Alfredo Casella

1883 1947

Alfredo Casella

Composer

Biography

Alfredo Casella was an influential and controversial musical figure in 20th century Italy. As a pianist, composer, leader and conductor he helped shape Italian music in the first half of the century.

Casella studied piano first with his mother, giving his public debut in 1894. In 1896 he went to Paris to studying at the Conservatoire, on the advice of Martucci and Bazzini, after hesitating between music and science. Casella spent nearly 20 years in Paris, where he was greatly influenced by the array of cultural and musical opportunities. The focus of his studies shifted to composition, prompting him to joinFauré’s composition classes in 1900.

Casella developed close friendships with fellow composers Enescu and Ravel <> around this time. He also became heavily influenced by the music of Debussy <> and the German nationalists, including Richard Strauss and Mahler and laterBartók, Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Casella was also greatly affected by visual art, especially the newer styles of cubism, futurism and pittura metafisica. He believed that these styles affected his work as a composer.

In 1902, Casella began to travel throughout Europe, most notably twice to Russia, but realized that he needed to return to Italy in order to fulfill his desire to create music that was ‘not only Italian but also European in its position in the general cultural picture.’ He became professor of piano at the Liceo di Cecilia, Rome in 1915 and used his position to introduce others to the music of Ravel and Stravinsky.

Within two years, he had gathered together a group of composers who shared his views to varying degrees and formed the Società Nazionale di Musica, which later became the Società Italiana di Musica Moderna (SIMM). He founded this group together with the composers G.F. Malipiero, Pizzetti,Respighi, Tommasini, Gui andCastelnuovo-Tedesco. The group’s goal was to introduce modern music to the Italian public, though this often resulted in violent protests. Casella participated in the concerts as composer, conductor and pianist. They also published the magazineArs nova. Though the group was controversial and provoked many outbursts, they played a central role in deciding the future of Italian musical life. The group’s efforts ceased just two years later, in 1919.

In 1922 Casella resigned from the Liceo, which had become the Conservatorio di S Cecilia. He also began travelling regularly as a conductor and pianist. His desire to modernize Italian music was not lessened, and he founded yet another group, the Corporazione delle Nuove Musiche (CDNM), with the help of D’Annunzio. The goal of the organization was to provide a ‘window on the world’ and bring ‘the latest expressions and the most recent researches of contemporary musical art’ to Italy. The group introduced important modern works such as Schoenberg’sPierrot lunaire and Stravinsky’s Les noces to the Italian public.

In the 1930s Casellla joined yet another organization aimed at modern music in Italy, the Venice Festival Internazionale di Musica Contemporanea. He also became the piano teacher at the Accademia di S Cecilia, Rome in 1932, around which time he became greatly influenced by the fascism of Mussolini, as evidenced by his operaIl deserto tentato (1937), which celebrates the Abyssinian Campaign.

By the end of the 1930s, Casella’s interest in early music had blossomed and helped found the Settimane Senesi at the Accademia Chigiana, Siena.

Casella stopped composing in 1944 and continued to conduct until 1946. Remarkably, he continued working as a piano accompanist until just weeks before his death in 1947.

Casella’s compositional output is uneven, and in the beginning he struggled to make a musical personal statement, as he was so involved in the work of other composers and an array of musical techniques. Apart from the 1930s, Casella’s work shows the tendency to not settle in an already established style.

Casella’s Italian works can be divided into three periods: before 1913, 1913-20 and 1920-44. During the first period, Casella was influenced by a variety of styles, which melted together and interacted with other works of his. TheBarcarola et scherzo Op. 4 (1903) shows the influence of Fauré while other works show the influence of Russian nationalists. Towards the end of this period, Casella became more aware of his Italian nature and began to compose some more nationalistic works. This can be heard inItalia (1909), a rhapsody for orchestra, in which he strived to achieve a similar style for Italy as Albéniz had done for Spain.

In 1913, Casella’s style changed significantly, marking the beginning of his second compositional period. He left behind all the charming qualities of his works for the extreme avant garde. The change has been described as an ‘eruption of Expressionistic lava.’ During this period, evidence of Stravinsky, Bartók and Schoenberg can be heard along with Debussy.

Casella was able to combine the techniques of other composers to form his own distinct voice and style by this time, most notable in theNove pezzi Op. 24 (1914) for piano. The metaphysical paintings by De Chirico also influenced Casella at this time, leading to moments of sinister silence, such as in the worksNotte di Maggio (1913), L’adieu à la vie (1915/26), and A notte alta (1921).

The horrors of the war also provide inspiration for some of his works, such as Pagine di Guerra(1915) and Elegia eroica (1916) while the Pupazzetti (1920) shows a sense of humour. His Piano Sonatina shows his favour for the grotesque and for striking dissonance.

In 1920, Casella’s second period faded quickly away, making room for a drastically new style filled with tension and dissonant diatonicism. Motoric rhythms and Italian folk music also appear during the third period. The influence of early Italian music is also evident, such as inScarlattiana (1926) which uses motifs fromDomenico Scarlatti’s sonatas and follows in the neo-classical trend of Stravinsky’sPulcinella. The characteristics of this period are displayed best in his only major opera,La donna serpent (1928-31).

By the end of his compositional career, Casella seemed on the verge of a fourth period, marked by more chromaticism and 12-note series. These characteristics can be observed in Concerto Op. 61 (1937) and theMissa solemnis (1944).

Though his compositional output is also important, his most important actions involved introducing Italy to modern music and pushing for the modernization of Italian culture.

Header image courtesy Accademia Musicale Chigiana Other images courtesy Arte Musica and public domain

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