Love Lives of the Great Composers by Basil Howitt

By Basil Howitt

Basil Howitt delves into the affection lives of a cluster of the nice composers from Gesualdo to Wagner and unearths a lot to please, shock, surprise, or even appall his readers -- yet by no means bore them!

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He may have first met her a year or two earlier while he was in the service of Prince Philip of Hesse-Darmstadt in Mantua. Anna often had a "mantovana" tag to her name, which could mean she was either born there, or first hit the headlines there. The young contralto made her operatic début in Venice in 1724 in Albinoni's Laodice, at the S. Moisè theatre, and in the following year she sang in her first Vivaldi opera, Farnace, at the S. Angelo. She was a sensation, one report mentioning "miracles" even if her voice was "not one of the most beautiful".

Qui S'excuse, S'accuse Vivaldi faced a crisis in 1737, a year in which his unorthodox private life impinged disastrously on his astutely managed, not to say mercenary one-man business as a music entrepreneur. With the help of his mandolin-playing nobleman friend and man-on-the-spot Guido Bentivoglio, Vivaldi was all set to mount a season of his operas in Ferrara. But on November 16th, shortly before he planned to leave Venice to oversee the preparations, Vivaldi received a bombshell: the Papal Nuncio in Venice informed him that Cardinal Tomaso Ruffo of Ferrara (which was part of Papal territory) was banning him from the city altogether "because I am a priest who does not say Mass and because I have the friendship of the singer Girò".

The impact which Esterháza must have made on all new vocal and orchestral recruits from 1766 onwards, when the court transferred there from Eisenstadt for the long summer seasons, must have been overwhelming. The splendour and opulence of the buildings and contents (over 400 clocks, for example, many richly set in diamonds) and the roster of musical, theatrical and festive events must have stunned not only the raw young recruits but also the most hardened pros. In addition to the main castle building of 126 rooms, there was an opera theatre seating 400, the royal box being supported by red marble Roman columns decorated with golden rods; also a marionette theatre, a Chinese pavilion, a coffee house, a temple each to Fortune and Venus, a rose garden, a menagerie and a princely hunting lodge.

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