Some Interesting Facts About Famous Women Musicians
By Thomas B. Empire
The history of the long succession of celebrated musicians has a painful sameness. One and all, they are—"discovered" in childhood, acclaimed as coming wonders, caught and chained to the wheel of unremitting practice and drudgery—stretched upon the rack of routine—cultivated up to the last notch, until at last, they appear in public and achieve the expected success!
Mlle. Isabella Angela Colbran, a Spanish singer, who later became the wife of Rossini, is one of the long-forgotten women—a singer who in the high noon of her day—from 1806 to 1815—was known as one of the foremost singers in the whole of Europe. Later, she began to sing so excruciatingly out of tune, that it was all her admirers could do to listen. But listen they did, and not only listened and applauded her to the echo, but actually fought duels with any bold critic who found flaws in her art.
She was a favorite of the King of Naples, and the royalists upheld her stoutly—it was an act of faith to their party.
An Englishman attended one of Mlle. Colbran's concerts, one night, and, distraught by the excruciating discord, asked the man in a neighboring seat, how he liked the singer? "Like her, signor?" the man exclaimed with emphasis and pride, "I am a Royalist!"
The approval of royalty, however, was not always so comfortably expressed, as Gertrude Elizabeth Mara, one of the greatest singers of the early part of the eighteenth century discovered to her cost. This musician began, in her fourth year, to show the signs of musical genius, by surreptitiously learning to play the violin. Her father was an obscure mender of instruments, and it was on these temporary inmates of the home that the child exercised her budding talent. But for this she was not commended—quite the reverse. She was soundly spanked.
Later, through the intervention of musical friends, she was allowed to study the violin, but after achieving sufficient proficiency to enable her at nine years of age to travel on concert tours, and to be patronized by no less a personage than the Queen of England, the ultra-decorum of the day decreed that the violin was an "unfeminine" instrument, and she was persuaded to learn to sing instead.
After the usual ups and downs of professional life, the child matured into a lovely and brilliant woman with a voice of wonderful extent and beauty. She traveled to Dresden, where King Frederick of Prussia heard her make her debut in an opera of Hasse's. He was so entranced with her singing that he at once engaged her for life, to sing at his court. And here is where the inconvenience of kingly favor came in, for King Frederick tyrannized over the singer to such an extent, that, between him and the dissolute husband she had annexed, poor Mara led a martyr's life.
On one occasion, when Mara was seriously ill, she sent a message to the King, that she would not be able to appear that evening at the operatic performance. But the King was so determined that she should fulfill her contract to the letter, that he sent an officer and a guard of soldiers to her bedside and forced the unfortunate songstress to rise, don her costume, and sing the opera through.
One of the first women to appear upon the English stage, was the wife of the chamber musician to King Charles I. No doubt, in the splendid flurry of wonder over the astounding innovation of the invasion of the stage by an intruding "petticoat" in an age when all the female parts were acted and sung by men, it seemed that the fame of this prodigy would never die. Yet to-day, the bygone lady is listed in the biographical dictionaries as "Mrs. Coleman," and owes her survival in history largely to the fact that the great Pepys mentions her in his famous Diary. He writes in October, 1665, "She sung very finely, though her voice is decayed as to strength, but mighty sweet, though soft."
Who knows now—in our year of grace 1919—anything about "The Circe of Soho Square?" Yet for twelve brilliant years this Venetian singer held the most fashionable musical entertainments in the whole of England, to which the nobility and even royalty, in the person of the King of England and the King of Denmark, were graciously pleased to come. This woman, whose professional name—for a while at least —was Madame Teresa Cornelys, was rich enough to purchase Carlisle House in London, and had a thrilling social career. The great Bach himself conducted her concerts, and was one of the adjuncts of Madame Cornelys' musical ventures.
And this was the upward curve of madame's soaring rocket. But unfortunately, "what goes up, must come down."
There came the dawn of a grey day, when Carlisle House with all its luxurious appointments, furniture and rich draperies, was cried out on the market by the harsh voice of the auctioneer. All was changed—including the name of the social favorite. For the next few years she sought refuge under the unassuming name of "Mrs. Smith." And the ballroom, where she had held her brilliant musical court, became the quarters of a debating society.
Her only son, who supported her, died when she was quite an old woman; and this turn in fortune's inexorable wheel sent the former "Circe of Soho Square" out to Knightsbridge to sell asses' milk. As to the final scene, history is vague—but Fleet Street Prison records bear the name of "Mrs. Smith" as having served part of a term in its gloomy walls, before her death there— an old, broken, tragic woman of seventy-four!
How many of us know that the first complete ballet d'action ever produced on any stage (introduced at a performance at Covent Garden in London, in 1734), was the work of "a" Mile. Salle. This young singer also made important changes and reforms in theatrical costuming. No doubt she felt highly elated at the "undying" fame she was achieving. She was the originator of a graceful dramatic dance called "Pygmalion.'
Who was the soprano whom the irate Handel grabbed by the waist and threatened to throw out of the window unless she sang one of his songs in the opera, Otho, to which she had taken a dislike? It was just before the performance, while the audience waited for the curtain to rise. And, strange to say, this very song, which the singer was compelled, by the composer's angry threat, to sing, proved to be the one which made her reputation before the critical London public. And now for her name. Francesca Cuzzoni she was, ar. Italian, who was said never to have sung out of tune. She became the rage, sang all over Europe with tremendous success, scored brilliantly at the court of Vienna. The world was at her feet. She was capricious and whimsical, extravagant and overbearing—a famous singer could well afford such eccentricities! And—she sold buttons in her old age, to provide a scanty living for herself, after serving a long sentence in a Holland jail for debt. And this latter episode was in strange contrast to the fact that one of the greatest Dutch painters that ever lived (Hogarth) painted—amongst his other caricatures of famous people—one of Francesca Cuzzoni, as the singer to whom the Earl of Peterborough was presenting a thousand pounds sterling with an air of extreme deference suited to the dignity of one of the foremost singers of Europe.
So much for the singers of the past. As for those of to-day, it is interesting to note that Madame Melba —or, to give her her court title, "Dame Melba"—is the daughter of a Scotch contractor who settled in Australia. The famous singer has been heart and soul in war work. It is said that she has lost every male relative of the younger generation in the world war.
Madame Mathilde de Castrone Marchesi, the renowned singing teacher of Paris, was not, as most people suppose, a French woman, but was a native of Austria, and spent six years more of her life in Germany and Austria, than in "la belle Paris."