Malibran-the final concert

Posted on June 5th, 2012 by



Malibran-the final concert

Maria Malibran-Teatre Principal de Barcelona



On the 15th September, La Malibran gave her final concert, at the Manchester Festival , singing Beethoven, Mercadante, Rossini, Mozart, and ‘le Songe de Tartini’, with the composer, her new husband Charles de Bériot, duetting with her on the violin. The line up of performers for the concert was, by any standards, incredible: Ivanoff, Clara Novello, Robert Lindley, Madame Caradori Allan, John Braham, Lablache, Nicholson, Henry Phillips, Dragonetti, and De Beriot himself. This is not the place to talk of the drama of that night-suffice to say that 8 days later she was dead. There was also no question, that even in this astounding group of musicians, amongst whom, she was one of the youngest, Malibran was very much the star.

But one thing stands out from all accounts of that evening-however ill Malibran was, her competitive spirit was undimmed. This concert, like any other where musicians of the day played and sang together, was very much (to her mind anyway), a duel. Sir George Smart, who was conducting that night, remembered her reaction to the audience acclaim for her duet with Caradori Allan:

 ‘During the well-deserved encore, she turned to me, and said: “If I sing it again it will kill me.’ ‘Then do not’, I replied, ‘let me address the audience.’ ‘No’ said she, ‘ I will sing it again and annihilate her.’


These were prophetic words; she left the stage, collapsed, and was bled repeatedly throughout the rest of the concert. Whilst the leech bled her, an audience member told her that she should ‘resume her duties’. She was having none of it:

 “What , do you think I am like your English fighters; that I can lose blood, and go to work again directly?”

Her colleagues came and went, the concert continued, whilst she shrieked with pain backstage. But no writer has picked up on the pathetic tragedy of the evening, although they noted the facts. Charles de Beriot played a concerto at the end of the concert, presumably to replaced ‘Il Sogno de Tartini’ which they were supposed to have played and sang together. Presumably he was aware that she was ill, but not of how she faded after the intermission. The great Luigi Lablache, (remember Paganini) remembered standing in the wings, trying to attract de Beriot’s attention as he took applause for his concerto. This reminds us of one aspect of 19th century concert practise. Soloists did not walk on and off during the concert-this was a practise of Paganini’s, only introduced at the beginning of the 1830’s in the UK, and very much a ruse to take on the dramatic mantle of singers. The instrumentalists on the stage that night, although very much soloists, were prima inter pares. Lindley and Dragonetti had enjoyed their greatest fame as the duetting recitative accompanists of the day, and both had sat on stage on the 9th June 1831, standing by whilst Paganini eclipsed them all.

So de Bériot would not have known the tragedy which was unfolding backstage. He was most likely sitting in the leader’s chair; like Harper, Nicholson, Lindley and Dragonetti, stepping forward for his moments in the gas light, and rejoining the orchestral phalanx afterwards.

In his Art du Violon. Baillot recommended that this was an ideal position:

 “…If the orchestra is in a pit, with the solo violin on stage, the soloist is so much in evidence that nothing of the delicacy of his playing can be lost. Placed in this manner, he is always heard by the public when he knows how to make himself heard.”


It is not always possible to tell from iconography of the time, whether Paganini is depicted playing with an orchestra, or by himself. Indeed, one might argue that the very reason for the explosion of representations of him playing, was, in part due to the fact that he was the very first violinist that anyone had anyone had seen who presented themselves as disjunct from the orchestral masse of string instruments. Until Paganini came along, not only vocal soloists, but also the chorus, would sit in front of the orchestra- the placing of a violinist within the ambit of the orchestra might be just as much seen as to do with the notion of instrumental unities as the practical needs of concerto giving. Of course, by standing in the area of the stage usually reserved for singers, Paganini, wittingly or not, would possibly have evoked in the audience the notion that he was one too. Whether or not the many reviews and commentaries which refer to his instrument as a voice are directly the result of this is interesting, but I have to ask the questions as to whether this association would have been made had he been stood further back, and indeed, whether or not the sonic separation, the distinctiveness of this own sound, would have been achievable from thence.

De Bériot had played in Britain some years before Paganini-indeed a number of publications had ventured to back him ahead of the Genoan’s arrival in 1831. The Athenaeum’ wrote the following, two days after Paganini’s debut ( June 11)

 We are slow to “swallow mountains,”and therefore did not believe all we heard touching the Signor before his arrival. Nay, last year we ventured to back De Bériot against him; we here retract. De Bériot is a sweet, chaste player – but Paganini is a solitary man in his art ! There is a relation between a unit and a million – ‘none between him and his fellow men.’

De Bériot was still much admired, but Paganini was something new-he had stepped into the area of celebrity previously reserved for the pop stars of the day, the singers. However young she was, la Malibran was not impressed by Paganini, who was nearly double her age, when he left Italy for the first time. She wrote: “ Pagnaini ne sait pas chanter,” after attending his debut in Paris.

Paganini worked extensively with opera singers and wrote variations on popular bel canto arias; he probably derived much of his legato playing from observing singers. He wrote:

‘Je crois que la melodie vient du feu…la terre, l’air, et le ciel d’Italie ne sont qu’un foyer de flame-voilà pourquoi les Italiens chantent toujours

There is considerable speculation as to whether Paganini and La Malibran ever performed together. This picture: [show] was long proffered as an image of their collaboration; however, in all likelihood, it does not show her, but one of two young Sopranos with whom the virtuoso enjoyed controversial liaisons-Charlotte Watson. However, the Punch cartoonist Sala recalled their appearance at one of the benefit concerts presented by his roguish mother.

George Augustus Sala remembers him, not so much for his playing, but his appearance of avariciousness. He recalled this in his memoir Things I have seen and people I have known. Sala described how his mother would organize benefit concerts to help the family circumstances,-hoping that the prestigious artists that she engaged to play could be persuaded to forgo thri fees. Sala recalled how she utilized her very young child in this ruse-he was no more than four or five at the time. He remember that after the concert, “Duly washed, waxed and polished, ” he was taken by his mother to backstage, to the artists rooms, to where they would be waiting to settle their fees. The idea, was oftern successful- the sight of the clean, well turned out, but clearly hungry children, was too much for most of them. But Madame Malibran “swept up her thirty guinease” without merely patting the little boy benignly on the head as she put them into her reticule” When Madame Sala went to Paganini’s room:

 ” He looked at me long and earnestly; and somehow, although he was about as weird a looking creature as could well be imagined, I dint not feel afrain of him,. In a few broken words my mother [expand] explained her mission and put the fifty guineas down on the table. When I say that he washed his hands in the godl, that he scrabbled at it, as David of old did at the gate-and grasped it, and built it up in tiny heaps, panting the while. I am not in any way exaggerating. He bundled it up at last in a blue cotton pocket hankerchief with white spots and darted from the room. And we-my poor mother convulsively clasping my hand-went out onto the landing and were about descending the stairs, when the great violinist bolted again from his bedroom door. ” Take that, little boy, ” he said, “Take that;” and he thrust a piece of paper, rolled up almost into a ball into my hand. It was a bank note for fifty pounds.”

Sala was sure that the occasion of this meeting was a concert given jointly by Malibran and Paganini in 1835. However, I am aware that at the time, Sala was a very little boy.

Two years earlier later Princess Victoria had heard him at one of the concerts he gave at Drury Lane. On June 27th 1833, Bellini’s Norma was presented as one part of Laporte’s own benefit night. The bill was luxurious indeed, offering the so-called ‘four talents of Europe’, being Paganini, Pasta, Malibran, and Taglioni. That astonishing programme announced that Paganini, “who has obligingly offered his services” to “play some of this celebrated variations” ; Act III of Rossini’s Otello with Malibran as Desdemona; the ballet La Sylphide with Taglioni in the role that she had created for the Opéra, Paris the previous year; and a group of pas de deux featuring Fanny Eisler. The London correspondednt of the L’Eco¸ Milan (July 10th 1833), referring to Paganini as the “Man-Violin,” reported that his success that the benefit had been “colossal.”

The 14 year-old Princess Victoria wrote:

    “We came in at the beginning of the second act of Norma, in which Madame Pasta sang BEAUTIFULLY. After that Sgnr Paganini played by himself some variations most WONDERFULLY; he is himself a curiosity. After that was given the last act of Otello; Desdemona, Madame Malibran, who sang and acted BEAUTIFULLY. After that was performed La Sylphide; Taglioni danced BEAUTIFULLY and looked LOVELY. Fanny Elssler danced also very well. We saw the whole of the last act and much of the second. It was Laporte’s benefit. I was VERY MUCH AMUSED. We came home at ½ past 1. I was soon in bed and asleep.”

Ole Bull was perhaps the only player of his time more concerned with achieving a particular vocal quality than his Italian rival and inspiration. He described the supreme quality of Paganini’s singing tone:

“ Without a knowledge of the Italian art of singing, it is impossible to properly appreciate his singin. Contemporary with Pasta, Pizzaroni, Rubini, Malibran, Paganini rivaled them, singining on his violin, melodies many of which had been sung by those artists, and astonishing them even more than the public. In fact his style was so orginal, his music so filled with ever new episodes of startling beauty or original quaintness, that the violinists of the day stood confounded.”

By now, you might be wondering what I am driving at. To find that, we need Tartini. His maxim, held onto so faithfully by the violinists of the revolutionary generation was ‘per ben cantare, bisogna ben cantare’. It is with the generation of his disciples, and their children, that we first witness a true interchanged between the ideals of the violin and those of the voice. And, it seems to me, anyway, that resurgence of a new generation of works using the new virtuoso aesthetic speak to this idea. There is a deeply satisfying circularity that the very last work which La Malibran was supposed to sing, had she made it to the end of her Manchester concert in September 1836, was entitled, ‘The Dream of Tartini’. Of course, Tartini himself was outspoken as to his reason for avoiding vocal music, explaining his disagreement with Vivaldi over this issue in the following way:

 I have,” he said to me, “been asked to work for theatres in Venice, and I have never wanted to, knowing full well that a throat is not the same of the neck of a violin. Vivaldi, who tried to compose in both genres, was always booed in one, while he was very successful in the other.” Charles De Brosses, Lettres Familières, (letter to M. de Maleteste) 1739-40, Ibid. P. 206

And perhaps it was that eschewal, that powerful avoidance of one genre, that enabled him to focus so much of his and his successors’ devotions onto the lyricism of the violin. Tartini’s dictum, per ben suonare, bisogna ben cantare can be applied to everything that Viotti brought to the French school, his vocal revolution of the bow, the move away from the chattering ornamentation and short-breathed brilliance of the violinistic descendants of Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764). Suddenly a new union was born, between the violin and the voice, and as the sound of the castrati began to fade in the memory, the violin virtuosi stepped forward from the coulisses and conquered all with the qualities of their long single notes just as the castrati had. They no longer simply dazzled with high wire virtuosity, they sang. The association with the voice was so important to the disciples of Viotti, that they took every opportunity to learn from it. The last of the Observations with which the Méthode de Violon begins, is taken directly from the Conservatoire’s Méthode de Chant:

 “It is proposed to accustom the student to judge for themselves whether a note is ‘just’ or ‘false’; and in the case that it is false, if it is not too high or too low, with the aim that he might correct the it without help, by the use of his own ears which will become the more perfected using this method.”

This new skill, of sustaining and shaping long phrases, was central to Viotti’s innovations. He examined the ability of a violinist simply by testing their bowing. Using a watch, he checked the player could sustain one note for fifteen seconds, without any unevenness or imperfections. This type of playing would make little sense with the shorter, pre-‘transitional’ bows, but ideally suited the longer Tourte model which Viotti popularised. He had painfully systemised per ben suonare, bisogna ben cantare!

During his time at the Théâtre des Italiens, Viotti campaigned to increase the flow of Italian singers and music into Paris. However, he lost his way, following the assignation of Charles Ferdinand Duc de Berry (1778-1820) at the theatre in 1820-the most bloody evening in French theatre since the attempt on Napoleon’s life in 1802.

The killing of the Duc de Berry, who “had a passion for music”, at the Opéra, like the attempt on Bonaparte two decades earlier, provides a disturbing illustration of the brutish nature of life between revolutions, and the proximity of the arts to this violence.

François René Chateaubriand (1768-1848) was at the Opéra the night the King’s nephew, and heir apparent was fatally stabbed in a carriage outside the theatre. He wrote: “On one side you had the sound of music, on the other, the sighs of the dying prince.” One of the Ballets on the Gala programme that night, was the Carneval de Venise, later popularised by Niccolo Paganini. According to the Comtesse de Boigne, “The music of the ballet, which was in progress, and the applause of the pit made a terrible contrast to the scene before the eyes.”

Most histories of the Paris Opéra draw a veil over Viotti’s tenure, although it was not so disastrous as that of Angelica Catalani (1780-1849), who spent Christmas with him in England in 1808. The Harmonicon noted of his directorship that “it was little suited either to his age or his quiet, retiring character, and as his administration was not a successful one, he solicited, and obtained permission to retire upon a pension.” However, it is clear that he did endeavour, in the theatrical posts that he took, to broaden the artistic reach of the various institutions; hence Pugnani’s submission of his Werther for his consideration in London, and Rossini’s campaign for him to take on Mose in Egitto in Paris.

The Sonata a Preghira MS 23, was composed around 1819. Rossini’s opera Mose in Egitto was staged for the first time in March 1818 at the Teatro San Carlo, where he was music director from 1815 to 1822. The following year, it was produced again, with a completely revised last act, which increased the dramatic impact of the piece. One of the modifications to the work, was the addition of the Preghira.


Curiously, a few years after Hérold had proposed Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto to Viotti, Rossini was able to take the reins at the very theatre where Viotti had been conducting, Paris’ Theatre Italien. He courted royal favour very carefully, learning French, and providing a new work, Il Viaggio a Reims for the coronation of Charles X in 1825. Rather than providing new works in French, he chose to begin by adapting two of his serious Italian, works, which were bother dramatic enough to appeal to Parisian audiences. One of these two works was Maometto II, which became Le Siège de Corinthe which he presented in October 1826, with Adolphe Nourrit in the title role. The other was Mosè in Egitto, which was adapted as Moïse and was first performed in March 1827. Rossini’s published. Troupenas, helped him prepare the new score, without destroying the original sources. When Paganini arrived in Paris, playing his variations on the Preghira from this work, he was playing a tune very familiar to the opera audiences-perhaps, like the audiences at Schikaneder’s Teater an der Wien, the audience might have sung along.

In Fétis’ opinion, the Sonata a Preghira revealed a certain inconstistent strain in Paganini’s playing; it is almost as if he was echoing Ingres’s disapproval:

 “In the prayer from Mose, for example, he was great when the baritone voice was heard on the fourth string, from the elevated character he gve to it; but when he came to the part of Elcia, an octave higher on the same string, he fell into an affected strain of h

eavy, tremulous, sounds, which good taste would have rejected. His triumph was in the last major strain; here he was sublime-and he then left an impression bordering on enthusiasm.”

o let’s take a moment and note one point of contact between Charles de Beriot and Mendelssohn, long before they met. Both of them had sought out the revolutionary generation to study with in Paris.

Charles de Bériot was nineteen years old when he arrived in Paris, determined to meet Viotti, then at the end of his ill-starred tenure at the Opéra. He did not consider himself to be a finished artist at the time that he importuned Viotti for lessons. However , he was brushed off, with the warning that study might destroy his uniqueness of style and technique. It as reported that Viotti said:

“You have a fine style! Give yourself up to the business of perfecting it! Hear all men of talent; profit by everything, and imitate nothing.”

This may well have been right, but nonetheless, the Belgian put himself under the wing of the next generation and sat in Pierre Baillot’s class for a some months. Despite being the most influential pedagogue of his day, Viotti was reluctant to teach adults-most likely the reason for his refusal of de Beriot. Felix Mendelssohn came to study with Baillot in 1816; perhaps his enthusiasm for Bach, was in some way stimulated by the seriousness with which pedagogues and contrapuntalists treated his music in the French capital. Returning as a 16 year old nine years later, he appalled his sister Fanny by suggesting that he was “trying to teach Onslow and Reicha to love Beethoven and Sebastian Bach.”

But it was the most mysterious of the troika of Viotti disciples, Pierre Rode, who provided a way forward, a new form of lyricism, which, it might be argued, sowed the seeds for both the lyrical virtuosity of singers such as Malibran, and the vocal brilliance of Paganini’s generation.

With Viotti’s adherence to Tartini’s maxim, per ben suonare, bisogna ben cantare, it is no mystery why the post-revolutionary generation of violinists came to idolise singers. In his 12th Concerto Rodophe Kreutzer immortalised Angelica Catalani, who took inspiration from Pierre Rode’s Airs Variés. By 1831, the influence had become so mutual that a concert for the Société des Concerts given by Nicolo Paganini, directed by Habeneck, could include just such a Rode Air . Despite the presence of the greatest living violinist, the Rode was sung by Mlle. Dorus, not played. This concert, announced for the 17th April 1831, ‘…pour les pauvres’, aside from Paganini’s own works, was dominated by Paris based composers. These included Rossini, Boieldieu, who had been in Russia with Rode, Catel, who wrote the Conservatoire’s first compostion Méthode , and Rode, whose ‘Variations’, which preceded Paganini’s showstopping Carneval de Venise.

The practice of singing Pierre Rode’s Airs Variés had a signal effect on the development of early romantic vocal virtuosity. Angelica Catalani sung them, and Carl Czerny published a piano transcription of her version of Rode’s virtuoso works.

Henri Herz (1803-1888), virtuoso pianist, and ‘duelling’ duo partner of Charles Philippe Lafont, made a solo transcription of Angelica Catalani’s transcription of a Pierre Rode air varié. He was far from being alone; J. B. Carmer published his own set of Variations as “Rode’s celebrated Air sung with the greatest applause by Madame Catalani with an Introdution and Variations for the Piano Forte.” This has clearly come a long way from violin playing, but still retains the kernel of violin virtuosity, even the memory of the bowing combinations with Viotti had innovated.

An idea of the popularity of these transcriptions can be gleaned from a silk programme for a concert of vocal and instrumental music given at Buckingham Palace on the 22nd June 1866. This concert featured the great sopranao Dame Adelina Patti (1843-1919). It included the Weber overture to his 1826 ‘London’ opera, Oberon, God Save the Queen , and ‘Ah, dolce Canto, aria con variazione’, sung by Zelia Trebelli. This last, of course, was a Rode Air, his most famous, in G major, in the vocal form which had become the most popular of all, its orgin as a violin piece, all but forgotten.

The implication is subtle and exciting. Rode’s variations only made a real public impression, not as violin pieces, but when a new generation of virtuoso sopranos made them their own. It is very likely that, by the time Charles de Bériot (1802-1870), married to Maria Malibran (1808-1836), the greatest singer of the age, began writing his eponymous variations, the influence had become reciprocal; the genre, and the notion of a lyrical virtuosity, had become shared between singers and string players.

A letter written by Paganini in 1826 gave clear indication of the relative power available to traveling singers and instrumentalists, before he commenced his international touring. He records that the great singer, Catalani had offered to give him an entry into London musical life, but he had refused. Of course, he may have remembered that that in 1820, when he had heard Catalani in Naples, he had fallen in love. But he had noted ruefully: “Liberty is the greatest blessing for a man.” In 1823, listening to Catalini at La Scala, he adjudged that whilst her voice was ‘strong and agile’ her performance fell short rhythmical and in ‘musical philosophy’. However, he was impressed enough Paganini was so impressed that he wrote out one of her Cadenzas, conveniently rendered in idiomatic violinistic style, in a letter written to his lawyer Guglielmo Germi (1786-1870).

He was even more impressed with Rode himself, even at the end of Rode’s career. It was in October 1820, that Paganini was able to hear the great French violinist Pierre Rode, in Rome. Eight years earlier, Beethoven had written Rode his last Sonata Op 96, and had been advised by the Archduke Rudolf, who gave the premiere with the Frenchman, that Rode’s right hand was, even then grown somewhat stiff. This was the reason for the stately nature of the last movement of this great sonata. However, Paganini was tremendously impressed.

“The monarch of variety…even in the antechamber of Paradise, it could not sound better than he…”

Which brings us to Infelice. …Mendelssohn disclosed that the violin solo was tailored for de Bériot, the illicit lover of….Malibran-her second name, of course, was Felicia. There may have been a degree of mischief in his naming of the work. After all, the first time that he heard her, he had not been impressed. In 1829, he arrived in London for the first time. On 21st April, he had arrived in the Pool of London on his first visit to London. After leaving the Customs house, he immediately went to a nearby coffee house to read the Times, and to see what was playing at the Opera House. Wearing borrowed black stockings and cravat, he sat in the pit to watch her play Desdemona. His reaction to Malibran’s singing was that it was ‘ridiculous and disagreable’, and was relieved, when finally, after midnight, the heroine was strangled ‘panting and screaming disagreeably’.

A few years later, all had changed. Clara Novello, who was also on the bill at La Malibran’s last concert, remembered that:

One memorable evening when Felix was visiting them, Clara was delighted to hear Malibran’s laughter and there in the drawing room she stood, swift, vivid, more radiant than ever in her new role as de Beriot’s wife. That night de Beriot played in a Haydn string quartet with the family and his wife sang song after sonf for them: Mozart’s Non piu d fiori, Vincent’s own Sancta Maria, a French love song, a sea shanty, and then she whirled across the room in her uncertain English, ‘But come, I never do nothing for nothing!’ and drove him to the piano. The laughing Felix sat down nd played improvisations on all her songs and then, without pause, his fingers began weaving the four themes together in elaborate counterpoint until the delighted listeners grew dizzy following his game.

Part and parcel of 19th century ‘celebrity’ as Madame Tussaud coined it in 1835, was to be ridiculed and celebrated in popular theatres, the precursors of Music Hall and the modern Variety Show. In this Paganini was no exception. In 1834, the Variétés Theatre in Paris, put on a Canevas à l’italienne, mêlé de Vaudevilles et de musique nouvelle, entitled La Chambre de Rossini. Paganini is portraye as ‘Blaganini’. At one point in the text, ‘Blaganini’ defends his reputation to a theater director, who has dared to compare him with the great violinists of the French School. (The speech is written in a toe-curling parody of an Italian speaking French, which does not bear repeating, let alone translating). ‘Blaganini’ protests indignantly:

“Certainly I admire them; I have the greatest admiration for them; I believe they have just as much talent as one would wish, Lafont, for his grace, Bériot for his expression. They are most agreeable…But hey presto! Here is the true weakness of these violin players; it is that their bows touch the E-string [the ‘cantina’-little voice]. That’s just not it at all, the bow should never touch the strings! You should only terrify them, set them a-tremble; but don’t touch them, for God’s sake! Excepting when you pass to Andantino, to, Agitato from dolce to forte; then finally to pizzicato. [with each tone, he imitates the violin with his mouth] but before is necessary to be light, delicate, to the point of making everyone forget the instrument in your hands. When I play, I stand before the public, and the while, it is not me, it is not my bow, it is not my violin, it’s….I really don’t know what it is, it is the warbling of Tulou’s flute, the mellowness of the voice of Malibran, the lightness of step of Taglioni, and the gossamer tones of the basse and cello of the Bohrer brothers…and so, I greet my public. And that is how I play violin.”

Still, when the work received it London premiere (May 1834) the soprano Maria Caradori-Allan, not Malibran, sang the solo. The violin part was played by John Loder. Everyone at the Royal Academy of Music goes past John Loder nearly every day; none of us noticed him for years. The simple reason was that his picture was mislabeled. The picture has been labeled as being of Edward Loder; he was John Loder’s son; a composer and pianist, who in 1833 would write the opera Norjahad for the English Opera Company. He was one of the most notable British students of Beethoven’s pupil Ferdinand Ries. But man in the violin is clearly holding a violin; it his John Loder, professor of violin here, from 1840. After his move to London, Loder lived in Albany Street, near Regents Park.

His niece, the tremendously successful composer-pianist, Kate Loder, much admired by Mendelssohn, hangs in the Royal Academy Board Room, in a picture by Edward Alma Tadema. John Loder took over the concerts at Bath Theatre, and in 1823, gave a series of performances at this fashionanable venue with Sir George Smart.

Less than two years later, Malibran and de Beriot wed in a clandestine ceremony. Tragically, within a few months, the young singer died. Felix withdrew the concert aria.