Marcella Crudeli: The Legend Of Italian Piano Music

We interviewed the legendary pianist Marcella Crudeli, whose contribution to piano music is great, on the occasion of her 80th anniversary.

Marcella Crudeli
Italian piano legend Marcella Crudeli. Photo courtesy of Marcella Crudeli.

70 years after the start of her career, on June 3 Marcella Crudeli was honored with the title of Grand Officer of the Italian Republic (Grande Ufficiale della Repubblica Italiana), the highest title a civilian can receive in Italy. A few weeks later, she celebrated her ‘80 years in music’ in Rome, surrounded by her students, colleagues, and a very grateful audience. Over these eight decades, Crudeli’s contribution to Italian piano music, and to the culture of classical music, has been immense.

Now one of the most eminent representatives of Italian piano, the young Marcella Crudeli began her intense career at just 1o years old, before graduating cum laude from Milan’s Conservatory Giuseppe Verdi and later from the Academies of Salzburg and Vienna. Along the way, she has been guided and trained by names such as Seidlhofer, Cortot and Zecchi and has played more than three thousand concerts in over 90 countries. Performances at the Piccola Scala di Milano, London’s Wigmore Hall, and the Teatro Real in Madrid — as well as with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the Taipei Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, and the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome — are only the most memorable.

But aside from her concert performance career, Crudeli’s reputation as a piano professor (at the State Conservatory of Aquila and Rome’s Conservatorio di Musica Santa Cecilia) enabled her later to become one of the first ever female directors of a musical conservatoire in Italy, at the L. Annunzio State Conservatory of Pescara. Meanwhile, her formidable career brought her a prestigious teaching position at the l’Ècole Normale de Musìque A. Cortot in Paris, and, in 1993, an Honorary Professorship of the Sakuyo College in Tsuyama in Japan.

And so, among the many accolades she has received, Crudeli became the founder of the Italian Association of Piano Teachers, and later the founder and president of the UNESCO-backed Fryderyk Chopin Cultural Association, which is celebrating  the 30th year of its ROMA International Piano Competition this year.

We took the opportunity to sit down with Marcella, to speak with her about her long and illustrious career, her 80th anniversary concert, and the annual piano competition in Rome.

Before starting our interview, I would love to congratulate you for your incredible career. Your home is full of hundreds of music awards from across the world. Are there any you would like to mention? 

Thank you so much to Italics Magazine for this opportunity to speak about my awards. 80 years is quite a long time for a career. Yes, I would like to mention the Sagittario d’Oro, L’Adelaide Ristori, the Cimento d’Oro dell’Arte e della Cultura, the Palestrina, the Europa, the Progetto Donna, all received for “the highest artistic and humanitarian merits.” And, of course, the golden medal for Merits in Education, Arts and Culture from the President of Italian Republic in 2003. Other awards are the Rotary International’s Lions d’Oro and Paul Harris Three Rubies. Also, there was the lifetime award from the DISMA of the Milan University of Bocconi. And, finally, the most recent is Sorrento Classica 2021 which filled me with great joy, as it concludes the celebration of 80 years in music.

These awards are a wonderful recognition of my efforts and hard work over the years, as well as of my non-stop dedication to the musical life. These awards represent beautiful memories of the great, unforgettable people that I have met in my life! I think at my age I have a duty to mention them, so younger generations can get to know these institutions and look forward to the awards that surely are waiting for them in the future. Young generations must continue what we have started!

Can you tell us about your upbringing and background? You were born in 1940 in Ethiopia where your father, a court magistrate, was sent for work.

Yes, I was born in April 1940. The Second World War broke out in Ethiopia in June of the same year and my parents found it impossible to get repatriated as all ways to be evacuated were blocked. Gondar — Crudeli’s birthplace, the Ethiopian city where the fascist army had their last stand in 1941 — was declared a military stronghold and women and children were transported, escorted by the military, away from the area. They were taken from the Gondar plateau to the low plateau of Asmara and Keren to various concentration camps for three years. I was one of them.

Later, together with my mother and grandmother, I was repatriated to Massawa in modern day Ethiopia, on Red Cross ships that completed the entire circumnavigation of Africa. My father, meanwhile, was taken a prisoner by the British to Nanyuke in Kenya — and as a result, I met him for the first time much later, only at the age of five. It’s an incredibly painful story for a baby girl to face such discomfort and difficulty.

How did the piano become your ‘best friend’ in those years after the war?

My mother, being from a Florentine family, had saved some antique furniture in Fiesole (a comune of Florence), including a piano. Everything was transported to Rome. I was completely attracted by the instrument, so I would leave all my jokes and games just to get closer to it.

Then I began to study, following a very intensive program until the age of nine, when I applied to the competition of the Conservatoire of Santa Cecilia and finished first among 70 young pianists.

As a daughter of the war, what was your first reaction when the COVID pandemic took over the world last year? And how does an artist spend time in lockdown?

The COVID pandemic made me study the piano for about three hours a day. I spent the time peacefully dedicating myself to the story of my artistic life through albums. Otherwise, I followed the anti-Covid regulations with the utmost attention.

That meant that all of my educational work was interrupted last October, with my last concert at the Cappella Paolina del Quirinale. In April, though, it resumed with the Magisterium course organized in collaboration with the Rotary Club Roma Ovest. Thus, in May I held a recital at the prestigious Museum of Civilizations in Rome, organized in collaboration with the Liceo Musicale Francesco Vivona on the occasion of European Day.

The situation with COVID now seems to becoming safer here in Italy and Europe, variants permitting. What projects, events, or concerts have you planned for this year?

Well, I have restarted the Salotti di Marcella Crudeli — a series of events combining art, culture, literature, and music. This year they have been relocated to the beautiful 15th-century Cloister of San Giovanni Battista de Genovesi, already the main location of the selections for the ROMA International Piano Competition. The first two events were held on May 15 and June 19. These events were attended by great personalities from the institutional, musical, and literary worlds, as representatives of the cultural world at large.

On July 1 I inaugurated a Festival dedicated to my name within the Festival of Nations. It was organized by the Fryderyk Chopin Cultural Association in collaboration with the cultural association Il Tempietto. It’s 17 concerts involved some of my students as well as other names from the musical world, like the flutist Alessandro Fratta, the guitarist Eugenio Caronna, and yourself.

Then there was my own concert, in which some of my students participated, at the Theatre Savoia of Campobasso, to conclude the celebration of my 80 years in music. I feel grateful to all the people who have been part of these events, and I have sent a letter to each one to thank them for their participation and artistic contribution.

Later in the year, the ROMA 2021 International Piano Competition will be held from 4 to 16 November with selections at the Cloister of San Giovanni Battista de Genovesi and will culminate with the Concert of the Winners, accompanied by the Roma Tre Orchestra, at the Palladium Theater on November 16.

As for future projects, there are many, starting with the Rome Competition mentioned above and my travels abroad (in Poland and Spain). But given the situation with the variants, it’s necessary to live from one day to the next.

You have had an incredible music career as a concert performer since childhood. However, you come from an age when to be a young, successful, independent woman was difficult. Do you think that with time things have changed for today’s women artists, or do we still live in a patriarchal society and sector?

Unfortunately, for a woman, it is always difficult to establish herself and pursue a career. She has to work at least twice as hard to be able to emerge as she deserves, in a society where the male figure still dominates in a decisive way. However, with the willpower, stamina, and the awareness of one’s own merits and great spirit of sacrifice, you can still reach the highest peaks. 

Let’s talk about about your classical music education. You became famous as an enfant prodige and made your debut at the age of only 10 years old. Can you tell us about your experience?

For a talented pianist, studies are very important, especially if you start an artistic career at a very young age. It’s important to carry out serious studies with professors who frame and indicate the most suitable musical path for the artistic qualities of the student.

Years ago the approach to studying was more intense, more focused on the instrument, without being dispersed with many subjects that are often useless for a career that must start very early to compete with many young people worldwide, of great preparation and talent. I think that a young person who has already achieved a good preparation should listen and study with more professors — to enlarge and make broader their musical vision and personality.

Music competitions are important, but you have to be very careful in the choice. Alone, they are not decisive for an artistic career. Rather, you need a musical and spiritual guide to develop and highlight all those qualities that are sometimes hidden.

You are a founder and an artistic director of the prestigious ROMA International Piano yearly competition. Could you tell us more about the competition?

The ROMA International Competition was born simply because something of the sort didn’t exist previously — and it should. I strongly felt the need for young people to undertake an artistic path that could span the world. I wanted the competition to offer an expansion of horizons and a springboard for valiant pianists.

The competition, within such a short time, has established itself among the most important international piano competitions in the world, both for the quality of the participants and for the seriousness and transparency of the judgments. In this regard, we are part of the Alink Argerich Foundation, a Foundation that brings together the 180 International Piano Competitions of the World. Our Chopin Association also represents Italy in the International Federation of Chopin Societies in Warsaw.

Over 30 years and over 4,000 young people from all over the world have participated in the competition, coming from 76 countries on five different continents. They have met here in Rome, the city of culture and art with their desires, their hopes, and with that determination necessary to obtain a very important artistic recognition for their career.

I would like to remind you that these are young people of the highest level, who, after obtaining the first prize from us, have continued to win prestigious competitions: Dmitry Masleev, who won the Tchaikovsky of Moscow; Boris Giltburg, who won Brussels’s Queen Elizabeth Competition; or Scipione Sangiovanni who won La Sala Gallo di Monza. There are many more too!

You have produced dozens of CDs, with a repertoire stretching across various musical eras. Which disc is the one you hold closest to your heart and why?

All my records are dear to me. I recently did some revisions of music that I love very much, which are by Cimarosa, Galuppi and Scarlatti. I think that this kind of ancient music should also be made known to the general public as playing it on the piano always fascinates the audience for the beauty of its phrases and the fluency of the techniques.

Of course, Chopin is also always in my heart, as I studied with Alfred Cortot in the last years of his life. He opened up a poetic horizon of phrasing together with a philosophy in which the playing technique is not the final scope. Instead, it must be finalized into a poetic and far-reaching interpretation, with a profound ‘breath’ of the phrase.

In 2021, life and socialization is online. What’s your view of online life? Is it important to have this option instead of listening to live concerts?

The true artist should be seen and heard on stage! All the recordings are often manipulated and sometimes distort what is the true vision of the piece. The artist must play live to be judged in the best possible way and above all to have a human contact with the public, something that is necessary to reach artistic and poetic levels of great importance.

To end, what encouraging words would you say to young musicians and especially to classical music pianists who are starting their career?

The advice I can give to young people who undertake this difficult career is always to look forward, not to be discouraged by the failures that are part of the game. Have humility, a spirit of sacrifice and know exactly where you want to go. You’ll have to know how to give up on a lot, ‘to marry a cause’. Your path will be difficult, but always fascinating.

Dear Marcella, congratulations on your 80 year anniversary on behalf of Italics Magazine. It’s a great honor and pleasure to have this rare possibility to meet such an eminent figure. Thank you for talking to us.

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