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Casella, Alfredo

(July 25, 1883 - March 5, 1947)

Alfredo Casella was born in Turin on 25th July 1883 and began studying piano under the guidance of his mother.
At the age of 13 he moved together with his mother to Paris, where he studied piano and composition at the conservatory, developing a great admiration for Debussy and French music in general.
In spite of this Casella’s compositions in this period do not reflect the French style but rather maintain a late Romantic expressivity in line with Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler; a characteristic example of this first phase of his production is his First Symphony composed in 1905. It was with this work that the composer inaugurated his career as an orchestra conductor in Monaco in 1908.

In 1915 the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome called Casella to teach piano and in this way he began to dedicate himself to opening up the Italian music scene to the most important European artistic trends: he organised concerts featuring the music of Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and other contemporary composers, attracting fierce opposition from conservative circles in Italy. 

Undaunted by these attacks, in 1917 Casella founded the Società Nazionale di Musica, which after a few months changed its name to the Società Italiana di Musica Moderna, immediately winning the support of artists like Malipiero, Pizzetti and Respighi. The activity of the society was flanked by the journal Ars Nova, with the goal of publishing music, facilitating the performance of the music of young composers, recovering the music of the past and establishing a network of contacts with other associations outside Italy.

In 1923 Casella together with Gabriele D’Annunzio and Gian Francesco Malipiero founded the Corporazione delle Nuove Musiche (C. D. N. M.). This body had two fundamental aims: to promote the awareness of contemporary music in Italy and to recover the great tradition of Italian music of the past. The corporation was active for 5 years, during which time it vigorously promoted the spread of contemporary music, thanks in no small part to the economic support of Elisabeth Sprague Coolidge (1864-1953), the American pianist and arts patron, who dedicated her life and a substantial part of her personal fortune to music, commissioning a huge number of works from all the most important European composers.

In 1922 Casella’s creative vein encountered a block: the damning criticism of his poem for piano and orchestra A notte alta led him to take the decision to “not take up composing again until I have developed some serious and substantial works” which might serve to “usher in my most fecund and victorious period”. The composer emerged from this period of crisis only a year later thanks to the peacefulness of a period spent in Tuscany that brought him back into contact with the beauty of the Italian landscape that he saw reflected in the nation’s artistic tradition. This was what gave birth to his “stile giocoso” (playful style) which included the works that launched him onto the international music scene: a large number of lyrics for voice and piano, the Sonata for cello and piano Op. 45 (commissioned by Coolidge), the ballet La giara on a subject by Pirandello, the Scarlattiana and the Partita for piano and orchestra and the Paganiniana for orchestra, and his Concerto for piano, strings, timpani and percussion.

In 1930 Casella – also very highly regarded as a pianist - together with the cellist Arturo Bonucci and the violinist Alberto Poltronieri founded what became a much acclaimed trio in both Europe and America. Casella was also responsible - thanks to his work of restoration and promotion - for the rebirth that the music of Antonio Vivaldi has enjoyed in the 20th century.
The composer died in Rome on 5th March 1947.