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Squarise, Raffaello


Violinist, composer, music teacher, conductor

This biography, written by John D. Drummond, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.

Raffaello Squarise – also known as Raphael – was born, probably on 13 November 1856, in Vicenza, north-eastern Italy. His father was Davide Antonio Squarise, a sculptor; his mother's name is unknown. At the age of 12 Raffaello entered the Liceo Musicale in Turin; he graduated in 1875 or 1876 with a master's diploma in violin and composition. After a year's tour as a concert artist in an ensemble he served for four years as a military bandmaster in the Veneto. On his discharge he emigrated to Australia.

Within hours of arriving in Melbourne in August 1882 Squarise was hired by the Williamson, Garner and Musgrove opera company. The orchestra needed a leader, but needed a cellist more, and Squarise was promised the former job if he undertook the latter, at least until another cellist was found. Being an accomplished cellist as well as a violin virtuoso he accepted with alacrity. After a 10-month tour of Australian centres he settled in Adelaide.

Squarise undertook a wide range of musical activities in Adelaide. He led the Theatre Royal Orchestra, directed the South Australian Military Band – achieving the rank of lieutenant bandmaster – and formed a civilian band. He taught violin and other stringed instruments as well as music theory, performed chamber music, and led the orchestra of the Academy of Music. He also composed an opera ( The magic dice ), sacred works, and music for piano and violin (including a concerto to be played on one string). On 5 June 1887 in Adelaide, he married Camilla Louise Villanis. Louise, as she was known, was a widow and the daughter of Swiss surgeon Jean Chapuis; there were no children of the marriage.

Such was Squarise's involvement in musical affairs in Adelaide that his departure for Dunedin, New Zealand, in 1889 was viewed with alarm. He had been appointed leader of the orchestra formed for the New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition, held in Dunedin from November 1889 to April 1890. His performing abilities were instantly recognised by the public, and his willingness to participate in every kind of music-making made him popular. He led the orchestra with authority, judged the band competitions, and his own symphony was so successful it was selected by concert-goers for one of the 'plebiscite concerts'. By the end of the exhibition Squarise had decided to stay, and after a brief visit to Adelaide to settle his affairs he and Louise moved permanently to Dunedin.

Squarise's first task was to establish himself as a teacher, and with the pianist Arthur Barmeyer he founded the Otago Conservatorio of Music. The inaugural concert was given on 26 June 1890 in the Choral Hall where lessons and classes were to be held. A chamber music subscription series followed, but the Conservatorio closed after a year and Squarise taught thereafter at his own home. Under his direction the Dunedin Garrison Band won a major prize in the 1891 competitions; the players were so pleased with him that they spontaneously serenaded him one evening in his own garden in Pitt Street. Squarise also conducted the Dunedin Liedertafel (later to be the Royal Dunedin Male Choir) and other choirs.

In March 1891 Raffaello Squarise was appointed honorary conductor and choirmaster at St Joseph's Cathedral. On 18 August he attended a Masonic installation, and the next day received a letter from the cathedral authorities pointing out that 'a Catholic who figures prominently as a Freemason cannot consistently hold the position of Catholic Cathedral Choirmaster'. In angry astonishment Squarise sent the letter to the Otago Daily Times for publication, and this widened the breach. Not until 1915 did he return to St Joseph's as choirmaster, holding the position with honour until 1929.

By the end of 1892, when he presented the Messiah at the Garrison Hall with a chorus of 250 and an orchestra of 50, Squarise had become one of a talented group who were to develop enormously Dunedin's enthusiasm for and participation in classical music. As a result of their efforts the musical life of the city grew to impressive proportions in quantity and quality. Squarise's contribution was recognised in May 1905 when he became a member of the council of the Society of Musicians of Otago as well as president of the society.

In 1893 and 1894 Squarise's energies went into opera. On 21 September 1893 he opened a short season of Rossini's The barber of Seville at the Princess Theatre, with local performers. On 8 November 1894 he presented, with great success, his own 'new comic opera', Fabian, with a libretto by Donald Cargill and a cast of 120 including a military band. Squarise's teaching skills were also becoming evident: in 1896 the three leading students in Trinity College (London) senior violin examinations were his.

Teaching successes led Squarise, in 1904, to form a string orchestra. Adding wind and brass players from the Dunedin Citizens' Band, which he also conducted, made a full symphony orchestra. On Friday 16 September it gave its inaugural concert, and the first subscription series of the Dunedin Philharmonic Society began on 13 December. Twenty-eight seasons in all were to be given, all but one under Squarise's baton. The Philharmonic shared some players with the Dunedin Orchestral Society which had given its first concert in 1888; from 1904 until 1933 Dunedin's small population could provide enough skilled and enthusiastic players and large enough audiences to sustain two large orchestras. An audience of about a thousand was normal at Squarise's orchestral concerts in the early twenties, and as early as 1906 he had sufficient forces to tackle large-scale works like Tchaikovsky's overture 1812.

The success of the Philharmonic was due to Squarise's skills as a music director and teacher. During its first 21 years 200 of his pupils played in the orchestra. Squarise saw it as 'a means of uplifting the artistic taste of our people', for 'the influence of good music…makes for better and nobler citizenship'. He was also anxious to present 'in public modern music that otherwise would be known to us only by name'. To this end the orchestra performed works like Tchaikovsky's Pathétique symphony and Sibelius's Finlandia, and works by Massenet, Glazunov, Puccini, Wagner and Liszt. In 1927 Squarise began a series of concerts for primary and secondary schoolchildren. The orchestra's tour to the New Zealand International Exhibition in Christchurch in 1907 was a success with all but the Lyttelton Times critic.

Squarise also included his own compositions in concerts: his Symphony in C minor, composed for his graduation at the age of 19, and, during the First World War, a whole series of marches including 'La fanfare militaire', 'En route', 'Our boys at the front', and 'Onward Otago'. His Military caprice for orchestra and brass band was always a great success as was his descriptive piece The battle of Sedan. His vocal works included a Mass, a Miserere and an Ave Maria with harp solo. In 1910 he composed a funeral march in memory of King Edward VII – a nice parallel to the dead march he had composed in Adelaide in 1888 for the memorial service of Kaiser Wilhelm I. He also composed a grand funeral march for Richard Seddon in 1906.

In 1925 the New Zealand and South Seas International Exhibition returned to Dunedin. Squarise was approaching 70 and now sat on the music committee with James Coombs and Victor Galway. However, around him the world was changing: it was a time of economic uncertainty, and the combined attractions of the cinema, jazz music and the gramophone resulted in falling attendances for his orchestral concerts. From a peak of 357 subscribers in 1920 there was a steady decline to only 190 in 1930. On 26 June 1933, in his mid seventies, Squarise retired from the rostrum and public life, after conducting (to a disappointingly small audience in the town hall) a rousing performance of his Military caprice by both of the Dunedin orchestras and the Otago Regimental Band.

'Old Square Eyes' had been described as 'Dunedin's chief musical asset'. Now he led a quiet retirement. Louise Squarise died at Dunedin on 9 July 1941, and Raffaello followed four years later, at Roxburgh, on 15 April 1945.

How to cite this page:

John D. Drummond. 'Squarise, Raffaello', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2s38/squarise-raffaello (accessed 18 July 2024)