Alfredo Casella, Italia, Rhapsody for Orchestra, Op. 11

By Adrian Corleonis, Fanfare Magazine

Written for the concert A New Italian Renaissance, performed on April 18, 2008 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In the early 1920s, the Sphinx-like Ferrucio Busoni noted of Alfredo Casella that he was “very adroit in conversation, but not so adroit as not to be aware of it.” Coupled with a searching intellect finding stimulus in everything, Casella’s self-consciousness nearly crippled him as a composer, making the achievement of a confident style uphill work.

While radical developments and harbingers were dotting the rising dawn of the new century—cubism, futurism, the theories of Einstein and Planck, Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire, Stravinsky’s Sacre du printemps—the fabled ‘90s persisted until the onset of the Great War, that is, through Casella’s formative years. Casella and Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius were born in 1883—the year Wagner died. Schoenberg’s atonal Three Pieces for Piano, Op. 11, were composed in 1909, the same year as Italia. But these burgeoning manifestations of the new would become influential only during and after the War. In the post-Romantic deliquescence, teetering on the verge of modernism, Debussy, Strauss, and Mahler were the giants establishing themselves against the usual prejudices, though Isaac Albéniz, Manuel de Falla, the Dukas of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, perhaps even the d’Indy of the Symphony on a French Mountain Air, and the Busoni of the Piano Concerto, are Casella’s audible models.

Casella’s musical gifts—not only as a piano prodigy—sent him to the Paris Conservatoire at 13, where he gravitated toward Fauré’s composition classes. His classmates included Ravel, Enescu, Roger-Ducasse, and Koechlin. His social “adroitness” and his prodigious talents enabled him to work with artists of the highest caliber—Eugène Ysaÿe, Jacques Thibaud, Willem Mengelberg—as he toured Europe. Mahler thought well enough of him that he persuaded Emil Hertzka, of Universal Edition, to publish Italia. Which is to say that Casella’s culture was synoptically au courant and thoroughly cosmopolitan. And that, as a composer, entailed a certain arrière pensée.

Looking back in 1941 (in the fascinating memoir, Music in My Time), Casella recalled, “ . . . I began two important orchestral works in which I intended to face for the first time the problem of creating a style at once Italian in spirit and contemporary in its sonorous language. One of these was the Suite in C major. . . The other was a much greater undertaking and still resists the weight of the years; it is the Rhapsody, Italia.” And for the latter work there is some revelatory special pleading: “We must not forget that Italia was written in 1909 by a young man of twenty-six who had lived in exile from the beginning of his adolescence; it was quite difficult to create the style he imagined and sought to realize in that work in the environment in which he lived. The Rhapsody still gives me great satisfaction in one way; conceived in the midst of a musical culture overwhelmingly dominated by impressionism, the work turned out to be anti-impressionistic. Nothing is more remote from Debussyism than this linear and monumental architecture.”

His defensiveness regarding the use of folk material is also notable: “It was natural that when I wished to create a national music I should look for a basis in the national folklore. Many others still do this today, with less ingenuousness than mine.” But there is no embarrassment about the use of Luigi Denza’s banefully popular Funiculì, Funiculà for Italia’s whelming peroration. Rather, Casella evinces such a note of triumph that Denza personally intervened to allow its use where, a quarter-of-a-century before, he had sued the young Richard Strauss for his appropriation of the melody in Aus Italien.

Casella conducted the premiere on April 23, 1910, tellingly at Paris’s Salle Gaveau. Italia was not heard in Italy until 1924.