article 80: Giuseppe Sarti in Ukraine

Most evenings for the past few months I’ve been taking a page or two of the Lettres et Pensées du Prince de Ligne like a digestif of fine Cognac. I knew nothing about this great European of the late 18th century until coming across repeated worshipful references to him in other reading which made me decide to investigate. No less a critic than Mme. de Staël thought him the best conversationalist of the age. When visiting him in Vienna in 1809, she found him impoverished and lonely and decided to publish a selection from his vast and prolix (mostly military) writings which became a bestseller. Thus was the prince’s name preserved for posterity.

This heir to a vast estate in what is now Walloon Belgium aspired to military fame and in fact rose to Field Marshall in service of Joseph II of Austria, but never quite got the opportunity for glory. He was a close friend and correspondent of Catherine the Great, and accompanied her on an obscenely luxurious river tour of lands recently conquered from the Ottoman Empire – one of several incidents which so irritated the Sublime Porte that they led to the Russo-Turkish War of 1787-92.

The prince’s letter which led to this small contribution is dated August 1, 1788, Au Camp sous Oczakow. A fortress in this place has been under siege by Prince Potemkin, Catherine’s favorite, for months with no activity to speak of. Ligne, at that time in imperial Russian service, is irritated and bored; to a friend he writes, “Do you want to pity me? We have no water. We are devoured by mosquitos. We are a hundred leagues from a market. Do you want to envy me? We eat excellently. We only drink wine, and good wine, too. We sleep four hours after dinner. We have three of the most beautiful women of the Russian empire here, come to visit their husbands. We wake up to consume excellent ice creams and sherbets. In the evening, we have the entire orchestra of the prince, this large and singular orchestra, conducted by the famous and excellent Sarti.”

That had me sitting up in my armchair. I knew nothing about Giuseppe Sarti except that he had been one of Catherine’s resident Italian composers, and that he is quoted in the finale of Don Giovanni. Leporello cries, “E vivano i “Litiganti” when the stage band plays a tune from his most famous opera. Mozart met Sarti in Vienna in 1784, played for him and called him “an honest man”. The piano variations K 460 are on the same tune. Esteem was not reciprocal; Sarti wrote a criticism of the “Haydn Quartets” which concluded with a quote from Rousseau: “ la musique pour faire boucher les oreilles.”

Potemkin eventually took his fort, and Sarti composed a Russian Te Deum with cannons. He was forced to accompany the prince for the duration of the war, composing similarly noisy celebratory pieces on each victory. On his way back to Italy after retirement he stopped in Berlin to visit one of his daughters, and died there in 1801.

“Oczakow” is now Ochakiv (in Latin letters) in Ukraine. It lies on the northern side of the mouth of the Dnieper-Bug estuary. Directly opposite, at present writing, lies a spit of land representing the westernmost point of recent Russian occupation. Ukrainian geography, previously so obscure to nearly everyone on the planet, is now depressingly familiar to anyone alert to the danger of World War III. The Dnieper River is now part of a front line, on one side of which a terror militia, named – with a grim sense of irony, one has to assume – after Hitler’s favorite composer, operates like a fifth horseman of the Apocalypse. Beautiful Odessa, created by decree of the Prince de Ligne’s imperial benefactress and correspondent in 1794, lies a little over two hours by car to the west. That same spit of Russian-occupied land points at it like a dagger, or a ballistic missile. And who can forget Eisenstein’s silent masterpiece shot there, Bronenossez Potjomkin – “Battleship Potemkin”, named after the besieger of Oczakow?

February 11, 2023


It’s St. Valentine’s Day, and I just came across a letter dated June 1, 1789, “A mon Quartier-général de Semlin”, which contains the following passage:

“A kind of armistice, or rather a convention of good companionship, gives me the opportunity to give concerts to the Turks on my side of the Danube in my superb tent, which is as Turkish as they are. Just as the king of Spain had Farinelli sing the same air every day for 40 years, I have Cosa rara performed every day, which, as you will observe, thus ceases to be just that [i.e., a rare or strange thing]; very beautiful women, Jewish, Armenian, Illyrian and Serbian, come to listen. They are the grande noblesse of Semlin.”

“Semlin” is the town of Zemun, now incorporated into Belgrade. They are actually both on the same side of the Danube, but separated by the Sava. Ligne has been released from his duties with Potemkin and is now in Austrian service as master of artillery, before the commencement of the siege of Belgrade. This was part of the same war, wherein Austria was allied with Russia. It was quite normal for foreign officers to pass from one army to another, and even to change sides, odd as it may seem today. Mozart’s late financial worries were connected to the high taxes on his patrons necessitated by the conflict.

Farinelli (Carlo Broschi, 1705-82), the most famous of all castratos, sang the same three airs to put the mentally disturbed Philip V to sleep for many a year. Domenico Scarlatti was his colleague at the Spanish court of the next king, Ferdinand VI.

Ligne unfortunately doesn’t tell us about his musical forces, but I imagine it was a Feldmusik of woodwinds, not unlike the stage band in Don Giovanni. In any case, the remarkable thing is that Cosa rara, an opera by Vincente Martín y Soler, is another of the three works quoted in Mozart’s masterpiece. The third is, of course, his own Figaro. Its appearance earns Leporello’s sardonic, “Questa poi la conosco pur troppo.”

How strange that these two operas come up in the same series of letters, at such odd locations! Sarti may have furnished Ligne with copies of Cosa rara; or they may have come with the dispatch pouch from Vienna, at the prince’s request. Otherwise it is difficult to imagine how scores could have gotten to Ligne’s camp, deep in the Balkans. Did he know Figaro as well? The introduction and timeline in my edition don’t say anything about Ligne spending time in Vienna in the 1780’s, but he was a frequent and fast traveller.

As we know from Leporello’s catalogo, Don Giovanni was too. Still, it seems remarkable that his private band and his mutinous servant had knowledge of all three of the operas in question in remote Seville, just a year after the premiere of Figaro. Does the Don’s original incarnation (Tirso de Molina, 1630) know the operas of Monteverdi and Sacrati? I shall have to check.

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