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A powerful Neapolitan mother helped to secure the musical fortunes of Riccardo Muti, music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as he explains in an interview published Aug. 25 in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. The maestro describes himself as a the son of a woman “shaped by the Neapolitan culture that comes from Frederick II, the German emperor, but also of Naples and Puglia [a southeastern region of Italy].”

In the article, written in question-and-answer format, Muti also comments on his family links to Verdi lore, such as that his mother shares the same name as the heroine of Rigoletto.

Your mother’s name was Gilda. That’s a curious coincidence for a noted Verdian such as yourself.
It’s a coincidence. Her family was not interested in music. Of my parents, the great music lover was my father, Domenico, with a beautiful tenor voice. He deemed it necessary for us to have a musical education, and I picked up the violin. At first, it seemed like torture: I was 7 years old and out of tune, while I played in front of a window from which I could watch with envy my friends’ games. I did not progress, and my teacher advised my parents to have me stop. “The Way of the Cross by Riccardo stops here,” my father decreed. But my mother opposed him; she said, “Wait a month.” I have never understood actually why, but the fact is that something snapped in me. The next day I recognized the notes immediately, and my way into music started from that moment.

Your mother looked like Gilda?
She was beautiful, slender and elegant, with wavy hair. A line of blue blood ran in her family. My maternal great-grandmother was a marquise of Grenoble, and when we went to lunch with my grandmother, on the table were tablecloths and cutlery with the coat of arms of the Marquis.

She was a loving mother?
She did not like to fuss. She was reserved and severe. We [he and his four brothers] grew up like soldiers. We slept on horsehair mattresses placed on wooden boards. Expressions such as “I do not like” and “I want” were inconceivable to her.

What did she think of the extraordinary career of her son Riccardo?
With the usual dryness. I won the Cantelli [Conducting] Competition in ’67 and led the concert of the award ceremony. I have a photo where the whole [audience] is cheering, except my parents and my brothers. My mother had given an order not to applaud, considering all forms of enthusiasm an unbecoming weakness. 

To read the full interview (in Italian), click here.

TOP: A cigar box illustration inspired by Verdi’s Rigoletto, depicting the jester and daughter Gilda.