THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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10 posts from September 2016

30 September 2016

‘The only censor is honesty’: Press Freedom and its Limits in Revolutionary Vienna

For many who took to the streets in the European revolutions of 1848 press freedom and an end to government censorship were key demands. When these were granted – if only, as it often turned out, for a limited period – both the revolutionaries and their opponents took the opportunity to express their arguments and opinions in a torrent of printed material.

A look at the British Library’s collection of ephemera from Vienna during the period clearly demonstrates the importance of this aspect in the discourse of the revolution. Among the first publications to appear following Emperor Ferdinand’s promise of more liberal press laws on 15 March, were poems celebrating the achievements of the revolution, including Friedrich Gerhard’s ‘Die Presse frei’, which declares that now ‘The only censor is – honesty’. Like various other pieces dated on and around 15 March, it proudly claims to be the first uncensored work issued by its printer.

Wien Presse frei  11526
Friedrich Gerhard, ‘Die Presse Frei’ (Vienna, 1848), with the proud boast ‘Erstes censurfreies Gedicht’. British Library  
11526.f.46.(9.)

As well as poetry, there were prose declarations of gratitude. A ‘Manifest der Schriftsteller Wiens’, also dated 15 March, is signed by 27 writers who proclaim that they are ‘taking formal possession of the rights of a free press guaranteed by our most gracious monarch’. The first signatory, Ignaz Franz Castelli, later wrote a series of didactic pieces to educate the wider public about the gains of the revolution. In the first, ‘Was ist denn jetzt g’schehen in Wien?’ (1899.m.19.(170)), he calls freedom of the press ‘the most excellent of all freedoms.’

Castelli was neither a radical or an active revolutionary (he would spend much of 1848 in the quiet seclusion of his country estate). But he believed that wise and good citizens, now permitted to judge for themselves about the reading-matter on offer, would reject anything ‘unworthy’. Many conservatives were less optimistic, such as the anonymous author of the pamphlet Hoch lebe die Preszfreiheit! Nieder mit der Preszfrechheit, who praises the principle of a free press but bemoans the what he sees as, ‘insolent, salacious, lying, bilious and pernicious pamphlets’ appearing on the streets as a result of the lack of censorship.

Wien Pamphlets Preszefreiheit
Hoch lebe die Preszfreiheit! Nieder mit der Preszfrechheit
([Vienna, 1848]) RB.23.a.33764

This criticism was aimed at writers such as Sigmund Engländer, a more radical fellow-signatory of Castelli’s petition and editor of Wiener Charivari-Katzenmusik, one of the many new critical and satirical journals that sprang up in the course of the year. But despite the criticism thrown at them, these writers were in many ways the heroes and pioneers of the free press during the Revolution. Even if their satires were sometimes crude or potentially libellous, like opponents of censorship throughout the ages they were pushing boundaries, mocking sacred cows and raising the question of what could or should be said, a bolder and more creative approach to new freedoms than Castelli’s somewhat patronising and paternalistic lectures.

Wien Granaten-Fürst
Mocking sacred cows: a cartoon from October 1848 satirising the Austrian General Windischgrätz as ‘Grenade-Prince Bombowitz’ and a ‘long-nosed monster’ , October 1848, 1899.m.19.(172)

Writers like Engländer were inevitably diasppointed when the promised new press law was published. Lèse majesté, libel, treason or incitement to unlawful activity were still punishable by up to five years imprisonment, and the law demanded that all works must bear the name of an author, editor publisher or printer, who could be identified as responsible for any offence. In a skit on the new guidelines (1899.m.19.(153)), Eduard Leidesdorf posed a riddle: ‘Why was the Press Law rejected? Because no author, publisher or printer was named’ (as was often the case with official documents). By 16 August Engländer clearly thought things had got so bad that he added ‘A few days before the reintroduction of censorship’ to the masthead of his journal, and devoted the front page to an attack on the press law.

Wiener Charivari 16 August
Wiener Charivari. Katzenmusik
no. 31, 16 August 1848. 1899.m.19.(248)

But as early as April, when the press law was first published, an article in Der große Peter had printed a satirical ‘letter from Metternich’ in which the former Chancellor claims that the new law is a better means of preventing free speech than his own system of censorship. In fact Der große Peter is almost exclusively focused on questions of press freedom and press law. In its opening number, the editor claims to have discovered an ingenious way of avoiding taxes levied on political periodicals issued more than once a month: he will re-name the journal for each day of the month, making it ‘thirty newspapers instead of one!’. However, only one further issue was published, under the title Der Stutz-Peter. While very short-lived periodicals were typical of the period, in the case of Der große Peter it is possible that the whole exercise was a satire on the press law and never intended to be a genuinely long-running publication.

Grosse Peter 1
Der große Peter
, no. 1, 9 April 1848. 1899.m.19.(202) 

Radicals might have thought that the 1848 press law was too draconian, but far worse was to come. Following a second revolutionary uprising in October 1848, Vienna was besieged by the Imperial army under General Windischgrätz. In a series of ultimatums to the city, Windischgrätz demanded the banning of all newspapers and periodicals (with the exception of the long-established Wiener Zeitung, which was only to print official proclamations). When the army finally gained control of Vienna on 31 October, this was reiterated, and the printing, posting and circulation of broadsheets and pamphlets also forbidden. Gradually newspapers began to reappear, mostly established and conservative titles. Only one of Vienna’s new satirical journals survived: Johann Franz Böhringer’s Die Geißel, the only one to have been on the side of the establishment throughout. In 1849 a new and stronger press law was introduced, and press censorship continued in Austria until the proclamation of a republic in 1918.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

This blog is part of series for Banned Books Week 2016. See also Melvin Burgess’s blog on Censorship and the Author, curator Christian Algar on the ‘corrected’ Il Decamerone, curator Tanya Kirk on The Monk, the Bible and Obscenity, The Book Banner who inspired Banned Books by curator Alison Hudson and Banned From the Classroom: Censorship and The Catcher in the Rye by curator Mercedes Aguirre.

Banned Books Week was initiated by the American Library Association in 1982 in response to an increasing number of challenges in the US to books in schools, bookstores and libraries, and in particular, books aimed at children or young adults. For the first time in the UK we are holding events, activities and publishing a series of blogs, all on the topic of Censorship and Banned Books, made possible by the partnership between The British Library, Free Word and Islington Library and Heritage Services and in association with the ALA.

  BannedBooksWeekLogos

28 September 2016

Giorgio Bassani 1916-2000

Giorgio Bassani is best known for the great sequence of five novels and a collection of short stories, first published separately between 1950s and 1970s which, after a process of constant linguistic revisions, were finally published in 1980 as ll Romanzo di Ferrara. This definitive edition (British Library X.950/26023), comprised Dentro le mura (originally published as Cinque storie ferraresi), Gli Occhiali d’oro, Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini, Dietro la porta, L’Airone, and L’Odore del fieno. Only Bassani’s first collection of short stories, Una città di pianura, published in 1940 under the pseudonym Giacomo Marchi in order to evade the Racial Laws then in force, was omitted.

CM bassani  1 Photograph
Giorgio Bassani

Bassani’s most famous work is Il Giardino del Finzi-Contini (The Garden of the Finzi-Contini), which chronicles the relationship between the narrator and the Finzi-Contini, an aristocratic Jewish family in Ferrara, in the 1930s (especially in 1938 when the first Racial Laws were first promulgated in Italy) and his love for Micòl, the beautiful, capricious, and mysterious daughter of the family. It was made into a film by Vittorio de Sica in 1970. The novel (or perhaps the film?) also inspired Valley of Shadows, a ballet by Kenneth MacMillan, first performed in March 1983.

Bassani Giardino
Giorgio Bassani, Il Giardiono dei Finzi-Contini (Turin, 1962)  11626.t.14.

De Sica’s film, though lavishly-produced, critically well- received, and ultimately very moving, proved controversial as it took several liberties with the novel, notably by making crassly explicit the relationship between Micòl and Malnate. The film also lacks the novel’s all-pervasive and multi-layered atmosphere of foreboding and its evocations of death (there are, for example, descriptions of three different cemeteries, the necropolis at Cerveteri, the Jewish cemetery in Ferrara, and the one in Venice). Bassani, who initially supervised various versions of the screenplay but was not consulted about certain last-minute changes, violently denounced the film in the article ‘Il Giardino tradito’ (‘The Garden betrayed’) that appeared in the magazine L’Espresso in the same week as the film’s official opening. He had his name removed as one of its script-writers and the opening credits just state that it was ‘freely derived from the novel by Giorgio Bassani’.

Like his fiction, Bassani’s poems and essays were collected in the 1980s, published respectively as In rima e senza (1982), and Di là dal cuore (1984). Bassani was also an occasional translator and scriptwriter, whose translations include James M. Cain’s The Postman always rings twice (published in 1946, three years after Luchino Visconti’s film Ossessione, itself an adaptation of the novel). Screenplays by Bassani include La Donna del fiume (1954) in collaboration with, among others, Ennio Flaiano, Alberto Moravia, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Mario Soldati.

As editorial director of Biblioteca di letteratura, the publisher Feltrinelli’s series of new writing, Bassani scored a real coup by publishing Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), a work that had previously been rejected by two other publishers. In his preface to the first edition of the novel, Bassani gives an account of the only time he saw Lampedusa, in 1954 at a literary conference in San Pellegrino Terme where the latter had travelled with his cousin, the poet Lucio Piccolo, who was the recipient of a prize at that gathering.

CM Bassani 3   CM Bassani 4
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Il Gattopardo (Milan, 1958) 12472. r.3. and Racconti (Milan, 1961) 11589.m.12.

Lampedusa wrote Il Gattopardo, his only novel, in a brief outburst of creative activity shortly before his death in 1957. Shortly afterwards Bassani was sent a typescript of parts of the novel and, recognising its worth, travelled to Palermo where he met Lampedusa’s widow, retrieved the rest of the manuscript and also that of Lampedusa’s three short stories and an autobiographical memoir. Il Gattopardo was published in 1958 and, in the wake of the novel’s sensational success, Bassani also published Lampedusa’s Racconti in 1961.

There are numerous striking similarities, recently studied, between Il Gattopardo and Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini, two of the greatest Italian novels of the 20th century. Notable among them are the depiction of social classes threatened with extinction, and the omnipresence of death.

To mark the centenary of Bassani’s birth, the British Library in collaboration with the Italian Cultural Institute is organising “Remembering Giorgio Bassani (1916-2000), a three-day conference. Details of the programme can be found here; to book for the sessions at the Italian Cultural Institute, please contact the Institute (020 7235 1461; icilondon@esteri.it). To book for the sessions at the British Library, please email chris.michaelides@bl.uk and type ‘Bassani Conference’ in the subject line.

Chris Michaelides,Curator, Romance Collections.


References/further reading

Sophie Nezri-Dufour, Il Giardino del Gattopardo: Giorgio Bassani e Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. (Milan, 2014).

Sophie Nezri-Dufour, Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini: una fiaba nascosta. (Ravenna, 2011). YF.2012.a.28385.

Giorgio Bassani,Opere [edited by] Roberto Cotroneo. (Milan, 1998).

26 September 2016

Il Decamerone – “Corrected” by Rome

Giovanni Boccaccio, poet, Humanist, orator, narrator and ambassador, father of the Italian novel, is one of the greatest storytellers known. He composed Il Decamerone (The Decameron)  in the mid-14th century and it  was first circulated in manuscript form in the 1370s. Despite being one of the most meddled-with texts to have endured, its ‘Frame story’ structure – ten tales told by each of ten people gathered together for a fortnight – has become canonised as a model for literary prose. Two texts in particular, one prepared by Ruscelli in 1552 and one by Salvati in 1587, are notorious for their meddling emendations. The Decameron is also widely known for its erotic components and it has quite unfairly led to its author and his work bIl eing associated with ‘obscenity’.

A common perception is that it is this supposed obscenity which has led to the book having been banned and suppressed here and there by the usual powerful groupings of offended sensibilities. The Roman Catholic Church did indeed ‘ban’ The Decameron but knew that they could not simply obliterate such a well-known and widely circulated work; the 15th and 16th centuries saw an estimated 192 printed editions alone. Faced with the Reformation, the Catholic Church needed to defend itself and reconsolidate its position of authority. To this purpose, one of the several measures taken by the Council of Trent was to create a commission to assemble and manage a list of forbidden books resulting in the fabled Index Librorum Prohibitorum which  identified books which were heretical, anti-clerical or explicitly sexual.

But how was the Church to manage The Decameron? Quite craftily was how. In the early 1570s, under the leadership of Vincenzo Borghini, a team of clerical scholars in Florence set about emending its text. They cloaked their expurgations by trying to convince people that they had kindly corrected existing editions, enhancing the language and in the process arriving at the ‘true’ text written by Boccaccio; original authorial intent had been revealed, “By Order of the Inquisition”.

So in 1573 the Florentine printers Giunti issued Il Decameron ... Ricorretto in Roma, et emendato secondo l'ordine del Sacro Conc. di Trento, et riscontrato in Firenze con testi antichi & alla sua vera lezione ridotto da' deputati…

Decameron 1573 tp C.7.a.8. The title page of the 1573 Florence edition of Il Decameron (C.7.a.8).

Borghini’s approved edition implied that manuscripts of The Decameron had been mischievously distorted to include outrageous slights against the Church and its servants. The erotic elements, the ‘obscenity’, often key to a tale’s plot and meaning, remained but all the references to the clergy had been removed. The crux of the problem for them was the dignity of the Roman Catholic Church and they managed it by simply removing references to priests, monasteries and so on; generic terms served their purpose with nuns becoming ‘ladies’ or ‘dames’, abbesses becoming random figures of aristocracy.

The British Library has three copies of this ‘corrected’ edition.  One  exposes clearly the motivations of the Church expurgations and emendations. A century after its publication another scholar called Marco Dotto systematically went through it annotating the pages: re-inserting the censored details and re-correcting Borghini’s emendations. Dotto wrote a short explanatory essay voicing his outrage at the mutilation of Boccaccio’s great work by the ‘scalpel’ of the Inquisition. He viewed himself as a ‘physician’ repairing their butchery, healing it and restoring the text to its true, we could say, rude health.

Decameron Day 3 story 1 annotated Day Three, Story One (Masetto, gardener at a convent) annotated by Marco Dotto. ‘Garden of Ladies’, or Convent? (C.7.a.8)

The story of Masetto of Lamporecchio told by Filostrato on Day Three is a favourite tale from The Decameron and illustrates  how the book has been meddled with. Masetto, a handsome young man, schemes to get a job as a gardener at a convent by pretending to be deaf and dumb. Two nuns talk of what they have heard rumoured to be the best pleasure a woman can get and scheme to meet Masetto in the garden’s woodshed. Other nuns witness this and insist on their share also. One day, the Abbess passes Masetto, spent and asleep on a bank in the garden. The wind happens to blow his shirt up and reveals all his glory to the head of the convent; consumed with desire she takes him to her quarters believing she can sleep with the young gardener with impunity as, deaf and dumb, he can tell no tale. All this is draining for Masetto so he decides to reveal he is cured. It is claimed as a miracle, nurtured by his tending the convent gardens. We can see how Dotto’s annotations restore the expurgated ‘munistero di donne’ used by Boccaccio which the clerics had rendered as ‘giardino di damigelle’. Borghini frequently anonymised particular named locations to protect reputations and often removed them entirely to places in France.

The last uncensored Decameron of the 16th century was printed in 1558 and with so many early editions it is interesting to make comparisons between them. Here we can see a folio with the start of Masetto’s story in an edition printed in Venice by Manfredo Bonelli in 1498. The text and the woodcuts faithfully assert the setting as a convent and its characters as nuns.


Decameron Day 3 story 1
 Masetto of Lamporecchio in the ‘Garden of Ladies’, Day Three Story 1. (C.4.i.7)

But censorship comes from many sources, individual sensibilities may be offended as much as organised, institutional interests; a fact that can be seen in this mid-15th century manuscript of The Decameron where the concluding sentiment on Masetto’s tale, has been heavily censored and obscured by another hand.

Decameron Add MS 10297
Censored mid-15th century manuscript (Add MS 10297 f.46r)

Such are the fascinations with obscenity and censorship, the simple fact that Boccaccio is one of the greatest storytellers ever to be printed can be in danger of being overlooked. We can celebrate this year’s Banned Books Week  by appreciating a good read of unexpurgated editions of this great collection of stories; though it can be fun to read the censored efforts too. But do remember that original authorial intent should never be taken for granted – sometimes it is wrested away by the operations of power and can be lost forever because of some individual’s  or organisation’s disapproval and assault.

Christian Algar, Curator, Printed Heritage Collections.

Decameron storytellers C.4.i.7
 The storytellers; the woodcut illustrated title page of Manfredo Bonelli’s Decamerone o ver Cento Nouelle, Venice, 1498 (C.4.i.7)

References/further  reading:

Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron. Translated with an introduction by G.H. McWilliam (London, 1972). X.908/23609

Pisanus Fraxi, Bibliography of prohibited books. Index librorum prohibitoru (3 Vols) (New York, 1962). RAR 808.803

David Wallace, Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron. (Cambridge, 1991)YC.1991.a.4224

Giuseppe Chiecchi, Luciano Troisio, Il Decameron sequestrato: le tre edizioni censurate nel Cinquecento. (Milan, 1984) ZA.9.a.636 (4)

Giuseppe Chiecchi, “Dolcemente dissumulando”: cartelle laurenziane e “Decameron” censurato (1573)(Padua, 1992)./WP.16966/53     

Giuseppe Chiecchi (ed.),  Le annotazioni e i discorsi sul Decameron del 1573 dei deputatii fiorentini. (Rome, 2001) YA.2003.a.9884

This blog is part of series for Banned Books Week 2016. See also Melvin Burgess’s blog on Censorship and the Author.

Banned Books Week was initiated by the American Library Association in 1982 in response to an increasing number of challenges in the US to books in schools, bookstores and libraries, and in particular, books aimed at children or young adults. For the first time in the UK we are holding events, activities and publishing a series of blogs, all on the topic of Censorship and Banned Books, made possible by the partnership between The British Library, Free Word and Islington Library and Heritage Services and in association with the ALA.

BannedBooksWeekLogos



22 September 2016

‘The greatest German storyteller’? Johann Peter Hebel

In the English-speaking world, the Swiss-born author Johann Peter Hebel is less well known that he deserves to be – possibly through confusion with his near-namesake, the poet and dramatist Friedrich Hebbel. Their fields of activity, however, were very different, for besides his poems and stories Hebel was also a pioneering supporter of a Swiss-German dialect which defeated even Goethe.

Untitled
Portrait of Hebel by Hans Bendel from Zwölf Allemannische Gedichte (Winterthur, 1849). British Library 11527.g.12.

Tragedy struck the Hebel family in the first year of his life, when his father and baby sister Susanne succumbed to typhus. His parents had been working in Basel at the time of his birth, and with his mother Ursula he spent part of the year there and the rest in her native village of Hausen im Wiesental,  where he began his education, continuing his studies in Basel and at the grammar school in Schopfheim. When he was thirteen, his mother fell seriously ill, and with the local magistrate he hurried to Basel to bring her back by ox-wagon to Hausen, only to see her die on the journey.

With the help of sponsors Hebel was admitted to the Gymnasium illustre in Karlsruhe, graduating in 1778. Like Hegel, Hölderlin and Schelling, he studied theology but turned to teaching when he was unable to obtain a parish. Among the subjects which he taught were botany and natural history; he amassed a considerable collection of plants, and was also an honorary member of the Jena mineralogical society. His modest ambition to live out his days as a country pastor was never fulfilled; instead he became director of the Karlsruhe Gymnasium, and spent the rest of his life there. However, in 1819 he was appointed prelate of the Lutheran churches in Baden, and thus a member of the upper chamber of the local assembly. This allowed him to support social and educational enterprises such as the establishment of institutions for the deaf, dumb and blind and better training for Roman Catholic priests. He remained actively involved in this work until his death from cancer on 22 September 1826.

Alongside these duties, however, Hebel maintained a rich creative life. Devoted to the language as well as the nature of the country where he had grown up, he composed, on returning from a visit there in 1799, a collection of 32 poems in the local dialect, the Allemannische Gedichte (‘for friends of rural nature and customs’). No Basel publisher, however, would risk publishing a book in such an obscure tongue as Alemannic, and it was not until 1803 that it came out anonymously in Karlsruhe. The British Library possesses a copy of this first edition.

Hebel Alemannische Gedichts 11525.e.18 Title-page of the first edition of Hebel’s  Allemannische Gedichte (Karlsruhe, 1803) 11525.e.18 

One of the most famous poems in this volume is ‘Die Vergänglichkeit’ (Transience), a dialogue between a father and his young son as they travel through the evening landscape by cart, passing the exact spot at which Hebel’s own mother had died before his eyes. The sensitive evocation of human emotions and picturesque landscapes brought the poems such success that a second edition followed in 1804, this time under Hebel’s own name.

His interest in education led to two more of his most famous productions, the ‘calendar stories’ which he wrote as editor of the Rheinländischer Hausfreund, at the rate of 30 per year, and a collection of Bible stories for use for pupils aged 10-14 in Protestant schools, the Biblische Geschichten (Stuttgart/Tübingen, 1824; 1011.d.8), whose lively narrative style made them so popular that a version for Catholic schools was published the following year (3126.aa.8). The British Library also holds a first edition of the Schatzkästlein des rheinischen Hausfreundes (Tübingen, 1811; 12315.d.19), a treasury of stories from the Rheinländischer Hausfreund which remain enduring favourites among German readers, including one of his most famous stories, Unverhofftes Wiedersehen (Unexpected Reunion), an eerie tale set in the Swedish mining district of Falun which also inspired E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Die Bergwerke zu Falun.

The wit, humour and keen observation which characterize Hebel’s writings attracted many illustrators. Especially charming are the lithographs based on pen and ink drawings by Hans Bendel for a revised version of the Allemannische Gedichte (Winterthur, 1849; 11527.g.12) containing settings of five of the poems with piano accompaniment. Equally appealing are the Dreißig Umrisse zu J. P. Hebel’s allemannischen Gedichten, 30 sketches by Julius Nisle. Both evoke a vanished world in which the dignitaries of Schopfheim, the rustic lovers Hans and Verene,  beggars, ghosts and tipsy peasants are portrayed in loving detail, every feature of the  landscape and local costume faithfully depicted, yet without sentimentality.

Hebel 506.aa.7. GeisterbesuchIllustrations by Julius Nisle from Dreißig Umrisse zu J. P. Hebel’s allemanischen Gedichten (Stuttgart, 1845) 506.aa.7

Hebel 506.aa.7. Karfunkel

These qualities also won Hebel many admirers, including Tolstoy, the Brothers Grimm, Goethe (who found him a ‘splendid man’ and tried, not very successfully, to write a poem in Alemannic), and Hermann Hesse, who considered him the greatest German storyteller, on a par with Gottfried Keller  and with a surer touch and more powerful effect than Goethe himself.

Paradoxically, while his fellow-poet Eduard Mörike chafed at the restrictions of life as a country parson, this represented an ideal which Hebel was never to attain. Yet, as he himself acknowledged, an invisible hand seemed to lead him far beyond his humble aspirations, and his importance to literature as well as to education and the humanities is marked by the decision of the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland to commemorate him in its calendar on 22 September, the day of his death 130 years ago.

Susan Halstead, Content Specialist (Humanities and Social Sciences), Research Engagement  

20 September 2016

Ira Aldridge's Polish Journey: Developing the Shakespearean Canon and Influencing Local Politics

I was delighted to discover that the British Library’s recent exhibition Shakespeare in 10 Acts chose to tell the remarkable story of Ira Aldridge’s career – albeit only part of it. Although the famous black Shakespearean actor acquired star status in the UK provinces, he was never fully accepted in London by the cultural elites. Nevertheless his acting was celebrated on the Continent wherever he went. He toured extensively from 1852 to 1867: he went as far as Imperial Russia, including Poland and Ukraine, and visited Mongolia and Turkey.

Aldridge’s contribution to Shakespeare’s performance history was not limited to the question of race and his pioneering acting feats as Othello or King Lear (in whiteface). In the non-Anglophone reception of Shakespeare Aldridge is a very special case in the dissemination of his work. At the time not many proper translations were available to non-English speakers and thus Shakespeare was not staged frequently, in some places not at all (for example, in 1858 Aldridge brought Shakespeare to Serbia for the very first time with his Richard III) .

Ira Aldridge Lear 11797.a.32
Ira Aldridge as King Lear, from  S.Durylin, Aira Oldridzh  (Moscow, 1940). 11797.a.32

I will relate only one of Aldridge’s many continental success stories, one not mentioned in the exhibition, which took place in Poland (then occupied by Russia, Prussia and Austria). Some Polish scholars believe that Ira Aldridge is of unique importance in the reception of Shakespeare in Poland as his six visits, over the period 1853-1867, may not only have inspired more and better Polish translations of Shakespeare’s plays but also influenced the acting style of many Polish actors for years to come. Undoubtedly his first performances of Othello with German companies motivated Józef Paszkowski (1817-1861) to prepare a Polish translation of the original, which was used for the first time by a Warsaw troupe during Aldridge’s visit in 1863.

Ira Aldridge Othello
Othello and Desdemona from an edition of  Paszkowski’s Shakespeare translation (Warsaw,1875-1877). 11765.g.3. 

Most Polish reviews of his performances praised his realistic renditions of the roles. When touring, as a rule he performed in English with actors from a given country playing in their native languages but it is often claimed that because of his acting genius he proved that the imposed barriers of languages and cultures could be transcended, which he achieved by the ‘sweetness and softness of his voice’ and passion too.

In continental Europe Aldridge was awarded medals and honours wherever he went, including honorary memberships of many academies and arts societies. He consorted with kings, queens and emperors. But the famous black tragedian was also sensitive to the somewhat delicate political situation in partitioned Poland. When Poles boycotted him in Cracow because he played in a German theatre, for the first time he leaked to the press news of his involvement with the abolitionist movement in the USA, to prove that he sided with the oppressed, including Poles. As a result he was under constant surveillance by officials of Tsarist Russia who did not like it that Poles identified with Aldridge as an oppressed man in his self-professed exile. In the press he was often referred to as ‘our brother’ and his performances quickly became political events.

Aldridge died  in Łódz in provincial Poland where he was given a splendid funeral. A long funeral procession crossed the city, with members of the local theatre society carrying his medals and orders on red velvet cushions and a laurel wreath, while local people covered his grave with flowers. The grave is cared for by the Łódz Appreciation Society and many anonymous citizens decorate his grave on a regular basis with fresh flowers and candles. His tomb was renovated in 2001. In November 2014 a commemorative plaque designed by a renowned Polish artist, Professor Marian Konieczny, was unveiled at the entrance to the Museum of Cinematography in Łódz  (the former location of the theatre and Hotel Paradyz in which Aldridge was invited to perform); you can see a recording of the event made by Professor Sławomir Kalwinek of the National Higher School of Film, Television and Theatre in Łódź, here

Ira Aldridge memorial plaque Memorial Plaque to Ira Aldridge, Museum of Cinematography, Łódz [Image from http://www.polskaniezwykla.pl/]

Two plays about Ira Aldridge in Poland have been written and staged to date: Maciej Karpiński’s Otello umiera [‘Othello Dies’], first published in Dialog monthly, 2003, no. 1/2 (P.P.4838.kob); and Remigiusz Caban’s Murzyn może odejść [‘The Negro must leave’] (2010). Both plays were staged.

Dr Aleksandra Sakowska (MA University of Warsaw, PhD King's College London) 

References:

Krystyna Kujawinska-Courtney and Maria Łukowska, eds., Ira Aldridge 1807-1867 on the Bicentennial Anniversary of His Birth (Frankfurt am Main, 2009) YD.2009.a.9405

Krystyna Kujawinska-Courtney, Ira Aldridge 1807-1867: dzieje pierwszego czarnoskórego tragika szekspirowskiego (Krakow, 2009)


You can find out more about all aspects of Shakespeare’s life and works, including famous performances and performers on our Shakespeare web pages

16 September 2016

I was there when Jäki licked Iggy Pop’s leg: Punk in Germany

Gudrun Gut, drummer and bassist in German punk bands such as Din-A Testbild, Einstürzende Neubauten, Mania D. and Malaria, says she was there when Jäki Eldorado (née Hildisch) — ‘Germany’s first punk’ — licked Iggy Pop’s leg during a Stooges gig in 1977. Purely a publicity stunt according to Jäki, but one that would provide an iconic punk photo.

Jäki Iggy
Jäki Eldorado licks Iggy Pop's leg (Image from mutantmelodien)

A decade after 1968, punk adopted a more chaotic and ‘publicity stunt’ mentality that had ‘nothing to do with social criticism’, Jäki suggests in Jürgen Teipel’s ‘docu-novel’ Verschwende deine Jugend (p. 66). He continues: ‘Punk Rock was so interesting precisely because there was no longer any ideological baggage. You could go crazy. Party. You wouldn’t care if someone walked around with a swastika or if someone else supported the RAF [Red Army Faction]’. Cyrus Shahan, in his Punk Rock and German Crisis: Adaptation and Crisis after 1977 (New York, 2013; YC.2014.a.10231) explains the phenomenon thus: ‘whereas student movements of 1968 and German terrorism both sought to establish (theoretically, violently) their own conceptions of a just, utopian society, punk was decidedly invested in an endless dystopia of the present’ (p. 2). Shahan echoes Eldorado in saying later, ‘Punk did not want to establish a new order to stave off chaos of the past. Punk wanted chaos. Punk did not want to erect barriers between fascism and the present. It wanted to tear down the present’ (p. 13).

Verschwende deine Jugend
Cover of Jürgen Teipel, Verschwende deine Jugend (Frankfurt am Main, 2001) British Library YA.2003.a.21455

While ‘punk in Germany was not English punk’ (Shahan, p. 11), punk bands in England did to some extent spark the creation of a German punk culture and music scene – arguably predominantly in Düsseldorf – in the summer of 1977. Alfred Hilsberg, contributor to Sounds magazine and owner of the labels Zickzack and What’s so funny about, calls English punk in England the ‘trigger’ for him to do something similar in Germany. Describing the performances he saw in London in 1976, he says, ‘it really blew me away that such a thing was possible: this eclectic, crazy cluster of people. There was a violent element of course. But that was only a game. It clearly wasn’t serious when they waged war with one another’ (Teipel, p. 28). This inspired Hilsberg to organise the first punk concerts in Germany, bringing over The Vibrators and The Stranglers. ‘Although, The Vibrators only half-count as punk. It was more rock,’ he says, ‘but at the time no one really knew what punk was’ (Teipel, p. 28).

800px-1978-05-20_Duesseldorf_Ratinger_Hof
The Ratinger Hof, a pub in Düsseldorf where the first punk performances in Germany took place (photo by Ralf Zeigermann from Wikimedia Commons)

Punk was a term that didn’t carry a solid definition sonically or aesthetically, an idea which blurred at the margins and incorporated or appropriated a broad range of references. In A Cultural Dictionary of Punk (London, 2009; YC.2010.a.8548), Nicholas Rombes, in line with Hilsberg’s understanding, labels The Vibrators a 60’s-influenced ‘pop-punk’ group: ‘Bands like The Vibrators cultivated the open spaces that more radical bands like the Sex Pistols cleared, making possible a longer arc for punk and a deliberate future in the face of No Future’ (p. 296). That ‘arc’ is evident in their recent resurfacing in Berlin’s Cassiopeia Club, nearly 40 years after their first gig in the city.

Frank Z, guitarist and singer from Abwärts, remembers The Vibrators’ second gig in Germany, in Hamburg’s Winterhuder Fährhaus — what Hilsberg calls a ‘nice place all round, the kind of place you went for tea and cake’ (Christof Meueler, Das ZickZack-Prinzip: Alfred Hilsberg – ein Leben für den Underground, Munich, 2016; BL copy in process). Frank Z again: ‘the singer [Ian ‘Knox’ Carnochan] was a proper skinhead. He came on stage – and then the first available person on the front row got a boot. Right in the face [Aber voll in die Fresse]’ (Teipel, p. 28). Axel Dill, the Abwärts drummer, corroborates: ‘they played for ten minutes – and then with a few brawlers, which they had brought with them, they set off into the crowd and started a huge fight. It was a full-on battle. All the furniture was flying through the air. Everyone was beating everyone. That was their concept’ (Teipel, p. 28). But Moishe Moser, an associate of Hilsberg’s and The Vibrators’ road manager on a later German tour, provides evidence of the band’s softer side. On the last night of the tour he went to give the band their share of the proceeds before realising that the money wasn’t there: ‘Then, The Vibrators clubbed together so that I could get a taxi home. That was the beginning of a friendship that is still going today’ (quoted by Meueler).

Style was undoubtedly influenced by the fashion in the English punk scene, something also focused on in the British Library’s ‘Punk 1976-78’ exhibition. Peter Hein – another pretender to the title of ‘first German punk’, and singer in Charley’s Girls and Fehlfarben amongst other bands – says as much: ‘to become punk was a totally conscious decision. I saw a picture in the New Musical Express – with jacket and paperclips and kid’s sunglasses. And I thought: ‘I’d like to look as good as that.’ So I wandered about just like that. Kid’s glasses, paperclips on my jacket collar.’ Amidst the chaos of the ‘No Future’ punk ethos, Peter Hein does appear to leave some room for thought into his own future. In another supposed – but presumably not wholly applicable – borrowing from England, Hein avoids alcohol during his years of creativity. This is, for him, in contrast to American bands who subscribe to a drug-fuelled lifestyle:

We were the juice-drinkers. At the time I drank no alcohol. Punk was a straight movement for us. […] We were against the druggy-bands. Against the pisshead bands. We were absolutely England-oriented. The Americans we never took seriously because their punk-rockers took drugs. That was not cool.

800px-Peter_Hein_Fehlfarben
Peter Hein, playing with the band Fehlfarben in 2006 (Picture by Ulf Cronenberg from Wikimedia Commons)

A bizarrely sanitized life, then. And, even more bizarrely, one inspired by our punk scene so closely associated with precisely the sort of intoxication Hein refuses. In the nostalgic accounts of German punk protagonists, there is a sense of openness and acceptance, where anything goes, but without a stereotypical radicalism. Jäki Eldorado says as much when he suggests that, whereas in England there may have been a radical break with what came before, in Germany there was a more fluid merging between hippy and punk movements: ‘when I started working in Dschungel [a punk record store], I even had long hair still’ (Teipel, p. 27).

Pardaad Chamsaz, Collaborative Doctoral Student, British Library and University of Bristol

The free exhibition Punk 1976-78  continues in the British Library’s Entrance Hall until 2 October

13 September 2016

More Virgil than Cervantes

The British Library has recently purchased a rare copy of a little-known French verse adaptation of Cervantes’ novel Don Quijote. The Abbé Jouffreau de Lagerie (or Lazerie), published his Don Quichote: Poëme héroï-comique, in two parts in 1782-3. Biographical information is extremely scarce and Jouffreau de Lagerie is in fact better known as the anonymous author of a collection of erotic verse, Le Joujou des demoiselles, of which there were several editions. (The British Library possesses three: [Paris, 1750?] (P.C.27.a.35), [Paris, 1775?] (P.C 27.a.39), and one with the false imprint Larnaca, [1881?]( P.C.17.b.15).

Quichote1
Title-page of Don Quichote. Poëme héroï-comique (Monatauban, 1782-3) RB.23.a.36964

The Poëme is divided into 5 chants or cantos, preceded by a prose introduction. It is composed in the classical French metre of rhyming alexandrine couplets. The narrative draws on Cervantes’ novel but it is not in any way a version of it. It opens with Don Quixote’s distress at Dulcinea’s transformation into a peasant girl by the sorcerer Malembrin who has also carried her off to the Underworld. Encouraged by la Folie (Folly), the knight and Sancho Panza do battle with Malembrin and his army, led by the giant Freston. To save his forces from certain defeat the sorcerer transforms them into windmills, which inflict great damage on both knight and squire. Transformations preserve his army in two subsequent engagements. Folly returns to encourage Quixote, promising the return of Dulcinea and urging him on to new adventures. Spurred on, Quixote rescues Queen Lucinda from a gang of robbers. Malembrin now conspires with l’Amour (the God of Love), to make the knight fall in love with Lucinda. The King of the gods, alarmed at Quixote’s lapse, complains to Folly who, in the guise of a wronged queen, seeks Quixote’s aid. He abandons Lucinda, who takes her own life. Quixote descends to the Underworld, guided by Folly, where with the aid of other knights errant he defeats Malembrin. Dulcinea is rescued and freed from the evil spell.

Quichote2
Quixote leaves his house, led by Folly and Love. From an edition of Francois Filleul de Saint-Martin’s French translation, Histoire de l’admirable Don Quichotte de la Manche (Paris, 1741) Cerv.131. vol. 1, facing p. 11.

Malembrin and Freston both occur in Cervantes’ novel. Malambruno is the giant and sorcerer in the elaborate charade that is the ‘Dueña Dolorida’ episode (Don Quijote, II: 38-41); Frestón is the enchanter whom Quixote blames for his failures. Queen Lucinda, however, is clearly not the beloved of Cardenio (DQ. I: 24-37), but the Duchesse de Médoc from the second continuation of François Filleul de Saint-Martin’s version of Don Quijote (Paris, 1713; Cerv.126.). In Livre III, ch. 42, Don Quixote and Sancho rescue the Duke and Duchess from a band of robbers, as in the Poëme. Sancho’s elevation to the status of knight-errant also derives from the continuations.

In addition to the windmills episode, other notable incidents from Cervantes’ novel appear in the Poëme in a new guise. Malembrin’s transformation of his army into sheep to save them in the second encounter with Don Quixote is adapted from the knight’s mistaking a flock of sheep for an army (DQ, I: 18). The motif of a damsel in distress employed as a ruse echoes the role of Dorotea as the Princess Micomicona (DQ, I, 29-30) and the ‘Dueña dolorida’ episode.

As the opening lines suggest, however, what most characterizes Jouffreau de Lagerie’s work is its imitation of Virgil’s Aeneid. . The first line clearly echoes Virgil’s opening lines: ‘Arms and the man I sing who… exiled by fate’:

Je chante ce Héros qui loin de sa patrie
Fit revivre les lois de la chevalerie (Canto 1, p. 7)
(‘I sing of the Hero who, far from his native land,
revived the code of knight errantry’)

Quichotte3

To the world of chivalry and evil sorcerers is added that of the Classical gods and goddesses. So we have Folly (Greek Atë), Love (i.e. Eros/Cupid) and a ‘Roi des Dieux’, fancifully named ‘Tulican’ who nonetheless has the role of Zeus/Jupiter. Narrative motifs involving the gods can be traced to Virgil. For example, Folly’s tearful plea to Tulican on behalf of Quixote after Malembrin’s magic saves Freston’s army (Canto 2) echoes Venus’s plea to Jupiter to spare the Aeneas and the Trojans (Aeneid, Book I, lines 229 ff). Earlier, Folly successfully pleads with the god for the recovery of her freedom from la Sagesse, goddess of Wisdom (Canto 1). More blatant still, the Queen Lucinda episode, specifically the boar hunt and Lucinda’s suicide, derives from Virgil’s account of the fatal love of Dido for Aeneas (Aeneid, Book IV).

Jouffreau also employs extended similes, so typical of Virgil. Examples include the unlikely description of Sancho in battle as a lion defending his cubs against a hunter (Canto 2, p. 28); the likening of the dust clouds stirred up by Freston’s army to snow whipped up by the North wind (Canto 3, p. 4); and the comparison of the fall of the giant Morgan at Quixote’s hand to the felling of a pine tree (Canto 3, p. 9).

Unlike his Jouffreau’s anthology of erotic verse, this work was not a success to judge by the existence apparently of just one edition. Evidently drawing on the version of Filleul de Saint-Martin and its two continuations, Don Quichote emerges as a scholarly exercise in re-creating Classical Latin verse in French hexameters. Jouffreau’s Sancho is transformed from savvy peasant to knightly hero, as indeed is Quixote himself. He is worlds away from the comedic, but essentially human would-be knight-errant whose bookish ideals clash with the reality of Golden Age Spain. And surely it is only Cupid’s arrow that would have rendered Cervantes’ Don Quixote unfaithful to Dulcinea?

Geoff West, formerly Lead Curator Hispanic Collections

 

09 September 2016

Tolstoy’s translator: a brief life of Aylmer Maude

The roaring success of the BBC’s television adaptation of War and Peace earlier this year  got me thinking about Tolstoy’s history with English-speaking audiences.

Back before television or radio, English speakers were introduced to Tolstoy’s work by two translators above all: Constance Garnett and Aylmer Maude. They, along with several cultural commentators and travel writers, have been more broadly credited with opening British eyes to Russian life and culture in the early 20th century. Maude, who I first encountered through an obscure book of his in the British Library’s collections, seems to be forever crossing paths with me, and he is my subject here.

Louise-en-aylmer-maude

                                                          Louise and Aylmer Maude

The son of an Ipswich clergyman, he went to Russia, aged 16, in 1874, with no previous ties to the country. He studied at the Moscow Lyceum and worked as an English-language tutor before marrying the daughter of a British jeweller in the city and pursuing his own career in business. Maude’s company was Muir and Mirrielees, the largest department store in Russia, and he easily made enough money to retire before he was 40 in order to take up his real, literary interests. His wife, Louise Shanks, born and raised bilingual in Moscow, was the scion of a family  whose significant artistic and literary interests were as notable as their business success. Her sisters Emily and Mary were both artists; Mary was Tolstoy’s illustrator. Louise herself was also an acolyte of Tolstoy’s in youth, and during the 1890s she and Aylmer set to work translating his books into English. Louise concentrated on Tolstoy’s literary output, while Aylmer dealt more with philosophy and politics.

A radical activist who was later a leading light in the Fabian Society and co-operative movement in Britain, Maude also produced his own books, including a slim volume on the coronation of Nicholas II. This was published pseudonymously as The Tsar’s Coronation, as seen by De Monte Alto. As a committed Christian of a puritanical bent, he spared few words describing what he saw as the excesses, hypocrisy and incompetence involved in the Coronation.

Maude02 Coronation tp

 Cover of The Tsar’s Coronation, as seen by De Monte Alto (London, 1896) 9930.b.26

Where other memoirists and journalists lapped up propaganda or sought to ingratiate themselves with high society, Maude portrayed the pageantry in the most banal light, as a welter of vulgarity centered upon an unworthy subject at the expense of the majority of the Russian people. This harsh, deflationary, often very funny, little book is the means by which I first encountered him, before I was aware of his fame as a translator.

Maude coronation catastrophe

Aylmer Maude’s cynical take on the Tsar’s Coronation festivities, from The Tsar’s Coronation

From translation, Maude proceeded to biographies and critiques of Tolstoy, which he defended as the most accurate available, since “Countess Tolstoy…most kindly rendered me the very valuable assistance of reading and correcting.” He stayed with the Tolstoys frequently at Yasnaia Poliana and Moscow, and accompanied the religious dissidents, the Dukhobors, to Canada at Tolstoy’s request. This led to a certain disillusionment with the practicality of the great writer’s principles. “I have aimed at explaining Tolstoy’s views clearly and sympathetically,” he wrote, “but when necessary I have not shrunk from frankly expressing dissent; and in doing so I have but trodden in his footsteps, for he never forgot the duty of frankness and sincerity which an author owes to his readers.

Maude Life of Tolstoy 010790.ee.32 Title-page of Aylmer Maude’s The Life of Tolstoy: the first fifty years. (London, 1908). 010790.ee.32

In response, one reviewer accused him of a “dense lack of understanding” of Tolstoy and of whitewashing everyone BUT Tolstoy! Maude also engaged in some notable intellectual feuds with Max Beerbohm and with Leo Wiener of Harvard University. His defenders included fellow Fabian George Bernard Shaw.

The Maudes settled in Essex in 1897, but returned to Russia frequently until after the Revolution, in which his wife’s family lost their businesses, their homes and a great deal of money. Russia, Aylmer said sadly, had simply replaced its “devotion to God and the Tsar”, a theocratic system he regarded as a perversion of real faith, with “devotion to a dictatorship which abolished God”.

In the UK, he became involved as a trustee of the Whiteway Colony, which is close to where I grew up. I also visit Chelmsford regularly, where the museum holds a picture he and Louise once owned, a work by his sister-in-law, Emily Shanks, a member of the “Wanderers" group of artists. Hence my feeling that wherever I go in life I seem to stumble across him! The British Library holds many papers of his, including his correspondence with the Society of Authors (Add MS 56746-56749), and with Marie Stopes (Add MS 58487-58490).

Janet Ashton, WEL Cataloguing Team Manager

References:

Louise Collier Willcox, ‘Tolstoi’s religion’, North American Review, Vol. 193, No. 663 (Feb. 1911), pp. 242-255. PP.6320

Anonymous review of Tolstoi by Romain Rolland, North American Review, Vol. 195, No. 674 (Jan., 1912), pp. 135-136. PP.6320

Aylmer Maude, The Life of Tolstoy: the later years. (London, 1911). W25/7539

Aylmer and Louise Maude (translators) Family views of Tolstoy. (London, 1926). 010790.f.65

Greg King and Janet Ashton. “A programme for the reign: press, propaganda and public opinion at Russia’s last coronation.” Electronic British Library Journal, (2012), art. 9, pp.1-27. 

06 September 2016

From China to Peru

Dr Johnson opened his ‘The vanity of Human Wishes’ in 1749 with the memorable:

Let Observation with extensive View,
Survey Mankind, from China to Peru;

Donald Greene argues that Johnson didn’t mean just the eastern and western extremes of the map but that for him Peru signified the atrocities wrought by the Spaniards on the Indians while China represented wisdom and culture.

What possibly underlay Johnson’s view was the synthetic proverb literature, exemplified by this recently-acquired little book, which showed Chinese wisdom to be comparable with European. (There was no such bibliography for Peru.)

Chinese Proverbs
Marc-Antoine Eidous, Proverbes et apophthegmes chinois, comparés avec les proverbes des autres peuples; pour faire suite aux Moralistes Anciens (Paris: A. J. Dugour, an 5 de la République) British Library RB.23.a.36863

The proverbs first appeared in Marc-Antoine Eidous’s Hau kiou choaan, ou Histoire Chinoise traduite du Chinois (1765).  Or  rather, that’s what it says here in the ‘Avertissement’.  In fact, it was ‘traduit du chinois en anglais’ by James Wilkinson, edited by Thomas Percy (he of the Percy Ballads), and put into French by Monsieur Eidous. By the way, this was a ‘pleasing history’ story rather than hard history.


Pleasing History frontispiece

Frontispiece and title-page of Hau kiou choaan or the pleasing history. A translation from the Chinese language. To which are added, I. The argument or story of a Chinese play, ... III. Fragments of Chinese poetry. (London, 1774) 243.i.30-31.

Pleasing history tp

Proverbes et apophthegmes prints all the proverbs, but trims some of the notes.

There really is nothing here that an 18th-century French reader wouldn’t recognise:

A boat whose planks are affixed with but bird-lime does not long resist the violence of the waves.

One may remove a blemish from a diamond by polishing it: but that of a prince who does not keep his word is never effaced.

And as an example of the comparative method:

Il est important de bien commencer en toutes choses: la faute la plus légère peut avor des suites funestes.
    Ce proverbe est le même dans plusieurs langues: En latin: Dimidium facti, qui bene coepit habet.  En français: De bon commencement bonne fin.


Chinese proverbs pp12-13
 Two pages of proverbs from Proverbes et apophthegmes chinois


Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Studies

05 September 2016

Verdi and Shakespeare

In a composing career spanning more than five decades, Giuseppe Verdi considered more than 100 works, including novels and plays by French, Italian, Spanish and German writers, as sources for potential operatic projects. Among them were several plays by Shakespeare, one of his favourite writers. Although he did complete three operas based on Shakespeare plays, several others – Hamlet, Cymbeline, Antony and Cleopatra, The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet – were discussed at various times but never materialised. Of these unwritten operas, however, it was King Lear that held the greatest significance for Verdi and came closest to creation.

CM FIG.1Verdi 1872.c.15
Portrait of Verdi, from Verdi e Otello. Numero unico pubblicato dalla Illustrazione Italiana (Milan, [1887]) British Library 1872.c.15

Verdi successively approached three potential librettists for Lear: in 1845 he first mentioned the play to Francesco Maria Piave, the librettist of his Ernani, I Due Foscari and Macbeth. It was, perhaps, Verdi’s dissatisfaction with the last of these (he enlisted another writer, Francesco Maffei, to revise parts of the text) that made him commission, in 1850, a Re Lear from Salvadore Cammarano, another regular collaborator of his. 

After Cammarano’s untimely death in 1852, Verdi approached Antonio Somma. Recognising the difficulty of turning such a complex play into an opera, he kept advising Somma to reduce the number of scenes and principal characters (Gloucester and his sons were eventually removed). He also reiterated the need to avoid too many scene changes and to keep his text short. The extensive correspondence between the two men was first published in 1913 and, more recently, in a 2002 edition by the Istituto nazionale di studi verdiani which includes facsimiles of Somma’s manuscripts of his first and second drafts of the libretto (1853 and 1855), and of Verdi’s own transcription of the first version, with variants inserted in their proper place. The volume additionally includes a facsimile of Verdi’s letter of 28 February 1850 to Cammarano which contains a detailed outline of the plot. Transcriptions of all these facsimiles are also included.

CM FIG.3 SOMMA'S AUTOGRAPH
The end of Antonio Somma’s second version of his libretto of Re Lear, showing Cordelia’s death. Reproduced in Giuseppe Verdi, Antonio Somma, Per il “Re Lear”. Edited by Gabriella Carrara Verdi (Parma, 2002). LC.31.b.1041 

Verdi’s continuing reservations about the libretto meant that the project was abandoned and there is no evidence that music for the opera was ever composed. This is all the more regrettable as some of the most poignant scenes in Verdi’s operas are those between fathers and daughters - Luisa Miller, Rigoletto, Aida, and above all, Simon Boccanegra are the most notable examples - and, judging from the final scene of the libretto of Re Lear, the death of Cordelia (‘Delia’ in the libretto) would have been a notable addition to the canon.

CM FIG.2 VERDI AUTOGRAPH
Verdi’s autograph of the first version of the final scene of the libretto of of Re Lear, reproduced in Per il  “Re Lear”

The three Shakespeare operas Verdi did complete – Macbeth, Otello, Falstaff – are all great masterpieces.

Macbeth (1847), one of his greatest early works, typically full of Risorgimento connotations (the fall of a tyrant and the liberation of the country under his rule), was extensively revised for the Paris Opéra in 1865, and it is this version, which is usually performed today. As well as a magnificent banquet scene at the end of Act 2, the opera also has one of Verdi’s greatest final scenes (the death of Macbeth and triumph of Macduff), and Lady Macbeth’s haunting and eerie sleepwalking scene. 

By the time he began composing Otello in the 1880s, Verdi had become the grand old man of Italian opera – a ‘national treasure’ in today’s parlance. The fact that he had not composed a new opera since Aida, over a decade earlier, added to the public anticipation for the new work. There was, consequently, extensive press coverage both before and after its premiere, including a special Otello issue of the popular weekly illustrated magazine L’Illustrazione italiana which discussed not only the subject of opera and scenes from its first production but also looked at Verdi’s life and works, including his collaboration with his librettist, Arrigo Boito.

CM FIG.4 VERDI E L'OTELLO
Cover (above) and image of Otello's opening storm scene (below), from Verdi e Otello. 1872.c.15. 

CM FIG.5 Otello Act 1

A poet, critic and composer (his opera Mefistofele, for which he wrote the text and the music, is sometimes performed today), Boito first collaborated with Verdi on Inno delle nazioni, a cantata commisssioned to represent Italy at the 1862 International Exhibition in London, and, in 1881, on a revision of Simon Boccanegra.

CM FIG.6 Verdi and Boito at S.Agata
Verdi and Boito. Illustration from Verdi e Otello. 1872.c.15. 

Otello was Verdi’s and Boito’s first collaboration on a new opera and they were to work together again on Falstaff (drawn from The Merry Wives of Windsor, with insertions from Henry IV and Henry V). Premiered in 1893, when the composer was 80, and unusually for Verdi, a comedy, the opera was greeted with the same enthusiasm as Otello six years earlier, including another special issue of L’Illustrazione italiana. Falstaff was Verdi’s glorious and astonishing swansong, its final joyous fugue beginning with ‘Tutto nel mondo è burla’ (‘Everything in the world is a jest’).  

CM FIG.7. Falstaff Hirsch 5213
Cover of the special issue of L’Illustrazione italiana, Verdi e il Falstaff (Milan, [1893]). Hirsch 5213

Chris Michaelides, Curator, Romance Collections

References

Verdi e Otello. Numero unico pubblicato dalla Illustrazione Italiana, e compilato da U. Pesci ed E. Ximenes. Milan, [1887].  1872.c.15.

Verdi e il Falstaff. Numero speciale della Illustrazione italiana. Milano, [1893]. Hirsch 5213. 

Re Lear e Ballo in maschera. Lettere di Giuseppe Verdi ad Antonio Somma, publicate da Alessandro Pascolato. (Città di Castello, 1913). X.439/1592.

Julian Budden, The Operas of Verdi (London, 1973-82) X.0431/75

Gary Schmidgall, ‘Verdi’s King Lear Project’, in 19th-Century Music, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Autumn 1985), pp. 83-101. P.431/268

Philip Gossett. ‘The Hot and the Cold: Verdi writes to Antonio Somma about Re Lear’, in Variations on the Canon: Essays on Music from Bach to Boulez in Honor of Charles Rosen on His Eightieth Birthday. (Rochester NY, 2008). YC.2009.a.6153.

Roberta Montemorra Marvin (ed.), The Cambridge Verdi Encyclopedia (Cambridge, 2013). YC.2014.a.2360.

Stuart Leeks, ‘Verdi and the lure of Shakespeare’ (Opera North Blog) 

Recordings:

Otello, complete 1976 live recording from La Scala, conducted by Carlos Kleiber, with Placido Domingo (Otello), Mirella Freni (Desdemona), and Piero Cappuccilli (Iago).

Falstaff,  a complete 1965 live recording from the Opéra de Paris of Franco Zeffirelli’s production of Falstaff, with Tito Gobbi as Falstaff.

Our exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts is open until  6 September, and you can continue to find out more about all aspects of Shakespeare's life and work on our dedicated Shakespeare webpages.