• Geoffrey Dean

Bel Canto Cellists in America: Gaetano Braga

Updated: May 28

Listen to Souvenir d'Amerique


The Italian composer and cellist Gaetano Braga (1829-1907), wrote his earliest musical works in his early teens, while a student of Mercadante at the Conservatory of S. Pietro a Majella in Naples. His main cello teacher was Ciaudelli. In the two decades prior to his tour of the United States, Braga’s musical career developed along two parallel paths: as an opera composer, with productions in Naples, Vienna, Paris, and Milan, and as a leading cellist, with solo, chamber music, and orchestral performances across Europe. In London he acquired the 1731 Stradivarius cello known today as the “Braga” Strad, and in Paris he struck up a friendship with Rossini, performed with Liszt, Rubinstein, Bizet, Gounod, Saint-Saens, and Bottesini, and was also sought after as a voice teacher at the Theater Italien./1/ Braga successfully applied the bel canto singing style to the cello, and considered “broad, impassioned, vibrant singing” an essential characteristic of truly beautiful cello playing, even in more technically demanding pieces./2/ With cello compositions ranging from variations on opera themes to concertos, Braga is best remembered for his Angel’s Serenade, a song with cello or violin obbligato that is beautifully suited to solo performance on the cello./3/


Braga toured the United States during the 1874-5 season as an assisting soloist for soprano Ilma de Murska, who was billed as the “Reigning Queen of Song.” Mlle. De Murska and her “New Grand Concert Company” consisting of Signor Braga, Mme. Carreno-Sauret (piano), M. Sauret (violin), and several supporting vocal soloists,/4/ are reported to have given at least 140 concerts during the tour, starting in New York on Sept. 25, 1874 and running through the end of April, 1875./5/ Braga immediately established himself as an audience favorite,/6/ creating “a decided furore of enthusiasm with his smooth, beautiful, and expressive playing”/7/ and earning a similar royal epithet as “the King of the Violoncello.”/8/ He was said to have “the rare magnetic quality of playing himself at once en rapport with his hearers” and the manner “of a poet enthusiast.”/9/ In addition to solos, Braga also performed trios by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Braga with the Saurets, and when he joined De Murska in Schubert’s Standchen, his “violoncello sang its part with more feeling and earnestness than the voice.”/10/


As was likely his standard practice, Braga emphasized his dual creative identity during the US tour by performing only his own solo compositions; in all about a dozen Braga works figured on the US programs./11/ Braga’s music was found to be “melodious and attractive,” “animated, fantastic, and full of exquisite ornamentation.”/12/ In a nod to the operatic qualities of Braga’s style, the same critic noted “the artist’s special delight, which seems to be to rush through airy scraps and snatches of breathless cadenzas, ending in some unexpected conceit as if every melody, both sober and gay, must end in a surprise and a joke. It is vastly amusing, and as it is wedded to singable melodies it is musical and interesting.”/13/ The Boston Post critic recognized the significance of being able to have “a composer of recognized ability before us with his own works and his own instrument…” and concluded that “Sig. Braga’s writings are marked by a sense of melody, individuality and imagination, and seem to express the man.”/14/


Braga likely composed his Souvenir d’Amerique during his season in the US; it was originally published in 1875. He dedicated this “Grand Caprice” to his mother./15/ Its singing melodies and florid cadenzas have a decidedly operatic quality about them, and the work journeys seamlessly from pathos to playfulness. While devoid of octaves and other thumb-position passagework that Braga felt to be inconsistent with the cello’s bel canto voice, the Souvenir does make modest virtuoso demands, such as the up-bow staccato scales before the final D-major section. Braga created at least one other musical “memory of America”—his arrangement of “Swanee River” was his go-to encore during the 1874-5 tour./16/



NOTES


1. Braga biography at https://www.mycello.it/en/gaetano-braga-2/ Wasielewski makes no mention of Braga; Straeten has a brief Braga biography (History of the Violoncello (London, 1914), pp. 587-8)

2. Clare Tunney, The Bel Canto Cello: A study of violoncello playing in Italy in the 19th century (DMA dissertation, Univ. of Western Australia, 2012), p. 27

3. “[T]he famous “Serenata” for voice, with violin or violoncello obbligato, [is] still greatly in favour with the numerous lovers of sentimental superficialities.” (Straeten, History of the Violoncello, p. 588) US

WorldCat statistics on Braga’s works show around 300 “Angel’s Serenade” editions (https://www.worldcat.org/wcidentities/lccn-n88665531). Of 74 early (1900-1930) recordings of Braga’s music in the DAHR database, all but 5 are of the Angel’s Serenade (Discography of American Historical Recordings, s.v. "Braga, Gaetano," accessed June 4, 2021, https://adp.library.ucsb.edu/names/106041). A number of documented US performances attest to its popularity before Braga’s tour, and the advance US press for Braga mentions ““The Angel’s Serenade,” so much sung in concerts and private soirees…” (Buffalo Commercial, Aug. 22, 1874, p. 4)

4. New York Times, Sept. 25, 1874, p. 7

5. Chicago Tribune, April 18, 1875, p. 3

6. Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, Oct. 29, 1874, p. 4

7. Chicago Tribune, Nov. 19, 1874, p. 4

8. Vincenzo Bindi, Povero Braga! Memorie del Re del Violoncello (2012), Introduction

9. Buffalo Morning Express, Oct. 28, 1874, p. 1

10. Boston Post, Oct. 1, 1874, p. 3

11. The following Braga pieces were performed by the composer in the US: Corricolo (The Neapolitan Stage Coach), Fantasie on Bellini's Sonnambula (Souvenir Caprice), Les Adieux a Varenne, Negriva (Spanish song), Fantasia on Bellini’s Norma, Prayer of Moses (likely on the theme from Rossini’s opera), Meditation No. 1, Meditation No. 2, Spanish Dance (possibly the same as Negriva), Violettes des Alpes, Sponde di Savena, an unidentified Caprice (may have been one of the previous two pieces on this list, which are also described as caprices), Piano Trio in A minor (with pianist Carreno-Sauret and violinist Sauret). Braga also played his arrangement of “Down on the Swanee River.” This information culled from various newspapers, e.g., the Boston Post items noted below.

12. Boston Post, Oct. 1, 1874, p. 3

13. Boston Post, Oct. 5, 1874, p. 3

14. see note 12

15. Gaetano Braga, Souvenir d’Amerique: Grand Caprice pour Violoncelle avec accompagnement de Piano (London: Schott & Co., no date).

16. “Signor Braga[‘s] execution of “Down on the Swanee River,” drew forth uproarious applause. Some one mentioned to him early in the evening that his old song was a favorite in Richmond, and that Nilsson sang it with great success when she was here, and accordingly, when he was encored the second time, he played it, and we are sure no greater compliment can be paid him when we say that he played it as Nilsson sang it.” Charleston Chronicle, quoted in New Orlearns Times-Picayune, March 3, 1875

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