Italian Conductor Guido Cantelli: His Life and Times November 18 2022

Guido Cantelli was a renowned Italian conductor whose brief yet fruitful journey allowed him to conduct in some of the most famous concert halls of the world. So promising was Cantelli’s career that Maestro Arturo Toscanini once stated, "He [Cantelli] will, I feel sure, be my true successor."

Sadly, Cantelli’s career met a tragic end before Toscanini’s vision manifested. On November 24, 1956, just eight days after Cantelli became the permanent conductor of Milan’s prestigious La Scala theatre, he died in a plane crash while traveling from Rome to New York.

Cantelli was only 36 years old when he died, but his professionalism, youthful passion, and artistic commitment to stylistic perfection made him one of the most renowned figures of the contemporary conductor pantheon.


Guido Cantelli at age 6Guido Cantelli was born to Antonio and Angela Cantelli on April 27, 1920, in Novara, Italy. As the second of two children, seven years separated him from his older brother, Giuseppe. Guido’s father was a military bandsman with the Seventeenth Artillery Regiment, where he played the horn and trumpet before becoming bandmaster.


[IMAGE] Guido Cantelli at age 6

Inspired by his father, Guido showed interest in music at a very young age. At 5-years-old, he would accompany his father to band rehearsals and imitate baton movements as his father directed the band from behind. As he waved his father’s baton, Guido witnessed the seemingly magical result of music. At seven or eight years old, Guido began to play piano, and he would often play with a trio comprised of his older brother on violin and a neighborhood friend on cello.


Deciding to cultivate his son’s musical abilities, Antonio placed Guido under the instruction of Maestro Felice Fasola, the organist and choir director of the Basilica di San Gaudenzio.

Guido Cantelli before his debut at La Scala in 1949While there, Guido developed singing, piano, and organ skills that served as foundations for his future musical endeavors. While in the choir, Cantelli gained early experience making music with a group united towards one goal. Most of Guido’s private lessons with Fasola focused on piano. His other brother recalled that "He [Guido] used to play the piano for many hours, particularly in the evening”.


[IMAGE] Guido Cantelli before his debut at La Scala in 1949

As Cantelli furthered in his musical studies, Fasola regarded him as one of his most promising students, and by 14, Cantelli began to take on an assistant role to Fasola. If Fasola could not attend a service, Cantelli would play the organ and direct the choir.


When Cantelli outgrew his studies with Maestro Fasola, he began classes at the Milan Conservatory in August 1939. From 1939-1941, he studied composition with Adolfo Bossi and Arrigo Pedrollo, and Giorgio Federico Ghedini.

Between 1941-1942, Antonino Votto taught the first conducting course at the conservatory. Cantelli showed immediate aptitude, and he directed several concerts with other students. At the end of the course, Cantelli found that conducting was the main outlet for his musical passions.

He graduated from the conservatory in February 1943, and he received a call for military service shortly after. The army rejected him due to health reasons, and he took this time to pursue his musical endeavors as a new graduate.


Since its inception in 1799, Teatro Coccia has enjoyed a longstanding history as the premier opera house in Novara. In December 1888, Arturo Toscanini headlined the inauguration of a newly constructed Coccia with the opera Les Huguenots. Toscanini would conduct in that same year Aida and La forza del destino.


Guido Cantelli Autograph

The 1940s witnessed yet another debut at the Teatro Coccia- Guido Cantelli! Shortly after graduating from the Milan Conservatory, Cantelli stepped into the orchestra pit at the Coccia for the first time and directed La Traviata, a three-act opera by Giuseppe Verdi.


The debut performance was a huge success, and during the same season, Cantelli also directed Madama Butterfly, a second La traviata, and Jules Massenet's Werther.


[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Large Photograph signed and inscribed by the Italian conductor in 1953

The young graduate's momentum suddenly came to a screeching halt in the Fall of 1943.


When German troops occupied Rome in September 1943, Cantelli received a draft into the Italian army. Soon after, he found himself in a German labor camp in Stettin, where he did heavy labor in bitter cold sea winds. Food was scarce, and Cantelli’s weight dropped dangerously low.

When German troops relocated the labor camp to Stuttgart, they offered Italian laborers repatriation in exchange for service with Mussolini's troops. On the way back to Italy, German troops sent a seriously ill Cantelli to a hospital in Bolzano.

The hospital lacked proper treatment and living conditions. Faced with the thought of having to fight, Cantelli considered escaping. The hospital chaplain assisted Cantelli by providing him with a bicycle, clothes, and money. Cantelli then made his bold escape, reaching Novara between late 1943 and early 1944


Cantelli worked at a bank during his first few months back home. He slowly began to pick up the pieces of his music career by directing La boheme in Biella in March 1944, followed by La traviata, Madame Butterfly, and Werther at the Coccia in April and May 1944.

Cantelli was still in a poor physical state at this time, and he often needed support to reach the podium. Despite his frail condition, Cantelli refused to step down as conductor. As soon as the music began, he immediately became a musical genius full of vigor and passion.

Eight months passed from the spring of 1944 before Cantelli would perform again, and he went back to work for the bank as he prepared for future events. Between January and March 1945, he gave performances of Tosca, Madama Butterfly, and Rigoletto, followed by two performances of La Traviata in October 1945. These were the last operas that Cantelli directed until 1956.


On April 28, 1945, one day after his 25th birthday, Cantelli married his longtime sweetheart, Iris Bilucaglia. On the same day, Mussolini and his mistress were shot and hung at a gas station in Milan, and partisans liberated the city the next day. Realizing better opportunities in Milan, the newlyweds rented a small apartment near the Milan Conservatory at Via Livorno 5. It was the couple’s primary home throughout their marriage, which lasted until Cantelli’s death.


Cantelli with wife Iris and son LeonardoCantelli with wife Iris and son Leonardo

The early years in Milan were financially difficult for the newlyweds. Cantelli often sacrificed meals for music scores, and he meticulously studied these scores for a complete understanding of the composer’s intentions. Giuseppe Gallini, the owner of one of Cantelli’s most frequented music stores said that “He [Cantelli] was able to read scores like someone else could read a newspaper."




War World II reduced La Scala to a shell of its former self. When Dr. Antonio Ghiringhelli became the theatre’s new superintendent in May 1945, he organized outdoor concerts featuring the remaining orchestra and some of the Milan Conservatory’s best students.

Riccardo Pick-Mangiagalli, director of the Milan Conservatory suggested Sicilian pianist Marcello Abbado, and young conductor--Guido Cantelli. Antonino Votto also gave a glowing recommendation of his former student, and the committee ultimately agreed to have Cantelli conduct these concerts.

On July 27, 1945, Cantelli conducted the La Scala’s orchestra for the first time in the courtyard of the Castello Sforzesco in Milan. The concert was a great success and featured works such as Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6, also known as Pathétique Symphony.

Initially, the older members of the orchestra were not thrilled to work with young musicians. These doubts disappeared, however, when the orchestra witnessed Cantelli's abilities. Marcello Abbado recalled that “There was a great amount of affection for this young musician. They all admired this young conductor."


Guido Cantelli next to Arturo Toscanini in 1952
Guido Cantelli next to Arturo Toscanini in 1952


Cantelli’s success at Castello Sforzesco marked the steady start of a successful, international career.
On August 19, 1945, Cantelli conducted the orchestra of the Italian Radio (R.A.I.) There was little time to prepare a new program, so Cantelli repeated Tchaikovsky's No. 6 instead. The broadcast was still a success, and it brought Cantelli’s name to a much larger international audience.


In August 1946, he traveled to Rome for his first concert with the Orchestra of Santa Cecilia at the Basilica di Massenzio. He also performed with the orchestra of La Fenice in Venice, and on November 24, 1946, he directed the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Florence.

In 1947 Cantelli began working with Combined Services Entertainment to provide music for British troops assigned to rehabilitation efforts throughout Italy and Austria. Cantelli worked with conductor Igor Markevitch during a series of concerts in Padova, Udine, Trieste, and Venice. Each of Cantelli’s performances earned standing ovations from the troops. According to Major Arthur Watson, "they worshipped him – he was one of them!".



Signed Program Vienna 1955
Cantelli did not allow his increasing popularity to deter his work ethic. His consistent dedication and professionalism took his career to new heights in 1948. Unbeknownst to Cantelli at this time, Toscanini began his search for an assistant to work with him and the NBC Symphony Orchestra. La Scala's superintendent, Dr. Ghiringhelli, had possible conductors in mind, but Cantelli was not of them- yet. 


[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Program for a performance by maestro Cantelli in Vienna, 1955, signed by him
On May 21, 1948, Toscanini attended an off-season concert at La Scala with Dr. Ghiringhelli and witnessed a 28-year-old Guido Cantelli conduct his first concert inside of La Scala’s restored concert hall. The performance included Ravel’s Rhapsodie Espagnole, Brahm's Violin Concerto, and Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler.

The concert was a complete revelation to Toscanini. Halfway through the program, he excitedly told Dr. Ghiringhelli "That is me directing this concert!".


A few days later, Toscanini invited Cantelli to guest conduct four concerts with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1949. Cantelli's focused his thoughts on America, and before leaving Italy, he studied harder than ever to prepare for one of the most prestigious orchestras in the world.

On December 17, 1948, Cantelli boarded the S.S. Vulcania in Genoa and sailed to the United States. His remarkable debut with NBC Symphony Orchestra on January 15, 1949, included works such as Haydn’s Symphony No. 93 and Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler.

After the first four concerts with the NBC Orchestra, Toscanini wrote Cantelli's wife in 1950 stating “I am happy and moved to inform you of Guido's great success and that I introduced him to my orchestra, which loves him as I do. This is the first time in my long career that I have met a young man so gifted. He will go far, very far.”



Due to his initial success with the NBC Orchestra, Cantelli replaced an ill colleague and conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra. He conducted NBC's Symphony Orchestra from 1949 until the orchestra disbanded in 1954.


With his exceptional conducting skills and Toscanini’s support, Cantelli continued to enjoy the explosive success that marked his dynamic entry into the realm of prominent conductors.

In 1950, he joined De Sabata to conduct at the Edinburgh Festival, and he also took La Scala on a successful U.K tour. In 1951, he began working with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, founded by EMI producer Walter Legge. During the subsequent six years with Philharmonia Orchestra, Cantelli recorded several distinguished records.

In early 1952, Cantelli made a remarkable debut with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, where he would become a regular guest conductor over five seasons. Cantelli also worked with the Boston Symphony Orchestra during this time.


After a long dedication to symphonic music, Cantelli wanted to return to opera. On January 27, 1956, he conducted the opera Così fan tutte at La Scala. The cast included renowned figures such as soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, and it was a tremendously successful production. Many people considered it to be one of the best Mozart interpretations.

Cantelli followed Così fan tutte with several other concerts with La Scala, including a successful tour to South Africa from September through October 1956.


Performance of Cosi fan Tutte with Schwarzkopf and Graziella Sciutti
Performance of Cosi fan Tutte with Schwarzkopf and Graziella Sciutti


On November 16, 1956, La Scala named Cantelli the next Musical Director to succeed Carlo Maria Giulini. In that same month, there was also a discussion of Cantelli becoming the next music director of the New York Philharmonic. Tragedy would soon bring the young conductor’s career to a sudden end.

On November 24, 1956, a plane traveling from Rome to New York crashed shortly after takeoff at the Orly Airport in Paris. Cantelli died along with 32 other passengers. He was just 36 years old, and he left behind a grieving widow and a 5-month-old son.

At his funeral, La Scala’s orchestra played the famous Largo movement from Handel's Serse in front of an empty podium. Toscanini died of old age and failing health less than two months after Cantelli died. He never knew about Cantelli's death, but he died with sincere respect and optimism for his spiritual heir's future.


Guido Cantelli left a small, yet memorable collection of studio recordings and concert broadcasts. With EMI and the Philharmonia Orchestra, he recorded Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, Brahms’s Symphonies 1 and 3, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, amongst other works. There is also one unofficial recording of Così fan tutte at La Scala in 1956. Furthermore, many of Cantelli’s NBC Symphony sessions from 1949 to 1954 have been made available in recent years.


Guido Cantelli Recording


It was no surprise that Toscanini saw Cantelli as his natural successor. Cantelli was a tireless conductor who rehearsed and performed a vast repertoire by heart. He struck a unique balance between bringing forth the sounds in his mind and effectively communicating the composer’s intentions for rhythmic characteristics, dynamics, and sonorities.

Cantelli’s career shows a remarkable musician who mastered the art of conducting and reached astonishing heights of artistic ability in just a short amount of time. He had tremendous respect for Toscanini and other conductors, but he was a unique conductor in and of himself. In a tribute to Cantelli, Walter Legge wrote, "No other conductor in the history of the art has established, so early in life, so wide a fame."

In 1961, the Provincial Touristic Board of Novara launched the International Guido Cantelli Competition for young conductors. Until 1980, the competition graduated some of today's best conductors, such as Riccardo Muti, Eliahu Inbal, Ádám Fischer, and Donato Renzetti.





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