About this Recording
8.573266 - CASSUTO, Á.: Return to the Future / Song of Loneliness / To Love and Peace / Visiting Friends (Rosado, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Cassuto)

Álvaro Cassuto (b. 1938)
Return to the Future • Song of Loneliness • To Love and Peace • Visiting Friends


My musical education started at home through the initiative of my German grandparents, who used to play violin and piano duets. In my early teens, I started to compose for my preferred instrument, the orchestra, and only then did I study music theory with professional composers, mainly with Fernando Lopes Graça (1906–1994). Although my training was entirely based on tonal harmony, my years of autodidacticism led me to explore new musical trends which had not yet been adopted in Portugal in the 1950s, especially the twelve-tone technique and the musical styles of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, which I promoted through public lectures and articles.

While I was preparing for my entry examination to Law School, I composed my first Sinfonia Breve at the suggestion of Joly Braga Santos (1924–88), who conducted its première in 1959. It was the first twelve-tone work by a Portuguese composer, and its success led to immediate repeat performances as well as to a series of commissions, including one for the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of the Eastman School of Music in the United States. Realising, however, that I had to acquaint myself with the trend of the avant-garde, I spent most of my summers in Darmstadt, where I studied with Messiaen, Boulez, Stockhausen, and other leading composers. As a result, in each new work which I composed between 1960 and 1970, I used a different technique, changing style from work to work.

Simultaneously, in 1961 I started my conducting career, and the intimate acquaintance I acquired of traditional styles and those of the avant-garde, led me to the conclusion that the Darmstadt school ultimately led to a dead end, having eliminated some basic building blocks of music: tonality and rhythmic continuity, among others. I therefore introduced in my works reminiscences of the tonal past, which was far from fashionable at the time, but in tune with the gradual “liberation” from the “dogmas” of the avant-garde and in favour of tonal revivalism. Gradually I adhered to the saying, attributed to Schoenberg, that there was still good music to be written in C major.

While selecting the works for this recording, my criterion was to choose works I had composed after having “outgrown” my experimental period, and to address as large an audience as possible. I therefore chose two works composed in the early 1970s, one for small ensemble and the other one for large orchestra, and another two written in the mid-1980s, one for orchestra and the other one for piano and orchestra, all of which are clearly postmodern in concept, approach and style. On this recording, however, they are not presented in chronological order, but rather in an order which I think is more satisfying musically.

Song of Loneliness (1972)

Written for the New Music Group of the Philadelphia Musical Academy and its conductor, the Greek composer Theodore Antoniou, Song of Loneliness is scored for fourteen solo wind, brass, strings and percussion players, but it can also be performed with additional strings, as in this recording. The instruments are to be miked through an echo chamber and loudspeakers in the hall, so as to surround the audience. It is my first totally “tonal” work, a “return to basics”, to reinvent a new future (a concept which I used as a title for a work written in 1985 and included on this recording). It concentrates on the harmonic exploration of a specific key (F minor), and on the development of the chord’s latent melody: the sequence of notes of the F minor chord, and of its dominant. It starts softly in A minor and builds up to an F minor section featuring the piano solo, after which it subsides into a series of variations. Finally, a melodic line appears in the distance. It is endlessly repeated until it fades away, leaving the chimes alone with its upper three notes. The solitude of this ending determined the title of the piece.

To Love and Peace (1973)

The title is related to my opera In the Name of Peace, a political satire. It was composed for the Manhattan School of Music Symphony Orchestra with which I conducted its première. Similar to my Song of Loneliness, it is based on the tonal exploration of a single note, the E of the open fourth string of the double bass, traditionally the lowest note of the orchestra. It starts in fortissimo with a tone-cluster in the strings encompassing all chromatic notes between the low E and the E five octaves above. After a diminuendo, all players slowly move in “glissando” from the notes they were playing toward E in unison in five octaves, as if dark and ominous clouds gradually evaporate, and lead to a pristine blue sky.

This opening is followed by a series of variations, always on the note E, leading to a middle section in which the tone-clusters reappear, now in the free improvising winds, brass and percussion. A series of fortissimo clusters in the strings leads to a third section in pianissimo, based on the seventh dominant chord of C major (the E being its lowest note), and a melodic line based on the notes of the C major chord appears in the piano and percussion. A crescendo leads from C major to D flat major in fortissimo and then to A flat (or G sharp).

At this point I needed a timeless, hymn-like, melody, to conclude these “variations on E”. Therefore, it struck me like a revelation, when I stumbled upon the famous chorale so often used by Bach in his St Matthew Passion, precisely in E major and starting precisely with a G sharp. I did not hesitate, and placed it in the brass, surrounded it by a murmuring crowd improvising in different keys, until everyone converges into a final E major chord, lifting my variations to the lofty heights of a Lutheran chorale, celebrated by none other than Johann Sebastian Bach.

The work is scored for three flutes, three oboes, four clarinets, three bassoons, four horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, marimba, vibraphone, piano, percussion and strings.

Return to the Future (1985)

The New York première of the Fourth Symphony by the distinguished American composer George Rochberg (1918–2005) which I conducted in Carnegie Hall in 1985 revealed to me a Romantic style used by a composer who had dedicated most of his life to “modernism”, before he found it “empty of expressive intent”. And when, a few months later, I conducted the Six Brandenburg Concertos, the “obstinate” moto perpetuo of the Sixth haunted me day and night. So I thought: “Why not pick it up from here, and see where it leads me?”.

While Bach’s concerto is scored for a small ensemble of strings and continuo (harpsichord), my work is scored for full orchestra. But I retained the essence, the rhythmic pulse, and while Minimalism was far from my thoughts, it shares with it the steady repeat of a rhythmic cell. On the other hand, since Bach was such an admirer of Vivaldi, and certainly approved the brilliant scales so often used by the Italian master, I also brought them in. Within these frames I placed a variety of lyric sections, contrasting with the main sections, but not based on any specific formal plan.

The work was commissioned by the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon with whose orchestra I conducted its première.

It is scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, timpani, electric keyboard (replacing the Baroque harpsichord), percussion and strings.

Visiting Friends (1986)

I wrote Visiting Friends as an essay, not intending it to be performed, and imagining a meeting with composers whose music I like best. In such an unlikely event, to develop meaningful exchanges of ideas, I had to use a language based on formulae and expressions (styles) with which they were familiar. The result is similar to a pastiche, a work which pays tribute to previous eras, as occurs in Mozart when using the Baroque style in his religious works or in his Piano Suite, K.399, or in Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, in Stravinsky’s Pulcinella and Dumbarton Oaks, to name only a few. A pastiche does not pretend to innovate, it rather observes the past from a different angle, and casts on it a different light. In this context, a work written in the 1980s can still be considered a pastiche. Since then, however, this designation has lost most of its meaning, since the use of styles from the close or remote past has become almost the rule in more recent times.

While it was not meant to be a piano concerto, the piano plays a similar soloistic rôle, except for the third movement, which is for strings alone, punctuated by a vibraphone. Structurally, the first and third movements are slow introductions to the fast second and fourth. The first resembles a foggy landscape, and the listener should be unable to focus on anything except for the obvious and pompous melodic line in the winds, brass, and later, strings. The third movement is an interlude based on a widely used melodic descending line, which appears and reappears timelessly in many works, including Handel’s Messiah (“He shall feed his flock like a shepherd”). The second and fourth movements are extrovert and based on variations.

True to my original intention, the work has never been performed. However, now, after more than a quarter of a century, I thought I might share my dreamed up visit with my living friends.

The work is scored for two flutes (the second doubling on piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, strings and solo piano.

Álvaro Cassuto

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