The ‘On This Day’ series continues with a post by Brianna Robertson-Kirkland (University of Glasgow).
Brianna completed her PhD in 2016 (funded by the College of Arts Internship Scholarship). Her research examines the 18th century castrato singer Venanzio Rauzzini and the education and career of his operatic students. She regularly performs in solo recitals and has taken part in masterclasses with Emma Kirkby, Robert Toft and Nicholas Clapton. She was part of a recording project for The Centre for Robert Burns Studies, which was also filmed as part of the BBC documentary Burns, My Dad and Me, that aired in 2016.
As always, if you’d like to contribute to this series with a post on literary/historical events in 1816/1817, please contact Anna Mercer.
On this day in 1816: 17 November, Marriage, Scandal and the Death of a Lover
On 17 November 1816, the eminent British tenor John Braham (1774-1856) was married to the young and wealthy Frances Elizabeth Bolton of Ardwick (1799-1846). Though Braham was 25 years her senior (he was aged 42, while Miss Bolton was 17) the marriage appeared to be a happy one, producing six children (two daughters and four sons), all of whom survived into adulthood. However, Braham’s motivation to marry a young and virginal bride was perhaps not entirely altruistic. In fact, his choice was of particular significance, since the marriage was perhaps an attempt to wash away a summer of scandal that threatened both his reputation and his future musical career. At least this was strongly speculated by Joseph Norton Ireland in 1863:
Mr. Braham married in early middle life, and the rectitude of his latter years served to redeem his reputation from the gallantries and follies that marred the days of his youth (p. 343).
The ‘gallantries and follies’ to which Norton was referring, was perhaps not just the summer of 1816, but the fact that Braham had been in a long-term, unmarried relationship with the Anglo-Italian prima donna Nancy Storace (1765-1817).
The pair had been introduced by their shared vocal teacher, the Italian castrato Venanzio Rauzzini (1746-1810). Storace was first trained by Rauzzini in England, before developing an illustrious career on the continent, most notably singing the role of Susanna in the premier of Mozart’s Le Nozze de Figaro. In 1784, she was married to the English violinist John Abraham Fisher (1744-1806), though it was publically known that he was violent and abusive to Storace, resulting in Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor (1741-1790) forcing him to quit his continental tour and leave Storace behind. Though Storace returned to England in 1787, she never saw Fisher again, but they were still legally married until his death.
Braham was trained by Rauzzini from 1794-1796, where he developed his initial skills in an Italianate style of singing, something for which he would gain much celebrity throughout his career. Rauzzini frequently obtained professional engagements for his students but also showcased their talents through his popular Bath Concert Series. Storace came to perform in this series during the 1796-97 season alongside Braham. In the same year Braham as offered the leading role in Mahmoud, which was written and composed by Storace’s brother Stephen. This would begin a long professional and personal relationship between two of Rauzzini’s most successful students (Robertson-Kirkland, 2016).
However, Braham was at the beginning of his career and though he had been offered the leading role in the Drury Lane theatre, known as the home of English opera, his performance was not well received. It was not until he was offered a role at The King’s Theatre, aka the home of Italian opera, that he received favourable reviews:
As a singer [Braham] has infinite merit as his powers are much better calculated for the Italian opera than the English stage (1796, p. 2).
The following year, contemporary periodicals reported contradictory information about Storace and Braham’s intentions to travel to the continent. True Briton stated that Storace was ‘going to Italy to improve herself in singing’ with Braham accompanying her to ‘practice duets’ (1791, p. 1). The Oracle and Public Advertiser, on the other hand, stated that Braham went ‘to Italy for improvement’ and Storace accompanied him ‘for the purpose of managing his points’ (1791). Other reports did not attempt to spin a professional guise but crudely stated their relationship outright:
Braham has promised Storace to give her an animated description of Moses erecting his serpent in the wilderness (1797, p. 3).
The continental tour proved a success for both Braham and Storace, but there can be no doubt that it was through Storace’s former contacts that they were able to obtain illustrious engagements, improving Braham’s visability as a tenor of note. This exposure allowed his career to flourish, particularly upon their return to Britain, where Braham’s singing was in high demand.
Yet Storace’s career diminished somewhat, with reports frequently teasing that her lack of stage appearances was due to pregnancy. These reports were a continuous reminder that the pair were more than friendly, professional colleagues (1798, p. 4). For the most part, the reports were true; by 1802, Storace gave birth to Braham’s son, William Spencer Harris Braham.
Though Storace may still have been married to Fisher and William born out of wedlock, Braham and Storace were received in good company and it was generally accepted that they were unofficially man and wife. Even so, after Fisher’s death in 1806, one might expect that the pair would have made their relationship official, if for no other reason than to appease Georgian society. But this was not to be. Storace and Braham continued to live unwed until his betrayal in the summer of 1816.
On 23 July, The Times reported that Braham was being sued for damages by Mr Wright in the amount of 5000l. It transpired that Braham had run off with Mr Wright’s wife earlier in year resulting in a very public affair to the detriment of Braham, the Wrights’ and Storace’s reputation. While Storace and Braham’s relationship may have been initially accepted in polite company, the public immediately turned on them both, placing particular blame on Storace for leading Mrs Wright astray (1816, p. 3). Braham was forced to pay Mr Wright 1000l in damages and his career was threatened after he was hissed off the stage by the audience at Drury Lane theatre (1991, p. 302).
His hasty marriage to Miss Bolton just a few months after his public affair with Mrs Wright and break-up with Storace established that he was settling down to a socially acceptable life and for the most part, the public forgave his prior descretions. Unfortunately, Storace was not as lucky, as she suffered two strokes the following year, the second resulting in her death. Was Braham’s betrayal responsible or was this merely a coincidence? Though reports suggested the former, Braham’s singing career returned to its former glory and he became one of the most internationally sought after vocalists of the day (1817, p. 3). The marriage served its purpose, so in many ways 17 November 1816 was Braham’s rebirth as an honourable man.
Morning Post and Fashionable World, July 10, (London: William Griffin, 1797).
Observer, October 28, (London: W S Bourne, 1798).
Oracle and Public Advertiser, July 8, (London: P Stuart and James Boaden, 1797).
Sun, October 31, (London: B McMillan, 1796).
The Times, July 24, (London: James Lawson, 1816).
The Hull Packet and Original Weekly Commercial, Literary and General Advertiser September 30, (Hull: Robert Peck, 1817).
True Briton (1793), July 5, (London: A Wilson, 1797).
Ireland, Joseph Norton, Records of the New York stage, from 1750 to 1860, 2 volumes, (New York: T H Morell, 1863), vol. 2.
Ed. Highfill, Philip H; Burnim, Kalman A; Langhans, Edward A, A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers, and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800: S. Siddons to Thrnne, (Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991), Vol. 14.
Robertson-Kirkland, Brianna Elyse, Are we all castrati? Venanzio Rauzzini: ‘The father of a new style in English singing’. PhD thesis, (University of Glasgow, 2016).