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ClassicsOnline Home » CASELLA, A.: Concerto for Orchestra / Pagine di guerra / Suite (Rome Symphony, La Vecchia)
Alfredo Casella identified three different periods in his composing career, and this disc features one work from each. The Suite in C major is early Casella, a fascinating combination of influences from the French Baroque through Domenico Scarlatti to Mahler. War Pages are images of the horrific mechanised warfare of 1914–18, as seen on silent cinema newsreels: among the music’s admirers was Puccini. Casella himself felt that the Concerto, Op 61—a commission for the 50th birthday of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra—was his ‘most complete achievement in the field of orchestral music’.
By Robert Moon
Alfredo Casella (1883–1947)
Concerto, Op 61 • Pagine di guerra, Op 25bis • Suite, Op 13
‘Alfredo Casella was pretty nearly the “whole thing” at the concert of the Philadelphia Orchestra yesterday afternoon,’ reported the Philadelphia newspaper Evening Public Ledger of Casella’s US début on 28 October 1921. The 38-year-old Italian was piano soloist with the famous partnership of the Philadelphia Orchestra and conductor Leopold Stokowski in Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 20 in D minor, K466. Then he leapt on to the podium to conduct his own Pagine di guerra (‘War Pages’). Composer, conductor and pianist—all in a day’s work for Casella. History does not record his fee.
Casella’s extraordinary versatility is equally evident in the mindboggling stylistic range of his own music. He’s been called a ‘musical chameleon’, or—with apologies to Rossini (whose music Casella loved)—a ‘thieving magpie’. But John C G Waterhouse, the English expert on Italian music of the period, used those epithets to launch an investigation of ‘Casella’s stylistic continuity’, the ‘personal’, ‘Casellian’ features that recur throughout his life. Previous discs in this ongoing Naxos series of Casella’s orchestral music have spanned the three periods the composer himself identified in his compositional career, ¹ but this is the first disc to include one work from each of those periods—exemplifying both his range and continuity. The Pagine di guerra typify his radical, dissonant ‘second style’ from around the First World War, but they also look both forward and back, to the early Suite in C major and the late Concerto for orchestra—which are themselves linked both by musical characteristics and by their common relationship with another great conductor-orchestra partnership, Willem Mengelberg and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, and with another great composer whose name begins with ‘M’.
That composer was Gustav Mahler—a notable beneficiary (or victim?) of first-period Casella’s beady magpie eye. Casella’s Suite in C major, Op 13 (1909–10), abounds in Mahlerian echoes, from its very opening—a quiet string chord spread across six octaves, slow falling woodwind phrases soon followed by faster rising fanfare figures (an urban C major cousin of the A minor ‘sound of nature’ that opens Mahler’s First Symphony)—to the climax at the centre of its finale, reminiscent of the third movement climax in Mahler’s Second Symphony. The Turin-born Casella masterminded the French première of Mahler’s Second—in Paris, the city where he had lived since his early teens—less than a week before, on 23 April 1910, he conducted the premières of three of his own works there, sandwiching the rhapsody Italia (Italy, Op 11, 1909) between the Suite in C major and his equally Mahleresque Second Symphony [Naxos 8.572414]. Mahler in turn persuaded his own publisher Universal Edition to take on both the Suite and Italia, and planned to include them in the last of three concerts he gave in Rome later the same month—but cancelled it, complaining that the Orchestra of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia was ‘abominable’ (Mahler’s protégé Bruno Walter, however, gave the Suite its first Italian performance with the same orchestra within a couple of years). Later in 1910 the Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg, a close friend of Mahler who championed his music during half a century in charge of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, invited Casella to the Netherlands to repeat the Parisian Casella-fest as his début with the orchestra. One wonders what any of them would have made of the Suite’s most intriguing Mahler echo: the first two themes of its concluding Bourrée recall, respectively, the beginning of Sibelius’s C major Third Symphony and the first movement of Mahler’s Fourth—a fascinating combination of symphonic ideas by two composers who famously held almost opposite views of the genre. In Helsinki in October 1907 Sibelius (shortly after finishing his Third) told Mahler that he considered the essence of a symphony to be its ‘severity, and the profound logic creating an inner connection between all the motifs’, and got the response: ‘No! The symphony must be like the world—it must embrace everything!’
Perhaps fortunately for Casella—given the Parisian musical establishment’s generally sniffy attitude to Mahler—not a single French critic seems to have spotted the Mahlerian heritage of his Suite in C major. Among the almost unanimously rave reviews—the most enthusiastic of them all being by the French composer Jean Huré, Casella’s friend and the Suite’s dedicatee!—one perceptively noted its ‘incessant struggle between ultra-modern and archaic elements’, while others focussed largely on the latter, its ‘classicising’ or even neo-Baroque side. Here, too, Mahler may have played a rôle: Casella’s orchestra has large woodwind and percussion sections but only four horns and three trumpets in the brass—just like Mahler’s Fourth, often called his most ‘classical’ symphony (though the absence of trombones and tubas curbs neither Mahler’s nor Casella’s clamorous climaxes); and Mahler had also recently made an orchestral arrangement of music by JS Bach, which he included in his 1910 Rome concerts. But Casella also enjoyed plenty of other, more direct, ‘early’ influences and affinities. His association with the French Société des Instruments Anciens (‘Old Instruments Society’) included a Russian tour in 1909, during which the musicians performed privately for the great novelist Leo Tolstoy at his lifelong home, Yasnaya Polyana (200km south of Moscow). When 81-year-old Tolstoy went out for his daily walk, the superstitious Casella seized the opportunity to use Tolstoy’s writing table for a couple of pages of the Suite—perhaps the pages in the Ouverture (‘Overture’) where he quotes a theme said to be by Bach’s older contemporary Michel Pignolet de Montéclair, one of the composers they played for Tolstoy. Casella admitted that the Suite had ‘vestiges’ of the ‘classicism’ of his teacher Fauré (especially in the central movement); it also shows kinships with Fauré’s friend Chabrier, and with Casella’s friend, fellow Fauré pupil and Paris-resident ‘Latin’ prodigy, the Romanian George Enescu. Enescu’s first two Orchestral Suites, Op 9 (1903) and Op 20 (1915), are both in C major, and three of the six movements of Enescu’s Op 20 share Casella’s titles Ouverture, Sarabande and Bourrée (indeed Enescu’s Second Piano Suite, Op 10, of 1903, had already included a Sarabande and Bourrée).
Yet, despite everything, Casella was justified in his claim that the Bourrée ‘can already indisputably be called “Casellian”’: its sheer boisterous energy, which Italian critics have likened to Domenico Scarlatti, recurs throughout his career—by no means only in his Scarlattiana of 1926 [Naxos 8.572416], and not least via motoric rhythmics that begin in the bass before spreading to the rest of the orchestra (an idea that recurs in both other works on this disc). In fact the whole Suite must be more prophetic of Casella’s post-war ‘third style’ than any of his other ‘first period’ works—and not only because it pioneers his favourite three-movement form. The diatonic theme that surges upwards in the Ouverture—here with a hint of Wagner’s Mastersingers—is of a type that John Waterhouse identified as epitomising Casella’s ‘stylistic continuity’. Both Ouverture and Bourrée feature the kind of harmonic sideslips and throwaway endings that would become almost Casella clichés by the 1930s (as in both outer movements of the Op 61 Concerto on this disc). And the triple time of the slow movement is equally characteristic—again as in Op 61, or in the Cello Concerto of 1934–35 [also Naxos 8.572416], or in another explicit Sarabande, the central movement of another orchestral Concerto, Op 69, from 1943 [Naxos 8.572413]. Casella based this last piece on the middle movement of his 1943 Harp Sonata, Op 68, just as the slow movement of the Suite in C major is a (freer) orchestral reworking of his 1908 Sarabande for chromatic harp or piano, Op 10; its beauty makes Casella’s regular reuse of his slow movements (as also in his first two Symphonies) both understandable—why waste a good tune?—and surprising: why not write another one, if you can do it so well?
‘Continuity’ is audible even between the Suite and the superficially stylistically disjunct Pagine di guerra (‘War Pages’): the chromatic-scale patterns of its first movement depiction of German heavy artillery, for instance, are related to the chromaticism that emerges towards the end of the Suite’s Sarabande (after being briefly foreshadowed in its middle section). Such chromatic scales, and the slowly rocking 6/8 metre of the fourth movement—a sombre evocation of a war cemetery in Alsace, the French fallen memorialised with a fragment of the Marseillaise—are two further features John Waterhouse pinpointed as constants in Casella’s music. Distinctively Casellian, too, is the sorrowful string melody at the heart of the intensely polytonal second movement—mourning Rheims Cathedral, seriously damaged by German shells. The external musical affinities are now more Russian than Mahlerian: above all with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring—including an appropriately direct reference in the third movement’s polyrhythmic portrayal of thundering Cossack cavalry; the startling (albeit just as appropriate) premonition of Mossolov’s Iron Foundry at the start of the first movement is surely coincidental.
Casella originally composed the first four War Pages for piano duet in 1915, the year Italy entered the First World War (and Casella left Paris to settle in Rome). The subtitle ‘musical films’ records their inspiration in the silent cinema newsreel images that were his—and most people’s—introduction to the horrific mechanised violence and destruction of modern warfare. In his autobiography of two decades later Casella claimed that the orchestral première, in Rome in January 1919, was pretty much his first Italian performance ‘without protest, interruption or scandal’. Certainly it provoked none of the vitriol poured two years earlier on his most powerful response to the war, the Elegia eroica (‘Heroic Elegy’) [Naxos 8.572415]. Perhaps that was simply because, as Casella noted, the War Pages are so short; perhaps Rome audiences were becoming inured to his radical style; perhaps they wallowed in the brash, ‘filmic’ Italian naval triumphalism of the final piece—added (tellingly) late in 1918, when Casella orchestrated the set. The première even gained Casella an unexpected new admirer: Giacomo Puccini introduced himself to the younger composer afterwards, full of praise for the music. John Waterhouse has identified notable Casellian influences in Puccini’s final, unfinished opera Turandot, which he began a year or two later.
Since 1910 the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra’s conductor Willem Mengelberg had been another consistent Casella supporter. Between the wars Casella often guested—as composer, conductor and pianist—with the orchestra he called ‘probably the most perfect in the world’, and he was among those commissioned to write new pieces for their fiftieth birthday season in 1937–38. ‘The honour of the invitation was all the greater,’ Casella felt, ‘because I was the only Italian composer asked to contribute. So I decided to write a wide-ranging work in which I could sum up all my orchestral experience, and thus began the Concerto, Op 61’. By the late 1930s Casella’s musical language had less in common with Mahler or Stravinsky than with Bartók and Hindemith; but his Op 61 is not a Concerto for Orchestra in their sense of affording solo opportunities to individual instruments or sections of the orchestra (as a kind of modern counterpart to the Baroque concerto grosso). Instead it reflects a particularly Italian twentieth-century conception—perhaps most familiar from the eight orchestral Concertos by Casella’s younger compatriot Goffredo Petrassi, but effectively invented by Casella himself back in 1923–24 with his four-movement Concerto for String Quartet, Op 40—of the concerto as a large-scale, abstract, multi-movement structure free from the constraints of traditional ‘symphonic’ form. Op 61 is quintessential Casella: the Sinfonia (‘Overture’) launched by a dramatic call to attention followed by an aspiring, ascending diatonic melody; the central Passacaglia, building powerfully, inexorably through the statement of the theme and first eight variations before relaxing via a ‘Divertimento’ into the rapt beauty of the ninth variation for woodwind and soaring violins, the emotional heart of the whole work (five more variations and a coda conclude the movement); and the exuberant, ‘impetuous’ final C major Inno (‘Hymn’), a 1930s analogue of the Bourrée of the Suite in C major. Yet Mengelberg must have been pleased still to hear Casella the fellow Mahler fan, too—most of all in the Sinfonia’s calm central section, with its late-Mahlerian yearning melody and wide-spaced texture and harmony.
Writing his autobiography within a year of conducting the Concerto’s première in December 1937, Casella called it ‘undoubtedly my most complete achievement in the field of orchestral music, and the attainment of a stylistic and formal goal I had been aiming at ever since Italia. God willing, this goal will be only a stage on the way to something better still…’ A classic case of a composer’s conviction that his most recent work is his best, maybe—but full marks to a man in his mid fifties who could not only set himself such new challenges but bring them to fruition during the few remaining years of his life in such remarkable works as the Third Symphony of 1939–40 [Naxos 8.572415] and the 1943 Concerto, Op 69 [Naxos 8.572413]; and finally, the following year, the moving Missa Solemnis pro Pace (Solemn Mass for Peace, Op 71).
¹ Naxos 8.572413 [Symphony No 1 in B minor, Op 5; Concerto for Piano, Timpani, Percussion and Strings, Op 69]; Naxos 8.572414 [Symphony No 2 in C minor, Op 12; A notte alta (‘In Deepest Night’), Op 30]; Naxos 8.572415 [Symphony No 3, Op 63; Elegia eroica (‘Heroic Elegy’), Op 29]; Naxos 8.572416 [Notte di maggio (‘A Night in May’), Op 20; Cello Concerto, Op 58; Scarlattiana, Op 44]. Casella’s stylistic changes are discussed in more detail in the notes to Naxos 8.572416.
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