Composer  Romeo  Cascarino

A  Conversation  With  Bruce  Duffie

Having started out playing bassoon, I was always keen on recordings featuring my instrument.  So when I ran across a Columbia disc that had a sonata by Romeo Cascarino, I played it on WNIB.  The notes on the back of the jacket (remember those???) told how Sol Schoenbach asked his army-buddy to write him a piece in 1942.  Cascarino made sketches then, and finished it after being discharged.  Schoenbach later became First Bassoon of the Philadelphia Orchestra and recorded the work as part of Columbia's valuable Modern American Music Series.

Naturally, I also set out to find the composer for an interview.  In those days before e-mail, this was a decidedly more difficult task, but we managed to make contact and arrange for a phone conversation.  Besides the item for bassoon, there were only a set of songs and a ballet on records, but it was enough to do a program.  I'm very happy to say that now, in 2007, Naxos has released a CD of several orchestral works on their American Classics series, and his opera is available from the website listed in the interview.

When I rang his phone in 1988, he seemed a bit flattered that I would seek him out to feature on radio in Chicago, and he was very thoughtful about his responses to my questions.  As we started out, we were chatting about his recordings and noted that Pygmalion was on one side of an LP with a suite from Swan Lake on the other . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:  Would you rather have your music coupled with a big major work like that or with another contemporary work, or perhaps with another work of yours?

Romeo Cascarino:  You mean on recordings?

BD:  Both on recordings and in concert.

RC:  [Thinks for a moment]  I really don't have any preference in that way.  There is even the question of, you know, what is contemporary?  Do we all fit into one category?  From that standpoint I really don't care.  As a matter of fact, maybe it's good to have works from a different period.

BD:  You're talking about contemporary music, and it's very interesting because, at least the music of yours that I've heard, you have stuck mostly to a very tonal idiom.

RC:  That's right!

BD:  Is this a conscious effort on your part, or is this just the way you had to write music?

RC:  What drew me to music, at least when it began to express itself when I was nine, was the fact that it was enormously beautiful to me.  [Chuckles]  All my life I wanted to write beautiful music!  This was always my aim, and it was always the challenge.  So therefore no amount of theory or "-isms" or anything else ever swayed me one way or the other, because paramount was always the question of writing beautiful music!  And this has never changed with me.  So I hope what I write is beautiful music!  At least this is what I feel it is.

BD:  Obviously when you write something, you feel it is beautiful.

RC:  Yes!

BD:  Are there other composers, old and new, that write music that you feel is beautiful?

RC:  Yeah.  For instance there are works of Vaughan Williams.  There are works of another composer by the name of Paul Nordoff.  [See more about him below.]  These men have written gorgeous things.  I could go down a whole list...

BD:  Well, I'm not looking for a list of names, but I'm would like to ascertain how you feel about other composers' works, since you seem to be in the minority.  I'm glad that you write tonal music.  It's wonderful and very refreshing.

RC:  Yeah?  That's the way I feel about it.  When I hear so much of the music written by rote, so to speak, in this idiom, that idiom...  I just know how the composers write because I've also been teaching for a good many years.  So many of these people have come to me as pupils and they have gone through the writing by rote.  The point is that I began to realize that so many of them really had no talent for writing, but, they were able to write orthodox compositions in these various styles because there's a formula.

BD:  Is that, then, music, or is that just technique?

RC:  That's the point.  For me it was always a question that technique was not something that comes before.  It's something that is looked at after the fact.  It's not something you apply.  It's not a question of making shoes or making a suit.  It's always after the fact.  A great masterpiece is a great masterpiece not because a technique was used.  But a technique can be found...  well, that is not completely true, either.  A technique is not found, but an analysis can be applied.  For instance, when I've analyzed La Mer of Debussy, after I'd gone through a really detailed explanation of not only the music but the orchestration, and all this, then I feel as though I've absolutely nothing.  I tell the pupils, "Don't think that my analysis is La Mer.  It isn't!"  And that's the crux of it.  No technique, and no explanation will ever get close to the actual selectivity, the unconscious selectivity, that the artist himself went through.  Puccini could not ever duplicate La Bohème just as Debussy could not duplicate La Mer.  These are works that... well, it's an alchemy!  How else can you explain a masterpiece other than the fact that it's an alchemy?

BD:  But other pieces from the pen of the same composer will be similar in many ways.

RC:  It may be similar, but take Puccini again.  You may say that there's a similarity, but, my God, when you think that he creates one world in La Bohème, and he creates quite a different world in Tosca, and then quite a different world in Madame Butterfly.  Even the orchestration is different.  This is really a question of inspiration rather than technique.  Technique and material is a dead end.  It takes inspiration.  I know it's a bad word these days, but the fact is that all greatly inspired music in the past has really given rise to the great masterpieces!  This I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt.

BD:  You don't need to list a specific name, or a specific piece, but are there masterpieces being written today?

RC:  I don't know, but within the past 50 years, I think there have been, yes.

BD:  So then you're optimistic about the whole future of music.

RC:  Well, I'm not optimistic about the future of serious music.   This is quite another story now.  Rock and roll really seems to be the music of the world today.  And the fact is that serious composers have a very, very bad time of it regardless of what their particular style is.  We all have it very, very hard, and form that standpoint, the future of music, to me, is very doubtful.  I think that we've entered the world of pure, absolute rank commercialism, and I'm not very optimistic that way.  However, having said that, I don't think that great talents will ever stop being born!

BD:  Do you feel that serious music is going to die?

RC:  [Thinks for a moment]  I certainly hope not.  I certainly hope not, but when you look at the music that's played in the concert hall today, it really represents music of another century.  I'm not defending any one idiom but I'm just talking about in general, whether it's tonal or supposedly atonal, the fact is that music written today is not performed.  You may get one performance and that's the end of it!  I'm really not hopeful or optimistic about the future of serious music - not only in this country, but the world.  But, like I say, composers will be born, and, by hook or crook, they're going to express themselves, and...  I think Vaughan Williams said that if he never had a performance, he'd still be pleased that he would've written music!

BD:  So you're pleased that you've written your music.

RC:  Oh, yeah.  Definitely.  I, personally, have no regrets.  If I had to do it all over again, I would do it all over again.

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BD:  You spent your lifetime teaching and composing.  Did you get enough time to compose?

RC:  [Thinks for a moment]  I had to make the time, you know?  And there were times when one had to give way to the other.  For instance, my opera William Penn took a period of 20 years!  Now, of course, this is a long time, but the fact is that unless I wrote my ideal music, it would not be finished!  That's all.  So it became a labor of love, and if it took me all my life, and if it went beyond my life, that was all right with me too...  [Note: A recording of the premiere of this opera has just been released.  For more information, visit  this site .  Some of that material and excerpts from reviews are at the end of this interview.]

BD:  Are you pleased with the way it turned out?

RC:  Oh, yes, very definitely.

BD:  Is it the only opera you have written?

RC:  Yes, yes.

BD:  Is there anything that would coax you to write another opera?

RC:  Well, right at this point, no.  It's just that the figure of William Penn intrigued me from the time I was a child, and being here in Philadelphia, and seeing his statue every day helped.  [Chuckles.]

BD:  Is this something that only people from Pennsylvania can appreciate, or is it an opera for the world?

RC:  No, I think it's an opera for the world, because a lot of people don't know that the writings of Penn really laid the basis for the Constitution of the United States.  Jefferson was a great admirer of Penn, so many of his thoughts are in the Constitution.  He was not only a great spiritual leader, but he had this whole conception of fairness and humanity to mankind and so forth.  Now it just so happened he led the Quakers here, and it's only because the King of England owed his father money and he couldn't pay him, so he gave William Penn this land.  Pennsylvania's named not after William Penn, but after Admiral Penn, who was Penn's father.

BD:  If your opera is done abroad, do you want it to be translated, or would you rather use the supertitles?

RC:  No; I wouldn't want it to be translated, because just as Italian opera was born with the Italian language, I feel that anyone writing with the English language must be sensitive enough to the language that the music that emanates from it must come from the language.  I think that much is destroyed in translation.  Although the meaning may be clear, there is something that is dead.  I've read e. e. cummings in Italian, and it's horrible!  [Laughter]  It's not Cummings!

BD:  It's not even close.

RC:  No, not even close!  Sometimes the meaning is there, but, my God, the whole expression, the aura that makes Cummings so individual, the whole thing is gone.  So translation really is a very dangerous thing. But, however, I've Butterfly done in French, and although I've always known it since childhood in Italian, it didn't bother me as much.  But then I think it's because there's a kind of similarity coming from Latin, being Romance language.

BD:  You've also written some songs, so tell me the joys and sorrows of writing for the human voice.

RC:  [Thinks for a moment]  I can tell you not so much the question of the human voice, but what I feel about writing in English.  I feel that what is very important is to set it so that the words are understood.  Sometimes when the tessitura is too high, especially in English, you can't make out what the words are.  I think that high notes should be for a climax, the top of a line where the word will be understood.  But I believe, in any case, that the word is very important, and that's why I say that this is going to affect how the music is born.  Therefore I think of it from a composer's standpoint rather than the question of the voice itself.  Except I've found that when singers sing music that is this way, that has this kind of a sensitivity to the word, that there is not much problem understanding what they're saying.  The problem constantly comes when either the tessitura constantly is too low or it's too high.

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BD:  On these recordings, you are the pianist.  Are you the ideal interpreter of your music?

RC:  There have been other people who have played my accompaniments, but all the singers seem to prefer my accompanying.  Sol Schoenbach certainly prefers me on the Bassoon Sonata.    It's something that I hesitate to have to say for myself, but this seems to be the consensus.

BD:  Do you also play music of other composers?

RC:  As a matter of fact, I rarely do.  I really was at my own service, so to speak.  My pianistic ability came really from playing my own music.  I did a lot of accompanying, but I never trained myself as a concert pianist.

    [Photo at right: Cascarino at age fifteen]

BD:  I was just wondering, when you played music of other composers, if you looked at it differently from just a pianist, because you yourself are also a composer?

RC:  [Without hesitation]  Oh, yeah, absolutely.  I can't think of music from an instrumental standpoint.  It's always from the composer's standpoint, yes.

BD:  Coming back to the teaching, what advice do you have for young composers coming along today?

RC:  The advice I can give them, as an old composer, is stick to your guns--if you have any guns.  I always say to them, "Always remember why you became a musician.  Think... why are you sacrificing your life?  You can go into something where you can make more money."  The point is, if you're willing to sacrifice your life for something that you think is so beautiful and that you're willing to sacrifice your life for, then don't ever betray that.  Don't join bandwagons.  Don't go for this '-ism', or this technique, or anything else.  Keep that one thing in your mind, whatever constitutes your ideal music, that aim, stick to your guns, regardless!

BD:  Did you ever feel that you were sacrificing your life to your music?

RC:  I know that sacrifices have been made on a personal level, yes.  I know that there were sacrifices, not that I would've done it any differently.  I'm willing to sacrifice.  If I had to do it all over again, I would do the same things.  Oh, absolutely!  In other words, the sacrifice was worth it.  Yeah!  What I'm trying to say is to remain faithful to the ideal.  Of course, if there's no ideal, then count to twelve, or whatever they tell you to count, and become another prisoner.  [Laughter]

BD:  You taught for over 35 years.  How did students change over that time?

RC:  They became more and more self-conscious.  They became more aware that serialism is being used, graph paper is being used.  They were being intimidated into thinking that somehow they weren't part of the mainstream, and this is a tragedy, as far as I'm concerned, because what this does is intimidate very talented people into compromising.  They become fence-straddlers.  In order to be accepted one way, and they straddle the fence, and they figure they'll do this, they'll play along, and so forth.  But the fact is that when they come right down to it, they're never satisfied, and they know they've compromised.  This is the point.

BD:  Have students always been this way, or have they changed over the years?  The student of 1950 is certainly going to be different than the student of 1970 and 1980.

RC:  That's right.  The students in 1950 were not quite as intimidated.  This kept happening as we entered the '70s and '80s.  They became more and more and more this way.  One of the reasons is because many of the "-isms" became entrenched into the colleges, and universities.  Not that it was ever a part of the concert hall.  A lot of these composers felt that they needed degrees, and so they felt intimidated.  They felt that if they went to these prestigious halls of learning, that somehow or other they had to join the ranks of these people that espoused the various "-isms."  Therefore, they were intimidated.  It's a terrible situation to be in.  Nobody likes to be isolated.  Everybody wants to belong.  It just seems to be that kind of thing, and it takes a helluva lotta courage to stand ground!  And not just to stand ground, but to stand ground because you really believe in what you stand for.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Have you basically been pleased with the performances you've heard of your music over the years?

RC:  Have I been pleased?  [Chuckles] No, never!

BD:  [Surprised]  You're never pleased?

RC:  No.  The reason I say this is because when something is performed, very little time is given to the rehearsal.  Usually an orchestra will spend a lot of time on a standard work that they know by heart and in their sleep.  Then they rush through the rehearsal of a new piece.  So the consequence is that I always call it the white knuckle job.  That's when you sit at the rehearsal and you clench your fists, so that your knuckles become white from tension.  [Chuckles]  If the music is good, most of the time the music will survive the performance.  [Laughs]

BD:  In spite of the performers?

RC:  In spite of the performance.

BD:  There are the three commercial recordings so far.  Are you pleased with those?

RC:  [Thinks for a moment, then says, not overly enthusiastically]  Oh yeah.  Of course, I was in control of two of them - the Bassoon Sonata and the Eight Songs.  I was not in control of the Pygmalion.  The thing I can say about there is that the notes were there.  There were a few clinkers, but the kind of thing that only I would know.  It was a pretty straightforward rendition, but the conductor really didn't pay that much attention to my ritardandi, my accelerandi, and so forth.  But given the fact that the rehearsal time may have been something like 90 minutes, all I can do is take my hat off to those performers because it's a tough score!  It's not an easy piece.

BD:  Did you write it to be tough?

RC:  Oh, God, no.  Oh, no.  [Laughs]  The music has to evolve itself.  If it turns out to be tough, it's one thing.  If it turns out to be easy, then it's easy, that's all.  The criterion is always beauty and what you're trying to express.  The complication happens to be something that comes with the inspiration itself.

BD:  Well, when you're writing a piece of music, are you always in control of the pencil, or are there times when the pencil is controlling you?

RC:  [Jumping right onto the question]  I know exactly what you're talking about.  A composer who has felt this knows what I mean when I say "inspiration" because many times you can struggle and things are not working, and then all of a sudden you know.  You could be looking at a blank page for months, and then all of a sudden something begins to happen.  Well, how did it happen?  Obviously it's working in the unconscious!  But the fact is that there's a certain inevitability that's happening.  That's what I call unconscious selection rather than the conscious selection, which means nothing.  But the unconscious selection is really where the artist really shows himself.

BD:  Do you ever go back and revise your scores?

RC:  [Thinks for a moment]  No.  There's always a big danger even if a composer thinks that maybe something will be better later.  I always get the impression that, if something is revised, somehow, something of the spontaneity may be destroyed.  Each example would have to be evaluated, on its own terms, but generally speaking, I'm a little wary of this type of thing.  You can think yourself into it, but you end up spoiling the music.

BD:  Were many of the pieces that you wrote on commission, or were they things that you just simply had to write?

RC:  Some of them were commissioned, but I always give the same advice to the ones that commission me:  "Don't give me a deadline, because I will not write to finish it for the deadline.  If I'm not satisfied with the music, or if that music doesn't say it to me, then I will not finish it on time."  Commissioned works, to me, are always suspect.  How can you finally make it and put that double bar unless you're completely satisfied with it, I mean honestly satisfied with it.  Not that it works...  That it works doesn't necessarily mean anything but that it's completely inevitable, and you feel it's inevitable.  How can you determine this, when, by June 5 you have to have it?
BD:  Then how do you know when to put that double bar in?  How do you know when it's actually finished and ready to be launched?

RC:  You know when you're composing, by intuition.  You always know what you don't want.  How do you know when you've written and put down what you do want?  Because all the bells start ringing within you, and you know you've got it.  But like I say, there's no way that you can objectively know.  That's why I say it's such an intuitive thing.  There's a rightness about it where you feel like you can't change one note.

BD:  What do you expect of the audience that comes to hear a piece of your music?

RC:  Well, I don't know.  Even when I was a young boy the question always came up, and I always thought, "What does an audience hear?"  If I had one wish, I would like to have the collective ears of an audience, to know exactly what they're hearing.  I really can't tell, because how can I know?  I can only know how I hear music.  Of course I hope that they're going to hear what I hear, if not with the detailed hearing that I have, at least if they hear the beauty of it, if that comes across, then I'm very happy.

BD:  In music, where is the balance between the artistic achievement and an entertainment value?

RC:  If we get into the question of where does entertainment stop and art begin, the only thing I can think of is that I don't know if we can really make that sharp a division.  For instance, you take the great pop tunes of the '40s, and you figure how they have lived all these years, and what they have meant to the people that lived through that time, and even what it means to a lot of the young people who are listening to that music and still responding to it.  Now that's entertainment!  But by the same token, there's a certain art involved there.  It's not a question of craft; let's forget about that.  But the fact is, those things are beautiful!  This is what I'm getting at.  In other words, it's still the question of beauty which really is the paramount thing.  So a work of art lives because of its beauty, just as a pop tune lives because of its beauty.  And the entertainment value, that is embodied when I'm entertained, which is when I'm in the presence of beauty.  That's the way I feel about it.

BD:  What do you feel is the real purpose of music in society?

RC:  Well, first of all, unlike just entertainment, I think the question of exultation is the most important thing.  Art is a question of expressing beauty, because ugliness is out there!  No one has to show us this.  It's ugly!  The point is that art uplifts us.  There is no question about this; it's done this throughout the ages.  Now people want to think that this is a highly romantic idea.  Well, they can call it whatever they want, but the fact is that it is an uplifting thing.  You might want to make subdivisions, but regardless of how you want to divide this, the fact is that the most important thing is the human element.  After all, the fact is it's the human being that can create the beauty, so therefore, this is his greatest accomplishment.

BD:  Do you find composing fun?

RC:  [Laughs riotously]  Well, no, composing is not fun.  Remember the name of that book about Michelangelo?  The Agony and the Ecstasy.  [The biographical novel written by Irving Stone in 1961.]  I think that very well explains the process of writing music.  Ravel said he loved to orchestrate, but he hated to compose.  "Composing was like tearing my insides out," he used to say.  This is certainly what a real composer goes through.  Waiting for the right notes to come is one of the most frustrating things in the world!  And waiting for the rightness of it all, it's not fun, no.  But the fact is that the end result is the ecstasy.  There's no question about it.  So it's worth every bit of the agony.

BD:  So despite poor performances, it still is ecstasy in the end.

RC:  Yes, right.  Exactly.

Susan Schary, a painter now living in Philadelphia, knew Romeo for many years.
After his death, Dolores (Romeo's widow) asked her to do this portrait in 2004.

BD:  I assume that you're still composing?

RC:  Oh, yes, sure.

BD:  What are you working on now?

RC:  At this point I'm looking at more poetry.  I may start writing another group of songs.

BD:  The songs that are on this Orion record, are they a group, or are they just selected songs?

RC:  Well, they were really selected songs that I put together.  I wrote the music when I was 16.  I put them together and called them Pathways of Love.  Although it's not a cycle as such, when I wrote them I was feeling that they all have something to do with love.  Now they're called Eight Songs.

BD:  Are you continuing to teach?

RC:  I still teach at the Combs College.  Not every day, but two days a week.  And there are people who study privately with me, so I continue to do that.

BD:  Amongst all of your pupils over the years, are there any that have become well known names?

RC:  I don't know if they're well known names, but there are many in the field that have studied with me.  Some are now jazz arrangers, and they're all working and known in the field.  It's wonderful because I get phone calls from all over the country from former pupils that keep in contact with me, and so this is a satisfaction, too.

BD:  Thank you so much for allowing me to chat with you.  It has been a wonderful pleasure.

RC:  Well, I certainly appreciate your calling and it was enjoyable for me, too, to be able to express my thoughts to you.

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Romeo  Cascarino

(Sept. 22, 1922 - January 8, 2002)

Romeo Cascarino was an accomplished composer, fine pianist and conductor as well as teacher. In acknowledgment of his achievements, he was the recipient of two Guggenheim Fellowships in Composition, the Benjamin Award for Tranquil Music, and the Orpheus Award. He received an honorary doctorate from Combs College of Music where he served as chair of the Composition Department and was Composer in Residence for many years.

Cascarino composed orchestral works, ballets, chamber music, pieces for chorus, piano, voice and a three-act opera William Penn. His works have been played by orchestras in the United States and abroad including the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New Orleans Philharmonic, the Royal Philharmonic of London and the Nord Deutches Symphony. His ballets Pygmalion and Prospice were mounted in Philadelphia and New York.

The music of Romeo Cascarino espouses no particular “School” of composition, he maintained that art tends itself to the good of mankind and that this transcendent end is beauty. 


As a boy, Romeo loved to visit the Edgar Allan Poe House at 7th and
Spring Garden Streets in Philadelphia.  The curator was so taken by
the youngster's repeated visits and his fascination with Poe, that she
used to let him in without paying the entrance fee, which he probably
couldn't afford at the time.  His Meditation and Elegy, written as
piano pieces in his teens and later scored for string orchestra, were
inspired by Poe and the poem Annabel Lee.
A little added fact: the raven in the picture was sculpted by a
cousin of Romeo's, David Caccia.  They weren't in close contact
as adults so neither knew of the other's interest in Poe.

[Photo above taken at the Poe House in 1980]

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The composition of William Penn spanned 25 years, as Philadelphia composer Romeo Cascarino took the time to fulfill his vision without any reassurance that the work would ever be performed. As a young boy growing up in South Philadelphia, Cascarino was moved by a plaque which hangs on the north quadrant of Philadelphia's City Hall. It prominently displays William Penn's Prayer for Philadelphia, found among his writings. It began a life-long fascination with Penn, who founded and designed the city, named the state for his father, Admiral William Penn, and forged the treaty with the Indians during two short American visits 19 years apart. 

In 1950, Cascarino set the Prayer as a choral work for the Singing City Chorale. He soon discovered the text of the Indian Treaty, and set that to music as well. Eventually, the concept of an opera emerged, and he asked poet Peggy Gwynn to create a working libretto using many of Penn's texts from writings and letters. During the composition of other pieces and the teaching of composition and orchestration at Philadelphia's Combs College of Music, he continually worked on the opera. 

The world premiere of William Penn took place at Philadelphia's Academy of Music on October 24 and 29, 1982. It formed the final evening of the summer-long Century IV Celebration, which honored the 300th anniversary of the city's founding as depicted in the opera's final act. 

Through a stroke of good fortune, the Metropolitan Opera bass-baritone John Cheek was available, and willing to learn this demanding title role. It was agreed that Christofer Macatsoris, music director of Philadelphia's Academy of Vocal Arts, would conduct, and the late Dino Yannopoulos, then the Academy's artistic director, would stage the work. In addition, the smaller roles in the opera would be sung by AVA's resident artists. 

No singer could have known every nuance of the music more than Dolores Ferraro, wife of the composer, who was cast in the role of Penn's wife Gulielma. The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia (called the Concerto Soloists of Philadelphia at that time) was enlarged from 16 to 60 players. The Philadelphia Singers, a professional ensemble which also performed as the Opera Company of Philadelphia chorus, were engaged under the direction of its founder, the late Michael Korn. Members of the Thomas Jefferson University Chorus were also enlisted for two scenes, thanks to its director Dr. Robert Thayer Sataloff, who had received a Doctorate of music while studying with Cascarino at Combs. 

Yannopoulos suggested the Swiss designer Toni Businger to create the elaborate sets, built by Adirondack Scenic, and the costumes, built by Malabar in Toronto, Canada. The Academy of Music's unusual shape, with a slightly raked stage, made it difficult to accommodate the five extremely large sets, and necessitated a huge stage crew.

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Cascarino has created an opera of great dramatic sweep, filled with soaring melody and epic choral scenes. The beauty of his music finds reflection in the masterful production. Conductor Christofer Macatsoris leads a compelling performance, drawing strong playing from his orchestra, the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, and his chorus, the Philadelphia Singers and the Thomas Jefferson University Choir. A cast headed by John Cheek lends vocal stature to the performance. 

Cascarino writes music that is finely crafted and beautifully scored. He is not afraid of melody, and perhaps the most notable thing about William Penn is the wealth of glowing melodies that he has strewn throughout the score. Although it is his first opera, Cascarino displays a commanding mastery of the idiom. He composes arias that soar into melodic flight, monologs that contain powerful declamation. He also writes glowing orchestral interludes and choral scenes that convey varied moods, and the production brings this wonderful opera to compelling life. 

--Robert Baxter, Camden Courier-Post 

This opera is a fascinating work for many reasons, mostly because it's completely tonal in the most lyric and singable way. It's easy to hear traces and influences of Puccini, Delius and Copland and, fortunately, the composer has managed to transform them into a language that's both his own and completely convincing. 

The musical texture of William Penn unfolds flawlessly, and there's never a moment of insecurity in the opera. Cascarino know precisely what he wanted during the 25 years of its composition, and he delineated his desires with masterful precision. The melodic contour, the harmonic foundation and the delicate orchestration are the work of a true lyric composer. 

This was the most lavish operatic production here since the Metropolitan Opera stopped coming to Philadelphia in the 1950s. 

--Michael Caruso, News of Delaware County 

Homage was paid last night to a historic and a musical Philadelphian. The honoree-in-absentia was William Penn, 338 years old this month. The second dignitary was Romeo Cascarino, who watched his opera "William Penn" unfold in full regalia for the first time. After nearly 25 years in creation, it was undeniably the moment supreme of a lifetime. 

Cascarino's score is rich and gentle, appropriately somber when required and intensified with stabs of great passion. The choral pieces are exquisite, notably Penn's Prayer for Philadelphia and the setting for the text of the Indian Treaty. The choral work itself was exemplary. 

Toni Businger's settings and costumes added immensely to the visual richness of the production. The warm and affirmative audience was unstinting in its demand for curtain calls. Eventually, composer Cascarino came out hand-in-hand with the singers and conductor, receiving a standing ovation. 

--Nels Nelson, Philadelphia Daily News 

Cascarino's stirring operatic achievement marks a highlight in the performing arts of the city, highlighted by superb performances by baritone John Cheek, who breathes life into the character of Penn, and soprano Dolores Ferraro. 

--Bill Davis, Chestnut Hill Local 

Romeo Cascarino's opera William Penn is a sincere, honest and painstaking work with a great deal of melodic and listenable music, and you cannot help but be moved by the care and professionalism of the score. 

Cascarino, who labored on the work for nearly 25 years until finally satisfied, is a composer who follows his own voice and does not care about current trends. John Cheek's beautiful and sonorous bass made Penn into a figure of force and dignity. The William Penn of the opera is an assured man you can believe in, a man whose faith is his life. 

--Bill Nazzaro, Bucks County Courier Times 

Romeo Cascarino set out on the ultimate course of madness for a composer-writing an opera without any definite prospect of a performance. The Welcome shipboard scene is a virtuoso work in itself, with music that runs the gamut of human emotions, from fear to mockery to hope to triumph: a marvelous achievement. The final scene, based on Penn's own settings, are stirring texts, stirringly set. 

The production was splendid. The costumes were eye-pleasing and appropriate; his set designs were imposing (the Welcome, with its great mast and yardarms, is one of the greatest stage sets I've ever seen). The end of the Treaty scene seemed to take place in the same autumn light of the famous painting of the event. 

John Cheek was a physically and musically imposing figure as Penn. As the man who is called upon to bring just order from chaos in nearly every scene, he had to be. Dolores Ferraro sang Gulielma with beauty and emotion. Christofer Macatsoris, conducting the expanded Concerto Soloists of Philadelphia in the pit, was in complete control over the proceedings. Certainly other performing groups will be moved to take up the challenge of Cascarino's life work. 

--Sol Louis Siegel, ElectriCity 


Sgt. Cascarino leading an Army ensemble duirng World War II


Paul  Nordoff
Since Cascarino cites him as a composer of particularly beautiful music, a brief biography (from Grove) seems in order . . .

Paul Nordoff was an American composer and music therapist, (b. Philadelphia, 4 June 1909; d. Herdecke, North Rhine-Westphalia, 18 Jan 1977).  He studied the piano with Samaroff at the Philadelphia Conservatory (BM 1927, MM 1932) and composition with Goldmark at the Juilliard School. In 1960 he received the degree of Bachelor of Music Therapy from Combs College. [Note:  Cascarino taught at the now-defunct Combs College of Music as well, and Vincent Persichetti studied there at the age of 5.] He was head of composition at the Philadelphia Conservatory (1938–43), a teacher at Michigan State College (1945–9) and professor of music at Bard College (1948–59). Among the awards he received were two Guggenheim Fellowships (1933, 1935) and a Pulitzer Music Scholarship. Nordorff was a crusader for the newer trends in contemporary music, but his own style remained tonal, consonant and lyrically Romantic. Until 1959 he was a ‘conventional’ composer; thereafter he devoted his attention to music therapy for handicapped children, a discipline whose theory and practice he established in the USA.

Stage: Mr Fortune (op, after S.T. Warner), 1936–7, rev. 1956–7; Every Soul is a Circus (ballet), 1937; The Masterpiece (operetta, 1, F. Brewer), 1940; Philadelphia, 1941; Salem Shore (ballet), 1943; Tally Ho (ballet), 1943; The Sea Change (op, Warner), 1951 
Orch: Prelude and 3 Fugues, chbr orch, 1932–6; Pf Conc., 1935; Suite, 1938; Conc., vn, pf, orch, 1948; Vn Conc., 1949; The Frog Prince (H. Pusch, Nordoff), nar, orch, 1954; Winter Sym., 1954; Spring Sym., 1956; Gothic Conc., pf, orch, 1959 
Vocal: Secular Mass (W. Prude), chorus, orch, 1934; 34 songs (e.e. cummings), 1942–57; Lost Summer (Warner), Mez, orch, 1949; Anthony's Song Book (Nordoff), 1950; other songs and song cycles, choral pieces 
Other inst: Pf Qnt, 1936; Qnt, wind, pf, 1948; Sonata, vn, pf, 1950; Sonata, fl, pf, 1953; pf pieces 
Many works for handicapped children 
MSS in private collection, Philadelphia, and US-SPma 
Principal publishers: Associated, Fischer, Presser, G. Schirmer 

all in collaboration with C. Robbins:
*Music Therapy for Handicapped Children: Investigations and Experience (New York, 1965)
*Music Therapy in Special Education (New York, 1971)
*Therapy in Music for Handicapped Children (New York, 1971)
*Creative Music Therapy: Individualized Treatment for the Handicapped Child (New York, 1977)

R. Friedberg: American Artsong and American Poetry, ii (Lanham, MD, 1984)]

*     *     *     *     *

The following is part of an e-mail from Dolores, one of several we exchanged in preparing this interview for presentation on this website . . .

Romeo loved Paul.  Romeo was 16 when he met Paul Norfoff and brought him the compositions he had written. Paul ran around the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music screaming, "I've discovered a genius".  He insisted Romeo be given a scholarship, then asked him to "write some songs over the summer".  These turned out to be seven of the eight songs comprising the song cycle, later named by Romeo, Pathways of Love.  (An eighth one was written in 1957). Paul cried when he heard one of them, I Would Live in Your Love and said that he had written many songs but none greater than this one.  From then on, even though he was technically his teacher at the conservatory, Paul left Romeo completely on his own.  It was never the usual teacher-student relationship.  The two became very close friends and colleagues, especially as Romeo got older.  Whenever Romeo wrote anything, he couldn't wait to show it to Paul and vice -versa.  Later, Romeo orchestrated something of Paul's; I believe it was a ballet written for Martha Graham.  Romeo would list Paul as his teacher because he did attend the conservatory under him and he had the greatest respect for Paul.  Romeo thought Paul's Winter Symphony was a masterpiece, his opera The Sea Change was quite beautiful, and so many of his songs were gems.  He felt Paul was a real genius and was disheartened that he never received his due as the great composer he was.  Nordoff, in his later years, became a highly regarded, creative Music Therapist, contributing greatly to that field. 


© 1988 Bruce Duffie
The photos are from the collection of Dolores Ferraro Cascarino, the composer's widow.

This interview was recorded on the telephone on May 28, 1988.  Portions were used (along with recordings) on WNIB in 1992 and 1997.  This transcription was made in 2007 and posted on this website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.