Italian conductor Piero Coppola was one of many twentieth-century baton wielders who was actually a closet composer. Like Michael Tilson Thomas and Esa-Pekka Salonen, and more presently Claudio Abbado, Coppola's own music was and is little-known to general audiences who think of him only as a conductor. The major music references are divided as to whether he should be ranked a conductor, a conductor and composer, or a composer and conductor. There is, in fact, some question as to just how much music Coppola actually wrote during his lifetime. But there is little question that he was among the best of the "second-tier" Italian conductors (considering Toscanini to be the first tier) from World War I to his death in 1971.
Coppola was the son of tenor Vincenzo Coppola and Teresa Angeloni, a dramatic soprano. He studied music at the Conservatory in his hometown until taking his diploma (piano and composition) in 1910. It took him astonishingly little time to break into the business of conducting: In 1911 - 1912, he was already conducting at no less a venue than La Scala opera house. Just prior to the outbreak of World War I, Coppola was in Brussels conducting (opera again) and then, after a brief stay in England, he lived and worked in Scandinavia while the war ran its course. After the conflict ended, Coppola moved to France, where he became director of the recording company La Voix de son Maître (the French arm of HMV); he made a number of important records for the label during the late '20s and early '30s, including a disc of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 with Prokofiev on the piano bench.
At Lausanne, from 1939 on, he distinguished himself in the conducting of French symphonic repertoire, working with l'Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne, l'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, and the orchestra of Radio Lugano. He introduced and performed many contemporary works by diverse composers such as Arthur Bliss, Béla Bartók, André Caplet, Jean Cras, Arthur Honegger, Giacomo Puccini's Girl of the Golden West (1911), Alexandre Tcherepnin, and Edgard Varèse. He also interpreted certain classics, mainly of the Romantic period, and notably the works of Robert Schumann.
After World War II, Coppola limited his travels, and thus his conducting, to the countries immediately around France. His work conducting in opera houses moved Coppola to compose a pair of operas himself; neither, however, has ever been heard much. There is also a full-scale symphony and a handful of shorter works with his name on them.