HOW PAPA MASELLA MADE HIS BOYS MAKE MUSIC
Eight of Montreal’s best musicians all have the same father. Here’s the warm and lively story of how he forced them to make good
F YOU are in or anywhere near Montreal listening to fine music, the odds are that you are listening to at least one Masella. If there’s a clarinet solo, it might be Ralph, or his father Frank. If it’s an oboe, it might be Peter: a French horn, either Joseph, Paul or Julio. Violinists already reaching for the same kind of recognition attained by their father and older brothers are Alfred and Mario. In Montreal’s symphony orchestra, Les Concerts Symphoniques, Ralph, Peter, Joseph and Rudolph enjoy first ranking, while Alfred, Paul, Mario and Julio—the latter two still in their teens are outstanding candidates.
All this might seem like a highly unusual achievement, but under the circumstances it would be unusual only if any of the eight Masella boys had been able successfully to withstand the driving ambition of a stubborn father who was determined to make each one of his boys a first-class musician and the unyielding persistence of a mother who saw to it that the father’s wishes were carried out. Add to that the valuable collaboration of a first-class professor of music, Joseph Moretti, and you have Montreal’s musical Masellas. The boys never had a chance to pick their own careers and their various revolts against the destiny their father outlined were either violently suppressed or successfully diverted.
The persistence with which father Frank guided his sons’ careers had its origin in a family tradition. Grandfather Rafael Masella had combined the trade of a cabinetmaker with the musical career of a clarinetist in San Severo, a small Adriatic town in Italy near Foggia. Frank was born there in 1898 but in 1905 his restless father decided to try his luck in the New World and emigrated alone to Canada, settling in Montreal. He found he could make a living at his trade and in 1909 he brought over the rest of the family, which included his wife, Frank, and Frank’s three sisters. Frank’s musical career had begun in Italy; under his mother’s stern eye he had been set to the basic study of music at the age of eight, and he had barely embarked from the boat in Montreal before his father had him at the clarinet. When he finished his schooling he was apprenticed to an uncle, Ottavio Palange, who had a ready-made tailoring factory.
Ottavio Palange was an amateur clarinetist who enjoyed playing duets with old Rafael, and when Frank was good enough he joined the family musical circle at the Palange home. There he met a buxom young Palange cousin, Giovanna Leonelli, newly arrived from Alife, near Naples. Frank worked during the day as a tailor and at night he played in a movie orchestra. On week ends he played in the band at the concerts in Montreal’s old Dominion Park and fellow musicians envied young Masella for the dark-eyed girl who came to the park to listen to the music and who was escorted home by him afterward. By 1921 Frank was making enough money at his two occupations to marry Giovanna. In the next eighteen years they had an unbroken succession of boys, nine in all. One, the first Alfred, died at three.
During the Twenties Frank averaged close to fifty dollars a week as a tailor and added another thirty dollars weekly with his clarinet nights and week ends. After the birth of their second child, Peter, in 1924, they bought a piece of land on Drolet Street in nortH-~»r Montreal, a growing Italian-Canadian community. They built a two-story house with the help of a mortgage and there the other boys were born and grew up. When old Raphael fell ill and could no longer work he and his wife moved in with Frank’s family. They were warmly welcomed although it meant the eight boys had to sleep in one long room in four double beds.
There was lots of fun and noise and laughter in the Masella household, then as today. At rehearsals Frank was quiet and serious; at home he was a ribald mimic. His stocky frame and t>road shoulders would rock with laughter as he caricatured the conductor and some erring member of the orchestra.
With the depression of the Thirties, the tailoring establishment for which Frank worked went out of business. At the same time the talkies almost eliminated theatre orchestras and many musicians were unemployed. At this point, when the prospect for a musical career seemed bleakest, Frank resolved to make a musician of his oldest son, Ralph, who reached his eighth birthday in 1930.
Razor Strap Serenade
First he had the boy study musical theory. Then he pondered the choice of instrument. The violin, he thought, would be a fine one. But he didn’t know a good violin instructor in Montreal, and with his earnings now reduced to the few engagements he could secure with park bands and occasional radio performances, he could not afford expensive lessons. However, he did know Joseph Moretti, a clarinet teacher. They had played together in the orchestra at the Imperial Theatre. Perhaps Moretti would spare Ralph a half hour or so a month while Frank taught his son the fundamentals.
Moretti asked, “Did you start him?”
“Only theory, not the instrument,” Frank replied.
“Good,” said Moretti. “Show him nothing. If you try to teach him, I will not. Make sure he studies but do not correct his mistakes. Leave that to me.”
So Ralph was launched on his career as a clarinetist, but not happily. Like most youngsters he felt more interested in sports than study and one day after a particularly poor showing, Moretti met the father and reproached him for Ralph’s lack of application. Frank came home with fire in his eye. Young Ralph, playing ball in the back yard with some neighborhood boys, spotted his father’s return and as Frank came out the back door Ralph ducked in a side window, rushed to his music stand and picked up his clarinet. The gesture of appeasement came too late. Frank stormed into the room flourishing the razor strap. Ralph raised his clarinet instinctively to protect himself from a threatened blow and the strap caught the instrument and shattered it on the floor. While the father stared at the wreckage Ralph scuttled away and hid under a bed. Silently Frank gathered up the pieces of the broken clarinet. It belonged to the conservatory and there was no money in the house to replace it. Humbly he presented himself to Moretti and told him what had happened.
“But why did you wave the strap at
him?” asked Moretti indignantly.
Frank threw up his hands. “He will not work and I know he has the talent.”
“Yes, and you will kill the talent that way,” Moretti scolded. “After this, leave him to me. I will make him work. You are too excitable.”
Thereafter Ralph provoked no parental storms. Moretti glued the broken clarinet together and Ralph used it for nearly a year before he got another.
Moretti refused to accept any fees for Ralph’s instruction. For the next ten years Ralph studied under him, at first privately and then at McGill conservatory. Frank Masella remembers Moretti with deep gratitude. “I applied many times to the Province of Quebec and to the Dominion government for scholarships for my boys,” he said recently, “but the only scholarship that was ever granted came out of the pocket of Joseph Moretti.”
Moretti, at seventy still teaching both at McGill and the Province of Quebec Conservatoire in Monteal, says, “Ralph is a fine musician with a great talent. I was very glad to be able to help him as I am glad to help any promising artist.”
As the depression deepened, and the family steadi y increased at the rate of one newcomer every two years, Giovanna used all her ingenu :ty to stretch Frank’s slim weekly earnings. His chief income came from the band of the Grenadier Guards, which had a weekly radio broadcast that paid him exactly six dollars and seventy-five cents. Giovanna bought her flour in hundredpound sacks, then selling at two dollars and fifty cents a sack. She made her own spaghetti, cutting the strips with a knife. A bag of flour lasted just a month, with homemade spaghetti and ravioli as a staple of the family diet.
“But we always had plenty of food, even if we went without other things,” she remembers proudly. “It kept us healthy. None of my boys ever knew a doctor.”
The younger boys wore their older brothers’ hand-me-downs. Sometimes, though, Frank would come home after making the rounds of tailoring shops looking for work, and give way to his despair, sitting by the window, staring out, with baby Julio on his lap and tears trickling slowly down his cheeks. Then the older boys would go quietly to their rooms and start to practice. They knew that never failed to please their father.
Frank was known in the neighborhood as a hard worker and a conscientious family man, and his credit was good at the butcher who carried the Masella family for two hundred dollars. Similarly the milkman always left his daily five quarts though there was often no money in the house to pay him. Frank brought home his weekly earnings untouched and turned them over to Giovanna. He put the money on the dining-room table and the boys counted it with their mother, learning their first lessons in the value of a dollar. The only money Frank took back from Giovanna was for tram fare.
Although Frank was able to keep up the mortgage payments on his home, he was three years in arrears with taxes when Ralph, at the age of twelve, entered an amateur contest at the Imperial Theatre. It was for contestants over sixteen but Frank made a pair of long trousers for the boy and some three hundred schoolmates of Ralph’s all loyally wrote in their votes for him. Ralph won first prize and a cash award of forty dollars. When he appeared on the stage to receive the award, the theatre audience rocked with cheers to hear the youngster gravely admit that he was “just turned sixteen.” His forty dollars was his first contribution to the family budget. Nevertheless Frank finally had to cash in his insurance policies to pay off the last of the back taxes. Looking back he says, “Between 1930 and 1934 we saw many high-hat people lose everything. But we paid our bills and kept our home and we were just little people and we never went hungry. For all that Giovanna was the one most responsible.”
Ralph received a personal reward from his parents on his sixteenth birthday when they gave him a twohundred - and - twenty - dollar clarinet which he still treasures.
Frank had not wavered in his plans for the.rest of his children. They would become musicians too. The only question that was in his mind was the choice of an instrument for each, and he consulted long with Joseph Moretti. In every case the decision was based on two considerations: In what instruments were Montreal orchestras weak? Was there a good teacher available? When Peter reached the age of eight in 1932, he began his musical studies and before he was ten it was decided that he should play the oboe. Since the best oboe player in Montreal had no intention of teaching a potential rival, Joseph Moretti undertook Peter’s instruction. But the oboe turned out to be an expensive choice for there was a constant need of new reeds. A dozen reeds cost twelve dollars and didn’t last Peter a week. Giovanna at first tried to reshape the old reeds with a razor blade but finally Frank found another oboist who would supply them at twenty-five cents each and the financial crisis was solved.
As Peter progressed and the family fund built up, Moretti persuaded the Masellas to send Peter to New York where he could study with the first oboist in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Bruno Labate. It was not long before he was making his contribution to the family fund for the education of his younger brothers.
Joseph’s turn was next. It was decided that he should study the French horn because J. E. McDonald, the outstanding horn player of his time, was teaching at McGill. When McDonald fell ill, Joseph was sent to another professor, who told him bluntly that he had no talent for the French horn. The lad was discouraged and wanted to quit. Giovanna promptly arranged for him to get a job as a water boy on a construction gang. After one day in the bitter cold young Joseph returned in a chastened mood and resumed his practice. But his heart was not in it and he took a job in a clothing factory. Moretti sent for him.
“Listen to me,” the old man told him sternly, “I know what I am saying. You continue with the French horn and one day you will be the best. You will play a solo horn in Montreal.” Joseph went back to the ailing McDonald. Then a brilliant teacher from New York, Harry Berv, was engaged by the conservatoire and Joseph found his mentor. He quit his job and plunged into his studies. Today Moretti ranks Joseph Masella with the finest French horn players in America, one who has frequently turned down tempting offers from American orchestras.
The cello was the first choice for Rudolph because Raoul Duquette, an excellent teacher, was available at the time Rudolph was ready to start studying. A new kind of crisis developed in his case; he put on so much weight that he found it difficult to finger the upper registers of the instrument. Frank went into consultation with Moretti. They switched Rudolph to the bassoon where fat fingers are an asset in covering the stops. The boy developed an outstanding talent with the woodwind.
When Alfred’s turn came, Frank realized an ambition he had cherished for Ralph. Alfred would learn the violin. Madame Gilbert, a refugee of World War II from Paris, was teaching in Montreal and Alfred became a pupil. When she returned to Paris at the end of the war the family fund had become large enough to enable Alfred to continue his studies there. By now Joseph and Rudolph were contributing and Rudolph cheerfully gave up his plans for a new car to join in the financing of Alfred’s trip.
The piano was selected for Paul. He studied faithfully for five years. Then, one day, when he was thirteen, he announced to a startled household that he was giving up the piano. He would become a conductor. Frank raged. “I am the boss in this house,” he shouted, “you will do what I say!” The boy was unmoved. “I am going to be a conductor,” he repeated. Frank got out the razor strap and flourished it. The other boys disappeared. Giovann. wrung her hands in despair. Still Paul defied his father. “I am going to be a conductor,” he kept repeating. Frank flung the strap into a corner and went to see Moretti.
Moretti tried to reason with Paul. He recalled how Joseph had become
discouraged and how he had been persuaded to persist. And look at Joseph today; one of the best French horn players in the world! Paul had shown great talent with the piano, and there was a certain career ahead of him with it. But to be a conductor! It was a difficult career; he had to study harmony and counterpoint and he had to master at least one instrument. “I want to be a conductor,” Paul said.
At home the other boys tried to reason with Paul. Giovanna pleaded. Frank remained embittered and silent. This sudden and unreasonable rebellion was beyond his understanding. All the other boys had faithfully followed his bidding, and not one of them had regretted it. Did this thirteen-vear-old child think he knew better than his own father, and Moretti as well? Every time Frank considered the problem his hand itched for the razor strap, but he realized that wasn’t the solution.
For three years the home was tense and uneasy. Paul still refused to practice the piano. He read scores and talked musical theory. He applied for scholarships from the provincial and federal governments to enable him to study conducting. He went to John Newmark, renowned German accompanist, for advice and Newmark tried to interest him in studying the piano as an accompanist.
Then one day when he learned that his latest application for a scholarship had been rejected, Paul walked in the house and announced: “I am not going to be a conductor. I am going to study the French horn, and I do not wish to discuss the matter further.”
Two Well-Placed Knees
By this time the other members of the family were so eager to end the unhappy duel of wills that they greeted the announcement with delight. Today, at twenty-one, Paul is treading on Joseph’s heels with the French horn. He is now regarded by the rest of the family with grudging admiration as an incorrigible rebel.
The clarinet was selected for Mario and at seven he set out to conquer it. But he still had his baby teeth and when they fell out he was helpless to handle the reed. Frank handled the emergency firmly. Mario should switch to the violin to take advantage of Madame Gilbert’s presence in Montreal. Mario accepted his father’s decision without protest but the other brothers often saw him hard at his practice with big tears coursing silently down his cheeks as he mourned the vanished clarinet. Only once did Mario really let his feelings go. He carefully placed his violin on the floor, climbed on a bench and dropped on it, knees first. Frank quickly appeared with the razor strap. Mario today ranks with Alfred (the second Alfred) asa violinist.
Julio’s turn came in 1944. By now Harry Berv was teaching regularly in Montreal and Joseph’s amazing progress was attributed to the brilliant French horn instructor. Besides, good French horn players are so rare that mastery of the instrument is the musicworld’s closest equivalent to an endowment policy. Julio became a pupil of Berv and there are conductors in Montreal today who already rank him with Joseph, though he has just turned eighteen.
Thus were the careers of the musical Masellas launched. Once the decision ° so-, reached between Frank and Joseph Moretti on the chosen instrument, Giovanna stepped in with her clock, an implacable dispenser of justice. She frowned on any kind of sport that might injure or endanger the musical talent of her brood; skis and skates were out of the question. When m a game of street hockey Julio stopped a puck with his precious upper lip, eight hockey sticks were converted into kindling for the kitchen stove and street hockey joined the list of prohibited activities. The children all grew up healthy husky specimens who would have delighted the eye of a hockey coach but their youthful energies were mainly diverted into their music and their Saturday morning pillow fights which Giovanna tolerated in view of the softness of the weapons.
Practice was the order of the day, every day. To neighbors the racket was formidable. While the Masellas contend that the only complaints were caused by Paul playing the piano after midnight, cousin kirnest Palange, who spent two years in an adjoining flat has declared, “The trouble was that the rest of the Masellas could sleep through the practicing, but nobody else could.”
As each boy started to earn money he adopted the same practice as his father of bringing his earnings home untouched and turning them over to Giovanna. She handled the money and doled it out for specific expenses. When the boys started courting they turned to their father for extra funds, and he uncomplainingly bore the brunt of Giovanna’s scolding for his unexplained extravagances.
The family fund has financed a great part of the boys’ musical education. Ralph studied harmony and counterpoint at McGill and was sent by the family to the Juilliard School of Music in New York where he won a scholarship which was interrupted by World War II. He returned to Canada to join the RCAF band with Peter, and following the war their DVA credits helped to finance their studies at the Paris conservatory, where they were joined by Alfred and Mario.
In Paris Ralph distinguished himself by coming eleventh in a class of twelve in his first year and then taking first honors in his second year. He also placed second in a competition in (lene va against leading clarinetists from all over the world. He returned to Montreal after two years, but Peter stayed in Paris an additional two years at the conservatory, and Alfred spent six years there, returning to Montreal in 1953. Mario, too, returned to Montreal in 1953, after two years’ study in Paris.
The three older brothers, Ralph, Peter and Joseph, received their first opportunity with Les Concerts Symphoniques in Montreal in 1943 when a shortage of musicians caused the organization to open its ranks to younger musicians. Today Ralph is first clarinetist, Joseph is first French horn and Rudolph first bassoon with that orchestra. Peter is solo oboist with the Ottawa symphony. Alfred plays regularly with the Variétés Lyriques and Paul, Mario and Julio, who are still studying at the conservatoire,
have frequent radio engagements and often replace their older brothers.
Although the eight Masella sons have their astonishing musical talent in common, in other respects they display their individuality. Ralph, as the oldest son who helped to carry the load in the early Thirties, often acts as his father’s deputy and as family spokesman. He is serious, thoughtful and is regarded by the others as the family’s chief musical personality. Recently he married Dorothy Weldon, a leading Montreal harpist, raising the family’s orchestral strength to ten, including Papa Frank.
Peter is regarded as the family’s bon vivant and connoisseur of good food and fine wines. He loves to gamble and will make a bet on anything. Fortunately the stakes are modest; Giovanna taught them all the value of a dollar. Peter married the daughter of Joseph Moretti and lives with his father-in-law.
He Picks Gordie Howe!
Joseph is somewhat similar to Ralph in temperament, serious and conservative. He is the only graduate of the conservatoire in Montreal ever to have received a first prize for the French horn. Now he teaches there and in Quebec City. He also is married; both he and Peter have made Frank and Giovanna grandparents. With Ralph, Rudolph and Paul he shares an interest in photography.
The jovial rotund Rudolph loves a bet, but not an ordinary bet. He has a standing bet with Joseph that the Canadiens hockey team will lose each game by a score of three to one. He demands odds of ten to one and he bets twenty-five cents. A few weeks ago, to everyone’s surprise, he won. In what amounts to rank sedition in Montreal he loudly proclaims the superiority of Detroit’s Gordie Howe over Montreal’s idol, Maurice (Rocket) Richard.
Rudolph is fond of midnight snacks and practical jokes. Last summer he spent two months in Santa Barbara, Calif., studying the bassoon with Simon Kovar. There he stayed in a boarding house with thirty other students. They quickly developed the habit of dropping into his room every night and clearing him out of food. One night in exasperation he carefully removed the cream from between the layers of a pound of sandwich biscuits and substituted shaving cream. After his vistors had consumed the entire supply he gently explained what he had done. That ended the midnight visits.
Alfred is famous in the family group for his French manners. But he defends himself vigorously against their insults. He fell in love with his Paris instructor’s daughter and hopes to return to Paris to marry her one day.
Paul, the family rebel, still delights in holding minority opinions. In photography he maintains a tolerant contempt for the efforts of Ralph, Joseph
and Rudolph and makes them aware of his conviction about the superiority of his own products.
Mario is an enigma to his older brothers. “He has his tongue in his cheek, that one,” Ralph says of him. Mario likes to play gentle little jokes on the others but he is not malicious. Julio, youngest of the family, is similar in temperament to Mario. Musically, bright hopes are held out for him. Conductor Otto-Werner Mueller said of him recently, “This boy has something from the heart that is very rare. He may one day be our greatest.”
Frank himself has not slackened at fifty-five. He still makes the suits and topcoats for his family. At the recent wedding of Ralph and Dorothy Weldon, all the boys were handsomely turned out in their father’s products. Although the three oldest boys have their own homes now the others still live as they did in the past. Giovanna still makes her own spaghetti although now she has a machine to slice it. Served with a tomato or fish sauce, meatballs or rolled slices of pork, it is rated by the boys superior to all other spaghetti, surpassed only by Giovanna’s ravioli, which is so light that they think nothing of eating forty pieces at a sitting.
There is still a tremendous feeling of family solidarity among the Masellas. Each is quick in his praise of the others. But let one Masella make a mistake in a performance and he faces the ruthless criticism of the others. “What happened there?” he will be asked. “Can’t you count your bars?”
Today, thanks to their numerous engagements, the Masellas have a total annuali income close to forty thousand dollars. Three boys have cars, and Rudolph will add a fourth to the family fleet in the spring. Some other musicians have suggested that the family has become a kind of monopoly: To get a particular member, conductors have to engage other members. One conductor queried on this point said, “Perhaps if it is simply a commercial date the older Masella boys may indicate that they would feel better about it if one of the younger brothers was engaged too. But they are too honest as musicians to let such considerations occur with conductors whom they respect. The truth is that if you want a top French horn, for instance, you think immediately of Joseph, Paul, or Julio.”
At this writing as many as seven of the Masellas have played together in radio and concert engagements with large orchestras. Now the family ambition is to find a composer who will write a composition for two clarinets, three French horns, an oboe, a bassoon, two violins and a harp. The only time the whole family played together in a single unit was when they hit a few notes in unison for the benefit of a Maclean’s photographer.