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Remembered (if at all) as a music theorist who codified sonata form, the composer and vocal coach Adolf Bernhard Marx (1795-1866) was an intriguing failure. R J Arnold, an authority on Grétry’s operas, suggests that these memoirs might be found ‘unsatisfactory, or at least frustrating’ since ‘as a source of information, the work can prove highly elusive’. The creator of muddled operas with protagonists ranging from Moses to the Marquis de Lafayette, Marx’s dealings with more renowned composers were often dicey. He managed to irk Carl Maria von Weber by praising his military songs instead of his operas, and expressed undisguised schadenfreude when the once-mighty opera composer Gaspare Spontini fell on hard times.

An erstwhile friend of Felix Mendelssohn who arranged for the first publication of Bach’s St Matthew Passion after Mendelssohn ‘rediscovered’ it in 1829, Marx broke with Felix after the latter refused to conduct one of his oratorios. In a fit of pique, Marx threw all the letters he had received from Mendelssohn into a nearby river. He was more even-tempered in his understanding of great singers, lauding the tenor Carl Adam Bader (1789- 1870), a leading Spontini interpreter, for his voice ‘at once powerful and insinuating, like the sound of silver, made for heroic roles, and through deep feeling warmed and inclined to every mood’. The soprano Anna Milder-Hauptmann (1785-1838), another stalwart in Spontini performances for whom Beethoven wrote the role of Leonore in Fidelio, sang passionately, yet her voice ‘preserved its full euphony, but transformed from feminine mildness to demonic force. It was not corporal, but spiritual, the highest excitement’.

Diva worship is reserved for Angelica Catalani (1780-1849), a soprano with ‘bell-like tones of a voice the likes of which no one had heard before or since’. The bass Josef Spitzeder (1796-1832) excelled in a ‘completely imperceptible transition from speech to song, and vice versa – an art, which is all that make mixed operettas both understandable and artistically bearable’. And the soprano Henriette Sontag (1806-1854), with a ‘fine, ear-tickling mezza voce’, was another singer for whom Marx felt more sympathy than he did for opera composers.

Benjamin Ivry Read the full review on Agora Classica

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