“A Grand Series of Musical Compositions”: The Curious Case of Nicola Sampieri

Engraving of the composer Nicola Sampieri

Nicola Sampieri, composer. Engraved by Thomas Turnball.

Around the year 1780, the castrato Nicola Sampieri arrived in London to sing at the King’s Theatre. But within a year, his career had disintegrated – Sampieri’s singing was found “insufferably out of tune.”[1] Rather than leaving music altogether, he pivoted to teaching, performing, and self-publishing music for the fortepiano.

Sampieri described his music as being composed according to “an entirely new plan.” These compositions, described in the first edition of Sir George Grove’s A Dictionary of Music and Musicians as being from “an obscure but original-minded composer of this time,”[2] are what I recently stumbled across, all bound together in one volume.

I located this bound volume while gathering records of the Music Division’s many imprints that have never been reported to the Répertoire International des Sources Musicales (RISM). I noticed that only 3 of Sampieri’s works were listed as being held in our collections, while the British Library currently has a reported 24 works.

But as of this writing, the Music Division’s reported holdings to RISM of Sampieri’s published imprints have increased from 3 to 14. We still have 11 more additional imprints to report that will require original cataloging in RISM, as no other institution reports holding them. In so doing, the Library of Congress will have just edged past the British Library to have the highest number of reported imprints for this obscure yet fascinating composer!

But what exactly makes these compositions so peculiar? And why are they so rare?

Let’s begin with Sampieri’s titles for his music, which are peppered with flowery, evocative descriptions. Some of the works in the Music Division’s holdings are:

  • The Black Prince’s Festival, The Glorious Month of May, A great feast and recreation amongst the Knights of the Soot, A pleasing variety of little Ballads composed for the occasion
  • A Christmas Box for Young Ladies, Being a Valuable and Useful Collection of the most admired Little Pieces properly arranged for the Piano-Forte, With additions intended and calculated for their Improvement
  • A Musical Bouquet for the Ladies which consist of The Most Celebrated & Exquisite Opera Dances greatly improved, and also embellished with Several Droll Figures in Caricature: that give Double the effect: the whole is set in a pleasing style for the Piano Forte, with Easy Variations
  • The Progress of Nature in various Departments as follows The Sports-man, Garden-man, Fisher-man, and The Wood-man, The Music Selected from Different Authors
  • A Grand Series of Musical Compositions Expressing Various Motions of the Sea, Illustrated by Descriptive Engravings
  • Novel, Sublime, and Celestial, Piece of Music called Night; Divided Into Five Parts, Evening, Midnight, Aurora, Day-Light, and the Rising of the Sun
  • To the Lovers of Science, For Pieces of Music in Imitation of the Four Seasons of the Year with Four Analogous and most Elegant Engravings
Musical excerpt with engraving from A Storm, a movement in Various Motions of the Sea

Nicola Sampieri, composer. “A Storm” from The Various Motions of the Sea.

Programmatic titles associated with the seasons or times of day could hardly be considered novel in the early nineteenth century (one need only think of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons concerti or Haydn’s oratorios). But their combination in Sampieri’s imprints with pictographic engravings and more detailed performance instructions indicate the composer’s unique vision that verges on a sort of proto film music.

For example, on a musical level, the scales and arpeggios that make up most of the music written for the Various Motions of the Sea suggest undulating waves that ebb and flow in their agitation or calmness. But in performance, the work also included a group of assistants who projected analogous images using magic lanterns and a screen. In one instance, “extremely agitated” musical waves were paired with an equally agitated seascape using a machine and light source. Rattling sounds from metal sheets, gunpowder, resin, and even strategic bursts of fire added further thrills.[3]

Printed text in the published scores also demonstrates more precise instructions for matching visual and other sonic details with music. The instructions ensured that these audio-visual analogies were preserved for future performance and use. In The Black Prince’s Festival—an imprint thus far unique to the Library of Congress—short programmatic instructions are printed above the music, such as “the company run to a pleasant dinner” and “The knight of the Soot is going home as fast as possible.” The latter text describes a descending scalar rush of sixteenth notes, not unlike a “Hurry” cue, common in silent film music accompaniment a century later.

Musical excerpt from The Black Prince

Nicola Sampieri, composer. Excerpt from The Black Prince.

But one of the most beautiful components of Sampieri’s unique scores is his use of engraved illustrations. Their frequency in most of Sampieri’s self-published imprints perhaps explains their scarcity today; publishing music with so many detailed engravings was both expensive and time-consuming.

Engraved cover for the composition titled Night

Nicola Sampieri, composer. Frontispiece on cover for Night.

These illustrations can be found at the beginning of musical sections as well as below specific, individual lines of music. Most imprints include at least four or five unique engravings.

Take, for example, the engravings for Novel, Sublime, and Celestial, Piece of Music called Night. The cover engraving depicts a bucolic scene, with animals, villagers, and a small feast.

The page that follows this engraving offers a very specific set of instructions:

A Short Account how this Piece is to be Expressed. As it is supposed the Day is more Chearful [sic]than the Night, in consequence of which, the Evening begins by a Piece of Serious Music.

Marked “Andante sostenuto,” the music for “Evening” is both chordal and rhythmically subdued, with quick juxtapositions of dynamic contrast and close harmonies on the keyboard. The accompanying engraving depicts a peaceful, dusk evening in the countryside.

Engraving for the movement Evening from Night

Nicola Sampieri, composer. “Evening” from Novel, Sublime, and Celestial, Piece of Music called Night.

In contrast, additional instructions for “Midnight,” printed in the middle of the movement’s first measure, are: “to be played with pedal as soft as possible the Horror of the Night.” Marked “Largo assai,” the music’s accompanying engraving depicts quiet with the centered full moon provided most of the light over a stilled stream. The sparse musical texture similarly emphasizes the stillness, as if only musical pin drops punctuate the silence.

Engraving and musical excerpt for Midnight from Night

Nicola Sampieri, composer. “Midnight” from Novel, Sublime, and Celestial, Piece of Music called Night.

In another series of programmatic vignettes, To the Lovers of Science: Four Pieces of Music in Imitation of the Four Seasons of the Year, with Four Analogous and most Elegant Engravings, offers visuals of ice skating for winter, farm work for Spring, a Summer harvest, and a final Autumn harvest.

Engraving for Winter from The Four Seasons

Nicola Sampieri. “Winter” from To the Lovers of Science: Four Pieces of Music in Imitation of the Four Seasons of the Year.

Engraving for Spring from The Four Seasons

Nicola Sampieri, composer. “Spring” from To the Lovers of Science: Four Pieces of Music in Imitation of the Four Seasons of the Year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Engraving for Summer from The Four Seasons

Nicola Sampieri, composer. “Summer” from To the Lovers of Science: Four Pieces of Music in Imitation of the Four Seasons of the Year.

Engraving for Autumn from The Four Seasons

Nicola Sampieri, composer. “Autumn” from To the Lovers of Science: Four Pieces of Music in Imitation of the Four Seasons of the Year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of my favorite series of engravings, however, accompanies A Musical Bouquet for the Ladies (another imprint so far unique to the Music Division). As described in the title, “droll figures in caricature” visually accompany each piece. The opening minuet is unremarkable on its own, but the drawing, in which “each figure is furnished with a little companion,” a dog, magpie, squirrel, and monkey, adds a touch of whimsy to the whole affair and leaves open a variety of possibilities for visual accompaniment.

Engraving for Menuet de la Cour from The Musical Bouquet

Nicola Sampieri, composer. “Menuet de la Cour” from The Musical Bouquet.

Despite the exquisite engravings woven throughout most of Sampieri’s self-published imprints, their quirkiness in composition gained Sampieri few admirers. One reviewer in 1816 suggested creating “a scale of musical excellence from Beethoven down to Sampieri.”[4] A diary entry following one of his performances offered the faintest of praise: “even Sampieri I could bear as there are such pretty passages in his songs, though they are of a 2nd or perhaps 3rd rate.”[5] But perhaps in light of his fascinating combinations of music, sound effects, detailed engravings, and visual stimuli in performance, he’s worthy of a second look?

Keep on the lookout as the Music Division continues to report its unique Sampieri holdings to RISM.

[1] Philip Olleson, ed., The Journals and Letters of Susan Burney: Music and Society in Late Eighteenth-Century England (Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2012), 150-51.

[2] F.C. [Frederick Corder], “Programme-Music,” in A Dictionary of Music and Musicians (A.D. 1450-1889) by Eminent Writers, English and Foreign. With Illustrations and Woodcuts, ed. Sir George Grove (Philadelphia: Presser, 1895), 34.

[3] Ellen Lockhart, “Transparent Music and Sound-Light Analogy ca. 1800” in Sound Knowledge: Music and Science in London, 1789-1851 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 81.

[4] “Review of New Musical Publications,” Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle, January 1816, 60.

[5] Olleson, The Journals and Letters of Susan Burney, 150-51.

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