Notes from the piano stool
David Owen Norris
Premieres possess a strange cachet. The extent to which they outnumber second performances is perhaps magnified by the fact that second and even subsequent performances can be described as ‘modern premiere’ or ‘British premiere’. That’s the sort of premiere I’ve been giving lately, as part of Chawton House Library’s conference on Reputations.
1817 saw the deaths of two novelists, one world-famous, the other parochial and obscure. The latter was Jane Austen, the former, Madame de Stael. We decided to adorn the conference with a musical tribute to another woman who died in 1817: Nancy Storace, a London-born singer of Italian origin. She went to Vienna with her brother Stephen, a composer, and there she had the good fortune to become Mozart’s first Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro. Later, during the premiere of an opera by Stephen, she suddenly lost her voice completely. Her return to the Viennese stage some anxious months later was marked by a collaborative composition by three composers who were very fond of her. One, the otherwise unknown Cornetti, was perhaps her brother in disguise. The others were Mozart and… Salieri! (No, he didn’t poison Mozart.) Da Ponte, the librettist of Mozart’s three greatest operas, obliged with a poem. The piece was performed, printed and lost. Last year a copy turned up in a library. Salieri’s contribution is delightful, but it must be admitted that
Mozart did Nancy prouder in the piece he wrote to say Farewell when she returned to London, the concert aria ‘Ch’io mi scordi di te?’ (Me? Forget you?) It’s a concerto for piano and voice, and a moving tribute to an enduring musical affection.
To round out Nancy’s portrait, we added songs by her faithless lover, John Braham, and by her Irish colleague from Vienna, Michael Kelly, along with a beautiful setting by brother Stephen of the opening lines of Gray’s Elegy: ‘The curfew tolls the knell of parting day’. And that gave us the chance to give the modern premiere of Thomas Billington’s setting of the entire poem, which was published in 1786. Gray’s masterpiece is usually associated with Stoke Poges and the Heathrow flightpath. But Gray used to visit his Uncle William, who was the Rector of Everdon in Northamptonshire, and behind the churchyard in Everdon there’s a lea that a herd could wind over in a way I’ve never been able to imagine in Buckinghamshire.
Ironically, a column that began with premieres happens to be my final one for BBC Music Magazine. I’ve enjoyed sharing my thoughts over the last four years, and I send my best wishes to all our readers. David Owen Norris is a pianist, composer and Radio 3 presenter
Nancy Storace went to Vienna and had the good fortune to become Mozart’s first Susanna