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Great Singers, First Series / Faustina Bordoni To Henrietta Sontag By George T. Ferris Characters: 10692

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Associated with the life and times of Faustina Bordoni, and the most brilliant exponent of the music of her husband, Hasse, Carlo Broschi, better known as Farinelli, stands out as one of the most remarkable musical figures of his age. This great artist, born in Naples in 1705, was the nephew of the composer Farinelli, whose name he adopted. He was instructed by the celebrated singing-master Porpora, who trained nearly all the great voices of Europe for over half a century; and at his first appearance in Rome, in 1722, common report had already made him famous. So wonderful was his execution, even at this early age, that he was able to vie with a trumpet-player, then the admiration of Rome for his remarkable powers. Porpora had written an obligato part to a song, in which his pupil rivaled the instrument in holding and swelling a note of extraordinary purity and volume. The virtuoso's execution was masterly, but the young singer so surpassed him as to carry the enthusiasm of the audience to the wildest pitch by the brilliance of his singing and the difficult variations which he introduced. Farinelli left the guidance of Porpora in 1724, and appeared in different European cities with a success which made him in three years a European celebrity. In 1727, while singing in Bologna, he met Bernacchi, at that time known as the "king of singers." The rivals were matched against each other one night in a grand duo, and Farinelli, freely admitting that the veteran artist had vanquished him, begged some lessons from him. Bernacchi generously accorded these, and took great pains with his young rival. Thus was perfected the talent of Farinelli, who, to use the words of a modern critic, was as "superior to the great singers of his own period as they were to those of more recent times."

After brilliant triumphs at Vienna, Rome, Naples, and Parma, where he surpassed the most formidable rivals and was heaped with riches and honors, he appeared before the Emperor Charles VI. of Germany, a momentous occasion in his art-career. "You have hitherto excited only astonishment and admiration," said the imperial connoisseur, "but you have never touched the heart. It would be easy for you to create emotion, if you would but be more simple and natural." The singer adopted this counsel, and became the most pathetic as he continued to be the most brilliant of singers.

The interest of Farinelli's London career will be augmented for the lovers of music by its connection with the contests carried on between Handel and his rivals, with which we have seen Faustina and Cuzzoni also to have been intimately associated. When Handel went on the Continent to secure artists for the year 1734, some prejudice operated against his negotiation with Farinelli, and the latter took service with Porpora, who had been secured by the Pembroke faction to lead the rival opera. Farinelli's singing turned the scale in favor of Handel's enemies, who had previously hardly been able to keep the enterprise on its feet, and had run in debt nineteen thousand pounds. He made his first appearance at the Lincoln's Inn Opera in "Artaserse," one of Hasse's operas. Several of the songs, however, were composed by Riccardo Broschi, the singer's brother, especially for him, and these interpolations illustrated the powers of Farinelli in the most effective manner. In one of these the first note was taken with such delicacy, swelled by minute degrees to such an amazing volume, and afterward diminished in the same manner to a mere point, that it was applauded for full five minutes. Afterward he set off with such brilliance and rapidity of execution that the violins could not keep pace with him. An incident commemorated in Hogarth's "Rake's Progress" occurred at this time, A lady of rank, carried beyond herself by admiration of the great singer, leaned out of her box and exclaimed, "One God and one Farinelli!" The great power of this singer's art is also happily set forth in the following anecdote: He was to appear for the first time with Senesino, another great singer, who of course was jealous of Farinelli's unequaled renown. The former had the part of a fierce tyrant, and Farinelli that of a hero in chains. But in the course of the first song by his rival, Senesino forgot his assumed part altogether. He was so moved and delighted that, in front of an immense audience, he rushed forward, clasped Farinelli in his arms, and burst into tears. Never had there been such a ferment among English patrons of opera as was made by Farinelli's singing. The Prince of Wales gave him a gold snuff-box set with diamonds and rubies, in which were inclosed diamond knee-buckles, and a purse of one hundred guineas. The courtiers and nobles followed in the wake of the Prince, and the costliest offerings were lavished on this spoiled favorite of art. His income during three years in London was five thousand pounds a year, to which must be added quite as much more in gratuities and presents of different kinds. On his return to Italy he built a splendid mansion, which he christened the "English Folly."

Farinelli's Spanish life was the most important episode in his career, if twenty-five years of experience may be called an episode. His purpose in visiting Madrid in 1736 was to spend but a few months; but he arrived in the Spanish cap

ital at a critical moment, and Fate decreed that he should take up a long residence here-a residence marked by circumstances and honors without parallel in the life of any other singer. Philip V. at this time was such a prey to depression that he neglected all the affairs of his kingdom. "When Farinelli arrived, the Queen arranged a concert at which the monarch could hear the great singer without being seen. The effect was remarkable, and Farinelli gained the respect, admiration, and favor of the whole court. When he was asked by the grateful monarch to name his own reward, he answered that his best recompense would be to know that the King was again reconciled to performing the active duties of his state. Philip considered that he owed his cure to the powers of Farinelli. The final result was that the singer separated himself from the world of art for ever, and accepted a salary of fifty thousand francs to sing for the King, as David harped for the mad King Saul. Farinelli told Dr. Burney that during ten years he sang four songs to the King every night without any change." When Ferdinand VI., who was also a victim to his father's malady, succeeded to the throne, the singer continued to perform his minstrel cure, and acquired such enormous power and influence that all court favor and office depended on his breath. Though never prime minister, Farinelli's political advice had such weight with Ferdinand, that generals, secretaries, ambassadors, and other high officials consulted with him, and attended his levee, as being the power behind the throne. Farinelli acquired great wealth, but no malicious pen has ever ascribed to him any of the corrupt arts by which royal favorites are wont to accumulate the spoils of office. In his prosperity he never forgot prudence, modesty, and moderation. Hearing one day an old veteran officer complain that the King ignored his thirty years of service while he enriched "a miserable actor," Farinelli secured promotion for the grumbler, and, giving the commission to the abashed soldier, mildly taxed him for calling the King ungrateful. According to another anecdote, he requested an embassy for one of the courtiers. "Do you not know," said the King, "that this grandee is your deadly enemy?" "True," replied Farinelli; "and this is the way I propose to get revenge." Dr. Burney also relates the following anecdote: A tailor, who brought him a splendid court costume, refused any pay but a single song. After long refusal Farinelli's good nature yielded, and he sang to the enraptured man of the needle and shears, not one, but several songs. After concluding he said: "I, too, am proud, and that is the reason perhaps of my advantage over other singers. I have yielded to you; it is but just that you should yield to me." Thereupon he forced on the tailor more than double the price of the clothes.

Farinelli's influence as a politician was always cast on the side of national honor and territorial integrity. When the new King, Charles III., ascended the throne, being even then committed to the Franco-Neapolitan imbroglio, which was such a dark spot in the Spanish history of that time, Farinelli left Spain at the royal suggestion, which amounted to a command. The remaining twenty years of his life he resided in a splendid palace near Bologna, where he devoted his time and attention to patronage of learning and the arts. He collected a noble gallery of paintings from the hands of the principal Italian and Spanish masters. Among them was one representing himself in a group with Metastasio and Faustina Bordoni, for whose greatness as an artist and beauty of character he always expressed the warmest admiration. Though Farinelli was all his life an idol with the women, his appearance was not prepossessing. Dibdin, speaking of him at the age of thirty, says he "was tall as a giant and as thin as a shadow; therefore, if he had grace, it could only be of a sort to be envied by a penguin or a spider."

To his supreme merit as an artist we have, however, overwhelming testimony. Out of the many enthusiastic descriptions of his singing, that of Mancini, after Porpora the greatest singing-master of the age, and the fellow pupil with Farinelli under Bernacchi, will serve: "His voice was thought a marvel because it was so perfect, so powerful, so sonorous, and so rich in its extent, both in the high and low parts of the register, that its equal has never been heard. He was, moreover, endowed with a creative genius which inspired him with embellishments so new and so astonishing that no one was able to imitate them. The art of taking and keeping the breath so softly and easily that no one could perceive it, began and died with him. The qualities in which he excelled were the evenness of his voice, the art of swelling its sound, the portamento, the union of the registers, a surprising agility, a graceful and pathetic style, and a shake as admirable as it was rare. There was no branch of the art which he did not carry to the highest pitch of perfection.... The successes of his youth did not prevent him from continuing to study, and this great artist applied himself with so much perseverance that he contrived to change in some measure his style, and to acquire another and superior method, when his name was already famous and his fortune brilliant."

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