Born in Turin, Alfredo Casella was one of the group of Italian composers collectively known as the generazione dell'Ottanta (generation of the 80s), who sought to change the whole climate of Italian music from a parochial fixation with opera to international excellence in the fields of orchestral, chamber and instrumental music. His contemporaries in this endeavour included Ottorino Respighi, Ildebrando Pizzetti, Gian Francesco Malipiero and Giorgio Ghedini, but Casella is considered the prime mover. His aim was to forge a new brand of neo-Classicism inspired by the golden age of Italian instrumental music from the Renaissance to the 18th century, but conceived in contemporary terms.
Casella came from a long-established musical family, and he showed early talent as a pianist, being a renowned virtuoso by the age of 13. His cosmopolitan upbringing (he lived outside Italy between the ages of 13 and 32) gave him a unique critical perspective on his native country's musical predicament, and his education at the Paris Conservatoire, where from 1896 he was a fellow-student of Ravel and Enescu under Gabriel Faure, furnished him with the technique to achieve his goals. From 1906 to 1909 he was the harspichordist for the French Société des Instruments Anciens, which intensified his appreciation of early music. Sojourns in Germany and Russia gave him an insatiable taste for chromatic dissonance and stylistic experiment. After teaching and conducting in Paris he returned to Italy in 1915, determined to recreate his country's musical language.
A prolific composer and a master of many styles, Casella taught composition in Rome, was active as a critic, and in 1917 founded the La Società nazionale de Musica in conjunction with Malipiero and the poet Gabriele d'Annunzio (refounded in 1923 as the Italian section of the International Society for Contemporary Music). In the 1930s he performed frequently outside Italy as an acclaimed pianist, chamber musician and conductor, while acting as director of the Venice Festival of Contemporary Music. As a scholar, his achievements included an influential edition of Beethoven's piano sonatas and he was principally responsible for the rediscovery and re-evaluation of the music of Antonio Vivaldi, which was celebrated in the first festival of the Settimane Musicali Senesi, which Casella helped to found.
Casella's decision to remain in Italy under Mussolini was probably due to simple patriotism (he was a passionate Italian nationalist) rather than admiration for the Fascist state: his wife was French and Jewish, and he continued to proselytise for the music of Schoenberg and Berg. It was during the Second World War that he wrote some of his most refined and abstract works, such as the Studi for piano, while late works such as the Missa solemnis 'Pro Pace', suggest an acceptance of Schoenberg's 12-note technique, which he had previously shunned.
In 1942 he was diagnosed as suffering from inoperable cancer, and, though a later diagnosis led to a successful operation, the cancer had meanwhile caused incurable side-effects from which he spent his remaining years in chronic pain. He died in Rome in 1947.
Profile © Calum MacDonald