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ON THE PROGRESS OF MUSIC FROM THE COMMENCEMENT
OF THE PRESENT CENTURY *.
Towards the end of the season of 1825 came Signor Velluti. The remembrance of this species of voice was all but extinct: the natural abhorrence of the practice had been enforced by the silent prohibition from the King's Theatre of all such for nearly thirty years. The daily press (the “ T'imes” newspaper especially) attacked the individual no less than the thing itself with an almost ruffian ferocity. The experiment was, therefore, doubly hazardous. But possibly the very fury of the attack favoured the actor. He came, and he overcame; and he deserved his victory, both for his private and public merits .
* Continued from p. 192, No. CLVI. † Velluti was guided by a high and honourable spirit. He was every inch a gentleman, and he stood upon his reputation with a loftiness which, though in some instances it bordered upon the ridiculous, proceeded, nevertheless, from a noble emulation of greatness, and, we may add, of goodness. He had, no doubt, been spoiled, in a degree, by excessive adulation. The following anecdotes will illustrate his character, and we pledge ourselves for their truth :
On the night of his first appearance, it must be owned, he stood a perilous chance. Previous to the rising of the curtain, the manager requested Mr. to go and offer him the best encouragement he could. Mr.
went, de. scanted upon the generosity of an English audience, upon Velluti's claims and reputation, and the merits of " Il Crociato." He assured the soprano that nothing could be more foreign from the English character than to countenance such attacks as the “Times” had made upon him, and that they would, in all probability, operate in his behalf. In short, the consoler exhausted all his eloquence to infuse into him the necsssary fortitude. Velluti listened with the utmost calmness. When the harangue was concluded, he drew himself up to his utmost height, his fine dark eyes glanced fire, he placed his hand in his bosom, turned towards the speaker, and merely said with all the dignity he could so well assume,“ Son Velluri." His friend skulked away, with a feeling between the sense of the sublime, and the ridiculous.
Next for the generous part of his nature. A dispute arose concerning the assumption of the title “ Director of the Music” by M. Bochsa, during Velluti's management. It concluded with a skirmish in the newspapers. On the morning when Velluti's letter appeared, he called on a young lady, one of his most favourite pupils; he asked if she had seen it ? “ Yes,” she replied; “ and with regret : because you have been made to say what, I am sure, you did not mean.'
" How so?" “It begins, “A certain Mr. Bochsa. Now, although you wrote · Un certo Signor Bochsa,' the English translation conveys an insult.” Velluti departed instantly; he drove to the residence of Lord Burghersh. “ My Lord,” said he, “ I am told that my letter bears such an interpretation: is it true ?". " It is." then translate for me as follows.” And he dictated a frank avowal that what he had said arose from his ignorance of the English idiom, “ that to offer an insult to any one belonged neither to his disposition nor his education.” This he published the next morning.
A meeting was subsequently held between the parties, together with the manager and a friend, to settle the point. Long explanations were given. Velluti simply demanded—“ Is Mr. Bochsa to use the title of Director of Music at the King's Theatre ?!” There was a slight hesitation. Velluti thrust his engagement, which involved a sum of three thousand six hundred pounds, into the candle, and, but that one of the parties seized his arm, it would have been consumed. Money was to him as nothing in the balance when weighed against the fame of his reception and his appointment. We cou'd multipiy instances of the most grateful kind, did they not
« Pray involve the feelings of others. We say generally, however, and truly, he was highminded, honourable, generous, and kind-hearted, in every sense of the words. No one,“ prince, potentate, or peer,” ever brought higher letters of recommendation to persons of condition than Velluti.
The natural prejudice against such a quality of voice proceeding from a man was to be overcome before any accurate judgment could be formed of Velluti. A second impediment was an offensive contraction of the tone in certain parts of his scale, which, without any intention to bring the individual into ridicule, can only be likened to the shrilly scream of a peacock. A still greater offence was his imperfect intonation. Now as the impression made by the singer is direct, and the tone the means, it is very hard to divest the judgment of these associations as well as of the positive impressions. We grant these drawbacks, and then we may insist upon the fine feeling, the impassioned execution, and the inventive faculty of the artist. His chef d'æuvre was the Romance in “ Tebaldo ed Isolina,” beginning “ Notte tremenda,” and here it was that, by contrasts of tone and time, by bursts and suppressions of voice, by the most beautiful swells and attenuations, by transmutations of the passages, he displayed all his feeling, delicacy, and imagination, leaving the hearer unable to pronounce which of the three had the mastery. Where the obstacles above-named were overcome, the pathos and tenderness of his singing had no parallel in our recollection, for we never heard Pacchierotti *.
Velluti has been represented as the most florid of singers : it was not so when he was in England. That he changed the passages of a song is true; but he changed them rather for the sake of varying the traits and heightening the expression, than with a view to multiplying notes or showing his facility, which was by no means superior. His power over the affections lay in exquisite sensibility and conception, and in the delicate polish of his transmutations. Another felicitous illustration may be drawn from his Venetian barcarole, “ La Notte xe Bella.” He altered almost every passage without spoiling the melody, and every note he added, adorned without defacing the original. At the close, he introduced a passage to depict the undulation of the sea, more ingenious than the writer of this article ever remembers to have heard from any other singer t.
But Velluti was not popular! Admitted. What effect then did he produce upon the art in England ? All who could appreciate him understood the points we have described, and all his merit; they saw also how much other singers (even Pasta herself ) had borrowed from him. Instead of increasing the rage for florid singing, his influence aided that of Pasta in exalting the great style which subsists upon expression. His voice was all but ruined when he came here, and, but for his loftier attributes of mind and skill, his former reputation would scarcely have obtained for him a second hearing. Perhaps his ornaments were too much for himself and too little for general application, since it cannot be concealed that his ingenuity was tasked to cover his own declining means by those substitutes. The truth of this observation may be confirmed by the fact, that no singer ever did, or ever could, give to his passages his particular expression; yet it was impossible, so singular was their construction, not to perceive from whence they were borrowed.
* Soon after Velluti's arrival, five persons, who had all been almost indurated by constantly hearing music, met to form a judgment of his powers, in private. He first sang a duet from “Tancredi.” It was so out of tune, it was hardly to be borne. He then gave a scena which we never heard before or since. At the conclusion, all the five were bathed in tears, and so occupied with their own sensations, that not one of them either did or could, for some space, utter a syllable.
† His debut was at Devonshire House, a night or two after his arrival, when he sang these two songs to the delight of all the rank and virtù there assembled.
A series of concerts were given by Velluti and Pasta in conjunction. He beat her decidedly by his polish and delicacy.
Little more of novelty in art remains to be pourtrayed, except the premier de son espèce, Mademoiselle Sontag, for with her closes, up to the present hour, the list of modern inventors amongst foreign vocalists. That commingling of execution and expression, that new phraseology by which passages have been substituted for plain notes, and have become, through various known analogies, the musical language of eertain passions, was favourable in the highest degree to Mademoiselle Sontag. When Braham and Catalani first astounded the world of science by their marvellous facility, not to say by the audacity (as it was then esteemed) of their variations, the ear was unaccustomed, and the mind was still less trained to such force, rapidity, and change. But the writings of Rossini had established the practice, had indeed created a fascinating vehicle, and even rendered facility one of the attributes most indispensable to a singer. The way, therefore, was prepared for her beautiful legerity before she arrived.
Her organ was comparatively of small volume, but of long compass, and, like many thin voices, she could execute with an ease and velocity quite astonishing. It was alike in quality, but a little reedy in the lower notes. In the loftier parts, its lightness and cultivation were unrivalled; her neatness and precision were supreme. She not only did all that her predecessors had done, but she added fresh traits by adopting arpeggiós and chromatic passages, which instruments alone had before attempted, with success. These she gave in a manner that gratified the ear and filled the fancy. All this she accomplished with such extreme ease, that the hearer never felt the least doubt or difficulty, but sympathised at once with the impulsive power that dictated both the notes and the manner, which seemed quite as pleasurable to the artiste as to the auditor. In her own language, and in her countryman's (Weber's) music especially, she sang with strong feeling and fine expression. No one ever sang the scena in “ Der Freischutz' with such devotion or energy.
Almost everything that can be said eoncerning this delightful singer has been exhausted : we therefore abridge our own comments, and substitute a paragraph from her elaborated character in the “Quarterly Musical Magazine and Review," which concentrates, at once poetically and truly, the description of the feelings she excited :
“For these reasons, perhaps, she is to be esteemed more highly in the orchestra and the chamber than upon the stage. The theatre is the scene for the display of passion; in the chamber and the orchestra the feelings must be restrained, and even subdued. Indeed, nothing more clearly indicates how little susceptible of the finest and deepest expression the orchestra and the chamber can be made, than the comparative failure of Madame Pasta in these situations, The truth is, the sympathy of a mixed audience cannot rise to the strength of the emo
tion, or its expression, unless aided by the illusions of the drama. In the orchestra, the eagle is caged, stripped of her plumage, and is fastened to the earth : the facility, the polish, and the beauty of Mademoiselle Sontag's style, on the contrary, are heard to the greatest advantage in this situation. Lord Bacon has asked, in his second book upon the advancement of learning-Is not the delight of the quavering upon a stop in music the same with the playing of light upon the water ?
Splendet tremulo sub lumine pontus.' The passage occurred to us when we first listened to the glistering ornaments of Mademoiselle Sontag, and the pleasure we felt was precisely like that we have experienced in beholding the ocean resplendent with the rays of a brilliant sunshine. If the mind be not deeply moved, the senses are all filled, and those nameless emotions which play so lightly, and coruscate, as it were, from thought to thought, without stop or intermission ;-if they do not equal in strength or intensity the fixity of the passions, give birth to feelings at once novel, diversified, and exultant."
One of the most striking changes in vocal art remains yet to be traced : it is in the style and manner of the base. Lord Mount Edgcumbe, in the passage we have already cited, alludes to this transition, but not in that same spirit of candour and judgment which distinguishes his general remarks. In the time of Handel, the base was employed for his volume and weight, and the songs given to him might almost be said to be mechanical, in the heaviness and sameness of the divisions. Amor,"? Del Minacciar del Vento," and " Nasce al Bosco," are unquestionably magnificent and majestic, according to the conception and the execution of the time when they were written; but it was then rare indeed to endow this species of voice with anything like pathos or grace, The middle school—that of Guglielmi, Cimarosa, &c.—began to employ it upon livelier objects, and to invest base parts with more agreeable melodies; but it was chiefly in comic characters, where the rapidity of speaking kept equal pace (nota e parola") with the notation. Stil there was more air. Mozart, in “ Il Don Giovanni," " Le Nozze di Figaro,” and “ Il Flauto Magico," elevated the whole tone of composition for the base, by the infusion of sentiment and elegance. Almost every song and duet in these dramas given to that voice are exquisite, both in melody and feeling : “Non più andrai,” “Fin ch' han dal vino,” “ Qui sdegno," the exquisitely graceful movement in " Il catalogo *,"? “ Crudel perche finora,” will serve for examples.
But Rossini did much more to develop the latent powers of the base, He has treated it almost as the equal of the other species, and endowed it with the same powers and faculties. Look over “ O Nume benefico," in “ La Gazza Ladra;” the songs and duets in " Semiramide,'
" " Mosè," “Il Turco in Italia,” and “Il Barbiere di Seviglia ;” and they will be found to contain as much sentiment and beauty of melody, as much of rapid execution, as anything written for the tenor, or even the sopranc,
* Mozart, it has been maintained, never wrote a comic song. Perhaps it is true ; and the dignity of every melody given to his compositions for the base certainly precludes the effect of the vis comica. No song of his in this species ever raised that vivid sense of liveliness that belongs to such of Rossini's airs as Largo al factotum della città.”
with which they are frequently made to vie*, by repeating the passages given to each. Nor is it possible any longer to doubt the justice and force of the discovery, and the beauty of the application ; for it has been illustrated by the most perfect singers.
Signori Begnis and Zucchelli stand prominently forth : the former with abundant facility and faculties, perhaps not equalled by any other vocalist of his class in spirit and effect as a buffo caricatot, must still yield to the latter in grace, volume, smoothness, delicacy, and precision. "Zucchelli was in all these attributes an admirable artist. Pellegrini came to England when in his decline, but he was admitted amongst his brethren to be pre-eminent in science and taste. His organic powers, however, by no means kept pace with his skill, and we question whether they were ever comparable to the others we have named, and are about to instance.
Lablache is the first. General power, and volume so tremendous in particular notes, were never heard ; nor was his execution contemptible, though far from being as polished as that of Zucchelli. His effects often astonished, and, in concerted pieces, were unequalled. He could make himself heard as distinctly as thunder through the roar of the winds, above the most numerous band of voices and instruments ever assembled upon the stage, or in the orchestra of the King's Theatref. England had not, however, heard the perfection of this style till the arrival of Tamburini this last season. He unites the polish, grace, and facility of the tenor, with the force, and a good share of the volume, of the base. The neatness and precision of his execution could only be equalled by his fine taste in the invention and the application of ornament. His cantabile singing was beautiful; his declamation easy but energetic, never overstrained, but always expressive. In a word, he was the most perfect artist in this species we remember. His manner was withal so modest and natural, that he is entitled, in our judgment, to the highest praise of them all.
Together with these great singers, we have had Donzelli,-a tenor of the most wonderful volume; but, though of uncommon vigour, somewhat coarse, and without that nice sensibility and discrimination which constitute fine taste.
Rubini has also visited England : his distinctions lie in the very opposite direction, for he is delicate, polished, graceful, and florid in the very richest degree, but with a voice never, we believe, very powerful, and now declining.
Such is the summary of Italian vocal art.
When Mesdames Stockhausen, Schultz and Sontag arrived in succession, and when the music of Weber made so general a furcre, the Germans and their friends were sanguine in their belief that our singers would hereafter be as our instrumentalists very much had been, imported from the cold regions of the north, to displace in our favour the nations of the sunny regions, whose climate has been hitherto
* See “ Al idea di quel metallo,” and “ Dunque io son," in " Il Barbiere di Seviglia."
+ His duet,“ Con patienza,” and another, in which he performed both the soprano and the base, in “ Il Fanatico,” were matchless, though the supremacy lay much in his acting
His portly figure, which he managed with infinite address, and his rich humour, made his acting auxiliary to his singing, to an extent not to be imagined by those who never saw him in " Il Matrimonio segreto.”,