About this Recording
8.572414 - CASELLA, A.: Symphony No. 2 / A notte alta (Sun Hee You, Rome Symphony, La Vecchia)
English  Italian 

Alfredo Casella (1883–1947):
Symphony No. 2, Op. 12 • A notte alta for piano and orchestra, Op. 30bis


‘Two solid symphonies for sale, written in the German, Strauss-Mahler tradition. Thorough workmanship. Unoriginality guaranteed. Offers to Alf. Cas., Box 724, Rome.’

Alfredo Casella’s spoof advertisements hawking his first two symphonies reappeared repeatedly after World War I—maybe nobody else wanted them either. Joking apart, the Symphony No. 2 was never published in Casella’s lifetime—unlike the First Symphony [Naxos 8.572413] and almost all of his other music—and after he conducted it a few times in 1910–11 it languished unheard for eighty years. Why? Here, perhaps, is a clue: the first performance was in Paris, Casella’s home for fifteen years, on 23 April 1910. Six days earlier the city had hosted the high-profile French première of another monumental Symphony No. 2 in C minor conducted by its non-French composer—Gustav Mahler; it was the first time a French orchestra had played any music by Mahler, and the event would never have happened without Casella’s tireless efforts.

The expense of performing Mahler’s huge work could only be covered by financial backing from two different musical societies; but they hated each other. It took Casella over a year to charm them into collaborating—and afterwards it was brickbats as usual: the concert’s main underwriter, the immensely rich president of the Société des Grandes Auditions Musicales, Countess Elisabeth Greffulhe (Marcel Proust’s model for his Duchesse de Guermantes), complained that the rival Société des Amis de la Musique had ‘behaved like crooks’. At the end of the symphony the Paris public cheered Mahler to the rafters; Debussy walked out halfway through. Mahler’s heart-on-sleeve musical aesthetic was anathema to many in the early twentieth-century Parisian musical establishment, who amused themselves by punning on the similarity of his surname to the French word for ‘misfortune’. As leader of the small group of diehards who championed Mahler’s music, Casella—tall, thin, long-nosed—was dubbed ‘l’oiseau de Malhe[u]r’, ‘the bird of ill-omen’.

Probably no composer ever affected Casella so profoundly as Mahler did for almost a decade at this time. ‘Discovering Mahler’s symphonies (‘the greatest work of musical genius since Wagner’s Parsifal’) was the crucial event of my artistic education,’ he said, recalling that ‘Mahler was sincerely moved when he discovered I knew them practically by heart’. Casella wrote a stream of enthusiastic articles, not least as the only French or Italian critic who travelled to Munich for the première, later in 1910, of Mahler’s Eighth (the ‘Symphony of a Thousand’)—the supreme triumph of Mahler’s life. His sudden death the following year was a professional as well as personal shock for Casella: Mahler was planning not only to conduct Casella’s rhapsody Italia, Op. 11, and Suite in C major, Op. 13, but to engage the Italian as his assistant when he returned to the Vienna Opera. ‘I have a great liking for the young man,’ Mahler told another of his supporters in France, William Ritter, ‘and I have high hopes of him’. When French publishers rejected Italia and the Suite, Mahler convinced his own publisher Universal Edition to issue them, negotiating, Casella recalled, ‘a deal I could never have dreamed of’; he commissioned Casella to arrange his Seventh Symphony for piano duet; he presented ‘my great friend’, ‘pioneer’ Casella with signed scores and photographs. A giant photo of Mahler, ‘this man of extraordinary goodness, warmth and generosity, sincerity and altruism’, took pride of place on Casella’s wall for the rest of his life.

Casella’s own Symphony No. 2 in C minor is his most enduring—and deeply indebted—homage to Mahler. Though the Italian scholar Quirino Principe perhaps exaggerates in calling Casella’s first movement ‘almost pure Mahler’, its sources are palpable, above all a startlingly prominent direct quotation of a march theme from the finale of Mahler’s Second—here transposed and transformed into a lyrical melody. Casella revised this movement after the symphony’s première in 1910, but the manuscript of the first version is lost: was he making it more like Mahler or less? From the very opening notes, with their tolling bells, Casella’s symphony also saturates itself in the Mahlerian soundworld, its tensions between major and minor and its very timbres: Casella eulogised Mahler’s ‘miraculous ear, his incomparable gift for incessantly inventing new sonorities’, pinpointing instruments’ individual, contrasted qualities rather than blending them homogeneously. The slow third movement of Casella’s Second Symphony—the first part he completed (early in 1908)—is simply the central movement of his First Symphony, with a single bar added at its midpoint, and reorchestrated in a far more Mahler-like manner; it even keeps the original key of F sharp minor, a tritone away from the Second Symphony’s C. Curiously, the musical material sometimes seems ill at ease in its new clothes, the first version feeling a better fit—with the exception of the theme that Casella adopts to germinate the Second Symphony’s ‘Epilogue’. Casella’s finale, albeit less monumental than the epic apotheosis of Mahler’s Second, traces a similar trajectory from darkness to triumphant C major light, marching through frequent reminiscences of Mahler’s later symphonies, the Third, Sixth and Seventh.

Only in the second movement does Casella step out of Mahler’s ‘imperious shadow’—as he admitted—into those of Rimsky-Korsakov and Balakirev. Casella had met both composers on his first visit to Russia in 1907: Rimsky gave him valuable advice in orchestration, while Casella’s orchestral version of Balakirev’s virtuoso piano piece Islamey attracted the admiration of its composer—among others: ‘a blond young man wearing enormous glasses approached me,’ Casella recollected, ‘saying timidly that he would love to study the score’. It was Igor Stravinsky: a year older than Casella, but then still unknown. The second movement of Casella’s Second is prophetic too, its driving percussive rhythms sometimes pre-echoing later Russian composers like Mossolov (Iron Foundry), Prokofiev or Shostakovich (another composer who learnt much from Mahler, and who is often brought to mind by Casella’s penchant for the xylophone); or indeed later Casella, of the 1920s and 1930s.

Another Mahlerian concordance is that Casella apparently conceived his Second in dramatic terms, but was ambivalent about publicising the fact. Casella wrote at the top of his first movement manuscript ‘Prologue to a tragedy’, and later released the piece alone under that title, mirroring Mahler’s reworking of his tone poem Todtenfeier (‘Funeral Ceremony’) as the first movement of his own Second Symphony; at the end of the ‘Epilogue’ Casella scribbled ‘Finis Comoedia’. If this world is a comedy to those that think and a tragedy to those that feel, Casella and Mahler are poles apart: Casella’s music conveys an objective quality, as if observing the drama dispassionately from outside; Mahler’s is quintessentially self-confessional, a living experience of emotional extremes—like two other darkness-to-light symphonies with (in their case quiet) C major endings: Asrael, another C minor Second, in which Josef Suk (Bohemian-born, as was Mahler) confronts the devastating deaths of first his teacher Dvořák and then his wife, Dvořák’s daughter Otilie; and the Third Symphony of Arnold Bax (a British composer also greatly influenced by the Russians), a final laying-to-rest of his personal inner demons.

A notte alta (‘In deepest night’) is Casella’s own intimate self-revelation: ‘the only piece of programme music I have ever composed’, ‘inspired by emotional events in my personal life’. Its opening seems worlds away from the idiom of the Second Symphony, a disjunction as abrupt as that between the First Symphony and Concerto on the first CD of this Casella orchestral music series [Naxos 8.572413]: by 1917, when he wrote the original piano solo version of A notte alta, his musical language had undergone a huge upheaval—’swept away’, said the Italian critic Massimo Mila, ‘by that astonishing eruption of expressionistic lava that has been called his second style’. Occasional hints of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring apart, it is hard to hear a single direct influence in A notte alta, though its uneasy stasis, simultaneous superimposition of different keys and luminous orchestration show affinities with Charles Koechlin, Casella’s classmate on Fauré’s Paris Conservatoire composition course, and with the later music of a younger Italian, Giorgio Ghedini. Casella dedicated A notte alta to Yvonne Müller, a Parisian student of his, who in 1921, two years after he separated from his first wife Hélène Kahn, became his second. ‘We had already been in love for many years,’ Casella admitted, and the ‘man’ and ‘woman’ of the programme note which he added to the music when orchestrating it on honeymoon in Capri are indubitably Alfredo and Yvonne. The third protagonist of this ‘musical poem’ is the night itself, and the orchestral version clarifies their roles, the orchestra creating ‘the mysterious atmosphere of the winter night, clear and cold, glacially insensible to human suffering’ into which the piano introduces the themes of the man—grave and pensive—and woman—gentle, melancholy and (stereotypically) capricious. Their relationship to each other and the night deepens until ‘a word rises from the silence, the sweetest word that can ever be spoken’. But the ‘ecstasy’ that follows is destroyed by ‘a violent eruption in the orchestra that seems to break everything in two’. The ‘nothingness’ of the opening returns, then the themes of the man and woman. ‘With heartrending sobs’ (on four solo violins), ‘the lovers part, their footsteps’ (on cellos and basses) ‘dying away into the darkness’. The work ends in the ‘eternal sphinx-like silence of night’, and ‘the utter indifference of Nature to human passions’. So this music is after all close kin to the Second Symphony: in its characteristically Casellan dark sonorities and major/minor tensions; in the ‘vein of tragedy’ Massimo Mila identified as a constant of Casella’s art—yet ultimately impassive in the face of deep emotion.

David Gallagher

Close the window