STAR AT THE HEIGHT OF HIS POWERS
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
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
IDOL: Portrait of celebrated castrato Farinelli – stage name of Carlo Broschi – by Corrado Giaquinto