la Bella Voce

March 5, 2009 at 5:02 pm (entertainment) (, , )


Some time ago, a comment prompted me to delve a bit further than I had into the biography – via Gentleman’s Magazine and Grove’s Dictionary – of the Knyvetts, two generations of singers whose concerts the Smiths and Goslings attended in early-19th century London. I still owe that commenter some thoughts from Mary and Emma’s diaries about those singers, but more of that a bit later.

However, this proved a fabulous delve into the dusty archives in order to find some lengthier and (as near as possible) first-hand accounts. Anyone reading reviews today will know that voices – especially!! – are subject to subjective, as opposed to objective – criticism. And unlike Melba or Caruso, no recordings, however crude, exist for the likes of Charles and William Knyvett, John Braham, or Miss Catherine Stephens. So words must suffice – and those words mainly from critics and mini-biographers.

Interesting to note a report of a series of concerts, given on September 14, 15 and 16, which marked the “107th Meeting of the Choirs of Gloucester, Worcester, and Hereford, for the benefit of the Widows and Orphans of Clergymen in the three dioceses” – for the Smiths certainly had a number of clergymen sons-in-law. And it is impossible not to realize the importance of the church in their lives while reading the diaries of Lady Smith (Mary Gosling).

The Harmonicon for 1830 (“part the first”) reports on the event, which raised over one-thousand pounds in contributions at the door! But what a stellar-cast these concerts included: Madame Malibran Garcia is the name recognizable to most opera fans today; Mrs William Knyvett, Mr Braham, Mr Vaughn, Mr William Knyvett were among the other singers, big ‘names’ at the time; a full orchestra gets its mention, as well as the FULL schedule of music (I see much Mozart; and Weber, Handel, Rossini all get their due).

Miss Paton is a familiar name from the diaries, so this little tidbit is quite curious to read now, 206 years later: “…in the early arrangements for this festival, Miss Paton was engaged, and her name, with the songs, &c. allotted to her, circulated in the first programs issued, the reader will not be surprised to learn, that owing to certain circumstances, which a few months since were the town-talk, a degree of curiosity was raised in the minds of many concerning the manner in which she would be received, and how her female friends in the orchestra would conduct themselves towards her: — when suddenly appeared the letter from the Bishop of Rochester, as Dean of Worcester, which will be found in the last number [ie, last issue] of the Harmonicon. On the propriety of this we here offer no opinion.”  BUT: no opinion on what???!!

The death of George IV, gets a brief mention, in that several pieces were played “as a mark of respect to the memory of his late Majesty”. (He died 26 June 1830).

An historian’s best dream-come-true is to read the following passage: “As we believe that the Harmonicon is the only publication in which the Programs of our Musical Festivals, as well as those of the Ancient and Philharmonic Concerts, are preserved, and convinced of the utility of the practice, both as affording the means of amusement and information, and also as a record to be referred to at any future period, we insert the following bills of the several morning and evening performances:–” Yes, yes, yes.

Among the “notices” of The Messiah (done in Mozart‘s arrangement) comes praise for Mr Braham (“Mr. Braham’s opening the Messiah has lost none of its wonted excellence. In this fine scena he was as great as ever”) and a bit of criticism for Malibran (her “‘Rejoice greatly’ did not make much impression on us… she does not understand Handel’s music — she does not feel it”). Mrs Knyvett is “useful and unpretending”, and the reviewer wished she had been given ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ rather than Malibran — although “there is a wearying repetition of the subject in this air, that has always prevented our receiving so much pleasure in hearing it as many other persons feel, or, at least, profess to feel.” Hmmmm….

We learn that Madame Malibran asked – and received – 300 guineas “this year at each festival!” And that the Duchess of Kent and Princess Victoria “honoured by their presence the performances at the Cathedral on the mornings of Tuesday and Thursday, and, we are informed, were much gratified.”

A harrowing piece of news is contained in a footnote. The passage to which it is attached concerns the conductor Mr Cramer, who “– notwithstanding the severe shock which his nerves must have sustained by being, together with his wife, daughter, and a son, overturned* within seven miles of Worcester, – never led or played better…” The asterisk then leads us to the following: “By this sad accident, Mr. Bennett, the organist of New College, Oxford, a young man of much more than ordinary talent, and who was rapidly advancing in his profession, unfortunately lost his life. We must expect such fatal events to increase rather than diminish, unless passengers themselves will exercise the powers vested in them by Act of Parliament.” What exactly the last sentence means, I’ve no clue — but rather wonder: were they in public conveyance or a private one?

This is a long post – so I will continue talk on Brahams, Vaughn, Stephens and the Knyvetts next time.

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