Biography of “Frederico Guglielmo Caselli”

Frederico Guglielmo Caselli, named by his cellist father for the cello-playing King of Prussia to whom Mozart dedicated his last string quartet, was born in Terontola, Umbria on 16 September 1793. His first teacher was his father, Pio Caselli, a member and later the assistant conductor of the court orchestra of the Grand Duke Leopold I (for whose coronation as Emperor of Austria Mozart wrote La clemenza di Tito) and Grand Duke Ferdinand III.*


*The mystery of Frederico’s birth in what is now a godforsaken railway junction on the Rome-Florence line remains unexplained. His mother is know to have been of Umbrian stock; however, the suggestion in Fausto Torrefranca’s monograph Frederico Guglielmo Caselli–musicista dimenticato dell’ ottocento fiorentino that she was visiting her family at the time of her confinement must be regarded with a certain skepticism in view of the extreme reluctance with which pregnant women at that period took to travel.

Frederico Caselli became a skilled performer on the violin, viola, and organ, but his principal instrument was the flute, which he studied in Florence with Ildebrando Gambacurta (of whom the Emperor Napoleon is said to have remarked that he would gladly have undergone a second Russian campaign if he could once more have heard the Florentine virtuoso play Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits) and in London with Tebaldo Monzani. From Monzani he learned the essentials of instrument-building, and it must have been in the circle of Manzani and Cimador that Caselli first became interested in music publishing, a field of endeavor in which he enjoyed considerable success as partner to Giovanni Gualberto Guidi, the inventor of the pocket score. Like Guidi, who was known in Florence as the Paganini of the bass, Caselli was, at least off and on, a member of the orchestra at the Teatro della Pergola, and as such he would have taken part in the premieres of Verdi’s Macbeth, and Donizetti’s Rosmonda d’Inghilterra as well as the first performance in Italy of Weber’s Freischütz. With the pianist Gioacchino Maglioni, Caselli was at the forefront of the Florentine movement to establish instrumental music in Italy on a parity with the vocal genres. It is in this connection that Caselli’s name is often mentioned with gratitude and affection in the correspondence and published writings of Fernando Giorgetti, Stefano Golinelli, Antonio Bazzini, and the brothers Disma and Adolfo Fumagelli.

Caselli was an active composer in all forms. The work that attracted the most intense attention was his opera I pionieri, notable as one of the first European operas on an American subject. It was produced at the Pergola in 1847, and it was in a production at St. Petersburg in 1856 that the great Lablache made his farewell to the stage in the role of Cingacc’gùk. Caselli’s sonatas for violin and piano, cello and piano, and of course flute and piano, were much admired and widely circulated in their day. Like the seven symphonies that have come down to us, of which the most original in outlook is the one called Le regine with musical portraits of Elizabeth of England, Marie Antoinette (the final cadence of which suggests that Caselli was acquainted with the Symphonie fantastique), Catherine the Great, and, daringly, the then still young Victoria, the sonatas are composed in the classical manner of Cherubini, but garnished with piquant “modernisms” in instrumentation and harmony. Liszt admired Caselli’s motet Os justi; indeed the sketches for his second (Italian) series of Années de pélerinage show that he had intended to include a piano transcriptions of it. Brahms’s correspondence with Elisabet von Herzogenberg and Dr. Theodor Billroth attest to the pleasure he took in the craftsmanship and sensibility of Caselli’s music for the Tenebrae services, which he heard in 1878 in Poggibonsi.

Caselli was also an industrious transcriber of music of many kinds. Transcriptions for one, two, three, four, six, and eight flutes exist, signed by him, of repertoire as diverse as Calculetur me by Palestrina, Quanto sono belli i piedi and Alleluia! from Handel’s Messiah, the Marseillaise, all nine Beethoven symphonies, and copious excerpts from the operas of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Mercadante, and Paer. Caselli was also highly esteemed as a pedagogue; his approach to teaching the flute, hailed by Taffanel for being at once original and sound, is documented in an imposing series of books and tutors, of which the most notable are Il metodo dei metodi (1829), L’Orfeo nuovo (1837), Il flauto magicissimo (1843), Primi passi di un piccolo flautista (1849—seventeen editions by 1877), Precettore nuovo per l’ottavino (1856), and L’usignolo dell’imperatore (1861).

Caselli, a bachelor, lived in Florence all his life after his student years in London, and he was a genial host there to countless musically interested visitors. Richard Wagner especially enjoyed his company and his anecdotes (they conversed in French), though Cosima suspected him of concealed Jewish ancestry. Caselli was a Corresponding Member of several European learned societies, and shortly after the unification of Italy in 1861 he was declared an honorary Senator by King Victor Emmanauel II. Though his own compositional style remained obdurately conservative, Caselli took a lively, if occasionally skeptical, interest in the newest developments in music. He died, tragically, on 21 May 1874 at the Central Railway Station in Milan, where he had travelled alone, against the advice of pupils and friends, to attend the first performance of Verdi’s Messa di Requiem.

  Michael Steinberg
San Francisco, 1982-83