Paul Hindemith and Aaron Copland, two important composers of the 20th century, had very different personalities. Hindemith, a German genius who could play almost every instrument in the orchestra, was pushy and lacking in social graces, the sort of man who could walk into a party, spot a publisher, stride over and demand he should publish something by the composer. Copland, a gay man who wasn't handsome, was instead amiable and self-effacing, and could express himself without a lot of ego.
In the middle 1900s, when both men decided to simplify their composing styles, it was instructive how differently they handled it. Hindemith declared that music required an audience and the audience should be able to make music, too, to better appreciate it. Music should be composed "for use." The German term: gebrauchsmusik. It was often translated as "utility music." Copland, by contrast, said, reasonably, "I felt that it would be worth the effort to see if I couldn't say what I had to say in the simplest possible terms."
Hindemith's music gained a reputation for being arid and Copland became hugely popular, even though Copland's earlier music includes some wonderful pieces and Hindemith's music from this point forward included some of his own best stuff. Copland was a charming man with a knack for networking while Hindemith was more in-your-face. He also died younger, while Copland lived a long life and spent decades conducting his compositions around the world.
Composers' reputations are surely affected by their personal charisma or charm during their lifetimes, as well as accidents of politics, either the politics of nations or of music. Only after they are long gone and their music can be heard away from the influences of the times and the composer's own personality can fresh evaluation shed light on the music itself.
Which brings me to Alfredo Casella, who lived in Italy from 1883 to 1947. Most classical music lovers have never heard of this guy, though his music is quite interesting. His political views, and especially his political naivete, made him a pariah.
Casella's grandfather and father (and two brothers) were cellists; his mother was a pianist and so was he. Casella was a student at the Paris Conservatory, taking the same classes as Ravel and Enescu. He met and admired Debussy, Mahler and Stravinsky, all of whose influences can be heard in his own music. Casella became a conductor and at the end of the Roaring Twenties he led the Boston Pops for two years before handing it over to Arthur Fiedler. As a pianist he toured the world with an all-Italian trio. He promoted Baroque music and should get a good chunk of the credit for the Vivaldi revival that continues to this day.
During World War II, Casella stayed in Italy and was an enthusiastic supporter of Mussolini long after other artists thought better of it. Massimo Mila, an Italian critic who was Jewish and suffered for it, remembered Casella as an enthusiastic and sweet-tempered man who just didn't get it; when Mila was arrested his mother approached Casella, who reassured her that he would take care of it. Casella seemed not to fully understand the danger that his own wife, who was also Jewish, faced under the regime.
After the war, German and Italian artists played up or backdated their opposition to Hitler and Mussolini. Casella died in 1947 without much opportunity to repent. His music was dissed and dismissed and forgotten for half a century.
Things are different now. Now we know that even Stravinsky praised Mussolini at first, as did other progressive composers who later claimed otherwise. We even understand why: Mussolini thought himself an artist and a friend of the arts. Some artists believed it. Others encouraged his conceit so he wouldn't kill artists as Hitler did. Mussolini considered himself a violinist, liked the company of artists, and sometimes intervened on the side of artists, siding against sycophants who thought it was in their own interest to go after modernists because the Nazis did. So it was easy for artists who weren't too akamai politically to think either that he was a good guy or that supporting him would be good for artists still living in Italy. He wasn't a good guy, but the latter may actually have been true to an extent.
We revere the music of Wagner despite his having been a selfish amoral fellow personally. Finding out from Mila and others that Alfredo Casella was a really nice guy doesn't necessarily make his music good. But there are new recordings of his symphonies, and while they do bear powerful and obvious influences of other composers, I find his music really interesting, and full of personality. I'll play excerpts of three Casella symphonies on my public radio show Saturday morning and you'll be able to judge for yourself.
Howard's Day Off airs live 5am-7am Saturdays on KHPR Honolulu, KKUA Wailuku and KANO Hilo, and streams live on http://www.hawaiipublicradio.org . Max Cacas of Washington D.C. created the Howard's Day Off Listener Appreciation Society on Facebook.