Page:A Dictionary of Music and Musicians vol 2.djvu/221

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MARA.
209
 

Struck with her genius, he gave her a few lessons, and found her so apt a pupil that, not long afterwards, he was able to play duets with her before a few amateurs. But even now, in her fifth year, the poor child could not stand without support, and her father was obliged to carry her to the place where she was to play. By favour of an amateur, Schmeling and his child were enabled to visit the fair at Frankfort, where the little girl's performance excited great wonder. A subscription was set on foot, a better education was given to her, and when she had reached the age of nine her health had improved, and she was able to proceed to Vienna with her father, and there give some concerts. The English ambassador advised Schmeling to take the child to England, advice on which the poor musician, furnished with letters of introduction by the ambassador, gladly acted. He soon obtained the patronage of many noble and influential persons, including the Queen, for his wonderful child. The little girl, petted and admired by all the great ladies, was, however, persuaded by them to give up the violin, which they thought an unfeminine instrument, and was encouraged to sing. Her voice was already resonant and clear, but she had, of course, had no instruction. Schmeling, by the help of her protectresses, placed the young Gertrude under the tuition of the musico Paradisi. She made rapid progress, but it soon became necessary to remove her from the power of her profligate instructor.

Returning to Cassel, Schmeling found it impossible to get an engagement for his daughter, as he had hoped, at the Court; for the King would not hear of any but Italian singers. Hiller now received her into his music-school, at Leipzig, where she remained for five years. In 1771 she came out from this academy, with a voice remarkable for its extent and beauty, a great knowledge of music, and a brilliant style of singing. She was the first great singer that Germany had produced. Her education had been formed on the music of Hasse, Graun, Benda, Jommelli, Pergolese, Porpora, and Sacchini; but Hasse, with his vocal passages and facile style, was her favourite master. Her voice extended from the middle G to E in alt. She made her début in an opera of Basse's at Dresden, and was successful. With difficulty, the King, Frederick II, was persuaded to hear her; and, though strongly prejudiced against her on account of her nationality, he was immediately converted by her singing an air of Graun's at sight, and finally engaged her for life to sing at Court, with a salary of fr. 11,250. Here she profited by the hints of Concialini and Porporino, and perfected her singing of slow and legato airs.

It was at this juncture that, in spite of all advice, and although the King twice refused his consent, she married the violoncellist, Mara. She soon discovered her folly, and regretted it when too late. This part of her life was extremely unhappy; she was made miserable on the one hand by thte excesses of a debauched and dissipated husband, and on the other by the tyranny of a king who allowed her no liberty or indulgence. On one occasion, she was actually brought from her bed, by his orders, transmitted through an officer and guard of soldiers, and forced to sing at the Opera, though complaining, truly or untruly, of indisposition. She at length succeeded in escaping to Dresden, where she was detained by the Prussian ambassador. Frederick, however, who had lost some front teeth, and could no longer play the flute, cared now but little for music, and gave her a tardy permission to annul her engagement. Mme. Mara, free at last, arrived in 1780 at Vienna, where Storace was playing in opera buffa, for which the Emperor had a great liking. This was not Mara's line, and she was coldly received. Provided, however, with a letter to Marie-Antoinette from the Empress, she passed through Germany, Holland, and Belgium, singing at various places on her way. At Munich Mozart heard her, but was not favourably impressed. He wrote, Nov. 13, 1780, 'Mara has not the good fortune to please me. She does too little to be compared to a Bastardella (yet this is her peculiar style), and too much to touch the heart like a Weber [Aloysia], or any judicious singer.' He tella a story of her and her husband a few days later (letter of Nov. 24), which shows both of them in a very unpleasant light, as behaving with foolish effrontery and pretension. She was again at Vienna in March 1781, and Mozart mentions her as giving a concert there. She reached Paris in 1782. Here she found the celebrated Todi, and a rivalry immediately sprung up between these two singers, which divided society into factions, as when Handel and Buononcini, or Gluck and Piccinni, were opposed to each other by amateurs incapable of admiring both. Many anecdotes are told of the Mara and Todi dispute, among which one has become famous. At a concert where both singers appeared, an amateur asked his neighbour, 'Quelle etait la meilleure:' to which the other replied, 'C'est Mara.' 'C'est bien Todi' (bientôt dit) was the punning answer.

Two years later, in the spring of 1784, Mara made her first appearance in London, where her greatest successes awaited her. She was engaged to sing six nights at the Pantheon. Owing to the general election, she sang to small audiences, and her merits were not recognised until she sang at Westminster Abbey, in the Handel Commemoration, when she was heard with delight by nearly 30x30 people. She sang in the repeated Commemoration in 1785, and in 1786 made her first appearance on the London stage in a serious pasticcio, 'Didone Abbandonata,' the success of which was due entirely to her singing. In March 1787 Handel's opera of 'Giulio Cesare' was revived for a benefit, and Mara played in it the part of 'Cleopatra,' which Cuzzoni had sung in 1724. It was so successful that it was constantly repeated during the season. Mara again took a leading part in the Festival in Westminster Abbey in 1787, and she remained connected with the opera in London till 1791, after which, though she sang