Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Novello, Vincent

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NOVELLO, VINCENT (1781–1861), organist, musical composer, editor, and arranger, was born at 240 Oxford Road (now Oxford Street), London, on 6 Sept. 1781. His father, Giuseppe Novello, was an Italian domiciled in England, and his mother was an Englishwoman. He received his first, if not his only, tuition in music from a friend and fellow countryman of his father named Quellici, the composer of a set of ‘Chansons Italiennes.’ When quite young he was sent with his elder brother Francis to a school at Huitmille near Boulogne, which he left just as France was on the point of declaring war against England in February 1793. On his return he became a chorister at the chapel of the Sardinian embassy in Duke Street, Lincoln's Inn Fields, where Samuel Webbe was organist. During this period, and after his voice broke, he frequently acted as deputy at the organ for Webbe, and also for Danby, then organist of the Spanish embassy chapel; and in 1797, when barely sixteen years of age, he was elected organist of the Portuguese embassy chapel in South Street, Grosvenor Square, in the choir of which his brother Francis was principal bass for twenty-five years. This post he retained until 1822, and was only once absent from the organ bench during the period. While Novello was organist at the Portuguese chapel, George IV, attracted by his skill, offered him a similar post at the Brighton Pavilion, an offer which was declined on the score of numerous engagements which necessitated his constant presence in London. For twenty-seven years he held classes for pianoforte playing at Campbell's school in Brunswick Square, and for twenty-five years at Hibbert's at Clapton, in addition to teaching numerous private pupils, one of whom was Edward Holmes [q. v.]

In 1811 Novello produced his first attempt in that branch of art in which he made for himself a considerable reputation. It consisted of an arrangement of two folio volumes of a ‘Selection of Sacred Music as performed at the Royal Portuguese Chapel,’ and was dedicated to the Rev. Victor Fryer (2nd edit. 1825). In this work Novello displayed much judgment, taste, learning, and industry. The expenses of engraving and printing the volumes were defrayed by himself, and this publishing experiment laid the foundation of the great publishing house of Novello & Co.

In 1812, during the time that the Italian Opera Company was performing at the Pantheon, Catalani being prima donna, Novello acted in the dual capacities of pianist and conductor, and in the following year, on the founding of the Philharmonic Society by J. B. Cramer, W. Dance, and P. A. Corri, Novello became one of the thirty original members; he also officiated as pianist for the society, and later as conductor.

Novello was a constant reader of Shakespeare, and there still exists, in the possession of his daughter, Mrs. Cowden-Clarke, the playbill of a private performance of ‘Henry VI,’ in which Novello, described as ‘Mr. Howard,’ played the part of Sir John Falstaff. Many celebrated figures in the worlds of art and letters were constant frequenters of the house in Oxford Street, including Charles and Mary Lamb, Keats, Leigh Hunt, Shelley, Hazlitt, Domenico Dragonetti [q. v.], Charles Cowden-Clarke, John Nyren [q. v.], and Thomas Attwood [q. v.] There is a sonnet written by Leigh Hunt in which Novello, Henry Robertson, and John Gattie are reproved for failing to keep an engagement, and in the chapter on ‘Ears’ in the ‘Essays of Elia’ Lamb has given an amusing description of the meetings at Novello's house. From 1820 to 1823 the Novellos lived at 8 Percy Street, Bedford Square, when they moved to Shacklewell Green, and later to 22 Bedford Street, Covent Garden, subsequently settling at 66 Great Queen Street, Lincoln's Inn. In or about 1824 Novello was commissioned to examine and report on the collection of musical manuscripts in the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge, which led to his selection and publication of works by Carissimi, Clari, Buononcini, Leo, Durante, Palestrina, and others. To this library he presented eight volumes of music which had been given to him by his friend Dragonetti prior to his departure for Italy. These volumes contained motets by an anonymous and some by known composers; duos and trios by Stradella, the title-page of which is apparently in the composer's autograph; an oratorio, ‘San Giovanni Battista,’ also by Stradella; and a volume of verse anthems by Purcell, in the handwriting of one Starkey (Oxford, 1783) (Catalogue of Music in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, vols. 177–83, by J. A. Fuller-Maitland and A. H. Mann).

After the festival at York in 1828 Novello was permitted to copy some anthems by Purcell, the original manuscripts of which were in the York Minster Library. These manuscripts were shortly afterwards destroyed by fire, and but for the happy accident of Novello having copied them their contents would have been irretrievably lost.

In 1829 Novello and his wife went to Germany to present a sum of money which had been raised by subscription to Mozart's sister, Mme. Sonnenberg, who was then in very straitened circumstances (cf. Life of Vincent Novello, p. 26). In the same year the Novellos again moved, this time to 67 Frith Street, the house in which Joseph Alfred Novello, their eldest son, commenced business as a music publisher by issuing a continuation of ‘Purcell's Sacred Music,’ begun by Vincent Novello in December 1828. This was completed in seventy-two numbers in October 1832, and ‘was the first collection of music which Vincent Novello had edited for the service of a church outside the pale in which he had been educated’ (cf. Short Hist. of Cheap Music, p. 5). It was followed by a ‘Life of Purcell’ by Vincent Novello. Frequent were the evening réunions at Frith Street of the most celebrated musicians and writers of the day. Among Novello's published compositions is a canon, four in two, written in commemoration of one of these evenings which the composer had passed in the company of Malibran, de Beriot, Willman, Mendelssohn, and others. In 1832 the Manchester prize for the best glee of a cheerful nature was awarded to Novello's ‘Old May Morning,’ the words of which were written by C. Cowden-Clarke. In the same year the Philharmonic Society commissioned Novello to write a work to be produced by them, the result being a cantata, ‘Rosalba,’ for six solo voices, chorus, and orchestra. It was first performed in 1834.

On 2 Jan. 1833 the first meeting of the Choral Harmonists' Society, promoted by Novello from a number of seceders from the City of London Classical Harmonists, was held at the New London Hotel, Blackfriars. Novello was also one of the founders and co-conductor with Griffin of the Classical Harmonists' Society, which met at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in the Strand. He was a member of the Royal Society of Musicians, and he played the viola at the Festivals of the Sons of the Clergy at St. Paul's, in the orchestra which the forty youngest members of the society had to supply. In 1834 he was organist at the Westminster Abbey festival, at which his daughter Clara sang some of the soprano music. He occupied a similar post at the first performance in England of Beethoven's Grand Mass in D in 1846. In a letter concerning the former festival Charles Lamb says: ‘We heard the music in the abbey at Winchmore Hill, and the notes were incomparably soften'd by the distance. Novello's chromatics were distinctly audible.’ In 1834 the Novellos went to live at 69 Dean Street, whence they removed, first to Bayswater, and subsequently to Craven Hill. From 1840 to 1843 Novello was organist of the Roman catholic chapel in Moorfields. In 1848 Mrs. Novello went to Rome for the benefit of her health, and later to Nice, where her husband joined her in the following year. There they lived in retirement until 25 July 1854, when Mrs. Novello died of cholera.

For some years prior to his own death Vincent Novello suffered from periodical attacks of illness, thought to have originated in his grief for the loss of his third son, Sydney. He died at Nice 9 Aug. 1861, within a month of completing his eightieth year. In 1863 a memorial window, having for its subject St. Cecilia playing an organ, was placed in the north transept of Westminster Abbey.

Novello was of medium height and somewhat stout. The best extant portrait is a life-size oil-painting by his son Edward, which has been engraved by W. Humphreys. It is now in the possession of Novello's daughter at Genoa.

On 17 Aug. 1808 Novello married Mary Sabilla Hehl, whose father was German and whose mother English. By her he had eleven children, of whom the daughters Mary (afterwards wife of Charles Cowden-Clarke, q.v.), and Clara were held in high esteem in the worlds of literature and music; and the son Joseph Alfred, known as his father's successor in the publishing house of Novello & Co.

Novello's claim to a permanent place in the history of music in England is founded rather upon the excellence of his editions and arrangements of the works of others than upon his own compositions. By his labours and publications he improved public taste. His artistic aim was high, but he committed some errors of judgment—for example, the addition of extra voice-parts to such national monuments as Wilbye's madrigals. His original compositions testify to a considerable command over the intricacies of counterpoint, but they are academic rather than the spontaneous utterings of genuine inspiration. He was deficient in the critical faculty; and of the eighteen masses said to be by Mozart which he published, no less than seven have been declared by Kochel to be either spurious or extremely doubtful. As an organist he rose to eminence at a time when skilful players were comparatively rare, and instruments vastly inferior to what they now are.

In the British Museum Music Catalogue twenty-five pages are devoted to Novello's works. Among these are, in addition to the works mentioned:

  1. ‘A collection of Motetts for the Offertory,’ &c., in 12 books.
  2. ‘Twelve easy Masses,’ 3 vols. fol. 1816.
  3. ‘The Evening Service,’ 2 vols., 18 books, 1822.
  4. A collection of masses by Haydn and Mozart found in the library of the Rev. C. I. Latrobe.
  5. ‘Purcell's Sacred Music,’ originally published in five large folio vols., 1829, but subsequently reissued in 4 vols. by J. A. Novello. The manuscript copy of this work was presented by the editor to the British Museum.
  6. Immense collections of hymn-tunes, kyries, anthems, &c., by various composers.
  7. ‘Convent Music,’ for treble voices, 2 vols., 1834.
  8. A song, ‘The Infant's Prayer,’ is worthy of mention because of the enormous popularity it once enjoyed, one hundred thousand copies of it having been sold.
  9. ‘Studies in Madrigalian Scoring,’ 8 books, London, 1841.
  10. Editions of Haydn's ‘Seasons,’ ‘Creation,’ ‘Passione,’ &c.; of Handel's ‘Judas Maccabæus,’ with additional accompaniments; of masses and other works by Beethoven, Spohr, Weber, Cherubini, &c.
  11. Pianoforte arrangements of Spohr's ‘Jessonda,’ ‘Faust,’ ‘Zemire,’ &c.; Mozart's ‘Idomeneo’ and ‘Figaro.’
  12. Three principal sets of organ works, 3 vols.; cathedral voluntaries, &c.

[Authorities quoted in the text, Georgian Era (1838), iv. 529; Grove's Dict. of Music; Athenæum, No. 1764 (1861), p. 226; Gent. Mag. 1861, pt. ii. p. 338; Hist. of Cheap Music, London, 1887, pp. 3, 9, 11, 23 et seq.; Musical Times; Hogarth's Musical History, 1835; Dict. of Music, 1824; Mary Cowden-Clarke's Life and Labours of Vincent Novello; private sources.]

R. H. L.