ERNESTO CAVALLINI (1807 - 1874)
Ernesto Cavallini was born in Milan on 30 August 1807. At the age of nine he won a place at the Milan Conservatory, where he studied with Benedetto Carulli. He graduated in September 1824, and was appointed second clarinet alongside his former teacher at Milan’s Teatro Re where, in 1827, he also appeared several times as a soloist. That same year, he was highly praised for a performance of his Concerto in E flat major in one of the foyers of the Teatro alla Scala. He then took up a post at La Fenice in Venice and towards the end of the decade performed at La Scala several times as both soloist and orchestral musician.
Having served for a while as first clarinet of the band of Piedmont’s Grenadier Guards, he was appointed first clarinet of the La Scala orchestra (1831). Over the next two years, he gave many performances around Italy, alongside his violinist brother Eugenio, and flautist Giuseppe Rabboni. In 1839 he appeared to great acclaim in Venice, Trieste, Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest. Two years later he played in Milan with the virtuoso cellist Alfredo Piatti and, in Novara, gave a much-praised performance of his Variations on a theme of Mercadante, under the baton of Mercadante himself. Soon afterwards he played in Paris, where he was made a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts.
In the wake of his Parisian success, Cavallini travelled to London and performed for the city’s Philharmonic Society. In 1844 he undertook a new concert tour, visiting Geneva, Paris and London. In Brussels he gave a private concert at the home of the composer Fétis, along with Piatti and other virtuoso colleagues. A year later he returned to London, giving a performance at the Theatre Royal which included a rendering of his Canto greco variato with the eminent violinist Vieuxtemps; that same year, back in Brussels, he directed an Italian opera company in a number of productions.
In 1846 he returned to La Scala for a concert promoted by publishers Ricordi to celebrate the inauguration of a bust of Rossini at which he performed a work he had written especially for the occasion, the Capriccio “Fiori Rossiniani”. Cavallini left Italy in 1851 on a long tour that took him to Spain, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Poland and, finally, Russia. He reached St Petersburg in 1854, where the Tsar appointed him soloist of the newly founded Imperial Theatre, a position which, among other things, gave him the opportunity to perform with the composer Glinka in Berlin. In June 1854 he also began teaching clarinet at the St Petersburg Conservatory.
In 1862 Cavallini took part in the première of Verdi’s La forza del destino, whose famous clarinet solo at the opening of Act Three had been written expressly for him by the great Italian composer. Three years later he returned to Milan to give some performances and in 1869, having been granted a pension by the Tsar, decided to return to Italy on a permanent basis. That same year, in Milan, he published a series of works he had written in Russia, including a number of vocal pieces with piano accompaniment (he had taught singing as well as clarinet while in St Petersburg). He continued his solo career thereafter in Milan, Florence and Naples and, in late 1871, taught clarinet for a brief period at the Milan Conservatory. Cavallini gave his final public concert at the Teatro Carcano in Milan in 1872. He died following a stroke on 7 January 1874.
Cavallini’s great technical and interpretative gifts are described in many press articles and reviews of the day. He was particularly praised for the beauty of his sound, and for his dazzling performances. As regards his personal style, we know that his staccato was known for its soft tone and that he was a master of circular breathing. The music journals often reported the popularity of his concerts: in 1842 the Gazzetta Musicale di Milano declared: “Cavallini is the Paganini of the clarinet”. The Revue de Paris dubbed him “the best clarinettist in the universe”, while for L’Italia musicale, Cavallini was the “Liszt of the clarinet”.
It is worth noting that throughout almost his entire career, Cavallini played a six-key boxwood clarinet made in Milan in the early 1800s, and was sometimes criticised for the less than precise intonation of this obsolete instrument. In 1860, the Tsar decided that the imperial orchestras should adopt the French clarinet, and it was only at this point that Cavallini decided to order a new twelve-key instrument from the Milanese instrument-maker Piana.