Vincent Novello:   Annoyer of Organists

And a key member of the "Sebastian Squad."

Very few people today are aware of Vincent Novello, despite the fact that the company he founded, in the first year of the Regency, is still in business today. Novello was an organist, choirmaster, music teacher, composer and conductor (even before the term came into wide use), as well as a collector, editor and publisher of music. In addition to his deep love of music, he had a keen interest in the literary arts. He was a good friend to a number of prominent writers and poets of the Regency period, who frequently gathered at his home. Added to all that, he was a devoted family man and a genuinely good guy.

In 1771, Giuseppe Novello, a young pastry chef, migrated to England from the Piedmont area of northern Italy. He settled in London, where he set up as a baker and was successful enough that a year later he was able to marry Joan Wins, a young English woman from Norfolk. By 1776, the couple had rented a home near Hyde Park, at 240 Oxford Road (now Oxford Street). It was there, in 1781, that their second son was born. Though christened Francis Vincent Novello, he would be known as Vincent or Vincenzo, all his life. In the early 1790s, the family was prosperous enough that Vincent and his elder brother, Francesco, more often known as Frank, were sent to study French at a school at Huitmille, near Boulogne, on the northern coast of France. In his later years, Vincent remembered that he and his brother were on one of the last boats to leave Boulogne after news came of the British declaration of war on France after the execution of King Louis XVI, early in 1793.

Back in London, Vincent became a choir boy at the chapel of the Sardinian Embassy, the chapel in which his parents had been married. Samuel Webbe, who was the organist at the chapel, taught the eager young choir boy to play the organ. Vincent quickly became so proficient that in 1797, Webbe recommended his pupil for the position of organist at the chapel of the Portuguese Embassy, in Grosvenor Square. Vincent was very happy to get the appointment since his older brother, Frank, already held the position of principal bass singer at the chapel. Vincent Novello held the position of organist of the Portuguese Embassy chapel for over a quarter of a century, during which time he made the chapel both famous and fashionable. Vincent had become acquainted with the Reverend Charles Ignatius Latrobe, a fellow musician, composer and collector of music. As their friendship deepened, Latrobe introduced Novello to music for the mass written by both Haydn and Mozart, which was nearly unknown in England at the time. Though celebration of the Catholic mass was generally forbidden in Britain, the service was still legal in embassy chapels, which were considered foreign soil. In the early years of the nineteenth century, word had spread of the stunning organ music which was to be heard at the masses held in the chapel of the Portuguese Embassy. Soon, both Catholics and non-Catholics alike flocked to the chapel when a mass featuring the work of Mozart or Haydn was to be held. Attendance at these musical services remained high right through the decade of the Regency and on into the reign of George IV.

In the year 1808, Vincent Novello lost his father and gained a wife. Though he was the second son, it fell to Vincent to deal with the many issues regarding the settling of his father’s estate. One July evening, lonely after his father’s passing and with no servants in the house, Vincent went out for supper, then took a leisurely stroll home. At the corner of Oxford Street and James Street, he met, quite by chance, Mary Sabilla Hehl, an intelligent, kind, charming, practical and capable young woman of German-Irish descent. They hit it off immediately and, after a brief courtship, they were married in August of 1808, first at the St. Marylebone Anglican Church, then again, by a Catholic priest, in their Oxford Street house. They set up housekeeping together in the Novello family home at 240 Oxford Street, which once again became a warm domestic haven for Vincent and where they would live happily for many years. Later in life, Vincent wrote to his beloved Mary of their first home, where ". . . you first gave yourself to my arms — & where you continued for so many years to bless my house with your cheerful & animating presence — making every one about you happy — adding to my felicity in every possible way in your power — and forming the principal charm and greatest joy of my existence."

Vincent and Mary Novello would eventually have eleven children, seven of whom would survive to adulthood. They often lovingly referred to their large brood as their "tribe." Music was an important part of family life in the Novello household. Vincent compiled a book of music for his children which he sub-titled "A few little Dances for my little Chicks." This volume contained a number of piano dances for which he had made simplified arrangements so that even the youngest could enjoy them. All of the children were encouraged to read extensively and to discuss frankly their opinions on their reading and anything else in which they were interested. Evenings at the theatre or the opera were a particularly favored treat for the family. Several of the Novello children would go on to enter into the music profession.

In late 1808 or early 1809, Vincent Novello became reacquainted with a fellow organist he had known on and off since he was a boy. Nearly twenty years older than Novello, Samuel Wesley, who also happened to be the nephew of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was at that time in high demand as an organist for many recitals. It is believed that Samuel Wesley, who had converted to Roman Catholicism, much to his uncle’s dismay, introduced Vincent Novello to the organ music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Though Bach was highly respected as a skilled organist across the Continent, at that time, his music was only known to a small coterie of English organists whom Wesley had dubbed "the Sebastian Squad." Novello soon became a key member of "the Sebastian Squad," along with Karl Friedrich Horn and fellow organists Benjamin Jacob and William Crotch. The squad maintained a lively correspondence throughout the Regency period as they worked to popularize the music of J. S. Bach. Through a series of organ recitals and other musical programs, "the Sebastian Squad" brought the work of J. S. Bach to the attention of a vast array of people in Britain over the course of the Regency. Before the decade came to a close, the elder Bach was finally being recognized as a talented composer as well as a gifted organist.

From time to time, Novello was able to earn extra money when he was asked to design and/or demonstrate new organs for various churches and halls across Britain. He was also called on to perform at various notable musical events held in London and around the country. In many cases, he included one or more works by Bach in the musical program, often using his own arrangements. Though Novello was initially asked to perform as the organist, later, he was just as often asked to direct a full orchestra. During the Regency, the term "conductor" was not widely used for this position. Typically, Novello would have been billed as "leading" or "presiding over" the orchestra. According to the online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, it was not until the 1820s that the term "conductor" became the usual term of reference for an orchestra leader. In the early 1820s, the new king, George IV, was so impressed by Vincent Novello’s talent that he offered him the position of organist at the Royal Pavilion at Brighton. Though Novello was honored by the offer, he declined because he did not want to uproot his family, or be so far away from the London musical community in which he was so fully involved.

In order to better support his growing family, Novello began teaching music to supplement his income from performing and organ design. Vincent Novello loved music and he loved sharing the gift with others. He regularly gave piano lessons in at least three different schools in London as well as teaching a number of students privately. In addition, he was often asked to judge musical competitions. He also taught aspiring young organists and it was during the course of these lessons that he saw a means by which he could enable those less gifted and knowledgeable than himself to improve their performances on the organ. Most musical scores from which organists were expected to play were the full orchestral score, with what was known as a "figured bass" being the only indication of the organ part, with which few but professional musicians were familiar. In addition, the majority of these scores were published abroad, which made them that much more difficult for native English speakers to read. Novello knew both Italian and French and he had learned to read music at an early age. Even more to his advantage, he had a talent for quickly copying sheet music. He carefully transcribed legible, easily playable scores solely for the organ from complex orchestral scores. Though his pupils were deeply grateful for his efforts, Novello inadvertently annoyed a number of professional organists, who felt he had significantly devalued their profession by eliminating the mystery and making organ music clear and easy to read and to play.

Wishing to make his new scores available to all who might want them, Vincent Novello soon encountered another obstacle. Sheet music was very expensive at that time, primarily because it was extremely labor-intensive and demanding to set up the printing plates. There was also the problem that, typically, only full orchestral scores were printed and sold. Such music had a very small market and thus meant a very slim profit margin for the publisher. In most cases, any sheet music published in Britain up to that time was published by subscription, with wealthy buyers paying in advance. Novello could find no publishers in London, or anywhere in Britain, who were willing to take the great risk of publishing his sheet music without any subscribers. Undeterred, Novello paid for the printing of his music out of his own pocket. In 1811, the same year in which the Prince of Wales became Regent, Vincent Novello began selling his clear and simplified scores from his home in Oxford Street; his only advertising, word of mouth. Novello’s first set of sheet music for organ was the two-volume A Collection of Sacred Music, which he compiled from music manuscripts at the South Street chapel. Aware that his pupils, and most organists, lived on a tight budget, he priced his sheet music so that it was affordable for nearly everyone. His first print run sold out within a few weeks and he placed even larger orders with his printer. His subsequent print runs sold just as well and soon, not only had he recovered his initial investment, he was making a tidy profit on his sheet music sales.

Though he began with sacred music, Novello soon expanded his offerings to include many popular secular pieces as well and they proved just as profitable. As one scholar of music has noted, Novello had "good taste and even better judgement" when it came to the music he chose to publish. As much because he loved music as for the need to expand his inventory, whenever Novello traveled to a new place, he would inquire about any music collections in the area. This had a most serendipitous effect when he traveled to York, where he discovered Purcell’s G minor Evening Service and a set of four anthems, in unpublished manuscripts, in the Minster. His ability to write music quickly enabled him to copy all of the music from the manuscripts in a single day. Thus, when a fire in the York Minster the following year destroyed the original manuscripts, Novello was able to provide the church authorities with complete copies of the music they thought was irretrievably lost.

An unexpected secondary benefit of Vincent Novello’s simplified scores further increased his sales. The basic, uncluttered music intended for use as organ accompaniment was ideal for small choral and instrumental societies. Previously, those groups had been forced to make do with hand-written copies of any music which they were able to borrow from wealthy patrons and collectors or from a single copy which they would have purchased at a high cost. The music which Novello sold was so inexpensive that most groups could afford multiple copies to accommodate all their members with clear, legible sheet music. Existing choral and instrumental groups were able to expand their repertoires and more groups sprang up across the country as people found they could acquire good quality sheet music of popular sacred and secular pieces at affordable prices. When Novello became aware of how his sheet music was being used by these groups, he also brought out vocal scores as well.

In 1813, Vincent Novello became one of the founding members of the Philharmonic Society of London. He was also an active member in both the Choral Harmonists and the Classical Harmonists, where he often performed or conducted. Despite his professional music commitments, Novello always made time for music and other arts in his home. In addition to his love of music, he had developed a lasting interest in poetry and fine literature. This second interest he shared with his wife, Mary, which they, in turn, shared with their children. Most Sundays throughout the Regency, informal "musical" evenings were held at the Novello family home, at 240 Oxford Street. But perhaps these evenings would be better described as "artistic" evenings, since many of those in attendance were members of London’s literary community. The Novellos had befriended Charles and Mary Lamb, William Hazlitt, Percy and Mary Shelley, John Keats, Leigh Hunt, Charles Cowden Clarke, Henry Robertson and Edward Holmes. Throughout the course of these lively evenings, poetry and prose were read aloud and music was played and sung. Though Mozart was not yet widely popular in Britain, a great deal of Mozart was heard in the Novello home on these musical evenings. Based on the memoirs left by a number of those in attendance, these musical evenings were not only artistic nourishment for the soul, they were also great fun for all those in attendance.

Though Vincent Novello enjoyed brisk sales of his affordable sheet music, he always considered it a side business and he never saw the need to open a shop. Throughout the years of the Regency, he continued to sell his sheet music from his home. It does appear that he had both mail order and walk-in sales and his wife and his older children pitched in with that part of the business. The Novello family sheet music business continued in that manner until 1829. It was in that year that Vincent’s eldest son, Joseph Alfred Novello, known as Alfred, took over the management of the company from his father. Though only nineteen, Alfred was a bass singer who appeared in many concerts, oratorios and other musical events, and he held the position of organist and choirmaster at Lincoln’s Inn Chapel, so he was well-known in the London musical community. In 1829, Alfred opened a shop for Novello & Company, sheet music publishers, at 67, Frith Street in Soho. Though Alfred ran the business, his father still produced most of the music which was sold in the shop for at least another decade. Alfred continued his father’s practice of keeping the company’s sheet music affordable. Remarkably, Novello & Company celebrated their bicentennial in 2011 and they are still in business today. They even have a web site.

Might Vincent Novello and/or his musical world make an appearance in a Regency romance? Perhaps the heroine likes to attend services at the chapel of the Portuguese Embassy to enjoy the music of Mozart or Haydn? Will she be hassled by a very anti-Catholic acquaintance or family member? Or might she, or some other character, become suspect as a spy for their attendance at those chapel services held on foreign soil? During the Regency, Oxford Street was a mix of residential and retail premises. It was a respectable area where the heroine might go to purchase inexpensive sheet music from the Novello family home at number 240. Will she encounter the hero there on a visit? A visitor to London from the country might make a trip to 240 Oxford Street to purchase sheet music for a friend or family member back home. Then again, one or more characters in the story might be invited to the Novello family home for one of their Sunday musical evenings, where they might meet any number of the Novello’s prominent literary friends. Or, could it be that these visitors to the Novello home are struck by the loving relationship between Vincent and his wife, Mary? Will they long for such a relationship for themselves?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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6 Responses to Vincent Novello:   Annoyer of Organists

  1. What a splendid man! I’m sure my Jane Armitage will purchase music from him. And here’s a plot bunny: someone has acquired a piece of sheet music and wants the foreign notation translated, but when Mr Novello looks at it, he declares that this is not genuine music. It is, in fact, a coded message….

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      The more I read about him, the more I liked him.

      Interesting plot bunny. I had never thought of sheet music being used to send messages, but it is a great idea. So many options.



  2. Anna M Thane says:

    Thank you very much for sharing this insightful post.

    As a plot bunny: Lord A is jealously watching his finance, Miss C. He believes her to have an affair. One day, Miss C. and her maid drops by Novello’s house to buy some music sheets. Lord A. is watching her. Aha! He thinks, might this Mr. Novello be her lover?
    Miss C enjoys music very much and gets involved into a discussion about music with the Novello family. The visit takes longer than planned. The maid gets bored and leaves the house to do some shopping while Miss C keeps on discussion music with Mr. Novello and his wife.
    All the while, Lord A. kicks his heel outside, growing more and more jealous. Finally, Miss C leaves the Novellos, her cheeks glowing with enthusiams. Lord A. draws to the wrong conclusions. He rushes towards her und accuses her of infidelity. He then storms inside the house to challenge Mr. Novello. Can Miss C prevent a duel?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      A most interesting scenario. Fortunately, there is no chance that Mr. Novello would be challenged to a duel. A gentleman would never challenge anyone but another gentleman to a duel. Mr. Novello, being from the middle class and a Roman Catholic into the bargain, would be beneath Lord A’s notice, according to the code duello. He would be more likely to threaten to thrash Mr. Novello.

      However, I would like to propose an alternate scenario, though it will put a fair bit of egg on Lord A’s face. During the Regency, the Novello children would have ranged in age from infant to tweens. Imagine Lord A storming into the Novello house to find Mr. and Mrs. Novello and all their children gathered together in the sitting room? A charming domestic scene, and a completely unlikely setting for a love nest. How will Lord A talk his way out of that?



      • Splendid! A nice solution for the dilemma that Mr Novello was middle-class.

        A side question: It is impossible that Lord A is Roman-Catholic himself? Couldn’t he be a recusant?

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          He could be, and there were some among the aristocracy who would have accepted him, even knowing that. But most of the aristocracy and gentry at this time were Anglican, and there were many of them who, if not outright anti-Catholic, would have kept their distance. This was the same period in which Parliament was still resisting the idea of granting equal rights to the Catholics in Ireland. Most Catholics in England during the Regency were able to practice their faith by doing so quietly, so long as they did not flout it. For example, the Regent’s morganatic wife, Mrs. Fitzherbert, was Catholic. She practiced her faith quietly and was considered by all to be a good woman. Even King George III, who consistently refused to grant Irish Catholics their civil rights, came to see that she was a good influence on his son.

          Vincent Novello was born in 1781, the year after the rabidly anit-Catholic Gordon Riots. Fortunately, by the Regency, the really rabid anit-Catholic sentiment had died down across most of England. In most cases, Catholics were allowed to live and let live, unless they did something really egregious, or in some way flouted their faith in a way that suggested they were not true, patriotic Englishmen.



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