Alfredo Casella

Picture of Alfredo Casella

Cinematography has always been one of my pet hobbies. It was my father's dearest wish to keep his three sons "off the street" by which phrase, I suppose, he meant to keep them from playing in the streets for I imagine that children at such a tender age as 6, 10 and 12 were unlikely to get into more serious trouble - though of course you never know. Playing Kick the Can, ringing door bells or tying opposite door nobs together, pushing younger and weaker lads into beds of stinging nettles were some of my favourite games, when I was at Junior School. Anyway, father did his best for us, adding an extra storey on the top of our semi-detached house at 28 Corrour Road, Newlands, Glasgow, which would accommodate a full-size billiard table (incidentally, burning down the whole house and that of our next door neighbour in the process!) He bought us a 35 mm. projector, complete with arc lamp, slide attachment, a selection of cowboy films and news reels, but no motor. There were none in those days, so that every time we had a cinema show, which was usually every Friday or Saturday night, my eldest brother, Jack, had to "caw the haun'le" (turn the handle) of the projector to make it go - a pretty strenuous task- for a 1,000 ft. reel lasted 15 minutes, and it was no joke to keep turning without a break for a quarter of an hour or more. Turning handles was all the fashion before the first world war: and my brother Jack came in for more than his fair share of turning the handle of the ice-cream freezer, packed around with ice, which became harder and harder to push as the ice embedded itself closer into the freezer. My Mother's ice cream - made from real cream and fresh strawberries - was marvellous (nothing like it, nowadays, with their massed produced, slick, sleek, tasteless, synthetic, characterless, professional manufactured stuff, mis-called "Ice Cream") and worth every bit of energy which my brother Jack put into turning the handle for anything up to two hours. Then, when we got a motor car (no self-starters in those days) Jack had to learn how to jerk the starting handle, which could backfire and bite you pretty nastily, until you became its master. I was the weak member of our family, and this suited me all right for my "weak chest" - mainly imaginary - was a very useful thing; for one thing it would not allow me to strain myself in any way, and so brother Jack had to do all the turning which had to be done in our family. Before we owned a car, our family had a powerful Harley-Davison motor bike fitted with a double side-car attachment: I rode pillion, Mother sat in front, holding Baby Archie on her knee, Dad in the back seat, and Jack, of course, was driving. This time he had no turning to do-to start the bike you simply kicked hard on a pedal.

To return to the cinematograph, or bioscope, our proud family record in this field goes back before even the invention of the movie camera. In 1903, or thereabouts, my Uncle James blew himself through the ceiling when an acetylene contraption he was adjusting went wrong on him: if I close my eyes right now, I can see the hole in the ceiling where he went through. Another early memory of the movies was the gorgeous time when Father took us all for a holiday to the Island of Millport, and we stayed on the top storey of a block of flats above the post office, and directly opposite Leslie Lynn’s Open Air Entertainments. Three or four times a week as soon as it was dark, there was an open-air film show, and from our sitting-room windows we could watch the whole show free in the comfort of our own home. The projector and operator were incarcerated in a small tin shed: every now and then the operator would come up for air - poke his head out of the window, - all but shake the fingers off his hand to relieve the cramp of an uninterrupted half an hours turning. It wasn't always easy to read the captions through our windows, but the thrilling climax, when the Mounties stormed in to release the captured garrison and hacked to bits the treacherous Red - Indians always made fine viewing especially when accompanied by the strains of the "William Tell" Overture, played on a museum piece, all-but upright piano, by a doing-his-best-so-don’t-shoot-me-5 bob-an-hour movie pianist. When I got older, my Dad bought me a Pathe-Baby Cine Camera with stand and my brother Archie and I started up a Glasgow Cine Club for making our own movies. One of the pictures we shot on 9.5mm stock, was called "The Gas Trap," a thriller with camera work by the Chisholm's which made that of Clair, Einstein, Fritz Lang and D.W. Griffiths look just plain silly. Anyway, I took my cine-camera along with me to the Oxford I.S.C.M. Festival, Summer, 1931, and photographed a number of musical celebrities who were there, including Dr. Herzog, (always referred to as "Jehova") founder of Universal Edition, Vienna: Professor E.J. Dent, the tall, drink-of-water founder president of the I.S.C.M, the handsome, suave, English composer and conductor Eugene Goossens, tubby, heavily bearded, Bolshie-looking and sloppy-lipped Edwin Evans (England's No.1 modern music critic and propagandist); and the Italian pianist, composer and writer, Alfredo Casella. Casella was tall, thin and military looking, wore white trousers and sports canvas shoes and had sunken sleeky, southern sexy eyes. He came to Glasgow in 1931 to give a concert of his works for us on 23rd February, and intending to repeat the programme three days later in Dundee. When he arrived in Glasgow a telegram awaited him with news that his mother was gravely ill. So he felt compelled after the Glasgow concert, to rush off to Northern Italy which left me to find substitutes for the missing items.

Casella composed sunny, gay, tuneful, attractive quasi-Neapolitan music: diatonic stuff with a modern slant. In 1916, he wrote Five Puppet Pieces (March, Berceuse, Serenade, Nocturne and Polka) which exist in two versions - orchestral and for piano duet, and which were and for all I know, may still be, popular. Casella played primo, I secondo at the Glasgow concert; it was all great fun. He was much taller and broader than I (in those days I was very thin, indeed my Mother used to say you could blow peas through Erik's ribs) and I had to hold my head high and generally assert myself on the music stool not to be pushed off it by Casella's leonine but militaristic bulk. I remember that while rehearsing the Serenade movement (where in the middle the left hand of the top player has to play a passage below the right hand of the bottom player) we had to stop and rewind; the accompanying pattern at the beginning of the nocturne required my right hand to nip right smartly away and out at the end of each quaver chord, to avoid lacerations from Casella's pinky nail. After the performance he clapped me chummily on the back and was very matey.

At the rehearsal of his concerto for string quartet, Casella conducted the players, but of course, left them to their own resources at the the concert. I asked him what the narrow strip of red ribbon in his button - hole of his jacket signified; he replied that he was a member of the Italian Fascist party, as I suppose most of the Italian national intellectuals were in 1931. Casella held himself very erect and had a keen military look about him. Before conducting his delightful Serenata for clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, violin and cello, he clicked his heels together as though on the parade ground. Composed in 1927, this is possibly Casella's most popular piece, and it won first prize in a Philadelphia Competition in the 1920's. I still have the score and parts we used in 1931, and we have performed it Hiddingh Hall concerts. I can let you hear the jolly, romping Tarantella - a brilliant alla-Neapolitan piece with the five instruments vying with each other for dazzling virtuosity.

Casella was staying with us; the morning after the concert, I had all three morning papers on the breakfast table, and asked him if he would like to read the press notices on his concert. "No, thank you" he replied "I never read my press reports. If they write good things about me I become conceited, if bad, depressed; and in both cases it's pretty sure to be nonsense." "Don’t you think there is any value in Press criticisms?" I asked. "A critic with a good memory" he replied "hearing Mr A’s performance say, the Appassionata Sonata, may compare it with the performance of Messrs. X. Y. Z., and offer a reasonably balanced judgment on Mr. A’s performance. But on hearing a new piece of music, particularly music in an idiom unfamiliar to him, the critic, who is a good journalist - and most music critics are just that - may write a convincing and positive criticism damning or praising the work, according to his own personal taste which, in fact, has little or no bearing on the music itself. Emotional reaction is all too frequently the deciding factor in a criticism of a new work.

Ernest Newman, shall we say, likes the work and easily finds lots of good reasons for doing so: Eric Blom; on the other hand, may loathe it and, being a clever and resourceful journalist, can find equally good reasons for disliking it. But what on earth have their "reasons" to do with the work itself. Nothing at all, so far as I can see. Logically speaking, music should only be criticised in the language of musical sounds, or at least in writings supported by musical sounds."

"You mention Ernest Newman", I interjected; "what is your opinion of his criticisms?" "Ah, Newman." replied Casella: "Newman is not just another music critic, he is a great scholar - probably the greatest Wagner scholar. As a critic, Newman is in a class by himself". These are not the actual words Casella used - for he spoke in short rapid sentences, interspersed with Italian ohs and ahs as though fired from the muzzle of a sub-machine gun situated somewhere mid-drift inside him - but they carry the substance of a conversation I remember with particular clarity.

While on the matter of critics, Arnold Bax tells of his first meeting with Elgar, who was still sore over the "Gerontius" fiasco at Birmingham in the previous autumn. "The fact is," said Elgar, "that neither the choir nor Richter knew the score." "But I thought the critics said..." Bax started to interpose - "Critics" snapped Elgar with ferocity, "My dear boy, what do the critics know about anything?"

The kind of sophisticated jesting you heard in the Tarantella was Casella's strongest suit: his wit and natural gaiety belong to the exciting days of the Diaghileff Ballet Russe, of Stravinsky and Prokofieff in the happy, jesting, ragtime 1920's. Ravel and Casella collaborated in a little known but piquant series of piano pieces "a la maniere de" ... "in the style of" - brilliant parodies on Brahms, Borodin, Chabrier, Strauss, Debussy, Ravel and others. Leonard Hall has played some of them at the Hiddingh Hall.

One may expect in this kind of work a technical and perhaps spiritual mastery of the styles of other men. A similar suite of parodies, but with composers unnamed, is the '5 pieces for string quartet’ dating from 1920: I will play you 2 of them: first "The Valse ridicule" - bottom-heavy straussian waltz rhythms: and "Foxtrot" where Casella exaggerates into absurdity the stylization of the syncopation - his observations can be very funny. Technically he carries poly-tonality over into atonality, at times interrupts harmonic sequence with downright facetious dissonances. The instrumentation is highly interesting, the harmony free and imaginative, the colour varied and vivid. These pieces, written 2 years before "Facade", may well have influenced Walton's work: which reminds me that Stravinsky (also a musical jester in the 20’s) calls "Facade" - Sir Walton's best piece."

Casella was born in Turin in 1883, studied in Paris, where he made a name for himself as a pianist, and acted as assistant piano teacher to Cortot. In 1915, he was appointed piano professor at the Santa Cecilia Conservatoire in Rome, and until his death, 17 years ago, was active in a great many ways in his own country; as composer, pianist, conductor, founder and director of the Italian I.S.C.M. and editor of the magazine "Ars Nova." When he was with us in Glasgow, he had with him a score of his comic opera "La Donna Serpente" (based on a Gossi tale) later to be produced in Rome's Theatre Reale; it was in this theatre (the La Scala of Rome) where in the late 40's, I saw a performance of Casella's ballet "La Giara".

His editions of Beethoven's Sonatas and Bach's 48 are first-rate, for he himself had a profound insight into the piano classics and his editing is masterly.

I have no recording of Casella playing any of his own music, but you can now hear him playing the pianoforte in this ensemble playing in the Pro Arte string Quartet playing the Adagio from thr Piano Quintet No.1 by Ernest Bloch recorded in 1933.

Alfredo Casella, pianoforte playing Piano Quintet No.1 by Bloch

Towards the end of the last war, when British and American forces occupied Italy as far north as Ravenna, I called on Casella at his house in Rome, near the banks of the Tiber. His wife opened the door and told me she was doubtful if her husband could see me as he had been ill, on and off, for the past two years. While waiting in the music room which was all but filled by two concert grand pianos, I noticed on one of them a large photograph of Mussolini signed by the Ducé with the inscription "To my dear, devoted and loyal friend, Alfredo Casella"; on the other piano was an equally large photograph of Roosevelt (signed by the President) and inscribed "To my dear, devoted and loyal friend, AIfredo Casella". Casella was propped up in bed, looking very pale and thin. He spoke in a low, almost inaudible voice, of his illness, of the terrible war, of his work. On a table near the bed were some volumes of classical piano music (I forget what composers) - music which he had been editing. He still had that slight air of stiffness about him - but Casella's days of heel-clicking were over - he never left his bed. I took a sad leave of him, and as his wife showed me to the door, she told me something of the great difficulties they were having in getting decent food. "Everything can be had on the Black Market, but we just can't afford it. Perhaps, Mr.Chisholm, you - through E.N.S.A - might be able to do something?" Under E.N.S.A.'s auspices, I was conducting the Anglo Polish Ballet at Rome's Argentinia Theatre so with a little influence I did manage to make up some food parcels from E.N.S.A. stores and sent them to the Casella's.

NOW TO SHOW YOU SOME SLIDES

Casella about 1912 - when he was around 40
Casella about 1912 - when he was around 40
Diaghilev's Ballet Russe
The London music publishers Chester made a feature in the 1920s, of brightening up their music pages with a jazzy quasi-Picasso cover or frontis-piece - Diaghilev's Ballet Russe. Derived from the decor of this, is the frontis-piece design by M. Lariorow for the 5 pieces for marionettes by Casella called Pupazetti
Another photo of Casella: note his smart, keen, military bearing-handkerchief just so, tie neatly tied, just the right amount of shirt showing: this is how he looked at the time of his Glasgow concert
An I.S.C.M. jury: Casella sitting at the piano - Adrian Boult just to his right: Charles Koechlin standing next to Adrian Boult, Alban Berg leaning on the piano and E.J. Dent (the founder President of the - I.S.C.M.) to his right, sitting at the table.
Casella also wrote pieces for children
Casella also wrote pieces for children: it would, however, take a pretty precocious child to play this Carillon: where the right hand plays bell tones on the black keys and the left a tune on the white keys
Lastly a picture in Venice - Casella left, Manuel de Falla centre, and Francesco Malipiero right. I still possess that roll of 9.5mm film I took at the Oxford I.S.C.M. Festival 33 years ago and sometimes, when in sentimental mood, I will take out the little Pathe-Baby projector from its stained and dusty brown box, rig up the tiny Pathe-Baby screen and as I turn the little twisted handle which sets the mechanism in action, I see - promenading across the screen - the ghosts of Dr Jehovah Hertzog, Professor E.J.Dent, Eugene Goossen and Alfredo Casella - all of them dead , dead, dead!