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José Maria del Carmen Ribas [1796 - 1861]

The brilliant Spanish flautist, José Maria del Carmen Ribas, was one of the darlings of the London musical world in the nineteenth century. His life is a story of adventure and glamour.
Contemporary with the flautists Drouet and Nicholson, Ribas was born on July 16th, 1796 in Burgos, the historic Castilian city, where his father worked as a regimental musician. With his father’s tuition, the young Ribas learnt to play flute, oboe and clarinet before joining the regimental band as a clarinet player. He was taken prisoner by the French, rescued by the British and served under Wellington at the Battle of Toulouse.

Antonio Ribas, the 4th grandson of José Maria’s brother, João, takes up the story:

‘In 1814, at the end of the Peninsular Wars, José Maria returned to Oporto where he joined the Orchestra of the Royal Theatre of S João, Oporto as First Clarinet. His brother, João, was first violinist and Director of the orchestra. The First Flute at that time was João Parado, who was enjoying considerable popularity and, stimulated by his example, José Maria once again became a dedicated student of the flute, quickly becoming a fine player and gaining the position of First Flute in the Opera of Lisbon. Very little is known about José Maria’s career in Portugal, although it is known that he gave a flute concert for the benefit of the Theatre of Bairro Alto (Lisbon Gazeta, September 27th, 1825), in which he performed his own compositions.’
However it seems that Ribas was a ‘bit of a lad’ because, Antonio Ribas continues, ‘shortly after this concert at the age of thirty, his career in Portugal came to an abrupt halt due either to love affairs and a burning desire for glory [1] or due to the displeasure of certain priests of Oporto, who posted his name, as that of a recalcitrant, on the church doors [2]. At any rate, it was sufficient motivation for Ribas to relocate to London, where he found employment as a clarinettist. ‘Mr Ribas, of Lisbon, was introduced, and took the station of first clarinet during the season. His accompaniment of Gratias agimus’ ..was creditable, but he does not approach the superior taste and beautiful expression of our Willman.[3]

Ribas may have failed to make his mark as a clarinettist in London, but he was quickly to establish himself as a flute player, appearing with the best and playing a duet with Berbiguier which, according to the Court Journal [June 1833], ‘excited considerable interest and approbation’ - as well it might!
Within ten years Ribas had acquired the positions of Principal Flute at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, Second Flutist at the King´s Theatre in London and, in 1837, he succeeded Nicholson as First Flute of the Philharmonic Society. Later he was to be made First Flute of the Royal Italian Opera and firmly established as the leading flute player in England.
Richard Rockstro was enthusiastic about his playing recalling that ‘I have often heard him at Her Majesty’s Theatre, playing the most difficult passages with consummate ease, and with such a clear, full tone that not a note was lost. In the matter of fulness and power of tone throughout the compass of his instrument, Ribas was perhaps unequalled. He was one of the first in England, to play the celebrated staccato solo in the Scherzo of Mendelssohn's " Midsummer's Night's Dream " music. The composer, who conducted, was so pleased with the performance of Ribas that he asked him to play the passage three times, at the rehearsal, saying that he had no idea it could be made so effective.’
However Mendelssohn’s music was also the scene of some controversy that involved Ribas after a mistake occurred during a performance of the Italian Symphony, as recalled by the Leicester Journal in 1848 : ‘at a particular part, the first oboe, Mr. Grattan Cooke, was obliged to stop and leave the flute, M. Ribas, in undisturbed possession of the field… we remember when Mendelssohn first superintended a rehearsal of this symphony at The Philharmonic in the summer of 1842, he made the gentleman who played the first oboe go over this same passage a dozen times at least, but all in vain. Last night, after a lapse of five years, and with the experience of many performances of the symphony, the very same blunder was committed in the very same passage, by the very same oboist. Mr. Cooke insinuated that the fault rested with M. Ribas, at the same time claiming credit for ‘ not wishing to exonerate himself at the expense of a brother artist’. Hereupon M. Ribas comes into the field, and shows that Mendelssohn himself was aware that Mr. Cooke never could play that particular part, when the symphony was first played.’
There is never a word of criticism of his playing from the critics, The nearest to a negative came when Ribas had performed at a concert of Spanish artists, ‘but was overshadowed by a performance of the Willian Tell Overture played by 16 hands on eight pianos - an effect considerably more powerful than jubilant’. Indeed it seems as the critics couldn’t praise Ribas highly enough, even when they had slated every other aspect of a performance. For example this from The Era [May1849] ‘The fifth Concert of the Philharmonic Society included the Overture to Magic Flute which is one of the few pieces that are not heard to advantage from the Philharmonic Band. The time is still taken too fast to avoid that scrambling and steeple-chase effect of which so many of the old school, with justice, complain; and were it not that the soloists are trained performers, many of the obligato passages would be ‘dangerous’. In advertising the soloists, we may especially notice M. Ribas, whose execution of the rapid runs on the flute was everything that could be desired. Would that the same praise could be extended to the gentlemen in charge of the horns and trombones, which were most offensively obstreperous.’ And reviewing another occasion, The Athenaeum wrote’ the whole concert…was disgraceful but the Messieurs Ribas [José Maria and his his younger brother, Antonio] did something to redeem the evening by their performance of a Duett on the flute and oboe [composed by Ribas].
Ribas’ appearances as a soloist usually included a number of his own works in the programme and he became firmly established in the public’s eye not only as a flute player, but also as a composer of flute music. For example ‘Signor Ribas….gave his annual concert last night, which was fully and fashionably attended. M. Ribas is the best flute player we have. He was warmly applauded in all the compositions, the whole of which were of his own composition, and two of them highly creditable proofs of his talent as a composer.’ Ribas was well connected, so his annual concert was always well attended. He invited a variety of artists to take part alongside him including on one occasion Mr. Henry Laurent, ‘who made a grand assault on De Folly’s newly invented geometrical pianoforte’. He also invited three other flautists [De Folly, Bolton, and Master Wells] to perform a quartet by Kuhlau with him ‘despite Cherubini’s well known anathema against two flutes’ What more, asks The Morning Chronicle, could the flutists desire, unless they intended to outnumber the twenty guitarists who are about to electrify London audiences? In 1836 the price of a ticket to hear him at the Hanover Square Rooms was 10s 6d. [equivalent to £45 today] and his inclusion in a recital helped to ensure that it all ‘went merry as a marriage bell’[5].
Ribas’ style as a composer is interesting because it displays an innocent, untutored enthusiasm for chromaticism and risky modulations, with an occasional dash of Spanish flavour. The Little Duets [Duettinos] are a delight to play and highly recommended.

Ribas played an old-fashioned large-holed flute, not, as Rockstro tells us, because he failed to recognise the advantages of the new system, but because he saw plainly that he was too old, as well as too busy, to be able to change his fingering with any prospect of success. Together with his father-in-law-to-be, the flutemaker, Robert Scott, he made several modifications in his instrument, with a view to improving its intonation and its power of tone. He greatly enlarged the upper part of the bore and added to the thickness of the wood, thus enabling the tone to be increased in power with less risk of the loss of its full character.

Ribas got married in 1845. He was 49 years old, but his bride, Emma Elizabeth Scott [daughter of the flutemaker] was only 17. They were wed on 11th October 1845, at St. Andrew, Holborn. Curiously, by accident or design, Ribas’ date of birth is recorded as 1805, knocking nine years off his age!
They lived at 105, Stanhope street, Regent’s Park where ‘Signor Ribas begs to acquaint his pupils and amateurs of the flute, that his reunions, for the practice of Trios and Quartets, will commence on Monday evening, October 26 [1846]’
The following year, Ribas went to Cheltenham, initially to perform in two concerts ‘where he was warmly and deservedly applauded’[6], but then, deciding to stay longer, an advertisment appeared in the Cheltenham Looker-On by Signor Ribas, who ‘intends staying in Cheltenham for some time, for the purpose of teaching’ Flute. Applications to be made…at Signor Ribas residence, 5, Clarence Parade.

Less than six years after his marriage, London’s musical world was saddened by the news of Ribas’ retirement from the Philharmonic and on July 4th of the same year, he held a farewell concert at which ‘this eminent professor was honoured by a numerous assemblage on Friday evening at the Beethoven Rooms, including a strong muster of amateur flutists, anxious, from his masterly performances, to derive hints for their own, and a full opportunity was accordingly offered them of so doing. The concerto, of his own composition, abounded with the choicest flute effects, from the double tongued staccato… to the soft-flowing phrases.[7]
He made a further appearance in Don R. De Cibra’s Guitar Performance on the 22nd ‘but’, complained the reporter of the Dublin Evening Packet and Correspondent, ‘it was placed so late in the programme that we were compelled to leave before it came on’

Antonio Ribas says:
‘Feeling up in age and with sufficient savings to retire, after 26 years in London, in 1851 Ribas decided to leave England, returning to Oporto on August 11th of that year. In 1852 he returned to Madrid and Lisbon on concert tours.
With him went Miss Scott, who accompanied him on the piano and also played the concertina, and whom he presented as his student, although in reality she was his wife. On July 2nd, 1853, Miss Scott gave a ‘farewell’ concert in the Philharmonic Society of Oporto, but she continued to work in the “professor’s” company, taking part in the annual concerts he gave until 1859 in the Philharmonic Society of Oporto. The last of those concerts took place on April 26th, 1859.
José Maria Ribas died on July 1st, 1861. In his memory, an extensive eulogy, written by J. Simões Ferreira, was published in the newspaper “O Nacional” on July 15th.

Rockstro adds ‘his intention, on quitting this country, was never to allow himself to be heard again in public, wishing, as he said, to retire before the slightest falling off should be perceptible in his performance. He did not, however, immediately carry out that intention, for he made a tour through Spain and Portugal, giving concerts in some of the principal towns, as he had been accustomed to do at intervals during his twenty-five years residence in London. It should be mentioned that during one of these visits, Queen Isabella of Spain presented to him a diamond brooch. In 1853 he once more settled in Oporto and occupied his time in giving lessons on the flute and the concertina.

England didn’t immediately forget Ribas and, although there appears to have been no mention of it in the London papers, the Wells Journal and the Irish Sligo Champion reported the following in May,1852:
‘The flute-playing community will be glad to hear good news of their favourite Ribas, though their pleasure will be mingled with regret in learning that he has finally taken leave of them. We translate the following from an Oporto paper, the Braz Tisana,:
Our eminent artist, Senhor José Maria Ribas, has recently given a concert at Lisbon, with a result which we should imagine will prove one of the best ornaments to his coronal of triumphs.
The concert took place in the splendid Theatre of Dona Maria, in the presence of their Majesties the Queen and King Consort, of the élite of the court and aristocracy, as well as of the first musical professors, with a crowded audience, and all evinced their admiration of the delightful sounds of his flute. The most enthusiastic applause followed every piece of music he executed. We feel the greater pleasure in recording this fact, as we place the highest value on the triumph of our fellow-townsman who, after an absence of thirty years duration, has returned to reap in our metropolis, the capital of his adopted country, the reward of his talents.
We understand that Senhor Ribas intends to relinquish finally the position he has hitherto so creditably maintained in London, and that he purposes to accomplish an artistic tour. We cordially wish him all the success he so much deserves. The Lisbon papers are unanimous in according the highest praise to the performances of Mr. Ribas.
©Roz Trübger 2015

Further information:
Image of a Ribas's Improved Flute by Scott - pretty, ornate wood and silver
Information about the Ribas family
Recordings: amazon and itunes

Bibliography:
[1]. Vieira, Biographical Dictionary of Portuguese Musicians, Vol I, Lisbon 1900, p. 254)
[2](Richard Shepherd Rockstro, A Treatise on the Flute, London 1890 pp. 624 & 627)
[3]The Quarterly Musical Magazine 1826
[4]Morning Post in February 1841
[5]Belle Assembly - April 27, 1840
[6] Cheltenham Looker-On 04/12/1847
[7]Morning Post - 07/07/1851