Alfredo Casella was an outstanding if uneven composer who led several of his contemporaries -- Respighi, Malipiero, Pizzetti, and others -- in a struggle to modernize Italian music.
His interests as a composer and as an author of articles on music were highly cosmopolitan, as may be gathered from his early enthusiasms for Debussy, the Russian nationalists, Strauss, Bartók, and Schoenberg. Yet Casella was also intensely inspired by Italian culture, both its folkways and its Futurism movement.
His formal studies began in 1896 at the Paris Conservatory, under Fauré; he won first prize in piano in 1899, and soon was touring Europe and Russia as a pianist. He also began accepting guest-conducting stints in the early years of the century, a pursuit that would greatly occupy his time after World War I. But before the war the piano was his primary pastime, especially while he served as a keyboard instructor at the Paris Conservatory from 1912 to 1915. He spent most of the war back in Rome, succeeding Sgambati as piano professor at the Santa Cecilia Academy. In 1917 he founded the short-lived Società Nazionale di Musica, which produced controversial concerts of modern Italian and foreign music. Meanwhile, Casella was also one of the figures -- again, including Respighi -- pushing for a revival of Renaissance and Baroque Italian music. Beyond this, he published valuable editions of the keyboard works of J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin.
Casella spent a great deal of his time in the 1920s as a guest conductor in the United States, appearing with orchestras in Chicago, Detroit, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Los Angeles; his American debut in 1921 with the Philadelphia Orchestra showcased his talents as conductor, composer, and pianist. Casella conducted the Boston Pops from 1927 to 1929, but his advocacy of modern music annoyed the public. Nevertheless, his efforts on behalf of contemporary music (including his own works) were recognized with a substantial prize from the Musical Fund Society in Philadelphia in 1928, and with the Coolidge Prize in 1934.
In 1938, Casella made the dubious decision to return to Fascist Italy, and he remained in his homeland until his death. He seems to have been one of those naive Fascists who welcomed many of the movement's reforms without understanding their full implications. His opera Il Deserto tentato praised Mussolini's Ethiopian campaign, yet Casella was married to a French Jew and promulgated the music of the "degenerate" Jewish modernist Schoenberg.
As for his own compositions, the early works, particularly his first two symphonies (1905 and 1909), were extremely modernistic for their time; that is, they were influenced by Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler (Casella even transcribed the latter's Seventh Symphony for piano, four hands). But Casella eventually settled into an energetic, spiky neo-Classicism owing much to Stravinsky and something to Ravel. This more personal style became evident with his 1924 ballet La Giara. Ironically, Casella is now remembered less for his original works than for a couple of brilliant pastiches of earlier composers' pieces: Scarlattiana for piano and orchestra, and the vibrant Paganiniana for orchestra. The true breadth of his range and interests is evident from three works, one from each phase of his career: Italia, a 1910 orchestral rhapsody based on Italian folk tunes; the neo-Classical 1925 Partita for Piano and Orchestra; and the quasi-serialist 1944 Missa solemnis pro pace.