ID: PH01_RWM / Reverend Tony Gough

TitlePeldon and the Mozart Connection

Compared to other Essex churches, the Norman Church of St. Mary's. Peldon, has not exactly been in the forefront of the great musical tradition for which the Christian Faith and Liturgy is justly renowned. Nor would it have been expected to be, given its size and architectural limitations of its Norman history.

But Peldon possesses something that no other church in Essex can boast of; a direct link with none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. How did this association come about?

The origins of this undoubted link can be traced back to the eighteenth century and to the birth in London on 27th October, 1765, of Anna Selina Storace (known as "Nancy"). Nancy's father, Stefano Storace, was born in Italy but moved to Dublin at the age of 23. Ten years later, he moved to London. Their first child, Stephen, later studied composition under Mozart himself and became a popular London composer of comic operettas.

Nancy Storace's first tenuous link with Mozart began with her training under the renowned castrato, Venanzio Rauzzini for whom Mozart wrote his Exsultate Jubilate in 1773. By the time she was eight, she was singing and performing throughout England.

Nancy Storace by Michael William Sharp.
Image via Wikimedia Commons [Note 1]

In 1778, she went to Naples and her debut Italian performance was in Florence in 1780. She enjoyed great success in Italy, and later in Vienna. In 1784, at the age of 19, Nancy married John Fischer, an English composer and violinist. The marriage, however, was not a happy one, and she was physically abused so much by Fischer that the Emperor, Joseph II, banished him from Vienna.

While in Vienna, Nancy's name was linked romantically with several composers, including Mozart, who was later to write for Nancy the role of Susannah in The Marriage of Figaro in 1789. She undoubtedly enjoyed the fame of a leading soprano throughout Europe.

In 1797 she began a tour of Europe with John Braham, a talented tenor. Braham was born to a Jewish family, originally named Abraham, but he dropped the initial letter from his professional persona. Considered by many to be the greatest English tenor of all time, he certainly enjoyed the fame of a latter-day Pavarotti. He also had a strong business sense, buying a hotel in King Street, Covent Garden which, after refurbishment, became the St. James's Theatre.

John Braham by Unknown Artist
National Portrait Gallery [Note 2]

Nancy Storace and John Braham toured Florence, Milan, Naples and Venice and enjoyed a close, later an intimate, personal relationship. Returning to London in 1801, Nancy found herself pregnant, and on 3rd May, 1802 gave birth in London Square, Leicester, to their son, William Spencer Harris Braham (whom they called Spencer). Marriage was out of the question since her husband was still living and would survive until his death in Ireland in 1896. It must be a matter of speculation why Nancy and John Braham did not subsequently marry.

Nancy's final performance took place on 30th May, 1808, and she later moved with her son to Herne Hill Cottage in London. After eighteen years together, Braham and Storace finally separated in 1814, presumably because of his attraction to Elizabeth Bolton (whom he married later that year). Their acrimonious split is recorded in numerous letters, now at the Sir John Soane's Museum in London, where reference is made to the unhappiness of their son, Spencer. In letters both to his father and grandmother, he complains bitterly of life at school in Winchester, and asks his father (11.11.1817) to "remove me", although he withholds the reasons. He does refer to the "dread of his father's name" (to Sir John Soane, 21.10.1817). A likely reason may well be found in his illegitimacy, and subsequent persecution by fellow pupils. In one letter, dated 18th March 1818, his father suggests to Spencer that, lacking any musical talents, there "are three roads open to you: the Church, Law or Medicine." After attending Lincoln College, Oxford, Spencer clearly chose the Church.

Later, Spencer would attribute the decline in his mother's health, and her subsequent death to the bitterness and heartbreak of the separation from John Braham. Nancy died aged 52 on 24th August, 1817. She is buried in St. Mary's, Lambeth.

Spencer was 15 years old when his mother died. He described his mother as an "angel" and their relationship was clearly extremely close. Eventually, after University, he took Holy Orders, and first became Chaplain to the Waldegrave household (1844), then Vicar of Willisborough in Kent. While there, he became a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral. He retained some link with his father and his family, and when John Braham married Frances Bolton, Spencer eventually came under the patronage of their daughter, his step-sister Frances. She would later marry George, Earl of Waldegrave, and became a leading social and political hostess of the Victorian era. Her entertainment at their home at Strawberry Hill in Twickenham became legendary.

Frances thereby came into the possession of the advowsons (the right of appointment) of several parish churches, including that of St. Mary, Peldon, and it was to this Living that she presented her half-brother, Spencer, on 10th July, 1851. Upon his marriage in 1851, he changed his name by deed poll to Meadows. He later had six children.

One of the earliest Peldon rectories was situated by the parish-pump, behind The Plough Inn on the Lower Road, and subsequently became Glebe Land. The land on what is known today as "The Old Rectory" (on Church Road) came into the possession of the church in 1822, when a new Rectory was built there, roughly in the centre of the present Old Rectory lawn. However, it was poorly constructed, and a letter still exists, dated 31st March, 1852, from the Bishop of Rochester, licensing the Rector, William Spencer Harris Braham Meadows, to be absent from his parish for nine months while the new building was erected.

Spencer, unknown to his patroness, Frances, left Peldon for the wealthier parish of Chigwell, in 1855. Osbert Wyndham Hewett, in his book "Strawberry Fair" [1956] says that he "exchanged the living of Peldon, which his sister had given him, for that of Chigwell without her authority" (p. 118). His father, John Braham, died the following year, in 1856.

Few visitors to Peldon today, glancing up at the Victorian edifice of the Old Rectory on Church Road, would imagine the history and drama that lies behind it. The mother of the then Rector had been one of the leading opera singers of her day, as did the Rector's father. John Braham. Together they toured Europe, meeting the leading royalty and composers of their day, and Meadows' mother had had a leading part especially written for her by none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

We are only left to wonder whether Spencer inherited anything of the vocal expertise so eminently displayed by his illustrious parents. If so, his singing of Matins and Evensong in the parish church must have been a joy to hear.

Spencer remained as the Vicar of St. Mary's, Chigwell until his death aged 81, in 1883. Peldon's association with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, however, remains as part of its illustrious history.

The Rev. Dr. Tony Gough 2004

This article appeared in Peldon and the Wigboroughs' Parish News in January 2006 under the title Peldon twinned with Mozart

Note 1 Nancy Storace painting by Michael William Sharp.
The image is in the Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Note 2 John Braham painting by Unknown artist
watercolour and stipple on ivory, circa 1834
Copyright National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 1870

AuthorReverend Tony Gough
SourceMersea Museum