Anthony Louis Scarmolin (1890-1969, Italian, American)

Anthony Louis Scarmolin was born in Italy, near Padua, but his family moved to America when he was only ten. Since the death of his widow in 1987, a Scarmolin trust was established and it has been fostering and funding a modest Scarmolin discographic rediscovery, whose main recording champion has been conductor Joel Eric Suben. The liner notes of the one disc I’ve come across, Anthony Louis Scarmolin: Orchestral Works. Joel Eric Suben, Marco Polo 8.225031, say that his earliest compositions “used a fascinating, tortured chromaticism and occasionally crossed the line into what some call atonality”, but that “his early style, contemporaneous with Schoenberg’s early departures from tonality and with Bartok’s String Quartet No. 1, did not survive” the criticism of Scarmolin’s teachers at the New York’s German Conservatory of Music, and that he soon settled to writing a tremendous amount of commercial light music in a conservative style, which he stuck to to his death in 1969.

And that is indeed what you hear. Scarmolin’s music as featured on that disc sounds like it could have been composed by Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Delius, Griffes or Florent Schmitt. And it doesn’t show much evolution either, from the earliest pieces dating from the 1920s to the latest from the 1960s.

Scarmolin and his compositions raise again an old question: how do you listen to music, in relation to its past and future? Do you just listen “as it is”, independent of any awareness of where and how it fits in the line of music history, and it doesn’t matter if you are listening to a piece of Bach or Beethoven or Mahler or Debussy, or to a good pastiche or derivation written today? Would a skillful Mozart 42nd Symphony deserve the same place in the repertoire as Mozart’s genuine works (and is a skillful Vermeer fake by Van Meegeren as valuable as one of the few originals)? Or do you consider that it’s not worth listening to a copy, however skillful it may be, when all the originals are so abundantly available on disc, and that a composer is heir to ALL the music that was written before him and can’t compose as in a vacuum, pretending that fifty or one hundred years of music simply never happened?

I am – in matters of music at least; I’d love to have even a Van Meegeren copy on my wall – a fervent adept of the first position, and am therefore inclined to give short shrift to the music of Scarmolin. But if you believe in the second option, then you should find pleasure in this disc and others of the same composer – if you find pleasure in the music of those late 19th and early 20th century composers I referred to in the review.

More on Scarmolin including a discography at the Website of his Trust.

Comments are welcome