STAR AT THE HEIGHT OF HIS POW­ERS

The New European - - Eurofile Music -

In the 1730s Bri­tain was alive with colo­nial am­bi­tion, mak­ing power plays for con­tin­ued dom­i­nance in the world abroad, and in pos­ses­sion of thrust­ing cities at home. The coun­try had en­e­mies aplenty. 1731’s Treaty of Vi­enna saw Euro­pean al­le­giances shift fun­da­men­tally, as the ‘stately quadrille’ of con­stantly chang­ing po­lit­i­cal align­ments of the early 18th cen­tury con­tin­ued. Now that France and Spain stood in op­po­si­tion to Bri­tain and her ally Aus­tria, the An­gloFrench Al­liance was over, with ma­jor im­pli­ca­tions for fu­ture con­flict, and ex­pan­sion into the New World fur­ther ex­ac­er­bated ten­sions with Spain. On April 9, 1731, Cap­tain Robert Jenk­ins was way­laid by Span­ish coast­guards in the Caribbean, hav­ing his ear cut off in the fra­cas, spark­ing a con­flict be­tween the two coun­tries that would rum­ble on for two decades.

Mean­while, in Eng­land’s seething cap­i­tal, lux­ury and squalor ex­isted side by side, as vividly por­trayed in Hog­a­rth’s Har­lot’s Progress se­ries of paint­ings, com­pleted in this year. The larger-thanlife grotesques of the se­ries were more real than they seemed, be­ing based on gen­uine Lon­don char­ac­ters, from an­tipros­ti­tu­tion cru­sader Jus­tice John Gon­son to famed madam El­iz­a­beth ‘Mother’ Need­ham, killed by the crowd at the pil­lory that April. But while Bri­tain’s claim to mu­si­cal fame in this year was that the peer­less Han­del had made Lon­don his adopted home, it was in fact Italy that was set­ting the mu­si­cal agenda in 1731 as its sons rev­o­lu­tionised the fun­da­men­tal mu­si­cal in­stru­ments of the Western tra­di­tion and be­came the most cel­e­brated singers of the age.

The mu­si­cal idol of the year was un­doubt­edly Carlo Broschi, oth­er­wise known as Farinelli – the most fa­mous cas­trato of the era. Un­der­go­ing the bru­tal process of cas­tra­tion in child­hood, cas­trati gained an al­most su­per­nat­u­ral singing abil­ity and im­pos­ing phys­i­cal pres­ence. Of­ten an­drog­y­nously beau­ti­ful and un­usu­ally tall due to their hor­monal pe­cu­liar­i­ties, cas­trati pos­sessed a fe­male’s range with male lung power, giv­ing them the abil­ity to achieve or­nate vo­cal or­na­men­ta­tion.

Farinelli was just 26 in 1731 and had al­ready en­thralled courts and pop­u­lar au­di­ences across Europe with his ethe­real so­prano voice – his su­per­star sta­tus was well con­firmed. Han­del, who had long recog­nised the pulling power of cas­trati, writ­ing three sig­nif­i­cant roles for them into Ri­naldo and mak­ing the cas­trato Se­n­esino primo uomo at his Royal Academy of Mu­sic, had tried to lure Farinelli to work for him in Lon­don when they found them­selves in Venice at the same time early the pre­vi­ous year.

That the singer could af­ford to turn Han­del down due to wor­ries about what the English cli­mate would do to his voice proved Farinelli was at the top of his game in 1731.

Farinelli spent his year per­form­ing en­gage­ments in Bologna, Fano, Mi­lano and Fer­rara, as well as ap­pear­ing in

Turin for the car­ni­val sea­son. There he starred in two ear­lier op­eras by the li­bret­tist Me­tas­ta­sio – Ezio, in a set­ting by his brother Ric­cardo, and Poro, with mu­sic by his voice teacher and men­tor Nicola Por­pora. But it was his visit to Vi­enna that year, where he was re­ceived by the Holy Ro­man Em­peror, that made 1731 a turn­ing point for him. The em­peror re­port­edly told Farinelli: “You have, hith­erto ex­cited only as­ton­ish­ment and ad­mi­ra­tion, but you have never touched the heart; it would be easy to you to cre­ate emo­tion, if you would but be more sim­ple and more ex­pres­sive!” Farinelli took this to heart, and he ex­changed vo­cal fire­works for feel­ing, a tal­ent he would later put to sig­nif­i­cant use at the Span­ish court.

The sur­gi­cally-en­hanced ex­treme youth­ful­ness of Farinelli be­lied the fact that those of ad­vanced age were also mak­ing key con­tri­bu­tions to mu­sic in this year. At 87 years old, An­to­nio Stradi­vari was still mak­ing stringed in­stru­ments in the at­tic work­shop of the Cre­mona home he had lived in for half a cen­tury.

While his best had been made in the first two decades of the cen­tury, in 1731 he made one of the only 13 sur­viv­ing vi­o­las from his hand, and it was des­tined to have some il­lus­tri­ous own­ers. A cen­tury af­ter it was made, Pa­ganini, the most fa­mous vi­o­lin­ist of all time, bought the vi­ola with

The cas­trato singer Farinelli was the un­doubted su­per­star of an era in which mu­si­cal ad­vances were made not just with com­po­si­tions, but in­stru­ments too. SOPHIA

DEBOICK re­ports

pro­ceeds from a se­ries of farewell con­certs at the Royal Opera House and its as­ton­ish­ing tim­bre in­spired him to com­mis­sion Ber­lioz to write a piece for it.

Ber­lioz’s sym­phonic poem Harold in Italy was the re­sult, and from 1892 the vi­ola was owned by Ber­lin banker Robert von Men­delssohn, a rel­a­tive of Felix Men­delssohn. Duly chris­tened the ‘Pa­ganini, Men­delssohn’, the in­stru­ment was one of the four for­merly Pa­ganin­iowned Stradi­var­iuses col­lected by New York in­stru­ment dealer Emil Her­rmann in the 1940s to form the Pa­ganini Quar­tet.

This set of in­stru­ments would be loaned to sev­eral quar­tets down the years, most re­cently the Quar­tetto di Cre­mona, re­turn­ing them to the place they were made. Since the vi­o­lin that was the

Photo: De Agostini/ Getty Im­ages

IDOL: Por­trait of cel­e­brated cas­trato Farinelli – stage name of Carlo Broschi – by Cor­rado Gi­aquinto

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