Some years ago, while researching the history of St Paul’s Church in Birmingham, I was searching in the Birmingham Library Archives for documents about St Paul’s Church. In a Library list I came across “Birmingham Musical Festival. St Paul’s Chapel For defraying the expenses of a window for an altar piece in the said chapel ( Two programmes , Apr 27,28,1791) duo. 1791.” It turned out to be a small book which had bound in it two 8 page concert programmes and a small piece on the “Form of Consecration of St Paul’s Chapel”.
The concert programmes were a bit stained and, being in a hurry, I snapped them for later study. So it later emerged that one programme was for a concert on Wednesday April 27th 1791 to be held at St Paul’s Chapel, as the Church was then named, and was of sacred music, frontispiece Fig 1, whereas the other programme was for a concert on Thursday 28th April 1791 at the Theater and was “miscellaneous” music, frontispiece Fig 2.
In the programmes no times were given, no prices, just the words of the pieces to be sung and the names of the soloists. Among the soloists in both concerts was one Signora Storace. Intrigued by this name, I made enquiries and was informed that this was the professional name of Nancy Storace, an English soprano, whose main claim to fame seemed to be that she sang the role of Susanna at the first night of Mozart’s “ The Marriage of Figaro” in Vienna on 1st of May 1786”. What an achievement and yet later she had sung at St Paul’s Chapel. I could not understand it, but did not follow it up, until now.
In recent times her name has really been revived, firstly through the publication of Jane Glover’s “Mozart’s Women” and then in 2017 by the publication in France of Emmanuelle Pesque’s book “Nancy Storace–muse de Mozart et de Haydn” On February 4th 2018 Ex Cathedra, with the CBSO, held a concert in Symphony Hall, Birmingham, based on “Mozart’s Women” and it included a piece written by Mozart for Nancy Storace. As recently as March 7th Bampton Classical Opera held a concert at St John’s Smith Square in London on “Songs for Nancy”.
It was obviously time to revisit what we knew about Nancy and the 1791 Birmingham Musical Festival. It was in 1768 that the first big Musical Festival in Birmingham was held. A group of inhabitants got together to raise money to build a hospital. They decided to do so by holding a music festival. The basic pattern used for it was sacred music at St Philip’s Church in the mornings, and miscellaneous music at the Theatre in New Street in the evenings for a few days and possibly a Ball to conclude.
It was a great success but oddly enough nothing much happened afterwards and, surprisingly, it was to be another ten years, in 1778, before something similar took place. At this time St Paul’s Chapel was being built, but raising funds was a problem, as it always had been. A small group of the trustees at St Paul’s decided to approach the Hospital trustees about organising together another festival, and sharing the proceeds. They agreed and it took place on September 2nd 3rd and 4th 1778.
There was sacred music at St Philip’s Church in the mornings and miscellaneous music at the Theatre in the evenings, and again it proved to be a great success. It took another six years, apparently, to September 1784, before the Birmingham Triennial Musical Festivals are said to have got under way, raising funds for the Hospital. Although not a Triennial, and the proceeds not for the Hospital, I did expect to be able to latch on to this 1791 festival. It was not to be. The only modern reference I can find about it is in Pesque’s book, where she lists every concert Nancy sang in. Under “Saison 1790-1791” there is:-
“Birmingham, chapelle St Paul 30/03/1791, 31/03, concert mus. sacree (Mrs Second, Saville)
Birmingham T 30/03/1791, 31/03, concert (Mrs Second, Saville)”
The two names are known and they were probably the only other professional singers. It is very odd that the dates given for the concerts are incorrect, being a month earlier than the actual dates. I have no idea where Pesque found this information. However, I had found that some key parts of the story were covered by J A Langford in his book “A Century of Birmingham Life or A Chronicle of Local Events” published in 1870 and they will be used here.
The story really starts in 1785 when the records show that St Paul’s Vestry announced on March 9th that they were commissioning an “Altar-Piece consisting of a Window of Stained Glass to be executed by Mr Francis Eginton from a design by Mr B West on the Subject of the Conversion of St Paul” They also “Resolved that Mr F Eginton be requested to procure the Assistance of Mr Wyatt to inspect the Architecture of the said Altar-piece”. And finally they “Resolved that a Subscription be entered into and forwarded to raise the Money to defray the necessary Expences…”.
At this point St Paul’s Chapel would have had a simple wooden altar, with probably only a Crucifix on it, and a large window of plain glass behind it. Inside this window a new window was to be built, as an Altar-Piece. Furthermore, Eginton would not be using conventional coloured glass, but painted glass, that is painting on glass and then firing it to produce a type of adherent enamel, the best way to reproduce a painting. They were to use the Venetian style, a main window and a smaller one each side. It is little wonder that Mr Wyatt, a leading architect of Birmingham, was to be consulted on this new structure. It should be mentioned here that externally the chapel looked very different from now, it was without a steeple. It was to be 1823 before a steeple was built.
Benjamin West painted his designs for three windows on the subject “The Conversion of St Paul” and over a period sent them to Francis Eginton who copied them for his work and returned them to West. St Paul’s Chapel did not buy the paintings but rented them at a cost that has been thought to be 80 Guineas. I cannot find any quotation by Eginton.
According to Langford an announcement was made by St Paul’s Committee on January 10 1791, almost six years after their decision to proceed, that said…” we have pleasure in announcing to the public the completion of that masterly performance of a window in stained Glass, intended for the altar-piece of St Paul’s chapel, in this town, designed by B. West, Esq., and executed by Mr Francis Eginton, for the sum of 400 Guineas; a consideration by no means adequate to its value…….A subscription was commenced four years ago and about the sum of 250 Guineas was then subscribed. Further subscriptions will be solicited …”
On March 28th1791 there followed another announcement…..” It is with great pleasure we can now with certainty announce to the patrons of the Arts, and to the public in general, that the much admired window of stained glass, representing the Conversion of St Paul (executed by Mr. Francis Egginton,of Handsworth, near this place) and intended for St Paul’s Chapel, will be opened in the ensuing Easter Week, on which occasion select pieces of sacred music will be performed on Wednesday and Thursday mornings. It is also in contemplation to have two Grand Miscellaneous Concerts at the Theatre in the evenings of the same days, and we are authorised to say that the committee, appointed to conduct this musical celebrity, are determined to spare neither pains nor expense to render it highly acceptable to the public. Amongst other principal vocal performers already engaged, are Signora Storace, Mrs Second and Mr Saville;……………..An organ, made by one of the most eminent builders, for the use of St Paul’s Chapel, will likewise be opened on the above festival” It almost begins to read like a festival to celebrate the window rather than to raise funds for it.
Just a few weeks ago in Birmingham Archives I discovered what can best be described as an advertisement for the Festival in the weekly “Aris’s Birmingham Gazette” ( Issue No.2581 of Saturday April 23rd ) this date being just four days before the event was due to start. It is shown in Fig 3.
There is the full programme for a concert at St Paul’s Chapel on the Wednesday morning in Easter week, including some detail on Signora Storace’s participation, and apart from some small changes in order it is the same as in the concert programmes we had found earlier. It was Handel’s Messiah at St Paul’s Chapel on the Thursday morning. (The Messiah was a favourite for performances at St Phillip’s Church for other Musical Festivals.) For the two evening concerts there are no details other than a comment about Signora Storace singing her favourite songs. Note that at the bottom of the advertisement it was stated that a rehearsal was to start that evening at the Chapel. All a bit difficult if you did not read the weekly paper until the Sunday.
The songs Nancy sang in the two programmes we already had, have been brought together in Fig 4 and it is worthwhile elaborating on two songs at the Theatre. One is from “The Haunted Tower” and the other from “No Song No Supper”. Nancy and her party, including her brother Stephen left Vienna and returned to England in 1787. Stephen was a composer, and he had had some tuition from Mozart. Apparently Stephen got a job at Drury Lane but Nancy found it difficult to find engagements.
Then in 1789 Stephen wrote the music for a Comic Opera at Drury Lane entitled “The Haunted Tower” with Nancy not employed by Drury Lane but in a Guest role. It was a Box Office sensation, selling out for 50 nights in succession. In 1790, with Nancy now employed by Drury Lane, Stephen launched another Comic Opera entitled “No Song No Supper” and this out sold “The Haunted Tower” and became the best show at Drury Lane for the following decade. Nancy’s career had taken off and this explains her choice of songs for the Theatre.
Going back to the Festival which took place Langford now writes:-
“Everyone will regret to learn that this event was unsuccessful. In May this notice appeared
The painted window in St Paul’s Chapel may be seen at any Time by applying to Mr Cobbe, the clerk near the sign of the Britannia St Paul’s-square.
As the late Musical Performances, intended to defray the Expenses incurred by this Undertaking, were unproductive, it is hoped that those Gentlemen who are desirous of encouraging the Arts and patronizing Merit will generously come forward, unsolicited, and leave their Subscriptions with the Printers; there being at this time more than 200 Guineas wanted to complete the Committee’s engagement with the Artist and to defray the other unavoidable Expenses.”
That must have been a shock. I have not seen any information on the finances of the festival nor on how the problem was settled. My view is that raising money for a Chapel’s debt is not exactly an attractive cause and such short notice of the Festival programme cannot have helped. The dates quoted by Pesque may indicate some confusion in the Committee. The Birmingham Riots were just three months away in July, but there is no evidence of troubles beforehand that might have affected the size of the audiences.
In the long list Pesque gives of Nancy’s concerts this one looks a bit out of place. So was there a special reason for her participation in this festival? In the description of the joint 1778 Festival for the Hospital and St Paul’s, among the “Principal Instrument Performers” was the name Storacci. He was Nancy’s father, a Double Bass player regarded as “the first performer of his time” on this instrument. Was it because of this that Nancy came to Birmingham? Whatever the reason it remains that father played in a festival to help, in part, the building of St Paul’s Chapel and daughter sang in a festival hoping to help pay for the new window in St Paul’s Chapel.
During the research for more information on this event a number of interesting connections were found. The artists involved in the window project were Benjamin West and Francis Eginton. While I was writing an article on the window for this web site I became quite interested in West and his works. I was quite taken with the comments by Ronald Russell in his book “Discovering Antique Prints” to the effect “West was a prolific painter but a better businessman, aware that his work could only benefit from being engraved and that encouraging and working with the engravers was good policy”
I think it highly likely that West was quite concerned about the situation Eginton was in. One of West’s engravers had been one John Hall some years earlier. Hall became a very significant figure in the Society of Artists and in reading about him it transpired that he was a godfather of Nancy and Stephen Storace. The Hall and Storace families would have known each other very well. So could there have been a West—Hall—Storace link that persuaded Nancy to take the offer?
From the point of view of St Paul’s Church there is one final twist to all this. John Hall had two daughters and a son. They were Julia, Mary, and George. George became Master of Pembroke, Oxford in 1809. Mary married Stephen Storace. Stephen died in 1796, aged 34. In 1801Mary married again, a Revd John Kennedy, a curate near Leicester. Then Julia married the Revd Rann Kennedy in Birmingham in 1803. A very learned man, from 1797 he had been a curate at St Paul’s Chapel and in 1807 became in addition the Second Master at King Edward’s School. In 1817 he became the incumbent at St Paul’s Chapel, a position he held until 1847.
Nancy retired in 1808 and died in 1817. One obituary of Nancy states”She died a rich woman having contributed greatly to the art of singing in Comic Opera and having been well rewarded in the process.”
So if you find yourself in St Paul’s Church, and not many people do these days, just stand in front of the West/Eginton Window on the Conversion of St Paul and say to yourself
”NANCY STORACE SANG HERE”.
Footnote:- I am very grateful to Margaret Richards for help with this research.
Figures 1, 2, and 3 are Reproduced by permission of the Library of Birmingham.