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Dragonetti & Novello

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Works for soprano and double bass date back to the early 1790s and the music of Johannes Matthias Sperger (1750 – 1812), notably his two concert arias for soprano double bass and orchestra — Selene, del tuo fuoco non mi parlar and Non t’avvilir la cura di me date from 1791 and 1793 respectively. Vincent Novello‘s aria Thy Mighty Power for soprano, double bass and piano is part of a long history of works for this interesting combination dating from the late 18th-century to the present day.

Vincent Novello (1781 – 1861) was an organist, pianist, conductor, composer, editor and publisher, and also the founder of Novello’s publishing house, which is still in existence today. He was a successful and popular musician throughout his lifetime and was a prolific composer, although his daughter Mary wrote that his compositions were “overshadowed by his still more abundant arrangements”. Novello edited and produced editions of many choral works at an affordable price — with the addition of a piano or organ accompaniment, and these were the foundation of his publishing empire.

Vincent Novello would have known many of the leading figures of his day, and of particular interest to double bassists is his long and enduring friendship with Domenico Dragonetti (1763 – 1846). Dragonetti had lived in London from 1794 and was one of the most famous and beloved musicians of the first half of the 19th-century. His cello-bass partnership with Robert Lindley (1776 – 1855) was legendary, and it was said that no musical festival was complete without the participation of these two musicians. Novello was one of the executors of Dragonetti’s will, and he spent several years collating and documenting the manuscripts of this great Italian double bassist, which he presented to The British Library in 1849, on his retirement to Italy.

Novello composed Thy Mighty Power for a concert at the Hanover Square Rooms, London, on Monday, 24 April 1837. His daughter Clara (1818 – 1908), a noted singer of the day, intended to study in Italy in the autumn of 1837 and this concert was an opportunity ‘to take leave of her Friends’ as the playbill notes. Composed for soprano, double bass and piano, it was remarkable that Dragonetti, at the age of about 74 years, performed as the double bass soloist at a time when he no longer performed solos in public and he agreed to perform because of his close personal friendship with the composer and his family.

The original playbill states,

MISS CLARA NOVELLO has the gratification of announcing, she has prevailed upon SIGNOR DRAGONETTI to depart from his resolution of not playing Solos in public, and for this time only, he will accompany her in A NEW SONG, WITH CONTRA BASSO OBLIGATO, composed expressly for the concert, by VINCENT NOVELLO.

The New Monthly Belle Assemble (May 1837) stated that,

…the performance was magnificent and drew forth immense applause.

Similarly, The Musical World (28 April 1837) reviewer said,

The gem of the concert consisted in a new, sacred, triumphant song (“Thy Mighty Power”). It is saying little that the whole interest of the performance was engrossed by the illustrious contra-basso, although the singer acquitted herself very admirably, taking the D in alt, at the close, with the utmost precision, and apparent ease. The piece was enthusiastically encored from every quarter of the room… Joining in their admiration of the astonishing feat which had been performed. The chief merit in the song lies in the accurate knowledge the composer has displayed of the genius and resources of the double bass.

Thy Mighty Power is a fun and exciting work that exploits the tessitura differences between the high soprano and low double bass, in the original version in orchestral tuning, and works well as the final item in a concert. The music is accessible and pleasant, with nothing here to frighten the horses, and is simply a piece of entertainment and nothing more. Fiona M. Palmer isn’t so enamoured of the song, however, and mentions it in her book Vincent Novello (1781 – 1861): Music for the Masses (Ashgate Publishing),

Novello’s aria, “Thy Mighty Power” is a musical ‘lollipop’; it demonstrates little sense of harmonic adventure and is firmly rooted in tonic-dominant relationships. Novello writes idiomatically for Dragonetti’s bass exploiting the projection and timbre of the highest string. The voice and bass parts interweave in contrasting motion, word painting abounds and the influence of Handel oratorio is fully evident.

It was first published in The Musical World (A Weekly Record of Musical Science, Literature and Intelligence) on 12 May 1837 (No. LXI-Vol.V), which also includes an article about the Violoncello and contrabasso as part of Cipriani Potter’s Companion to the Orchestra, or History of Instrumentation – No.V. It obviously travelled worldwide and New Zealand’s Auckland Star (19 November 1904) announced a forthcoming performance at Pitt Street Methodist Church on Wednesday 23 November 1904 when it was to be performed by tenor (Mr R. James) with violin obbligato (Mr J. Shaw).

The song had been out of print for many decades before the first modern edition by Recital Music in 1986. Written in orchestral tuning for the double bass, playing in bass clef and only in the orchestral register of the instrument, and needing a soprano who is able to sing a high C or D, depending on which version is performed, probably reduced the performance opportunities. A few years ago, I created a version for solo tuning, which puts the double bass into a higher register with the soprano part edited to suit the new key, and it’s an audience favourite whenever it’s performed.

Thy Mighty Power is fun, and lively has great player and audience appeal and doesn’t outstay its welcome. Admittedly Vincent Novello had none of the skills of Mozart or Beethoven, but without the lesser names, would we appreciate the great composers as much? Probably not. Novello’s music certainly deserves an occasional performance; after all, he did make a fantastic contribution to the musical world, and this is a charming piece that doesn’t hurt anyone. Just sit back and enjoy…

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