Obituary: Vittorio Rieti

Vittorio Rieti, composer: born Alexandria, Egypt 28 January 1898; married 1924 Elsie Rappaport (died 1969; one son); died New York City 19 February 1994.

VITTORIO RIETI is sadly neglected now but it is appropriate that the only work of his in the present British record catalogue - a piano piece called La Danseuse aux Lions - should be about a dancer.

Rieti was launched internationally as a ballet composer under the aegis of Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. He had some legendary collaborators. The scenery and costumes for Barabau (1925) were by Utrillo, those for Le Bal (1929) by de Chirico; Lifar and Sokolova danced in Barabau; and the choreography was by the 20- year-old Georges Balanchine. At the premiere of Barabau in London, the ballet critic Cyril W. Beaumont found the hilariously comic story of peasant life rather too crude for conservative British taste. But not the music, since Rieti almost always worked fluently in a neo-classical idiom affected by his lifelong friendship with Igor Stravinsky.

Rieti was born in Alexandria in 1898, but studied music and economics in Milan, and finally composition with Otto Respighi in Rome. From the early 1920s onwards Rieti was drawn to Paris, attracted by the atmosphere of Diaghilev, Stravinsky and his friendship with the group of bright young composers called Les Six. In emulation Rieti launched an Italian group called I Tre and founded La Serenade, a chamber ensemble in Paris.

Rieti was a good pianist, capable of playing the solo in his own Piano Concerto, or taking one of the four piano parts in Stravinsky's Les Noces, as he did for its London premiere under Eugene Goossens in 1926. Goossens found the ensemble hard to control and Beaumont remembers the pianists' 'serious preoccupied faces, glistening from concentration and exertion'. Rieti had four works played at the festivals of the International Society for Contemporary Music between 1924 and 1932. His invariably loyal colleague Alfredo Casella conducted Rieti's Concerto for wind quintet and orchestra at one of these festivals.

During these years Rieti frequented Paris as much as Rome and he occasionally appears as a name in the pages of various memoirs. Virgil Thomson, in a 1927 letter, found Rieti's music 'fresh and brilliant' and Rieti composed prolifically. There are nine symphonies, the last premiered in New York only five years ago, and a great deal of chamber music, apart from the ballets.

Unlike Casella, who remained in Italy under Mussolini and became compromised by his attitude to Fascism, Rieti went to the United States in 1940 and became a citizen four years later. He worked regularly with Balanchine again, notably in The Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne, which was given by Ballet Society in New York in 1948. Rieti was also known for his ballet scores based on the music of other composers, such as The Night Shadow (Bellini), The Mute Wife (Paganini) and Verdiana.

Rieti was also active as a teacher, primarily at Queen's College, City University of New York, and at the New York College of Music.

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