Stalcup on Adelson (2020)

Adelson, Robert, editor. Autographes musicaux du XIXe siècle: l’album niçois du comte de Cessole. Acadèmia Nissarda, 2020, pp. 320, ISBN: 978-2-919156-04-7

Imagine finding a musical treasure in an old trunk in your family villa in Nice. “When I lifted the lid, a singular fragrance was released, the stale odour of old paper”; inside, “I discovered […] an album of autographs of musicians […], bound in green morocco” (11). Such was the experience of writer and critic Bruno de Cessole (1950–) as explained in his preface to Autographes musicaux du XIXe siècle: l’album niçois du comte de Cessole, edited and annotated by musicologist Robert Adelson. The titular Count of Autographes is Eugène Spitalieri de Cessole (1805–76; hereafter “de Cessole”), a jurist, senator, and composer from Nice, whose compositions also lay inside the family trunk. De Cessole was a gifted violinist, violin collector, and admirer of some of the greatest musicians of his day, many of whom often passed through Nice. Between 1835 and 1876, he collected autographs from these musicians. His son Joseph (1841–1904) then briefly kept up this practice. Yet, as Adelson signals, the album niçois “is not a simple ‘guest book’ of signatures” (36). Rather, it is a record of an international community of musicians who left not just a signatory memento, but also a musical souvenir in the Count’s precious book. 

All but three of the 108 signers included “a small musical work” (36) written in full musical notation alongside the signature, a rarity among such collections. These include samples of pieces for which a musician was known, musical jokes, and bits of music unique to the album. In his introduction, Adelson contextualizes de Cessole’s role in niçoise society and musical culture and elaborates on some of his most notable relations, including his “intense devotion” (47) to the violinist Niccolò Paganini (1782–1840). Adelson also explores the musical talents of de Cessole, who “took advantage of each visit of a violinist in his salon to improve his technique” (39). Lithographs of Nice from the era, imagery of the de Cessole family and their estates, and striking photographs of some of the Count’s prized violins, including a 1716 Stradivarius, accentuate the rich musical history that Adelson establishes and that de Cessole lived. 

But the primary focus of Autographes is a full-color reproduction of de Cessole’s album. Adelson accompanies each entry with carefully researched, bilingual annotations. In these, he comments on every musical offering, situates it within the signer’s oeuvre, and then analyzes de Cessole’s relation to the musician. A portrait, and sometimes a caricature, of each musician supplements their entry. Moreover, this large-scale reproduction is flanked by color photos of the album’s front and back covers, reminding the reader that this unique musical and visual project grew out of a found object. To round all of this out, Autographes also incorporates recordings of much of the music included in the album, which one can find here. These recordings, which feature canonical and unfamiliar music, highlight the breadth of de Cessole’s relationships. His album includes entries by nineteenth-century figures still famous today, but many more that non-specialists will not recognize, like violinist Louis Sphor (1784–1859), who invented the chinrest. Sphor’s “short and serene” (59) musical token is followed, several entries later, by Paganini’s variation on an aria by Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868), who also signed the album. This then unpublished violin solo is the collection’s “longest and perhaps most precious autograph” (73). The visual of this handwritten music is as remarkable as its author. When Paganini died in Nice in 1840, de Cessole became the “temporary guardian” of his body (and son) (47). One night in Nice four years later, Hector Berlioz (1803–69), another contributor to the album, was haunted by “visions of the peregrinations of [Paganini’s] remains” (49) when he heard someone playing an unpublished work by his deceased friend. It turned out to be de Cessole “serenading […] from below” (127). Readers will appreciate such curious series of connections. Autographes emphasizes the interconnectedness—and imagination—at the core of artistic culture. 

Such connections were not always free of drama. A rivalry at the Paris Opera between mezzo-soprano Rosine Stoltz (18151903) and soprano Julie Dorus-Gras (180596) forced composer Gaetano Donizetti (17971848) to abandon work on his opera, Le Duc d’Albe. Moreover, according to Adelson, Dorus-Gras took part in an 1830 performance in Brussels that might have “triggered the Belgian Revolution” (137), reminding us how those who signed de Cessole’s album, but also artists in general, help shape history. Giuseppe Verdi (18131901), who offered de Cessole a brief excerpt from La Traviata, was committed to the Risorgimento movement and later became an Italian senator. Georges Jean Pfeiffer (18351908) composed an “Élégie” for the album, calling it “Souvenir triste du 18 janvier 1871” (237), a signal of France’s loss to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War. The violin’s “despondent sounding melody” that “gradually dies away” “captured the national spirit of mourning in music” (239). De Cessole’s collection also includes the autographs of three female composers, Ernestine Chabouillé-Saint-Phal (?–1867), Loïsa Puget (181089), and Caroline Sabatier-Unger (180377). The latter, also a singer, created a short piece to verses by Lamartine for the album; she also sang in the premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The New Orleans-born singer Alice Urban (184819??) inscribed the album with a musical riddle that involves replacing music notes with their spoken French syllables, leaving the knowing reader with “La-do-ré [l’adoré]” (259). Similarly, Alexey Fedorovich Lvov (1798–1870) offered de Cessole two jokes: “an ingenious palindrome in seven measures” and “one single note, but that can be read in four different directions” (187). Autographes confirms music’s prominence in private and public life, and its publication highlights the potential impact of a well-curated playlist and list of guests. This hefty, luxurious volume is a collector’s item in the truest sense. It will captivate music lovers and scholars and students of nineteenth-century performance culture alike, just as the original album niçois delighted the Count de Cessole.