Volume II · November 1946 · Number 1
The Adelina Patti Letters
--CHARLES C. RIKER
We seldom hear of Adelina Patti these days, which is perhaps surprising when we learn that she died so recently as 1919. But since October 20, 1914, when she sang for the benefit of the Red Cross War Fund in Albert Hall, she had given no public performances. And prior to that she had appeared only occasionally since December, 1906, when she sang her "farewell."
Yet for more than fifty years Adelina Patti's name was a very great one, and perhaps only two other nineteenth-century singers could be legitimately claimed as her rivals: Jenny Lind and Christine Nilsson. Jenny Lind, however, was twenty-three years older than Patti -- scarcely a rival -- and it was her early retirement from opera which in some degree afforded Patti her Covent Garden success in the role of Amina in Bellini's La Sonnambula on May 14, 1861. For both Lind and Nilsson, Patti had the greatest admiration.
Patti's career had begun in 1850 when she was seven. She had stood on a table in Springer's Hall in New York and had sung "Ah! non giunge" from La Sonnambula and Eckert's "Echo Song." Her Baltimore appearances in the autumn of that year under the management of her musical brother-in-law, Maurice Strakosch, had a modest beginning when the ticket sales for her first concert scarcely numbered more than a hundred. But at the sixth, the hall which seated some two thousand was completely sold out before the performance began. The joint tour with Ole Bull, the Norwegian virtuoso violinist, which lasted nearly three years, brought her amazing successes throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Cuba. In fact, from 1850 until the spring of 1861 when she went to England, thousands of Americans had fallen in love with Patti and packed the concert halls to hear her sing. Probably no artist was more widely known, at least in America. She had once told Hanslick, "My father was a Sicilian; my mother a native of Rome; I saw the light of day in Madrid, where they were both singing during the Italian season, and I was brought up in New York." Those early days in New York had almost made her an American, and Americans of the fifties were quick to claim her.
In 1881, more than twenty years after Patti's New York debut, she returned to the United States. By that time she had achieved an almost unparalleled success in virtually every city of importance in Europe. From then until 1904 she made annual coast-to-coast tours, several unfortunately announced as "farewell" tours -- unfortunate in so much as she is sometimes remembered today as the inventor of the "farewell." But America's musical memory for the most part is short-lived, and that may partially account for her present neglect. Today one happens on her name in an occasional crossword puzzle or a radio quiz program. A passing reference to Adelina Patti in Beatrice Lillie's recent British-made film may suggest that the British are not so forgetful as we. It was among the British that Patti chiefly lived, at her castle in Wales, Craig-y-nos, and from 1861 until her death she was very much a part of British musical and social life. In a sense Patti became an American expatriate, like Henry James and T. S. Eliot, although there I should say any resemblance ends.
To evaluate an artist like Patti, who made but few recordings, and these mostly unavailable, is difficult. Recording techniques in the nineties, as everyone knows, were primitive. Besides, Patti's voice had apparently passed its prime. In the case of Mozart, Joachim, Paganini, Chopin, and Liszt, the music which they wrote and performed and that which was written for them furnishes at least some clue to their artistry. Even so, we are under no compulsion to find congenial what we think their musical readings may have been. But in the case of Patti, who was not a composer, the occasional reminiscence and the reviews of the critics -- some of them probably none too reliable if we may judge by our own contemporary press reports, so frequently misinformed and insensitive -- are almost our only source materials. An examination of the music expressly written for Patti -- all of it now quite forgotten -- would be of slight help in measuring her art. During the past few years we have seen violent revaluations of nineteenth-century art and criticism, and it is not impertinent to suggest that twentieth-century musical taste would find itself at considerable variance from the Victorian. To judge by nineteenth-century standards, Patti's interpretations with rare exceptions -- notably Carmen -- were acceptable to nineteenth-century audiences.
It will be wise, I think, to accept Krehbiel's judgment that Patti's voice from the very beginning was a phenomenal one. George Bernard Shaw, who was not inclined to be lavish in his praise, had this to say about a concert she gave in 1893:
On Saturday afternoon the Albert Hall was filled by the attraction of our still adored Patti, now the most accomplished of sopranos. It always amuses me to see that vast audience from the squares and villas listening with moist eyes whilst the opulent lady from the celebrated Welsh castle fervently sings, "Oh give me my lowly thatched cottage again." The concert was a huge success; there were bouquets, raptures, effusions, kissings of children, graceful sharings of the applause with obbligato players -- in short, the usual exhibition of the British bourgeoisie in the part of Bottom and the prima donna in the part of Titania.
But whether her interpretations would enjoy the same approval today is another matter. Of the forty-two operas in which she appeared during her lifetime, only twelve or fourteen are in the present repertoire of the Metropolitan Opera Company. And when we consider how closely the Metropolitan adheres to nineteenth-century tradition, one may speculate on Patti's artistry. But perhaps I labor this point. In any event, Patti was one of the great interpretive artists of the Rossini school. And if she is forgotten, it is chiefly because of the inevitable; the transitory nature of the purely recreative artist. It is perhaps a slight irony that Patti wrote Mrs. Lafayette Rogers on a card dated November 3, 1882, the following: "True art endures forever, and the true artist delights in the works of great minds."
True art, if there is any such thing, lasts not because it is true and not because it is art. Accident, chance, human wisdom, and stupidity have often been responsible. But Patti's error puts her in good company: Keats announces much the same theme in the "Ode on a Grecian Urn."
It was in the fifties that Patti sang in Buffalo and there met Maria Bristol, who was living with her parents in the hotel at which Patti stayed. The two girls formed a lasting friendship and corresponded throughout the years that followed. Several letters and notes that Patti wrote to Maria Bristol Rogers (Mrs. Lafayette Rogers) have recently been presented to the University of Rochester Library by Mrs. Rogers' daughter, Mrs. Robert H. Pierson. The first letter, dated March 6, 1893, written from Craig-y-nos, sets her usual tone and reads in part:
I am so glad to get back to my dear home again, although my success both at Nice and Milan was enormous. It was a series of colossal triumphs to tell you in writing about the enthusiasm everywhere, and the ovations I received.
Patti had sung at Nice on January 9, 1893, in Rossini's Barber of Seville, later in Gounod's Romeo and Juliet and Verdi's La Traviata. On January 20 she sang at La Scala in Milan in La Traviata, a performance attended by Verdi, who, if we are to believe Patti in her letter to Herman Klein, "actually wept tears of joy and delight. It appears that he said to Bevignani that my phrasing was too touching for words and that I sang divinely!"
On August 20 of the same year, in the second letter to Mrs. Rogers, Patti begins in a somewhat different vein, but concludes with an uninhibited account of her successes and her encounters with royalty:
You will be sorry to hear that I have been suffering a great deal lately with my poor knee owing to the application of a burdock leaf, which I was led to believe would entirely cure it, instead of which it caused violent inflammation and agonies of pain. You can imagine how unhappy it made me, for it was just when we had a great number of distinguished guests staying here, among others Sir George and Lady Higginson and their daughter, and my knee was so bad that I was quite unable to walk. We sent to Paris for the famous Dr. Leroux, and he said I was suffering from Arthritis, and ordered massage for my knee 4 hours every day - and he was also most anxious to burn the knee with what is called " Pointes de feu," but such a severe remedy was not necessary, and I am glad to say that my knee is now really better, and I am able to walk again. We had another very celebrated French doctor here last week who feels confident that in a very short time he will completely cure me with an elixir which he also guarantees to be a regenerator of youth! We have now a large party of friends staying with us, and next week we are expecting several more. We have given several Concerts in the Theatre lately and my voice was never clearer or stronger. I wonder if you heard about the immense success I had in London this season when I sang at the Albert Hall, and about the party at Baron Alfred de Rothschild's where I sang before all the Royalties including the Prince of Wales, the Duke of York, Princess Mary of Teck, & the Duke of Teck & the Duke of Cambridge, and the Duke d'Orleans, and how Princess Mary thanked me with tears in her eyes for the great pleasure I had given her, and pressed my hand asking me to sing again and again. At supper I was placed at the table set apart for Royalties, Princess Mary sitting on the right of the host, and I on his left. And the Prince of Wales stood up and proposed my health, and made a graceful speech in which he expressed the fervent hope that I should live for very many years to sing so beautifully as I had done this evening, and saying how much he and all real lovers of good singing regretted that I spent so little time in London and afforded them so few opportunities of hearing me - you can imagine how all this touched me, and as a mark of their affection for me, the Prince and Princess of Wales have both sent me large and very beautiful autographed photographs of themselves, signed "Alexandra 1893" and "Albert Edward 1893." I also received a charming letter from the Duke of York, thanking us for the pearl pin we sent him for his marriage, and saying how much he should always value it.
In a letter to Mrs. Rogers, dated January 11, 1895, Patti's godchild, Mable Woodford, at Patti's request, reports at some length on the singer's activities. Here she speaks of Patti's first command performance at Windsor Castle before Queen Victoria and her warm reception there. Apparently, Patti's interpretation of Elizabeth's prayer fromTannhauser and her "wonderful pronunciation of the German words" impressed the queen so much that she presented her with a signed portrait, a diamond and sapphire butterfly, an ornament of rubies and diamonds, and later a telegram. Miss Woodford follows with some account of Patti's forthcoming continental tour. Change the pronouns and the letter might easily read as one of Patti's own.
On October 6, 1896, Patti writes again from Craig-y-nos, and the letter fairly bristles with accounts of visiting duchesses and marchionesses, garden parties, and performances in the Patti theatre. She speaks at some length of her annual Charity Concert in Cardiff and the immense success it was, and to the "Freedom of the Ancient Borough of Brecon" which was awarded her.
The concert in Cardiff was her yearly contribution to Welsh charities. Unfortunately, Swansea, whose turn it was to present Mme. Patti, had made a tactless error by reducing the prices for seats without consulting the artist. This Patti took in none too good grace. As a result, Cardiff was selected instead of Swansea, and there Patti sang, commanding her usual high prices of admission. In her letter she reports that the receipts exceeded £800. It should be remarked here that Patti's fees were always extremely high -- even judged by our contemporary ones. In fact, most artists would consider themselves fortunate indeed if they could, in 1946, command but half the fee that Patti demanded and received. The tale is told that on one occasion Patti required the extraordinary fee of one hundred thousand dollars for twenty concerts in a three-month American tour. The dumbfounded manager remarked, "Why, that is more than the salary of the President of the United States!" Patti replied, "Well, ask the President to sing."
The honor which Brecon made Patti included a presentation of a scroll of freedom contained in a casket carved from a piece of oak from old Brecon Priory Church. On the cover was inscribed:
"Presented to Mme. Adelina Juana Maria Patti-Nicolini by the Mayor, Aldermen, and Burgesses of the Borough of Brecon, with the honorary freedom of the borough, in recognition and acknowledgment of her eminent and munificent services to the poor of Brecon. May 24, 1897."
Patti's second husband, the singer Ernest Nicolini, died at Pau on January 18, 1898, and Patti's acknowledgment of Mrs. Rogers' letter of condolence is dated February 27, 1898, and postmarked St. Remy. On April 25, 1898, Patti writes again from Craig-y-nos that she is happily occupied with gardening and improvements about the castle.
The last letter comes from Rome about a year later -- dated February 24, 1899, and provides a startling contrast to the two letters above:
I dare say you will have read all about my marriage in the newspapers the wedding took place at Brecon on January 25th, the town being quite en fete, and gaily decorated for the occasion. I was accompanied by a large party of friends, and Sir George Faudel-Phillips led me to the altar. Immediately after the ceremony, we all travelled up to London in a special dining saloon train, and had the wedding breakfast en route. I enclose you the menu. My husband and I are now spending a few weeks here in Rome, before returning to dear Craig-y-nos for the summer. Our time is much occupied in fulfilling engagements to lunches and dinners and I am singing today at a Charity Concert for the benefit of the poor of Rome which is causing great excitement here.
Patti's third wedding venture, with Baron Rolf Cederstrom, took place when she was fifty-five. One is slightly amused by her almost girlish remark of being led to the altar by Sir George Faudel-Phillips. The wedding breakfast with its fifteen courses and the appropriate wines in the "special dining saloon train" must have been something of an innovation in matrimonial arrangements of the nineties. Today, accustomed to more spectacular extravaganzas in wedding celebrations, the privacy of the special train seems innocent enough. Patti's life with the Baron was apparently a very happy one. They travelled a great deal; attended productions in Bayreuth and Oberammergau. In September, 1900, they visited Stockholm, Cederstrom's native city, where Patti sang at a charity performance in the Opera House and received many honors.
Patti loved fame, honors, praise, adulation, public recognitions. For her not the luxury of the oblique overheard remark. Fortunate for herself -- perhaps for her art -- she was apparently unaware of any philosophic dimension, or of any tragic one. Life to Patti was a pretty simple business. Her preoccupations were her castle, her successes, her titled admirers. judging by her letters, she cannot claim cornpanionship with such men as T. E. Lawrence, D. H. Lawrence, or Rainer Maria Rilke, who were so tortured by their struggles in understanding themselves and their art.