Tidbit #7 – Alfredo Casella and His Symphony No. 2

Alfredo Casella was a relatively recent Italian composer born in 1883. He had classical music in his blood from the start – his father, two brothers, and grandfather (who knew Paganini!) played cello. Furthermore, Casella’s mother was a pianist who gave him his first music lessons. 

Later, Casella was surrounded by other great musicians. He entered the Conservatoire de Paris when he was only 13 and studied composition with Gabriel Faure. His classmates included George Enescu and Maurice Ravel. Casella expanded his skills as a musician at the Conservatoire, studying conducting as well as piano and composition.

Casella’s first work was a pavane for piano, written in 1902. Soon, more compositions followed. He tried writing vocal songs and chamber music and completed his first symphony in 1906. Throughout his life, Casella was greatly influenced by his contemporaries, particularly Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler (both personal acquaintances). He also expressed his admiration for Debussy and took a great deal of interest in Schoenberg’s new serialism techniques. Casella was an active advocate for new music; in 1923, he co-founded the Corporation for New Music to bring contemporary music to Italy. He wrote, “Regarding modern music, it is painful for an Italian who travels the world to be forced to affirm that Italy holds the last place. We are talking just this year about letting the Roman audience hear Stravinsky’s grandiose Sacre [Rite of Spring] that Paris and London were discussing already in 1913.”

Besides encouraging new music, Casella revived the old. He was so impressed upon discovering Vivaldi’s Gloria that he organized a “Vivaldi Week”, bringing Vivaldi to the attention of the public after years of obscurity. He also published his own editions of keyboard works by J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin.

In 1930, Casella formed a Trio Italiano with Arturo Bonucci, cello, and Alberto Poltronieri, violin. Together, they toured Europe and America with great success. Unfortunately, Casella’s works did not see quite so much fame. He wrote works for his Trio Italiano which were much liked, and he became quite the sensation after his Elegia eroica premiere was received in Italy with near Rite-of-Spring-scale outrage, but the bulk of his output remained in obscurity. One must remember that he was living in the time of Ravel, Strauss, Mahler, and many other great composers who overshadowed him. The symphony I’m about to elaborate on is now—like the rest of Casella’s music—almost never performed, though it is a fantastic work.

Casella’s Second Symphony

Casella’s second symphony (of three) was written in only 1909, when he was still relatively new to composition. However, I think it’s his best work that I’ve heard. (From about 1920 on, Casella composed in the neoclassical style, which I find hard to identify with.)

It’s hard to describe Casella’s second symphony in words – it’s such exciting music. One thing is for sure, though: this symphony is not a Mozartian sort of work. It’s very dramatic. I find it a refreshing change, if not strictly a “classical” sort of sound. To be honest, it reminds me of a classical soundtrack to a very tense movie. (In our snobbishly classical terms, it would be called “programmatic”.) Be sure to listen to the second movement – it will get stuck in your head, but I think that’s a good thing. 😉 Enjoy!

~ Maggie


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