Autobiographies of nineteenth-century performers are a lot of fun to work with. They are, without exception, filled will all manner of bizarre and surprising anecdotes. In a previous post I discussed the opera singer Henry Phillips (1801-1876), who wrote about the way in which he was influenced by American Indian dance. Today I am returning to Phillips’ memoirs, this time taking a look at what he had to say about his eccentric friend Domenico Dragonetti (c.1755-1846).
Maxim Gauci after W. F. Rosenburg | Domenico Dragonetti | Lithograph | 280 mm x 212 mm | Early Nineteenth Century | National Portrait Gallery, London
Dragonetti was a famous double bass virtuoso. Born in Venice, his father was an amateur musician whose instruments filled their home. The young Dragonetti took advantage of these, teaching himself to play. His talents were soon noticed, and he became something of a child prodigy. By the age of 13 he was appointed principal player at one of the city’s opera houses. He eventually worked his way into the employ of Saint Mark’s Basilica, where he became famous in his role as principal bassist. He dazzled crowds with his solo pieces and presided over prestigious music festivals. Having huge hands meant that he was able to play the double bass in a new and exciting way.
After thirty years in Venice, Dragonetti headed to London where he took up a position at the King’s Theatre. As a member of the orchestra, he soon became a celebrity in the city. He associated with many important society figures, including the Prince Consort who became his close friend. He stayed in London for the rest of his life, though he made various trips to Vienna where he met both Haydn and Beethoven. According to legend, he played one of Beethoven’s pieces for the composer, who became so overwhelmed that he leapt up to embrace him!
What fascinates me most about Dragonetti, however, is not his impressive career. I am intrigued by his personal life, which was eccentric in the extreme. Phillips, who was a friend of Dragonetti, discusses this at length. He begins:
Dragonetti! in him what a strange being I shall have to describe: he was a kind-hearted man, abounding with eccentricities; by nature a lover of the fine arts; and on his instrument, the double bass, perfection. The power and tones he produced from his unwieldy instrument were wonderful, and to this he added great and rapid execution. The ends of his fingers had become, by practice, broad, covered with corns, and almost without form.
Phillips then goes on to describe the personality and private life of the great virtuoso:
Take him out of his profession, he was a mere child, given to the greatest frivolities. He led a single life, and occupied one lodging for years; which lodging, consisted of a bed-room, sitting-room, and a vacant apartment, which contained his collection of paintings, engravings and dolls.
Yes – dolls! Dragonetti had a large collection of dolls to which he was unusually attached. Phillips explains:
Dolls – do not start reader! a strange weakness for a man of genius to indulge in, but so it was; white dolls, brown dolls, dark dolls, and black, large, small, middling, and diminutive, formed an important feature in his establishment.
The singer goes on to tell us that not only did the bachelor Dragonetti fill his home with dolls – he also ‘married’ one!
The large black doll he would call his wife, and she used to travel with him sometimes to the [music] festivals. He […] generally journeyed [inside a] coach, and when changing horses in some little village, he would take his black doll and dance it at the window, to the infinite astonishment and amusement of the bystanders. Such was one of the strange eccentricities of this really great man.
Thomas Fairland after Charles Doane | Domenico Dragonetti | Lithograph | 557 mm x 383 mm | 1846 | National Portrait Gallery, London
If Dragonetti was alive today, I can imagine him starring in a tacky Channel 4 documentary: ‘The Man Who Married a Doll!’ Phillips didn’t have a film crew, but he was much intrigued by his friend’s eccentricity and wrote a letter to Dragonetti, asking him various questions about his life – a sort of interview by correspondence. As the musician was quite elderly by this time (and, Phillips says, not a fan of writing letters) he dictated his reply to his good friend, the musician Vincent Novello. He did, however, add his own signature at the end. Phillips reproduces this letter in its entirety, but the most intriguing section concerns his harem of dolls:
To your sixth inquiry, I have to inform you that I have only one black doll. I have seven other dolls in my seraglio, two of which are finishing their education amongst the German literati, who are remarkably clever and experienced in their mode of treating blockheads, for I wish my dollies to have an education of the most polished kind, especially in the smoothness and waxen-brilliancy of their innocent faces, which never degenerates (as it sometimes happens with living dolls) into an ill-tempered frown. The other five dolls are such dolce companions, that they render my home a perfect dulce domum.
Though this is clearly a humorous account of the musician’s peculiar relationship with his dolls, it does raise all sorts of intriguing questions. Was this attachment to dolls a self-conscious, deliberately cultivated eccentricity? Was Dragonetti a lonely man who found strange consolation in the company of dolls? Did he find real women too intimidating? Or is there a more sinister undercurrent of misogyny here? He prefers perfect and ’innocent’ young dolls to ‘living dolls’ who ‘degenerate’. Perhaps this fixation was even a symptom of his childishness – he preferred playing with toys to the company of real adults. This latter possibility seems perhaps most likely, given Phillip’s concluding description of Dragonetti:
He was a gentle, kind person; if there had ever been any harshness in his nature, music had certainly softened it. His last words are a sufficient evidence of his child-like nature. Lying on the sofa, surrounded by many of his most intimate friends, he said, “Stand aside, I see my father; and my mother is coming to kiss me.” Then, growing faint, he feel back exhausted, and died. This was related to me by Novello, who was by his side.
We’ll probably never know quite what was going on with Dragonetti and his dolls, but I find this tale captivating: a famous Venetian musician living in Leicester Square, surrounded by mannequins. Autobiography is frequently stranger than fiction!