Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Braham, John
BRAHAM, JOHN (1774?–1856), tenor singer, was born in London about the year 1774. His parents were German Jews, who died when Braham was quite young, leaving him to what one of his biographers describes as 'the seasonable and affectionate attention of a near relation.' Whether it was at this time, or at an earlier age, that the future singer gained his living by selling pencils in the streets is not chronicled, Braham's first contact with music took place at the synagogue in Duke's Place. There he met with a chorister, a musician of his own race named Leoni, who discovered the germs of his talent. Leoni adopted the orphan, and gave him thorough instruction in music and singing, with such good results that on 21 April 1787 he appeared at Covent Garden on the occasion of a benefit performance for his master, and sang Arne's bravura air, 'The Soldier Tired,' between the acts of the 'Duenna.' About this time John Palmer had started the Royalty Theatre in Wellclose Square, but, not being able to obtain a license for dramatic performances, he opened the house on 30 June 1787 with a mixed entertainment of recitations, glees, songs, &c. Here Braham sang for about two years, until his voice broke. Even at this early period of his career his bravura singing must have been remarkable. His voice had a compass of two octaves, and some of his most successful parts were Cupid in Carter's 'The Birthday,' and Hymen in Reeves's 'Hero and Leander.' He sang again at Covent Garden as Joe in 'Poor Vulcan' on 3 June 1788. About this time Braham's master, Leoni, became bankrupt, and the future tenor was once more thrown upon his own resources. After his voice broke he continued to sing under a feigned name, appearing, it is said, at Norwich, and even at Ranelagh, but his main occupation consisted in teaching the pianoforte. He met with a wealthy patron, a member of the Goldsmid family, and when the change in his voice was settled, on the advice of the flute-player Ashe, went to Bath, where he sang under Rauzzini in 1794. Braham remained at Bath until 1796, when Salomon, having heard him, induced Storace to procure him an engagement at Drury Lane, for which house Storace was just then engaged upon an opera. This work was 'Mahmoud,' but before it was finished the composer died, and the work was completed as a pasticcio by his sister, Nancy Storace, who, with Charles Kemble, Mrs. Bland, and Braham, sang in it on its production, 30 April 1796. Braham's success was signal, and in the following season he appeared in Italian opera, singing Azor in Grétry's 'Azor et Zémire ' on 26 Nov. 1796, and afterwards singing with Banti in Sacchini's 'Evelina,' as well as in the annual oratorios, and at the Three Choirs Festival at Gloucester. In the following year, on the advice of the fencer M. St. George, Braham decided to go to Italy to study singing. Accordingly, he left England with Nancy Storace, with whom he lived for several years, and arrived in Paris on 17 Fructidor. Here the two singers gave a series of concerts, under the patronage of Josephine Beauharnais. These were so successful, that they remained eight months in Paris, and did not reach Italy until 1798. At Florence, which they first visited, Braham sang at the Pergola as Ulysses in an opera by Basili, and as Orestes in Moneta's 'Le Furie d'Oreste.' At Milan he met Mrs. Billington [q. v.], with whom he was forced into rivalry by the jealousy of her husband (Felissent). It is said that, owing to Felissent's machinations, a scena of Braham's was suppressed in Nasolini's 'Trionfo di Clelia,' in which both the English singers were to appear, and that Braham revenged himself by appropriating all Mrs. Billington's embellishments and florid passages, which it was well known she only acquired by dint of hard work, being quite incapable of any sort of improvisation. Fortunately, the dispute ended in their becoming good friends, and Braham continued to sing at Milan for two years. At Genoa he sang with the famous sopranist Marchesi in 'Lodoiska' for thirty nights successively, which in those days was considered a remarkable run. At the same place he studied composition under Isola. Here Braham and Nancy Storace were offered an engagement at Naples, but declining it, they went to Leghorn, and then to Venice, where they arrived in 1799. During their stay here Cimarosa wrote an opera for Braham 'Artemisia' which the composer did not live to complete. From Venice the two singers went to Trieste, where Braham sang in Martin's 'Una Cosa Rara,' and thence to Vienna, where the offers of London managers caused the popular tenor and soprano to make for Hamburg without stopping to sing in Germany. They arrived in London early in the winter of 1801, and appeared on 9 Dec. in 'Chains of the Heart,' a feeble composition by Prince Hoare, with music by Mazzinghi and Reeve, which failed in spite of Braham's singing. After a few performances this work was replaced by the 'Cabinet,' the book of which was written by T. Dibdin, the music being supplied by different composers, but principally by Braham himself. The 'Cabinet' was produced on 9 Feb. 1802, Braham, Incledon, and Signora Storace playing the principal characters. It was followed on 15 March by the 'Siege of Belgrade,' a plagiarism from Martin's 'Cosa Rara,' 'Family Quarrels' (18 Dec. 1802), written by Dibdin, with music by Braham, Moorhead, and Reeve, and the 'English Fleet in 1342' (13 Dec. 1803). The music of this opera was entirely by Braham, who received for it what was then considered the enormous sum of 1,000 guineas. It contains one of his best remembered compositions, viz. the duet, 'All's Well.' About the same time Braham wrote music to the 'Paragraph,' and (10 Dec. 1804) sang in 'Thirty Thousand,' in which he collaborated with Reeve and Davy, and 'Out of Place' (28 Feb. 1805), part of the music in which was written by Reynolds. In the summer of 1805 Braham and Nancy Storace sang for six nights at Brighton, where the soprano distinguished herself by replacing a defaulting drummer in an accompaniment played behind the scenes to a great scena of Braham's in the 'Haunted Tower.' In the autumn season of the same year both singers seceded to Drury Lane, where Storace remained until her retirement in May 1808, and Braham continued to sing for many years. Here were produced most of his operas : 'False Alarms,' part of the music by King (3 Jan. 1807), 'Kais,' in which Reeve collaborated (11 Feb. 1808), the 'Devil's Bridge' (10 Oct. 1812), 'Narensky' (11 Jan. 1814), written conjointly with Reeve [see Brown, Charles Armitage], and 'Zuma' (1 Feb. 1818), a collaboration with Bishop. Braham's other operas were the 'Americans' (Lyceum, 27 April 1811), part of the music in which was by King, containing the famous song the 'Death of Nelson,' 'Isidore de Merida ' (1827), and the 'Taming of the Shrew' (1828), both of which were collaborations with T. S. Cooke. In 1806 he sang at the King's Theatre in Italian opera, appearing on 4 March in Nasolini's 'Morte di Cleopatra,' and on 27 March as Sesto in Mozart's 'Clemenza di Tito' for Mrs. Billington's benefit, the first performance in England of an opera by Mozart. In 1809 he was engaged at the Royal Theatre, Dublin, for fifteen nights, at the high salary of two thousand guineas ; this engagement was so successful that it was extended to thirty-six nights on the same terms. In 1810 he did not appear on the stage, but went on an extended provincial tour with Mrs. Billington. In 1816 he reappeared in Italian opera at the King's Theatre, singing his old part of Sesto in Mozart's 'Clemenza di Tito,' and Guglielmo in the same master's 'Cosi fan tutte.' In this year he was married to Miss Bolton of Ardwick, near Manchester. It was said that this marriage was the indirect cause of Nancy Storace's death, which took place in the following year.
Braham continued attached to Drury Lane, but for the next fifteen years there is scarcely a provincial festival or important concert or oratorio in the programme of which his name does not occur. He was the original Max in Weber's 'Freiscühtz' on its production in England at the Lyceum (20 July 1824), and created the part of Sir Huon in the same composer's 'Oberon' (Covent Garden, 12 April 1826), the scena in which, 'O 'tis a glorious sight to see,' was especially written to display his declamatory powers. On 14 Aug. 1825 he sang at the Lyceum in Salieri's 'Tarare,' in which he must have presented an extraordinary appearance, as Phillips (Recollections, i. 88) says that he was dressed in a home-made costume of many colours, with a huge turban, 'which would better have become some old lady at a card party than the sultan chief,' from beneath which 'protruded a long Hebrew nose and a huge pair of black whiskers.'
During his forty years' professional life the popular tenor had accumulated a large fortune, but in 1831 he unwisely joined Yates in buying the Colosseum in Regent's Park for 40,000l., and in 1835 built the St. James's Theatre, which cost 30,000l. Both of these speculations proved disastrous, and he was forced once more to return to the stage and concert-room. In 1839 he sang the parts of Tell and Don Giovanni in Rossini's and Mozart's operas, though both are written for baritones, but his voice at this time had suffered from the ravages of time, and he was no longer able to sing his old parts. In 1840 he went to America with his son Charles, but the tour was unsuccessful. On his return he gave a concert in which the father and son were the sole performers. For several years the veteran tenor continued to sing in public, principally in concerts and at provincial festivals, and he did not finally retire until March 1852, when his last appearance took place at the Wednesday concerts. After his retirement he lived at the Grange, Brompton, where he died on 17 Feb. 1856. He was buried in the Brompton cemetery.
Braham left six children. Three of his sons, Charles, Augustus, and Hamilton, adopted the musical profession; one of his daughters (afterwards Frances, countess Waldegrave) was for many years a notable figure in London society. A son by Nancy Storace took orders in the Anglican church. In person Braham was short, stout, and Jewish-looking. At one of the Hereford festivals his small stature gave rise to an amusing incident. Braham was singing the 'Bay of Biscay,' in the last verse of which he was in the habit of making considerable effect by falling on one knee at the words 'A sail! a sail!' On the occasion in question he did this as usual, but unfortunately the platform was constructed with a rather high barrier on the side towards the audience, so that the little tenor was completely lost to sight. The audience, in alarm, thinking he had slipped down a trap-door, rose like one man, and when Braham got up again he was received with shouts of laughter. His voice had a compass of nineteen notes, with a falsetto extending from D to A in alto; the junction between the two voices was so admirably concealed that it could not be detected when he sang an ascending and descending scale in chromatics. The volume of sound he could produce was prodigious, and his declamation was magnificent. Even in 1830, when he sang in Auber's 'Masaniello,' his voice is said to have rung out like a trumpet. In spite of all these extraordinary natural gifts, great discrepancies of opinion exist as to the merits of his singing. His great fault seems to have been that though he could sing with the utmost perfection of style and execution, yet he generally preferred to astonish the groundlings by vulgar and tricky displays and sensational effects. In this way he was accused of corrupting the taste of the age, and he certainly injured his voice by shouting and forcing it, so that in his later days he even sang out of tune. He frittered away extraordinary powers of declamation and pathos in trivialities and vulgarities, and used his magnificent talents only as a means of acquiring money. When at the zenith of his career, he entertained the Duke of Sussex at his house, and in the course of the evening sang a number of songs in the most perfectly artistic style. 'Why, Braham,' said the duke, 'why don't you always sing like that?' 'If I did,' was the reply, 'I should not have the honour of entertaining your royal highness to-night.' His own compositions were of the feeblest description, and could only have been endurable by the embellishments he introduced in singing them, but which are never found in the published copies of his operas and songs. In private life he was much liked, especially in his later days, when he enjoyed great reputation for his conversational powers. The best portraits of him are: (1) a water-colour drawing by Deighton, painted in 1830 (now in the possession of Mr. Julian Marshall); (2) a vignette by Ridley, after Allingham (published 26 July 1803); (3) a coloured full-length, as Orlando in the 'Cabinet,' drawn and etched by Deighton (22 March 1802); (4) a vignette by Anthony Cardon, after J. G. Wood (published 30 Nov. 1806); and (5) a vignette by H. Adlard, 'Mr. Braham in 1800,' in Busby's 'Concert Room Anecdotes.'
[Grove's Dict. of Musicians, i. 269 a; Hall's Retrospect of a Long Life (1883), ii. 250; London Mag. N.S. i. 118; Public Characters (1803-1804), vi. 373; Gent. Mag. May 1856, p. 540; Georgian Era, iv. 299; Genest's Hist. of the Stage, vii.; Parke's Musical Memoirs, i. 296, 325, &c.; Quarterly Mus. Review, i. 876, ii. 207, iii. 273, vii. 280, 429, viii. 151, 267, 291, 411; Harmonicon for 1832, p. 2; Annals of the Three Choirs, 77; Phillips's Musical Recollections, i. 83, ii. 55, 62, 247, 316; Musical World, 29 July and 5 Aug. 1854, 23 Feb. 1856; Brit. Mus. Music Catalogue: information from Mrs. Keeley.]