The composer Goffredo Petrassi, who has died aged 98, was a leading Italian member of the second generation of modernists. In the English-speaking world, his contemporary Luigi Dallapiccola (1904-75) has been better known. However, in his own country, Petrassi, who took robustly Stravinskian and Hindemithian neo-classicism as the starting point for a long, varied, creative journey that continued into the early 1980s, was just as highly regarded. After Dallapiccola's death, he became the grand old man of Italian music.
Despite his humble peasant origin in a village near Palestrina, east of Rome, Petrassi's talents showed themselves early. In 1913, he became a chorister in the capital, where his contacts with Renaissance and Baroque art and music left a lasting impression, reflected later in the fine, large-scale choral works of his early maturity. However, his formal education was interrupted by the need to earn a living, and, from 1919, he worked in a well-stocked music shop, where he was still able to widen his musical horizons.
His eclectic interest in modern artistic developments (not only in music) dated from those years, and, by the mid-1920s, his alert cultural curiosity had impressed enough influential people to win him help in resuming his studies. By 1928, he was able to enter the Rome Conservatory as a mature student of composition.
He sprang to international fame in 1933, when his tense, compelling Partita For Orchestra became Italy's only contribution to the International Society for Contemporary Music's festival in Amsterdam. The work was quickly taken up by conductors in other countries, and his status as one of the bright new hopes of Italian music was assured.
Among Petrassi's subsequent orchestral compositions, the most famous are his concertos for orchestra, starting with the extrovert, brilliantly scored First (1933-34), a close stylistic relative of the Partita, and ending with the formidably complex Eighth (1970-72), whose turbulent intensity was linked, in the composer's mind, with fears arising from the deterioration of his sight.
The intervening concertos range from the relatively gentle, intimate Second (1951), whose beginning has a pastoral grace of exceptional delicacy, to the intricate, esoteric Seventh (1961-64), in which, as in many of his works of the period, Petrassi drew unexpectedly close to the styles of such postwar avant-garde composers as Luigi Nono, Luciano Berio and Roberto Donatoni, modernists of a further generation.
In between, the Fourth Concerto For Orchestra (1954) shows him at his most Bartokian, while the Third and Sixth (1952-53 and 1956-67) make intermittent use of post-Schoenbergian, 12-note techniques, in a manner utterly different from Dallapiccola's.
The finest work of the series is arguably the Fifth (1955), whose sombre, haunting eloquence is enhanced by a recurrent quotation from the composer's Coro Dei Morti (1940-41) - the darkly powerful, dramatic madrigal for male chorus, brass, three pianos, double basses and percussion which was his response to Italy's entry into the second world war.
The Coro Dei Morti remains one of Petrassi's supreme achievements, and his large-scale choral works in general form another outstandingly important thread in his output. In the relatively early Psalm IX (1934-36), he responded freely to the examples of Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex and Symphony Of Psalms, reinterpreted in an exuberant spirit, in which overtones of fascist pageantry can perhaps be detected.
After the war, however, the deep disillusionment of the Coro Dei Morti transformed his outlook almost beyond recognition; Noche Oscura (1950-51) is a memorably moving setting of St John of the Cross, pervaded by contrapuntal textures of great subtlety and by a religious feeling that does not exclude an insistent awareness of the darker side of reality.
The same is true of Petrassi's last, and most difficult, large choral work, Orationes Christi (1974-75), which is likely to remain beyond the powers of all but a few highly experienced choruses.
It is in big works that Petrassi is at his best; his smaller pieces can seem disappointing by comparison - a fact which may have contributed to their limited circulation outside Italy. There are, however, many exceptions, including some popular little choral settings of Edward Lear.
Petrassi was also active as a conductor, an administrator (from 1937 to 1940, he directed the Teatro La Fenice, Venice), and - most famously - a teacher. In 1959, he took over the advanced composition course at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, previously taught by Ottorino Respighi and Ildebrando Pizzetti, and inherited from Petrassi in 1974 by Donatoni. British composers who studied with Petrassi include Kenneth Leighton, Peter Maxwell Davies, Gordon Crosse and Cornelius Cardew, whose diverse creative outlooks bear witness to the liberating nature of his teaching.
He married his wife Rosetta in 1962, and they had a daughter.