Notes from the pi­ano stool

David Owen Nor­ris

BBC Music Magazine - - THE FULL SCORE -

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

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