T. L. (Thomas Lamb) Phipson.

Voice and violin : sketches, anecdotes, and reminiscences online

. (page 2 of 19)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

the valet, who appears to have been half-witted,
was so grieved at having betrayed such a kind
master that he completely lost his reason. In
a fit of insanity he stabbed the Count as he was
coming downstairs, on the 22nd July 1812, and
on meeting the Countess as he rushed upstairs,
he stabbed her also. He then shot himself. All
three died.

Thus ended the days of one of the most delight-
ful of operatic singers, and a most praiseworthy



A NOTORIOUSLY eccentric French violinist, Alex-
andre Boucher, claimed to be the composer of the
music of the national air known as the '' Marseil-
laise," and this claim seems to be admitted by
several French writers.

Although I never admired either the words or
the music of this great national '* hymn," the cir-
cumstances under which it was produced are so
exceedingly curious that they appear to me well
worth reporting.

Some authors have stated that Rouget de I'lsle,
an officer of the artillery, was the writer, not only
of the words, but of the music, of the '^ Marseil-
laise." It has now been proved that he did not
compose the music, nor did he write the last verse.
The seventh and last verse, commonly known as
'' le strophe des enfants," was by another hand. For
a long time it was attributed to the talented young
poet Andre Chenier, who perished on the scaffold,
and somewhat later it was supposed to be written
by another poet named Louis Francois Dubois.


One day, during the Reign of Terror, the report
spread that a priest, who had refused to take the
oath to the Republic, had been caught in the act
of solemnising a religious marriage, and was to be
brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal that
same afternoon.

He was known as the Abbe Pessoneaux, and the
fact of his arrest created a great sensation, so that
the court was crowded.

It was a large room, at the upper end of which
stood an oblong table covered with a black cloth.
Seated around it were seven self-constituted
judges. Besides the tricolour scarfs round their
waists, they wore, suspended by a ribbon from
their necks, a small silver axe. As a rule there
was very little speechifying : " la mort sans phrases "
— death without any words — had become the
fashion since the execution of the innocent but
weak Louis XVL

An eye-witness has told us that on this occasion
half-a-dozen prisoners w^ere brought in, and taken
away, without arousing the slightest excitement in
court. After having listened to a case, the judges
either extended their hands on the table or put
them to their foreheads. The first movement
meant acquittal and liberation ; the second, death
— not always by the guillotine, for that instrument
did not work quickly enough to satisfy these blood-
thirsty rascals.


Suddenly the priest was brought in, and a
death-Hke silence prevailed through the whole
building. He was not a very old man, though his
hair was quite white.

** Who are you ? " asked the President of the

The prisoner drew himself up to his full height,
and replied calmly, ^^ I am the Abbe Pessoneaux,
formerly a tutor in the town of Vienne, and the
author of the last strophe of the ^ Marseil-
laise.' "

An electric impression was caused by these words,
every one seemed stunned, and the silence in the
crowded court became so oppressive, it is said, that
you could hear the people breathing. The Presi-
dent did not say another word ; the reply of the
Abbe had apparently stunned him also. Soldiers,
gaolers, and armed ruffians, all stood as if petrified ;
every eye was directed towards the table, watching
for the movement of the judges' hands.

Slowly and deliberately they stretched their
hands forth upon the black table, and at the
same moment a deafening cheer rang through the

On the 30th July 1792, the volunteers of Mar-
seilles, invited by Barbaroux, at the instance of the
celebrated and unfortunate Madame Roland,
marched to Paris, singing this song, which so
enchanted the Parisians that they called it the


'' Hymne des Marseillais." On their way to Paris,
to be present at the taking of the Tuilieries on the
loth August, these '' horrid red men" had stopped
at the town of Vienne to celebrate the fete of the
Federation, and on the eve of their arrival the
Abbe Pessoneaux had composed the verse alluded
to above. Had he not been arrested, as just re-
lated, the authorship of this last verse of the " Mar-
seillaise " would have always remained a matter of
conjecture, for we are assured that Rouget de I'lsle
would never have acknowledged his indebtedness.

The artillery officer did not write a note of the
music. This was composed by the then celebrated
violinist Alexandre Boucher, in 1790, in the
drawing-room of Madame de Mortaigne, and at
the request of a colonel whom the violinist never
met before, and never saw^ again. That officer
was about to start with his regiment for Marseilles,
and pressed Boucher to wTite him a new march.
Rouget de I'lsle, during the time that he was im-
prisoned in 1 79 1 for having refused to take a
second oath to the Constitution, heard this march
from his cell, and, at the instance of his goaler,
adapted to it the words of a patriotic song he was
then writing.

The violinist Boucher was a short, stout man,
and so ridiculously like Napoleon Buonaparte that
he was once induced by the Emperor of Russia to
dress himself as Napoleon I., in order that the


Russian sovereign might show his mother what
that French Emperor was hke.

Alexandre Boucher was certainly a clever
musician^ and when Paganini, who was very fond
of the highest notes of the violin, came to Paris,
Boucher accused him of stealing his ^^ little birds."
It may be well imagined with what surprise
Boucher heard the ^^ Marseillaise " sung every-
where, when he recognised it as his own music,
though it had been very slightly altered to suit the

A good many years afterwards the violinist met
Rouget de I'lsle at a dinner party in Paris. He
had never seen him before, and he took this
opportunity of complimenting him upon his poem
of the '' Marseillaise."

'' You do not say a word about the musky'
remarked the officer, '' and yet, being an eminent
violinist, it ought to interest you — do you not like
it ? "

^' Oh ! very much indeed ! " exclaimed Boucher,

^'Well, I will be frank with you," added the
other, '' the music is not mine ; it is that of a
military march which came Heaven only knows
whence, and which they kept on playing at Mar-
seilles during the Reign of Terror whilst I was a
prisoner in the fortress St. Jean. I made a few
alterations to suit the words, that was all."


Boucher then hummed the march as he had
originally written it.

^'Tiens, tiens ! how did you come by it?"
inquired the astonished author of the words ; and
when Boucher told him how it was he himself
who had composed the march, Rouget de I'lsle
threw his arms round the neck of the violinist and
said to him, ^^ Your music and my words go so
well together that if I were to proclaim to the
world my indebtedness to you I should never be

^' Keep it, keep it, by all means," said Boucher,
moved by the other's candour; '^without your
genius my march would be quite forgotten ere
now. It shall be yours for ever ! "

This scene, although related by Boucher him-
self, is believed in France to be a perfectly accu-
rate account ; and I am of opinion that we must
look upon it as historical.

The artillery officer, Rouget de I'lsle, must have
written his poem with the din of the march con-
stantly ringing in his ears, and finally noted down
this very music to which his words were afterwards
sung. He was evidently somewhat of a musician,
and up to the year i860 he was generally credited
with the words and the music of the ^^ Marseillaise."

Anyhow, the words, though rather sanguinary,
are perhaps worth more than the music, which is
certainly a very mediocre piece of composition.


much less beautiful and spirited than the '^ Marche
aux Flambeaux " of the Rev. Scotson Clark, or the
beautiful ''Hope March" of Guido Papini, which
are so often performed by modern violinists, and
so dear to the members of string orchestras and
military bands.



Between Milan and that long branch of the
Lago di Como on which is situated the little town
of Lecco, lies the smiling district known to Italians
as La Brianza, consisting mainly of a series of
hills, the subsidence, as it were, of the vast moun-
tain waves that rear their rugged crests above the
little town just named. In October, when the
sun is still hot, but when the heat is no longer
oppressive, every cottage of this district displays
the splendour of the golden maize, hung out upon
the walls between the gnarled black stems, and
broad green leaves of the trellised vine, and the
mulberry, forming a picturesque foreground to
the glorious view which extends over the plain
of Lombardy.

The peasants of La Brianza are no less pictur-
esque. They are a fine, handsome, industrious, and
thriving race. They are adepts in the cultivation
of the mulberry and the rearing of the silk-worm.
The women display the type of beauty depicted

by the great masters of the Lombard school —

^^ B


light brown hair, oval faces, and wide foreheads ;
they have an ease and grace of attitude, mingled
with simplicity and dignity, which seem to be
innate. The head is either shaded by a wide-
bordered straw hat, very becoming to the face
beneath it, or the hair is gathered into a coil at
the back of the head and secured by a number of
large-knobbed hairpins arranged in a semicircle.
The feet are usually bare, and the short-skirted
dress is made of a delicious red colour.

In the midst of this sunny, smiling, fruit-laden
district lies the village of Monticello. It is placed
on a high ridge of ground commanding grand
panoramic views. At present the road rises to it
from the little railway station at Usmate, situated
some four or five miles away, down in the plain,
where flourish thickets of acacia and chestnut
trees, which seem like mere tufts of verdure in
the distance. From the broad flat terrace, on
which stands the church of Monticello, the view
spreads over the vast plain of Lombardy, with its
exquisite gradations of colour, its villas and gardens
appearing like toy houses on a tray of flowers.
Here and there the distant gleam of a small town
shows like a handful of white pebbles scattered on
that particular spot. On the side of a neighbouring
slope, tinged with a delicate purple bloom, a tali
campanile, or bell tower, rings out the hours to the
sunny land around, chronicling with its changeless


tone the passing day, whilst the Hght breeze wafts
with the sound the scent of a thousand flowers.

The indescribable delicacy of tint bestowed by
the Italian atmosphere is as charming to the eye
as is an exquisite melody to the ear. Whilst the
sun declines and the shadows lengthen, the gaze
wanders over the immensity of the distant plain,
where everything is softened into a delicious
harmony that awakens in our hearts a feeling of
infinite sadness and infinite tenderness. As the
shadows lengthen, and the lights glow with a
mellower golden hue, whilst the great hills in the
distance assume the delicate blush of the rose, the
vast plain darkens into a deeper blue, and the
little white winding roads which intersect the
country in all directions grow fainter in the short-
lived twilight, and soon disappear.

Such was the birthplace of Brigitta Banti, one
of the greatest singers Europe has ever known.
It was also, some years later, that of the celebrated
composer Donizetti, whose delicious music has
added new charms to our earthly existence.
• •••••

But we must now change the scene and carry
our thoughts to Paris, at a time when the unfor-
tunate Louis XVI. had been upon the throne just
four years — at a time when literature, music, and
the line arts made that city the most brilliant
capital of Europe — when the youthful and beautiful


Queen Marie Antoinette was admired by all classes
of society, and when the greatest of all social
convulsions was preparing in the fair land of
France, as a natural consequence of the excessive
corruption which had characterised the reigns of
the previous three monarchs.

Ten years before the fatal outbreak, on a fine
evening in July 1778, the peaceful citizens stroll-
ing along the streets, or seated before the little
white marble tables placed in front of a cafe at
the corner of the Rue de la Michodi^re which
forms an angle with the Boulevard, were astonished
by the magnificent voice of an itinerant musician
— a handsome Italian girl, who accompanied her-
self upon an old guitar.

The effect she produced upon her miscellaneous
audience was most remarkable. People stopped in
their evening stroll, and stood in compact masses to
listen to the plaintive melody and delicately executed
cadenza ; even the carriages of the aristocracy drew
up for the same purpose, and children climbed upon
the trunks of the trees to see what was going on.

A tall, dark, elegant girl, apparently not yet
twenty years of age, was the cause of all this
wonder. She had an old guitar, soiled, battered,
and scratched, swung from her well-formed shoul-
ders, and she sang to its soft accompaniment, and
in exquisite style, the most beautiful and brilliant
airs of the operatic repertoire.


Her performance elicited thunders of applause,
at which she smiled and bowed gracefully in ac-
knowledgment as she held out her hand to receive
the proffered coin. Her receipts for that evening
alone might have been envied by more than one
accomplished artist of the minor theatres.

The girl's face was bronzed and handsome ; her
hair black as jet, as were her large expressive eyes;
her hands were soft and delicate as those of a
princess. But the greatest wonder of all was her
luscious voice. It was of enormous compass,
sonorous, flexible, and of exquisite sweetness.

Bravura airs, love songs, humorous ditties, and
rich fioritura flowed forth successively, to the in-
expressible delight of the listeners. Never before
had the loungers on the Boulevards experienced
such an unexpected treat ; and many well-known
connoisseurs did not hesitate to assert loudly that
they had never heard such singing as this.

There were several great singers conspicuous
in the Parisian world at that time, and, among
others, the celebrated Grassini ; w^hilst some who
were greater still, such as the charming and ac-
complished Gabrielli, yet lived in the recollection
of the public. The vocalisation of the tall, dark-
eyed Italian girl must therefore have been very
extraordinary to have attracted so much attention,
and to have eHcited such decided opinions from
dilettanti of all classes.


With equal ease and success this naturally gifted
musician gave her audiences the Spanish bolero
and the rapid Italian tarantella; but her singing
was, if possible, still more effective in the pathetic
cavaiina, intermingled with elaborate and graceful
fioritura. In the latter the listeners recognised
and thoroughly appreciated the true Italian style,
the romantic school ])ar excellence^ with its broad,
graceful phrasing, and exquisite expression. No
music ever reached the heart like this ; and whilst
the pure, fresh, silvery tones of the girl's voice rose
in the still evening air, the faces of the bystanders
were alternately suffused with tears or lit up by
smiles as the song proceeded ; not a person
moved lest a single note of the sublime melody
should be lost, and at the conclusion of the final
cadenza long and loud applause echoed through
the streets.

When the young singer had finished her songs
in that locality and was about to retire, whilst the
carriages began to move on, and the loungers
resumed their promenade, a gentleman of about
fifty years of age, who, with his arms fixed motion-
less upon one of the little marble tables of the
cafe, and his eyes riveted upon the girl, had
listened with astonishment and delight to her
performance, beckoned to her to approach, and
slipped a gold piece into her hand.
'' What is your name ? " he inquired.


*' Brigitta," replied the girl.

^' How old are you ? "

" Nineteen, Monsieur."

^^ Who taught you music ? "

'' My father."

^^ How long did you learn ? "

^' Two months."

'^ But two months could not have enabled you
to learn all those songs ! "

^' No, but I can sing what I hear sung. I re-
peat the airs until I know them myself."

After some further conversation of the same
kind he added —

^' But would you not like to become a singer
at the Opera ? You seem very fond of music —
you feel what you sing — would it not be better
to study for the operatic stage than to sing about
in the streets as you do ? "

At these words the girl's eyes filled with tears ;
and as they trickled down her finely sculptured
features, she replied in bitter tones —

" How is it possible, Monsieur, that a poor girl
like me, without education, without a friend in the
whole world, can ever hope for such a thing as
you speak of ! No, Monsieur ; my destiny, alas !
is to live and die a poor itinerant musician —
a miserable street singer ! "

The man who had thus entered into conversa-
tion with the girl was no other than M. Devismes,


who had been for many years manager of the
French Opera, but had then retired from that
position. But he still retained a certain amount
of influence in the musical world ; he was re-
cognised as a person of tact and of considerable
experience; besides being a man of kind disposition
and good taste. In this handsome Italian girl he
imagined that he had discovered a real treasure
for the lyric drama ; and he was profoundly
grieved when he found that his remarks had
wounded her pride ; for she was evidently am-
bitious by nature, and, like many Italians, ex-
tremely sensitive.

He seized her hand as he said, ^' Listen, my
young friend, I had no intention whatever of
hurting your feelings ; on the contrary, I am so
pleased with what I have heard of your singing
that I will see whether something cannot be done
for you."

Then taking a card from his pocket-book, he
added : ^' This is my address. If you will call
at my house to-morrow at mid-day, you shall
meet some gentlemen who may feel disposed to
take an interest in your affairs, and thus enable
you to embrace a better career."

The girl nodded assent, and withdrew. Her
heart was too full to speak.

Next day Devismes awaited her arrival with no
small amount of impatience. She knocked at the


door of his residence at the appointed hour.
Several musicians of note were already there.
The conversation of the preceding evening was
repeated to them, and the young singer added to
what she had already said, that her name was
Brigitta Banti, that she was born in the little
Italian village of Monticello d'Ongina above
mentioned, where her father was formerly a
minstrel, a violin player, and found it very
difficult to support his family by the exercise of
his profession. A premature death had carried
him off, leaving his widow totally unprovided for.
Brigitta, who possessed a fine voice, had w^andered
from village to village, from town to town, singing
for her daily bread.

To the gentlemen assembled at M. Devismes'
house she sang some of her best songs ; and they
could not disguise their admiration. One of them
played a cavatina by Sacchini to test her capa-
bilities, and after hearing it played twice, she
sang it perfectly. An air of Gliick's composition
was then tried in the same manner, and she was
no less successful in this second attempt.

It was there and then decided that her edu-
cation should be provided for, the services of
proper instructors engaged, and that Brigitta
Banti should be, with as little delay as possible,
transformed into an educated prima donna.

In a very few months she gave her masters the


most astonishing promise of future excellence ;
and shortly, indeed, she did become, as all musi-
cians are aware, one of the finest singers in the

After meeting with unexampled success at the
various Opera Houses of Italy, France, Austria,
and Germany, she eventually came to London,
where she remained a favourite prima donna for no
less than ten years (i 792-1 802), giving constant
delight to her audiences, and where she was asked
to marry the son of a well-known nobleman.
But this offer she refused, in a very amiable but
firm manner, on the plea of the difference in their
social positions. She was forty-six years of age
when the son of Lord North offered her marriage.

At Florence, in 1782, the composer Guglielmi
wrote two operas for her, which were performed
with the greatest success, and on this occasion the
townspeople of Florence surnamed Brigitta Banti,
La Regina del Canto — '^ The Queen of Song."

A touching scene is related of her visit to the
little village of Monticello, where she w^as born.
In the course of her artistic travels through Italy
she decided upon making this visit. She had not
been there for many years. When she left the
lovely country I have so incompletely described,
she was a poor, forlorn girl in rags. At the period
of her visit she was rich, celebrated, and univer-
sally admired. Her heart, no doubt, throbbed


loudly as she approached the well-known, still-
loved hills and valleys of La Brianza. Her
desire to see once more her former home was

In vain, however, did she seek for the familiar
form of her poor father's cottage, with its little
green slope, and the large trees in front of it.
Alas ! they had all disappeared to enlarge the
entrance to a lordly park in the neighbourhood,
the Palazzo Nava, now in its turn transformed
into an hotel and pubHc pleasure grounds.

Neither did she recognise a single face she met
in the street of the little village.

The renowned songstress was just about to
withdraw from this desolate scene, with an aching
heart and moistened eyelids, when she perceived,
at a little distance along the winding road, a
poor beggar in rags, whose countenance was
wrinkled with care and suffering, though he was
still comparatively young.

As he approached and begged for alms, there
was something in his gait and voice that struck

" Where do you come from ? " she asked.

^' From Monticello d'Ongina," said the beggar.

'' Do you live with your parents ? " inquired
the prima dojma, more than ever interested in the
appearance of the miserable object before her.

** I have no parents," replied the mendicant.


A sudden shock seemed to convulse the singer
as she said —

^* How long is it since your father died ?"

*' It was about eight years ago," he answered.

'* Have you no sister younger than yourself ? "

'^ I had one once, but I do not know what has
become of her — she left us long ago. All she had
with her when she quitted the village was an old
guitar that belonged to my poor mother. Ah !
Signora, she was a fine, handsome girl, fit to be a
lady, and a voice like what they say you hear at
the Opera, only sweeter "

*' Is not your name Antonio Banti ? " inquired
the singer, interrupting him.

At these words the beggar raised his eyes in
astonishment. He approached a step or two,
threw back his shabby felt hat, and looked stead-
fastly into her face as he exclaimed —

*' How in the name of Heaven do you know
that ? "

Brigitta could not reply. She threw herself
into the arms of her brother, whilst tears of joy
streamed down her handsome features.



A YOUNG Englishman, in a letter to his mother,
which is dated from Venice, the 19th November
1827, says —

^' The Grand Opera at Milan is most charming,
and indeed the second in Italy, yielding only
to Naples. The night before we came away a
new opera was produced called the ^ Pirate,'
written by a young man of the name of Bellini,
a Sicilian, only five-and-twenty, but of most as-
tonishing genius. This was his first opera, and
met with a most brilliant success.

*' It was a most interesting thing to be present

2 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19