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ClassicsOnline Home » CASELLA, A.: Concerto, Op. 40 / 5 Pieces, Op. 34 / TURCHI, G.: Concerto breve (Quartetto d'Archi di Venezia)
Towards the end of the 19th century a new, home-grown school of instrumental music began to flourish in Italy, bearing fruit over the following decades. Casella’s Cinque pezzi (1920) and Concerto, Op 40b (1923), both for string quartet, are two high points of of the genre, with the Concerto quickly becoming an international success. Guido Turchi’s Concerto breve, which draws on the models of Hindemith and Bartók, is another significant contribution to the development of the string quartet in 20th-century Italy.
Alfredo Casella (1883–1947): Concerto per archi, Op 40b • Cinque pezzi, Op 34
Guido Turchi (1916–2010): Concerto breve
In twentieth-century Italy, the renaissance of instrumental music in general, and works for string quartet in particular, was neither an obvious nor a straightforward process. The fact was that for well over two centuries, the tastes of both audiences and patrons had been focused primarily on vocal music, in the broadest sense of the term.
Contemporary sources such as letters written by musicians, travel journals and press reviews and articles emphasise the precarious state of Italian instrumental music. In what was perhaps a slight exaggeration, the kind commonly found in the press of the day, Cramer’s Magazin der Musik stated in 1783: “I have not found a single organist, and only some very poor harpsichordists, with the exception of one young man from Turin, who knew the works of Bach”. Indeed that same article passed a seemingly damning sentence on the Italian state of affairs: “Instrumental music is of such a low quality, that it is barely worthy of critical note.”
As time went on, foreign criticism became ever more trenchant, to the extent that in 1823, the English monthly The Harmonicon claimed that Italians were unable to appreciate music they thought of as too “Germanic” (effectively, a synonym for “complicated”): “The Italians of the present day have no taste for the higher kinds of music…or for instrumental music in general. If you talk…of Haydn and Mozart or Beethoven, they shrug up their shoulders, and tell you: ‘è musica tedesca—non ci abbiamo gusto’ [That’s German music—we don’t like it].” The genre that suffered most of course, was that highest and most complicated of all, the string quartet.
That said, an investigation of the Italian archives reveals that string quartet music was written in reasonably significant quantities—certainly comparable to the amount appearing in London, Paris, Madrid or Vienna. The real problem seems to have been that all instrumental music, and string quartets in particular, played such a minor rôle and enjoyed such limited prestige in Italy where, before long, even the quartet genre itself came under the influence of vocal music, becoming a vehicle for a wide variety of operatic transcriptions.
When the Milan and Florence Quartet Society was founded, Giuseppe Verdi turned down an offer to become its president in the belief that the whole thing was a misguided venture. As he wrote in a letter of 1878: “12 or 15 years ago, possibly in Milan, I can’t remember, I was nominated as President of a Quartet Society. I declined, and asked, ‘Why not establish a vocal quartet society? That would reflect Italian life. The quartet is a German art form.” A year later, he was even more scathingly ironic in a comment to his friend Count Arrivabene: “We have reached a fine pass indeed: one step further and we shall be Germanised in this as in so many other things. What a pleasure to see how Quartet societies, Orchestral societies, Orchestras and Quartets, Quartets and Orchestras, etc. are being established everywhere to educate the public in ‘Great Art’.” Even though Verdi had himself composed a quartet that was to play a seminal part in the development of his nation’s instrumental music, he still believed that the genre was alien to the Italian palate and current repertoire trends, despite the fact that some of his colleagues, particularly those based in the north of the country, had begun to achieve success in the field.
The arrival in Italy’s musical centres (Milan, Venice, Turin, Bologna and Florence, among others) of instrumental works from elsewhere in Europe soon had an effect on the country’s tastes. Opera house orchestras and the various associations founded during the course of the nineteenth century (many of which are still active today), introduced local audiences to “foreign” music, enabling them to become familiar with and enjoy “new” genres. With time, this led to a genuine rediscovery of instrumental music and, above all, of the string quartet.
Towards the end of the century, therefore, a new, home-grown school of instrumental music began to flourish, bearing fruit over the following decades. As an increasingly thorough and heated aesthetic debate continued to rage, a number of composers paid ever closer attention to instrumental forms, producing high-quality works whose originality and innovation did not always garner the appreciation they deserved.
The Cinque pezzi, Op 34 (1920) and Concerto, Op 40b (1923), both for string quartet, are two high points of the intense and searching examination of the genre carried out by Alfredo Casella. He had begun studying Schoenberg’s music as early as 1913, as well as coming into contact with the Stravinskyan avant-garde—two factors which, according to Friedhelm Krummacher, are the keys to unlocking these works. After a period of study in Paris and a brief futuristic phase, Casella seems to have found his most personal means of expression in his music for string quartet, works that significantly (and not coincidentally) were published in Vienna. He himself said that writing the Cinque pezzi brought him to the end of an eclectic period of composition, based around his search for a personal idiom, anticipated here: “those five pieces represent…the very end of the Stravinskyan influence and the total disappearance of any tonal preoccupations.”
In fact in these Five Pieces, the fifth of which is an evocative Fox-Trot, the composer seems to have simplified his idiom by finding some wonderful points of equilibrium, absent in his earlier creative periods. Only the title links back (deliberately?) to the similar title chosen by Stravinsky for one of his string quartet works: Three Pieces. Both men seem to have been keen for the restrictive code of the aesthetically most complex genre in the history of music not to suggest Beethovenian or, worse still, post-Brahmsian affiliations. In Casella’s case, a subtle sense of irony also comes into play, discernible in the writing itself and in some of his movement titles (the third, Valse ridicule, for example). Here he appears not only to draw on an entirely new elegance in which his future compositional language would be steeped, but also to incorporate a gentle humour reminiscent of Haydn into the austere spirit of the twentieth-century quartet.
The issue of the title also rears its head with Casella’s next string quartet, this time christened a Concerto (again, an analogy, this time with Stravinsky’s Concertino). This decision not only reflects the symphonic expansiveness of the score, but also alludes to the search for a new language which might “liberate” the quartet once and for all from the serious post-Romantic tradition by enriching it with new, perhaps more stimulating impulses. The principal aim of this composition has to be seen within the context of “the demand for a renewal of Italian music”, as Dieter Kämper, among others, has put it. Its movements are all forms—both vocal and instrumental—of Italian origin (Sinfonia, Siciliana, Minuetto/Recitativo/Aria and Canzone). It is a work which attracted some criticism (including Schoenberg’s, apparently) for its excessive dependence on conventional tonality, and one which ties in with the great Vivaldi revival, a movement spearheaded by Casella and his colleague Malipiero. Casella’s view on Vivaldi leaves no room for doubt: “Vivaldi speaks directly to our present-day sensibilities thanks to his genuinely surprising brilliance, vigour and rhythmic invention…The dazzling purity of this Venetian Classicism brings to his art…a propulsive energy which is vital to the current development of Italian music.”
Although Casella makes no literal thematic reference to Vivaldi in his melodies, the same “brilliance” and “genuinely surprising…rhythmic invention” make his Concerto one of the great examples of wonderful motivic originality of the first quarter of the last century. The form, too, reminiscent of that of the Italian Baroque concerto (with its clear differentiations between “solo” and “tutti” sections), recalls past models which are transformed and rendered almost unrecognisable by Casella. The Concerto became an international success and is now also well known in Erwin Stein’s transcription for orchestra.
By contrast, Guido Turchi (1916–2010) seems to have drawn on different models when composing his Concerto breve for string quartet (1947, seven years after the composition of his Quartet No 1), with the influence of Hindemith particularly notable. As various scholars have pointed out, he uses an incomplete twelve-tone series, dedicating the work to the memory of Béla Bartók, whose name is spelled out by means of a mixture of German and Italian notation: B-E-la B-A-rtok (B flat, E, A, B flat, A). This adds a fascinating and, for Italian music, somewhat unusual cabbalistic dimension to the music. Similarly, the highly chromatic motivic elements so well-suited to the evocative Elegia, a movement with vague echoes of a delicately drawn pavane, are hard to find elsewhere in the Italian quartet repertoire of the day. With its judicious use of rhetorical figures, the writing becomes both more intense and more symbolic as it unfolds, effectively endowing the music with its own unique and significant meaning. Turchi himself created an orchestral version of the piece which, with all due respect to his intentions, lacks the perfect balance achieved in the original, a concise work, but one fundamental to the development of the Italian string quartet in the twentieth century.
English translation by Susannah Howes
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CASELLA, A.: Concerto, Op. 40 / 5 Pieces, Op. 34 ...