Dragonetti, Domenico (DNB00)

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DRAGONETTI, DOMENICO (1755?–1846), performer on the double-bass, the son of Pietro Dragonetti, musician, or, according to another account, a gondolier, was born at Venice. Fétis gives the date of his birth as 7 April 1763; the obituary notice in the ‘Times’ (18 April 1846) states that he was himself never certain of his age, but supposed that he was born in 1763 or 1764. The ‘Illustrated London News’ (25 April 1846) says that it had been ascertained from his papers that he was born in 1755. Dragonetti was at first self-taught. He learnt the violin and guitar, got some notion of music from a cobbler named Schiamadori, and on definitely adopting the double-bass, studied under Berini, who played that instrument in the band attached to St. Mark's. He is sometimes said to have had lessons from the violinist Mestrino, but they seem rather to have carried on their studies together. His early progress was extraordinary, and he soon became a master of his unwieldy instrument. At the age of thirteen he played in the orchestra of the Opera Buffa, and in the following year played at the Opera Seria at San Benedetto. At eighteen he succeeded his master in the orchestra at St. Mark's. On a visit to Vicenza he bought his famous contrabasso, a Gasparo di Salo, from the monastery of S. Pietro. This in- strument he retained throughout his life, and it is said that in England he always sat as near the stage-door as possible in order to save his instrument in case of fire. His fame had by this time spread, and he was offered an engagement at St. Petersburg, but his salary at Venice was raised to prevent his accepting it. On the advice of Banti and Pacchierotti he was induced to accept an engagement in England, for which he obtained leave of absence from Venice. The exact date of his arrival is uncertain. Fétis gives it as 1791; the obituary in the ‘Morning Post’ (18 April 1846) says 1790; C. F. Pohl (in Grove's Dictionary of Music, i. 461) says it took place on 20 Dec. 1794, which is probably correct. He seems at first to have returned to Italy, and in 1798 he was in Vienna, where he renewed the acquaintance he had made with Haydn in London. He probably left Venice for good in 1797, when the republic fell into the hands of Napoleon, and during the rest of his life he lived almost entirely in England. In 1808–9 he was in Vienna again, and made friends with Beethoven and Sechter, but he would not play in public for fear of Napoleon, who wished to take him by force to Paris. In England he at once attained a position of supremacy, which he kept for his whole life. He was engaged at all the principal concerts and at the opera; he appeared at the Three Choirs Festival at Hereford in 1801, and at Birmingham in 1805. During the many years in which he played his almost inseparable companion in the orchestra was the violoncellist Lindley [q. v.]: the one was called ‘il patriarca del contrabasso,’ and the other ‘il patriarca del violoncello.’ The latter part of Dragonetti's life was uneventful. In 1839 he issued a pamphlet denying a statement in the ‘Musical World’ to the effect that his playing had deteriorated from old age and weakness. In August 1845 he headed the double-basses at the Beethoven festival at Bonn. His death took place at his house, 4 Leicester Square, on Thursday, 16 April 1846, and he was buried in St. Mary's, Moorfields, on the 24th. By his will, dated 6 April of the same year, he left his celebrated double-bass to the church of St. Mark's at Venice, to be used at solemn public services. All his collection of modern scores, written since 1800, were left to the Theatre Royal of Italian Opera in the Haymarket, ‘in remembrance of the benefits there received.’ His collection of ancient opera scores, in 182 volumes, went to the British Museum. A violoncello which had belonged to Bartleman he left to the prince consort.

As a performer Dragonetti was unequalled, and has never been excelled. His hands were very large, which gave him great command over the finger-board; his execution and power were marvellous. He played violin solos on the double-bass with the utmost ease and finish, and yet his tone was so powerful that he is said to have steadied the whole orchestra. On one occasion in his early years he imitated a thunderstorm on his double-bass in the dead of night in a corridor of the monastery of St. Giustina at Padua, to prove to the organist that his instrument could make more noise than an organ-pipe. He was so successful that next morning the monks discussed the storm of the night before. Personally he was very eccentric. He had a large collection of dolls, dressed in various national costumes, which he used to take about with him. One—a black doll—he called his wife. His dog Carlo always accompanied him to the orchestra. Though he had lived so many years in England, Dragonetti never acquired any command over the language. His conversation was carried on in a strange jargon of Italian dialect, French, and English. It is said that on one occasion he played before Napoleon, who desired him to ask some favour. Dragonetti burst out into an incomprehensible speech, and the emperor told him to fetch his double-bass and play what he meant. On another occasion he imagined that he had been slighted by the Archbishop of York, who was on the committee of the Ancient concerts. On this occasion he called out, ‘You, signor, voyez dat Archeveque York! Tell him she dirty blackguard!’ The latter was his favourite exclamation when offended. Dragonetti published very little music. Pohl mentions three Italian canzonets by him, and the British Museum contains a few other pieces. In his Venetian period he is known to have written sonatas and other compositions for his instrument, but these seem to be lost. At the same date he wrote a method for the double-bass, which he left in the hands of a friend at Venice. When he returned thither to claim it, he found that this and all his other papers had been sold. There are engraved portraits of Dragonetti: (1) by Thierry, after Salabert; (2) by Fairland, after Doane; (3) by M. Gauci, after Rosenberg; (4) by J. Notz, printed by Hullmandel (the last three are lithographs); (5) in the ‘Illustrated London News’ for 25 April 1846; (6) a caricature in the ‘Illustrated London News,’ after Dantan; (7) an oval, by F. Bartolozzi. There is also an oil painting of him in the possession of Messrs. Hopkinson. A biography of him in Italian, by Caffi, was published shortly after his death. [Authorities quoted above; Musical Recollections of the Last Half Century, i. 202, ii. 97; Evans's Cat. of Engraved Portraits; Guide to the Loan Collection, South Kensington, 1885; information from Mr. Julian Marshall.]

W. B. S.