Published in The Strad Magazine Vol.108 No. 1285 May l997
by Albert W. Cooper
One of the pleasures of belonging to a local history group is that one never knows what is likely to turn up next. To say the least, music takes a very low priority so it came as something of a surprise when, during an afternoon lecture on the Bedford Estates relating to Hampshire the name Cosimi came up, I sat up! My initial reaction was could this be the violinist of the l7th-18th Century that we know so very little about. Even E. van-der-Straeten in his two volume "History of the Violin" admits almost defeat. Question time seemed ages away, however eventually I was able to ask Marie Draper the lecturer and Bedford Estates Archivist whether my conjecture was correct. I was certain by now that it was because I remembered that Cosimi's patron while in England was the Duke of Bedford. Marie Draper confirmed this, so started a train of thought that has eventually led to this article
By far the most documented violinist is Nicolo Paganini l784-1840 equally the least is Nicola Cosimi 1667-1717. An oil painting by Sir Godfrey Kneller commissioned by the second Duke of Bedford c.1700 has been lost; fortunately a Mezzotint produced in 1706 by the finest engraver of the day John Smith, survives and may be viewed at the British Museum by permission of the trustees. It is from this likeness that we see a debonair young man sporting an elaborate Periwig with violin under his arm or as Dr. Charles Burney astutely noted, "Nicola appears as a young man in spite of the immense Perugue through which he is peeping" Cosimi was 33 years old when the original was painted. During the 17th-l8th centuries it was fashionable for the aristocracy to become patrons of the arts with music high on the list - the Duke of Chandos' connection with Handel is a good example. This was probably the motive that prompted Wriothesley Russell, Marquis of Tavistock, soon to become the 2nd Duke of Bedford, when during a visit to Rome l698-l699, he 'discovered' Nicola Cosimi, a favourite pupil of Arcangelo Corelli and one of Rome's best young violinists. (He had been elected to the Academy of Santa Cecilia, a musicians guild since at least l683 so was firmly established in that city's musical fraternity. Correspondence during the summer of l699 between William Sherard the Dukes confident and Cosimi finalised arrangements which allowed him, with a musical friend the 'cellist Francesco Haym to make the journey to London in 1700. From the very beginning of negotiations, secrecy must have been essential as the following letter from Cosimi's brother, which awaited him on arrival at Bologna reveals.
My Dearest Brother,
Yesterday, the ninth day after your departure from Rome, I was informed that after staying in Loreta you were not returning to Rome, but were going to England. In the beginning I did not believe this, but enquiring of many people the truth, it was proved to me that this was the caseI do not have time this evening to tell you all that I have heard from these cultured people a your real friends, because the hour is late. I am exhausted and wet through because I have done nothing today and yesterday but walk around Rome visiting your acquaintances and speaking with them. In addition which it did not stop raining all day and I still had many of my ecclesiastical duties to perform, which you know well. I will say then briefly that the opinion of your admirers here in Rome is that this is a desperate act and is not a departure but it would seem rather to you are fleeing Rome, without having solicited the opinion or advice of anyone, or even letting your loved ones know of your intentions. The manner of your departure without knowing how or why, to a country of heathens, gives reason to suspect the firmness of your belief in the Catholic faith. I might add that you have taken away with you a younger companion, and have had no thought or compassion for his mother, Elena, who is old and a widow and who will suffer great sadness and anxiety. She has two small children, but this was her favourite son of whom she had high hopes. When this poor old widow discovers that you are taking her son not only to your house in Loreto as you told her, but to England leaving her no hope of seeing him, you can be sure that she will let it be known throughout Rome your treacherous behaviour, and you may hope that she says nothing worse. I am afraid of passing by her house, for if she has already heard the news, and knowing that I am your brother, she may well insult me publicly. All my acquaintances say:-“ how can Nicola your brother, be mixed up in a story like this? He is so careful, so correct, widely acclaimed, even a great virtuoso. Everyone has such a good opinion of him and especially in Rome.”
I look for consolation, being so in mourning, as I feel the loss of such a beloved brother, but everywhere my anxiety is increased. I cannot even console myself with the hope of seeing you again in Rome in some years time, because I am informed that those that have such desire to bring you to their country to have a virtuoso such as yourself in their service, have ways of tying you there with a marriage which will last for the rest of your life. But if I never see you again in this life, I can at least console myself with the probability of seeing you in heaven. However, from what I have been told by people who know well these countries for where you are headed (I wish to tell you everything as a true brother, by religious English Jesuits) that you will find in these countries all the possibilities of sinning and straying from the true way of God, all the incentives offered by the devil to send your soul into hell, and you will also have no-one to show you the true way of God, no-one to hold you back or to save you from these temptations. I heard that Prince D. Livio Odateschi had been told of your journey to England, and he replied; "When Nicola came to ask my permission to travel to Loreto, Bologna and possibly Venice, I had already an idea that he wanted to go to England and Nicola promised me faithfully that he would not go "When he was told once more that you had gone and it was certain, he sat there for some minutes taciturn and thoughtful; then he raised his head and said, "I cannot believe it."
Roma 30 Oct. 1700 Your affectionate brother
Although Nicola Francesco Haym, 1678-c1740, a Roman by birth plays only a small part in Cosimi's English visit he made his home here and is well recorded in Sir John Hawkins "History of Music l775" besides his talent in music which was no inconsiderable one. In the English Opera the airs of Hayms are distinguished from those of Scarlatti by their superior excellence. He also possessed a faculty for poetry - on the other hand Nicola Cosimi's English visit lasted only from l70l-1705.
They left Rome on October 21st, l700 and arrived in London March 22nd, 1701. It was a leisurely journey; the Dukes secretary writes, "Passing through Paris you can visit his Excellency the Ambassador of England who speaks Italian well, is a virtuoso musician and a close relation of "Milord", his excellency begs you to procure for him 20 or 30 songs of the best quality, some for solo voice and others for violin." Lodgings were found for them at the ducal residence, Southampton House, Bloomsbury. They had also been assured that "if they wished to live the life of a good catholic then there were in London many priests and chapels and that the Portuguese Ambassador is near to his excellency's Palace which they may frequent freely." The Duke must have thought very highly of Nicola, beside an annual salary of l00 guineas almost all his expenses were settled by "Milord" including an interim journey home to Rome, which should have allowed Cosimi to put his brothers mind at rest.
Nicola made visits to the Duke’s estate at Stratton in Hampshire. (A lodge gate through which he may have passed still stands, it can be seen adjoining the A33 road at Micheldever) The account for a return journey from Stratton to London for 4 persons including "the Italians" gives a clear picture of 17th century expenses. The total £2. 3. 00. was settled by his Grace on November 8th l702. The Bedford archives record several visits to the South of England. The Flemmings, close to Southampton, and the Tichbornes in the Itchen Valley, where a private chapel still adjoins the house, are but two, the Tichbornes being of the Catholic faith. Cosimi and Haym would have worshipped there. Back in London Cosimi was busy in all manner of musical activities, compositions, teaching, dealing in instruments, and of course playing with and at the Duke of Bedford’s musical soirees. Engagements in London included a series of 5 subscription concerts organised by the singer Katherine Tofts for which he received 30 guineas.
Two royal engagements at Windsor Castle, June l6th, l704, brought in another 30 guineas. Nicola's travel expenses for this trip to Windsor Castle totalled £4. 00. Cosimi was very much involved in organising a "Great Concert" for the opening of the 1702 Parliament. This event included instrumentalists and singers. He is informed that "he is the leader of everyone, as deserved 'by your great merit'. After being given a list of all the soloists taking part. Cosimi is called upon to engage the Tutti Players 'which can be decided by you.'" As a composer Cosimi's music has never ranked very high. In a series of articles on l8th century violin sonatas and solos van-der-Straeten says, "These sonatas although containing some graceful movements are not above average so do not call for further comment." STRAD MAGAZINE OCTOBER l916. However, the Duke was flattered enough to meet the cost of printing. The following advertisement appeared in the London Gazette, November 2nd l702, "On Monday next will be published. Twelve Sonatas for a violin and bass, composed by Signor Nicola Cosimi, and humbly dedicated to his Grace the Duke of Bedford. Curiously engraven on Copper Plates. To be had at Mr. Banister's in Brownlow Street, Dury Lane and at Mr King's in Villers Street in York Buildings at a Guinea a Book." The Daily Courant on 1st December, 1702 repeated this advert under the heading "There are now published." Between 1702-1704 around fifty copies were sold. Their success boosted Cosimi's pupils from 2 to 20 all from noble families or the gentility earning him £369 for 2 years teaching. Here are some extracts from Nicola's account book.
Jan 12th 1702
Received from Mr. Auden for the Mattia Albo violin, which I brought to him from Rome. £7. 6. 0.
Sold to Mr. Turner the Cremona, which I bought from Mr. Decre for 30 guineas, 9 of which I gave to Mr. Decres for the first purchase leaving 21 for my own profit Nov.20th l704
Received from Mr. Hampton for 4 months lessons. A mediocre Mattia Albo violin and £12. 13. 00. The violin is to sell. Jun.24th 1704
Received from Mrs. Flemming for the Mattias Albo sold for l8 guineas
Received from Lord Baltimoor for the violin, which I gave him (one of many other gifts) £100. 0. 0. Giacobbi (underwear).
INCOME IN ROME
Jul. 30th 1706
Received from the violin sold to Mr. Magni D’Albo 21 shillings.
Apr. 28th 1704
For the work done on the violin that Hampton gave me £5. 0. 0.
case for my first Cuthbert violin £3. 14. 6.
EXPENSES IN ROME
For a waxed cloth to wrap around the violin cases 30 pence.
EXPENSES IN LONDON
Rehair and new nuts for two of my bows £5. 00. 00.
Engraving of my initials on the case of my new violin £10. 00. 00.
A case for my (first) new Cuthbert violin £3.14. 06.
Nicola Cosimi bought strings prior to his departure in 1705, over 200 bunches in all each containing 30 strings plus a violin with a case of black calf skin (no prices are given for these) on a domestic level 28 pairs of shoes at 4-5 shillings each gives the impression he was determined to make the most of his English visit. Cosimi was very meticulous in keeping accounts so the estimated sum of £1,061 profit earned from his English visit is reasonably correct. With all the musical enthusiasm Cosimi generated during his English visit one would have hoped more details relating to the Cremona school would have emerged (Jacobus Stainer needs no introduction). Mattia Albo so often mentioned must be Matthias Albani whom he would have personally known in Rome.
A footnote in the Hills Book on the Guarneri family states that "our study of Albonis instruments and researches at Bolzani have shown conclusively that there was only one Matthias Albani who made violins and that he was of Italian origin. Robert Cuthbert 1650-1700 a good London maker was probably the first English violin to be exported.
For some years after his return to Rome, Cosimi acted as an agent for English musicians requirements including his long standing friendship with William Corbett, 1668-1748. It is said on good authority that Corbett's official role in Rome was as a Political Agent to record the movements of the Pretender, also he that was the only Englishman to have met Stradivari. His keenness as a collector certainly lends substance to this statement. His will mentions instruments formerly belonging to Corelli, Cosimi, Torelli etc. Nicola Cosimi's impact on violin playing in England may have been small, however it made a contribution to the development of the 18th century technique. For this we have to thank the 2nd Duke of Bedford's musical enthusiasm.
1. Cosimi writes in an informal and unorthodox fashion, which was normal at the time, as most people spoke in dialect. He tends to write as he would speak, which would explain any errors.
Translator: Phillipa Holland
2. Cosimi, L. Lindgren, Studi Musicali Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome, l982
3. English currency was measured in pounds, shillings and pence. One pound was 20 shillings: there were 12 pennies in a shilling. A guinea was a pound and a shilling. Thus £3/14/6 is three pounds, 14 shillings and sixpence
4. THE STRAD, October 1916
By kind permission of the Marquess of Tavistock and the
Trustees of the Bedford Estate.
Lowell Lindgren, Professor of Music, Music Faculty Institute of Technology, Massachusetts, U.S.A.