Robert Sidney Pratten (1824 – 1873)
R.S. Pratten was a well-known flute player, flute maker and composer, whose fame lives on especially amongst players of traditional music. In fact his wife, Catherine, a Professor of Guitar and a composer for that instrument, is often now rather better remembered than her husband.
Robert began as a flute player, a child prodigy who was already performing as a soloist at concerts in Bath and Bristol by the age of 12 years despite reputedly only having had a single lesson. Whilst still in his teens, he went to Dublin where he worked as first flute at the Theatre Royal and in other musical societies. So, by the age of 21, when he went to London, he was already a seasoned professional and was swiftly engaged there as first flute at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden and subsequently by the Royal Italian Opera who made their home there. At the same time, he was also first flute in the Philharmonic Society and other orchestras in London and much in demand as a soloist. The Bristol Mercury newspaper of Saturday March 1st 1845 reports that 'Mr. R. S Pratten appeared for the first time in London at the Covent Garden Theatre, as a solo player on the flute, and fully bore out the high encomiums bestowed on him by the provincial press. His tone and style differs from that of our established favourites, tone and expression being his chief aim; in both these qualities he reminds us strongly of Nicholson”. There are numerous other newspaper reviews giving good accounts of Pratten’s tone and style.
During 1846 and 1847, he toured the continent as a soloist, receiving admiration wherever he went. He was at that time playing on one of Siccama’s Diatonic Flutes but, dissatisfied with some of its limitations, he began designing his own modifications to the simple system flute based upon the ideas of Rockstro,. This ultimately resulted in a collaboration with Thomas Boosey and a line of flutes that were made and sold under the brand name of Pratten’s Perfected. The famous player of Irish flute music, Matt Molloy, plays on one of these instruments.
In London, Pratten had the opportunity to augment his self-taught knowledge of the theory of music by taking lessons in harmony and counterpoint with Charles Lucas followed by further study in Germany. He started to write works for himself to perform, his Fantasia Marie Stuartas well as the Concertstück attracting particular acclaim.
Mostly I gather material for my research on forgotten composers from libraries around the world. (One year I had to spend a very happy six weeks working in the Casanatense library in Rome). But I came across the original copy of Marie Stuart in a junk shop in Poole [Dorset] in the 1960’s and acquired it for the princely sum of 12 pence. I didn’t realise then what a rare find it was. The work, based on themes from the opera by Niedermeyer, appears to date from 1849 and was most probably performed for the first time in Manchester in July of that year. A review in Freeman’s Journal describes it as being beautifully played and warmly applauded. Pratten was to perform it several times more in that year and an announcement in the London Daily News, December 4th 1849, of Mr Julien’s Benefit Concert at the Theatre Royal Drury lane shows “Mairie Stuart played by Mr. Pratten, solo flute” included in the programme.
The work is in two parts. First comes a charmingly worked out idea on a theme based around the notes of a D major arpeggio. The second section is a theme and variations, a format with which Pratten was to become increasingly disenchanted [De Lorenzo uses the word nauseous to describe Pratten’s feeling about them], disliking their displays of non-expressive virtuosity and eventually abandoning the structure completely in favour of writing passages in florid counterpoint.