Unlike the home countries of many composers I’ve previously profiled, Italy in the 19th and early 20th centuries was teeming with musical activity – operatic works by Verdi, Puccini, Leoncavallo, Mascagni and Bellini have become standard repertoire around the world. However, until the mature works of Respighi written around 1920, Italian instrumental music was largely ignored. Today, I’ll be covering Emilia Gubitosi, an early 20th-century composer who not only exemplified the revival of instrumental music in Italy but also helped further music education in the country.
Gubitosi was born to an upper middle-class family in Naples on February 3, 1887. She showed exceptional talent in both piano and composition at a young age; as a teenager, she enrolled in the Naples Conservatory, studying piano with Beriamino Cesi, Fromesco Simonetti and Costantino Palumbo and composition with Camillo De Nardis and Nicola D’Arienzo. As women were not usually allowed to attend classes at the conservatory, Gubitosi had to ask permission from a government minister. She graduated in piano at the age of just seventeen in 1904, and two years later, she became the first woman in all of Italy to earn a composition diploma.
After her graduation, Gubitosi worked as a concert pianist, and in 1914 (at just twenty-seven!) she was appointed chair of theory and solfege at the Naples Conservatory, where she would remain until 1957.
Three years into her tenure, Gubitosi wrote what is probably her best-known work, the delightful Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. In many ways, the concerto is highly representative of the time in which it was written – while the textures of the piano and the way it interacts with the orchestra are very much influenced by older 19th-century Romanticism, the highly chromatic harmony points toward the late Romantic era.
Although her work was part of a broad revival of Italian instrumental music, Gubitosi also wrote several songs, including the simple but pleasant “Canti infantili” of 1937:
Gubitosi’s merit as a composer was equaled by her importance as an educator and musical administrator in her native Naples. In addition to publishing a number of educational pieces and texts with her husband, the composer Franco Michele Napolitano, she established the Associazione Musicale A. Scarlatti in 1918 to promote the spread of Italian and foreign works. Along with another major Neapolitan musical venue, the Teatro San Carlo, the organization brought modernist music by Ravel, Stravinsky and Milhaud and luminaries like Benedetti Michelangeli, Milstein and Celibidache to Naples for the first time.
After retiring from her position at the Conservatory, Gubitosi continued to compose. Although only one recorded piece from this period of her career exists, the compelling harmonies and textures of the 1965 Theme and Variations for Piano suggests that more of Gubitosi’s late works deserve to be heard.
After a lifetime of service to Neapolitan music, Emilia Gubitosi passed away at her home in the city on January 18, 1972, at the age of 85. A room is named for her in the conservatory at which she taught for over forty years, but her achievements as a pioneering composer and music educator deserve far more credit within and outside the concert hall – both within Italy and worldwide.
As a final musical tribute, take a listen to this performance of Gubitosi’s Elegy for Cello and Strings, performed by the very same Nuova Orchestra Scarlatti that was her brainchild!
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