T. L. (Thomas Lamb) Phipson.

Voice and violin : sketches, anecdotes, and reminiscences online

. (page 3 of 19)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

at, as the composer is obliged to preside in the
orchestra the first three nights, and have the satis-
faction, or horror, of hearing his opera cheered
or damned. On this occasion it must have been
most gratifying, as the poor, pale, trembling com-
poser was had out and cheered ten or twelve times
during the evening."

This letter was written by Charles Mathews

(the younger), the well-known actor, and in his



diary, which has been pubHshed, we find jotted
down at this period the following memorandum : —

^^ Milauy Oct. 27///. — Went to the opera. II
Pirata first night. By a young man of the name
of Bellini, who conducted, and had to bow his
acknowledgments about a dozen times. Opera
very interesting and very successful. Rubini,
Tamburini, and Madame Meric Lalande, all ad-

The opera of // Pirata was produced at La Scala,
Milan, on Saturday the 27th October 1827 ; and,
on the 29th, Bellini wrote to his parents —

'^ Let all my friends rejoice ! We have had the
good fortune of obtaining such a success with our
opera that we do not know how to express our
joy. Neither you nor any of my family, nor
myself, could have hoped for such a result . . ."
and much more to the same effect ; but the reader
may be spared the remainder of this boyish en-
thusiasm on the occasion of a first great success,
thoroughly well deserved.

The family of BelUni had been musicians for
several generations. In the latter part of the
eighteenth century, a young music master, born in
the Abruzzo, came and established himself in the
little town of Catania, at the foot of Mount Etna,
where he married while still very young. He had
studied in the Royal College of Music at Naples,
then directed by the well-known composer Piccini.


His name, like that of the immortal author of La
Sonnambtilay his grandson, was Vincenzo Bellini.
He had several sons, one of whom, Rosario, also
adopted music as his profession.

Rosario Bellini likewise married, at an early age,
an amiable and accomplished girl, Agata Ferlito,
by whom he had four sons and three daughters.
The eldest son, born at Catania on the ist Nov-
ember 1 80 1, was christened Vincenzo, after his
distinguished grandfather.

This lad gave evidence of extraordinary musical
gifts almost from birth : he was scarcely twelve
months old when he was noticed to beat time
to an air that was being played on the piano
by his grandfather, and at eighteen months the
child hummed a tune of Fioravanti's most accu-

Some anecdotes of this early manifestation of
musical genius have been recorded ; among others,
that at the age of seven he composed music to
several religious pieces, the text of which had been
explained to him, and one of these compositions
was actually performed at the Church of St.
Michael. His grandfather, more especially, en-
couraged him in these early efforts.

Vincenzo Bellini, at this period of his life, was
a fair-haired, rosy-cheeked boy, with light-blue
eyes, a rather striking contrast to the ordinary
complexions of Southern Italy. He had a slim.


elegant figure, was highly intelligent, and very
affectionate. But there was a slight tinge of
melancholy in his character, which increased as
he advanced in age. His parents were anxious
about his education, and besides his music, he
was made to study Italian literature, and follow
some classes at the university.

When it became decided that music was to be
his profession, his father began to feel incapable
of teaching him the higher branches of the art,
and used all his influence to get his talented son
sent, at the expense of the Government, to the
Naples Conservatorio. He succeeded in obtain-
ing this appointment for him on the 5th May
1 81 9, when the youth was between seventeen and
eighteen years of age.

It was a sad parting, in spite of the joy evoked
by the reception of the good news. Father,
mother, brothers, sisters, and grandfather em-
braced him over and over again, with mingled
tears of joy and grief, as he bade them adieu and
started on his journey to Naples. A long adieu,
that was to last no less than six years — six years of
incessant study, far away from all that was dear to

At Naples, Bellini studied under the veteran
professor Zingarelli. He entered the Conservatorio
as a student just as Mercadante was leaving it.
For some time he applied himself to the study of


singing, and to various musical instruments, with-
out attracting any particular attention. In course
of time he passed his first examination and ac-
quired the grade of maestrino or assistant-pro-
fessor ; and a little later that of primo maestrino^
when he had to superintend the studies of the
other pupils. His affectionate character caused
him to make many friends ; and the celebrated
composer, Zingarelli himself, though he must have
been about seventy years of age, acquired a great
fondness for his talented young pupil. After a
while he made friends of men already pretty
well known in the musical world ; among others,
Pacini and Donizetti, and the latter prevailed upon
him one day to try his hand at an opera.

Following this advice, he looked about for a
subject, and at length decided upon a little poem
called Adelson e Salvmiy which had already been
put to music by Fioravanti. Upon this poem
Bellini wrote what he termed a pasticcioni — that
is, a little work in which all the music was not
exactly original — and had it performed with some
success on the school stage of the Conservatorio at
the beginning of the year 1825. Two of the airs
were afterwards incorporated into his / Capulefti
C' Oh ! Quante volte ") and La Straniera ('^ Meco
tu vieni").

This first private success led to the choice fall-
ing upon Bellini to write a cantata for the Gala



performance at the San Carlo Theatre that same
year, and it is said that nothing finer had been
heard for a long time on such an occasion. The
King of Naples was present and applauded the
work of the young composer. From that day the
career of Bellini was assured in Italy.

In the midst of these musical triumphs a very
beautiful young lady had fallen in love with him,
and he was no less affectionately attached to her.
Madalena Fumaroli had parents, however, who
were inflexible. When Bellini, with her consent,
demanded her hand, they resolutely refused to
unite their daughter to a young artist who had no
position, and was, in fact, only just out of school.
Neither supplications on the one side nor tears
upon the other could be made to prevail, and
Bellini was compelled to retire, almost broken-
hearted, without the slightest spark of hope.

When the youth arrived at Naples to study, he
had brought with him several letters of introduc-
tion, and among them, one to the Duke Di Noja,
Governor of the Conservatorio, and Superintendent
of the Royal Theatres. The Duke, like every one
else, was pleased with his young protege, and ap-
pears to have done all he could to befriend him.
At the moment of bitter disappointment just re-
ferred to, he used his influence with the noted
Barbaja, the impressario of the San Carlo, then the
finest opera house in Europe, and induced him


to solicit a work from the pen of Bellini — not a
simple cantata, but a regular lyric drama or opera.

This advantageous offer came at a most appro-
priate time ; it was eagerly accepted, and in order
to stifle the grief caused by his unfortunate love
affair, and to work in perfect quiet, Bellini sought
refuge in the home of his parents at Catania.
This was in August 1825. The poem confided
to him was Giraldoni's Bianca e Gernando, The
music was ready for the performance at the San
Carlo Theatre in May 1826 ; the principal parts
being allotted to Signora Tosi (soprano), Lablache
(basso), and Rubini (tenor). It was so far success-
ful as to draw down a large amount of applause,
and attracted public attention to the composer, but
not so much as to induce Barbaja to make any
further offers. BeUini received about ;£i5o for his
work ; and shortly after its appearance at Naples
the manager of the Milan Opera engaged his ser-
vices for a work to be produced at La Scala.
This was, perhaps, the most important period of
Bellini's career.

He started at once for Milan on the 5th April
1827, with Rubini as a companion, and taking
with him many valuable letters of introduction.
On arriving in Milan he got from Ernesto Tosi,
the brother of the distinguished prima donna just
mentioned, an introduction to the poet Romani,
the author of many beautiful works, and hence-


forth destined by good fortune to write the libretto
to most of Bellini's compositions.

The beautiful words of this distinguished lyric
poet no doubt exerted considerable influence upon
the young composer, and we are largely indebted
to them for the exquisite music which he wrote
over them. Both men were born poets ; they
understood each other, their poetical thoughts
blended together, and their sublime efforts cul-
minated in that chef d'ccuvre of poetry and music,
La Sonnambu/a, the most beautiful by far of all
lyric dramas.

Only once did Bellini seriously fall out with his
poet. Romani was in love this time, and wrote
carelessly. It was for the opera of Zaira. Both
music and words were poor, and the work was a

On another occasion the young maestro was not
quite contented with the words of a finale in the
opera of La Stram'era,

Romani wrote a fresh verse, but it was no better
than the first. At last Bellini sat down to the

'^ Listen," he said, ^^ this is what I want — I want
something like this," and he played for some time
a brilliant improvisation. When he had concluded
he turned to his companion ; '' There," he said,
"that is the style of thing I want words for."

"And there are your words," interrupted Ro-


mani; flinging him a rough copy of verses which
he had written whilst BeUini was playing. The
result was the well-known air, ^^ Or sei pago o ciel
tremendo/' in the Straniera,

A few months after his arrival in Milan the
first joint work of Bellini and Romani, // Piratay
was brought out with the success alluded to above.
It was soon afterwards performed in many other
houses, among them at the Vienna Opera, where
it created a great impression, and spread the
reputation of the young composer far and wide.

The success of // Pirata having thoroughly es-
tablished his reputation as a dramatic composer,
Bellini responded to other engagements ; wrote
his La Straiiiera for Milan, his unfortunate Zaira
for Parma (which was shortly afterwards more or
less incorporated into his not very successful opera
/ Capuletti ed i Mo^itecchi, played at Venice, with
Madame Grisi in the part of Juliet), and then
returned to Milan, where he produced La Sonnam-
bula and Norma,

The first of these appeared on the 6th March
1 83 1, with Madame Pasta, Rubini, and Mariani,
and created, perhaps, the greatest sensation that
ever was produced upon the lyric stage.

When Bellini returned to Milan to write this
Sonnambula music he was already poisoned by the
same Venetian miasma that had just prostrated
Pacini in that silent city of palaces, gondolas, and


contaminated water. For a short time his Hfe was
despaired of by the physicians who attended.
But a well-known pianist^ Pollini, took him to his
house, and nursed him as if he had been his own

As soon as he had recovered he turned his
attention to Romani's poem La Sonnambula, Some
of his friends had then retired to a beautiful villa
on the Lago di Como, about fifty miles from the
city, and he was invited to spend his time with
them whilst writing his new opera. Signora
Pasta, then at the zenith of her fame, was also a
guest there.

The villa Moltrasio, whither Bellini proceeded
to take advantage of the kind hospitality offered to
him, is on the left bank of the lake, in a splendid
site inundated with sunshine, and remarkable for
the extreme purity of its atmosphere. There is a
charming valley, bathed and refreshed by the
waters of a fine cascade. In the neighbourhood
stands the majestic villa of the Count Lucini
Passalacqua, with its tall cypress-trees and lovely
gardens reaching down to the waters of the lake.

Here it was that Bellini composed those luscious
cavatinas and splendid bravura airs of his Soiinam-

Too delicate to take long walks, he enjoyed
boating trips on the water from one side of the
lake to the other, from one villa to another, where


he would familiarise himself with the habits and
innocent pleasures of the contadini, and listen to
their melodious songs as they were rowed across
the lake on returning from the labours of the day.
Besides Madame Pasta, who was a constant
guest at the villa, several distinguished artists came
there almost daily, so that the drawing-room was
often full of delightful society, and there was
splendid music almost every evening. BelHni had
ample opportunity of appreciating the great dra-
matic and lyric gifts of this celebrated prima donna^
for whom he was writing the part of Amina in his
Sonnanibula. He studied with minute attention
her handsome person, her tastes, the character of
her voice, and the exceptional nature of her talent
with all its wonderful resources. She was one of
the finest singers in Europe ; her splendid voice
extended from the low A below the lines to C or
D above, nearly two and a half octaves, and was
a brilliant mezzo-soprano in quality. Her dra-
matic power was equal to her magnificent singing,
and, with the exception of the great basso Lablache,
she was probably the finest lyric artist of that day.
Well, indeed, may she have inspired Bellini to
write some of the most beautiful music ever com-

The part of Elvino was written for Rubini,
another constant guest at the villa, well named the
^' king of tenors" — formerly a choir boy, with a


luscious voice and economical habits, destined to
leave a fortune of ^90,000, which was ^10,000
more than the no less celebrated and equally
economical Paganini, his contemporary, left in
his will.

One morning that Rubini, whose mind was
much given to ^^ embroidery " or ornament, at the
expense, sometimes, of the dramatic situation and
true expression of the song, came to rehearse with
Bellini at the villa. On this occasion the latter
was not satisfied with his singing. After making
the same observation several times, but without
the desired result, he rose disgusted from the

^' Well ! you are an idiot ! " he exclaimed.
'^ You do not put into that passage one-half the
expression of which you are capable; and instead
of rendering it in such a manner as would bring
down the whole house, you are stupidly cold and
languid ! For Heaven's sake throw a little passion
into it ! Have you never been in love ? "

Rubini was thunderstruck. He had never
heard such language on the delicate lips of his
affectionate companion. Nevertheless, he took
the hint in a quiet, good-natured way, and ended
by electrifying his audience on the night of the
first performance.

The baritone part was given to Mariani, an
excellent singer and actor ; and with these three


superb artists the opera of La Sonnambula was
performed at the Carcano Theatre, Milan, on the
6th March 1831. Its success, to use the language
of the ItaHan newspapers, was '^ colossal."

What could be more thrilling than the entrance
of Amina with the recitative Care compagne e vot
tenere amici, followed by the delicious air Come per
me serenoj and the brilliant bravura allegro, Sopra
il sen la man mi posa ? " ^ This single production
would have been sufficient of itself to stamp any
composer as one of the greatest musicians the
world has ever known.

Then, what could surpass the exquisite duet
Prendi Panel ti dono ; and where can we find greater
breadth and charm than in the superb baritone
cavatina Vt ravisso Inoghi amentj and the allegro
Tu non sat, with which it concludes ?

Again, how appropriate is the music to the
words in the mysterious story told by the chorus,
A fosco cieloy a notte hriina ! How beautiful the
recitative and duet between Elvino and Amina
which follows, and the quintet Uun pensiero e dun
accentOy and the celebrated tenor air Tutto e sciolto —
the scene and prayer Ah ! non credea by Amina,
and her magnificent bravura finale. Ah I non
giunge !

But why should I stay to examine all these
sublime beauties, with which the whole world is,

^ Many artists now replace the three first words by Sull mio cor.


or should be, familiar ? I might as well be ex-
pected to eulogise the poems of Dante or the
plays of Shakespeare. And as for attempting to
give any idea of them to those who have not heard
the opera, it is simply impossible.

The popularity of La Sonnambida is greater than
that of any other lyric composition. No Italian
opera has been performed so often, or was ever so
enthusiastically applauded. Every young songstress
who is capable of singing the music (or thinks she
is) chooses it for her debtd^ and the greatest singers
never fail to make choice of it when they are
anxious to produce an extraordinary sensation.

Bellini once began an opera on the subject of
Ernani^ but it was forbidden by the authorities of
the day, and some of its music was incorporated
into La Sonuambuhy which was entirely written
between the nth January and 6th March 1831.
In a letter to Ricordi, the well-known publisher,
he wrote : '' I did, indeed, write the Sonnambula
from the nth January to the 6th March; but
that was an accident, as I had the reminiscences of
my Ernani, which had been forbidden."

It has been the fashion of late years to find
fault with the meagreness of Bellini's orchestra-
tion and the poverty of his accompaniments ; but
such criticism has been silenced for ever by the
immortal words of the great Cherubini : when
such an observation was made to him, he merely


shrugged his shoulders, and repHed, ^^ You could
place no other accompaniments under his

What a fund of truth is contained in those few
words ! ^

^ For more details than I can give here concerning the career of this
remarkable man, see my little pamphlet "Bellini" (London: Wer-
theimer, Lea & Co., Circus Place, E.C, 1880).



Some of my readers who have visited Paris in the
days of the Emperor Napoleon III. may have
noticed, on passing along the Boulevard des Capu-
cines, a little woman about forty years of age,
with two wooden legs and a violin, sitting in front
of the confectioner's shop at the corner of the Rue
de la Paix, selling prints and music.

In 1848, when Prince Louis Napoleon was
canvassing for his election as President of the
Second Republic, she was a very pretty girl, and
dressed rather coquettishly.

At that period of her history she used to sit a
little higher up on the Boulevard, in front of the
wall of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and behind
her, on this wall, were exposed for sale a certain
number of cheap engravings, often subjects of
rather questionable taste, and some songs, the airs
of which she played with much expression on her

In those days 'Mady violinists" were very rare,

so rare, indeed, that the mere fact of a girl playing



upon such an instrument in the streets of Paris was
quite enough to attract the attention of passers-by.

This young person was, then, not only pretty,
but she played remarkably well, and upon an
instrument that looked clean and well cared for ;
and it had a remarkably sw^eet tone.

I could never discover how it was that, when I
knew her under the Second Empire, she happened
to have two wooden legs. It was probably the
result of some street accident ; for she seems
never to have left Paris. Possibly, she may have
been injured during the firing in the streets at the
time of the coup d'etaty when the soldiers were
instructed to fire low, and many innocent persons
were shot down by the troops. It was a rascally
business, as every one knows.

The sweet tones of her violin attracted the
attention of the public ; people turned to look at
her. Her pretty, intelligent face did the rest, and
she seems to have made a comfortable living by
the sale of her songs and engravings. She was
even able to save money, to get married, and to
bring up a daughter as quite a fashionable young
lady. But I am anticipating.

Let us go back to the time when the little
violinist was a pretty girl of about eighteen years
of age, sitting all day long before the Ministry of
Foreign Affairs, which has now disappeared, to
make room for the large shops of M. Giroux.


Often a circle of inquisitive people would gather
around her, and after listening awhile to her music,
some would enter into conversation with her,
asking her the name of the song she had just
played, when she would at once point with her
bow to one of the pieces of music hanging upon
the wall, intimating, at the same time, that the
price was ten sous.

Prince Louis Napoleon had then left London,
and was living in Paris, where he hoped to be
elected President of the new Republic. There
were six other candidates : Cavaignac, Lamartine,
Ledru Rollin, Raspail, Changarnier, and the Prince
de Joinville.

The first and the last named of these had the
best chances, and indeed got a very large number
of votes ; but the Napoleonic idea was then per-
vading all classes of society. One writer called
this ^' a fond remembrance of the glorious past,
rather than a hope of its renewal under the rule
of the nephew." It was doubted by the greater
number of the most ardent admirers of the first
Napoleon, whether his nephew was sufficiently
popular to obtain an appreciable following ; and
those who did not doubt this were mostly very
poor men. Money was painfully scarce with
the Prince candidate, who was then staying at the
, Hotel du Rhin, in the Place Vendome.

It was known to many that Louis Napoleon and


his little knot of partisans were then reduced to
their own personal resources. Miss Howard,
afterwards Princess de Beauregard, and the Prin-
cess Mathilde, we are told, had given all they
could ; a small loan was obtained from M. Fould,
and some scanty supplies had been forthcoming
from England. It has been asserted in some
quarters that Lord Palmerston and Lord Malms-
bury contributed a few thousands of pounds.

But the printing of millions of handbills and
posters, and their distribution, the expenses of
canvassers and electioneering agents of all kinds,
made such havoc with the funds that a stray
remittance of a thousand francs or so, from some
unexpected quarter, or from some anonymous
sympathiser, was, as they used to say, ^' like a drop
of water in a hot frying-pan."

It will thus be seen that, at the moment of
which I am writing, Louis Napoleon was quite as
miserably poor as his famous Corsican uncle. Napo-
leon Buonaparte, before his turn of fortune came.
Often he was reduced to his last five-franc piece,
and when nothing was left he promised to pay.

Nevertheless, whenever he went from, his hotel
to the Boulevard des Capucines, which was very
frequently the case, he never passed the girl
violinist, with her songs and engravings, without
giving her something. This was so notorious that
in the course of a short time she came to look


upon these contributions as a regular part of her
small income.

Never was a man more easily attracted by the
charms of a pretty face than was Prince Louis ;
but music appears to have been almost entirely
absent from his soul. At Compiegne, the noted
hunting resort, after he had been made Emperor,
he once turned a piano-organ — they had no other
instrument, it appears, at the chateau for their
carpet dances in the evening — but no one could
dance to it.

It was not, therefore, the sweet tones of the
girl's violin, nor the songs and engravings she
sold, which attracted the attention of the future
Emperor of the French, but her pretty face and
coquettish manners.

She knew perfectly well who he was, and seems
also to have had a very clear idea of his ambition.

1 3 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19