John Braham (1774/77?1856)



  • Singer

Paul F. Rice, Memorial University of Newfoundland
October 2023

Braham’s London birth was long believed to be in 1774, but the biographical article in the Harmonicon (Vol. 10, 1832: 1–5), published within the singer’s lifetime, gives the date as 1777.[1] He was left an orphan at an early age, thus making his parentage uncertain. It is likely that he was the son of John Abraham (d. after 1779) and Esther Abrams (d. after 1798), German immigrants from Prosnitz. If true, the early death of the father left the large family impoverished. The young John is alleged to have been discovered selling pencils on the streets of London by Michael Leoni (Myer Lyon, 1750–97), an operatic tenor at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, and cantor at the Great Synagogue in Duke’s Place, Aldgate. Leoni adopted the young boy as his nephew, trained him in the art of singing, and introduced him to the services at the synagogue as his assistant. His high soprano voice soon attracted the attention of the theatres where boy sopranos were popular attractions.

The young Braham’s first stage appearance was on April 21, 1787, at the Covent Garden theatre. The World (April 17, 1787) advertised the forthcoming benefit concert for Leoni, stating that Master Braham was Leoni’s student and that he would sing Arne’s “A Soldier Tir’d of Wars Alarms,” from Artaxerxes (1762) and the favourite song of “Ma chere amie.” An account of a subsequent performance of the difficult Arne aria at the Royalty Theatre can be found in the Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser (July 7, 1787):

Yesterday evening Master Braham, a pupil of Mr. Leoni, made his first appearance at the Royalty Theatre. He sung “The Soldier tired of War’s Alarms” most enchantingly: the audience, who were numerous, and truly respectable, expressed the utmost satisfaction. Master Braham, from the brilliancy of his manner, the melody of his tones, and his distinct articulation, promises to be a favourite with the public, and an acquisition to Mr. Palmer.

Braham was already engaged by John Palmer (c. 1742–98) at the Royal Theatre and the Times (July 2, 1787) advertised the singer in a musical pastoral called The Birthday; or, The Arcadian Contest, beginning on July 3, 1787.

The period of 1787–88 was busy for the young boy. In addition to occasionally performing in benefit concerts in various locations, his name appears consistently in the advertisements for the Royal Theatre up to September 19, 1788. Each time, his name was given as Braham in the advertisements, not Abraham. This was likely Leoni’s doing since he had adopted an Italian form of his own name to obscure his Jewish origins. The Illustrated News (March 20, 1852) claims that Braham’s voice changed in 1789. [2] Shortly thereafter, a financially embarrassed Leoni left the country, leaving the young Braham destitute. Fortunately he was given financial support by the financier Abraham Goldsmid (c.1756–1810). Once Braham’s voice settled into the tenor range he began to sing again, attracting the attention of Andrew Ashe (1758–1838), the Irish flute player, who recommended the singer to Venanzio Rauzzini (1746–1810) in Bath. The surviving handbills and newspaper advertisements for the 1794–95 season show that Braham sang in every concert. He also undertook extensive voice studies with Rauzzini, one of the leading voice teachers then in Britain. Under Rauzzini’s tutelage, Braham developed into a singer of great importance who not only conquered the stages of England, but who subsequently appeared in Italian opera on the Continent.

Braham’s voice was a remarkable instrument that combined an extended range with clear diction and great taste. Unlike Charles Incledon, Braham did not sing his top register in a supported falsetto with its associated change in quality. Rauzzini succeeded in teaching the young Braham a technique where the chest voice and the falsetto range were seamlessly joined. John Potter writes that “Rauzzini’s teaching clearly focused on the joining of registers: Braham’s treble range of two octaves evolved into an even larger compass from a Mozartean bottom A to a soprano e". So famous he was for passing imperceptibly from chest voice into falsetto that in 1818 The Musical Quarterly set up an experiment to see where he made the break” (“The Tenor-Castrato Connection, 1760–1860,” 100–01). The vocal experts could not determine where the one register ended and the other began.

Rauzzini allowed his student to appear in a concert given by Johann Peter Salomon in Hannover Square at the end of April, 1796, and also to undertake the role of Noureddin in Stephen Storace’s final opera Mahmoud, presented at the Drury Lane theatre on April 20, 1796. Thereafter, Braham’s career was assured and he performed in Grétry’s Zémire et Azor at the King’s Theatre on November 26, 1796, and in operas by Sacchini and Martín y Soler, subsequently. Charles Wesley (1766–1837) wrote highly of Braham’s abilities in his unpublished memoirs: “a star of the most brilliant effulgence; his masterly manner of delivering both Airs and Recitatives will never be surpassed if equalled.” Braham judged his fees accordingly, and the same author notes that he was “conscious of his primary superiority, and exact[ed] in proportion” (Reminiscences, British Library Ms. Add. 27593, pp. 173 & 138). The exception to this was Braham’s devotion to Rauzzini. He performed in the latter’s concerts in Bath for free when he was in the country. Michael Kelly states that “no pecuniary advantages derivable from any other source ever induced him to relinquish the opportunity of serving his old master to the day of his death” (Reminiscences, ed. Roger Fiske, 1975, 2:107). Indeed, Braham performed in the final concert given under Rauzzini’s direction on January 31, 1810.

Braham had performed alongside Nancy Storace in Stephen Storace’s Mahmoud in 1796 and the two became romantically involved. In August of 1797, they left London for a Continental tour that lasted until 1801. After eight months in Paris where they sang for Napoléon and other dignitaries, Storace and Braham travelled to Florence, Milan, Venice, and Trieste, performing in operas and concerts to great success. In Milan, at the Teatro alla Scala, Braham sang alongside Elizabeth Billington (1765–1818), another British singer who had achieved success in Italian opera. The Harmonicon records some initial friction between these two singers when Billington’s husband arranged that one of Braham’s best arias was cut from the opera they were performing. In retaliation, Braham sang Mrs. Billington’s ornamentation and cadenzas in an aria immediately before she would have sung them, thus making it seem that she copied him. Braham got his aria back and peace was restored.

Returning to London in 1801, Braham and Storace first sang at the Covent Garden theatre, but the pair was heard at all of the major theatres in London during that decade. Although Nancy Storace retired from the stage in 1808, Braham’s career continued much longer, if not with unbridled admiration. At the time of his death, the Daily News (February 20, 1856) wrote that he had been “the greatest singer of his time,” although he had been guilty of singing “too much to the ‘gods,’ courting their applause by meretricious ornament and displays of false taste, which we know his own better judgment condemned.” Braham was still singing high tenor roles in the 1830s, although his voice dropped to the baritone range at the end of that decade for appearances in Guillaume Tell (1838) and Don Giovanni (1839). He made his final public appearance in 1852, by which time he was at least seventy-five years of age. Braham also composed many of the songs that he performed in concerts and contributed music to some of the stage works in which he performed.

The length of his career was made possible by superior training and technique, but it had also become a financial necessity. While Braham had amassed a huge fortune (estimated to have been around £90,000), he made unwise investments in theatrical ventures. In 1835, he became co-manager of the Colosseum [sic] in Regent’s Park, investing £30,000 of his money. Interest in the panoramas presented in this theatre declined quickly and the enterprise was sold at a considerably loss in 1843. Braham also purchased land on King Street for the new St. James’s Theatre which opened on December 14, 1835. After three years of financial disasters there, Braham gave up in defeat. He left Britain in 1840 for an extended American tour to repair his damaged finances, returning only in 1843. Prior to this, there had been significant changes in Braham’s personal life that also had financial implications. His relationship with Nancy Storace lasted until 1816. They never married, although they could have after Nancy’s husband John Abraham Fisher (1744–1806) died. A son was born to Storace and Braham in 1802, named William Spencer Harris Braham. Unfortunately, their relationship ended when Braham had an affair with a married woman whose husband sued him and won damages in 1816. Nancy Storace never forgave Braham for the embarrassment.

On November 11, 1816, Braham married Frances Elizabeth Bolton (1799–1846), then only seventeen years of age. They had a large family, of which six children survived. Two of their sons, Charles (1823–84) and Hamilton (1818–62), were aspiring singers who joined their father in concerts throughout Britain after his return from America. When Nancy Storace died on August 24, 1817, it was discovered that she had never updated the will she had made in 1797 which left Braham £2000. Her son Spencer had not yet been born when the will was drawn up and he was left nothing. Braham had the good grace to transfer the money to his son, while Nancy’s mother, Elizabeth Storace, took responsibility for the boy. The relationship between father and son was never strong, and Spencer blamed Braham for his mother’s early death. Spencer Braham changed his last name to Meadows after he became a minor canon of Canterbury, much to his father’s dismay. Unfortunately, financial problems continued to plague Braham in his later years and the Times (February 17, 1853) lists the singer in the Insolvent Debtors’ Court on Portugal Street, London. John Braham died unexpectedly in his home in Hanover Square, London, on February 17, 1856, following a short illness. He had been a leading singer for over thirty years and one of the few British singers to enjoy success in Italian opera on the Continent.

[1] The correction is also made in the biographical notice found in the Illustrated London News (March 20, 1852).

[2] If, indeed, Braham was born in 1777, this makes the onset of puberty and his voice change rather early. One wonders if the early date of 1774 is not more realistic and that perhaps he wanted to shave some years off his age in later life.