Bel Canto Cellists: Cesare A. Casella pere et fils
Updated: Oct 31, 2021
A second-generation member of an Italian cello-playing family, Cesare A[ugustus] de Casella (1820-1884)/1/ was born in Libson, Portugal, to parents from the Italian city of Genoa. He was the eldest of three sons who were taught how to play the cello by their father, Pietro Casella (1790-ca. 1858), described as the founder of the Turin school of cello playing./2/ After the family returned to Genoa, Casella made his solo debut there at the age of 14 and studied at the local conservatory. Following Pietro’s appointment as first cellist to King Charles Albert of Sardinia, Casella spent six years playing alongside his father (and, for one season, the teenage Alfredo Piatti) in the orchestra of the Royal Theatre in Turin before resigning this position to apply himself more seriously to the study of cello and composition.
One of his early cello pieces, said to have been admired by the Sardinian king himself, was an Elegy on the death of Casella’s mother that he would continue to perform frequently. Casella received the titles of Solo Violoncellist of the royal court of Genoa and Professor of the Conservatory before creating a sensation in France, where his performances of his own compositions caused “tears to flow”/3/ and elicited flowery accounts:
Behold this fine young artiste, surrounded by a brilliant assemblage in the midst of a
profound silence; his instrument is an organ which for a moment becomes part of
himself. He draws from it soft and prolonged tones of the most delicious sweetness;
he reveals to his listeners all the mysteries of musical delight—now impassioned,
now sad, tender or impetuous, he completely enchains in the most intense
excitement of musical enjoyment his listeners. His notes are always pure and
In the years that followed, Casella won similar accolades in the United States (1843-44),
appeared with Alfredo Piatti in London (1846),/5/ and drew favorable comparisons with Auguste Franchomme in France./6/ He was in Porto, Portugal by the end of the decade,/7/ and was later the personal cellist and possibly cello teacher of King Luis I of Portugal,presumably until Casella’s death in 1884. He also worked for the Spanish court, during which time he added the “de” to his name./8/
When Casella came to the US in late 1843, other visiting instrumentalists from Europe, such as the violinist Ole Bull and the pianist and violinist William Vincent Wallace, were also making their first tours of the country. Described as “slight and delicate looking,”/9/ “of fine figure and full of natural grace,”/10/ Casella was lauded in New York as one of the “three greatest [musical] wonders of the age,”/11/ and the expressive qualities of his playing were contrasted with the more superficial virtuosity of cellists Max Bohrer and Gustav Knoop, who had both been heard there recently: “… in real feeling and reaching the heart, Casella is far superior to anything we have ever heard before. … His style is of the most modern or romantic school, aiming more at enslaving the heart and feeling than astonishing the senses only by artistical display.”/12/ New York critics found in Casella’s playing “a melancholy, which gladdens the heart, a sadness experienced only by exalted spirits in the zenith of their happiness.”/13/ He was said to have played con amore, “his whole soul appearing wrapped and absorbed by his theme.”/14/ Whereas Knoop had made a specialty of imitating violin technique, even performing bravura works by Paganini and Spohr on the cello, Casella emulated the singing of great Italian tenors of the day such as Giovanni Battista Rubini and Giovanni Matteo Mario. Critics applauded the absence in Casella’s compositions of elaborate cadenzas or other examples of “nonsensical fiddling,” declaring that Casella had revealed “the true genius and character of the instrument.”/15/
While in the US, Casella appears to have performed exclusively his own compositions, including the Elegy to My Mother, another elegy titled Sogno all amia patria (the dream of my father land), Souvenir de Genes (Remembrance of Genoa, an Adagio and Polacca), Un Souspir (A Sigh), an Adagio and Bolero, and several pieces based on Italian opera themes, such as the Aria and Finale on “che a dio spiegasti l’ali” from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Tears to Bellini on “A te, O Cara,” from Bellini’s I Puritani. These pieces were accompanied either by a pianist, a string quartet, or both. He may also have played The Song of the Mariners, a piece mentioned in the biography of Casella printed early in his US visit, and he penned at least one new work while in the US, a Remembrance of Baltimore./16/ On his May 1844 Boston debut concert, Casella performed four of these works:/17/
The caution given on IMSLP about potential confusion between Casella and his identically-named cellist-composer son, Cesare A. Casella fils (1848 or 1849-1915), is well-founded./18/ Entries in major European library catalogues often confuse or conflate the two. Van der Straeten mentions the latter, a grandson of Pietro Casella, and offers this explanation for passing over Pietro’s sons: “There is a good deal of uncertainty as to the history of some of the members of this distinguished family.”/19/ Wasielewski seems to have overlooked the Casella family entirely; another resident of Sondershausen, Alwin Schroeder’s older cellist brother Carl, did know of the Casellas, and even published an edition of Six grandes études caractéristiques, Op. 33 composed by Cesare A. Casella pere (mistakenly identified as a work of Carl Schroeder on a Schroeder works list on IMSLP). /20/ Aside from publication dates (C. A. Casella fils works date from the 1880s and 1890s), C. A. Casella pere usually used opus numbers, but his son did not.
The C. A. Casella pieces I have recorded so far are by C. A. Casella fils. His Chant d’Amore, subtitled Elegie-pensee, has a simple, song-like quality, its plaintive melody almost entirely unornamented. It has some subtle, almost Schubertian touches, such as the momentary shift to the major before the cello’s final mournful phrases. IMSLP has the sheet music, misfiled under C. A. Casella pere. Chanson Napolitaine is one of three salon pieces originally published in 1884, and soon became popular among cellists on both sides of the Atlantic. It weds a light-hearted singing quality with instrumental flair, and seems to benefit from an interpretation that respects the Allegretto tempo rather than trying to equate this pieces with, say, Sarasate's Zapateado. IMSLP has the Chanson, correctly filed under C. A. Casella fils. Soon I will share another alluring salon piece of his, O Belle Nuit!, subtitled “Serenade romantique.”
1. These dates are proposed by Daniele Bogni, “La Famiglia Casella“ (Musedita, 2010, www.musedita.it) While several sources give his birth year as 1820, or even 1819, 1822-1886 are Casella's generally-adopted dates in world library catalogues. See “A. C. Casella, Solo Violincellist [sic] of the Court of H. M. the King of Sardinia” in New York Herald, Dec. 25, 1843, p. 3, which gives 24 as his age at that time.
2. Pietro Casella's dates in van der Straeten's, History of the Violoncello…, p. 579, are wrong. A. C. Casella's father is often confused with another Pietro Casella, a composer of vocal music. The generally-adopted 1844 death year for the cellist Pietro Casella is patently incorrect, per the account of his grandson, the composer Alfredo Casella, in his autobiography, Music in My Time, and surviving documentation of his Pietro's participation in Turin opera performances.
3. “A. C. Casella, Solo Violincellist” (see note i).
4. Journal of Montpelier, France, quoted in the New York Herald of Dec. 27, 1843
5. London Morning Post, July 7, 1846, p. 1. Per Morton Latham, Alfredo Piatti: A Sketch (London: W. E. Hill, 1901), pp. 27-8, Piatti played in the Turin orchestra for a season when both A. C. Casella and his father were in the orchestra (at some point between 1837 and 1842), and later bought a cello from A. C. Casella
6. “Signor Casella, who was in America about eighteen months ago, has also been playing in Paris. His success has been really great. He is now considered the superior of Franchomme, and therefore he takes rank among the first, if he be not the first in his line.” New York Herald, June, 5, 1846, p. 3
7. Van der Straeten gives Porto, 1849, as one of two possible birth places and years for Casella’s son, Cesare A. Casella fils. The other possibility he mentions is Malaga, April 2, 1848. A History of the Violoncello, p. 590
8. Publications of later Casella cello opuses (see Opp. 52, 54, and 55 on IMSLP) describe him as “Professeur et Violoncelliste particulier de Sa Majeste Don Louis I, Roi de Portugal et Chevalier de l’ordre de Charles II, d’Espagne et du Christ de Portugal.”
9. New York Herald, Dec. 30, 1843, p. 2
10. Boston Evening Transcript, May 22, 1844, p. 2
11. The other two wonders were Ole Bull and Wallace. New York Herald, Dec. 23, 1843, p. 3
12. New York Herald, Dec. 27, 1843
13. New York Herald, Dec. 30, 1843, p. 2
14. New York Herald, Oct. 31, 1844, p. 2
15. London Daily News, June 23, 1846, p. 5
16. Boston Evening Transcript, Nov. 2, 1844, p. 2
17. Program announcement from Boston Courier, May 27, 1844, p. 3
18. see note 7 on the younger C. A. Casella's birth year
19. Straeten, History of the Violoncello, p. 579