John R. Parker.

A musical biograhy: or Sketches of the lives and writings of eminent musical ... online

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with Mara on the 3d of June, 1802, tiie last night of that
most distinguished singer's appearing in this country. They
sung a duett together, composed to display their mutual ac-
complishments, and the contest excited hoth to the utmost
pitch of scientific expression. Never certainly was such
a transcendant exercise of ability. At length Mrs. Bil-
LiNGTON, having gained a competency, and feeling her
health very sensibly affected by her efforts in the service
of the pubhc, she resolved to retire froni exertions whjph,
with a mind so keenly aUve to the approbation of her
auditors, and so devoted to the strictest execution of he^
professional duties, could not have failed ;to have shortened
her prospects of repose, and even of existence. No en-
treaties were spared on the part of the noble directors of
the ancient music, and of every manager of every public
theatre or concert at which she had assisted, but her reso-
lution was finally taken, and in 1809 she retired from aH
public performances^and was never afterwards induced to
forego it, except on' one occasion which she sung for th*
benefit of a charity at Whitehall, in the presence of the
Q^een, the Prince Regent, and other branches of the Royal

She left England with her husband, in 1817, and died
after an illness of a very few days at her estate, of St. Ar-
tien, near Venice.


Madame Angelica Catalani was bom in the papal do-
minions in or about the year 1782. Respectably, if ndt

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noblj, descended, she was placed in that genteel class of
society which seemed at first to forbid her resorting to a
professional life to ameliorate her fortune, which being but
yerj small, Uke many other ladies thus situated, she was
destined to take the veil.

The chaunting of the divine music in the church of
Rome, is, perhaps, one of the finest criterions whereby to
judge of the excellence of vocal powers. The voice of the
youthful Catalah I was easily distinguished and admired as
it ascended in delightful melody to the praises of the im-
maculate mother of our Redeemer^ Friends and kindred
united their persuasions that such intriiLsic and wotiderful
harmony should not be buried in a cloister ; and she soon,
even in her native land, carried off the palm of singing at the
opera against veteran female performers. Her expres-
sive and beautiful countenance, her youth,her excellent and
graceful acting, all pleaded in her favor, and she was at
that early period nearly established in fame, with scarce
one rival competitor.

She visited the kingdom of Portugal ; and the theii
Prince of Brazil, now king of Portugal, with his Royal con-
sort, particularly patronized her. She was engaged at me
Opera-house ait Lisbon for five years, and during her resi-
dence there, she improved herself by devoting her leisure
hours to the study of music, and her singing became as
scien^fic as it was melo4ious. Her allowance at the oper»
hou^e at Lisbon was three thousand moidores per annum,
besides a clear benefit. On her depart^ure for Madrid, she
was universally regretted ; and having enjoyed not only
the patronage, but the esteem and (fonfidence, of the prin-
cess of Brazil, she was furnished by that illustrious lady
with letters of recommendation to the Royal Family of
Spain, whose favor she experienced in the most ample de-
gree, 9» well as ttiat of all classes of people.

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Prom Spain she went to Paris, wbere dhc married Mon-
sieur Valiebraque ; she still, however, retained the name on
which her celebrity had been founded, and by which her
merits were known ; but she took the title of Madame, and
dropped that of Signora.

The proprietors and managers of the Opera-house in the-
Haymarketjwere eager to engage Madame Catalani ; and
in the year 1806, she consented to the offers they made
her, of allowing her two thousand pounds annually ; and
she appeared for the first time at the above theatre, in De-
cember, in 1806, in the part of Semiramide, where, to a
crowded, most respectable, and scientific audience, she re-
ceived those unanimous and reiterated applauses, which
merit the most rare can only excite, and which imparted
the most gratifying sensations to her own bosom.

Highly sensible of her very superior endowments, her
emoluments were soon raised. In the year 1809, she was
engaged to perform in serious operas, while Madanie Dus-
sek was to take the chief characters in those that were
comic, if Madame Catalani were indisposed. In 1809,
Mf . Taylor, the manager of the King's theatre at that time^
offered her six thousand pounds, with three benefits, paya-
ble in two equal payments, in 1810 and 1811, and this mu- >
nificent proposal was for her performance for eighty nights,
in serious opera. Tliis offer, which, if made to any other
than a Catalani, we should call exorbitant, she thought
proper to refuse. This conduct, which arose from the con-
duct of her brother not being engaged as first violin, to-
gether with the insolence and arrogance of her husband,
M. Valiebraque, gave* the public a kind of disgust, which
though they yet highly estimated the harmonious talents of
the lady, caused them to feel less of that warmth of friend*
ship than they did at first, towards one they had so highly
patronized. Her refusal of singing foif a cbaritabte iosUr

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tution was another cause of her loss of public favor ; but
let no one judge harshly of Madame Catalani on that ac-
count, since it is a certain fact that she sent privately, as a
donation to that very charity, the sum of twenty guineas.

In excuse for that omission, it is stated that she had been
attacked with one of those indispositions which the un-
certainty of our atmosphere was continually bringing on
her ; and who, especially a native accustomed to the pure
and genial air of Italy, can encounter the fogs and frequent
vicissitudes of the cHmate of Great Britain ?

When the late Mr. Harris opened his new theatre in Co-
vent Grarden, he engaged Catalani to perform there occa-
sionally. This engagement, was^ however, totally done
away- by the O. P. affair. Having, therefore, no fixed sala-
ry, she performed at the grand music meetings at Oxford
and Cambridge, and at several of the chief towns in the Uni-
ted Kingdoms, till she was induced to become the Direct-
ress of the Opera Comique, at Paris; a trust that she has ful-
filled with science, with infinite credit to herself, and bene-
fit to the concern. She has occasionally visited the Court
of Vienna ; where her musical and vocal talents are held
in very high estimation.

We cannot vouch for the late Emperor of France having
much ^^ music in his soul," but it is confidently asserted,
that on his first hearing Madame Catalani sing at Paris, he
was so enchanted by the melody of her voice, that he sent
her the next morning a present of two thousand Napo-

After an absence of seven years," she made her second
appearance in England in July last, for the purpose of as-
sisting in the vocal department at the coronation. She gave
a concert, on Monday the 16th of July, at the Argyle-
rooms, and was most enthusiastically greeted, tier voice
is more beautiful, even stronger, than when we last heard

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her. In singing Rode's violin variations, an indescribable
e£fect was produced on the audience by this extraordinary
exercise of the human voice, which displayed at once her
amazing rapidity, strength, and sweetness ; in fact, this
must be pronounced the miracle of voice, and must be
heard to be conceived. She looked remarkably well, and
appeared highly gratified at seeing herself once again be*
fore a British audience . ,

Madame Catalani gave another concert on Monday the
30th of July, the profits of which were given in aid to the
funds of the Westminister General Infirmary, which at
once displays the benevolence of heart, and must remove
the unfounded prejudice imbibed by many, of her avarice,
or that she will never exert her talents but for her own

We have already said so much of Catalani in our de-
scription of Mara and Billington,that our direct observations
will necessai'ily appear shorter than they ought to be, and
yet, we shall find it impossible to escape tautology. The
reader will therefore do us the justice to call to mind that
our criticism has been, from a necessity incident to the
subject, comparative.

In the first requisite — Intonation, Catalani was as defi-
cient as any pre-eminent singer we ever knew, a circum-
stance the more surprising, because we believe failure is
more incident to thin voices, than to organs of such power,
as Madame Catalanj's. Her fatisse note was about Eb,
we say about, for in the fluctuation of pitch to which the
concerts of this country are subject, is impossible to fix a
tone very definitively. Perhaps her general tune was af-
fected by the force with which she was accustomed to sing,
though it is hard to distinguish between her failure in the
execution of passages, and in the more simple parts of her
performance, because she excelled so far in the airs of agili-

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ty, and indulged so continually in the introduction of most
elaborate and difficult ornaments, that she may almost be
said to ha^e had no cantabile or plain style. Whatever
was the cause, she varied from the pitch frequently, al-
though to common hearers the defect was lessened by the
prodigious volume and richness of her tone, and by the ra-
pidity with which she skimmed along the liquid surface of
florid nototioc. We are iachned to suspect, that this lady
was seduced from the practice of plain notes too early, a
deviation, which all who are guilty of it, repent too late.
It is indeed a mistake that can never be atoned.

Catalani was a singer for the Italian stage alone, anU
fitted for no other department of vocal science. Her con-
ception was purely theatrical, and when thus considered,
her style, as far as style was concerned, was certainly
grand and imposing. There are few instances of more vi-
vid intellectual expressionj more chastely yet more effec-
tively embodied and delivered, than in some of the high
efforts of Madame Catalani . Nor was her range confirm-
ed to the great style, though there her forte lay. In the
lighter parts, such as Suaannay in Mozart's Nozze di Figa-
ro and Aristea, in // Fanatico per la Musxcay which were
alike excellent. The playfulness with which she could in-
vest the character of her ornaments contributed in no small
degree to the effect. She was a florid singer and nothing
but a florid singer, whether grave or airy, in the church,
orchestra, or upon the stage. But she could give an intel-
lectual design, and set the stamp of mind upon these beauti-
ful coruscations of her brilliant fancy, and nothing has
tended more to convince us of the possibility of marking
distinctly the passion, to illustrate which the ornament may
be applied, than ^he manner of gracing which Catalani
could at pleasure adopt. It will not be stepping far out of
our way should we say, that the construction, boundless a(^

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it is, of ornament, is more limited tnan the execution, and
that the manner of doing the passage, of accenting, retard-
mg, quickening, enforcing, or softening the notes, renders
it pathetic or pleasing at the will, and frequently accordmg
to the physical powers of the singer. Of such a kind do we
esteem the capital intellectual variety which Catalani ex-
ercised over this department of her art, and while she
bestowed her graces in more extreme and wanton profu-
sion than any other singer we ever heard, there was nev-»
ertheless a general characteristic expression very delight-
fully defined, over almost all she did. From this general
acknowledgment we must except the airs with variations,
which it was at once her honor and her disgrace to have
introduced into practice in England. We use this phrase
of double interpretation, because her chiefest display of
agility was manifested in these efforts. — " O dolce concen-
to*^ and '< Nel cor piu non mi sento^^ as she sung them, are
at one and the same time the most beautiful specimens of
simple, pathetic, and lively melodies converted into the
most exuberently florid songs of execution. Such a means
of evincing her particular talent, shewed her extraordinary
facility, practice, and acquirement in the very worst possi-
ble way. It was giving life to her execution by the com-
mission of a suicide upon her taste and judgment. Madame
Catalani seems in this instance to have regarded the voice
as an instrument. So poor a notion deprives the voice, of
its highest attributes, the voice being the finest of instru-
ments, with the additional quality of giving force, feeling
and effect to all the images and passions which language is
able to convey. Hence it happens that no application of
vocal power can be deemed legitimate, which has not the
expression of some sentiment or passion for its primary ob-
jects and impulse. The selection of such airs as " Nel cor^^
for such a purpose was therefore doubly erroneous. It

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tkgraded the vox humana to mere instrumentation ^
and it perverted and polluted the most exquisite speci-
men of genuine feeling to this vile purpose, when a harpsi-
chord lesson or a fiddle concerto would have answered the
purpose. Yet strange to tell, it was in these very songs
that Catalani drew more rapturous applause and perhaps
more of the approbation of the entire mass of the public
than from any other source.

Mere English critics are not competent judges of
the power of Catalani's elocution. No one indeed who
has not resided abroad or been a constant attendant up-
on the Italian theatre, who has not mixed with the natives
of that country, and learned to acquaint himself with their
peculiarities of expression, can be a judge sufficiently skill-
ed in the several requisites, or sufficiently liberalized, to
pronounce upon her excellencies or defects in this essential
particular. — ^Elocution in singing, rises infinitely beyond
simple articulation, as it becomes the vehicle of mental im-
pressions. English and Italian notions of the expression of
various passions differ very materially, and we consider the
ideas of this great actress not only to have been purely Ital-
ian, but also moulded by the Italian theatre alone. Upon
the stage her personificaion was however mpre grand than
touching. Her main defect in our eyes was the want of
tenderness and pathos. She sometimes ovcF-awed, but sh^
never warmed or melted the heart. Mara was certainly
the sovereign of expression ; Billington fell short of the
grandeur and magnificence of Catalani, but her deficien-
cy arose out qf the natural difference of voice ; the shad^
between Catalani and Mara was intellectual ; Catalani's
natural organ we apprehend to have been more calculated
for the expression of passion than that of Mara, but the
conception ennobling whatever it lighted upon, was want-
ing. Her oratorio singing was the lowest of the three.

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She literally had no {^prehension of the true expression of
English words, or the sentiments they represented. " Ho-
ly holy Lordy^^ and " I know thai my Redeemer livethy^^ from
her lips invoked no wanner adoration, inspired no livelier
faith in an EngUsh hosom. Tet C atalani possessed strong
feelings of devotion, and perhaps entertained the most ex-
treme veneration for the Deity, the firmest belief and the
most fervent piety of any singer that ever lived. She never
entered a church or a theatre to perform without solenmly
ofifering up a prayer for her success. When therefore we
reason upon her failing to awaken the sympathy of her au-
ditors we can only attribute it to the radical difference in
the manner of expressing the same ideas that obtains be-
tween the natives of foreign countries and of our own.
Mara was very early in life in England, and a large portion
of the character of her mental acquirements is probably to
be traced to that age ; Catalani on the contrary had
made all her associations before she came nither. Again,
there may be, perhaps, a ne^Lrer approximation in natural
constitution between the Germans and the English, than
hetween the more ardent natives of southern climates, and
the inhabitants of the <^ ponittfs totodivisos orbe Britannos^^
All therefore that we must say specifically of Cat alani's
elocution in singing, is that she was articulate, forcible, and
powerful, occasionally light, pleasing, and playful, but
never awfully grand, or tenderly touching to the degree
that the art may be carried, or that Mara, act.ually with
less power of voice did attain We consider Catalani be-
low Billington iji the latter quality. In science she was so
far inferior to both that the wonder ^ong professors, is
ho^ she could possibly dare so much and succeed so well.
Many of our observations upon her execution have al-
ready entered into our previous pages. It was, however,
certainly most extraordinary, while it had in it qualiti^

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that were peculiar to herself. Madame Catalani with
more relocity, mor6 force, more brilliancy, and more
variety than either Mara or Billington, Was below
them both in neatness, precision, and finish. Her fa-
cility seemed rather the effect of a natural aptitude or ge-
nius, than of study and labour. As a proof of this truth, she
was far more dexterous in the introduction and execution
of ornament, than in the performance of passages df agili-
ty set down by the composer. Her singing Handel amount-
ed to a complete demonstration of what we assert. It want-
ed not a certain expression of her own, but it was for that
very reason almost destitute of that of the authot. Her
divisions were not giten with the vocal declamation, which
we consider hi^ mechanical passages to be endowed with-
al, at least we recollect no instance neither in her perform-
ance of his works nor those of any other composer, if we
be allowed to except the bravura, " Gratias agimus^
which exhibited a wonderful example of force and rapidity
combined. Her fertility in the invention of graces
was richly abundant, but she took m^re satisfaction in
producing pleasure through surprise than by any other le-
gitimate method. The frequent introduction of triplets,
arpeggios, and a succession of chromatic intervals was an
effort of this description. At the same time the profusion
was apt to cloy, and seemed to indicate [a propensity by
far too common among artists] the desire to display every
species of talent and acquisition as it were at once.

Distant spectator* would have conceived that all the won-
ders Catalani effected were wrought with so much
ease a^ j|&arcely to deserve the name of effort. But such
was by no means thfe case. It was perceptible to closer ob-
servers that the exertion was so vast as to excite the mus-
cular powers of the head, throat, and chest into very vio-
lent action. In the execution of passages the under jaw

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was in a state of continual agitation, in a manner too, g^n^
erallj tho ught incompatible with the production of pure
tone from the chest, and inconsistent with legitimate execu-
tion. This extreme motion was also visible during the shake,
which Catalani. used sparingly, however, and with little
effect. Indeed we must again remark that neither of these
great singers imderstood the value and importance of this
delicate and beautiful ornament but Mara. We call to
mind no other circumstances peculiar to Catalani that can
enable our readers to form a better estimate of her pow-
ers, or tend to fix a permanent memory of the pleasure and
the wonder she raised, than those we have thus related.
We chose to compare these very high and gifted individu-
als because it is only by a comparison of great singing in-
fer se that criticism can be expected to establish any thing
approaching to a true standard of general or of indiviual
merit. There may be at the first glance an invidious ap*
pearance in adopting such a method, but it vanishes when
we recur to the impossibility of forming any accurate judg-
ment of the merits of the one or the other, except by a
minute measurment of the several faculties^ and a subse-
quent estimate of the relation they bear to each other.
We hope we have weighed them together justly and

The style of Mara was the great style, in its genuine ap-
plication, and demonstrated by the natural faculties, and
the most elaborate and scientific acquirements. Mrs. Bil-
lington lowered the public taste a degree in the scale, by
the introduction of her power of gracing and execution, in
the place of grander elements ; and Madame Catalani has
rendered little beside the substitution of power and agility^
for dignity still more imiversally agreeable. It is to this
last singer that we owe the execrably bad taste of degrad-
ing the nobler functions of the human voice, to the mere

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province of an instrument. She first introduced airs with
variations similar to the piano forte lessons, in diamet-
rical contradiction to the just and proper employment of
the most touching of all sounds, and to the utter annihila-
tion of the sense and feeling imparted to music bj words.
If we are to be required to listen to the tones of the voice,
and the tone only divested of the best attribute for singing,
to the vox etpreterea mhily let us hear execution displayed
in solfeggi or in a bravura.

Nor let us be considered as too severe in our notions
with regard to the propagation of such vile taste. To pre-
serve these canonized airs untouched is, as it were, a part
of the religion of music. Every thing that tends to loosen
our attachment to pure expression is, as we esteem it, a vio-
lation of the great and fundamental law of vocal art, which
is, to combine the effects of sense and sound. To draw off
our attention and rivet it to mere sound, destroys the bet-
ter half.

Execution is certainly a source of pleasure, inasmuch ai
it awakens our surprise, and is agreeable and legitimate
when made subservient to the great purpose of singing. —
But here its effect stops, and in true science, is only to be
regarded as one of the means, and certainly not the most
forcible means of expression. We entertain no doubt,
from a careful examination of Handel's and Haydn's songs
of division, that these compolers looked upon it as a mere
vehement manner of declamation. Handel indeed appears
to have used it more frequently than Haydn ; but there is a
mechanicsd structure in his passages,which seems to fit them
for the style of execution we have attempted to point out
as a separate and distinct species, nor do we recollect an in-
stance were he employs divisions that are not in strict ac-
cordance, with,, or do not-set off the words more expressive-

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I7, than plainer combination of notes would have done.*

The error, therefore, of which we complain, is radical. —
It is not a redundancy of ornament, but an absolute con-
tempt of words as unmeaning appendages, and th^ reduc-
tion of the voice to mere instrumental performance. We
consider the female voice to be the most affecting of anj,
and coasequently by this^mode of applying it, the loss is the
more excessive. There is a sort of moral sense in music
as well as in poetry, and if there be a 4uty appertaining to
professional exertions beyond the acquisitions of gain, it
lies in the just performance of the obligation this sense im-
poses. Nor will such considerations, in choosing a line of
study and practice, eventually derogate from the reputation
a singer obtains, because, although he may for a time fafl
to shine forth with the glare and glitter that always at first
surrounds brilliant execution, he will in the end secure a
much more high and lasting degree of fame from the feel-
ings and the judgment of all persons of sensibility and sound


In the annals of musical science the name of Webbe has
long been eminently conspicuous, and the. homage of ama-
teurs and connoisseurs has alike been offered to his genius

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Online LibraryJohn R. ParkerA musical biograhy: or Sketches of the lives and writings of eminent musical ... → online text (page 12 of 20)