Friday, August 5, 2016

Suffering Sopranos! … or, Where did my aria go?

In the umpteen years that I’ve been working in the 19th-century music world, I’ve encountered endless names which were new and unexplained (duly, since, explored) and a great deal of music which was naught but a title to me. I’ve explored some of that too, with the help of youtube, but alas, that excellent teaching aid has some sad and, in some ways surprising, lacunae. Huge hits of the C19th are not there. I suppose no one has recorded them, their day of glory was in the years before recording was invented. So, I have to fall back on sheet music. But in one notable case, that too had left me bereft. Story.

In the early decades of the Victorian era there was one number, above all, which star sopranos, prime donne … and little girls at their pianos … put on show if they wanted to exhibit the then fashionable ‘elasticity’ and ‘flexibility’ of their voices. You know, like Cecilia Bartoli in her ‘Agitata da due venti’. It was not the Queen of the Night, not even ‘Bid me Discourse’, ‘Cease your funning’, ‘Non piu mesta’ or chunks of Proch and Pucitta. The piece was known as ‘Rode’s Air and Variations’. Must have a look at this, I thought.

Brick Wall. Youtube rendered up a piano version. How odd, a piano version of something so widespread, yet not a vocal one. Well, as I know now, the piece went by several different titles and appeared in a multitude of different arrangements. And I’m still not wholly certain which is which.

Pierre Rode was a French violinist, considered, with Viotti (his teacher) and Kreutzer, as one of the best players of, and writers for, the instrument around the turn of the C18th. He operated variously in France, Russia and Germany, was sometime named violinist to Napoléon and the King of all the Russias, and in the last years of the C18th early years of the C19th turned out some highly popular concertos for violin. But the most popular, it seems, was our ‘Air Varié’. Written in G major. When? Where? When was it first performed? Well, I have scrabbled through yards of old German script, and I have no precise answer.

The following Vienna sheet-music has to be very early 1800s, when Napoléon was still ‘premier consul’ of France rather than Emperor..

So it seems it was premiered (?) while he was in France.

Alas, Rode’s worklist is annoyingly muddled. Even the Bibliothèque Nationale de France doesn’t seem to have things ordered and dated. There is strange inconsistency in opus numbers. The 12 concertos (most, like his Caprices and Études, recorded in our day) are numbered 1-12, but the rest? Our Air Varié was published as opus 10 in Vienna (above) and France. Elsewhere it seems to be opus 12. One text says it was written circa 1794, which can’t be right. Opus 9 (the 7th concerto) seems to have been be premiered in 1803. And Opus 11 in 1804. When he was in Russia…

But I think I see our Opus 10 (?) already published in France in December 1802. I find it, by 1805, called the ‘bekannten Variationen von Rode’ in Leipzig (Einert) and Hamburg (Seidler). By 1812 they’re ‘die himmelschen Variationen von Rode’, and being played not only by the masters but by a 13 year-old amateur, a blind man from Munich, arranged as an organ solo … and I see versions (undated) for flute, for clarinet, for piano, for harp, for cornet, for concertina. In 1818 the ‘cellist Wranitzky is playing it …

So when did the vocal version happen. Well, it seems to have been round about this time. The first reference is to Catalani singing it ‘exactly as written’ at the Paris Italiens in the 1817-8 season. Apparently with no words. Just as Madame Mara had done with a similar Italian piece the year before. I haven’t yet found this performance (which must have provoked some reaction!) but I pick her up in September 1818 in Prague and Dresden in November showcasing her new number alongside her regular Pucitta (‘Deh frenate’, ‘Della tromba’), Paer (‘La placida campagna’), Guglielmi (‘Mio bene’), Portogallo (‘Vorrei frenar le lagrime’), Mozart ‘Done sono’ and the pasticcio ‘O dolce contento’), Handel (Messiah) and ‘God Save the King’ (of whichever country was appropriate).

One wee point. It wasn’t ‘exactly as written’. It had been transposed to E flat, so that the top note in the piece was theoretically B flat. But of course, Madame embellished the embellishments!

Other sopranos were on to it soon. I see Elizabeth Feron giving a very Catalani-esque programme, including the Rode, in Berlin as soon as 1819. And meanwhile the violinists and the clarinettists and the pianists (‘originally composed for the Violin, adapted for the Voice, and sung with extraordinary effect at Paris by Madame Catalani, and now arranged for the Piano Forte’) continued to give their G major variations.

In 1821, Catalani and the piece hit England. She gave two concerts in Birmingham and featured the piece both nights, she moved to London’s Argyll Rooms and out it came again. ‘The celebrated air by Rode with the variations as sung by Madame Catalani is published under her sanction …’. When Mary Ann Paton jumped on the bandwagon she stoutly announced her piece as ‘Rhode’s Violin Variations’.  And Skillern published it for harp. So did Bochsa. Lavenu published it ‘as sung by Mme Catalani’ for two pianos. The flautist Nicholson tried it and got a rapped knuckle: ‘If Mme Catalani will venture to sing a violin air, surely the flute-player may venture to blow it, but Madame C performs its most valourously note for note as M Rode plays it, while Mr Nicholson more prudently adapts it to the genius of his instrument’. And he added three extra variations.

Cheltenham muso Pio Cianchettini published what passed for an official Catalani arrangement, ‘which it would seem she deems to be the highest possible demonstration of her powers’. Later Levy made it over for cornet and Mr Purkis performed it on the Apollicon.

By this time it had somewhere obtained words. Allegedly by Catalani. I first see it billed as ‘Al dolce canto’ in late 1822. 1822, too, seems to have been the year of issue of the most successful of the other ‘arrangement of the arrangement’. Carl Czerny had heard Catalani sing her version in Vienna the previous year and come up with his piano version (opus 33). That’s the one on youtube. Gloriously played by Horowitz...

But the vocal version was about to get another fillip. Henriette Sontag took it up, and not only gave it in concert but introduced it into the lesson scene of her performances of The Barber of Seville. First in London and then in Paris. It was for the nonce an accepted part of Rossini’s score. Cramers even published it as a pair with ‘Una voce poco fa’.

In the years to come, other stars took their turn at the piece. I see Grisi (1834, ‘surpasses any other performance we have heard of the same piece’), Cinti-Damoreau (1835), Charlott Ann Birch (1846), ‘the return of Sontag’ (1849), Louisa Pyne (1851), Castellan (1851), Sofie Cruvelli in Il Barbiere (1852), Marie Comte-Borchard (1853), Alboni in concert and Il Barbiere (1856-7), Helen Lemmens-Sherrington (1859), Artôt (1860), and others less or unknown to fame, singing the now famous melody. Julia Harland, Mesdames Gautrot and Testar (Australia), Mrs Emma G Bostwick (USA), Herta Westerstrand, Molina di Mendi, Annie Thirlwall, Guiseppina Finoli, Pauline Rita, Pauline Lewitzky, Amalia Colombo, Caroline Schmeroschi, Rose Hersee, Elvira Gambogi, Antoinette Trebelli ..

By the 1880s it was occasionally qualified as ‘sadly hackneyed’ or ‘that useful voice-training exercise’ and by the 20th century it had largely gone back to being a violin piece and the vocal version was surrounded by journalistic mythology: ‘Rode's Air and Variations [was] sung by Miss M Blanche Foulke. The vocal arrangement was originally written for Mme Sontag who, jealous it would seem, of the effect Rode could obtain from the violin in this exquisite creation, determined to emulate his efforts. In spite of his decidedly expressed…’.

So there is its history. Enough of a history, surely, for a copy – just one copy -- of the vocal version to have somewhere survived. But for many, many years, in spite of the aid of some of the world’s most knowledgeable music librarians. I couldn’t find one.

Well, this week I have. In Germany, Russia, England? Breitkopf & Hartel? Cramer? Nope. In the U S of A. In good old Virginia. I’ve sent the URL to a few soprani of my acquaintance, and Paulie is recording the piano accompaniment so we can all have a go…

The vanished vocalises are vanished no longer. Maybe I can get Madame Bartoli to have a crack at them (only B flat, dear!). Well, let’s see!

Nota bene. Pougin states categorically that our base piece is the second of Deux airs Variés (en sol majeur) avec accompagnement d’un second violon, alto et violoncello … Op 9 et 12. He is doubtless right. But why doesn’t he give a date? And what happened to Opus 10?

Virginia’s sheet is of the Sontag Barber of Seville version of circa 1829, published in ... Chicago!

1 comment:


Well! After all that searching ... there IS a modern recording of my piece. But ... sung by a tenor. Richard Conrad recorded a piano-accompanied version ...