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ClassicsOnline Home » CASELLA, A.: Symphony No. 3 / Elegia eroica (Rome Symphony, Le Vecchia)
The revelatory Naxos Casella series continues with two powerful works that grew from the tragedy of two World Wars. Searingly dissonant and ‘profoundly human’, the Elegia eroica (‘Heroic Elegy’) is Casella’s memorial to Italian soldiers killed in World War I. His Third Symphony, a commission for the fiftieth birthday of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, assimilates the influences and experiences of a lifetime into an exhilaratingly melodic, emotionally wide-ranging and truly organic whole. This third disc in the series completes the world première recording of all three Casella symphonies. Francesco La Vecchia and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma ‘have Casella in their bloodstream’ (MusicWeb International).
By Rob Cowan
By William Dart
The New Zealand Herald
By Joshua Meggitt
Alfredo Casella (1883–1947)
Sinfonia (Symphony No. 3), Op. 63 • Elegia eroica
‘Until the time of the racial laws, Casella was a Fascist—not an evil one, but full of enthusiasm. But I saw him later, during the war, in 1940 or ’41, and he was undergoing a complete change. He was beginning to understand. In any case, he behaved admirably to me when I was arrested in 1935: my mother didn’t know which way to turn, and she approached him, among others. Casella was very good about it—he wasn’t scandalised or indignant. He said, “I’ll take care of it, it’s nothing”; and he was very optimistic. He believed that by saying a word to the right person…Poor man, he was deluding himself, as always. Still, he did whatever he could. He was very kind and very affectionate.’
The Italian critic Massimo Mila (1910–88), who spent five years in prison for his anti-Fascist activities, is perhaps over-generous to his fellow native of Turin, the composer Alfredo Casella. When Mussolini grovelled to Hitler by imposing anti-Jewish laws in 1938, Casella kowtowed too. In a published article early the following year he condemned the music of some—unnamed—leading Italian composers as ‘the product of international Judaism’; it is hard to know whether the fact that the same ridiculous epithet had been levelled at Casella too makes this more or less excusable. On visits to Florence, Casella had always previously been a guest of the younger composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco; but now he made it plain that he would rather they met at a ‘neutral, “Aryan” house’—because Castelnuovo-Tedesco was Jewish: indeed, he was preparing to leave his native Italy for good to escape persecution. The really extraordinary thing is that Casella’s second wife Yvonne Müller was herself Jewish (as his first wife had been); and during the German occupation of Rome in 1943–44 she and their daughter Fulvia were to be in constant danger from Nazi ‘Jew-hunts’. But Casella was still scribbling encomiums to Mussolini as late as 1941, and his autobiography I segreti della giara, ‘The secrets of the jar’,¹ which appeared the same year (albeit mainly written in 1938, immediately before the Third Symphony) is pockmarked with regular obeisances to the Fascist régime: expressions of pleasure that his mother lived long enough to experience nine years of Fascism; lengthy, self-congratulatory eulogies to his opera Il deserto tentato (The Attempt on the Desert, 1936–37), dedicated to the Duce in celebration of his brutal imperialist conquest of Ethiopia;² even a queasy tribute to a young German Nazi named Casella (probably no relation) who died in Hitler’s failed ‘Munich beer-hall Putsch’ in 1923, the composer swelling with pride that ‘our most Italian of names’ should find ‘eternal rest in the shrine of Germanic martyrs’. No wonder Spencer Norton ‘diplomatically’ omitted most of these passages from his English translation, published as Music in My Time in 1955—well after both the fall of Hitler and Mussolini, and Casella’s own death.
And yet not just Mila but virtually everyone who knew Casella hailed his essential good nature. Probably Casella, like so many other Italians, simply went with the flow of Fascist propaganda: the Duce himself always remained at heart a newspaper editor, perfecting the technique of government by slogan—most famously, ‘Mussolini is always right’. There was no need for the trains actually to run on time, so long as people believed they did. Casella, as an ardent nationalist, certainly believed Fascism’s claim to be restoring Italy’s past glories; equally, Mila called him ‘a good European’ and Casella himself often said he aimed to create music ‘both Italian and European’. Changeability, and the capacity for (often simultaneous) self-contradiction, were the essence of Italian Fascism, which loved to project itself as ‘a system of government which is both revolutionary and conservative’—in Casella’s own words. Mussolini’s vicious, murderous impulses battled with an endemic sentimentality—making his régime a fundamentally different kind of beast from the ruthless killing machine of Nazi Germany. Had Mila been German, he is extremely unlikely to have escaped a death sentence, let alone been pardoned in 1940 ‘on the birth of an heir to the Prince of Piedmont or some such thing.’ Italian Fascism did not ban art or define it as ‘degenerate’ like the Nazis, or enact purges of creative artists like the Soviet Union; indeed, at one time or another it encouraged every artistic trend from the most traditional to the most avant-garde. When, in December 1932, ten conservative musicians—a mixture of bootlicking Fascist nonentities and eminent composers like Respighi, Pizzetti and Zandonai—published a reactionary, xenophobic musical manifesto which Casella and his composer-colleague Gian Francesco Malipiero took as a coded attack on themselves, Mussolini sat firmly on the fence. His response to denunciations of the modernistic design for the new Santa Maria Novella railway station in Florence was to intervene personally—on the side of the architects. Despite rhetoric about ‘autarchy’ (Italian self-sufficiency), the régime consistently subsidised the organisational work of Casella and others to showcase the newest foreign musical trends. Music long banned in Nazi Germany could still be heard in Italy until the fall of Fascism: most astonishingly, the government-promoted Italian première of Berg’s opera Wozzeck – in November 1942!
With the Duce—whether by policy, pragmatism, opportunism or mere incompetence—backing almost all horses, Italian musicians jockeyed shamelessly for position, especially as Mussolini fancied himself one of their number (he could play the violin—a bit). Mila and the conductor Arturo Toscanini were practically alone among them in their prominent opposition to Fascism. Virtually all composers were happy to take what they could get from the régime: the popular ageing Puccini and Mascagni; the diverse ‘1880 Generation’ of Casella, Malipiero, Pizzetti and Respighi; the radical youngsters Petrassi and Dallapiccola. (Dallapiccola, like Casella, was married to a Jewish woman and gradually turned against Fascism after 1938; but, as modern research continues to reveal, nowhere near as rapidly or decisively as he spent the rest of his life claiming.) Even potential dissidents succumbed: Vittorio Gui signed an anti-Fascist statement in 1925 but in the 1930s and ’40s conducted for Mussolini and in Hitler’s Germany; Castelnuovo-Tedesco accepted a commission direct from the Duce in 1935. The musicologist Fiamma Nicolodi—Casella’s granddaughter—dug out of the archives well over a hundred letters written by Italian composers to Mussolini, who ‘honoured’ them with frequent private audiences. Sycophantic foreigners were welcome too—including Igor Stravinsky (one of Casella’s musical heroes) who apostrophised Mussolini as ‘the only man who counts nowadays in the whole world’. Casella’s own paean to the Duce in 1932 as ‘a man sent by the gods’ begins to seem more sad and deluded than sinister or despicable.
The two works on this recording grow from the two World Wars that were crucial to the history of Italian Fascism—which was seeded by the national failure to deal with the aftermath of the First, and only destroyed by the Second. The Elegia eroica (‘Heroic Elegy’) is Casella’s most powerful contribution to the First World War effort. Returning to his native Italy permanently in 1915 after nearly two decades in Paris, Casella soon conceived this music dedicated ‘to the memory of a soldier killed in the war’: ‘a heroic funeral march; a more intimate, deeply sorrowful central episode; and finally a fusillade of death that thunders through the orchestra subsides into a tender lullaby evoking an image of our country as a mother cradling her dead son.’ Still more starkly than in Casella’s Notte di maggio (‘A Night in May’, 1913 [Naxos 8.572416]), the large orchestra—including six horns which launch the whole work—is often stratified into superimposed polytonal layers of woodwind, brass and strings (subdivided into as many as twelve parts); the score is peppered to a Mahlerian extreme with indications of expression, articulation and dynamics, the visceral impact of its searing dissonances and stunned lulls rivalling Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring—from which there are occasional near-quotations. It was all too much for the conservative Rome audience at the work’s première in January 1917: ‘in the final section,’ Casella recalled, ‘there suddenly exploded a tidal wave of indignation, overwhelming the sad, gentle berceuse of which not a single note could be heard. Few friends came to see me afterwards. I returned home that night with a sense of loneliness greater than I have ever felt, before or since.’ Some critics immediately rationalised their resistance into accusations that Casella was anti-Italian—even though near the end solo trumpet, oboe and flutes, ‘with infinite sweetness and poetry’, introduce phrases from the nineteenth-century patriotic song ‘Fratelli d’Italia’ (‘Brothers of Italy’), which is now the Italian national anthem.³ Closer to the mark was Domenico de’ Paoli, who in 1939 called the Elegia eroica ‘the most profoundly human of all musical responses to the tragedy of the War’.
1939 also saw Casella start work on his Sinfonia, Op. 63, composed during the first year of World War Two. Three decades had passed since his two previous symphonies [8.572413, 8.572414], ‘and not once in this long period had it occurred to me to write a third symphony: I always felt that the form would never attract me again.’ But, responding to a commission from the conductor Frederick Stock for the fiftieth birthday of his Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Casella found ‘to my consternation that what I thought was the opening of a composition of modest duration was on the scale of a full-length symphony, and I was forced to yield to this vital impulse.’ The Symphony No. 3 is truly symphonic, germinating from the opening oboe solo (with momentary—surely serendipitous—echoes of Nielsen) into an organic structure of four thematically-interconnected movements, based respectively on the keys of A minor/major (subtly evolving through a wide range of moods within a single basic tempo), E major, G minor/major and C major. And though Casella’s style had changed almost beyond recognition in the intervening thirty years—its main affinities by the late 1930s being with composers such as Hindemith and Honegger, and even Americans like Walter Piston—the Third turns out to have remarkably close links with Casella’s Second Symphony of 1908–9 [Naxos 8.572414]. They share a kinship with Prokofiev; with Shostakovich—especially in both Scherzos, featuring the xylophone, marked ‘strident’ in the initial minor-key section of the Third (Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony was becoming famous outside Russia at exactly this time, and by 1940 was available on 78rpm records—coincidence?);4 and above all with Mahler. Passing Mahlerian resemblances in the impassioned string melody of Op. 63’s slow second movement become explicit in its triumphantly tuneful finale, where the same march theme from Mahler’s Second that Casella reworked in his own No. 2 is cross-fertilised with rhythms and trill-figures from the last movement of Mahler’s Seventh—itself, too, a triumphant C major finale (or is it a deliberate parody of one?) with comparably ambivalent shifts between two- and three-beat metre. Thirty years earlier Mahler had personally commissioned Casella to arrange his Seventh Symphony for piano duet: now, fully assimilated into Casella’s own idiom, it inspired the Italian composer’s most exhilarating tribute to the Czech-Austrian and (yes) Jewish master who was probably the greatest musical love of his life. When, in the darkest days of World War Two, Massimo Mila wrote a profound analysis of ‘Casella’s stylistic itinerary’, he chose to conclude by invoking the Sinfonia, Op. 63—‘shot through with Casella’s longing to broaden his horizons, in every sense; to open himself to every spiritual and artistic experience of a hardworking lifetime, rejecting nothing. For this is the deepest meaning of maturity: the falling-away of preferences and of the need to choose (and thus to exclude), and an ever-increasing capacity for understanding.’
¹ The ballet La giara, Op. 41 (The Jar, 1924), based on a short story by Luigi Pirandello, was one of Casella’s most popular works, and one of his own favourites.
² Though we should recall, when denouncing Mussolini’s Ethiopian war, that in the 1930s Great Britain was still proud of her Empire, and the United States of America was not noted for racial equality.
³ Often known as the Inno di Mameli (‘Mameli’s Hymn’) after Goffredo Mameli (1827–49), who wrote the words in 1847; they were set to music the same year by Michele Novaro (1822–85).
4 The main motif of the Scherzo of Casella’s Third is in fact surprisingly similar to Shostakovich’s personal ‘DSCH’ motto—which, however, he did not begin to use until well after Casella’s death.
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CASELLA, A.: Symphony No. 3 / Elegia eroica (Rome ...