The Cooper

Not previously published

Dr. Archibald Billing F.R.S.  1791-1881 M.D. OXON  F.R.C.P.  (LONDON)

            When Paganini arrived in London on Saturday the 14th May, l831 he had with him a clutch of ‘introductory letters’ addressed to many influential people, among them the Duke of Sussex, (brother of the Viceroy of Hanover), the Earl of Harrington etc., etc.  However, it was not these exulted personages that were uppermost in his mind but Samuel Cartwright, dentist who had been recommended as the finest in London.  The aim was to acquire new dentures and some comfort from those recently fitted in Paris, before his English debut, which was only a week away.  Cartwright being a serious amateur musician was quick to grasp a golden opportunity not only to relieve Paganini of a tiresome and painful problem but to gain a valuable friendship, by arranging a dinner in the Maestro’s honour within a day or so of his arrival.  Among the musical friends invited was Dr. Archibald Billing, another keen amateur musician, and foremost London doctor, he was well known to every musical artist in London during the whole of his long life.  So started a friendship between violinist and doctor, which was to last throughout Paganini’s life and be of immense support in many awkward situations that arose during his sojourns in the British Isles.

            An Irishman by birth (Dublin born), Dr. Billing had much of the animation that distinguishes his countrymen; he was attached as lecturer and physician to the London Hospital.  He became a Fellow of the newly formed University of London (1836), and for many years filled the office of examiner for degrees in medicine.  Besides being a member of the Senate, Dr. Billing was a specialist in chest complaints and among the first to recognise the importance of the stethoscope.

            Although Dr. Billing must have treated or at least advised Paganini on many occasions if we are to believe his state of health at the time, true to his profession, Dr. Billing considered this totally confidential even in old age, so that no observations, analyses etc. have come from his hand.  Others have not been so reticent.  The latest news comes from Dr. J. G. O’Shea in Australia, he says that by 1828 Paganini had failing eyesight, deteriorating hand writing etc. as a result of “Hatters Shakes”, a form of mercury poisoning (Guardian 1988), it’s difficult to line up this analysis with the facts.  Music manuscripts and letters, some as late as 1835, exist that are in his perfectly normal handwriting.  The fact that in 1828 Paganini had yet to conquer the British Isles in a way which is unique in musical history, seems to have completely escaped the notice of Dr. O’Shea.

            Throughout Dr. Billing’s long medical career music and medicine were inextricably entwined.  A few letters exist which demonstrate this.

            Mr. Dear Sir,

                        Should you be passing my house this afternoon I shall be very greatly obliged by your favouring me with a call and I beg to request your valuable advice to my wife who is exceedingly unwell.

            I am 

            Yours faithfully, 

            George Smart.

It’s an extraordinary casual way to request help, let’s hope Dr. Billing came to the rescue in good time.

            As unofficial medical advisor to the operatic profession he cultivated valuable friendship with many great singers of the day.  The soprano Giulia Grizi, pleads with Dr. Billing in a short note to send her more of those indispensable pills.  The coloratura soprano Adelina Patti, send a photograph of herself inscribed ‘in kind remembrance of Dr. Billing, Adelina Patti.’

            In 1867 Dr. Billing receives from an appreciative patient a page of original music manuscript by the composer of Italian light opera, Vincenzo Bellini.

            Three letter from Felix Mendelssohn dated 1833 indicate by their familiarity that the two families were well acquainted with each other.  Written from 103 Great Portland Street, Mendelssohn is endeavouring to keep an invitation to Dr. Billing’s home 34 Park Lane, London but as a cold delays the date from 7th to the 14th June, Mendelssohn must have considered an evening with Dr. Billing of more interest than the engagement he postponed. (Park Lane was renumbered in 1934, Dr. Billings’ house [No. 34 in 1890] is now No. 97 and houses the Gomba Group of Companies. Two doors away is the Grosvenor House Hotel). His father is also invited, Nicolo Paganini and Robert Lindly, Britain’s finest cellist at that time were the other ‘playing’ guests.  It must have been more than just a family gathering as the “Morning Post” reported on the 15th May, as follows: -

            “It has been frequently said that Paganini could not take part in a quartet with any effect.  This is far from being correct.  At a soiree given by Dr. Billing the other evening, Paganini, Mendelssohn and Lindly performed a trio for viola, guitar and violoncello (composed by Paganini), Mendelssohn playing the guitar part on the pianoforte, adding a bass in the most ingenious manner.  Paganini’s performance on the tenor was of the true school: there were no tricks, no jumping and skipping, but all the passages were legitimately and beautifully played, as were those given to the violoncello by Lindly.  As a composition it reflected credit on the Signor; it was well conceived, scientifically written and remarkably pleasing and effective.

            In a postscript to the letter of May 7th, Mendelssohn says I shall try to get the trios of Beethoven and bring them with me. These trios almost certainly made up the rest of the evenings music.  Knowing Paganini’s fervent love of Beethoven, particularly his Chamber Music, Mendelssohn must have gone out of his way to please the Maestro who had been a guest at the Mendelssohn’s Berlin home as early as 1828.”

            Geraldine de Courcey in her in her definitive publication on Paganini goes to great pains to put the record straight regarding Paganini’s macabre curiosity.  Paganini accompanies Dr. Billing to the London Hospital, during his first English visit in 1831, to witness an operation of a particularly gruesome sort.  Because of the publics’ intense curiosity the operation was postponed for a week, de Courcey sums up the situation thus, “There is no doubt that on Dec. 1st Paganini accompanied Dr. Billing to the hospital but on discovering that he was attracting considerable attention and might be contributing to the confusion did not repeat the episode.  He had seen enough already to satisfy his curiosity.”  It was commonplace in the 19th century for members of the public to witness operations often as a form of entertainment!

During the political excitement in connection with the reform bill in June 1832, there was a heavy run on all English banks.  Paganini evidently alarmed, requests Dr. Billing to withdraw his funds from Heath’s Bank.

“A rheumatic fever kept me in bed for 6 days which is why I couldn’t leave for London on the day indicated in my previous letter.  I am anxious to embrace you and tell you by word of mouth all that the pen can never express, sentiments of tenderness for you and all your estimable family…I hope you have withdrawn the £3,200 from Mr. Heath?  If on my return to London you can recommend me a good servant, I shall be glad to engage him.  But he should not be married, addio greetings to dear Mr. Freeman with a tender kiss.”

This letter dated June 10th 1832 from the Geizer Collection, Berne, Switzerland indicates in no uncertain way Paganini’s concern and worry over money matters, it shows he tried hard and succeeded in keeping a finger on the pulse.  In this case through the good offices of Dr. Billing, Paganini’s endearment to the Billing family is also sincerely expressed. 

            In a letter to his friend and lawyer Luigi Germi, 17th February 1834,  Paganini is concerned about the safety of instruments that he has, or is about to purchase.  His dealing instincts are neatly encapsulated here.  Paganini gives Dr. Billing credit by accepting his word and expertise on the quality of a large viola, which caused problems getting through customs.

            “The big viola, which I thought had been lost at the London customs, has finally been located and the only expenses were the transportation charges and a tip to an employee at the Embassy - in all about six pounds sterling.  The instrument is at present with my friend Dr. Billing, who says it is all well made.  I shall find it there the first of April since I’m planning to leave Paris on March 10, going to Brussels and other cities. As regards the violoncello that I inherited from Cavaliere Milzetti of Bologna, it’s at present in the possession of a certain Signor Domenica Gavarassi, likewise of Bologna, who is holding it at my disposal. You can therefore write to him directly and I should like to have it stored with Signor Carlo Carli of Milan, asking him for me to place it with my other instruments; and also instruct Signor Gavarassi to send it well guarded since it is a certified instrument made by the celebrated Guarneri, the elder….  I don’t know if I told you that while on tour in England my English singers - two damned women - on getting into the carriage to go to concert in the theatre gave my violin to the coachman instead of holding it between their knees, The case fell down and damaged the violin, which I’ve now given to a famous man to repair.  I hope for the best.  Excuse this chatter.

(Paganini is here referring to a Guarneri violoncello that was bequeathed to him by his Bologna friend  Milzetti.  The executor, Gaetano Zanerini, claimed that the instrument that had been turned over to him did not fit the description and Paganini eventually had to refer the matter to his Bologna lawyer, Signor Degli Antonj, for settlement.  This is evidently the Andrea Guarneri (1642) that was among his instruments at the time of his death).

            The damage to his violin could not have been serious enough to prevent him using it at the concert, nor at those that immediately followed, but as soon as he arrived in Paris he took it to Vuillaume and it was probably at this time that the latter made a copy that Sivori purchased from Paganini in 1840 and upon his death bequeathed to the city of Genoa


            The 24 caprices were the only important works to be published during Paganini’s working life.  He jealously guarded all important compositions from “Pirates” probably from fear of imitation.  The concertos in particular, he kept close to his heart so it comes as a surprise to find in a Sotheby Park-Bernet catalogue of 1972 the following entry:

            Nicolo Paganini ‘Autograph M.S. Music La Campanella arranged for the pianoforte, 12 staves.  Inscribed in Germany to Carl Czerny’.

Perhaps not so surprising as to find the first 8 bars of “La Campanella” being used to end a letter written in 1828 to his first biographer, Julius Schottky.  

(“Music Life Magazine l960, Moswow.)

            The manuscript illustrated, comes through the Billing family and it appears to be the only other complete piano arrangement in Paganini’s own hand to exist. One can only assume that this manuscript was a goodwill gesture to those whose friendship he deeply cherished.  It is a transcription from the famous bell theme taken from the concerto in B minor op.7, third movement.

            The father of Giulo Regondi, aged 9 a celebrated prodigy of guitar writing to Dr. Billing from Alnwick Castle in the north of England, first complains that because Paganini has been there before them no one has money left for their concerts.  “All these last concerts would have gone much better if the terrible Paganini, the real scourge of artists, had not travelled through these parts and emptied the purses of amateurs.”

            Regondi goes on to thank Dr. Billing for receiving some guitars and gives instructions on how to unpack and keep them in good condition until they meet up again.  In a postscript he has a final dig at Paganini  “We are obliged to keep prices low in these small towns because of people having spent so much money on Paganini these days”.

            Besides being among the last doctors to visit patients on horseback, Dr. Billing considered horse riding among the best exercises, the medical fraternity towards the end of a very distinguished career described him as “Father of the Profession”.  He most certainly was father to the musical profession as well as being something of a dog’s body to all and sundry.