Remembering "The First Family of the Piano": ROBERT, GABY & JEAN CASADESUS
Also, About the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau
While feeling the simmering tension of uncertainty nowadays, and being fully aware of every wickedness happening, just taking a break here from the more serious daily concerns in this upside-down world of wrong-is-right, black-is-white, bad-is-good, with another foray into the classical music world of God-gifted beauty, order, and dignity. And to remember that, at one time in the past, actual beauty and artistry were celebrated by the culture at large. Hope such diversions offer relief and spiritual refreshment to some readers, too.
I knew almost nothing about the musical Casadesus family growing up, and it would be many decades later, with the advent of the internet, that a bit more information about this outstanding family of pianists and pedagogues would come forth.
Despite their prominence in the American classical music sphere in the 20th century, it seems that the Casadesus name has practically vanished from current musical consciousness. Perhaps because they were unfussy and serious musicians without a tinge of scandal to their name? (This music blog post lists Robert Casadesus—pianist, composer, and teacher—in the “forgotten pianists” category.)
The Casadesus family came from a line of prominent French musicians and artists. Of Catalan ancestry (their ethnic roots were in the region of northeast Spain called Catalonia/Cataluña), Robert apparently preferred the Spanish way of saying “Casadesus.” Thus, per Wikipedia:
. . . Mr. Casadesus indicated that he pronounced his name as it is pronounced in Spanish, Kah-sah-deh'sus, final s pronounced.
(Glad to have that mystery solved. I had wondered for years….)
There was a warmth and closeness to the family. From the website:
‘Family’ was a word that had a sacred sense for Robert. The family, which, during the summer, between two concerts elsewhere, gathered in the Recloses house, near Fontainebleau, and, during those rest breaks, the three pianos gave way to three bicycles that the three pianists readily mounted for long rides in the forest.
While each had independent solo careers and work, Robert and wife Gaby often played together in public and in the recording studio, and at times, with son Jean as well. A married couple joined professionally may not always work out, but by all accounts, it seems that Gaby and Robert created a solid and loving partnership from the start (see quote below).
And then, with eldest son Jean performing with them—wow! To have one’s own child join the parents in these musical adventures! I can imagine the utter joy such an enterprise could bring. What lovely harmonies (literal and figurative ones) could arise from such endeavors during rehearsals and performances. The bonds of kinship could only grow stronger.
Alas, the year 1972 would bring great tragedy to the family.
In January of that year, while traveling in Canada for concerts, Jean perished in an automobile accident caused by treacherous road conditions. Later that same year, Robert would die, too. Robert’s inconsolable grief over Jean’s death would soon lead to his own passing. Wife to Robert and mother to Jean, Gaby would soldier on bravely despite these devastating losses. She would devote her remaining years to promoting her husband’s musical legacy. These events of this sorrowful year are briefly recounted on this page in this official, family-run Casadesus website. It makes me weep a little to read about it, as they were such a close-knit clan.
They were well-known to American audiences and musicians back in the day. While in France, they taught (with other French musical luminaries) at the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau before the Second World War (held at the magnificent Fontainebleau Chateau; see informational video down below). Spending the war years in exile in America, they lived in Princeton, New Jersey, where amateur violinist Albert Einstein (you may have heard of him?) was a neighbor and friend.
After France fell to the Germans, the Fontainebleau conservatory was transferred to the US, and teaching continued at the school in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Keeping the conservatory open was a special priority for the devoted teacher in Gaby, even during the more difficult wartime years. After the war, the family returned to France where Robert then took up direction of the Fontainebleau American Conservatory, but they maintained careers on both sides of the Atlantic.
A recording of this 3-KEYBOARD CONCERTO by the Casadesus trio (see performance video below) was the first multi-piano work of Bach I heard and loved while in my teens. It gave such thrills—hard to say why. Perhaps because of the rareness of such recordings then, with the logistics of transporting and setting up several good pianos in one place a possible reason for this? Musicians also face technical and interpretational challenges in forging a unified performance from three strong solo performers! (Today’s pianists seem more eager and able to perform and record ensemble works like this one with others.)
THIS 1967 VIDEO seems the sole extant online copy of its kind. It features Robert, Gaby, and Jean on 3 pianos playing J. S. Bach’s Concerto for 3 Pianos in D Minor, BWV 1063 (clip shows only the third movement, though). The Casadesus husband-wife-and-son team were dubbed “The First Family of the Piano” for this Bell Telephone Hour special. Despite the subpar TV audio quality, hope it makes for an enjoyable few musical minutes. (Just ecstatic that someone captured this wonderful three-piano performance on video! )
(Just noticed the absence of any dedicated page-turners here. Each pianist has to flip over his own sheet music pages. These days, any pianist of some renown will have a page-turner sitting attentively at his side. While convenient for the pianist, a page-turner can also be distracting to audiences.)
NOTE: The video info is incorrect—the show aired in 1967.
J. S. Bach: Concerto for 3 Pianos/Harpsichords in D minor, BWV 1063 (3rd Movement)
Robert, Gaby and Jean Casadesus, pianos.
(Am unable to find out who the orchestra/conductor are for now.)
NOTE: In September THIS YEAR (2022) (from bottom of the Casadesus page:)
In 2022, the 50th anniversary of Robert Casadesus’ death will be memorialized. He was one of the greatest pianists of the mid-twentieth century, along with Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz; known in the United States as “a household name”. His memory is still very much alive today, as testified by the release in 2019 of a 60 CD box-set by SONY of his complete recordings for Columbia which also include a number of his works.
Learn more about the Casadesus family and their affiliations:
→ This is the official, long biography of Robert (what unusual beginnings for this man!) and his family, with lots of lovely photographs. I especially like the description of the collaboration of Robert and his wife, Gaby:
Whereas there might have been a certain rivalry between two artists playing the same instrument, quite the contrary, there grew up between them a fusion, a complementarity such that one might say their two lives evolved as four hands.
→ ANOTHER complete biography of Robert and Gaby on a different website.
Gaby Casadesus plays Chopin on a Pleyel piano (1948)
There’s a delicacy and purity to Gaby Casadesus’ playing of Felix Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words (guessing this is from the 1940s, too)
(Reminds me of my mom’s playing, actually)
SOMEONE WHO PERSONALLY KNEW the late Jean Casadesus posted this brief bit online in January 2021:
Jean Casadesus plays Rameau (he recorded mostly French composers’ work)
REQUIESCANT IN PACE : MAY THEY REST IN PEACE:
Robert Casadesus+ (1899-1972)
Gaby Casadesus+ (née Gabrielle L’Hôte; 1901-1999)
Jean Casadesus+ (1927-1972)
About the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau (now part of the Fontainebleau Schools, which also include the School of Fine Arts):
What a privilege it is for these lucky students! What a special place and environment to study, perform, and learn about music and other arts! The school’s philosophy is a more integrative one. It celebrated its centenary last year, 2021.
WHILE MODERN FRENCH AND WESTERN HISTORIANS love to denigrate the aristocracy and monarchy for their material excesses, would these fabulous castles and gardens exist today without their setting them up? Of course, the good thing is that all people from everywhere in the world are now able to enjoy these architectural and landscape marvels, too!
What a treasure. Your writings on music and the arts are second to none. I will return to this, and listen to all of it. Thank you!