

OP. 8 – “Sinfonia Nittemero” per ensemble (1985-88) 26 min.
Organico = Fl., Ob., Cl. in Sib, Fg., Cr., Tr. in Do, Trb.,
Timp., 1 Perc. (ad libitum), Pf., Quintetto d’Archi.
(15 opp. 16 strumentisti)

OP. 2 – “Favole” per ensemble (1982-83) 16 min.
Organico = Fl. (Ottavino), Ob., Cl. in Sib
(Saxofono in Mib) Fg., 2 Cr., Tr. in Do, Trb.,
Timp., 1 Perc., 2 I Vl., 2 II Vl., 2 Vle., 2 Vc., 1 Cb..
(19 strumentisti)

Chamber Works

OP. 11 – “Sonata Rapsodica” per violino e pianoforte (1991) 23 min.

OP. 5 – “Miniature” per violino e clavicembalo (1984) 9 min.

OP. 5 – “Miniature” per flauto e clavicembalo (1984) 9 min.

OP. 5 – “Miniature” per violino e chitarra (1984) 9 min.

OP. 5 – “Miniature” per flauto e chitarra (1984) 9 min.

OP. 1 – “Belsize” Quartetto per archi (1980-81) 17 min.

Works for Solo Instruments

OP. 9 – “Akron” per violino solo (1988) 8 min.

OP. 6 – “Sonata” per pianoforte (1982-86) 21 min.

OP. 4 – “Marche Funèbre” per pianoforte (1984) 11 min.

OP. 3 – “Dittico Notturno” per chitarra (1982-83) 14 min.

(List of early works from 1958 to 1980 not included)

[i] Brusa, Elizabeth. Interview with the author, 26 October 2017

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v][v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Brusa, Elizabeth. Correspondence with the author, 24 February 2018

[x] Brusa, Elizabeth. Correspondence with the author, 11 March 2018

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.

[1] Brusa, Elizabeth. Interview with the author, 26 October 2017

[1] Ibid.

[1] Ibid.

[1] Ibid.

[1][1] Ibid.

[1] Ibid.

[1] Ibid.

[1] Ibid.

[1] Brusa, Elizabeth. Correspondence with the author, 24 February 2018

[1] Brusa, Elizabeth. Correspondence with the author, 11 March 2018 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.