Nicola Matteis (Matheis) (fl. c. 1670 – after 1714) was the earliest notable Italian Baroque violinist in London, whom Roger North judged in retrospect "to have bin a second to Corelli," and a composer of significant popularity in his time, though he has been utterly forgotten until the later 20th century.
Very little is known of his early life, although Matteis was probably born in Naples, describing himself as 'Napolitano' in several of his works. He came to London in the early 1670s and according to the diarist Roger North, had a city merchant as a sponsor, who schooled him in the ways of currying favor from the gentry (by allowing them to accompany him in parlor recitals and other minor performances). John Evelyn reports in his diary for 19 November 1674, the earliest notice of Matteis, "I heard that stupendious Violin Signor Nichola (with other rare Musitians) whom certainly never mortal man Exceeded on that instrument, he had a stroak so sweete, & made it speake like the Voice of a man; & when he pleased, like a Consort of severall Instruments: he did wonders upon a Note: was an excellent Composer also. Nothing approch'd the violin in Nicholas' hand: he seem'd to be spiritato'd & plaied such ravishing things on a ground as astonishd us all." Matteis enjoyed great artistic and commercial success with his published music, notably four books of Ayres (1676, 1685), but married a rich widow in 1700 and retired from the London musical scene; according to North he nevertheless ended his days in ill health and poverty.
Matteis is credited with changing the English taste for violin playing from the French style to a newer, Italian one. Contemporaries described him as using a longer bow, with a new bow hold (closer to that used by modern players). His reputation grew through his lifetime and resulted in high praise for his live performances (in concert, audiences were often certain that more than one violin was being played) and widespread popularity for his music. Knowing many of his customers were amateurs, Matteis tended to give precise instructions in the prefaces to his published Ayres, providing detailed notes on bowing, explanations of ornaments, tempos, and other directions. These notes have proved valuable resources for scholars reconstructing the performance practices of the time.
- In 1714 he and his wife purchased a property in Norfolk (Tilmouth 1960).
- The only modern biography is Michael Tilmouth, "Nicola Matteis", The Musical Quarterly 46.1, January 1960:22ff.
- North: "I remember no Italians till Nicola came, and he lay obscurely in the city; by the favour of a merchant whom he had converted to his profit; his circumstances were low, and it was say'd that he travelled thro' Germany on foot with his violin under a full coat at his back. But his pride and arrogance was incomparable, and if he had not found that easy merchant, he had starved before he could have bin known. He was brought to play afore the King and divers great person, in order to be pensioned, but his manner did not take. Sr R. Lestrage, an exquisite violist, Sr Wm Waldgrave, that did wonders upon the archlieute, and Mr Bridgman, that dealt a thro-base upon an harpsichord, found him out to be a superlative genius, But they were forced with all their eloquence to charme him into a complaisance with the English humour, which was to be easy; free, and familiar, and to let gentlemen, not the best hands, have his company in consorts." North's remarks concerning Matteis are in his manuscript Essay of Musicall Ayre (British Library Add. Mss 325360) and in North's Memoirs of Music (ed. Rimbault, London, 1846) and The Musicall Grammarian (ed. Andres 1925) (Timouth 1960).
- Evelyn, Diary, s.v. 129 November 1674.
- Michael Tilmouth research.
- North: "He began to feel himself grow rich, and then of course luxurious. He took a great house, and lived as one that was marryed, had a child... contracted bad diseases... excess of pleasure threw him into a dropsyes, and so he became poor. And dyed miserable."
- Haynes, Bruce. The End of Early Music: A Period Performer's History of Music for the Twenty-First Century (2007) Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-518987-6.
- Bukofzer, Manfred F. Music In The Baroque Era - From Monteverdi To Bach (2007) Von Elterlein Press. ISBN 1-4067-3933-2.