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Camilla Urso

Mary A. Betts.
“The violin is the violet,” says the Chevalier Seraphael in that most imaginative and fantastic of musical novels, “Charles Auchester.” How came the fancy to the writer's brain? Was it because the violet, with its trembling blue petal and its evanescent fragrance, reminds one of the woods, the mingling harmonies of brook and bird-voice, of wind-swept trees and restless wind? Or, was it because to the artist the violet was the most perfect of flowers and the violin of instruments?

An instrument it certainly is of torture and delight. How we have all groaned at the melancholy squeaks of a poor fiddle in the street! With what a rapture have we followed the violins in the orchestra, as their penetrating and aerial tones completed for us the harmonic pictures or the wordless songs! And in the hands of a genius whose thoughtful brain and ardent heart have comprehended and mastered its powers, what a magical shell is this crooked, stringed, sonorous thing of wood!

The brain and heart of a true violinist came into the world one summer-day in the city of Nantes, France. This beautiful old Huguenot city was then the residence of Salvator Urso, a musician from Palermo, Sicily, and his Portuguese wife, whose maiden name was Emilie Girouard. Signor Urso was an organist and flutist of rare merit, educated thoroughly [552] in all the principles of his art by his father, who had dane hearty service to music in younger days. On the 13th of June, 1842, Camilla Urso was born,--the first child of a happy union. Though four brothers followed her, the little daughter was most passionately beloved by her father, who gloried in her inheritance of that gift which had been his resource and constant pleasure. The warm Southern sky never looked upon a more attractive child than the little Camilla. Young geniuses are not always charming. Precocity is often accompanied by conceit and nervous irritability. But Camilla's bright cheerfulness was even more fascinating than her talent.

She was alive to all the subtle mysteries of sound at an age when the “Cradle song” is the favorite melody of most children. Her father was first flutist in the orchestra of the opera, and carried her to the theatre almost every night. Through the long performances she sat, rapt in childish happiness, never growing tired, never weary of repetition. Madame Urso now declares that she heard more operas then than she has listened to ever since. At the age of six she found and proved her vocation. Her father was organist at the Church of the Holy Cross. One day she stood listening at his side while the choir performed the mass of St. Cecilia. Solemnly, slowly, the organ tones swelled and died. Clear voices of soprano and tenor rose upon the air with the saddening plaint of Kyrie Eleison. The orchestral harmonies interwove their pathetic or triumphant music. The dark-haired child, with the broad brow and sweet, parted lips, listened,--not awed by the under-wave of the mighty organ, not following with curious, imitative mouth the soaring voices and melodious words,--but enchanted for life by the inarticulate passion and sorrow of the violin's changing vibrations. The last note of the mass floated into silence, but the little Camilla did not mingle in the crowd of departing [553] worshippers. Her father's hand aroused her, and she walked home announcing in a firm tone, which was most amusing, coming from that tiny figure: “I wish to learn the violin.”

Her studies were immediately begun, and her progress was most rapid. In a year she appeared at a concert given for the benefit of a widow, whose husband had been one of Signor Urso's friends.

The announcement of the concert astonished the citizens of Nantes. It was considered the height of absurdity for a child to attempt to play on so difficult an instrument. Friends came to applaud, enemies to laugh, but all were amazed and delighted. Little Camilla had no timidity, no anxiety for success. Her new white satin shoes, the first she had ever put on, were much more engrossing for the time than the violin she was to handle. The principal journal of Nantes spoke thus of the performance:--

Never had violinist a pose more exact, firmer, and at the same time perfectly easy; never was bow guided with greater precision than by this little Urso, whose delivery made all the mothers smile. Listen, now, to the Air Variee of the celebrated De Beriot; under these fingers, which are yet often busied with dressing a doll, the instrument gives out a purity and sweetness of tone, with an expression most remarkable. Every light and shade is observed, and all the intentions of the composer are faithfully rendered. Here come more energetic passages: the feeble child will find strength necessary, and the voice of the instrument assumes a fulness which one could not look for in the diminutive violin. Effects of double stopping, staccato, rapid arpeggios,--everything is executed with the same precision, the same purity, the same grace. It is impossible to describe the ovation that the child received. Repeatedly interrupted by applause and acclamations, she [554] was saluted at the end by salvos of bravos and a shower of bouquets.

Soon after this Signor Urso went to Paris, resigning his position at Nantes for the purpose of giving the most thorough musical education to the daughter of whose genius he was so proud. He proposed that she should be received into the Conservatoire.

The professors met the proposition with incredulity and amazement. “Absurd, indeed!” they said; “she is too young, and a woman cannot be a pupil of the Conservatoire.” But Signor Urso persisted. “Only hear her,” he said, “before deciding.” So the little sprite appeared before the most exacting, the most critical of juries. Auber, Rossini, Meyerbeer, and Massart were among the judges.

They retired for a decision, and at the door the little applicant and the trembling father waited. At last the answer came. The new pupil was accepted unanimously. The father's hat went into the air with triumph.

For three years Camilla studied almost incessantly. No advantages were waiting to the young aspirant for musical honors. Simon was her first teacher, but her chief instructor was Massart, who took an extraordinary interest in the development of her powers. He received her into his class, and gave her, in addition, private lessons. All this instruction was gratuitous.

From this time she had no opportunity for the amusements other children enjoy. She practised ten and twelve hours a day, learning harmony, solfeggi, and mastering difficulties far beyond her years. To acquire that steadiness of position for which she is now so remarkable, she placed one foot in a saucer while playing. Fear of breaking the dish was a sufficient motive to keep her feet motionless; and to this simple [555] contrivance we are indebted, in part, for Madame Urso's wonderful accuracy and agreeable repose of manner.

The years of training were interrupted by a series of concerts in the departments and a three months tour hi Germany. This was a special indulgence, as pupils of the Conservatoire are not allowed to play in public. Camilla performed at Heidelberg, Baden-Baden, and Mayence, receiving everywhere the recognition due to an artist, not to a prodigy. That German public, so devoted to music in its highest forms, led by masters of such varied genius, took the child to its heart. Nobles and princes paid her compliments and bestowed beautiful presents upon her. A countess, who took the most affectionate interest in her, insisted on giving her an ornament she had worn at her own confirmation,--a large cross of pearls attached to a long chain of red coral. From these triumphs she returned to Paris and her studies with Massart.

In a few months she appeared at the public concerts of Paris, at the Salle Herz, the Societe Polytechnique, the Conservatoire, and the Association of Musical Artists. Her success was great. A critic, speaking of her at this time, says :

She is walking in the steps of the greatest virtuosi. She plays the violin, not as a well-organized child might play after a certain period devoted to study, but, indeed, with a skill truly prodigious. Her pose, her energy, her bowing, reveal the consummate artist. But what is most surprising is the sentiment of her execution; she excels in that essential expression which comes wholly from the soul, and which the composer, from lack of means to note and write out, abandons to the discretion and intelligence of the executant.

At the age of nine she performed before Louis Napoleon, then President of the National Convention. He was greatly [556] delighted with her playing, and promised that, if he should ever advance in position and influence, she might claim his protection, and he would be happy to do her any favor in his power. The wily “Man of destiny,” whose ambition was even then planning the renewal of the empire, and an attempted mastership of Europe, has probably forgotten the pledge. Camilla has never reminded him of it, preferring to depend on her own powers for all place she may hold in the world's esteem.

In 1852 the little Urso received propositions from a Mr. Faugas, of North Carolina, to come to America. He offered her a salary of twenty thousand dollars a year; and, as the family was in need of the assistance the child's violin could give, the offer was gladly accepted.

Preparations were made for an extensive tour, and a concert-troupe of eight was engaged. Auber, hearing of her intended departure, presented her with the following testimonial, which she justly regards as one of her dearest treasures--

National Conservatory of music and of declamation.

Paris, August 12, 1852.
Mademoiselle Camilla Urso is a young pupil of the National Conservatory of Music. Although still at a very tender age, she has obtained brilliant success in several concerts in Paris, and above all at the Conservatory, where the jury have decreed to her by election the first prize at the competition for the prizes of the year.

Learning that she is soon to depart for the United States, I am delighted to state the happy qualities which ought to ensure her a noble artistic career.

The Americans have already nobly proved that they are not only just appreciators of the fine arts, especially of music, but that they know as well how to recompense with generosity [557] the merits of the celebrated artists who are heard in the hospitable towns of their rich and beautiful country.

Auber, Member of the Institute, Director of the Conservatory.

The child-artist came to this country with her father, but they soon discovered the insinuating Faugas to be a swindler. The moneys for Camilla's services were not forthcoming, and the engagement was hastily broken.

The Germania Society now offered an engagement, and the little Urso played for them a year, meeting everywhere with great applause and admiration. At the end of the year she joined Madame Alboni, who was then singing in this country, and performed at six concerts with her in Trippler Hall, New York.

In 1852 Madame Henriette Sontag, Countess Rossi, came to this country to make a trial of the public which had received Jenny Lind with such enthusiasm and generosity. She won honors everywhere by her dramatic talent and marvellous voice.

Hearing of Camilla Urso's success, she proposed to add her to her own concert-troupe. At the conclusion of his daughter's engagement with Alboni, Signor Urso accepted the overtures of Sontag, and Camilla joined her at Cincinnati, in December, 1853.

Brief as was their connection, the most tender relations were established between them. Nothing could be more beautiful than the sight of this magnificent woman, who was then the imperial mistress of song, surrounding with truly maternal kindness the lonely little novice whom chance had brought to her arms.

The generous affection of Madame Sontag was never forgotten by the child, and the now famous violinist speaks of her benefactress with a devotion which years cannot diminish. [558]

She was perfection — an angel, in talents, temper, and goodness. At fifty-two one would kneel to her,--what must she have been at twenty? She herself took the place of my mother, who was not in America. She plaited my hair, attended to my dresses, and cared for me in everything.

Camilla accompanied Madame Sontag to New Orleans, where they gave eighteen concerts, followed by six weeks of opera, in which Madame Sontag was the star. The two artists created a genuine furore, exciting their Southern audiences to the highest pitch of enthusiasm. Bouquets came in showers, and the applause was incessant. One night Madame Sontag carried eighty-six bouquets from the stage, and the fairy violinist often received fifteen or twenty.

From New Orleans Madame Sontag went to Mexico, and Camilla never saw her again. They parted in March, 1854, and Signor Urso took his daughter to Savannah, and subsequently gave concerts in different cities of Georgia and some other Southern States. They then returned to New York, where, in May, they heard of the sudden death of Madame Sontag by cholera.

The news of this loss prostrated the sensitive child with grief. She refused to appear at concerts, and seemed to lose all animation and vivacity. A change of scene was at last imperatively necessary, and she went with her father to Canada in 1856.

This trip was very successful, though not entirely professional. She travelled through the country, giving some concerts, and winning admiration from crowded houses.

One incident of her trip was very enjoyable,--her reception on board of a French corvette. The officers desired to do honor to their gifted little compatriot, and invited her to visit them. She was then a charming young lady of fourteen She appeared before her admiring friends in a costume [559] combining the three national colors of France. The gallant marines showed her a hundred graceful attentions, presented her with bouquets, and she, in return, bewitched them with the music of her violin.

While in Canada she met with a serious loss. Her collection of presents, containing a magnificent bracelet presented by the Germania Society; her cross of pearls with its chain of coral, and other ornaments of great value, prized as the souvenirs of her childhood's triumphs, and her European residence, were in New York. On the 22d of February, 1859, when the people of the house where she had left her property had gone to see the annual parade in honor of Washington's birthday, some one entered and possessed himself of her jewels. Search was unavailing, nothing was ever again heard of them.

On her return from Canada her mother met her in New York. The joy of mother and daughter, reunited after so long a separation, may easily be imagined. They spent some time together, and then professional duties called the child away. She had received overtures from a Mrs. McCready, a reader of some celebrity at that time, to accompany her in a tour through the West. They proceeded as far as Nashville, Signor Urso remaining in New York, when Camilla discovered that the contract was not to be fulfilled, the readings not to be continued,--in short, that she had fallen once more into the hands of swindlers. The McCreadys, after treating her with great injustice and unkindness, left her penniless in Nashville. A pitiful position for a young girl scarcely fifteen years old! But Camilla's courage and resources were fully equal to the occasion. This timid creature, who had always relied entirely on her father's advice and direction,--who had not been educated into that habit of self-reliance so frequently a characteristic of American girls,--determined to give a concert herself. She wrote to her friends giving information of the state of affairs, and then applied to a musician of the [560] city for some counsel as to time and place. She enlisted the sympathy of the citizens of Nashville. The result was a full house, and four hundred dollars for the empty pocket.

Soon after this she retired from public life. For five years she did not appear in a professional character except for charitable purposes. But the cherished violin did not lose its power in these years of quiet. She learned more of life, and through varied experience her genius grew.

When she returned to the concert hall, on the 16th of March, 1863, at a Philharmonic concert in New York, she won instantly her old place, and “rained influence” upon us with those calm wavings of her enchanted bow. She was soon engaged to play at the Philharmonic concerts in Boston. In the autumn of 1863 she received a beautiful gift from some of the modern Athenians in the form of a watch and chain, --the watch decorated with green enamel, and a diamond of great value. On one side of the watch was engraved,--

Camilla Urso.
From her Boston friends. Nov. 8th, 1863.

The gift was enclosed in a velvet box, bearing upon the cover her initials in gold within a laurel wreath.

Engagements now crowded upon her, and she visited in succession most of the cities that had known her as a child, spending much time in Boston, New York, and Chicago.

In 1864 she went to Europe, sailing in the “China,” on the 26th of August. Reaching Liverpool she prepared at once to go to Paris,--her home for some years, and the scene of some of her earliest triumphs. She was wonderfully successful in this centre of art, and became the “lioness of the saloons.”

Pasdeloup's monster orchestra was then performing in the Cirque Napoleon. Paris, with all its superb theatres has no [561] large music hall. Camilla Urso was invited to play with this orchestra, and played, at one of their concerts, Mendelssohn's great concerto.

The minister of fine arts, Count Newerkerque, sent for her to play at the palace of the Louvre. Never had she performed before so distinguished an assembly as there in the beautiful cabinet of the minister. Two hundred and fifty gentlemen were present. Diplomatists, princes, and soldiers, with their hard-won crosses, rendered homage to the fair violinist, who saw with delight the faces of Alexander Dumas, Lord Cowley, and Professor Alard. Her finest morceau on this occasion was a Fantasie-Caprice of Vieuxtemps.

From Paris she went to Arras, Boulogne, Valenciennes, and Cambray. At Boulogne she appeared at two successive concerts given by the Musical Society of that town,--a circumstance almost unknown in the records of the society.

After spending fourteen months abroad, she returned to America, where she has remained ever since. Her life since then has been the same story of travel, study, and concerts. She has become a great favorite both in the East and West.

What Boston thinks of her may be understood from the fact that she has given more than one hundred concerts in that city. There she feels herself entirely at home, surrounded by sympathetic and appreciative friends. One of the sincerest and most highly prized of all tributes to her musical accomplishments is a letter, which was addressed to her, after a concert in Music Hall, by the musicians of the orchestra of the “Harvard Association:” --

We, the undersigned, members of the musical profession in Boston, who have been recently witnesses of the extraordinary musical talent displayed by Camilla Urso, in her performances on the violin, deem it our pleasure and duty as brethren (who, it may be admitted, are the more thoroughly [562] capable of recognizing skill in this department of the art) to offer some fitting testimonial to her. In no way, perhaps, can we express our regard so beneficially as by giving to the public a professional estimate of her ability.

We would especially record her performance of the violin concerto by Mendelssohn,--one of the most difficult works for that instrument; her playing of which was so marvellously fine and near perfection itself as to excite our highest admiration. It is not enough to say that it was a wonderful performance for a woman; it was a consummate rendering, which probably few men living could improve upon.

It may seem needless to characterize her playing, but a few traits may be pointed out, namely, her complete repose of manner; largeness of style; broad, full, and vigorous attacking of difficulties; utmost delicacy of sentiment and feeling; wonderful staccato; remarkable finish in trills, with an intonation as nearly perfect as the human ear will allow. When to these are added a comprehensive mind, with a warm musical soul vibrating to its work, we have an artist who may be nearly called a phenomenon in the womanly form of Camilla Urso.

The outside world of mere lovers of music sometimes give their opinions of Camilla's playing in remarks equally earnest, though hardly scientific. One auditor, after listening to her in wide-mouthed amazement, declared with a most emphatic gesture, that she was “woman enough to vote.” At a concert in Chicago, an admirer, who was asked whether there had been any flowers on the stage that night, answered, “None but Camelia Urso.” [563]

In the spring of 1865, soon after her return from Europe, Madame Urso played at a concert in New Haven. The hall was crowded with a noisy audience, composed mainly of students, irrepressible and critical, and young ladies who were deeply occupied with them and their criticisms. The unhappy pianist of the occasion met with hearty contempt. The talking went on as gayly as ever. But when the violinist entered, with her simple, natural manner, and stood quietly a moment waiting, the house was hushed. First she played a brilliant Fantaisie of Vieuxtemps, displaying all her skill in the execution of musical difficulties. Every one followed her with the most eager attention. At the end came hearty applause, and an imperative recall. “The last rose of summer” was her answer to the waiting crowd. Tenderly, wearily, the notes of the familiar air breathed to us of regret far beyond the sentimental lament of Moore's song. Not a movement disturbed the flow of the melody. The quiet of sadness seemed to hold the listeners. The music ceased, she bowed once more, but the audience would not permit a withdrawal. She seemed unwilling, at first, to respond to this encore,--this tribute often more tiresome than flattering. But, after a minute's indecision, the violin went up to her shoulder again, and the very genius of fun seemed to possess it. She played “Yankee Doodle,” but the spirit of the monotonous old tune was surely transmigrated into a robin, drunk with the intoxicating air of some June morning. It was surely a bird who took up the quaint refrain, and repeated it again and again with mocking variations in frolicsome abandonment. The audience, a few minutes ago half ready to weep, laughed and applauded by turns, in full sympathy with the versatile artist. Players often execute tricks with the strings that are laughter-provoking, mere legerdemain, as meretricious as it is inartistic, but seldom has such an airy spirit of humor expressed itself through the violin. [564]

A little story found its way into the Musical Gazette recently, which is so characteristic that it ought to be quoted entire.

Ole Bull, Camilla Urso, and Miss Alida Topp met at a party, a few evenings since.

“You play beautifully, my child,” said the Norwegian to Miss Topp, “but you can't do the greatest music. No woman can; it takes the biceps of a man.”

My arm is strong enough,” answered the brilliant young pianist, laughing; “I break my pianos as well as a man could, and Steinway has to send me a new one every week.”

“You see,” responded Ole Bull, turning to Madame Urso, “you see how these people treat their pianos.--They bang them, they beat them, they kick them, they smash them to pieces; but our fiddles I how we love them I

“ Oh, yes, indeed,” was Camilla's earnest answer, with a flash of her most expressive eyes.

Her fiddles are three, her favorite one being a Guiseppe Guamarius, made in 1737. For this she has a standing offer of $2000 in gold. An Amati is also in her little collection, and the prize violin of the Exposition of 1867, made by C. A. Miremont, which was sent her at the close of the Exposition. Her bow was made in 1812.

The grave, and frequently sad expression of Madam, Urso's face, during her performances, has given rise to man) anecdotes of her life which are absurdly untrue.

All who love the charming artist will be glad to know that family sufferings do not add to the pathos of her “Elegies,” and that beatings are not reserved for the patient mistress of the bow.

Those who have the pleasure of her acquaintance know that a more genial, sunny enthusiast does not exist than the supposed victim of marital cruelty. Simple in her tastes, singleminded in her devotion to her art, she denies herself society, [565] and lives for her violin and her few cherished friends. She is no idler, satisfied with the attainments of the past, but steadily works her way to new laurels. Seven and eight hours a day is her usual time of practice, and in the long summer days, when other artists seek change or diversion, she finds her recreation in her beloved instrument.

On being asked whether she composed for her violin, she answered, “Yes, some little pieces,--the Mother's Prayer, the Dream,--but they are nothing. It is enough for me to render the works of the great masters.”

In her childlike devotion to the genius of Beethoven, Chopin, and Mendelssohn, she reminds one of Hilda, the girl-artist of Hawthorne's “Marble Faun,” whose life was spent in study of Raphael and Michael Angelo. It is better, thinks this earnest woman, to render vocal the great conceptions of the past, than to win a cheap reputation by fleeting musical mediocrities.

Her remarkable memory retains all the music she plays, the orchestral parts as well as her own.

Madame Urso's stay in this country is now uncertain. Her latest performances have been in the New England cities, and in New York. She has accepted an engagement in California, and will probably leave for San Francisco in July. Her ardent desire is to return to Paris, and make that city her home. If she leaves us, it will be with the possibility of coming again to America, at some time in the distant future. She will take with her a thousand good wishes, and leave behind her memories of delight.

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