Corbett, William (DNB00)

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CORBETT, WILLIAM (d. 1748), violinist and composer, seems to have held the latter position at the theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields at the beginning of the eighteenth century, since he wrote the music for ‘Henry IV’ (produced there by Betterton in 1700), for ‘Love Betrayed,’ an adaptation by Burnaby of ‘Twelfth Night,’ and for ‘As you find it,’ by the Hon. C. Boyle (both produced in 1703). In 1705 he became leader of the opera band, a position which he retained until 1711, when the production of Handel's ‘Rinaldo’ occasioned the removal of the whole body of orchestral players in favour of a new set of instrumentalists. It seems to have been at this juncture that Corbett went for the first time to Italy, since Burney implies that he was there during Corelli's lifetime, and it is probable that he was there at the time of Corelli's death in 1713, as he became possessed of the master's own violin. Whether or no he was a pupil of Corelli, it is certain that he was greatly influenced by that composer's style, as his own works conclusively prove. As a concert was given in Hickford's Room on 28 April 1714 ‘for Signora Lodi and Mr. Corbet,’ he must have returned by that time, and it would seem to have been about this year that he was appointed to the royal band of music. In 1710 his name is not on the list of musicians, and from 1716 it appears without intermission until 1747. By this time he had written, besides the theatrical music we have mentioned, several sets of sonatas for violins, flutes, &c., and one of the ‘act-tunes’ in ‘As you find it’ had been set as a song, ‘When bonny Jemmy first left me.’ A few years later he went again to Italy for the express purpose of collecting music and instruments of all kinds. He remained abroad for a good many years, making Rome his headquarters, and visiting all the principal cities of Italy. He was suspected in many quarters of being employed by the government as a spy upon the Pretender, but the truth seems to have been that his researches were not only sanctioned by the government (he was allowed to retain his posi tion in the court band during his absence), but actually paid for by the English authorities. If we may believe a pencilled memorandum on the back of a copy of his mezzotint portrait in the British Museum, he was given an additional salary of 300l. a year ‘to travel into Italy and collect fine music.’ His acquisitions, however, remained his own property, as appears from the advertisements of various sales, at which he disposed of some of them. In March 1724–5 he was at home again, for at this time he advertises ‘an entertainment of music, with variety of new concertos for violins, hautbois, trumpets, German-flutes, and French-horns; with several pieces by Mr. Corbett on a particular new instrument never heard in England’ (Burney). These ‘concertos’ had probably nothing to do with his most celebrated work, to be hereafter referred to, nor is it known what the ‘particular new instrument’ was, unless it was the Crescentini harpsichord mentioned in the list of his effects contained in his will. In 1728 the first part (twelve) of his best known concertos was published under the title of ‘Le Bizzarie universali.’ They are in four parts, for strings only, and the author appends the word ‘Diletante’ to his name, adding that they are composed ‘on all the new gustos in his travels through Italy.’ They were published by subscription, and in the year of their appearance the composer gave a concert on the occasion of his farewell to public life at Hickford's Room, where they were performed. On two separate occasions, the second in 1741, he advertised sales of his foreign collection of instruments and music, probably with only partial success, and in 1742 two more sets of concertos were issued, each set containing twelve as before. The title this time is in English throughout, and runs: ‘Concertos, or the Universal Bizzaries in seven parts, for four violins, tenor violin, and violoncello, with a thorough-bass for a harpsichord.’ The peculiarity of the concertos is that to each one is prefixed the name of an Italian city or a country of Europe, implying that each is written in the characteristic style of the place after which it is named. It cannot be said that there is much difference of style between the ‘Alla Milanese’ and the ‘Alla Scotese,’ or between any other of the concertos, but they are all written with considerable knowledge of effect. Corbett died on 7 March 1747–8, bequeathing his collections to Gresham College, with a salary of 10l., a year to a female servant of his own, who was to show them to visitors. The college authorities refused the legacy on account of the insufficiency of space at their disposal, and the collection was sold by auction, the musical instruments, &c. on 9 or 11 March 1750–1, at ‘the Great Room over against Beauford Buildings in the Strand, formerly the Hoop Tavern,’ and the music at his house in Silver Street, Golden Square. By the terms of his will, four sets of his works were to be given every year to strangers ‘from foreign countrys if they are good performers, but they are not to be sold on any account.’ He directed also that he was to be buried ‘in my family grave in the churchyard of St. Margaret's, Westminster, in a private manner, with two coaches only besides the hearse, at or some short time before twelve of the clock at night.’ How far these injunctions were complied with we have no means of knowing. There are two mezzotints by Simon, after a portrait by Austin, representing Corbett with and without his wig. A copy of the second of these is in the British Museum, and has been already referred to. It shows his coat of arms, argent, two crows in a pale sable, with a label of three points for difference, all within a bordure engrailed bezantée. These arms prove him to have belonged to some branch of the Shropshire family, though his exact place in the genealogy is impossible to find.

[Grove's Dict. of Music; Burney's Hist. of Music, iv. 250, 640, 650, &c.; Chamberlayne's Angliæ Notitia; Smith's British Mezzotint Portraits, iii. 1078; London Advertiser, 5–9 March 1750–1; Corbett's will in Probate Registry, 111, Strahan.]

J. A. F. M.