Nicola Matteis

(? - after 1714)

Composer born in Naples, moved to England. Arrived in England sometime after 1670; his skills as a violinist were praised by Evelyn, North, and Burney, though he never entered royal service. His compositions include Four books of Ayrs(dance suites) for violin (London, Parts I and II, 1676, Parts III and IV, 1685), notable for their careful bowing indications and virtuoso devices; the prefaces to these volumes are a valuable source of information about performance practice.

The earliest surviving reference to Nicola Matteis is in John Evelyn’s diary for November 19, 1674. The diarist came home full of enthusiasm from a private music meeting in London and wrote: "I heard that stupendious Violin Signor Nicholao (with other rare Musitians) whom certainly never mortal man Exceeded on that instrument., he had a stroak so sweete, & made it speake like the Voice of a man; & when he pleased, like a Consort of severall Instruments: he did wonders upon a Note: was an excellent Composer also ... nothing approch'd the Violin in Nicholas hand: he seem'd to be spiritato'd & plaied such ravishing things on a ground as astonishd us all."

What is known of his life otherwise is sketchy. Most of it comes from Roger North (another contemporary of Matteis) and reads like a morality tale. Matteis was born in Naples. When he first arrived in England in the early 1670s he was so "inexpugnably proud" that he hardly ever performed in public. Financial need and the counsel of good-willed connoisseurs changed that, however, and he began playing the violin (and the guitar) at music meetings. Grown rich, he "took a great house, and after the mode of his country, lived luxuriously." But this decadence "brought diseases upon him, of which he dyed." Thanks to Michael Tilmouth, it is now known that Matteis married a wealthy widow in 1700 and disappeared from the London musical scene - so much so that one writer in 1702 assumed he was dead. In 1714, he and his wife bought a manor in Norfolk, presumably the "great house" to which North refers. His son — also called Nicola (b.1670s?; d. 1749?)— gave Burney violin and French lessons and ultimately had a successful career as a violinist in Vienna.

North was struck by the extraordinary way in which Matteis held the violin "against his short ribbs" and observed that he was a "very tall and large bodyed man." He was the first player in England to hold the bow with his thumb on the stick instead of on the hair. North praised not just his virtuosity, but his sustained bowing "as from the clouds" and (corroborating Evelyn) his eloquent expressive style.

Matteis published a substantial amount of his music as Ayres for the Violin.Parts I and 11 appeared in 1676 and Parts III and IV in 1685. In 1687, a companion volume of second violin parts for the final two sections appeared. North informs us that Matteis selected movements from "here and there" in these books "to make out admirable sonnates or solos." In the Ayres the process of compiling suites in this way is facilitated by the grouping of pieces by key. Double stops and a few flourishes are marked in hollow dotted notation so that they may be left out by less advanced players. A table of contents categorizes the pieces into two groups according to their difficulty. This table gives English titles for each movement.

Despite these attempts to makes the Ayresaccessible to English violinists, it is clear from what North says that many felt discouraged in their efforts to play this music - "none could command that fullness. grace, and truth as he did." Matteis indulged in some characteristically Italian "flights of humour Not to be Expres't" and "when the Raptures came ... one would have thought the man beside himself."

A Partial Nicola Matteis Discography | VIIA: Henry Purcell and his Contemporaries