Vittorio Giannini was one of the most distinguished of those American composers of the first half of the twentieth century whose work represented an evolution of aesthetic values and musical techniques inherited from the centuries-long European classical tradition. The romantic spirit of Giannini's own music and the traditional approach he advocated as a teacher place him in a similar position within American musical life to that occupied by his older contemporary, Howard Hanson. His compositional output includes some 14 operas, dozens of art songs, seven symphonies, and a wide array of choral and instrumental works. Most of his music was regarded as old-fashioned when it was written and received little attention in the United States, although his early operas enjoyed some success in Europe during the 1930s. Other works achieved currency by filling niches in the repertoire.
Giannini was born to a family of professional musicians. When he was nine, he won a scholarship to study at the Verdi Conservatory in Milan, where he remained for four years. After several years of private study, he entered the Juilliard School in 1925, where his chief composition teacher was Rubin Goldmark. During the 1920s and '30s, Giannini's compositional interests primarily centered on vocal music songs as well as operas. One of his earliest, "Tell Me, Oh Blue, Blue Sky," became a favorite on recital programs and was later recorded by both Leonard Warren and Mario Lanza; more recently it has been revived by Thomas Hampson. During the early '30s, Giannini spent several years in Europe on three consecutive Prixes de Rome. A number of major works, including two full-length operas (Lucedia and The Scarlet Letter), enjoyed auspicious European premieres at this time, winning the enthusiastic praise of Richard Strauss, among others. These works, which featured Giannini's celebrated sister Dusolina in the leading roles, were characterized by rich, warm-hearted melody in a manner that combined both Italian and German influences. Returning to the United States, Giannini composed two (unnumbered) symphonies, the first in memory of Theodore Roosevelt and the second commissioned by IBM for performance at the 1939 New York World's Fair. He joined the faculties of the Juilliard School in 1939, the Manhattan School of Music in 1941, and the Curtis Institute in 1956. Among his most prominent students were John Corigliano, Nicolas Flagello, David Amram, and Thomas Pasatieri. During the 1940s, Giannini turned his attention more fully toward instrumental music, showing a predilection for Baroque and Classical forms, which he imbued with a Romantic warmth, especially the slow movements. He composed his most popular opera, a buffa adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, in 1950. The first opera to be telecast in color, it is still heard with some frequency. From the mid-'50s through the early '60s, Giannini composed five works for concert band. Though somewhat marginal to the aesthetic core of his output, they have become his most consistently and frequently performed pieces. Of these, the warmly affirmative Symphony for Band No. 3 is one of the most beloved works in the genre. During the early '60s, Giannini's compositional style took something of a turn. Although his formal and developmental procedures essentially remained the same, many of his late works reveal a darker character, a greater depth of expression, and a more dissonant harmonic language. Though rarely still performed, these are among his finest achievements. Works like the monodramas The Medead and Antigone, and the Symphony No. 5 (his seventh) are some of the most impressive examples of American neo-Romanticism. In 1965, the year before his death, Giannini was founding director of the North Carolina School of the Arts.