Further details on Fr. Sigismondo Meinardi da San Nicola (1713-67)

13 January 2020

Prof. Urrows writes:

As we noted in a What’s New post of 28 April 2019, the letters of Father Meinardi were (re-) published last year by the municipal government of his home town, Druento, in the northwest of Italy, and edited by Prof. Eugenio Menegon, of Boston University.

The letters reveal much more about Meinardi and his musical activities than I had access to when I received from a colleague in 2014 a paragraph, extracted from the 1964 Rome publication of the letters, about his mechanical box organ (listed in the POCP Census as PEK1741) built for the Qianlong emperor. I summarize here, after reading the three long scholarly articles, and all 75 letters in the book (all in Italian, a somewhat tiresome activity, I have to say), a few key findings that are relevant to The Project.

Father Sigismondo was born in Turin in 1713, and baptized as Paolo Antonio Meinardi. His father was a doctor, and the family soon moved to Druento, where he grew up. Having entered the priesthood, and the order of Discalced Augustinians, he was assigned to the China mission. His letter of recommendation stated among other things, that he “is an expert in making harpsichords.” He sailed from Lorient in Brittany to Macau in December 1736. Lorient was the main port for the French East India Company, which explains his departure on a ship from this place. The East India Company also persuaded the captain of his ship to give him special permission to take a harpsichord with him to China .

A year and half later, after arriving in Macau, and then going to Guangzhou, he received permission to travel to Beijing as an “organaro”. This generally means ‘organ builder’; but as in other eighteenth-century cases, it seems that most of the ‘organs’ which Meinardi built were barrel organs with automata and/or automatic playing mechanisms and, as he called then, bagatelle. It is a bit of a stretch to call him an organ builder in the real sense, and anyway he was in Beijing for much of the time that Florian Bahr (1706-71) was there, and no doubt he couldn’t compete with such a professional in the field.

Meinardi arrived in Beijing on 8 April 1738. He was quickly introduced to Qianlong and, after a few days, “I was called by order of the emperor to play on various harpsichords and organs which had come from Europe. When I finished, the emperor said that he wanted a harpsichord [small enough to be] hidden in a bag, for him to take to Tartary; five palms long, and able to play by itself.” The following year, he wrote that “the emperor has excused me from painting and clock-making, and I’m only to occupy myself with making organs.”

Meinardi enjoyed a friendship with Hong Zhou (1712-70), fifth son of the Yongzheng emperor, and a younger brother of Qianlong. In 1740, Hong asked him for and organ “three palms high, that plays Chinese tunes all by itself” This was probably a study for the larger automatic organ (PEK1741) built for Qianlong the following year. It is worth quoting the whole story, since only a part of it is included in Keys to the Kingdom and on the Website page for this organ:

“In this year [of 1741], to give you news of my bagatelle, I built a small organ, about three palms high and two palms wide, with bellows and a cylinder, all hidden inside the sound box made of rare brazil wood and boxwood, so that outside one could not see anything but the sound box and twenty pipes. Inside there were also small bells, which I also made; [the mainspring] automatically activated the bellows and made the cylinder rotate, playing three Chinese sonatas [suonate, possibly better translated as ‘melodies’ or ‘tunes’]. To crown it, with the clever help of Father [Giambattista] Serafino (1692-1742) I made a rooster as large as a duck, which, when each sonata [tune] ended, would stand up, raise his head, flap his wings, and sing cucùlucù. Father Serafino and I presented this to the Emperor on the 1st of August [1741], who enjoyed it a lot, and who gave each of us two pieces of silk, the same as he wears himself, as a gift.

“The fifth Lord, his younger brother [Hong Zhou], saw that he wanted to have one made [by me]. When finished, and because he had to order the court officials to give me the necessary materials, he only gave me three pieces of damask cloth, probably because I didn’t make [it with] the cucùlucù mechanism…”

At the end of 1741, Meinardi was one of the three priests summoned to the palace to teach music (along with Teodorico Pedrini (1671-1746), and Bahr) and the following year his name appears in the court records of musicians. Meinardi recorded the original instrumentation of the famous chamber ensemble of the 1740s quite accurately: six violins, one cello, eight recorders, four transverse flutes, one tromba marina, and two harpsichords. As late at 1747, he was still being called to the imperial palace to regulate ‘organs’, but this may very well mean mechanical instruments.

Pedrini died in 1746, and Meinardi seems to have been involved in rebuilding the 1723 Xitang – which Pedrini had both founded and built – and finished this work in 1753. This is the last interesting detail about his musical activity, although the organ does not figure in it. I let him tell the story for himself, of the schola cantorum which he founded there:

When the Xitang “was finished to the glory of God, I wanted to have Mass sung on the solemn feasts with Chinese music. In this, God aided me, because a Chinese prince of my acquaintance told me he wanted to help, and gave me some Chinese instruments. Then I went on with the most difficult part: I taught eight boys to sing the [Ordinary] of the Mass, and to Chinese music. The other Christians accompanied on the instruments, and already they have sung Mass on different occasions to a big crowd, more or less as I intended…”

Meinardi died in Beijing on the 29th of December 1767, at the age of 54. This publication of his letters and the scholarly articles (as Il mondo di Sigismondo), goes a long way to raising his status as an important missionario-musicista in China during the reign of the Qianlong emperor, one who was already active in trans-cultural musical exchange two-and-more centuries before it became ‘trendy.’