T H E   N I H   C A T A L Y S T      M A R C H  –  A P R I L   2006


Music is the effort we make to explain to ourselves how our brains work. 

  —Lewis Thomas

by Henry Metzger


Giulio Cantoni (1915–2005) was chief of the Laboratory of General and Comparative Biochemistry, NIMH, from 1954 to 1994. He retired as scientist emeritus in 1996—but he continued until his death as the director of the FAES (Foundation for Advanced Education in the Sciences) chamber music concert series he founded at NIH in 1968.

A Jewish Italian physician who fled Italy with his family in 1939, Cantoni was interned in England and Canada before gaining entry into the United States in late 1941, aided by conductor Arturo Toscanini, a family friend.

Among Cantoni's scientific achievements were his pioneering studies elucidating the process of methylation, including the discovery of the active co-factor S-adenosylmethionine.

A memorial symposium honoring Cantoni's diverse accomplishments took place on the NIH campus February 9, 2006. It was sponsored by NIMH and FAES. Scientist Emeritus Henry Metzger, FAES president and former NIAMS scientific director, delivered a historical recap of the origins of FAES on the NIH campus and its eventual emergence, by dint of Cantoni's managerial baton, as a highly acclaimed venue for music. Following is an adapted version of Metzger's tribute to Cantoni.

Giulio Cantoni

The FAES was formally created in 1959 for the purpose of promoting, as its name indicates, advanced education in the sciences. In preparation for my remarks today, I did a bit of historical research on how Giulio and the FAES developed their collaboration. I reviewed the minutes of the meetings of the FAES Executive Committee and Board of Directors as well as Giulio's own account.

For the first five years, all of the discussions at the meetings of the governing bodies of FAES were about the courses to be offered, the possibility of having a formal degree-granting program, creating a bookstore for scientific texts, and especially creating a faculty center. It was in the context of developing detailed plans for such a center that the first reference to cultural activities appears, in 1964. As chair of a Committee on Cultural Activities, Seymour Kety (who in 1951 had become scientific director of both NIMH and the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Blindness) suggested the cultural activity of including a bar for that center.

1964 also marked  what appears to have been the first NIH Cultural Lecture—the FAES-sponsored appearance of Washington humorist Art Buchwald. (While on sabbatical in Paris some years later, I had a chance to test Buchwald's presentation of how to see the Louvre in less than three minutes.)

The next reference to cultural events comes after Leonard Laster took over as chair of the committee and reported that: "Emma Kountz presented a concert of 'Beethoven's Legacy to Man' on December 15, 1966 [shortly before the 140th anniversary of Beethoven's death] . . . . Dr. Cantoni arranged for Mrs. Kountz to appear at NIH and he was enthusiastic about offering additional concerts." 

A year and a half later, in the spring of 1968, at the invitation of Giulio, the world- famous ensemble Virtuosi di Roma presented an all-Vivaldi program at NIH. This was the first of the series initiated by Giulio of what to date includes more than 300 chamber music concerts. The concerts have included instrumentalists and vocalists from almost every European country as well as from Japan. For three, the NIH concerts were their U.S. debut. The Washington debut of another 26 featured such world-renowned artists as Maurizio Pollini (1971), Radu Lapu (1974), Viktoria Mullova (1987), and Ignat Solzhenitsyn (1992).

It was in the 25th year of the series that Giulio penned a chronicle of the origins and unfolding of this cultural enclave in the halls of advanced scientific education. He called this summary and listing of participating musicians "Il Catalogo,"  after Leporello's first-act aria in Don Giovanni. Giulio translated the opening line as "This is the catalogue of friends we loved."  (For those in the know of who was on that list of Don Giovanni's international friends, and how he befriended them, the nature of Giulio's sense of humor is clear. For those unfamiliar with the opera, the aria relates the number of international seductions credited to the Don.)

In his synopsis, Giulio recounts how music had been an essential part of his life ever since his adolescent days in Milan, when he was exposed to good music through the public performances of a local amateur society.

He recounts also that when he and his wife, Gabriella, moved to Bethesda in 1954 there was a paucity of musical events in the Washington area and that when in the early 1960s he tried organizing some musical lectures, their reception was less than enthusiastic. However, when he and his wife assisted in fundraising for the Save Venice Committee after the disastrous flooding of Venice and Florence in 1966, public response was heartening. He states:

"The successful results of these efforts were very rewarding. . . .The realization that the public might respond to appeals in support of cultural initiatives brought about a gradual change in my attitude. By the early spring of 1968, with the invaluable encouragement and support of my wife, I became convinced that the organization of a series of chamber music concerts at NIH might be feasible, provided FAES would supply the necessary sponsorship." 

He notes that a critical element in his decision was the arrival of Paola Saffiotti, whose husband Umberto had been recruited to NCI. She had worked in Italy as a representative of some world-renowned artists. Giulio details her "invaluable collaboration"  in generating the series.

Giulio and Paola shared the objective of presenting both well-known artists at the peak of their careers and promising junior performers. Those of us privileged to have attended these concerts over many years can attest to their continued success in achieving their goal. I might mention that Paola has finalized the program for the 39th season in 2006-2007, in the formulation of which Giulio still played a major role [see "Services"  at the FAES website].

Over the years, as NIH grew and many of us became more specialized and seemed to find less time to interact with colleagues outside our own areas of interest, the concert series not only gave us a superb cultural experience but also a venue for pleasant collegial interaction. In addition, the compatible mix of attendees who were NIH retirees as well as simply individuals from the surrounding neighborhood created an aura of good feeling and community.

And there was also the fellowship that developed among the musical artists and the scientists: "We are proud and happy to regard them as friends,  Giulio wrote in "Il Catalogo."   

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