The Kennedy Center

Elegia eroica, Op. 29

About the Work

Alfredo Casella Composer: Alfredo Casella
© Thomas May

The First World War, whose centenary commemorations began in earnest last year, generated a powerful direct literary response. The Great War obviously left its impact on composers as well - Maurice Ravel even drove trucks near the front and Alban Berg was drafted into the Austrian army - yet often this is viewed as indirect (or in some cases denied by the composer), whether in Holst's The Planets, Nielsen's Fifth Symphony, Elgar's elegiac Cello Concerto, or even Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending.

But one very direct act of musical response is found in Elegia eroica ("Heroic Elegy") of 1916 by Alfredo Casella (1883-1947). Born in Turin into a family of musicians (his father was a cellist, his mother a pianist), Casella was already in his thirties and had been living in Paris for almost two decades when war broke out. In fact he had been a student at the Paris Conservatoire (under Fauré's tutelage) at the same time Ravel, who got booted out, was there. In 1915 Casella returned to his native Italy and composed Elegia eroica as a musical memorial. Unlike, say, Ravel's Le tombeau de Couperin, which pays tribute to specific friends killed in the war, Casella's single-movement work is dedicated to "the memory of a soldier killed in war" (as he inscribes it in the score).

That phrasing, along with the adjective "eroica," cannot fail to evoke associations with that greatest of funeral marches from early in the nineteenth century: the slow movement of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, "composed to celebrate the memory of a great man." Unfortunately, Casella's passionate nationalism led him, like quite a few other artists of his generation, to become supporters of Mussolini. This association tarnished his reputation in the post-World War Two era.

In fact most music lovers today have heard of Casella in connection with his efforts spearheading the rediscovery of Vivaldi. Yet he was a remarkably erudite and productive composer as well, focusing on instrumental music; only a few stage works are in his catalogue. A profile of Casella by one Guido M. Gatti from the January 1920 issue of The Musical Quarterly proclaims him to represent "a new voice, one as yet not raised in modern art." Patti reports that the composer experienced "the first lightnings" of the war in Paris and "saw the flood of Belgian and French refugees bring consternation to the metropolis..."

Despite the old-fashioned rhetoric of war and heroism implied by its title, Elegia eroica - which the National Symphony is introducing to its repertory for the first time in these concerts - speaks a musical language of harrowing tragedy and devastation. Indeed, the premiere in Rome in 1917 triggered a negative reaction from the audience. "I returned home that night with a sense of loneliness greater than I have ever felt, before or since," recalled the composer. 

Lasting just a little over a quarter hour, Elegia eroica deploys a mammoth, Mahler-size orchestra, and Mahler indeed numbers among Casella's more obvious points of reference, along with Richard Strauss and the Stravinsky of The Rite of Spring. (In his Paris years Casella had gotten to know the Russian.)  Six horns declaim a weighty motto of four-descending notes at the start, setting in train an anguished processional which is soon overlaid with urgent, expressionist gestures from other sections of the orchestra. Casella makes much use of dramatic pauses, exploring the motto from different  angles and with different textures (notice how the Stravinskian bassoons introduce a darker, ruminative aspect).

A passage marked "dolcissimo misterioso" for strings and woodwinds leads into a series of varied sighing gestures that demonstrate Casella's painterly skill. Following an eloquently grieving oboe solo, the relentless processional returns and is worked up into an even greater state of agitation that reaches a chilling climax. The quieter woodwind music now assumes the form of a calming berceuse whose lilting lullaby rhythm and sweet melody are juxtaposed against disturbing countervoices, with the motto restated in nightmarish harmonies. From this material Casella fashions the haunting final minutes of the elegy, its emotional turmoil coming to rest in a state of numb, frozen grief.