ClassicsOnline Home » CASELLA, A.: Donna serpente Suites (La) / Introduzione, aria e toccata / Partita (Sun Hee You, Rome Symphony, La Vecchia)
This latest disc in the Naxos series of Casella’s orchestral music represents what Casella felt was his ‘definitive personality’. The Introduction, Aria and Toccata epitomises his ‘monumental Baroque style’ of the late 1920s and early 1930s. A few years earlier, his neoclassical Partita for piano and small orchestra had been a huge hit, with Casella himself touring right across Europe and the USA playing the solo part. In between, he at last—in his late forties—composed his first opera, La donna serpente: the orchestral fragments recorded here colourfully reflect the story’s tragicomic twists and turns.
Alfredo Casella (1883–1947)
Introduzione, aria e toccata • Partita • La donna serpente: Orchestral Fragments
‘On returning to Italy, I made a springtime trip to Tuscany, a region I barely knew. It left a profound impression on me, not only because of its art (with which, obviously, I was well acquainted), but above all through its wonderful scenery. I now understood that an Italian can never be an impressionist, and that the transparent clarity of the Tuscan landscape is the same as that of our art. That summer, not without some feelings of caution, I began to compose again, and in the Three Fourteenth-Century Songs I established my definitive personality, achieving the classical transparency that Tuscany had taught me just a few months before.’
It may seem incredible that a well-travelled 39-year-old Italian—whose ‘return to Italy’ followed a second major tour of the United States in the winter of 1922–23—could ‘barely know’ the region that is virtually the quintessence of his nation, the cradle of its language and its Renaissance art. But Alfredo Casella was no ordinary Italian. Born in Turin in the far northwest, he spent nineteen formative years in Paris before settling in Rome; and his voracious musical curiosity always embraced French, German, Eastern European and Russian ideas as much as (or even more than) Italian ones: early influences from his teacher Fauré, his friend Enescu and his youthful idol Mahler were overtaken around the First World War by affinities with Bartók, Debussy, Schoenberg and above all Stravinsky, in what Casella himself later called his ‘second style’; and further kinships with the likes of Hindemith and Prokofiev joined an enduring sympathy with the now-‘neoclassical’ Stravinsky in Casella’s ‘third style’, ‘established’ by the Fourteenth-Century Songs and engendering all the music on the present disc.¹ Even so, in evoking his Tuscan epiphany, Casella may well have been embroidering for effect. The ‘classical transparency’ can already be heard in his previous work, the Undici pezzi infantili (‘Eleven Children’s Pieces’, Op 35) of 1920: he wrote nothing new in 1921–22, and when he said in 1930 that these years were ‘devoted to profound reflection’, he placed his trip to Tuscany in 1922. My opening quotation, from Casella’s autobiography (which he wrote in 1938), shifts the Tuscan experience to 1923, where—tellingly?—it is immediately prefaced by one of the book’s more uncomfortable passages (mostly missing from the later English edition): celebrating Mussolini’s seizure of power in Italy in October 1922, and eulogising a young German Nazi named Casella (probably no relation) who was killed in Hitler’s notorious failed ‘Munich beer-hall Putsch’ in November 1923.
It is unlikely to be pure chance that Casella’s ‘third style’ coincided almost exactly with what Italians call the ventennio fascista, the two decades of Fascism; only in the music Casella wrote after Mussolini’s deposition in July 1943 were there, as John CG Waterhouse (the English expert on Italian music of the period) put it, ‘signs of further compositional developments’. But there was a curious ambivalence in Casella’s relationship with the Fascist régime. Politically, he certainly behaved like one of the faithful, a firm believer in the (in)famous slogan ‘Mussolini is always right’—even when, as so often happened, Mussolini changed his mind or contradicted himself.² Musically, however, Casella was a leader, not a follower—and a man with strong ideals of his own, to which he remained true even under fire. His orchestral and chamber works of the 1920s and 1930s, often in a characteristic three-movement (fast-slow-fast) form, had a significant influence on older composers such as Tommasini as well as younger ones like Ghedini, Petrassi and Dallapiccola—all three of whom wrote orchestral Partitas not long after Casella did (Petrassi and Dallapiccola, at least, also shared Casella’s naïve Mussolini-worship). But Casella’s open-minded receptiveness to ideas from beyond the Alps, though it won support—both moral and financial—from some of the Fascist hierarchy, earned him constant attacks from the party’s more reactionary wing, whose creed of ‘autarchy’ (Italian self-sufficiency) slowly tightened its grip on official policy. The threat posed to Italy’s rich and powerful operatic establishment by Casella’s championing of instrumental music at the expense of opera wrecked his chances of credit for taking inspiration—like almost all the leading composers of his generation, including Respighi, Pizzetti and Gian Francesco Malipiero—from the utterly Italian instrumental heritage of the Baroque era: Domenico Scarlatti was a particular hero. Though Casella admired Rossini’s operas, he blotted his copybook irretrievably in 1913 (in Paris) with a notorious article vilifying the revered Verdi as nothing more than a ‘businessman’, who made his name by ‘exploiting political opportunities’ and ‘pandering to the crudest, basest bourgeois taste’: Casella’s Verdi-bashing was never forgiven, despite a gradual recantation (in the 1920s his praise was largely confined to Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff, but by the time of his autobiography it extended 50 years further back to Nabucco). Enemies noted furthermore that Casella’s own first opera, La donna serpente, has only incidental associations with mainstream Italian tradition, and that he was in his late forties by the time he wrote it. No ordinary Italian, indeed.
Casella’s Partita for piano and small orchestra of 1924–25—whose very name proclaims its Italian Baroque instrumental ancestry—epitomises the first phase of his ‘third style’. He himself played the solo part in its première in October 1925, with the New York Philharmonic and one of his great supporters, the Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg, on his third US tour (and his first to take him from coast to coast). Within a few years he had performed it all over Europe, too, including in Vienna with Clemens Krauss and Berlin with Wilhelm Furtwängler (whose interpretation Casella called the most ‘profound and precise’ of any conductor he ever played it with), and as the first Italian musician to visit Soviet Russia. Casella reckoned the statistics showed his Partita ‘was for many years the most-performed modern piece for piano and orchestra’—and that its nearest rival was his own next-but-one work, the 1926 ‘divertimento on music by Domenico Scarlatti’, Scarlattiana, Op 44 [Naxos 8.572416]. The divertimento-like feel of the Partita’s concluding Burlesca is one of many features common to the two works; both also have clear links with Stravinsky, and unusual orchestral lineups, imaginatively deployed. In the Partita, strings are joined by just a single oboe, three clarinets, three trumpets and timpani; especially in the opening Sinfonia, the different sections (woodwind, brass and strings) are often used in groups, juxtaposed with each other and with the main solo instrument, the piano: John Waterhouse has compared the effect to the proto-Baroque ‘polychoral’ brass music of the Venetian Gabrieli family, in its ‘interplay between sharply defined blocks of sound, strongly contrasted in colour’. While most of Scarlattiana’s themes were composed by the Neapolitan-born Scarlatti in Iberia (where he spent more than half of his working life) both the first and third movements of the Partita feature episodes with an almost Spanish ring that are in fact inspired by the folk music of southern Italy, including a genuine traditional tarantella tune in the finale—Casella complained (justifiably) that he got as much flak for filching it as he usually did for being too ‘international’! The Partita’s central Passacaglia, like that of the orchestral Concerto, Op 61 [Naxos 8.573004] over a decade later, sets out with inexorable tread from its opening statement of a thirteen-bar ground bass before relaxing into greater diversity; there are twelve variations in all, the final coda reprising the first.
Eighteenth-century inspiration—from the so-called fiabe (‘fables’) of the Venetian playwright Carlo Gozzi (1720–1806)—also underlies Casella’s first opera. ‘For years,’ says his autobiography, ‘I was strongly attracted by one of the most beautiful of Gozzi’s fiabe, the one that furnished the plot for Wagner’s youthful opera Die Feen (“The Fairies”): La donna serpente—“The Snake-Woman”. I first thought of setting it as a choral ballet back in 1918. The way the fantastical story switched constantly between tragic and comic I found totally fascinating.’ But it took Casella a decade to pluck up courage to make it into what he called ‘a real opera’, and three more years to complete it—integrating an astonishing range of influences, from seventeenth-century Italian opera, Rossini, Falstaff and Rimsky-Korsakov’s operatic fairytales, and affinities with other recent and even future Gozzi-inspired works: the Turandot operas of both Busoni (1916–17) and Puccini (1920–24), Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges (1919) and Hindemith’s 1943 Symphonic Metamorphosis of themes from Carl Maria von Weber’s Turandot incidental music (1809).
The ‘Snake-Woman’ herself is the fairy Princess Miranda, whose father allows her to marry the mortal King Altidòr only on the horrific conditions that she must conceal her true identity, then put Altidòr through terrible tests under which he must swear not to curse her—and if he fails, she will be turned into a snake for 200 years. In Act 2, Altidòr does fail, and Miranda becomes a snake; but in Act 3, Altidòr (with a bit of help from a magician) manages to win her back, by overcoming three monsters and a wall of fire. La donna serpente’s première at the Rome Opera in 1932—with the 49-year-old Casella also conducting an opera for the first time—was, he recalled, acclaimed by ‘an incredibly elegant public, full of beautiful, semi-nude women’[!], but condemned by the critics. He must have felt on safer ground with these Orchestral Fragments—mainly adapted from the opera’s abundant instrumental music, though sometimes instruments play what were originally vocal and choral lines. The first set links the enchanted Act 1 dream of King Altidòr—not yet aware of Miranda’s true identity or the tests he must undergo—with the brief, ominous interlude and belligerent march (Casellian counterpart to Prokofiev’s famous march in The Love for Three Oranges) from the middle of Act 2, when Altidòr has passed one test, but will soon fail the next. The second set begins with two preludes: the first (which divides the Prologue in fairyland from Act 1 on Earth) fast; the second slow and—apart from a glimmer near the end—seemingly without hope of the happy ending that nevertheless comes in the concluding fragment: Altidòr triumphs over monsters and bursts through flames to Miranda, and everyone can finally celebrate.
Orchestral suites from operas may be familiar, but Casella was even more reluctant than most composers to waste a good tune. Many of his slow movements come around twice—e.g. in his first two Symphonies of 1905–6 and 1908–9 [Naxos 8.572413 and 8.572414 respectively]; and in the harp pieces he arranged as the central movements of both the Suite in C major, Op 13 (1909–10) [Naxos 8.573004] and the Concerto for piano, timpani, percussion and strings, Op 69 (1943) [Naxos 8.572413]. Another idea drawn from the Baroque era, when composers were rarely shy of self-borrowing? Or was Casella merely short of time—or inspiration? Interestingly, he always made meaningful changes: introducing countermelodies when orchestrating chamber pieces; adding or omitting a few bars or even whole sections. Perhaps there was an aesthetic reason, too, for his reuse of material: a desire to try something different with it, to explore its further potential—as in yet another typically tripartite work, the Introduzione, aria e toccata. Casella claimed he composed the Introduction and Aria in just two weeks on a concert tour in England and Ireland, by ‘staying in bed all morning with orders that I must not be disturbed: I found an enviable peace in those anonymous hotel rooms which changed almost every day but which were identical in offering me unusual quiet and the possibility of escape from everyday life, just like a private study’; Rossini, too, he noted, ‘wrote lots of music in bed!’ The whole Introduction was freshly composed; the Aria incorporates an orchestration of the central section of Casella’s Sinfonia for clarinet, trumpet, cello and piano, Op 53 (written the previous year), but turns it into something entirely new—with music added both before and aft, rising to a climax at precisely the point where the Sinfonia version dissolves. Back at home in Rome, Casella finished the work with a movement composed back in 1926, immediately after his Partita: the ever-accelerating final Toccata of his Concerto romano (‘Roman Concerto’) for organ, brass, timpani and strings, Op 43; but, again, transforming it—through reorchestration (usually giving the original solo organ part to woodwind and/or piano, despite retaining an organ in his full orchestra), and by two small cuts near the end, one of only a single bar, creating a tighter conclusion. Casella’s 1938 autobiography exudes nationalistic (or Fascistic?) pride in both the original Concerto romano—‘a huge effort towards the realisation of a truly Roman music, Baroque in its monumentality’—and the Introduzione, aria e toccata: ‘a new advance in the monumental Baroque style; the triptych is a unified work, animated by a single spirit and dynamic will’, with the Introduzione achieving ‘a free but nonetheless solidly organic form—the fundamentally Italian form of which our great composers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were masters, and which I shall provisionally call “logical discursiveness”.’ An aptly oxymoronic aim, for a composer impossible to pin down.
¹ More detailed discussion of Casella’s stylistic changes can be found in the notes to Naxos 8.572416, which features recordings of his Notte di maggio (‘A Night in May’), Op 20; Cello Concerto, Op 58; and Scarlattiana, Op 44.
² More detailed discussion of Casella’s politics and of the artistic vicissitudes of Fascism can be found in the notes to Naxos 8.572415, which features recordings of Casella’s Symphony no. 3, Op 63; and Elegia eroica (‘Heroic Elegy’), Op 29.