Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Turloch O'Carolan: The Vivaldi Tale

An interesting episode is told of O'Carolan:—"At the house of an Irish nobleman, where Geminiani was present, Carolan challenged that eminent composer to a trial of skill. The musician played over on his violin the fifth concerto of Vivaldi. It was instantly repeated by Carolan on his harp, although he had never heard it before. The surprise of the company was increased when he asserted that he would compose a concerto himself at the moment, and the more so when he actually played that admirable piece known ever since as 'Carolan's Concerto.'"[1]

It seems rather a pity to spoil this story, but it appears from O'Conor, who knew O'Carolan, that Geminiani never had the pleasure of meeting the Irish minstrel. Thus writes O'Conor:—"In the variety of his musical numbers he knew how to make a selection, and seldom was contented with mediocrity. So happy was he in some of his compositions, that he excited the wonder, and obtained the approbation, of a great master who never saw him—I mean Geminiani." [2]

The following seems to be the true version of the incident:—"Geminiani, who resided for some years in Dublin, heard of the fame of O'Carolan, and determined to test his abilities. He selected a difficult Italian concerto and made certain changes in it, 'so that no one but an acute judge could detect them,' and forwarded the mutilated version to Elphin. O'Carolan listened attentively to the violinist who performed the concerto, and at once pronounced the composition beautiful, but, to the astonishment of all present, added humorously in Irish: 'Here and there it limps and stumbles.' He was then desired to rectify the errors in musical grammar, which he immediately did, and his corrections were sent to Dublin to Geminiani. No sooner did the Italian composer see the changes than he pronounced O'Carolan to be endowed with il genio vero della musica."

O'Conor adds;—"O'Carolan outstripped his predecessors in the three species of composition used amongst the Irish, but he never omitted giving due praise to several of his countrymen who excelled before him in his art. The Italian compositions he preferred to all others, and was enraptured with Corelli's music."


[1] The Monthly Review. Old series. Vol. lxxvii. The story is substantially the same as that told by Goldsmith.
[2] Charles O'Conor, of Belanagare, died July 1st, 1791, aged 82.

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