Alfredo Casella (1883 - 1947) Three Symphonies

ALFREDO CASELLA (1883 - 1947) – Alfredo who? Yes, Casella is another name to be memorized and sought out. Both Casella and Respighi were of the generazione dell’Ottanta [generation of the 1880s] which were to move away from near-exclusive opera composition to creating works for the concert hall. Casella was a conductor and virtuoso pianist and wrote numerous chamber and concert works for the instrument, to the point that his performing overshadowed his compositions. He championed Italian composers both old [founded Vivaldi Week in 1939] and new [co-founder of the Italian performing rights society in 1923]. His compositions are only just now being re-discovered. Perhaps the reason for Casella’s descent into oblivion was his embrace of the Italian Fascist government. Numerous creative people in Germany/Austria and Italy who did so were severely criticized after WWII and were ostracized from the international community. Slowly, these artists are being reevaluated and reestablished within that community. I personally think it’s time to forgive Casella his transgressions and welcome him into our hearts.

He composed three symphonies, two of which were written early – No. 1 in B minor (1906) and No. 2 in C minor (1909) – and one late – Sinfonia per orchestra (1940). Descended from an old Torino family, Casella received his most important musical education in Paris at the Conservatoire where he was a fellow-student and life-long friend with Enescu and Ravel, studied composition with Gabriel Fauré and knew Debussy, Stravinsky and deFalla. Rather than falling into French Impressionism he was swayed instead by Wagner, Mahler, R. Strauss and the Russians. Lay over these myriad influences a native Italian lyricism and sense of drama and one has a pregnant mix, indeed.

Composed when Casella was but 22, the Symphony No. 1 in B minor begins with a slow unaccompanied theme for low strings which builds to the allegro agitato first theme group beginning with a dramatic tremolo in the string choir. All proceeds rather conventionally to the introduction of the second theme where the true nature of Casella’s genius is displayed: a startling passage for quadruple-stop arpeggios in upper strings set against an undulating theme of ambiguous tonality in the brass. One knows, from this point on, a highly original mind is at work. The slow second movement is a meditation verging on the melancholic, yet being saved several times by a painful rise into celestial heights. Ultimately, the meditation returns to the realm of the string basses for the start of the final movement. This is a phenomenal piece of symphonic writing. Time length, alone, is twenty minutes. It is also a deeply spiritual journey. With faint echoes of Parsifal and the late symphonies of Bruckner, tonality moves upward by minor thirds within the first three minutes before stability is reached. At each step one hears a plaintive dissonance in a piano full-orchestra shimmering chord that is modally uncertain. The effect is heart-wrenching. The first movement’s insinuating second theme is brought forward in chorale-like settings, only to fade, and then reappear. Basses set the fast tempo with a tremolo sul ponticello rising from the depths and being swept up into the violins. The noble and grand principal theme emerges to dominate the rest of the movement. This theme has both a light and dark side to it and is utilized to brilliant effect. The brass choir is the dominant force in the movement as a whole and especially in the many chorale-like passages which dominate the movement. After several highly dramatic, heaven-storming climaxes the solo cello brings the symphony to a quite close, the ambiguity of the beginning having been resolved into an inward peace. For all the prodigy of the several other young composers, mentioned in this survey, who have written phenomenal first symphonies, none have approached the sheer profundity of this symphony. None have tackled bigger spiritual questions nor resolved them with such wisdom and insight.

To listen to a recording of the B minor Symphony go to

YouTube - Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma; Francesco laVecchio, conductor


The Symphony No. 2 in C minor is in four movements with an additional, labeled Epilogo. Overall, it is so impressively virtuosic in all aspects as to be positively dazzling. Every movement begins with a rhythmic figure that is to play a significant part in the drama of the movement. The first movement begins with rumblings in the deepest instruments with a distant chime tolling ominously. A tense martial figure rises up to dominate the movement but gives way at two crucial structural points to the return of the rumblings and chime. The second Furioso movement reveals Casella’s predominant Russian debt in a fanfare figure for brass and in propelling rhythmic figures. The third movement begins with somber minor chords and a dirge-like beat but soon introduces an Italianate lyrical line that winds its way ever upward to climax in ravishing washes of colors and textures. Slowly the theme winds its way back down to end ominously in a return of the minor chords and funereal beats. The fourth movement begins with a martial drumbeat which, try as it might, more lyrical elements are not able to overcome. After a shattering climax the movement returns to minor chords, like the end of the third movement. The Epilogo, sub-titled adagio mistico, begins with quiet organ chords and slowly builds to what strikes me as a celestial vision of the divine presence. It is overwhelming. Nothing more can be said.

To listen to a recording of the Symphony in C minor go to

YouTube – hr-Sinfonieorchester (Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra); Gianandrea Noseda, conductor [video of the March 1, 2013 live broadcast of the German premiere of the symphony]


And now we come to Casella’s third symphony, the Sinfonia per orchestra. Written some thirty years later, the world is a very different place, and the composer a different person. Gone are the soul-cries to the heavens. Gone are the transfigured visions and anguished strivings. What we have, instead, is a well-ordered world of balance and proportion, elegance and wit. Casella is in his – well, not neo-classical, but neo-baroque period. Casella thought he had said everything he needed to say in the two symphonies of his youth and had no intention of composing another such work until he was offered a highly lucrative and flattering commission from the Chicago Symphony for premiere during their fiftieth season, 1940-41. [I wonder how the Chicagoans felt when they heard Casella, himself, had conducted the Dresden Staatskapelle premiere six months later and the Vienna Philharmonic premiere the following January, both within a year of the Chicago premiere and after the U.S. had declared war on the Nazis.]

 The overall structure of this symphony updates Franck’s cyclic concepts, although it is in the classic four movements: I: Sonata allegro, II: Andante, III: Scherzo variazione, IV: Rondo finale. I shall not go into detail here about the work since I am not yet that familiar with it, except to say it is immediately ingratiating with just enough harmonic spice to freshen the ear and to place it firmly within its period. While its emotional content is not worn on the sleeve, so to speak, its musical logic is masterful. It is also understated and subtle, hence the need for more time to let it all sink in.

To listen to a recording of the Sinfonia go to

YouTube – WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln; Alun Francis, conductor

 Another historical tidbit here: Casella conducted the Boston Pops for three years [1929-31] directly before Arthur Fiedler.


from "On the Symphony in the 20th Century" by Jerré Tanner - a book surveying over 250 symphony composers and their works, many of them forgotten and no longer performed, composed in the 20th century that are worthy of the listener's attention.