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The name of Nicola Matteis may be relatively unfamiliar, but this programme is one of joyful exploration and vivacious string playing.
Restoration England was a popular destination for musicians from continental Europe thanks to the end of Cromwell’s Republic and the return of the monarchy. The reign of King Charles II promoted a greater tolerance towards Catholicism and the arts enjoyed a golden age with the likes of the composer Henry Purcell, the carver Grinling Gibbons, the poet John Dryden and the artist Peter Lely all receiving employment from the king.
Matteis the Elder arrived in London in about 1672; he was probably from the Naples area and according to Roger North (The Musical Grammarian, 1728) had travelled to England ‘on foot with his violin under a full coat at his back’. Apart from a brief trip to France in 1678, he settled in England where he enjoyed a successful career as a violinist during the last three decades of the seventeenth century; he died after 1713 in Colkirk, Norfolk. Despite the family’s conversion to Anglicanism, one wonders whether this was brought about by spiritual inspiration or—more likely—a keen sense of political awareness; the years of war spent in ridding the country of a Catholic monarch who believed in the divine right of kings were all too fresh in people’s memories. If the Matteis family truly had embraced Anglicanism, young Nicola’s choice of wife was an odd one. Susanna Timperley (née Sparrow) came from a devout Catholic background; her first husband, Henry Timperley (Lord of Hintlesham Hall in Suffolk) was a keen supporter of the pro-Catholic James II and her father, Sir John Sparrow, had been with the deposed king’s Jacobite troops at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Following James’ defeat in Ireland, Sir John fled to the exiled Jacobite court in St Germain-en-Laye, France, where he was soon joined by his newly widowed daughter. She eventually returned with her son to Hintlesham in 1694. Given her pedigree and social standing, her marriage to a lowly violinist thirteen years her junior must have raised a few eyebrows particularly as the couple were probably cohabiting well in advance of their marriage in 1700.
Matteis travelled to Vienna (presumably with Susanna) in 1700 and took up a post at the court of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I on 1 July. The following year however, he was awarded 200 ducats in order to bring his children to Vienna from England (disapprovingly described in the petition as an ‘uncatholic country’). As these children must have been conceived prior to the marriage in 1700 (Susanna’s child by her first husband remained in England), this may shed light on an assertion made by North where he describes Matteis the Elder as living with a woman ‘as one that was marryed’. Given the son’s relationship with Susanna and North’s later comment regarding the father’s wife, it seems that North muddled up the tale of the two Nicolas when compiling his book 30 years later.
Vienna may seem like an odd place for an English musician to seek work in 1700, but the Kapellmeister at the imperial court, Antonio Pancotti, appears to have been most eager to secure Matteis’ services as his initial salary was set at 250 thalers, an amount considerably higher than that of other court violinists. He subsequently became leader of the court orchestra and then in 1712 was granted the title of Direttore della musica instrumentale, a post that required Matteis to compose the ballet music for the court operas and court balls in addition to his orchestral duties. He eventually died in Vienna in 1737, not in Shrewsbury around 1749 as Charles Burney claims in his A General History of Music (1776). It appears reasonable to assume that Matteis’ formative years were spent studying the violin with his father in London, even though the son’s style was rather different to that of his father as North informs us:
The former had an absolute power of his trill, and used it always in time; and so slow, as permitted the ingredients in his shakes to be distinctly heard sounding; which made some, that understood no better, say that he had not a good shake. But the other had a spring so active, that during his trill the sound was stopt, because the notes had not time to sound.
The father’s trill was probably more akin to the old-fashioned gruppo, whilst the son seems to have embraced the Italianate trill of the emerging late-baroque style. Certainly, his violin sonata, written before he left London, displays the author’s penchant for the sonatas of Corelli and his fellow Italians.
His technique also seems to have been more formidable than that of his father. Although the diarist John Evelyn wrote in 1674 that ‘nothing approach’s [sic] the violin in Nicholas’ hand’, the technical accomplishment of the father could not have coped with the level of virtuosity required by the two Fantasias for solo violin by his son that survive in Dresden. Assuming that these pieces were written for his own amusement, we can surmise that the concertos dedicated by Vivaldi to Emperor Charles VI in 1727 and 1728 would not have posed any problems for the Anglo-Italian.
One suspects that Vivaldi had long harboured ambitions of gaining employment at the imperial court, an aspiration that would ultimately lead to his death in the imperial city in 1741. As far as we know, Vivaldi first attempted to engage with the emperor in 1727 when he dedicated his Opus 9 concertos to Charles VI under the title of La Cetra. The choice of title was intended to flatter the emperor by comparing him to the god Apollo whose ancient attribute, the lyre, had been a gift from Mercury. The lyre became synonymous with Apollo, but eventually gave way to more modern instruments such as the lira da braccio (during the Renaissance) and the violin (from the seventeenth century onwards); this instrument—upon which Vivaldi was one of the greatest performers of the day—features as the soloist in all twelve concertos.
The following year, the emperor was in Trieste overseeing the construction of a new port. Vivaldi met him in person and presented him with a manuscript set of parts for 12 concertos, also titled La Cetra (including just one duplication). The original partbooks survive in the Austrian National Library but sadly the solo violin part is missing. As Matteis was leader of the court orchestra, it seems reasonable to hypothesise that he would have taken the solo part for the performance of these works in Vienna and that he was also the one responsible for the missing part; musicians to this day remain highly skilled in making their parts ‘disappear’.
The performance of these concertos therefore relies on duplicate sources (or in the case of the two double violin concertos, the reconstruction of the first solo part from that of the second). The eleventh of these concertos appears, along with another of the Vienna set, in Vivaldi’s 6 concertos Opus 11 (1729) where it is given the title Il favorito. The reason for the title is a mystery; was it Vivaldi’s favourite, or was it particularly favoured by Matteis or even Charles VI himself? Many of the harmonic devices are quirky enough to appeal to Charles’ sense of adventurous harmony. The Opus 11 source is identical to the Viennese version except for a huge 37-bar insertion in the finale (that deals impressively with a rather clunky modulation) and a shortening of the final ritornello.
In addition to the aforementioned Fantasias, the Sächsische Landesbibliothek also holds a trio sonata and a violin concerto by Matteis, though the title of the latter is a little misleading as only the first movement conforms to the Vivaldian ideals of the solo concerto. Nevertheless, the work is an attractive concerto-suite hybrid and was initially performed in Dresden in 1710. Of the two sets of parts that survive in Dresden, the original copy bears the names of many of those involved in the performance including the Dresden concertmaster Volumier as soloist and Johann Friedrich Lotti (brother of Antonio Lotti) as one of the first violinists.
The second set of parts is in the hand of Vivaldi’s pupil Johann Georg Pisendel who arrived in Dresden in 1712; he finally rose to the position of concertmaster after Volumier’s death in 1728. As well as being a formidable violinist, Pisendel was also one of the court’s main copyists and was responsible for the gargantuan amount of Italian music performed in Dresden during his lifetime. The existence of Matteis’ concerto in Pisendel’s hand suggests that this was a work that enjoyed a number of years in the orchestra’s repertoire.
Without a doubt, Matteis’ greatest gift to the musical world was his ballet music. Between his new appointment in 1712 and his death, Matteis composed dances for no fewer than 58 operas by the likes of Fux, Conti, (Antonio) Lotti, Predieri, Ziani, and a staggering 33 with Antonio Caldara alone. During the eighteenth century, it was considered standard practice for the composer of the main opera to delegate the composition of the ballets to someone else. The composer and theorist Johann Mattheson sums this up nicely in his treatise Der vollkommene Kapellmeister (1739):
For when Conti writes for example the music for the opera Croesus; someone else, namely Matteis, has to compose the melodies for the dances … We do not all have the same gifts.’
The importance of this treasure trove gains even greater significance when one considers the paltry amount of ballet music that has survived from Italian operas of the period. Even the scores of the operas themselves tended to fare poorly after their initial performances thanks to the public’s voracious appetite for all things new—last year’s music often went in the bin. Of Tomaso Albinoni’s 81 operas, only three survive complete; the ballet music fared even worse.
The reason for the survival of so much operatic material from Matteis’ era in Vienna is largely down to Emperor Charles VI. Like many of his predecessors, Charles was an extremely cultured man. A gifted keyboardist and composer himself, he was immensely proud of his court’s musical prowess. He could be found either sitting in the theatre following the opera with his personal score, or else directing the opera in person from the harpsichord. For this reason, a court copyist was employed to prepare lavish fair copies of the operas that included not only written out da capos for the arias, but the ballet music too; after all, Vienna, along with Paris, was one of the major dance centres in Europe.
Often the ballet scores are presented in a reduced format, either in two or three parts, and require some inner parts to be ‘filled in’ by someone else, a practice also employed widely in France. This can be seen in the final ballo to La Verità nell’Inganno, presented here with the Ouverture, composed in the French style by the opera’s composer and Charles VI’s Venetian vice-Kapellmeister, Antonio Caldara. The opera tells the story of love and war in ancient Bithinia and was composed in 1717 for the name day of the emperor before being revived in 1730.
Matteis’ ballets are generally made up of three kinds of dance: dances with titles such as 'Dance of the Masked (People)' and 'Dance of the Sultans'; dances headed by the general title Aria; and dances that present or are composed in the manner of more standard dance forms, as in the concluding Tempo di ciaconna.
In view of Matteis’ heritage, it comes as no surprise that he had a huge talent for composing dance music. One of the greatest influences on Matteis was Henry Purcell, who was to have joined Matteis’ father on the staff of the proposed Royal Academy in 1695. Purcell excelled at writing such pieces composing many examples during his early years, of which his Chacony, written around 1680, is one of the finest examples. It was probably written either for the theatre or for dancing at the court of Charles II, where he had replaced Matthew Locke as court composer for the violins in 1677. As the work is based on a varied descending tetrachord, it would be more accurate to describe it as a passacaglia rather than a chaconne; Chacony was merely an English catch-all term used to denote a dance of this nature.
The presence of Purcell can be felt in much of Matteis’ music. Because of the cultural significance of the imperial court, it could be construed that Matteis was the chief architect of the dissemination of the English style on the continent. Although it was not one of the great influences on European art music at the time, composers were still aware of its existence, and if Mattheson had encountered Matteis’ work, why not Telemann? After all, Telemann and Mattheson knew each other, and Telemann was also best friends with Pisendel who, as we have already seen, knew a handful of Matteis’ works. The present Ouverture-Suite by Telemann opens with a section that is strongly reminiscent of Purcell and closes with an English dance, the Air Angloise, one of many British dance-types used by Telemann. The majority of these were composed during his Hamburg period, though some can be traced back to his time in Frankfurt, the imperial city that Telemann entered around the time of Charles VI’s coronation there in 1711.
Another composer who may have come across the music of Matteis was Giuseppe Antonio Brescianello. He worked for most of his career at the court of Württemberg in Stuttgart, a court that had strong links with Charles VI particularly as Duke Eberhard Ludwig had fought for the emperor during the War of the Spanish Succession. It is interesting to note that Brescianello had fully embraced the ‘mixed taste’ of national styles championed by Telemann and also the composers of the Viennese court. He was almost the only Italian to have composed large-scale Chaconnes and Ouverture-Suites such as the present example in C major that includes a rare Italian example of an English Hornpipe.
Adrian Chandler © 2023