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The barbers of the quill

January 29, 2016

Joseph Haydn
Painting: Thomas Hardy

Papa Haydn’s morning routine probably wasn’t quite so bothersome as for many of us today. No dithering over which tie to match with which shirt, shoes, suit, and the rest. His obligatory Esterházy Court livery decided itself. Bad hair days must also have been less of an issue with courtly wigs at his disposal. But how about those bad stubble days? There’s a story concerning one of these, a certain John Bland and a string quartet.

Esterhazy Court
Photo: Civertan Grafikai Studio

Bland was an English music publisher operating in the last quarter of the 18th century, a time when London’s music-lovers couldn’t get enough of the industrial outputs of Viennese compositions. He’s among those who must be congratulated for enticing Haydn to London; Bland accommodated the composer at his home on his first night in the capital. And it was Bland who commissioned Thomas Hardy to paint the famous portrait of Haydn, reproduced above and housed in London’s Royal College of Music. So, I think we can safely say that he was a great fan. The story goes that Bland once visited the Esterházy Court and came across Haydn as he was shaving with a poor razor and supposedly exclaiming that he would give his best string quartet for a pair of decent razors. Upon which, Bland hurried back to his lodgings and returned with a pair of English razors, which he gifted to the maestro, receiving the Quartet in F minor Op. 55, No. 2 (8.550397) as his reward.

Although the general thrust of the anecdote is reliable, it’s not absolutely certain that this was the very quartet that was bartered away, but possibly another work. It’s Op. 55, No. 2, however, that got stuck with the nickname ‘The Razor’, so let’s hear part of the work—the closing section, full of Haydn’s hallmark, irrepressible bounce.

Gioachino Rossini

Maybe it’s a bit of a leap from that piece of chamber music to the world of the stage, but another famous, indirect allusion to the razor is, of course, in the opera The Barber of Seville, by way of Figaro, the barber of the title. The best known Barbieri di Siviglia is by Rossini and it remains the most popular of his comic operas. The flop of its first performance in 1816 arose from the fact there were many other operas that had already been based on the story by Beaumarchais, which foreshadowed the social realignment of the French Revolution.

Giovanni Paisiello
Painting: Marie Louise Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun

One was by Giovanni Paisiello, whose ardent supporters gave the Rossini première a hard time, even though Rossini had titled his work Almaviva, ossia L’inutile precauzione (Almaviva, or The Useless Precaution) to avoid confusion with Paisiello’s version. The latter was written in 1782 during Paisiello’s stay in Russia, which lasted from 1766 to 1784. He had been appointed maestro di cappella by Count Yelaguine, director of the imperial theatres in St Petersburg; his contract at the court of Catherine II was renewed twice. Musical stables don’t come much better than that, so here’s an extract from Paisiello’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia (CDS417)—Figaro’s aria Scorsi gia molti paesi from Act I.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Mozart’s Il nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) (8.554172) continued the plot of The Barber of Seville, set several years later. It was premièred in 1786, just three years before the guillotine began its merciless regime in France. Here’s Mozart’s Figaro in his cavatina Se vuol ballare, signor contino.

Finally to Rossini’s 1816 Il Barbiere di Siviglia (8.553436), in which Figaro introduces himself in his entrance aria, Largo al factotum della citta, as the factotum or Mr Fix-it of the city.

I wonder which is your favourite? If you’re inclined to Rossini’s version, you won’t be alone. Myself, I eventually went for the Paisiello, but it was a close shave.

The Comedy Harmonists

As with many blockbuster tunes, they get extended publicity through arrangements made by composers in subsequent generations. A slightly off-beat and upbeat version of the overture to Rossini’s opera was recorded in the 1930s by the Comedy Harmonists (8.120613), a suave and versatile German vocal group, perceived by some as Germany’s first boy band. Here’s the close of their arrangement.

Mario Castelnuovo Tedesco

If you prefer something less whimsical, then Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s virtuoso Figaro Variations from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville (8.557613) may be more up your street. Scored for cello and piano, it takes as its theme the famous Largo al factotum heard above. A passage echoing the words Figaro! Figaro! Figaro! is soon followed by a final section of increasing rapidity.

Samuel Barber

But, for all the gentlemen shavers reading this blog, I’ll end with a piece for you to hum when you’re concentrating intently on the bathroom mirror tomorrow morning, written by perhaps the best Barber of them all—Samuel. For music as soothing as your aftershave balm, try his Adagio for Strings (8.559088).



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