A few weeks back we considered the contribution made by people who commission new works from composers. This week’s blog takes a quick look at the equally valuable role played by institutions that become guardians of the manuscripts of such works.
Maybe you read a recent report in The Guardian about the performance of a Vivaldi programme at a concert in Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall in the UK? The city of Manchester is also home to the Henry Watson Music Library which impressively houses the world’s third largest collection of Vivaldi manuscripts. Access to these not only threw up scholarly pointers for authentic bowing and articulation during the performance of The Four Seasons, but also breathed life into a long-forgotten instrument for which Vivaldi wrote two concertos, the violino in tromba marina. You can have fun exploring the background to the instrument for yourself; suffice to say here that it’s reckoned to have had three strings and made a trumpet-like rasp. The distortion favoured by heavy metal guitarists seems to have had long roots!
Thanks on that score, then, to Dr Henry Watson (1846-1911) who donated his collection of some 16,700 music items to the city in 1902, since when it has grown more than twenty-fold. 368 volumes of Handel’s manuscripts form one of the more significant parts of the collection. Originally curated by Charles Jennens, Handel’s librettist, it contains performance parts prepared by copyists employed by Handel’s secretary, which, as the Library’s website tells us “provide key information on the development of Handel’s ideas.”
The mention of Handel puts me in mind of St Michael’s College, Tenbury, a small school foundation in rural England and an unlikely location for the guardianship of rare manuscripts. These were maintained in vaulted safety at the school until 1978, when financial constraints made the upkeep an unequal challenge and the collection was transferred to the care of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, shown in the cover image for this blog. The school itself closed its doors in 1985. I was lucky to be invited to view some of the manuscripts during a brief stay at St Michael’s, shortly before their transfer to Oxford. Scholarly visitors to St Michael’s included Benjamin Britten, and I’m sure we were shown the manuscript of one of his string quartets at the school; also a visiting book in which Elgar had written a jocular entry. Perhaps there are readers here who can support those uncertain memories.
The St Michael’s, Tenbury collection includes the prized possession of an annotated score of Messiah (8.550667-68), the one that Handel himself used at the 1742 Dublin première of the work. Let’s catch a breath by listening to part of the oratorio, the chorus Let us break their bonds asunder, in which it’s certainly more difficult for the singers to catch their breath!
I’m pretty sure that the manuscript would have been brought out for performances at the school, since St Michael’s was built and endowed by Sir Frederick Gore Ouseley in 1856 to provide a beacon of good practice in the field of Anglican church music. During term time, for example, there were daily choral services. He later bequeathed his music collection of some 5,000 volumes to the school, which included the invaluable original score for Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (8.553108). The work was probably outside the school’s daily sphere of operation, but we can make it part of ours by listening to the chorus To the hills and the vales.
Before leaving the St Michael’s collection, we should mention that it also includes a copy of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony (8.551262) with numerous annotations of corrections in the composer’s own hand. I’d love to know how irascible Beethoven possibly was when putting the notes into order; but there’s certainly no irascibility to be heard in the end of the boisterous third movement.
I’ve plumped for Vassar College, a liberal arts college in New York State, as the last stop on this brief visit to music libraries. I confess the choice arose from the personality of the musician whose musical estate ended up in the college’s possession—Teresa Carreño (1853-1917). Born in Venezuela, both her grandfather and father were musicians, the latter managing to maintain hisskills as a pianist alongside his main career as Venezuela’s Minister of Finance. As a 9-year old, Teresa took New York by storm with her virtuoso piano performances; and a highlight of her early career was a performance for Abraham Lincoln at the White House. Later on, in Paris, she studied with a pupil of Chopin, and performed for Rossini and Liszt. She also composed, sang in opera and conducted. What a girl. Her Vassar College collection includes autograph scores of works by fellow-Americans Amy Beach and Edward MacDowell, but what intrigues me more is what was possibly said in the collection’scorrespondence between Carreño and the likes of Grieg, Rossini and Saint-Saëns. Maybe one day I’ll find out. Meanwhile, let’s end by listening to part of Carreño’s Gottschalk Waltz, Op. 1 (GP660), which she dedicated to the celebrated New York composer/pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who agreed to take her on as a student even before she reached her tenth birthday.