CASELLA: Paganiniana / Serenata / La Giara (Christian Benda/ Radio Svizzera Italiana Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.553706)
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Alfredo Casella (1883-1947)
Paganiniana Op. 65
Serenata Op. 46bis
La Giara Op. 41bis
Born into a musical family in Turin, Alfredo Casella showed early ability asa pianist. His father, like his two uncles, paternal grandfather and godfather,Alfredo Piatti, was distinguished as a cellist, but it was from his mother thathe had his early piano lessons. At the age of twelve, on the advice of thecomposer, pianist and conductor Giuseppe Martucci, director of the LiceoMusicale in Bologna and a family friend, and of the old violinist AntonioBazzini, director of the Milan Conservatory, it was decided that he should studyat the Paris Conservatoire. With the death of his father in 1896, after someyears of illness, he and his mother moved to Paris, where, in November, he beganhis studies. There, in 1901-1902, he attended the composition class of GabrielFaure, while from the beginning he had studied the piano with Louis Diemer andharmony with Xavier Leroux. He remained in Paris for some nineteen years,associating with Ravel and with the Romanian George Enescu, admiring Debussy andthe Russian Stravinsky, but above all at first influenced by Mahler and RichardStrauss, and by performances of Wagner he had first heard in Turin underToscanini. After leaving the Conservatoire in 1902 he embarked on a career as apianist and harpsichordist, primarily working in chamber music and as anaccompanist. It was at this period that he wrote his first two symphonies. In1911 he embarked on an intended series of popular symphony concerts at theTrocadero, conducting, as he had done intermittently over previous years, butthe series had to be abandoned after the first five concerts. The generalartistic atmosphere of Paris had its influence on him and the weightierinfluence of Mahler and Strauss was replaced by that of composers such asStravinsky and Albeniz, all of which suggests a certain eclecticism.
Casella 's career in Paris reached a height of contemporary distinction withthe 1914 performance of his song-cycle Nolle di Maggio, a setting for lowvoice and orchestra of poems by Giosue Carducci, a scholar and writer who haddevoted his attention to a patriotic revival of interest in the Italian past.
The work had a mixed reception. By 1915 Casella had realised that his future layin Italy. In that year he settled in Rome, teaching the piano at the LiceoMusicale di Sta Cecilia until 1923 and thereafter, during the following decade,responsible for a master-class at the Liceo. It was here that he found himself afigure of importance in a circle of young Italian musicians who shared hisambition to bring a country that generally seemed musically provincial andbackward into the mainstream of the European music with which he had beenfamiliar in Paris.
In 1917 Casella established the Societa Nazionale di Musica, which laterbecame the Societa ltaliana di Musica Moderna and then, in 1923, he set up, withrather different aims, the Corporazione delle Nuove Musiche, affiliated to theInternational Society for Contemporary Music, which had been founded in Salzburgin 1922. In the earlier society various composers found a place, includingRespighi, Malipiero, Pizzetti, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, the conductor and composerVittorio Gui and Puccini's generally acknowledged successor Riccardo Zandonai.
The Corporazione, however, aimed to introduce a wide international spectrum ofcontemporary music to Italian audiences. The new organization, which continuedfor the next five years, was established in conjunction with Malipiero and withthe strong moral backing of Gabriele d'Annunzio and soon the very practicalfinancial support of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. The composers in the earliersociety, which, over three years, had served its own limited purpose, wereobviously divergent in their styles and aims and there were serious divisions,when, subsequently, more conservative composers such as Respighi, Pizzetti andZandonai attacked the progressive tendencies of the 1930s, which continued inspite of this and in spite of the banning of Italy from the ISCM in 1939.
Casella, however, remained a leading figure in the crusade to bring to theItalian public a wider awareness of contemporary musical trends abroad,something he was able in part to achieve by his own work as a concert pianistand as a conductor.
Not confining his interest to the promotion of contemporary music, Italianand from abroad, Casella also had a deep interest in earlier Italian music,demonstrated in his realisations and arrangements, as well as in his writing. Hewas a leading figure in Italian music in his time, director for some years ofthe Venice Festival of Contemporary Music and in 1939 playing an important partin establishing the Settimane Musicali Senesi for the performance of earlyItalian music, in conjunction with the activities of the Accademia MusicaleChigiana that Count Guido Chigi Saracini had started in Siena in 1932.
Casella's active career, during which he embraced to some extent thepatriotic principles of Mussolini's fascism, finding an element of operaticinspiration in the Abyssinian campaign, continued until the onset of illness in1944, something that still did not prevent him from continuing in performanceuntil shortly before his death in 1947. The last of his seven operas, La rosadel sagno, based on his orchestral work Paganiniana of the yearbefore, was staged in Rome in 1943, the year of his Harp Sonata and ofhis related Concerto for piano, percussion and strings.
Three stylistic periods have generally been identified in Casella's career asa composer. The first of these spans the period until 1913, during which he wassubject to various influences. From 1913 until 1920 he indulged in moreexperimental modernism, while the final period of his creative life broughttogether earlier elements, now in a style that was purely personal in its use ofcounterpoint and its drawing of inspiration from earlier Italian music.
Casella's grandfather, the cellist Pietro Casella, had been a close friend ofPaganini and had taught the latter's son Achille. In 1942 Casella completed a Divertimento,under the title Poganiniana, making use of melodies taken fromPaganini, while avoiding the melody so familiar for its use by Brahms,Rachmaninov and others. Paganiniana, Op. 65, was later to be re-used for Larosa del sogno (The Dream Rose) in 1943, for which Aurel von Milloss,director of ballet at the Rome Opera, provided choreography for which theoriginal work is well suited. The Divertimento starts with a perpetuummobile, followed by a little Polka, a more expressive Romanza anda final Tarantella. In all four movements there is something ofStravinsky in the instrumentation and the chromatic alterations in what stillremains fundamentally diatonic harmony.
Something of the same idiom is apparent in Casella's Serenata, Op. 46,written in the space of six weeks in late 1927 and dedicated to his then friend,the composer and director of the Rome Conservatorio di Sta Cecilia, GiuseppeMule. Originally scored for clarinet, trumpet, violin and cello, it was composedin response to an invitation that Casella discovered by chance among the paperson his desk for a chamber composition for between three and six instruments asan entry to a competition by the Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia. Havingsent his entry before the end of the year, the closing date, Casella then forgotabout it but was delighted when the Serenata, from among the 645compositions submitted, shared the first prize with Bartok's Third String