Ever heard of Catharina Pratten, the star guitarist and composer who taught Queen Victoria’s daughters?

15 June 2021, 08:59

Catharina Pratten, the superstar guitarist and composer who taught Queen Victoria’s children
Catharina Pratten, the superstar guitarist and composer who taught Queen Victoria’s children. Picture: Getty

By Rosie Pentreath

Meet the German virtuoso guitarist, composer and teacher who became London’s most prominent guitar tutor in the 19th century.

Catharina Josepha Pratten was a German guitar virtuoso, composer and esteemed teacher, based in London.

Born Catharina Josepha Pelzer in 1821 (some accounts cite 1824) in Mülheim near Cologne, Pratten was the daughter of the prolific German guitarist and composer Ferdinand Pelzer. The family moved to England in 1829.

Aged eight, Catharina started touring and performing in Europe with her father, including at King’s Theatre in London when she was just nine. By 20, she was London’s most prominent guitar teacher and composer.

She founded her own guitar school, and wrote music especially for students of the instrument. She also famously taught Queen Victoria’s daughter Louise, Princess of Wales, who herself was an advocate of the arts, higher education and feminism.

Read more: Watch exclusive Classic FM Sessions, featuring Catharina Pratten, Bach and Vaughan Williams, filmed at the National Portrait Gallery

Alexandra Whittingham performs 'Forgotten' by Catharina Pratten

A prolific teacher

Pratten founded her own guitar school in London and published its ethos, techniques and music as a tutorial book in 1859.

She taught extensively, helping to expand the popularity of the instrument in England after it had exploded to widespread popularity in Europe in the first half of the century.

She is known to have taught two of Queen Victoria’s daughters how to play – Princess Beatrice, as well as Louise, Princess of Wales. She also taught Ernest Shand, a famous guitarist, composer, music hall singer and actor in his time.

Pratten published a further two guitar methods in her lifetime, including one detailing how to play with the instrument tuned to E major (rather than the now-standard EADGBE tuning), to achieve a wonderful warmth and deep sonority in the instrument’s tone.

Pratten had a sister, Guilia Pelzer, who also taught, and she continued the guitar school after Catharina’s death.

Read more: Ever heard of Dorothy Rudd Moore, the trailblazing melodist who established a society for Black composers?

Catharina Pratten famously taught Queen Victoria’s daughter Louise, Princess of Wales.
Catharina Pratten famously taught Queen Victoria’s daughter Louise, Princess of Wales. Picture: Pratten

A dedicated composer

Catharina Pratten composed reams of guitar studies and miniatures, including those given descriptive names to evoke moods and styles, and many of them incorporated into her popular teaching methods. There are preludes, waltzes, airs, marches and dances.

Notable pieces include her own virtuosic ‘Carnival of Venice’ variations (these have been written in many arrangements for many different instruments by different composers) and evocative pieces like ‘Sadness’ and ‘Forgotten’, the latter of which was recently recorded by rising star guitarist Alexander Whittingham (watch above).

Many of her compositions are bundled into her teaching books Guitar Tutor, Instruction for the Guitar tuned in E major, and Learning the Guitar.

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A superstar guitar virtuoso

Pratten continued to be an impressive virtuoso during most of her career, performing throughout Europe from a young age, and hosting concerts with the likes of composer and guitarist Francisco Tárrega, composer Charles Gounod and the English flautist Robert Sidney Pratten, her then-husband.

In 1854 the guitarist married the English flautist, Robert Sidney Pratten, who like Catharina had a music tutor father. He played the flute for the Royal Italian Opera, English Opera, and the Sacred Harmonic Society, among other institutions.

Read more: Was Mozart’s sister actually the most talented musician in the family?

After her marriage, Catharina widely used Madame Sidney Pratten as her professional name.

They were only married for 14 years and had three sons before Sidney died, and Catharina is known to have described her time spent with him as “heaven on earth”.

Catharina Pratten died in 1895, and is buried in London’s Brompton Cemetery, her gravestone describing her as “a gifted musician, unrivalled teacher and true friend.”