A few short weeks ago Shawn and I set to work cataloging the Howard Mayer Brown Libretto Collection. This collection was acquired by the Newberry in 1993 when the institution received Brown’s library, including microfilm and papers, as a bequest. The approximately 1250-1300 items in the Brown Libretto Collection (from here out BLC) include libretti in Italian, French, English, and German dating between the 17th and 19th centuries. Most of the libretti were published in Italy or France, but other imprints including Austria, Prussia, Germany, England, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain and the United States are found in the collection.
Howard Mayer Brown Libretto Collection
Many of the libretti are in pamphlet form, some with paper wrappers, and some in case bindings. There are several volumes that contain several libretti, originally published separately, that were at some point bound together. The research guide to the collection, created in 1992 by John Winemiller (pdf. 1 & 2), organizes the collection alphabetically by title and includes its BLC#. In cases where a volume contains more than one title items are numbered with the BLC# and letters corresponding to the number of items in the volume (ex. BLC#184a-k – contains 11 titles).
As a librarian/musicologist I am absolutely loving this collection. It is a treat to be able to work with items that were printed for the performance of a Lully, Handel, or Mozart opera dated during their respective lifetimes. One of my favorite items that I cataloged this week is an edition of Lully‘s Armide (BLC 169 Case ML50.2.A735 L85 1686) with an imprint of 1686, the year of the opera’s premiere.
Lully's Armide (BLC 169)
Frontispiece from Lully's Armide (BLC 169)
Another fun aspect of working with this collection is learning about, and becoming more well versed in the variety of opera topics. While many serious or tragic operas feature mythological or legendary stories as the basis for their plot others focus on historical or semi-historical figures. So far I have encountered operas featuring such historical figures and settings including: Cleopatra VII, Ptolemy, Julius Caesar, Mithridates VI of Pontus, First Crusade, Scipio Africanus, Hannibal, Ghengis Khan, Laodice of Cappadocia, Semiramis queen of Assyria, Roman servile wars, etc. Quite often the librettist has built a story surrounding one or more of these historical figures that is very loosely based upon actual history. This can be problematic when assigning subject headings because in such cases it is not always clear if the opera is intended to really be about a historical character or just an idealized depiction of several historical figures with the same name — for example sometimes a libretto will feature a character Ptolemy, king of Egypt, but it may be impossible to pin down which of the fifteen different Ptolemian kings is being referenced because of a lack of any other historical references in the text.
As we have begun cataloging the libretti Shawn and I have both discovered that there are not only opera libretti in the collection but also oratorios, cantatas (both secular and sacred), lectures about operas, plays, Italian poetry which may, or may not have ever been put to music, ballet scenarios, Italian song texts, and intermezzi. This mainly affects the Library of Congress classification number that is assigned to the item in question and genre terms included in the record. Sometimes, too, items that are not operas or oratorios may take a bit more detective work to discover the composer or librettist if it is not included in the title or preliminary material.
This week I came across a non-opera item – Rime cantate nel giardino del signor Riccardo Riccardi, con l’occasione d’una festa fatta quivi per la reina (BLC 167 – Case ML54.7 .R53 1600) – that contained texts for several different Italian song types (ballata, serenata, canzone, etc.) that were performed at a feast in honor of Marie de Medicis, likely celebrating her marriage to Henry IV of France, in 1600. The woodblock engravings in this edition are particularly nice and after searching through some music reference materials I was able to discover that the text was written by Italian poet Gabriello Chiabrera, and the music was likely composed by Riccardo Riccardi, in whose garden the songs were performed.
Rime cantate nel giardino ... (BLC 167)
Ballata text from BLC 167.
I am glad that we are able to provide detailed catalog records for this collection and make the items more readily discoverable for researchers, (in several cases there are no extant records for certain items in WorldCat). I am also looking forward to see what other interesting items are in the BLC collection.