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Biography in 15 pages Printable version

Luis et sa femme, Mathilde Sénéchal Robert Casadesus was born into a family of musicians. His grandfather, Luis, a Catalan immigrant, would have liked to be a violinist. As circumstances prevented him from realising his dream (he was a typographer, then an accountant and, at night, conducted café-concert orchestras), he promised himself that his children would be musicians. Luis and his wife, Mathilde Sénéchal, gave birth to 13 children, nine of whom survived, and eight were musicians.

Robert Casa,le père de Robert, acteur et chansonnier, naquit en 1878. Amongst them: Robert Casa, Robert’s father, an actor and songwriter, was born in 1878.
A member of Sacha Guitry’s company, he was appointed director of the Théâtre français of New York in the 1920s by Charles Dullin.

One might say that the birth of Robert (the future pianist) occurred beneath a serene sky. It was in 1899, and his father, then aged 21, had an affair with one of his classmates at the Conservatoire where he was studying diction.

Robert was the fruit of this youthful union. The young woman not wishing to assume the role of motherhood, Robert Senior decided to keep the child rather than see it put up for adoption. The Casadesus clan welcomed the new-born without a shadow of hesitation. The task of taking care of him fell to Aunt Cécile—aged 15.


Legally recognised by his father and adopted by the whole family, Robert never knew his mother. The affection of the ‘tribe’ largely compensated for this absence.

His gifts for music manifested themselves at an early age. Luis decided to have him study the violin for, said he: ‘With a violin, one is sure of finding work!’
Robert did not see things that way and soon gave up the violin for the piano, at which he sat with authority and determination. After Aunt Cécile got married, it was Aunt Rosette who took over his upbringing.


Robert at 9 (Royer)

Throughout his life, Robert considered Aunt Rosette his mother. She was, moreover, the captain of the Casadesus vessel, and it was she who gave Robert his start at the piano.
Without further ado, his exceptional gifts were by all who heard him. The great piano teacher of the era, Isidore Philipp, entrusted him, without the slightest hesitation, to his coach so that he might personally make him work according to his methods.

From that time on, young Robert successfully entered one competition after another and obtained his first medal in solfeggio from Lavignac, in 1911 and his First Prize in piano at 14 in the class of Louis Diémer, another renowned professor.

Robert interpreted Gabriel Fauré’s Variations, and the composer, then director of the Paris Conservatoire, was a member of the jury. After his performance, Fauré went up to Robert and, patting him on the check, said: ‘You’ll make a good little pianist’.

Robert then entered the class of Lucien Capet, who had exceptional influence. Le quatuor répétait souvent chez les Casadesus Capet had founded a famous quartet that bore his name and in which two of Robert’s uncles played: Henri and Marcel.
The Quartet often rehearsed in the Casadesus home, and so it was that Robert was initiated into chamber music. The Beethoven Quartets held no secret for him—he knew them backwards and forwards without ever having played them!

Marius, violoniste talentueux At that time, Robert played in duo with his Uncle Marius, his elder by seven years. Marius, a talented violinist, played in the Ensemble des Instruments Anciens that had been founded by his brother Henri, a violist. So it was that Robert’s childhood revolved totally round music.
Gabrielle L'Hote Many years later, Marius and Robert would give numerous concerts together. But one of the major events of Robert’s youth was, without any doubt, his meeting, at the Conservatoire in Paris, the young Gabrielle L'Hote, a few years younger than himself and a fellow piano student in Diémer’s class.

An encounter under the sign of music, certainly, but also the birth of a complicity that would develop intensely and without weakening their whole lives long. After Robert’s death, Gaby, endowed with inexhaustible energy, would long continue to perpetuate the memory of her husband. One might say that Robert & Gaby Casadesus formed a couple exemplary in every way, be it private or professional life.

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. The ‘duo-couple’ would endure, moreover, beyond Robert’s death in 1972. Indeed, without ever yielding, Gaby would devote the remainder of her life to maintaining the memory of her husband’s art and, in order to do so, created, a few months after his passing, the ‘Association Robert Casadesus’ with her son, Guy.

Watching over the renewal of Robert’s recorded repertoire throughout the world, she would also make known her composer-husband’s catalogue, consisting of 69 opus numbers, including seven symphonies, several concertos (for one piano, two and three pianos, violin, cello, flute) and numerous chamber works. She would also found the Cleveland International Piano Competition, later relayed, thanks to Jean-Claude Casadesus, by the International Piano Encounters of Lille.

In 1999, at the end of the celebrations organised for her husband’s centenary, Gaby joined him, surely with the feeling of having done her duty as spouse and partner.

But let us return to the life of this young pianist couple.
Robert embarked on the concert circuit quite naturally. In the 1920s, he worked on Ravel’s music, which he performed in the composer’s presence, and a real friendship developed between the two men.

Did Ravel not tell him one day after a recital: ‘You must be a composer yourself to play the works of others in such a way!’ Ravel had heard correctly. Robert had always composed and would continue to compose throughout his life.
The foreign tours multiplied. Aside from England, the Netherlands, Germany and all the other countries of Europe, North Africa, the Middle East or South America, it was the United States of America that would be fertile terrain of his career. By a stroke of chance, he replaced an ailing colleague at the last minute, thus finding himself in the presence of the great Russian-American conductor Serge Koussevitzky, at the time director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. His interpretation of Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto, hardly rehearsed (and for good reason!) left such an impression on Koussevitzky that he immediately invited him to New York the following season.

Indirectly and through family connections, Robert had already entered the American world in 1921 when he became the assistant to Isidore Philipp, then professor at the American Conservatory of Fontainebleau. This Conservatory had been created jointly in 1921 by Francis Casadesus (the eldest of Robert’s uncles) and Walter Damrosch, conductor of the New-York Philharmonic.

The men had met in 1917, during the Great War, at the camp in Chaumont, where Francis was teaching harmony to American military bandleaders, helped by several French musicians (André Caplet, Jacques Pillois...). Walter Damrosch, who was quite enthusiastic about this teaching, had thought that it ought to be perpetuated for young Americans musicians, once the war was over.

Thus began the long history that unites Robert and his family with the United States. For the Casadesus family, the American Conservatory of Fontainebleau would play a preponderant role about which Robert had surely not dreamt in the early 1920s. As of the 1930s, Robert began an American career, which took him back every year to New York and everywhere else in that vast country, playing with the greatest: Toscanini, Koussevitzky, Rodzinsky, Mitropoulos, Walter...


Crossing the Atlantic no longer held any secrets for him, and he acquired a taste for the great liners that linked Le Havre and New York. A cigar-smoking gourmet, those voyages were, for Gaby and him, so many instants of relaxation and shared happiness. The declaration of the Second World War found the Casadesus family in the United States. It had grown with the birth of two sons: Jean, in 1927, and Guy, in 1932. Having gone over for the summer season of the American Conservatory of Fontainebleau, on the American side, friends suggested they rent a house in Princeton, New Jersey, rather than stay at a hotel with small children for three months.

It was then that a return to France proved impossible, given the circumstances. Robert and Gaby therefore decided to remain in the United States, never suspecting that their exile would last six years...

So it was that the boys studied like any other children. Jean had begun the piano, quite young, with Aunt Rosette and was following in his parents’ footsteps. As for Guy, he took up the violin, paid no attention to it and turned, without hesitation, to jazz.


In 1942, little Thérèse transformed the quartet into a quintet. Robert, happy to have a daughter, nicknamed her ‘la dauphine’ (or heiress apparent), and composed a cradlesong for her. Born in the United States, Thérèse would make her life there and marry an American. The six American years were a fascinating experience for them all. The family moved a number of times, thus living in several different houses. Robert and Gaby had to familiarise themselves with the English language, which, his whole life, Robert would speak with an accent à la Maurice Chevalier! They met fellow exiles, including Albert Einstein, their neighbour in Princeton. A great music lover (we know he played the violin quite respectably), he participated in friendly Mozart concerts with them.

This long American stay would also see the birth of what would become the famous ‘Casadesus-Francescatti’ piano-violin duo, which would be influential throughout the world for many years.
The hazards of exile brought together these two equally talented musicians. Zino Francescatti and his wife, Yolande, had also been obliged to remain in the United States, where they found themselves in 1939. In the summer of 1942, they became neighbours of the Casadesus clan. Such good fortune! After beginning with afternoon concerts to make music together, the duo lost no time in making itself known to the professionals. Concerts across the country followed, along with discs for Columbia (which became CBS and now Sony) and, after the war, international tours.

The duo continued up until Robert’s death. The two men got along famously, and one had to have seen their complicity in rehearsal, have felt their concentration during a concert, always in the shared love of music, to conclude that they were destined to meet. Amongst others, their recordings of the Beethoven violin sonatas bear living witness to that. The United States was also the continuation of the Fontainebleau School to which Gaby gave unsparingly of her energy and devotion.

She fought tooth and nail to surmount material difficulties, which were not lacking during the war years, America having, in turn, joined the fight and not paying particular attention to the logistics of a music school. But, for Gaby, it was a priority, and she let it be known, struggling to obtain the subsidies necessary for its operation.

After the war, the American Conservatory reopened in Fontainebleau for summer sessions. Robert was the first director of this resuscitated school, up until the return of Nadia Boulanger, also exiled in the United States during those dark years. This forced exile would become, in the memory, a slice of happy life, despite the distance from the rest of the family and the absence of news about what was really going on at home. During those long years, the Casadesus family got to know all the great musicians the New World had to offer, whether natives or fellow exiles. The intellectuals had, to a large degree, gathered around New York or on the West Coast. Amongst these personalities, they met Béla Bartók, who had fled Hungary. At the time, his music had little support from the American public, and, in 1945, he died in New York in near-total destitution, following a serious illness. Stravinsky was also there, as was Darius Milhaud, who, with his wife, Madeleine, became close friends. The young Leonard Bernstein was already drawing attraction, and Horowitz, Toscanini’s son-in-law, reigned over the piano in New York.

Finally the Armistice was signed on 8th May 1945, and a year later the Casadesus family went home. Fontainebleau witnessed the rebirth of the American Conservatory, and Robert, Gaby and the children moved back into their Parisian flat in Rue Vaneau. They again found family and friends and readapted to living à la française. Nonetheless, in the euphoria of the homecoming, a painful event struck the family: little Thérèse contracted poliomyelitis from an American student at the summer session of the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau. Without changing their daily life or concert tours in any way, Gaby and Robert joined forces and fought at her side to help her regain her motivity. This struggle, conducted with tenacity and love, would eventually bear fruit.
Every year, America welcomed Robert for concerts and recitals across the continent that he now knew so well. He continued to record exclusively for Columbia Records, which had become CBS, both in New York and Paris.

The conductors who accompanied him at the time included, amongst others...

Ormandy Mitropoulos Munch
Szell Bernstein


Every summer now, the European festivals welcomed Robert, Robert and Zino, or Robert, Gaby and Jean, for Jean had, in turn, embarked upon an international career. He divided his time between the United States and Paris, maintaining a home on either side of the Atlantic. He married Evie Girard, daughter of painter André Girard, who, with his family, had also spent the war in America. The Girards had numbered amongst the friends united by exile. With this marriage, the bonds became family. The three pianists lived their careers independently, but they enjoyed getting back together in front of two or three pianos to play Bach, Mozart or Robert Casadesus: Robert had, in fact, composed a concerto for three pianos in order to further knit, according to the expression of the Americans, ‘the first family of the piano’.

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. Like any family, life brought the Casadesus family its share of joys and tribulations. The year 1972 was doubtless the most tragic: in January, Jean died in a motor accident. Poor weather conditions had prevented the plane that Jean was to have taken to give a concert in Canada from taking off. With another passenger, he decided to hire a car. The road was slippery; Jean was seated next to the driver...

Robert, affected in the deepest part of himself, never got over his grief. His health declined rapidly, and he was obliged to cancel a good number of concerts during the summer. On 19th September, he joined Jean. Gaby, devastated by this double ordeal, which affected her life as a wife and mother the same year, faced up to it with courage and decided to perpetuate her husband’s memory. Her charisma and tenacity enabled her to succeed fully.

Today, thanks to her, her son Guy and daughter Thérèse, her cousin Jean-Claude Casadesus (conductor of the Orchestre National de Lille) and numerous friends, the name of Robert Casadesus is associated with a good number of events: concerts, competitions (the International Piano Encounters in Lille), publications of his works, articles, re-editions and new disc releases, radio and television broadcasts, first performances of works, an Internet site, etc., events that regularly and with vivacity attest to the artist’s ineluctable influence.

Jacqueline MULLER. October 2002



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