1 June 2020

Alice Barbi - singer

Mezzo-soprano who became close friend of Brahms

Alice Barbi was famed for the sweet, velvety tones of her voice, which brought her considerable fame
Alice Barbi was famed for the sweet, velvety tones
of her voice, which brought her considerable fame
Alice Barbi, who enjoyed a short career as a singer after showing a talent for the violin from an early age, was born on this day in 1858 in Modena.

An accomplished mezzo-soprano famed for her sweet, velvety tone, Barbi performed in London, St Petersburg, Berlin and Vienna as well as in her native Italy. She is also known for her friendship with the celebrated German composer Johannes Brahms.

The two met shortly after Barbi had performed in Vienna for the first time in 1888. Brahms was said to be captivated by both her voice and her beauty and they soon began to meet regularly for dinner. Their relationship, which lasted until his death in 1897, was never more than platonic, although the composer - 25 years’ her senior - is said to have confessed to friends that she was the only woman he had met in his later years he would have liked to marry.

Barbi’s love of music was passed on by her father, Enrico, who was a violin teacher and tutored Alice so well that she was able to make her public debut on the instrument at the age of seven.

The family moved to Egypt but when Alice returned to Italy she enrolled at the Conservatorio Giovanni Battista Martini in Bologna, where she studied musical theory as well as learning several languages.

Johannes Brahms was captivated by Barbi after first hearing her sing
Johannes Brahms was captivated by Barbi
after first hearing her sing
The quality of her voice was soon noted and after studying with Luigi Zamboni and Alessandro Busi in Bologna, and later with Luigi Vannuccini in Florence, she decided to dedicate her career to singing.

Barbi sang in public for the first time in April 1882 in Milan, which she soon followed by a successful appearance in Rome. Before long, she was known throughout Italy. She never performed in opera, having recognised early in her career that her strength lay in song recitals. She decided to specialize in the German lieder repertoire, in particular the songs of Schubert, Schumann and Brahms.

She sang again in Milan in 1885 and 1886, but was increasingly in demand abroad, especially in Vienna, where critics and audiences alike were entranced by her beautiful vocal qualities.  The critic William Beatty-Kingston wrote that "All the laudatory adjectives in my vocabulary are insufficient to express my sense of the beauty, grace and poetical feeling characterising her rendering of these compositions, one and all."

Brahms was similarly impressed. After listening to her perform a number of his compositions, he declared that they had been sung in the way he imagined for the first time.  They developed a professional relationship but their personal bond became so strong that for a while they were almost constant companions.

The relationship became less close, however, when Barbi decided to end her career at the age of 35 and marry Baron Boris von Wolff-Stomersee, who was chamberlain and court master of the Tsar, Alexander III, in St Petersburg.

Barbi retired from performing at 35 but remained active in music and the arts in Rome
Barbi retired from performing at 35 but remained
active in music and the arts in Rome
Just as she was about to give her farewell recital in Vienna in December, 1893, Brahms appeared unannounced at her dressing room door, demanding that he accompany her at the piano. On an emotional evening, the audience were treated to Barbi’s rendition of some of Brahms’s songs accompanied on the keyboard by the composer himself.

When Brahms died in 1897, Barbi joined a campaign to erect a monument in his honour in his adopted city of Vienna.

In retirement, Barbi remained interested in music and the arts. She wrote poetry, some of which was set to music by the composer Antonio Bazzini, and wrote some music of her own. She was also something of a celebrity in Rome, her home playing host to important cultural events.

Barbi had two children - Alexandra, who became a psychoanalyst and married the writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, and Olga, who married diplomat Augusto Biancheri Chiappori.

After Stomersee died in 1917, she was married for a second time to Pietro della Torreta, the Italian Ambassador to Great Britain.  She died in Rome in 1948.

Travel tip:

Modena, the city in the Emilia-Romagna region known for its car industry and for producing balsamic vinegar, also has a musical heritage. Operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti and soprano Mirella Freni were both born in Modena, which today is an important centre for the Italian pop music industry, with a number of recording studios and publishers established there.  The city also houses an important collection of musical manuscripts  in the Estense Library and sponsors an annual International Festival of Military Bands.

Travel tip:

Rome’s Teatro dell'Opera di Roma, the city’s principal opera house, was originally opened in November 1880 as the Teatro Costanzi, named after the contractor who built and financed it, Domenico Costanzi, who commissioned the Milanese architect Achille Sfondrini. It was inaugurated with a performance of Semiramide by Gioachino Rossini. In 1926 the theatre Costanzi was bought by the Rome City Council and its name changed to Teatro Reale dell'Opera. It was partially rebuilt by architect Marcello Piacentini and re-opened in February 1928 with the opera Nerone by Arrigo Boito.  Among several major changes was the relocated entrance, from the street formerly known as Via del Teatro to the opposite side of the building, on Piazza Beniamino Gigli.

Also on this day:

1675: The birth of playwright Francesco Scipione

1819: The birth of Francis V, Duke of Modena

1901: The birth of exiled princess, Iolanda of Savoy


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