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Marianne Davies

Marianne Davies was born in 1743/4; daughter of composer and flautist Richard Davies (d.1773), and elder sister of the better-known singer Cecilia Davies ("la Inglesina"). Both parents seem to have been musicians, the father—Richard (d.1773) a composer and flautist.1

Marianne taught singing to her younger sister Cecilia. By 1751 the family lived 2 in Longacre. On April 30, 1751, at the age of seven, Marianne played a concerto by Handel on the harpsichord during her own benefit concert at Hickford's Great Room in Brewer Street.3 She also sang some songs and played a concerto of her own composition on the German flute.4

Again for her benefit, on March 19, 1753, this time at the Great Room in Dean Street, Soho, Miss Davies—announced as "A Child of Nine Years Old"—played a Handel concerto on the harpsichord. About this time two pieces by her proud father were published in London, entitled:

Ye Sacred Muses now attend. A New Song. The Words by a Gentleman on hearing a little Miss perform on the Harpsichord and German Flute and Musick can charm the human heart. An Extempore Thought, on hearing the Performances of Miss Davies, a Child of Eight Years of Age, in the Great Room in Dean Street. Set ... for the German Flute.5

The young prodigy continued to perform around London. There was another benefit concert for herself on February 28 1757, where she and her father played German flutes together, and she performed on the harpsichord. She gave another performance on April 22, 1757 where, announced as making her second appearance on any stage, she played the German flute, accompanying singer Mrs. Lampe.6

Marianne would thus appear to have set out with the intention of becoming a singer, flautist and harpsichordist. This was all changed in 1761 when she encountered Benjamin Franklin and his glass armonica. She gave the world premier performance of Franklin's new invention in early 1762 (and thus must have had access to a completed instrument in 1761):

The celebrated glassy-chord, invented by Mr. Franklin of Philadelphia: who has greatly improved the musical glasses, and formed them into a compleat instrument to accompany the voice; capable of a thorough bass, and never out of tune. Miss Davies from London, was to perform in the month of January, several favourite airs, English, Scotch and Italian, on the Glassychord (being the only one of the Kind that has yet been produced) accompanied occasionally with the voice and the German Flute.7

The first performance seems to have occurred on February 18, 1762 at the Great Room in Spring Gardens, when she also sang and played the German flute. These performances lasted through March 27, and on April 16 she did another benefit at Dean Street. In May she gave a series of concerts at the Gold Lamp in King's Square Court, Soho, where her family now lived. Throughout the next several years she and her father gave numerous concerts in Soho, including one at Spring Gardens on July 31, 1762 before "the Cherokee kings and the two chiefs." There were other concerts periodically at the Pillar and Gold Lamp in the Haymarket (where Ann Ford had performed in 1760) in August 1762 and from February 10 until August 13, 1763; and at the Swan and Hoop, Cornhill, from August 15 to October 7, 1763. By 1763 her younger sister Cecilia may have started performing.8

After a trip to Ireland with her family in the winter of 1763–64, Marianne resumed her performances at Spring Gardens and Cornhill in the summer of 1764.

They visited Dublin in 1764.Pohl, Mozart und Haydn in London I:61

The Davies then traveled to Paris and were again in Ireland for several months. They returned to London by June 1767, when they lived at Coventry Court, Haymarket, and gave concerts throughout the summer at various music rooms.

In the summer of 1767 Mary Rich (in Grosvenor Square, London) writes to Franklin (in London) that she has just heard that Miss Davies has been performing with great applause.9

On 10 August 1767 we hear that Marianne's "sister will sing some favourite airs from the operas of 'Artaxerxes' and 'Caractacus"', this being apparently the first time Cecilia had appeared in London. But prior to this the family had decided to try their luck on the Continent and had started to collect letters of introduction from the London acquaintances. These letters were found collected in a book owned by the Rackett family in London.10

The first eight contained in the book are from Joseph Baretti (1719–89), critic and miscellaneous writer, and are addressed to his relatives and friends in Turin and Leghorn, Genoa, Ancona, Venice, Verona, Bologna and Milan. From them we discover that "they are recommended me by my most worthy Friend Mr. Sam Johnson". Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) was one of England's great literary figures—it is not known how the Davies sisters came to be acquainted with him.

The ninth to the fifteenth letters of introduction are by no less than by Johann Christian Bach (1735–1782), the 'London Bach', son of the famous J.S. Bach and a noteworthy composer in his own right. J.C. Bach also taught composition to a very young Mozart. J.C. Bach wrote letters of introduction for the Davies to his two brothers in Germany: Karl Phillip Emmanuel Bach (1714–1788), the 'Berlin Bach', and Wilhelm Friedman Bach (1710–1784), the 'Dresden Bach'—also noteworthy composers in their own right) and to patrons in Italy.

Throughout these letters the emphasis is laid not only on the girls' musicianship but also on their good character and the Catholic faith. There is no doubt that they were very much helped by fellow-Catholics, and their connection with Bach, the Mozarts and Mrs. Garrick was probably primarily through meetings at Catholic chapels in London.

Armed with these letters, in the fall of 1768 the family again went to the Continent, and in Vienna it was the introduction to Gluck (whom we met earlier as a performer on the musical glasses) which bore the most fruit, for the sisters were taken into employment by the Empress Maria Theresa and taught her daughters, among whom were three who became the queens: of France (Marie Antoinette), of Spain and of Naples . At Vienna the Davies sisters became favorites of society and often gave performances at the Imperial court.

In Vienna also the girls met the popular composer Johann Adolf Hasse (whom we'll consider in more detail later), who gave Cecilia singing lessons and set a cantata by Metastasio called L'Armonica for the sisters. The sisters lodged at Hasse's house.11 This was perhaps the high point in the sisters' joint career: it was performed on June 27, 1769, on the occasion of the marriage of the Archduchess Amalia to Duke Ferdinand of Parma. In honor of the bridal couple the Italian librettist Pietro Metastasio, then court poet, composed an ode in Italian which Hasse set to music for soprano with armonica accompaniment, called, appropriately enough, L'Armonica. The Davies sisters rendered this composition apparently to the great satisfaction and approval of the assembled guests. Metastasio, in a letter dated 16 January 1772, described the beautiful tone of the harmonica and how Cecilia produced her voice so that it was indistinguishable from the instrument. Marianne seems to have remembered her benefactor Franklin, for a copy of the words—though unfortunately not of the score—survives among the Franklin Papers. (PBF X,123):

Aah, why cannot I, too, Filomena, like you, weave with my song a sweet shackle for souls?

If today any lip casts to the breeze harsh words, it is too bold; but if it is silent on such a great day, it is no less guilty.

(Recitative:) Sister, be bold. Fit your skillful hand to the spinning crystals, and rouse their rare seductive harmony. I, too, with song shall try to imitate their amorous tenor. Who could repress applause and good wishes, now that Amalia's languid, tenuous, plaintive tone of the new harmonic instrument give you pause. Leave to Mars his noisy trumpets, servants of his ire. More befitting to love is a sweet melody, provocative not of wrath, but of tender affections; better company it is to that calm light, the benign manner, the sweet majesty which are transfused from her fair soul over the countenance of the Royal Spouse. Although subdued, the style of our song will be pleasing to her; for the humble tone is not a sin or fault. And respect always speaks in humble tones.

(Aria:) In the season of flowers and fresh loves, pleasing is the soft breath of a light breeze. Whether it sighs among the leaves or slowly wrinkles the waves, a breeze is everywhere the companion of pleasure.12

They left Vienna in October 1770 for Italy. The Mozarts were actually standing on the balcony of their lodgings when they saw the Davies family arriving in Milan. Leopold writing to his wife on 21 September [1771] said:

A few days ago Miss Davies arrived here and drove past our house in the mail coach. I recognized her and she saw us, for we happened to be standing on the balcony. A few hours later I went to call on her at the 'Three Kings', which is not very far off, as I guessed that she would be staying there, since it is the most respectable inn. She, her sister, her father and her mother could hardly express their joy. I told their servant where Herr Hasse was staying and very soon his daughter appeared, who also was beside herself with delight, for they have been most cordial friends since they met in Vienna. They all asked for you at once and they send you their greetings. You will surely remember Miss Davies with her armonica?13

In December 1771 they went to Naples, where Cecilia was given a very prima donna role in an opera by Hasse. It seems that after this success the family returned to Rome.14

In a letter from Rome dated July 1772 to Sir Horace Mann we read:


I have the honour of presenting to you the sisters Marianne and Cecilia Davies, your compatriots, both musical virtuosi, of whom one sings marvelously, the other plays the harmonica, an entirely new instrument, which corresponds well to its name, and which is unique to this young lady. The are making a tour of Italy in the company of their father and mother, and deserve by their abilities and their other virtues to be welcomed everywhere they go. They will certainly be well received in Tuscany if you will grant them, as I ask, the honour of your protection, of which they are worthy....15

In summer of 1772 they found themselves in Florence. On August 2 the archducal court was entertained by the two ladies, "One of whom distinguished herself in a concerto performed on an instrument of crystal made in London called the Armonico[sic]." For their efforts they were rewarded with a gold snuffbox and a watch and chain.16

By the end of 1772 the family was once again in Vienna, then returned to Italy in the spring or summer of 177317 and then back to London where Cecilia had accepted an offer to play Berenice in Sacchini's 'Lucio Vero' on November 20. Cecilia must have been singing with a broken heart, for their father died in December.

1778 found both the Davies sisters and Franklin in Paris. On January 29 1778 she sent Franklin this note:

I hope you will Excuse the liberty I take in troubling you with this line but being come to Paris with my Mother and Sister on account of the latter's health, should think myself guilty of an unpardonable neglect were I not to take an opportunity of waiting on the ingenious Inventor of the Divine Armonica. My Sister continually expresses her infinite Obligations to You Sir, and as She is just at present able to go out is extremely desirous to have the pleasure of seeing you; but least we might happen to call at an inconvenient time I should Esteem it a particular favour could you let me know by the Bearer any moment tomorrow when you are at leisure, as we are very impatient to have the happiness of waiting on you. If not tomorrow, any other Day Except Saturday or Monday next.18

Marianne has health problems, Mother is still living. Franklin seems to have specified, "dinner Sunday evening", to which Cecilia replied the very next day:

I should have been happy to the greatest degree in the honour of Dining with you Sunday, but to my misfortune since my Sister's late Illness she does not Dine from home; but I shall have the honour of waiting on you with my Mother and Sister Sunday afternoon if you will give us leave.19

Cecilia's professional life was on the rise, but as we just saw in Cecilia's letters to Franklin, Marianne is plagued by ill health. (Another note from Cecilia dated September 24th of that year would suggest that another get-together was in the offing.)

The Davies' situation has grown desperate. On April 26, 1783 Marianne writes from Florence a rather extraordinary letter to Franklin detailing their predicament and asking for a favor:

Dear Sir.

Notwithstanding I am at present a Being almost insensible to any Joy or Pleasure this miserable Life can afford, yet as I do still Exist, so do in me the strongest feelings of Gratitude, Respect, and Esteem, by which I must always be most sincerely attach'd to my ever dear and worthy Friend and Benefactor Doctor Franklin...

Indeed since I had the pleasure of seeing You last, both my Sister and I have gone thro' a great deal of Grief and Trouble of various kinds. After having the Affliction to see our Dear Affectionate Mother suffer a long and severe Illness, we had the Misfortune to lose Her; which was a Grief almost too much for us to bear. Since that, I had a violent return of my nervous complaints which brought me so low that there were little hopes of my recovery. I was near a twelvemonth confin'd to my Room, and most part of the time to my Bed. You will easily imagine what anxiety of mind this occasion'd my poor Sister; whose greatest foible is—being too much attach'd to me. By this Illness of mine my Sister suffer'd much likewise in her Interests; for as she would not on any account quit me she was oblig'd to decline several advantageous Offers in her Theatrical Profession. Misfortunes generally follow one another. at least we find it so. A Person in whose hands my Sister and I had unluckily plac'd our Money, fail'd. so that we have as one may say to begin the World again. And to compleat our bad Luck, Death snatch'd away a Sovereign at whose Court (had I not been too giddy and fond of travelling some few Years ago) we might have been happily settled and to Whom had Fate spar'd Her to us, we might have had recourse at any time; particularly in our present lonely Situation! The Great and Good Empress Maria Teresa would I am certain have even felt pleasure in taking into her Service those Orphans whose Parents as well as themselves She had formerly graciously deign'd to Patronize in a most particular manner. But She is gone! In short we meet with nothing but Losses and Vexation. so much so that for my part I am heartily disgusted of the World.

Marianne's "nervous complaints" which confined her to bed for almost a year, Cecilia's career compromised by caring for Marianne, both parents and their formerly generous patrons gone, and a major financial reversal—on top of the grueling demands of an ongoing concert career—life has been hard. In spite of all these calamities, Marianne is working on reviving her armonica career:

I am destin'd to begin the World again, and that at a time when I did suppose my Career of Life was at an end. However since it must be so, I have once more got in practise of the Armonica, and make no doubt that if I could travel with it to different capital Cities and Courts as I have done before, 'twould be well worth my while: but unfortunately for me, my Situation is now so different to what it was then, that I dread undertaking to travel with that Instrument under my charge. Well I remember the difficulties and expence attending it and the perpetual fear of its being damaged at each Custom House &ca. &ca. Yet at that time I was happy in my poor Dear Father's continual care and attention. The Protection likewise of our Dear Parents made Travelling then appear to me quite in another light. How can I now think of roving in that manner from one Country to another with only a Sister so much younger than myself? Yet something I must do. and really when I consider that I have the Prerogative (thro' your goodness) of being the first public Performer on that Instrument; and that even yet, by all I can get information of, no one else has made much progress on it, tho' some attempt it; these reflections give me courage. Were I but in Paris under your Protection! Sometimes I have a mind to propose to my Sister for us to set off immediately towards Paris. but the knowledge I have of what one must spend in that City for Lodging, Living, &ca. &ca. and the inevitable Expence attending such a long Journey, soon deters me from proposing to undertake it merely upon Chance.

By the way, as we shall consider later, some have blamed Marianne's "nervous complaints" on playing the armonica. But as we can see, Marianne herself doesn't blame them on the armonica; she's even resuming practicing and planning on resuming her performance career. Perhaps she was simply severely depressed from the loss of both parents, her patrons, and her financial well-being.

Marianne has a specific proposal for Franklin:

A Project however occurs to me, which if I have any good luck at all left, I should think might be brought to bear thro' your Interest. The Queen of France is fond of Music. A small Annual Pension from her Majesty would attach to her Service the Original Performer upon an Instrument, the Invention of which being superiorly perfect, renders it worthy the Patronage of that Sovereign. and particularly so as the Inventor is universally ador'd by the French Nation. Now if You Dear Sir will but interest yourself for me with your usual Benevolence, what should prevent this being granted?...

Nothing seems to have come of her proposal, however, for she sends another letter to Franklin in October 17 of that year:

I made so free as to trouble You with some account of my present Situation, entreating your Advice but I am so unfortunate as never to have had any Answer. I have been and am still in the greatest Anxiety imaginable on this account and can only conclude that either the said Letter or your Answer must have miscarried: for surely had You received it, you would have favour'd me with a Line before now.

There is no record of a reply. Meanwhile, Marianne wasn't waiting for Franklin. Around May of that year she placed the following advertisement in the Tuscan Gazette:

Marianne Davies, original player of the instrument of electrical music called the Armonica …, in view of her imminent departure from this city, informs the public that those who wish to hear her in their homes can be served if they will give notice a day in advance.20

Notice the phrase "electrical music"—obviously Marianne was trying to capitalize on Franklin's scientific fame by implying a mysterious connection between his spectacular electrical discoveries and the eerie sound of the armonica. After all, the glass bells of the armonica somewhat resemble the apparatus used in electrical experiments.

Notwithstanding the 'imminent departure' that Marianne threatened in the above advertisement (around May 1783), they were still languishing in Florence in wretched circumstances during Lord Mount Edgecumbe's visit in 1784–1785. Finally the English colony in Florence, stirred to pity, staged a benefit concert whose proceeds enabled the two sisters to return to England.21

Now in London, by 1797 we find the sisters reduced to giving singing lessons to beginning students. The Rev. Thomas Rackett's mother writes in Jun 19, 1797:

Miss Davies call'd on me and in the kindest manner assured me they took the greatest pleasure in instructing the dear Dorothea for they had it quite at heart, and was sure in a short time they should bring her out a little wonder to all your friends, that was their words, for which reason they wish'd no body to hear her yet, only they beg she may read music as much as she can.22

These singing lessons to daughter Dorothea blossomed into an abiding friendship with the Rackett family. In a letter dated September 4, 1813 Cecilia tells Mrs. Rackett that her sister is living with her but is in poor health.23 The death of Mrs. Rackett seems to have brought the Davies sisters a small relief from money concerns: Dorothea Rackett, now Mrs. Solly, wrote to her mother in August 1824:

Mrs. Domville thinks Miss Davis is right to spend Mrs. Garrick's legacy as long as it lasts since she cannot live upon air. When the money is gone she must trust to the kindness of her surviving friends who now that her necessities are made known will not leave her in absolute want but there is no necessity for her to—[illegible] and hoard however trifling as she has no one to provide for but herself; from the language of Lady Thorold it it is extremely probable that she and her sister will subscribe whatever may be necessary.24

From the phrase 'she has no one to provide for but herself' we must conclude that Marianne is now dead. Sources disagree on the year, but generally place her death around 1816–1819.25

Cecilia lingered in indigent circumstances and in poor health for another decade—modestly supported in her declining years by the National Fund and the Royal Society of Musicians. Writing on 17 January 1826 Cecilia tells Mrs. Rackett: "Every December brings to my recollection the great affliction which it pleased the Almighty to send me, and, which all my resolution can never get the better of God's will be done."

Lamenting the loss of her sister, Cecilia wrote on August 1, 1831:

But allass! I must now be satisfied with the Recollection of the pleasure I enjoyed in traveling as of a pleasing dream never more to be realised having for ever lost that Dear Companion my ever to be lamented Sister whose Society alone could make any spot of the Globe a Paradice to me but we must submit in every thing to the Will of the Almighty.26

Cecilia died in London on 3 July 1835, aged about 78. The funeral of this fine singer, who had taught the queens of France, Spain and Naples, was attended only by an old nurse and a servant.27

Concerning the fate of Marianne's instrument: The Harmonicon of August 1832 gives us a column about the lives of Cecilia and Marianne Davies, and mentions that the armonica "is still in good order, in the possession of a lady who was a favourite pupil of Miss Davies".28 A letter from Mrs. Solly (neé Rackett) of February 5, 1835 says:

Mr. E. Solly writes us word that Wheatestone is to lecture on Acoustics at King's College in London and wishes much to have the loan of the Armonica. I shall refer him to Miss [Cecilia] Davies as I cannot venture to lend it without her permission and he may as well call on her and it may be of some use to her.29

After this all trace of Marianne's instrument has been lost.30

1Some say that Franklin was Marianne's uncle, but Franklin's family tree shows no such relationship.

2opposite the Golden Leg

3 Highfill (1978), 4:202

4at this time there were various configurations of holes and keys on flutes, the 'German flute' being one such configuration

5quoted in Highfill (1978), 4:202

6 Highfill (1978), 4:202

7Announced in the Bristol Journal for January 12th, 1762. Quoted in Papers of Benjamin Franklin10:119, fn. The editors of PBF have been unable to find any copy of the Bristol Journal for the appropriate period or to determine from which London newspaper the item might have been taken.

8 Highfill (1978) 4:202–3

9 Papers of Benjamin Franklin13: 548)

10 Matthews (1975), 150

11 Pace (1958), 277


Ah perchè col canot mio
Dolce all'ame ordir catena,
Perchè mai non posso anch'io
Filomena, al par di te?

S'oggi all'aure un labbro spande
Rozzie accenti è troppo audace;
Ma se tace in di si grande,
Men colpevole mon è.

Ardir, germana: a' tuoi sonori adatta
Volubili cristalli
L'esperta man: e ne risvelgia il raro
Concento seduttor. Col cano anch'io
Tenerò d'imitarne
L'amoroso tenor. D'applausi e voti
Or che la Parma e l''istro
D'Amalia e di Fernando
Agli augusti imenei tuto risuona,
Saria fallo il tacer. Ne te del nuovo
Armonica strumento
Renda dubbiiosa il lento,
Il tenue, il flebil suono. Abbiasi Marte
I suoi d'ire minitri
Strepitosi oricalchi; ua soave
Armonia, no di sdegni
Ma di teneri affetti eccitrice,
Più conviene ad amor; meglio accompagna
Quel che dall' alma bella
Si trasonde sul volto
All Sposa Real placido lume,
Il benigno cosume,
La dolce maestà. Benchè sommesso
Lo stil de' nostri accenti
A Lei grato sarà; che l'umil suono
Non è colpo o difetto;
E sempre in suono umil parla il rispetto.

All stagion de' fiori
E de'novelli amori
E grato il molle fiato
'un zeffiro leggier.

O gema tra le fronde
, O lento increspi l'onde;
Zeffiro in ogni lato
Compagno è del piacer.

(Translation in Pace (1958), 356. Original Italian in Pace (1958), 278–9)

13 Anderson (1938), 198

14 Matthews (1975), 160–161

15Quoted and translated from French in Matthews (1975), 162

16 Pace (1958), 289

17 Matthews (1975), 163

18 Papers of Benjamin Franklin 25:543

19 Papers of Benjamin Franklin 25:550

20Gazzetta Toscana, 1783:84, quoted in Pace (1958), 280

21 Pace (1958), 280 See DNB 5:582

22Letter from the Rackett's mother, from King Street, Covent Garden, on June 19, 1797. Quoted in Matthews (1975), 150

23 Matthews (1975), 166

24Quoted in Matthews (1975), 166

25Groves 1819; Highfill (1978) 1816(?); an obituary notice for Cecilia in 1836, the Musical World wrote that Marianne had died "almost 20 years ago" which would put her date of death after 1816 (quoted in Highfill (1978), 4:203).

26Quoted in Matthews (1975), 168

27 Matthews (1975), 169

28 Matthews (1975), 168

29Quoted in Matthews (1975), 168

30See Matthews (1975), 169