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8.554252 - Italian Harp Music
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Italian Harp Music

Clementi • Donizetti • Pollini • Rossini • Viotti

The harp, one of the most ancient of musical instruments, underwent various technical changes over the centuries. The closing years of the eighteenth century and the start of the nineteenth brought a very notable development in the creation by the French-born, London-based maker Sébastien Erard of the double-action harp, providing, in its perfected form, access to all keys. The existing single-action harp, with its limited modulatory possibilities, had already established itself as an elegant adjunct to the drawing-room, with a repertoire of sonatas and sets of variations calculated to appeal to the taste of the period in performance by young ladies of fashion, like Jane Austen’s Mary Crawford. At the same time there was a more technically adventurous repertoire for virtuosi such as the harpist-composers Krumpholtz and Dussek, Spohr’s wife Dorette, and, later in the nineteenth century, Parish Alvars.

Born in Rome in 1752, Muzio Clementi, the son of a silversmith, was bought from his father by Peter Beckford, as the latter alleged, and taken to England at the age of thirteen, spending a period of seven years on Beckford’s Dorset estate, before moving to London in 1774 to embark on a professional career as a keyboard-player. Clementi won some reputation in London and abroad, playing for Queen Marie Antoinette in France in 1780 and two years later for her brother, the Emperor Joseph II, in Vienna. On the latter occasion he appeared together with Mozart, who admitted Clementi’s technical ability, but had nothing good to say of his musical taste and feeling. In England once more, he further established his reputation as a performer and as a teacher, and in the 1790s turned his attention to piano manufacture and music publishing in various partnerships. His piano compositions retain a useful place in repertoire, together with the various pedagogical works that he had completed before his death in Evesham in 1832 and burial in Westminster Abbey. His charming Andante con variazioni is in characteristic style.

A native of Piedmont, Giovanni Battista Viotti, the son of a blacksmith who was also an amateur horn-player, owed his musical training to the Marchesa di Voghera, who took him as a boy to Turin, where he later studied the violin with Gaetano Pugnani, himself a pupil of Somis, who could claim violinistic descent from Corelli and possibly also from Vivaldi. Viotti followed his teacher as a member of the court orchestra in Turin, leaving, first, to accompany Pugnani on concert tours abroad and then, in 1784, to enter the service of Queen Marie Antoinette. Four years later, in collaboration with the Queen’s perruquier, he set up the Théâtre de Monsieur in the Tuileries, under the patronage of the King’s younger brother, the Comte de Provence. The revolution led to his eventual departure, in 1792, for London, where he resumed his career as a violinist and composer in a city where his concertos were already being performed. He then set up a business as a wine merchant, its progress temporarily curtailed by exile abroad, when unsubstantiated suspicions of association with the French revolutionaries arose. The final failure of his business in London led him to return in 1818 to France, where he at first enjoyed the patronage of Louis XVIII, the former Comte de Provence, serving as director of the Paris Opéra, and, after enforced resignation from that position, as director of the Théâtre Italien. In 1823 he returned to London, where he died the following year, in apparent poverty. Viotti retains an important place in the history of violin-playing, while his nineteen concertos remain a useful part of any violinist’s training. Some of these last were arranged for contemporary performance as piano concertos or for other solo instruments. Similarly his sonatas also appeared in various forms of instrumentation. The tuneful Harp Sonata, in its three characteristic movements, is well suited to the instrument.

Now largely forgotten, the Italian pianist, singer and composer Francesco Pollini was born in Ljubljana in 1762. He later studied with Mozart in Vienna, and owed much to the example of Clementi and Hummel. His career was principally in Italy, where he appeared from 1786 at first as a pianist and violinist, later winning a reputation as a singer. From 1809 he taught the piano at the Milan Conservatory and is credited with the development of the keyboard technique used by Thalberg, with the presentation of a melody shared by both hands in a central part, accompanied above and below. The respect accorded him by contemporaries is witnessed by Bellini’s dedication to him of La Sonnambula. Among instrumental compositions by Pollini are a number of works for the harp, including the two here included, the Capriccio ed aria con variazioni and Tema e variazioni, sets of variations characteristic of the taste of the period.

Gioachino Rossini, one of the most successful and popular operatic composers, was born in Pesaro in 1792, the son of a brass-player and a mother who was a singer. He won a measure of fame as early as 1810, with his opera La cambiale di matrimonio, the first of a successful series of works, comic and tragic. In 1823 he moved to Paris, where operas were commissioned for the French theatre until the accession of Louis-Philippe in 1830. From 1836 until 1855 Rossini was in Italy, suffering ill-health and largely silent as a composer. In the latter year he returned to Paris, where he was held in honour, admired for his earlier achievement and his ready wit. His final years brought a resumption of composition, principally in short instrumental pieces that he described as Péchées de Vieillesse (Sins of Old Age). Opera is never far away in Rossini’s music, as is evident in the brief Allegretto, dedicated to Rita Perozzi, a pupil of Marianna Creti De Rocchis, and the similarly brief Sonata. The Andante con variazioni for violin and harp has been dated to about 1820, a work that allows the second instrument a largely accompanying rôle.

Gaetano Donizetti was the leading composer of Italian opera in the short period between the early retirement of Rossini and death of Bellini in 1835, and Verdi’s first success with Nabucco in 1842. He was born in Bergamo in 1797 and had his early musical training there. He established his international reputation in 1830 with the opera Anna Bolena at La Scala, Milan, where he confirmed his success two years later with the comedy L’elisir d’amore. In his later career he wrote again for Naples and, accepting an invitation from Rossini, visited Paris, where French grand opera had an influence on his style. Pressure of work, as he set out to follow the example of Rossini, who had been able to retire by the age of 38, brought a break-down in health, accentuated by an earlier syphilitic infection. He spent a period in an asylum near Paris, eventually returning home to Bergamo, where he died in 1848. The work published in 1970 as a Sonata for violin and harp is a G minor Larghetto and Allegro, conjecturally dated to the 1820s.

The French composer and harpist Nicolas Charles Bochsa established himself first in Paris, but profitable activities as a dealer in forgeries led to exile in London. Similar business activities brought dismissal from the Royal Academy, where he taught, but he retained his royal appointment as director of the King’s Theatre and toured successfully with Henry and Anna Bishop, before eloping with the latter. He ended his life and career in 1855 in Sydney. Bochsa remains of significance in the development of harp technique and repertoire, adding considerably to the latter, as in the present Fantasia on Bellini’s I Capuleti e Montecchi. This is here matched by a second Fantasia, based on Bellini’s Casta Diva, a challenging and well-known aria from his opera Norma, a work of technical brilliance by the Italian harpist Marianna Creti De Rocchis.

Keith Anderson


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