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Casella: Symphony No. 2

Casella: Symphony No. 2

60.00

679 words
program notes by Chris Myers

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Copyright © 2018 Chris Myers. All rights reserved. Unauthorized distribution or reproduction prohibited.

Symphony No. 2
Alfredo Casella (1883-1947)
3 flutes (doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (2nd doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, 2 harps, organ, strings

First performance: April 23, 1910, Salle Gaveau, Paris. Alfredo Casella, conductor.

I. Lento grave solenne
II. Allegro molto vivace
III. Adagio quasi andante
IV. Finale – Epilogo

If Alfredo Casella had worked half as hard to market his own music as he did that of other composers, he would likely be a much more familiar name in concert hall conversations. Throughout his life, the Italian composer was an inveterate and tireless promoter of music he admired, whether old or new. In 1939, he organized a Vivaldi Week in Siena whose success brought the previously obscure baroque composer back into the standard repertoire. If you’ve enjoyed a performance of Vivaldi’s Gloria, you owe a debt to Casella; the work was performed at this festival for the first time since the 18th century.

Casella reserved his greatest admiration and most energetic support for Mahler. One of the composer’s earliest and most fervent admirers, Casella was almost single-handedly responsible for the French premiere of the Resurrection Symphony in 1910. His devotion to the German composer led his Parisian colleagues to nickname him “l’oiseau de Malhe(u)r”, or “the bird of misfortune”— a play on the similarity between the composer’s name and the French word for bad luck, a similarity which seemed oddly appropriate to French artists who were put off by Mahler’s effusive expressiveness.

Casella’s affection for Mahler was reciprocated, however, and the two developed a mutual admiration, with the older composer persuading his publisher to publish several of Casella’s works. At the time of Mahler’s death, he had scheduled some of Casella’s music on concerts in Vienna and had asked the Italian composer to become his assistant conductor at the Vienna Opera.

Casella’s admiration for Mahler is immediately apparent in the sound worlds of his own early work, and the Symphony No. 2 is a prime example. Composed when the composer was only 25 and left unpublished in his own lifetime, this is a monumental work in five movements (the last two linked) which is infused with Mahlerian themes of destiny and struggle. Casella’s Symphony No. 2 was premiered in Paris a week after the French premiere of the Resurrection Symphony, which only serves to highlight the connections between these two works.

The evocative nature of this music has long led to suspicions that Casella had a story in mind. In fact, the first movement was originally titled “Prologue to a Tragedy”, and the final page of the score was marked “Finis Comoeidia.” However, if there was a specific program to the piece, Casella kept his secret well.

Right from the beginning of the first movement, we are immersed in the aural landscapes of a Mahlerian sound world. Gloomy bells toll over sustained strings, from which rises a lyrical and oddly familiar tune. It is, in fact, the march theme from Mahler’s Resurrection, transformed into an expressive and sustained melody. The second movement is a lively scherzo. While the hints of tarantella rhythm give a nod to Casella’s Italian heritage, the real influence on this movement is Russian. Splashes of color reminiscent of Rimsky-Korsakov suffuse the music, and it’s worth noting that Casella had once orchestrated Balakirev’s Islamey so ingeniously that Stravinsky approached him following the premiere and asked for a copy of the score to study.

The third movement is the heart of the symphony, an emotional struggle of heartfelt melody that will return, transformed, in the epilogue. It’s also a reorchestration of the second movement of Casella’s first symphony, with the only musical change being the addition of a single bar in the middle. In the fourth movement and epilogue, the spirit of Mahler returns in full force, with a sardonic march of fate that foreshadows Shostakovich by several decades. This music evolves and grows until, in a move that is so Mahler, it transforms from deepest despair into transcendent triumph.

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