Charles E Pearce.

Madame Vestris and her times online

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into a jest it is unrivalled." Listen certainly put
" himself whole " into Paul Pry. Paul, as the typical
busybody muddling everything he touches and un-
intentionally making mischief everywhere, has lasted
until to-day and will never be forgotten.

Poole tell us how the character suggested itself
to him. " An idle old lady," he says, " being in a
narrow street had passed so much of her time in
watching the affairs of her neighbours that she at
length acquired the power of distinguishing the
sound of every knocker within hearing. It happened
that she fell ill and was for some days confined to her
bed. Unable to observe in person what was going on
without, as a substitute for the performance of that
duty she stationed her maid at the window. But
Betty soon grew weary of the occupation ; she be-
came careless in her reports impatient and touchy
when reprimanded for her negligence.

" Betty, what are you thinking about ? Don't you
hear a double knock at No. 9 ? Who is it ? "

" The first-floor lodger, ma'am."

" Betty ! " after a pause, " why don't you tell me
what that knock is at No. 54 ? "

" Why, lord, ma'am, it is only the baker with pies."

" Pies, Betty ! What can they want with pies at
No. 54 ? They had pies yesterday," and so on.

Poole adds that Paul Pry was never intended as the
representation of any one individual, but of a class.
This may be so, but in Phoebe, the pert lady's maid
peculiar to " legitimate " comedy, it is pretty clear
he had Madame Vestris in his mind. Her character-
istics were faithfully reflected and must have been
recognised and appreciated. The following scrap of
dialogue between Phoebe and her mistress Laura could
have lost nothing coming from Vestris's lips, empha-
sised by her arch looks and roguish eyes.

" Laura. But you know, Phoebe, Mr. Oldbutton,
who is a very odd sort of man, has destined me for
Sir Spangle Rainbow.


" Phoebe. For Sir Spangle Rainbow ! Now if he
were the last man in the world, I wouldn't have
him !

" Laura. You wouldn't ?

" Phcebe. No. I eh ! The last man, did I say
why, perhaps that's promising too much. But lord,
madame ! Talking about being designed for Sir Spangle
I've no notion of such designing indeed. It's
having a wife per order it's likening us dear little
women to so many parcels of grocery in thus packing
us up, labelling and sending us home to the particular
customer. Do you take my advice, madame run
away with Captain Haselton and get married at

" Laura. Married ! I declare, Phcebe, I'm terrified
at the idea.

" Phoebe. Why, the idea is shocking to be sure ;
but I've heard say that marriage is like bathing in
cold water ; we stand shivering a long time at the
edge, when it's only one plunge and all is over."

Another extract, bringing in Haselton, reproduces
Madame in a different aspect, but one not less pro-
nounced :

" Haselton. My dear Phcebe, I can't express how
much I am indebted to you ; and if I were not brought
to my last five pounds

" Phcebe. You'd give me the whole ; as it is, I
suppose I must only hope for half.

" Haselton. Phcebe, you have but one error you
are too fond of money.

" Phcebe. My dear sir, that's the only fault I find
in you. These things in us are merely the little per-
quisites of office : a young lady in love is as profitable
to her chambermaid as a consumptive patient to the
physician. All we have to do, sir, is to take the fees
and let the malady work its own cure."

Laura enters and Haselton addresses her as his
" charming love," on which Phcebe exclaims : " Oh,
I suppose I may go now, madame ; you see the


advantage of having an intelligent waiting woman ;
I know when * loves ' and ' doves ' begin to fly about,
the presence of a third person acts as a scarecrow ;
I wouldn't spoil the precious minutes ; I am a woman
of experience, and have my own feelings on these
occasions. I'll go watch."

Phoebe's boast that she was " a woman of experi-
ence " must have tickled the audience immensely.
It was so true. It anticipates a little conversation
of later years between Mrs. Glover, Mrs. Humby,
and Mrs. Orger (the last two ladies as pretty as Vestris
herself), reproduced by Vandenhoff in his Recollections.
The subject was Madame' s marriage with Charles
Mathews : " They say," said Humby, with her quaint
air of assumed simplicity, " that before accepting
him Vestris made a full confession to him of all her
lovers. What touching confidence ! " she added archly.
" What needless trouble ! " said Orger drily. " What
a wonderful memory ! " wound up Glover trium-

The plot of Paul Pry calls for no description. The
play is written round the central character and nothing
else matters. What, however, makes Paul Pry mem-
orable at the present day though few people are
aware of the reason is that in it Madame Vestris
for the first time sang that most charming of English
ballads, " Cherry Ripe." It so happened that Mr.
George Perry (a well-known musician of the day and
twenty years later the leader of the Sacred Harmonic
Society's band under Mr. Surman, and afterwards
conductor during the Society's transition period
between Surman and Costa) was going over a pile of
new songs with Vestris, and after she had sung " Cherry
Ripe," Perry exclaimed, " Really, madame, that's a
very pretty song." " I think so too," was her reply ;
" I shall sing it to-night." She did sing it, and before
many days were over everybody was humming the
delightful melody. The composer was C. E. Horn,
a melodist of no ordinary ability. The now hackneyed


duet " I know a bank " is his, and so also was " I've
been roaming," almost as tuneful as " Cherry Ripe."
Paul Pry kept its place in the bills until nearly the
end of the season and had not lost its popularity in
1826, when pretty Mrs. Humby played Phoebe,
Madame Vestris having migrated to Covent Garden.
She returned, however, to take part in the performance
which wound up the 1826 season, when she delivered
a sort of poetical epilogue. The moment she appeared
the orchestra started " Cherry Ripe," upon which
she ran forward and interrupted the music. Then
with one of her most charming smiles she faced the
audience and began :

" Pray don't be alarmed, but sit quietly there :
I'm not going to sing ' Cherry Ripe,' I declare ;
But those fiddles, though quietly placed on their shelves,
Would from habit squeak out ' Cherry Ripe * of themselves.
No my visit just now is in kindness and pity,
To save you from almost so hackneyed a ditty.
The tribute of thanks in the self-same dull strain
You've endured, patient victors ! again and again.
I saw it impending ! This ominous hat
A true type of the ' usual address ' ' stale and flat,'
Farren dressed all in black with a grave, solemn face
And these four cruel pages of trite commonplace.

(Shows a paper.)

Hang such dull undertakers like work ! Whence the reason ?
We're not going to bury the Haymarket season.
Can't we part as we met ? In good humour ? If he be
Black on this night then my name isn't Phoebe ! "

(Tears the paper.)

There was a good deal more, but it was rather
laboured and may be omitted, especially as Vestris
left it unspoken.

We learn from the Mirror of the Stage that in 1825
Madame' s salary at the Haymarket was then thirty
guineas a week and twenty guineas at Covent Garden,
with an " understanding " at the latter theatre. By
" understanding " is meant certain emoluments either
at her benefit or otherwise " that shall increase the


real amount of her salary, and it is thus managed be-
cause twenty guineas is said to be the nil ultra of
Covent Garden." Nothing of importance during the
winter months of 1825 was put on at Covent Garden
in which Vestris had a share, save 'The Rivals, when
she played Lydia Languish.

The opera season opened as usual in February 1826,
but Vestris was not among the artists engaged. She
had done with the King's Theatre and with Velluti
too. It is more than likely that he hated her as
much as she hated him. The tall, thin, pallid Italian
with the singular voice which at times was distinctly
repellent, disliked women, and he showed this dislike
markedly on one occasion, the circumstances of which
are worth relating, not merely because the episode
caused no end of amusement at the time, but because
it throws an interesting sidelight on the status of
operatic chorus-singers and on their scale of pay.

Velluti was extremely mean, and towards the end
of the season he sent to the chorus a letter which was
read to them in the green-room and in which he
promised a guinea each in addition to their salaries
if they performed their parts well in an opera he was
getting up for his own benefit. The opera was given,
and the male choristers received their guinea each,
but the female portion received nothing, and conse-
quently they sued the Italian for the money. Velluti's
defence was that his promise was made to the men only,
he having addressed them in his letter " Signori
Coristi," in other words, " Gentlemen Choristers."
It was contended on behalf of the fair plaintiffs that
the phrase " Signori Coristi " was addressed to the
choristers in general, and that the chorus-master in
reading the letter to them in English interpreted it
" Ladies and Gentlemen."

Signer Velluti did not appear to defend the action,
which was tried at the Middlesex County Court, but
his counsel produced a letter which the ladies in
chorus protested was not the one which was read


to them. When called upon for the defence, Velluti's
lawyer said " the fact was the Signer had a decided
objection to the ladies and never allowed them to
appear in any piece in which he was concerned."
Upon this one of the fair claimants exclaimed, " Why,
he has beat time to me," and the others chorused,
" He pricks out the score for us," while the smart
girl who conducted the case for herself and comrades
indignantly cried, " He could not have done without
us, as we had solos which could not have been omitted."
At this point all the plaintiffs began talking at once,
and the officers of the court had some difficulty in
obtaining silence.

The judge characterised the defence as " paltry."
The ladies had performed the labour, and why, if
Velluti had so strong an objection to them, did he
not prevent them singing ? A friend of the Signer's
thereupon remarked that it was not the object of
the money but the mode in which it was demanded
that induced Velluti to defend the present proceedings.
This observation the judge brushed away contemp-
tuously with a " Psh ! psh ! I do not hesitate to say
I consider it a trumpery defence," and decided in
favour of the plaintiffs, who were overwhelmed with
compliments at their triumph.

The 'Times wound up its report of the proceedings
with some information regarding the unfair treatment
of the chorus ladies in force at the King's Theatre.
It appeared that according to the system of screwing
down the salaries of the minor performers in order
to give enormous sums to the principals, the lady
choristers had been paid during the first part of the
season at 5*. cftd. per night or us. yd. per week (there
were but two performances in the week), out of which
they had to buy shoes, gloves, and flowers adapted
to the costume of the various characters. They had
for some months to attend the rehearsals every day
from half -past nine to five ; on some days dress was
to be found them but was often neglected, and they


were seen performing the characters of Grecian origin
in the dresses of Spanish peasants, etc., and petticoats
of such extraordinary brevity that they might have
been mistaken for kilts were sent down to them from
the wardrobe. In the course of the season Signer
Velluti interceded for the gentlemen and obtained
an advance in their salary to 151. per night. The
ladies struck Madame Pasta pleaded in their behalf
and obtained the enormous advance of is. 2$d.,
making altogether js. per night.

Italian opera in 1826 does not concern us. Weber
was the rising star, and with his swan's song Oberon
Vestris was associated. Der Freischutz had during the
past two years been a stupendous success. It was
played at Covent Garden, at Drury Lane, at the Royal
English Opera House, otherwise the Lyceum, but,
strange to say, not at the King's Theatre. The
Italian singers tolerated Mozart and Winter because
their operas were in the Italian style ; Meyerbeer
would have had no chance save for the specialist
Velluti ; and Weber, whose genius was essentially
dramatic and who detested ornamental music, was
taboo. The weird, eerie music of Der Freischutz
appealed to the English, but they would not have
too much music, and, says Planche, " Nothing but the
Huntsmen's Chorus and the diablerie in Der Freischutz
saved that fine work from immediate condemnation
in England."

Charles Kemble, who was in 1826 guiding the
fortunes of Covent Garden Theatre, conceived the
idea that a new opera composed for that theatre by
Weber would be a great success. Weber was quite
willing, negotiations were entered into, and the
result was that the libretto of Oberon was prepared
by J. R. Planche.

Difficulties were encountered from the very first.
Beautiful as much of the music is, the plot and action
of Oberon are uninteresting despite Planche's skill
in versification and in devising dramatic situations.


For the latter, Planche contended, the average British
playgoer had no appreciation. " A dramatic situ-
ation in music," he says, was " caviare to the
gourmet," and inevitably received with cries of " Cut
it short " from the gallery and obstinate coughing
or other signs of impatience from the pit. Planche
thus found himself handicapped, as he was not free
to indulge his own taste.

But the drawbacks of the opera itself were nothing
to those presented by the company engaged to perform
in it. Charles Kemble had probably had very little
to do with singers or with music. No operatic entre-
preneur of the least experience would have dreamed
of producing a new and difficult opera with a cast only
one member of which could act as well as sing. This
exception was Vestris. Braham could sing gloriously
when he chose but was a miserable actor and had a
deplorable stage presence ; while the leading lady, Miss
Paton, whose voice was ' irreproachable, had not the
slightest notion of dramatic effect.

Fawcett, the stage manager, had a short way with
difficulties. Everything which could not be rendered
properly must be cut, and when at the first rehearsal
things were not satisfactory and there was a bungle
over the " Mermaid's Song," Fawcett called out
roughly, " That must come out it won't go ! "
" Weber," writes Planche, " who was in the pit
leaning on the back of the orchestra, so feeble that
he could scarcely stand without such support, shouted,
1 Wherefore shall it not go ? ' and leaping over the
partition like a boy, snatched the baton from the
conductor and saved from excision one of the most
delicious morceaux in the opera." Subsequently a
fitting representation of the part was found in a youth-
ful actress who, it was discovered, had a voice. This
was Miss Annie Goward, afterwards an idol of the
public when she became Mrs. Keeley. The part
was of no great signification, mostly dumb-show, the
" Mermaid's Song " coming in the finale to the


second act. It was some time, Mrs. Keeley's bio-
grapher tells us, before Miss Goward was tried and
not until several singers had failed to satisfy the
composer. At last she was put on and went through
the song feeling horribly nervous. She was delighted
when Weber came up to her at its termination and
patting her hand said, " My child, dat song vill do."

The anxieties of the rehearsals were not lessened
by the inefficiency of Miss Paton. In the shipwreck
scene she had to wave her scarf as a signal of distress,
and her way of doing it was to catch up the short
end of a sash tied round her waist and give it a little
twist. " That woman's an inspired idiot," was Charles
Kemble's despairing cry, while Weber limped up and
down the room silently wringing his hands !

Then there was Braham craving for something
in his own particular line that would rouse the gallery
to enthusiasm. He was not contented with the fine
air Weber had written for him, as it did not give him
scope for display. Weber, after great persuasion
had been used, consented to suppress, or rather transfer
to the overture, Huon's opening song, and wrote
the warlike aria, " Oh, 'tis a glorious sight to see," for
years a stock piece of robust tenors and especially of
Sims Reeves, who used to declaim it magnificently.
Braham was successful, but his success gave no pleasure
to Weber, whose opinion of the English singer and
the English public was considerably lowered thereby.

Eleven years later Braham, who had no regard for
anything save that which kept him in the limelight,
produced at the St. James's Theatre, which he built
and which ruined him, a version of Oberon which was
little better than a burletta. With an eye towards
infringement of copyright he had fresh words written
for the soprano scena, " Ocean, thou mighty monster,"
and his own song, " Oh, 'tis a glorious sight to see,"
and other parts; but his caution did not save him.
The owners of the original libretto took proceedings
against him, whereupon it was explained in defence


that the singers were so accustomed to sing the old
words that they sometimes dropped into them and for-
got the new ones. At other times they mixed them up !
The jury at the Middlesex Sessions apparently did
not think the plaintiffs had suffered much injury,
and assessed the damages at 40^.

Apart from the troubles incidental to the production
of the opera, Weber suffered from depression of
spirits arising from a mortal disease. He was extremely
sensitive, and when he arrived in London he had the
mortification of seeing Rossini feted in every direction
while he himself was neglected. But Weber was in
no sense fitted socially for the admiration of the
" fashionables." Miss Fanny Kemble describes him
as " a little thin man lame of one foot and with a
slight tendency to deformed shoulder. His hollow,
sallow, sickly face bore an expression of habitual
suffering and ill-health, and the long hooked nose,
salient cheek-bones, light prominent eyes, and spec-
tacles were unattractive." Rossini was a bon vivant,
gay and vivacious, and what is called " good com-
pany." The contrast was inevitable ; nevertheless
Weber took it much to heart.

" One of the first visits he paid to Covent Garden,"
says Miss Kemble, " was in my mother's box to hear
Miss Paton and Braham (his prima donna and tenor)
in an oratorio followed by Rob Roy. He was enthu-
siastic in his admiration of Braham' s fine performance
of . . .* Deeper and deeper still,' but when in
the second part of the concert Braham . . . was
tumultuously encored in the pseudo-Scottish ballad
1 Blue bonnets over the border/ he was extremely
disgusted and exclaimed two or three times, ' Ah,
that is beast ( ( Ah, cela est bete ! ')." Later on Braham
sang " Scots wha hae " with a flourish of his stick in
the last verse a piece of claptrap at which Weber
expressed unbounded astonishment and contempt.

Oberon, or The Elf King's Oath, to give the opera its
full title, was produced on April izth, 1826. The


applause was tumultuous on Weber entering and
seating himself at the piano. The poetical and
picturesque overture delighted everyone who could
appreciate good music, but its full effect was spoilt
by the late arrivals and the banging of doors. The
opera as a whole was a success, though it did not appeal
to those who expected a second Der Freischutz. The
critics were enthusiastic in their praises, the Morning
Post exhausting its superlatives and speaking of the
scenery and production generally as " unequalled in
the history of the stage," but the man-in-the-street
was not impressed. There was nothing in Oberon
which he could take up and whistle or hum. The
music was too refined, too much above his head,
nor did the fairy-tale plot lay hold of him in any

The opera ran for twenty-eight nights without
intermission, and from the sublime came a drop to
the ridiculous in the shape of Giovanni in London
and Joey Grimaldi in " a romantic melodrama "
entitled Robinson Crusoe \ Charles Kemble no doubt
knew his business, but one wonders whether the
audiences which applauded those samples of vulgar-
ity were those who had appreciated the delicate
delights of Oberon. The sudden thrusting of this
stuff between the performances of a work on which
Weber had lavished all his gifts of poetic genius and
his marvellous musical imagination must have em-
bittered his closing days. He was conscious that if
Oberon was not a failure, it had not won the heart-
whole admiration of the English people.

The opera was put on again, but the composer's
vitality was at too low an ebb to care one way or the
other. His gentle soul passed away on June 3rd, at
Sir George Smart's house in Dean Street, Soho, to
the great grief of all who knew him personally and
understood his sensitiveness. Oberon remains to this
day one of the masterpieces of opera rarely performed
in its entirety. Its overture, matchless in its delicate

(From the collection of the late A. M. Broadlev.


fancy, is however a familiar item to-day in orchestral
programmes, and never fails to delight.

Before the summer season ended, thirty-two per-
formances were given, and during November and
December twelve more, Vestris appearing as Fatima,
save on two nights of indisposition when Miss Goward
acted as her under-study. If the run of the opera
was not that which Kemble expected, it was long
enough to furnish a strong contrast to Aladdin, a
romantic opera brought out in hot haste at Drury
Lane with the amiable intention of forestalling Oberon
and spoiling its effect. The music was by Bishop,
and it had the advantage of Miss Stephens's incompar-
able voice, but it proved a frost and was withdrawn
after five days' trial. Braham, meeting Tom Cooke,
the Drury Lane musical conductor, shortly after,
was asked by the latter how the Covent Garden opera
was going. " Magnificently," cried Braham enthu-
siastically, " and not to speak profanely, it will run
to the day of judgment." " Pooh, my dear fellow,
that's nothing," retorted Cooke, who never could
resist a joke, " ours has run five days afterwards ! "



Vestris at the height of her popularity as a ballad singer. Poetical
homage to the lively actresses of the day. Madame Vestris severely
censured by the moralists. A gross attack upon her in Oxberry's
Theatrical Biographies. Scandalous stories. Her alluring personality.
The Age and its scurrilities. The Morning Chronicle's insulting
allusions. A skit in the Age upon Madame's energies. The Age
her champion. She performs in Dublin. A slander refuted. Hints
of blackmail.

IN 1826 Eliza Vestris reached the height of her popu-
larity as a ballad singer. The music dealers vied with
each other to secure the right of publishing the songs
with which she was identified. " ' Buy a Broom ' with
an original and finely-executed portrait of Madame
Vestris (in character)," ran one advertisement. " Love's
Labour Lost " and " Woman's Smiles and Tears,"
by Alexander Lee, " Light Guitar (4th edition), John
Barnett," " Maiden, heedful be," also by John Barnett,
and many more all now forgotten found many
purchasers. Vestris, however, was not the only
theatrical goddess. Other pretty, fascinating women
all playing light comedy and each with individual
charm sought to rival her. Probably such a galaxy
of feminine beauty and liveliness has never before nor
since sought to delight the British public as was on
the boards at that time. But there was only one
Vestris. She was imitated but not equalled. An
anonymous poetaster in an attempt to describe the
effect upon him of the popular stage divinities burst
into the following doggerel :



For Miss Love how I languish, for Kelly feel anguish,
Then Foote too can vanquish as Hayne will declare.
I gaze on West's pretty eye, at Graddon's sweet ditty sigh,

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Online LibraryCharles E PearceMadame Vestris and her times → online text (page 10 of 24)