Great Opera Vocalists – Gertrude Elisabeth Mara

Among great singers Mara presents many interesting characteristics. She was born at Cassel, February 23, 1749. Her mother died soon after the birth of this child, and her father, a poor musician, named Schmeling, is said to have adopted the plan of securing his little daughter in an armchair while he attended to his affairs. From this cause, it appears, she fell into a rickety state, from which it was long ere she recovered, if indeed she ever recovered entirely. Schmeling contrived to increase his income by mending musical instruments, and the little Gertrude one day, when only four years old, got hold of a violin, and began to draw musical sounds from it. For this she was punished by her father; but the temptation was too strong to be resisted, and she seized every opportunity when Schmeling’s back was turned of practising on such instruments as she could find. Before long, to his astonishment, he found her playing on a violin, of which she had mastered the scale. Struck with her genius, he gave her a few lessons, and found her so apt a pupil that, not long afterward, he was able to play duets with her before a few amateurs.

By favor of an amateur, Schmeling and his child were enabled to visit the fair at Frankfort, where the little girl’s performance excited great wonder. A subscription was set on foot, a better education was given to her, and when she had reached the age of nine her health had improved, and she was able to proceed to Vienna with her father, and there give some concerts. The English ambassador advised Schmeling to take the child to England, advice on which the poor musician, furnished with letters of introduction by the ambassa dor, gladly acted. He soon obtained for his wonderful child the patronage of many noble and influential persons, including the Queen. The little girl, petted and admired by all the great ladies, was, however, persuaded by them to give up the violin, which they thought: an unfeminine instrument, and was encouraged to sing. Her voice was already resonant and clear, but she had, of course, had no instruction. Schmeling, by the help of her protectresses, placed the young Gertrude under the tuition of Paradisi.

Having returned to Cassel, Schmeling found it impossible to get an engagement for his daughter at the court; for the King would not hear of any but Italian singers. Hiller now received her into his music-school at Leipzig, where she remained for five years. In 1771 she came from this academy with a voice remarkable for its extent and beauty, a great knowledge of music, and a brilliant style of singing. She was the first great singer that Germany had produced. Her education had been formed on the music of Hasse, Gratin, Benda, Jommelli, Pergolese, Porpora, and Sacchini; but Hasse, with his vocal passages and facile style, was her favorite master. Her voice extended from the middle G to E in alt. She made her debut in an opera of Hasse’s at Dresden, and was successful. With difficulty, the King, Frederick II, was persuaded to hear her; and, though strongly prejudiced against her on account of her nationality, he was immediately converted by her singing at sight an air of Graun’s, and finally engaged her for life to sing at court. Here she profited by the hints of Concialini and Porporino, and perfected her singing of slow and legato airs.

It was at this juncture that, in spite of all advice, and although the King twice refused his consent, she married the violoncellist Mara. She soon discovered her folly, and regretted it when too late. The King allowed her no liberty or indulgence. On one occasion she was actually brought from her bed, by his orders, transmitted through an officer and guard of soldiers, and, though complaining of indisposition, forced to sing at the Opera. She at length succeeded in escaping to Dresden, where she was detained by the Prussian ambassador. Frederick, however, who had lost some front teeth and could no longer play the flute, cared now but little for music, and gave her a tardy permission to cancel her engagement. Mara, free at last, arrived in 1780 at Vienna, where Storace was playing in opera buffa, for which the Emperor had a great liking. To this, however, Mara was not well suited, and she was coldly received. Provided with a letter from the Empress to Marie Antoinette, she passed through Germany, Holland, and Belgium, singing at various places on her way. At Munich Mozart heard her, but was not favorably impressed. He wrote, November 13, 1780, “Mara has not the good fortune to please me. She does too little to be compared to a Bastardella (yet this is her peculiar style), and too much to touch the heart like a Weber [Aloysia], or any judicious singer.”

She was again at Vienna in March, 1781, and Mozart mentions her as giving a concert there. She reached Paris in 1782. Here she found the celebrated Todi, and a rivalry immediately sprang up between these two singers, which divided society into factions, as when Handel and Bononcini, or Gluck and Piccinni, were opposed to each other by amateurs incapable of admiring both.

Two years later, in the spring of 1784, Mara made her first appearance in London, where her greatest successes awaited her. She was engaged to sing six nights at the Pantheon. Owing to the general election, she sang to small audiences, and her merits were not recognized until she sang at Westminster Abbey, in the Handel commemoration, when she was heard with delight by nearly 3000 people. She sang in the repeated commemoration in 1785, and in 1786 made her first appearance on the London stage in a serious pasticcio, “Didone abbandonata,” the success of which was due entirely to her singing. In March, 1787, Handel’s opera of “Giulio Cesare” was revived for a benefit, and Mara played in it the part of Cleopatra, which Cuzzoni had sung in 1724. It was so successful that it was constantly repeated during the season. Mara again took a leading part in the festival in West minster Abbey in 1787, and she remained connected with the opera in London till 1791, after which, though she sang occasionally on the stage, and even in English ballad operas, she was more frequently heard in concerts and oratorios. For these she was better suited, as she was not a good actress.

In 1788 she was singing in the carnival at Turin, and the following year at Venice. She returned to London in 1790, went to Venice in 1791, and again in the next season to London, where she remained for ten years. After this time, she found her voice losing strength, and she quitted England in 1802, having received a splendid benefit of over 1000 at her farewell concert. She sang without effect at Paris; and then, after passing through Germany, took up her residence at Moscow.

By teaching she acquired a small competence, which was lost to her (1812) in the fire of Moscow, which destroyed the merchant’s house in which she had placed it: Forced to begin once more to seek a means of subsistence, when almost sixty-four years old, Mara traveled in Livonia, where she was kindly received, and settled in Revel. She now supported herself again for about four years by teaching, and then formed the strange desire to revisit London, the scene of her former glory. Here she arrived in 1819, according to Fetis, though Lord Mount Edgcumbe puts her visit before the burning of Moscow. In any case, announced in a mysterious manner by Messrs. Knyvett as “a most celebrated singer whom they were not at liberty to name,” she appeared at the King’s Theater, when it was discovered that not a shred of her voice remained-and it never appeared again. She returned to Livonia, and died at Revel, January 20, 1833, at the age of eighty-four, soon after receiving from Goethe a poem for her birthday, “Sangreich war dein Ehrenweg,” dated at Weimar, 1831.