Angelica Catalani

Posted on March 8th, 2011 by

Angelica Catalani


Paganini writes down one of Catalani’s ‘roulades’ in concert 18th June 1823:

Catalani/transcribed Paganini-‘Allegro Moderato’

Click on Higlighted words to follow Links

Catalani’s career and notoriety was extraordinarily long. Initially inspired by the new instrumental virtuosi of the post revolutionary generation, she, in turn, was imitated by them two decades later.  Leigh Hunt called her, ‘a Roman with the regular Italian antelope face’.

A link to Beethoven. Catalani’s musical director, after her tenure at the the Paris Opera,  was Franz Clement, better known for premiering the Beethoven concerto, and sharing rooms with him in the ‘Tearter an der Wien.

In 1853, London was overrun with visitors to the Great Exhibition. As with all such events, there was just as much demand for entertainment away from Kensington. Visitors streamed into London, to the theatre, to restaurants, to the opera, and searching for a good time, where it was always to be found. One of the attractions was tiny. Advertisements and engravings of the time depict the  Singing Mouse – ‘Air by Catalani’ who gave free recitals for all who went down the Strand looking for a haircut, a new hat, a shave, or to the theatre.

During her lifetime, Angelica Catalani had been applauded and cursed in equal measure. By the time of the ‘Great Exhibition’, all  succes de scandale of her tumultuous career, her role in the ‘theatre riots’ of the late 18th century, her disastrous tenure of the directorship of the Paris Opèra, all had been forgotten. Her virtuosic delivery of Pierre Rode’s Airs Variés was reduced to the squeak of a performing mouse, around the corner from the NPG, on the Strand, singing Airs de Cat-a-lani.

Continental writers remained sniffy about her reasons for pursuing a career in London. England was not regarded as a cultural centre by my in France and the Germany states, but a place where money could be made, and fast. This had, in the past, been very attractive to composers such as Weber and Cherubini.  In 1870’s Naumann’s History of Music noted that :

‘In England she remained from 1807 to 1814, receieving a fixed  salary of 96000 francs per season. Like Madame de Staël she incurred the wrath of Napoleon by choosing in 1806 an engagement in London to one in Paris. In 1807, of course, she had introduced the part of ‘Susanna’ from Mozart’s le Nozze di Figaro. This part, was created initially by Maria Cosway’s friend in Italy, Nancy Storace.

We should not forget that not all the environments emjoyed by artists were, or are, salubrious. Clearly Lord Byron and his friends were taking advantage of Catalani’s notoriety in abusing her premises with a debauch in 1808:

[Byron 1808] ‘Last night at the opera masquerade, we supped with seven whores, a bawd and a ballet-master, in Madame Catalani’s apartment behind the scenes, (of course Catalani was not there) I have some thoughts of purchasing D’Egville’s [a ballet master] pupils, they would fill a glorious harem…

For the travelling artist, drawing rooms and salons provided vital entrée to fashionable awareness and to the exclusive stages. Catalani, like many singers, was unable to escape from the accusations of mon ey grabbing, which had dogged her since the ‘opera riots’ of earlier years, and which would dog Paganini a few years later. Helmut Mahling reports that:

‘The 47 year old Catalani prepared for her visit [to Berlin] in 1827 by singing at  soirees and the division of takings was typical, as was her participation in several concerts where she sang arias not in the original key but transposed to a lower register. / …On her first visit to Berlin in 1816, Catalani had asked ‘three Thaler for a seat in the hall, and four for one in a box.’ Even at a charity concert on h 27th July 1816, offering an opportunity ‘for the less prosperous to hear this superb singer’, the price of a ticket was ‘only one Thaler 12 Groschen’. Despite these high prices,’ well about the common run’, the singer gave eight concerts in June and July 1816, two ‘for the benefit of charitable institutions’.

Andre-Léon Larue, called Mansion (1785-1834)

Clara Novello was taken to hear the prima donna as a young girl. Her competitive spirit was aroused:

[Clara Novello]… ‘When Catalani came to sing in the Minster, he took her to hear the great singer. Clara listened and thought: My C in alt is easier than yours, but she did not say so because her mother had taught her the importance of modesty.

The breath of scandal was never far from Catalani, not least because she was prepared to sing for the estranged wife of the Regent, Caroline of Brunswick. Flora Fraser describes on of the Princess’s ‘assemblies’, a combination of social reception, concert at ballet:

‘So assiduously did the princess court her own courtiers, so interested was she in all her guests and their doings, it was hardly surprising that her assemblies at Kensington were well attended. Lord Glenberive considered the company at one fete she gave for the Persian Ambassador ‘very numerous and … in general, the best in London’. On this occasion, the Princess first received her guests ‘very graciously and gracefully’ in ‘a sort of circle’ in the first room. Then she and her cousin Princess Sophia Matilda of Gloucester seated themselves on a sofa in the dining-room, with the Persian Ambassador on another, while the singer Signor Giuseppe Naldi accompanied on the harpsichord Mme Angelica Catalani, who sang for the company. Later two professional dances performed a Court minuet and a gavotte.’

Catalani was one of the distinguished artists who graced the fashionable Paris.  salons kept by the irresistible Elisabeth Vigee-le Brun. In London, Prince George had been been content to sit on the floor beneath her piano.

In 1805,  Elisabeth Vigée-le Brun quit England after staying for three years; she had originally planned to stay only for ‘four or five months.’ Returning to Paris, she re-acquainted herself with many of her musician friends and found new ones to replace the virtuosi that had graced her London soirées. Her new ‘star’ was the “young and beautiful” Angelica Catalani, who later became famous for her interpretations of Pierre Rode’s Airs Variés.

The painter remembered: ‘I gathered myself together and restarted my musical evenings. Madame Catalani was kind enough to come and sing, to the great pleasure of all my circle. We mainly made vocal music, as I was not able to have Viotti…it was not until much later that the delicious violin of Lafont came to console us for his absence.’

The writer Stendahl was far from  convinced by her artistry:

[Stendahl] ‘…Signora Catalani included in her repertoire a vocal arrangement of Rode’s Variations; it is true however, that God somehow forgot to place a heart within reasonable proximity of this divine larynx.’

…a concern echoed by Niccolò Paganini, who was, nonetheless impressed enough to write out one of her improvised cadenzas.

[Paganini] to Luigi Germi-Milano 18 Giugno 1823. ‘Her voice is strong, and agile, forming the most beautiful instrument, but it is missing the measure of musical philosophy.’

Shortly before the Battle of Waterloo, Fanny Burney heard Catalani perform at the Opèra in Brussels. The opera provided a forum for a different kind of salon, one which was both private and public (to a large extent, or course, depending on whether or not the curtains of private boxes, the loges, were open or closed). This was a performance given both by the artists and the audience. Even Catalani was not able to divert Burney’s attention from the giant sitting in the box opposite to hers, Arthur Wellesley.

[27th April 1815 Brussels] Fanny Burney– ‘The voice of Catalani charmed and astonished me – but well as she is worth looking at besides being heard, my Eyes were riveted all the night upon the Hopes of the World, the D of W, who was just facing me. I have a faith in him so great that, at his sight, I feel all courage.’