CASELLA: Symphony No. 3, op. 63 (1939-40). Elegia eroica, op. 29 (1916).
Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma/Francesco La Vecchia.
Naxos 8.572415 TT: 62:12
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Wars past and to come. Alfredo Casella came up at the tail end of Italian
opera's glory days. Furthermore, opera didn't attract him, but the symphony
did, as it did a number of Italian composers pretty much his contemporaries.
While a student at the Paris Conservatoire, he somehow encountered the
score to Mahler's Symphony No. 2, which overwhelmed him, and this set
his course as a composer. Up to that point, Impressionism and the Russian
-- both very big in the Paris music circles of the time -- had formed
the main currents of his music. He never completely lost those elements.
we can see the split in his orientation within his own Second Symphony
(1908-1910), with a "Russian" scherzo and a Mahleresque slow
Casella's Third comes three decades after the Second, during which time
Casella also absorbed neoclassical elements. The turn-of-the-century aura
around the second has significantly weakened, although Casella remains
essentially a Romantic composer, very similar to how Rachmaninoff took
on Modern elements. Moments may remind you of other composers -- Prokofiev
and others -- but this largely arises by the way. Casella has absorbed
his influences into an integrated (although, I must say, not particularly
individual) style. The symphony lacks the optimistic ambition of a young
composer's work, but it more than makes up for this in an increased mastery
Dark clouds hang over the symphony, perhaps due as much to the Italian
political situation as to any inner pessimism. By all accounts, Casella
had a naturally sunny disposition. He had also been, like most Italian
intellectuals and artists, a supporter of Mussolini's Fascist state. Toscanini
was a notable exception among Italian artists. However, by the late Thirties,
the bloom had largely faded from the Italian state. Under pressure from
the Germans, Mussolini had enacted the Racial Laws in 1938. Unlike most
of the rest of Europe, Jews had long assimilated into Italian life almost
free of the resentment of other citizens. The laws, seen as imposed on
the state by the Nazis, caused such resentment from even some Mussolini
supporters, that they contributed to the dictator's fall. For instance,
Italo Balbo, widely seen as Mussolini's political heir, strongly opposed
them. But, of course, even heavier Nazi domination would come soon. In
any case, the times seem to trouble the score.
The first movement begins with a very melancholy Nielsenesque oboe. The
orchestra takes up the theme and soon raises the emotional stakes to
what I would call "watching the storm." Casella introduces a more
lyrical theme, but anxiety immediately washes over it. A long development
deepens all of this. Compared to its counterpart in the Second Symphony,
this opening movement moves more tautly and purposefully, which contributes
to its considerable power. To a great extent, counterpoint drives and governs
the emotional tension. You hear very little orchestral "vamping" under
Strange "open" chords (minus a major or minor third) begin the
impressive slow movement and very quickly transform into a very Mahler-like
hymn. Casella never lost his early inspiration from Mahler and indeed never
totally digested it, either, or lost his fondness for employing the Mahlerian
pentatonic "long goodbye" into his work. I would also point
out that Mahler, also a composer who proceeds mainly through counterpoint,
may have passed along this predilection to his Italian acolyte. Although
the Mahlerisms are obvious, Casella avoids sounding like a cheap knock-off.
The music has tremendous integrity.
After a grotesque Ländler-march scherzo, heavy on percussion
and fantastic instrumental combos, with a "Russian" trio, the
rondo finale arrives. Again, Mahler enters the picture in a quick march,
but so do other
composers in passing, notably the Stravinsky of Petrushka. The
movement begins dark but soon explodes in bright colors, dominated by
A basic rhythm (long-short-short-long) ties the episodes to the main
theme. Again, counterpoint dominates the movement and drives the argument
Dark fights with light throughout, and you want to know how the conflict
resolves. About two-thirds of the way through, Casella starts up another
long goodbye on a Mahler-like hymn based on the rondo theme. The movement
winds down in a kind of despair, which seems to me the "real, right" ending,
but Casella chooses to end instead in a blaze, an ending which strikes
me as tacked on.
Nevertheless, the symphony remains an impressive achievement. The longer
movements (all over ten minutes) don't outstay their welcome, which means
that Casella has filled them with good things and that his argument moves
like a well-shot arrow.
The Elegia eroica comes from 1916 and sounds more "advanced" than
the Symphony. The subtitle, "To the memory of a soldier killed in
war," refers to the horrors of World War I (Italy joined the Allies
against the Germans and Austrians). The American Civil War may have presaged
the mass slaughter, but the Great War outstripped it, with the large-scale
use of mechanized weapons. The European devastation was so great that Houdini,
on tour in England, remarked that he saw very few young men in his audience.
The pain of such a catastrophe finds its way into the Elegy. Harmonically,
there's barely a chord in it without at least some dissonance. The piece
begins in cataclysm. Hints of the "Dies irae" occasionally
crop up. After winding down to numbness and desolation -- a survey of
of dead -- battle music breaks in briefly, as if the god of war has suddenly
stuck his face in front of you. However, the music becomes a lullaby,
full of grief, rather than comfort. Casella does not leave you with glorious
transcendence but a sense of loss. This score represents a road the composer
did not take farther, but it does show the power he could summon.
Francesco La Vecchia and the Romans do especially well in the Symphony,
although I'd love to hear what the Chicago Symphony (which commissioned
the work) or the major London orchestras would do with it. They keep the
counterpoint clear, and the conductor shapes each movement purposefully.
They certainly reveal the stature of both scores. The sound meets current
general expectations without getting your jaw to drop.
S.G.S. (June 2013)