The photo above was taken by George Herbert Watkins in 1869 When Catharina was 48 years old.
Catharina Josepha Pelzer was born at Mülheim am Rhein in 1821 and died in 1895. Catharina was one of seven children. She and her sister Giulia were trained by their father in guitar and music theory. Catharina’s father was the guitarist, teacher, and composer Ferdinand Pelzer (1801 – 1861) who was the editor of the guitar magazine The Giulianiad from 1833 – 1835. The magazine was intended to champion and publish the music of Italian guitarist and composer Mauro Giuliani (1781 – 1829). The Pelzer family moved to London in 1829 and Ferdinand Pelzer enrolled Catharina and her sister Giulia in music theory and composition lessons with organist and composer William Carnaby (1772 – 1839). Prior to the move to London Catharina toured Europe with her father performing guitar duets with him as well as other renowned musicians. The image below is from 1830 when Catharina was only nine years old.
At this tender age Catharina was already considered an accomplished guitarist. The Pelzer family found friends and supporters in London. Catharina became good friends with child guitar virtuoso Giulio Regondi (1822 – 1872). This friendship continued until Regondi’s death from cancer in 1872. Regondi is widely recognized as one of the greatest guitar virtuosi of the 19th Century. There is an account of young Catharina and Giulio playing a concert together on a London stage. The promoter thought they looked too small on the huge stage and so he put them on a small table (much like a modern day card table) on the very edge of the stage. When Regondi’s father abandoned the boy penniless in Ireland with no means to get home the Pelzers made arrangements for him to return to London and took him in for a while. A friend to both families, Dr. Charles Wheatstone, also contributed to helping the young virtuoso. Dr. Wheatstone was the inventor of the concertina. Catharina’s sister Giulia and Regondi were both to take up the concertina with Regondi writing the most virtuosic repertoire for that instrument ever created as well as several method books. In London concerts Catharina provided guitar accompaniment for both Regondi and her sister performing on concertina. She also played guitar duets with both of them.
Little is known about Catharina’s training beyond her father’s tutelage and the composition and theory lessons with Carnaby. It would be a mistake to look at most of her published music, which was fairly simple, as an example of her abilities as a guitarist and composer. By the age of 20 she was considered London’s most prominent guitar teacher. She had in a short time become the official guitar tutor to Queen Victoria’s daughter Louise, Princess of Wales. Many of the works she published were dedicated to women of London society and were intended to appeal to an amateur player. There are examples of extended works which show an incredible virtuoso technique and a very sophisticated understanding of chromaticism. Her variations on Marlborough Sa en Va t’en Guerre are just as sophisticated as the ones by Fernando Sor. Further she is known to have played all three Giuliani concerti in concert. The simplest of these requires a tremendous technique. Below is an excerpt from Giuliani’s 1st concerto. This shows the first cadenza in the 1st movement:
Here are links to recordings I’ve made of three short pieces. Even though they are “simple” pieces they are not simple to play. All three span the neck from open position to the 17th fret. The scores are available for free from the Boije Collection at The Music Library of Sweden which you may investigate here: The Boije Collection.
The scores are:
Robert Sidney Pratten was, like Catharina and her friend Regondi and sister Giulia a precocious child virtuoso. While he did not have much in the way of formal training (one flute lesson at the age of seven from his older brother Frederick) he came from a musical family and was always encouraged to pursue music. At the age of twelve he made his concert debut and shortly thereafter obtained a position with the Theatre Royal in Dublin, Ireland. From the age of twelve to nineteen he performed widely and became known internationally as a great virtuoso. By 1845 he had made his debut in London and became first flute of the Theatre Royal at Covent Garden. Embarrassed by his lack of formal training he took theory and counterpoint lessons with the famous cellist Charles Lucas. Shortly after his appointment at Covent Garden he played a solo concert referred to as a “monster concert”. His full tone and dynamic personality overwhelmingly won over the critics.
In the year 1854 Catharina married Robert Sidney Pratten (1824 – 1868). The years she had with Robert would prove to be the most happy and productive years of her life. She would later refer to those years as “Heaven on earth.” After her marriage to Robert she published her music under the name Madame Sidney Pratten. Why did she use her husband’s name? Many women had difficulty publishing anything under their own name and often assumed a male nom de plume; George Sand, Chopin’s female lover, being a common example. Both Felix and Fannie Mendelsohn published their music as F. Mendelsohn to the point where modern scholars still don’t have it sorted out. Catharina was already the tutor to the Princess of Wales and would not have encountered resistance in publishing under her own name; besides the fact that Madame Sydney Pratten directly implied that the composer was a woman. In order to understand this we need to consider two underlying issues: the disparagement of the guitar as a “lesser” instrument and the fact that her husband was an internationally renowned virtuoso.
The denigration of the guitar by 19th Century writers and music critics is well known. Often the denigration appears as a form of backhanded flattery to the artist. To wit, artists such as Regondi, Ferranti, Giuliani, and Sor were often held to be the greatest of virtuosi but then it is speculated such a pity that they play the guitar and not some instrument of higher regard. The composer, historian, and music critic François Joseph Fétis (1784 – 1871) is infamous in guitar circles for his condemnation of the instrument. Here he gives the type of backhanded compliment mentioned above, the victim Fernando Sor:
…Sor gave much pleasure with a piece which he played on the guitar with rare perfection; this artist has the great merit of having succeeded in raising his instrument from the worse than secondary position where its slender resources keep it.
As if that were not enough:
…Sor does very pretty things on the guitar; but I confess that I have always regretted that this artist, whose musical intelligence is far from ordinary, does not devote himself to an instrument which would offer greater resources to his ability. On hearing M. Sor one recognizes a superior artist; but, I repeat, why does he play the guitar?
Sor had in fact written a ballet and an opera already when Fétis offered this last gem. Catharina Pratten would have been well aware of this negative attitude some had toward the guitar. Her father worked hard to champion and disseminate the music of Giuliani and had his fair share of critical reception both as a guitarist and a publisher. During her lifetime the prevailing attitude changed only slightly. Using her husband’s name served the dual purpose of legitimizing the guitar and more importantly his fame would help in extending the audience exposed to the music.
Robert’s death in 1868 was very painful for Catharina. For the next three years she would not perform nor publish any music. “At this time I thought that I should never write another note”, she confessed, writing to a friend. The picture at the top of this post was taken in the year after Robert’s death. But after that time she moved back to London and established a guitar school at Southampton Street in Bloomsbury Square with her sister Giulia.
In the later years of her life she remained active as both a performer and teacher of the guitar. Her fame continued even after her death. Following is an article about a performance from the guitar school she founded and a copy of the very program. Giulia like Catharina was completely dedicated to the guitar and its students.
Recently one of Catharina’s guitars came up for auction at a London guitar auction. Had I known about it beforehand I would have snatched it up without hesitation. It went for only £340! Here are some detailed photos of the instrument:
Here she is at the Chain Pier, Brighton, England with an attendant to wheel her about town. The photo was taken circa 1890:
Five years later she would be buried in Brompton Cemetery, London and her grave paid for by her friends and students.