Gaetano Braga was born in Giulianova, on 9 June 1829 by Isidoro Braga and Splendora de Angelis. As often happened in Italy in that period, the parents wanted to direct their son to an ecclesiastical career, but since his early years, Gaetano showed a precocious talent for music. Encouraged by the Duchess D’Atri Giulia Colonna, the parents then addressed their son to the College of S. Pietro a Maiella. At first, Gaetano was admitted as an external student but then, passing admission exam for the singing school he managed to get a free seat. It was the year 1841. Here the predisposition for music and ease of learning, especially for the cello, were immediately evident to the director of that time, S. Mercadante. Precisely for this reason, the student was given a cello built specifically for him by the violin maker Nicola Gagliano.
His first cello teacher was Gaetano Ciaudelli, who in just two years led him to be a maestrino both in the same institute and in external schools. Braga immediately showed great talent as the first cello in the public academies held in the theater of the college. He also studied singing, with Alessandro Busti, counterpoint, with Francesco Ruggi and Carlo Conti, and composition, with Mercadante himself. Mercadeante asked the young Braga to write a solfeggio course, the Saul cantata, a Mass and several pieces for cello, also with piano accompaniment.
In 1849, Braga called in Naples her brother Giuseppe, destined to become a famous pianist. In 1853 one of his compositions was performed in public for the first time. His semi-serious work Alina, libretto by L. E. Bardare, was indeed represented in Naples and judged to be very promising. After this experience, Braga began his career as a cellist performing in Florence, Bologna, Trieste, and even Vienna. Here he met the pianist Giuseppe Stanzieri, one of his dearest collaborators and friends even in his subsequent stay in Paris. In the French city, he performed particularly the compositions of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and he had the opportunity to play with the violinist Mayseder quartet. After a brief stay in Florence, he returned to Paris, where he stayed until 1857, quickly becoming the most fashionable cellist and the most sought-after singing teacher by the artists of Theater Italien. He played with the best performers of the time (Liszt, Gounod, Bizet, Saint Saens, Rubinstein, Bottesini), he met musicians like Auber, Halévy, Mayerbeer, and men of letters like Dumas and Gautier. He became friends with Rossini, with whom he maintained a close and lively correspondence and to which he dedicated his work the Adventurers. For the theatrical impresario Bartolomeo Merelli, he wrote a serious work in two acts, the Estella di San Germano, represented in the presence of the emperor, on May 29, 1857, at the Karntnerthortheater in Vienna. The Prince Leopold of Bourbon, count of Syracuse, after having listened to the Estella, commissioned him a semi-serious work in two acts to inaugurate the theater of his palace in Naples. Thus was born Il Ritratto, staged on 6 March 1858, with great success.
After the Italian success, he returned to Paris, where he resumed teaching singing. Among her students, the contralto Adelaide Borghi Mamo who, thanks to her splendid voice, brought the opera Margherita la Mendicante to success at the Theater Italien in Paris on December 20, 1859. Back in Milan, Braga then composed an opera in three deeds, Il Mormile, but his performance at La Scala in 1862 was a failure. Even the later theatrical work, the Ruy Blas, was the cause of bitterness for the author: it was never represented.
The last theatrical works, Gli Avventurieri, in four acts, Reginella, in three acts, the only work performed in several theaters (Lecco, Milan, Modena, Parma, Cagliari, Venice) had alternate fortune; Caligula, presented with enormous support at the Teatro San Carlo in Lisbon, was then revived in Milan, at the Teatro alla Scala, where it was a genuine failure. Following this disappointment, Braga definitively gave up composing for the theater.
If, as a theatrical composer, Braga had not always found the admiration he desired, considerable approval from the public received his chamber vocal compositions instead. Particularly famous is the Leggenda Valacca, also known with the titles La Serenata, Angel’s Serenade, for singing with piano and cello accompaniment: a simple and catchy melody, adapted to the taste of the time but destined to be transcribed for many different organic and to enter permanently in the repertoire. Success came not only from Europe but also from America.
In his compositions, Braga explored a new cello language, making the most of the changeable and expressive possibilities of his instrument. He was famous for his cellist pupils, who recommended playing the cello only after studying the “bel canto” in order to “sing well” on the instrument. He was a friend of Servais, but he considered the style of the illustrious Belgian colleague too violinistic. In his opinion, the cello had to enhance the “human” notes, those notes that are able to move and that are impossible for any instrument other than the cello. “Human” notes that abound in the numerous cello patterns that Braga composed and performed frequently in concert, skillfully selecting and elaborating the best themes of the works of Mercadante, Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. Cantabilità and expressiveness made possible by a solid technical foundation attested without a doubt by the presence, among its many compositions, of technically very demanding pieces such as the Corricolo Napolitano, a joke for cello and piano. And the technique was also at the center of his didactic practice, so much so that the Italian musical publisher Ricordi chose to entrust to him the task of treating the reworking of the Dotzauer Cello Method, published in 1873 and soon become a text used in all the Conservatories of Italy.
As a cellist, Braga showed great personality. In Milan, in 1870, he achieved great success in a concert that was then repeated in Bologna, Florence, and Naples. In the following years, he gave concerts in Spain and Portugal before going on tour in America in 1874. On his return to Europe, he gave concerts in London and Paris where he remained until 1894 when he settled permanently in Milan. He spent the last few years with his friends. Braga wrote the musical version of La Ricamatrice by Antonio Fogazzaro and the writer, in the novel Il Maestro Chieco, outlined a literary portrait of Batta in the figure of Lazarus.
He continued his activity as a cellist until 1903, when he was struck by a hemiparesis which prevented him from continuing to play the wonderful Stradivari cello of 1731 which he had bought in London in 1856 and which still bears his name.
Braga died in Milan on September 20, 1907. Her cello continues to live under the nimble fingers of the Korean cellist Myung-wha Chung.
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