Dragonetti & His Dolls: The Musician Who Married a Mannequin

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!

An American Indian War Dance on the Operatic Stage in 1824

One of the best things about working with the autobiographies of opera singers is the curious and unexpected anecdotes that you frequently come across. Today I’ve been re-reading the memoirs of Henry Phillips, a popular bass singer of the early nineteenth century. His autobiography, Musical and Personal Recollections During Half a Century, was published in 1864. It’s full of fascinating and unexpected stories.


Hand-coloured lithograph | Henry Phillips as Count der Tiemar in ‘Amilie’ | Richard James Lane | London | 1839 (National Portrait Gallery, London)

One which has intrigued me especially is the account of his involvement in the first ever British production of Weber’s Der Freischütz in 1824. This opera, with its ghoulish and elaborate incantation scene, was to become immensely popular in nineteenth-century Britain. Phillips was still in the infancy of his career at this stage, and his casting in the opera was a major coup, as he was to appear on stage with the famous tenor John Braham. A new role had been created expressly for Phillips. This was because the managers of the Theatre Royal felt that the role of Caspar required both an experienced actor and an accomplished singer to interpret the difficult music. As no man existed who could fulfil both of these criteria, they split the role in two. Caspar was to be played by the actor Mr. Bennet, while a new character called Rollo was created to sing Caspar’s parts. This role was given to the young Phillips.

One of Caspar’s songs that Rollo was to sing in the first act involved him convincing the character of Max to use a magic bullet. Caspar, whose soul has been forfeited to the devil, does this in the hope that he can secretly trade Max’s soul for his own. The corresponding song for this part of the opera was to be sung by Philipps, who had been told that German productions involved Caspar doing some dance steps during this performance. However, he misunderstood and assumed he was required to do an elaborate dance. He explained:

I had been given to understand that in Germany it was customary for Caspar to make a few uncouth steps, a sort of dancing, to the symphonies of the song, but this was so imperfectly conveyed to me, that I scarcely understood it; a something of the subject gleamed across me, and a study of the situation caused me to imagine that a man placed as [Caspar] was, inducing a fellow-huntsman to use the magic bullet to save [him] from perdition, would naturally have recourse to the most desperate means to accomplish his purpose on the instant.

In other words, he imagined that his character’s desperation would compel him to dance desperately and passionately. For inspiration, Phillips turned to an unusual source. He continues:

There flashed across me a memory of some American Indians I had seen the season before exhibited at the Lyceum, in a melodrama written for them, in which they went through their war dance in the most excited and determined manner imaginable. I resolved to carry out the idea in the action of my song, but disguised my intention till the first evening of the performance, fearful lest the manager might object, if he observed it at rehearsal.

Phillips then goes on to describe his interpretation of the American Indian war dance:

The house on that eventful night was thronged with Germans; the overture encored, the curtain rose, and all proceeded quietly and well, till it came to my drinking song. Young and enthusiastic, I cared for nothing; so carrying out my intention, I danced and sang with the desperation of a man on the verge of destruction. At the termination of my song I got gloriously hissed, but there were a few demands for an encore, which being insisted on I sang it again, amid a storm of “noes” and “bravoes”. Mr. Arnold [the manager] ran about tearing his hair, and exclaiming, “That young rascal has ruined the opera!” At its termination I received a storm of hisses, which resembled a shower of sky-rockets at Vauxhall.


Tinted engraved print on paper | Edmund Kean Esq | G. F. Storm (engraver) & Frederick Meyer Jnr (illustrator) | London | 1827 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

I find this fascinating: an interpretation of an American Indian war dance in a production of a German opera on the London stage! Though I’ve looked, I haven’t been able to find anything out about the production at the Lyceum which Phillips cited as his inspiration. However, it’s clear from a trawl through newspaper databases that there was a keen interest in American Indians during the 1820s; several books on this topic were advertised. Furthermore, there are several accounts of American Indians being on display in London society. There are, for instance, reports of Indian chiefs being present at a society party just a few months after the production of Der Freischütz. On this occasion they performed a war dance for fellow guests. It was also in the 1820s that the famous actor Edmund Kean toured Canada, where he met four chiefs from the Huron tribe in Quebec. Kean presented them each with a medal and in return they made him a member of their tribe, giving him the name Alanienouidet. He was immensely proud of this honour, and often gallivanted around in full native dress. A portrait of him in this guise still exists in the collections of the V&A.


Lithograph | Der Freischütz (incantation scene) | Artist uknown | London | 1825 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

After the lukewarm reception of Phillips’ dance, the rest of the production fared no better. In the famous supernatural scene only one of the giant owl’s wings flapped, the skeleton horses and dogs got stuck in the middle of the stage, and the fire was held too close to the nose of the devil, which gave him a coughing fit. Phillips remembered:

The manager objected in strong terms for my mania for dancing, but it was of no use. I stuck to it like [ballet master] Oscar Byrne, dance I would, and dance I did.

Eventually audiences came around, and this scene came to be one of the most popular parts of the opera. Phillips says it was greeted with enthusiastic applause and nightly encores. In fact, it was to prove so popular that future British productions of the opera also included a wild dance scene:

I created a dance peculiar to myself, which was afterwards imitated when the opera was transplanted to Drury Lane and Covent Garden, but which fell, like all copies, far short of the mode in which I had imitated the wild and unrestrained beings from whom I took my idea. How little I thought, while viewing the uncouth and extraordinary gestures of those rude Indians, that learning their accomplishments would lay the foundation-stone of my future reputation.

Some years later Phillips found himself on tour in Vicksburg, Mississippi. While he was in town, 2,000 members of the Chocktaw tribe happened to be camping outside of the city. Phillips passed through their camp and spent some time in the home of the Chief, whose mother had been Scottish. As he was therefore able to speak English, he had been elevated to Chief as he could negotiate with the American authorities. Phillips vividly described the scene he encountered in the camp:

I shall ever remember a view I had of [the Indians]. An old woman of the tribe, very stout, covered with silver and Indian jewels, her grey hairs streaming down to her waist, was surrounded by 3 rows of young Indians, hand in hand, dancing and singing. In the centre figures this woman, who turned one way, while the rows of men moved in a contrary direction, joining her song at intervals and dancing with the wildest gestures. Myself and many about me, feared this was a sort of war prelude to an attack on the inhabitants. However, it soon became evident that the old lady, having taken a little more than was her usual habit, was merely displaying her Bacchanalian joy at its effect, which the young Indians encouraged for the sake of a frolic.

Phillip’s accounts of his time touring America are filled with similarly vivid and extraordinary anecdotes. I’ll be blogging about more of these in the future!