Hidden from small

Alfredo Casella: Rediscovering an Italian Master

November 23, 2015

Introducing new music is part of the Orchestra’s storied heritage, from great pieces of the past such as Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (premiered in 1934, and on the bill this week), to Hannibal’s exciting new One Land, One River, One People unveiled earlier this month.

This week the Philadelphians are performing Alfredo Casella’s Second Symphony, in its U.S. premiere. But there’s a twist: The piece was written over 100 years ago. Who was Casella? And why has it taken so long for this composition to reach our shores?

Casella was born in Turin, Italy, in 1883. While still a teenager, he moved to Paris to study piano and composition. He won top prizes, while rubbing shoulders with classmates Maurice Ravel and Georges Enescu, and getting to know everyone from Claude Debussy to Igor Stravinsky to Gustav Mahler.

He returned to Italy in 1915 and became a key figure in moving his countrymen to expand their musical tastes from their beloved opera to more contemporary symphonic music. Through his own compositions, and by organizing concerts and festivals, he championed Mahler, Stravinsky, and other cutting-edge composers of the day.

Casella was no stranger to North America in the early 20th century. On his first visit in 1921, he performed a Mozart piano concerto with The Philadelphia Orchestra, the first of several appearances. He would also conduct (he led the Boston Pops for two years) and compose in the States (he was inspired by the Wanamaker Organ to write a concerto).

So why did his star diminish, to the point where many music lovers today are completely unfamiliar with his works?

Our conductor this week, Gianandrea Noseda, explains that Casella had a close (though conflicted) relationship with Mussolini’s Fascists, before and during World War II. With Fascism defeated, many of Casella’s fellow Italian musicians denounced him. “That caused a sort of veto on his works being performed in Italy,” and hurt his standing internationally as well. Now, 70 years after the war, Noseda says “we can concentrate on Casella’s musical values.”

So, what does his music sound like? In the Second Symphony, we hear echoes of Mahler, Wagner, and Richard Strauss; there’s a classic Italian tarantella (a Neopolitan dance of death, after having been bitten by a tarantula), brilliant brass fanfares, a march, a chorale, and, in the Epilogue, brilliant writing for organ (a splendid showcase for Verizon Hall’s Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ).

Listen to the Orchestra perform an excerpt from Casella's Second Symphony.

Noseda is an unabashed Casella partisan. “His music is spectacular; this is a Big Work.” His own recording of the Second Symphony has garnered praise, with critics saying the following about the piece:

“What a fantastic piece Alfredo Casella’s Second Symphony is!”

“This is music of immense dramatic flair …”

“… this is a remarkable and engaging work in its own right, with some striking features. In particular, the beautiful opening of the final ‘Epilogo’ is breathtakingly beautiful.”

Better late than never, Casella’s Second Symphony is must listening for lovers of great music … and The Philadelphia Orchestra.