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ClassicsOnline Home » CASCARINO: Orchestral Works
Romeo Cascarino, a virtually self-taught Philadelphia composer, was fiercely dedicated to the principles of tonality and the infinite beauty of orchestral color. His four orchestral works, written between 1948 and 1960, as well as the two chamber works also heard on this disc, were all inspired by literary and mythological sources. The programmatic ballet Pygmalion and the long adagio Portrait of Galatea embellish the Greek legend in rich harmonic detail. The rhythmically-urgent Prospice resulted from a reading of Browning’s epic poem, and his buoyant The Acadian Land has at its source Longfellow’s imaginary paradise. Portrait of Galatea, Prospice and The Acadian Land are receiving their first complete performances on this recording.
Romeo Cascarino (1922–2002)
Romeo Cascarino was born in the Italian community of South Philadelphia, and was soon attending operas with his tailor father Vincenzo, a dramatic tenor. He accompanied operas at the piano in high school, yet was essentially self-taught until seventeen. A scholarship was then granted by composer Paul Nordoff, who encouraged the young man's obvious talent, and Cascarino was invited to Tanglewood after Aaron Copland looked at some of his early works.
With an enormous passion for knowledge, Cascarino haunted the Free Library of Philadelphia and pored over prose, poetry and especially scores, which he considered his real teachers. (His scores are housed in that library's Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music, the largest collection of its kind in the world.) Despite the bookish nature of his curiosity, he led an active social life in a tough inner city neighborhood, once admitting, "With a name like Romeo, I had better be good with my fists." Yet his love of poetry and myth was the catalyst which inspired each of the instrumental works on this disc.
Cascarino was awarded a prize in the George Gershwin Memorial Contest in 1945 during his Armed Forces service. While writing arrangements for the Army orchestra, he met Philadelphia Orchestra bassoonist Sol Schoenbach, for whom he wrote a popular Bassoon Sonata in 1947, later recorded for Columbia Records. In 1948 he received his first Guggenheim Fellowship, with another coming later on the basis of the orchestral piece Prospice. He arranged some albums in the United States and Rome, but his idealism soon forced him to refuse commercial work because he felt it would compromise his artistry. Despite his native talent, he never developed any skill at self-promotion. "Yes, I'm an idealist", he often said, "which for me is a realist who's learned what to live for."
For many years, Cascarino taught harmony and composition at the now-defunct Combs College of Music. Though he was offered the opportunity to teach in conservatories which might have afforded him a less meager salary, he remained at Combs out of a fierce loyalty. Like many self-taught musicians, his musical ideas and notation are idiosyncratic, highly individual with a powerful feeling of confidence. He wrote his orchestrations in ink, trusting an unerring inner ear, and spent weeks judging the exact tempi at transitional sections despite the unlikelihood of performance.
Meditation and Elegy, inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's poem Annabel Lee, was originally composed as two teenage piano pieces, later made into a suite for orchestra called Recollections Of Childhood, and finally transcribed for string orchestra in 2000. This version, first performed in 2003 by the Windham (New York) Music Festival led by Robert Manno, is heard in this recording.
Blades of Grass, for English horn, harp and strings, was written just after the war in 1945 and inspired by Carl Sandburg's poem Grass, a meditation about men dying in battle throughout history. The concept of renewal and hope appealed to Cascarino, who wrote this plaintive elegy and asked, on several occasions, for the poem to be read before performances.
Cascarino's first orchestral work, Prospice, was commissioned as a ballet by Peter Hamilton in 1948. The inspiration this time was Browning, whose poem reflects the lack of fear achieved by being true to one's art. It was composed from a single piano score, rich in colorful themes and rhythmic energy. Though never conceived as a two-piano work, the orchestration was reduced to that form for its 1949 première and several subsequent performances. This recording marks the first performance of the orchestral score of Prospice, as well as his next work, Portrait of Galatea.
That 1952 work, based on a fascination with Greek myth and the idealization of beauty, is basically a long adagio. Some of the composer's most exotic coloration is found in this work, a further extension of his individual harmonic signature. This piece led to the composition during 1955 and 1956 of a larger work, Pygmalion, intended as a score for a ballet. Cascarino set a libretto for his work that would appeal to a choreographer like Anthony Tudor, whom he greatly admired. The work was first given in 1957 by the London Philharmonic Orchestra led by Ferdinand Liva, another acquaintance from Army days, then by the Philadelphia Civic Ballet under Liva's direction two years later.
The programmatic Pygmalion begins with a slow section, and as the title character reclines and contemplates his statue of Galatea the music builds to a climax as he dances obsessively around her immobile form. In the second, moderately fast section, he prays to Venus that his wish for Galatea to come to life be granted. A slow section signals the arrival of Venus, who dances around the morose sculptor until he becomes aware of her presence. To rapid music, Pygmalion springs to life and leaps toward the altar, dancing frantically to convey his desire, and falls prostrate before Venus. In the final slow section, Venus grants his wish and Galatea descends from the pedestal into the arms of her creator.
The Acadian Land, composed in 1959-60, was commissioned by the Benjamin Tranquil Music project and first played in a cut version by the New Orleans Philharmonic conducted by Alexander Hilsberg. Once again poetry formed the inspiration, as the search in Longfellow's work for an imaginary ideal resonated with the composer's creative naïveté.
By this time, Cascarino had received a libretto from Peggy Gwynn for his opera, William Penn. A 1950 choral setting of Penn's Prayer for Philadelphia and another of the Indian treaty had begun their scholarship on Penn's quest for religious freedom, and the composition of the opera continued until 1975. After two concert performances, the opera was finally staged at Philadelphia's Academy of Music in 1982 during celebrations marking the 300th anniversary of the city's founding.
Cascarino was ferocious about the value of tonality, and considered the creation of beauty to be the only responsibility of an artist. Yet the most negative remark he would utter about a dissonant work was, "If they could write a melody, they would write a melody." His catalogue of works is small, because he "didn't want to contribute to the refuse of the world." A constant search for the 'note choisie' reflected selectivity to the highest degree in his quest to write something new, and yet to always be accessible. Cascarino was fond of quoting Oscar Wilde: "To be intelligible is to be found out."
Tom Di Nardo
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CASCARINO: Orchestral Works