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21 November 2017

Shostakovich at the V&A

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    We continue our series of blog posts serving as accompaniment to the current V&A exhibition: ‘Opera: Passion, Power and Politics’ which features several items from our Music Collections. On this occasion we focus on ‘Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District’ Op 29 by the soviet composer Dimitri Shostakovich. The dramatic events surrounding this work compete with those taking place on stage.

G.1435. bDmitriĭ Dmitrievich Shostakovich, Ledi Makbet Mtsenskogo uezda…,( Moscow, 1935) British Library G.1435

    Lady Macbeth was composed between 1932 and 1934, with a libretto by Shostakovich and Alexander Preys. The story is based on a novel by Nikolai Leskov which takes place in the Russian pre-revolutionary days of serfdom. The unlikely heroine is Katerina Ismailova, the wife of a rich merchant from a bleak provincial town. Consumed with the crushing boredom of her empty life she becomes the mistress of one of her husband’s servants. When found out she murders her father–in-law and later, her husband. They are then sent to Siberia, where her lover forsakes her for another woman. In mad desperation, she kills her rival and then herself. 

G.1435. aTitlepage from the first edition of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District’, (Moscow, 1935) G.1435

    The British Library holds a rare vocal score of the opera, published in 1933 before its premiere and two years before the first regular edition shown in the image above.

D.337 aDmitriĭ Dmitrievich Shostakovich, Ledi Makbet Mtsenskogo uezda…,( Moscow, 1933) British Library D.337.

    Its rudimentary printing method and paper quality are indications that it may have been intended for limited rather than wide distribution. These were copies that perhaps circulated among musicians and collaborators during rehearsals for the Moscow production.

D.337 c“The corpse of Zinoviy Borisovich! Oh! Oh! Get the police!". Dmitriĭ Dmitrievich Shostakovich, Ledi Makbet Mtsenskogo uezda…,( Moscow, 1933) D.337.

    Lady Macbeth was premiered on 22 January 1934 in the Leningrad Malyi Opera Theatre with Samuil Samosud, who had been a close collaborator of Shostakovich in the latter stages of the production, as conductor. Two days later it opened in the Nemirovich-Dachenko Theatre in Moscow.

    The London premiere took place at the Queens Hall on the 18th of March 1936, under the baton of Albert Coates. Among the audience there was a 22-year-old Benjamin Britten who was especially impressed by the entreact music. One can only speculate whether he was equally impressed by the tenor singing the minor part of '2nd Foreman'. It wasn’t until later on that year that Britten formally met Peter Pears, who would become a lifelong personal and professional partner. 

Programme Programme of the Premiere in the Queen’s Hall, 18 March 1936, British Library X.0431/534.

    Our Music Manuscripts collection has a manuscript copy of the full score which appears to have been used in the preliminary stages of the London production. The music was copied by Soviet hands while the text was added later on in England. It follows the English translation prepared by the musicologist Michel Calvocoressi, while the music reflects earlier versions of the opera. Several pencilled cuts and annotations, probably by the conductor himself, are present throughout the score

148 3Dmitrii Dmitrievich Shostakovich, ‘Lady Macbeth (Katerina Izmaylova)’, op.29, British Library  MS Mus. 148

    While there was some initial criticism regarding the naturalist use of the music and the choice of subject, Lady Macbeth was a firm success. It was performed hundreds of times in its first two years, both in the Soviet Union and abroad. The Daily Herald called it ‘the Best modern opera since ‘Wozzeck’, while the Sovetskaia Muzyka praised it as “the chef d’ouvre of soviet creativity”. Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was hailed as the first great proletarian opera.

148 1Conductor cut mark. Dmitrii Dmitrievich Shostakovich,  ‘Lady Macbeth (Katerina Izmaylova)’, op.29,  MS Mus. 148

    Shostakovich’s fortunes would be dramatically reversed on the evening of 22 January 1936. The composer was requested to attend the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow for a production of the opera. Upon reaching his seat, he saw in the box across the stage were three of the most powerful men in the Soviet Union, Andrei Zhanov, Anastas Mikoyan and none other than Joseph Stalin himself. As the opera progressed, Shostakovich witnessed with horror how they winced and laughed every time a loud note emerged from the orchestra pit. Before the end of the third act, they had left the theatre.

    Two days later the Communist Party’s official newspaper, Pravda, published an article which has since been considered as one of the most prominent examples of art censorship.

PravdaPravda, (vol 27, no 6633), p3, 28 January 1936, British Library NEWS13616

    This page comes from the Pravda issue of 28th January 1936, a copy of which is in our Newspapers Collections. On the bottom left we can see the fateful article, which was titled 'Сумбур вместо музыки – Об опере Леди Макбет Мценского уезда’, or 'Muddle Instead of Music: On the Opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District'. Here Shostakovich is condemned as formalist, while giving in to bourgeois tastes. The music, on the other hand, “quacks, grunts, growls and suffocates itself.” His status as the foremost soviet composer rapidly dissolved into the paranoia and repression of the Great Purge, which unravelled that year.

    His peers from the Leningrad Composer’s Union unanimously voted to support the Pravda article. Shostakovich had no other choice than to buckle under party pressure and withdraw his Fourth Symphony shortly before its premiere. He would never write another opera again and it was not until 1963, after Stalin’s death, that Lady Macbeth was performed again, revised, and under a different name and opus number: Katerina Ismailova, op. 114

148 2Excerpt from the March of the Convicts. Dmitrii Dmitrievich Shostakovich,  ‘Lady Macbeth (Katerina Izmaylova)’, op.29,  MS Mus. 148

    This would be the first of two public denunciations of Shostakovich's music, the second of which took place in 1948. From both he was officially rehabilitated after managing to court back regime favour. This resilience and artistic conviction are captured in a 1943 letter to his friend Sir Henry Wood1

 (…) I am sure that the hour is near when our common enemy will be smashed and when our peoples will be able to resume their upbuilding of culture and art. With all my heart and soul I believe that after the war our art, to which we give all our efforts and abilities, will flourish with redoubled glory and magnificence.

With kindest regards

Yours very Sincerely,

 

Dmitry Shostakovich .

 

 

1 Letter from Shostakovich to Sir Henry Wood, 1 September 1943, British Library Add MS 56426

31 October 2017

Music Open Day 8 December 2017

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Have you recently started a PhD in Music? Alternatively, are you Master's student thinking of going on to study at doctoral level? If so, the British Library's doctoral music open day on 8 December 2017 is for you.

Music Doctoral Open Day 2017 manuscripts show and tell

The music collections at the British Library are unparalleled in their scope and diversity, providing a wealth of material to aid and inspire researchers and performers. The Library’s holdings of written musical sources (printed music and music manuscripts) and related literature (books, journals, concert programmes) encompass all genres and countries from the Middle Ages to the present day. Equally valuable for researchers is the rich body of private papers, correspondence, and business archives relating to composers, performing musicians, music publishers and performing institutions.  Our sound and moving image collection is similarly extensive, covering commercial discs, pop videos and ethnographic field recordings from across the globe, as well as radio sessions, interviews, documentaries and live performances. These materials are relevant to students in music and many other disciplines.

With this amount of material on offer, it can be difficult to know where to start, which is where our open days come in.

Browse the draft programme (significantly revised from last year), and then book your place online.  

Comments from last year include:

“The day was excellent and demystified the British Library. ”

“It was not just about the library but also gave me lots of ideas. Very inspiring. Thank you.”

“Not to belittle the excellent and useful sessions, but the (carrot) CAKES!!!!”

We look forward to seeing you there!

 

28 July 2017

Digitised Music Manuscripts Summer 2017

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Since our post last spring summarising digitised materials from our music manuscripts collection, we’ve been busy adding to this content.

From Byrd to Britten and Monteverdi to Mozart, a wealth of music manuscripts are available to browse, free-of-charge, on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website.

At the time of writing, you can view no fewer than 335 music manuscripts on the site. Additional content is added regularly.

Our last digitised manuscript, published just a few days ago, was Lansdowne MS 763. Dating from the fifteenth century and written on vellum, this is a collection of music treatises by various authors.

Lansdowne MS 763

For a full list of what is currently available, please see this file: Download PDF of BL digitised music manuscripts summer 2017.

This is also available in the form of a spreadsheet (although this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers): Download spreadsheet of BL digitised music manuscripts summer 2017.

 

27 May 2017

Musgrave at 89

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Today (27 May 2017) is the eighty-ninth birthday of the Scottish-American composer Thea Musgrave, born in Barnton, Midlothian, but, since the mid-1970s, resident in the USA. Following a major purchase in 2009, with assistance from the Eccles Centre for American Studies, the British Library has the world’s largest institutional collection of Musgrave archival papers, which include music manuscripts, programmes, correspondence, and photographs.

Musgrave studied at the University of Edinburgh, enrolling initially as a medical student, before switching to study music, under Hans Gál and Mary Grierson. An important influence during that time was the legacy of one of Edinburgh’s former Reid Professors of Music, Donald Francis Tovey: Musgrave says she “read absolutely every word of Donald Francis Tovey”. After graduating from Edinburgh in 1950, having won its Tovey Memorial Prize, Musgrave moved to Paris to study with the celebrated pedagogue Nadia Boulanger.

It is from these Paris years (1950–1954) that the earliest material in the collection originates: the manuscript for a set of five songs to poetry by Ezra Pound and Louis Macneice, premièred at the Cercle de l’Union Interallié in Paris, on 16 May 1951, with Musgrave herself as the pianist and Doda Conrad as the baritone. Although Musgrave does not use opus-numbers (with the exception of her Divertimento for string orchestra, op.15), she refers to this set informally as her opus one.

01_paris1Front cover of the programme for a concert at the Cercle de l’Union Interallié on 16 May 1951

02_paris2Inside of the programme for a concert at the Cercle de l'Union Interallié on 16 May 1951. The Musgrave songs are listed as the sixth item (the items are demarcated by Roman numerals). In this programme, the make of the pianoforte (in this case, a Pleyel) is specified.

03_5-songs_contents-pContents-page of the autograph manuscript for the set of five songs to poems by Pound and Macneice (misspelt as "Macniece"). Copyright (c) Thea Musgrave and Novello & Co Ltd; reproduced by kind permission of the same.

The programme has some evident typographical errors, misspelling Macneice (as “Macniece”) and ‘An Immorality’ (as “An Immortality”). More interesting, however, is a discrepancy in the syntax: when compared with the manuscript, ‘An Immorality’ and ‘The return’ have been swapped. Meanwhile, the title of the concert, “jeunes compositeurs et vieux maîtres anglais”, characterises Musgrave as an English composer — this is probably an erroneous conflation of English and British, rather than a belief that Musgrave were English.

Among the other performers in the concert was the pianist Luise Vosgerchian, who, although not involved in performing Musgrave on this occasion, was the dedicatee of a subsequent Musgrave composition, the first pianoforte sonata, completed in January 1952. The British Library has the fair copy for this work, which is withdrawn.

04_withdrawn-sonataTitle and dedication from the fair copy of the first pianoforte sonata (withdrawn). Copyright (c) Thea Musgrave, Chester Music Ltd, and Novello & Co Ltd; reproduced by kind permission of the same.

Musgrave also withdrew three of the five songs in the aforementioned set, resulting in a pair of songs, both settings of Ezra Pound.

05_2-songs_title-pTitle-page of the fair copy of the two songs, both to texts by Pound, not withdrawn from the set of five songs. Copyright (c) Thea Musgrave and Novello & Co Ltd; reproduced by kind permission of the same.

Whatever Musgrave’s reasons for this partial withdrawal, the manuscript is a fascinating record of an early case of Musgrave’s wont for collecting texts from more than one author in a single song-cycle — this approach of text-setting as anthology becomes more pronounced in several of her later vocal and choral works, the most recent of which is The Voices of Our Ancestors, which was premièred, in London, on 9 July 2015.

Following her studies with Boulanger, during which she was awarded the Lili Boulanger Memorial Prize, Musgrave returned to the UK, where she was in demand not only as a composer, but also as a pianist, lecturer, and, in due course, conductor of her own work. From the late-1950s, Chester Music was her publisher, until she moved to Novello in the mid-1970s.

Yet, a number of her subsequent works remain unpublished. Of the unpublished works represented in the collection, a suitably festive example is her contribution to a set of variations on Happy Birthday.

06_walton-festschrift_title-pageTitle-page of the fair copy of Musgrave's variation on Happy Birthday, written as part of a set to celebrate the seventieth birthday of William Walton. Copyright (c) Thea Musgrave, Chester Music Ltd, and Novello & Co Ltd; reproduced by kind permission of the same.

07_walton-festschrift_p1First page of music in the fair copy of Musgrave's variation on Happy Birthday, written as part of a set to celebrate the seventieth birthday of William Walton. Copyright (c) Thea Musgrave, Chester Music Ltd, and Novello & Co Ltd; reproduced by kind permission of the same.

Musgrave’s “variation in one minute” is third in the set, with the other composers being Richard Rodney Bennett, Malcolm Arnold, Nicholas Maw, Robert Simpson, and Peter Maxwell Davies (the latter's contribution now housed in the British Library as Add MS 71323). The set was premièred by the London Symphony Orchestra on 28 March 1972, the day before William Walton’s seventieth birthday, in the Royal Festival Hall. A recording is available in the British Library’s Sound Archive, at shelfmark C1398/0775.

Although the Musgrave collection does not include the programme for this concert, there are hundreds of other programmes relating to Musgrave — some were collected by her, and many more were sent to her by performers, promoters, and friends. These document the significant influence and reach of Musgrave’s oeuvre in various continents, and not just in the English-speaking world.

For example, in 1988, Musgrave and her husband, Peter Mark, visited Jerusalem for a tour in which each of them conducted the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. Musgrave’s concert comprised four of her own compositions from various points in her career to date, cumulatively spanning a period of twenty-three years. Conveniently, the programme is bilingual:

08_jerusalem1A page, in Hebrew, from a programme for a concert of Musgrave orchestral works in the Henry Crown Symphony Hall, Jerusalem on 27 March 1988, performed by the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Musgrave.

09_jerusalem2The corresponding page in English from the same programme.

Not all programmes have a translation into English so readily available. In respect of the world première of Orfeo III, which took place in Moscow on 9 October 1993, Musgrave annotated the programme with a translation of the key information.

10_moscowProgramme for a concert in the Rachmaninoff Hall, Moscow State Conservatoire on 9 October 1993, featuring the world première of Musgrave's /Orfeo III/, performed by Orchestra 2001, conducted by James Freeman. Musgrave was not present at the concert, but has annotated the programme with an outline translation. Annotations copyright (c) Thea Musgrave and Novello & Co Ltd; reproduced by kind permission of the same.

As the numeral suggests, Orfeo III, scored for flute and string quintet, is a transcription based on two earlier compositions. This transcription was written for Orchestra 2001, conducted by James Freeman. Here, Musgrave is presented as an American composer, sharing the programme with Thomas Whitman, Gerald Levinson, and Richard Wernick. By 1993, Musgrave had been permanently resident in the USA for almost two decades.

This performance in Russia is by no means the only case of Musgrave’s compositions touring continental Europe. Indeed, some of her works have received greater attention on the continent than in the UK, her country of birth. Indeed, Musgrave’s opera Simón Bolívar, completed in 1992, received its European première in Regensburg on 7 April 1995, and has yet to be performed in full in the UK.

11_regensburgFront cover of programme for the first European production of Musgrave's opera Simón Bolívar, at the Städtische Bühnen Regensburg in April 1995.

 

Sasha Millwood, Doctoral Researcher (Arts & Humanities Research Council Collaborative Doctoral Partnership), Music Collections, British Library, and University of Glasgow 

24 May 2017

Digitised Music Manuscripts Spring 2017

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From Byrd to Britten and Monteverdi to Mozart, a wealth of British Library music manuscripts are available to browse, free-of-charge, on the Digitised Manuscripts website.

My Ladye Nevells Books MS Mus 1591

MS Mus. 1591, My Layde Nevells Booke (1591)

At the time of writing, you can view no fewer than 323 music manuscripts on the site. For a full list of what is currently available in PDF format, please see this file: Download BL Digitised Music Manuscripts Spring 2017.

This is also available in the form of a spreadsheet (although this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers): Download BL Digitised Music Manuscripts Spring 2017.

Additional content is added regularly. Our last digitised manuscript, published just a few days ago, was Additional MS 29996. Dating from the seventeenth century, this is a collection of motets, madrigals and fancies, by Thomas Tomkins and others, interspersed with political verses, satires, recipes.

Add MS 29996

Additional MS 29996: a recently-digitised music manuscript, including works by Thomas Tomkins 

If you are looking for something more specific, why not consult our blog posts on the material we’ve digitised relating to Handel, Mozart, Purcell and Wagner. For more general advice on using the site, we highly recommend this blog post.

We'll be posting updated versions of these lists quarterly, so be sure to check the blog again in a few months time for an updated edition. In the meantime, to get the latest news about our digitisation projects, acquisitions and events, please follow us on Twitter: @BL_Music_Colls

22 May 2017

Bringing a forgotten opera to life

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Following the revival of Handel’s music that took place in the mid-20th century, there are probably no more ‘authentic’ Handel operas to be rediscovered. This is not the case with his pasticcio operas, however.  In these ‘concoctions’ (or pasticcii), Handel put together a show by taking an existing libretto and recycling popular Italian arias written by other composers. English audiences of the time were no more proficient in Italian than today’s, but they enjoyed hearing a good tune and seeing a favourite diva perform.

Opera Settecento is a London-based company that brings to life forgotten 18th-century opera seria (that is, Italian operas on heroic or tragic subjects). Fittingly, the company takes its name from the Italian for “18th century”, “Settecento”. Recently, musical director Leo Duarte created a new performing edition of Handel’s pasticcio opera Ormisda drawing on several sources from the British Library’s extensive music collections.

Ormisda is the second of three pasticcii resurrected by the company, starting with Elpidia (1725) in 2016 and concluding with Venceslao (1731) in 2018. It is a tale of power, love and unhappy families. A wicked stepmother, Palmira, is determined to elevate her own son to the throne of Persia. She displaces his elder half-brother and disregards the feelings of the Queen of Armenia who is in love with the younger brother but destined to marry whoever becomes King of Persia.

Ormisda was first performed in 1730 at the King’s Theatre Haymarket under the direction of the composer himself. Although it has been assigned an HWV number, meaning it is officially part of the catalogue of Handel’s works, the piece contains hardly any of Handel’s original music. The busy and entrepreneurial composer wrote the work as a “quick win” to keep up his profile, whilst at the same time giving himself time to concentrate on two new operas, Partenope and Lotario.  Interestingly, neither had the box-office success of the crowd-pleasing Ormisda.

Inspired by musicologist Reinhard Strohm’s work on Handel’s pasticcio operas, Duarte came to the British Library to assess whether neglected pieces such as Ormisda were worth performing and had something to say to today’s audiences. At the centre of his research was Additional MS 31551, a manuscript score of Ormisda dating from the 18th century. He converted this into a digital form which he could use to create a performing score and orchestral parts.

Handel-Ormisda-BL-Add-MS-31551Handel’s Ormisda (18th century). British Library Additional MS 31551, folio 1 recto

Duarte also made use of the word-book (or libretto) dating from 1730 (11714.aa.20.(1)).

Word-book-Handel-Ormisda-title-pageWord-book for Handel’s Ormisda (1730). British Library 11714.aa.20.(1.), title-page

Digitised as part of the British Library’s partnership with Google Books, the word-book is likely to have been sold as a souvenir. Theatre lighting of the time would have made it unreadable in situ, and opera plots of the period are notoriously difficult to navigate. The extra help provided by the word-book suggests audiences then had attention spans – and linguistic skills – about the same as now. The Italian text was rendered into English by an uncredited translator; the translation is quite poetic, especially the arias, with rhymes and in metre.

The libretto is by the Venetian Apostolo Zeno (1669-1750) and the musical material has been identified as coming from Leonardo Leo, Orlandini, Hasse, Conti and others, with five arias as yet unidentified. “There is hardly a note of Handel’s in there – maybe the odd recit,” says Duarte. Handel’s contribution was to delete sections that were superfluous to requirements. He understood how to import Italian repertoire and make it attractive to London audiences.

Although it is a beautiful copy and easy to read,  the manuscript contains some crossings-out and sections that have been covered over.

Handel-Ormisda-BL-Add-MS-31551-f-23-versoHandel’s Ormisda, with passages covered over. British Library Additional MS 31551, folio 23 verso

The word-book provides clues as to why that might be, since it contains crossings-out that match the score. These are complemented by manuscript annotations in an unknown hand such as “in score”, “not in score, but instead is the additional song… [sung by] Siga Merighi (Co) [contralto]”.

Annotations-word-book-Handel-OrmisdaManuscript annotations in the word-book for Handel’s Ormisda. British Library 11714.aa.20.(1.), page 15

Having access to the British Library’s score and word-book side-by-side enabled Duarte to recreate a work that is not Handel’s, but has his stamp on it. This in turn provides a fascinating insight into Handel the showman and his understanding of what his audiences wanted.

 

Ruth Hansford

Grants Portfolio Manager, Endangered Archives Programme, British Library, and freelance opera surtitler

16 May 2017

The dog and the cakes

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Dogs are notorious for helping themselves to food. Be it a tasty turkey destined for a special Christmas dinner or a sandy sandwich snatched from your hand on the beach, the chances are you’ve experienced this in action.

To celebrate World Baking Day, we’ve unearthed two cake-related songs from our printed music collections that lament this particular canine characteristic.

Written by one Frederick Julian Croger (1854-1923) in 1889, 'The dog and the cakes' tells the tale of a lazy pup belonging to a little boy named Peter.

Dog-and-the-cakes-H-3450-7-musicFrederick Julian Croger, 'The dog and the cakes' (1889). British Library H.3450.(7.), page 2

“Selfish Pete” and his companion “greedy George” decide to buy themselves some cakes as a treat. But alas! When they went to fetch a drink:

Far away that dog did slink

And played a wicked caper:

Being such a greedy pup,

And thinking he would like to sup,

He took those cakes and ate them up

And only left the paper

Dedicated to “all who are not greedy”, the song is aimed at the “young folk”. The simple melody moves in steps, making it easy to memorise and sing.

Dog-and-the-cakes-H-3450-7-title-pageFrederick Julian Croger, 'The dog and the cakes' (1889). British Library H.3450.(7.), title-page

During his career, Croger described himself as a “Professor of Music”, composer and a music publisher. This song reflects this, since it bears the imprint “Published by Croger & Co., wholesale and export music publishers”.

Born in West Hackney in the East End of London, he was from a musical family. His father Thomas was an instrument maker and inventor who tragically took his own life following bankruptcy. His uncle Richard also made instruments and composed, and his brother Thomas Rodolphus was a conductor.

'The dog and the cakes' is one of a number of ditties he penned. Also on the same theme, in 1888 he  wrote 'Amy and the puppy'.

Amy-and-the-puppy-H-3450-2-music

Frederick Julian Croger, 'Amy and the puppy' (1888). British Library H.3450.(2.), page 2

Amy’s curly-locked dog "Tress" (or "Tressie"), plays a similar trick, helping himself to cake when her back is turned:

Amy - not suspecting “Tress” -

Ran upstairs to change her dress

And feeling full of happiness

Began to dance and caper

But while she’d gone, the greedy pup,

Who of such dainties liked to sup

With great delight did eat them up!

This song is dedicated to “Master Wilfrid & Miss Mabel Croger”, the composer’s children, and includes a charming illustration of Amy’s dismay on discovering her beloved Tress’ actions.

Amy-and-the-pupp-H-3450-2-illustration

Illustration from Frederick Julian Croger, 'Amy and the puppy' (1888). British Library H.3450.(2.), page 3

Amelie Roper

Curator, Digital Music

15 May 2017

Monteverdi 450

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This year sees the 450th anniversary of the birth of Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi. This milestone is currently being commemorated, among a wide range of celebrations, with a series of performances by the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists under the direction of Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Although we do not know the exact date of Monteverdi’s birth, his baptism was recorded at the Church of SS. Nazaro e Celso in Cremona on this day (15 May) in 1567.

The British Library’s printed music collections contain extensive Monteverdi holdings, with many editions of the composer’s works which were published in his own lifetime: these include various parts of first or early editions of his madrigal books (B.252.a, Hirsch III.942, D.195.a, D.195.b), as well as an early edition of his opera Orfeo (R.M.15.c.6).

Perhaps the Library’s greatest Monteverdi treasure is a letter written by the composer in 1627 (MS Mus.1707). This was acquired from the private collection of the late Albi Rosenthal in 2009. Monteverdi wrote the letter to Ferrarese nobleman Enzo Bentivoglio, who was in the process of organising the celebrations for the wedding of Odoardo Farnese and Margherita de’ Medici, and had commissioned Monteverdi to write a set of five intermedi for the marital celebrations in Parma.

Ms_mus._1707_f001r_top

Ms_mus._1707_f002v_signatureMonteverdi letter, 1627: opening and signature (British Library MS Mus. 1707)

Sadly, the five intermedi are not known to have survived; however, the letter remains a useful indicator of the commission, as well as an interesting testament to Monteverdi’s characteristically adventurous musical practices. In the letter, he discusses possibilities for musical representations in the intermedi of the Greek goddess Discord. He suggests that Discord’s part should be recited in an inharmonious voice (‘recitar in voce et non in armonia’) and not be built on instrumental harmony (‘appoggiato sopra ad armonia alcuna di ustrimenti però’): these suggestions could variously be interpreted to mean that the voice be in some way tuneless and dissonant, not accompanied by instruments, or even performed in some sort of half-spoken manner.

Monteverdi was, of course, well-versed in the use of dissonance for dramatic or textually-symbolic purposes. After attracting criticism for supposedly improper use of dissonance, he famously began a defence of the composer’s right to harmonic discretion in his fifth book of madrigals. The text is preserved, among other places, in an extremely rare first edition of the Quinto Libro in the British Library's music collections (D.195.a.), dating from 1605.

D_195_a_frontispiece

D_195_a_Al_LettoreMonteverdi's Quinto Libro (Venice, 1605): frontispiece and Al Lettore (British Library D.195.a)

The British Library’s Monteverdi letter also has indications of a more personal discord in the composer’s own life; indeed, he mentions an accident or misfortune (‘acidente’) which had recently interrupted his compositional activity. Musicologist Denis Stevens interpreted this as a reference to the imprisonment of Monteverdi’s younger son, Massimiliano, who had been arrested by the Roman Inquisition for reading a forbidden book. While we don’t know which text got Massimiliano into trouble, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum lists what was forbidden at the time; Massimilano, who is known to have had interests in astrology, might well have been reading the particularly controversial books about helio-centrism by authors such as Giordano Bruno and Galileo Galilei, and he was clearly a source of grave concern for his father at this time.

James Ritzema. Collaborative PhD student, Royal Holloway, University of London, and British Library