Tag Archives: operas

Sertor’s Conclave dell’anno 1774 revisited

The cataloging workflow works in mysterious ways.

Earlier this year, when Benedict XVI’s resignation triggered a papal conclave, I took the opportunity to write a post about Gaetano Sertor’s Conclave dell’anno 1774, two copies of which I had recently cataloged.  That very week, elsewhere in Collection Services, a manuscript of the libretto (Case MS V 461 .7743) landed on someone else’s desk.  The flurry of research by Alan and Jessica revealed nuances about the work’s history and publication that were necessary to distinguish its incarnations in our collection, which actually number five: the manuscript, an authentic edition, two counterfeit editions, and a French edition.

In the Bibliografia universale del teatro drammatico italiano, Salvioli and Salvioli attribute the work not to Sertor — who went to prison for its content — but to Prince Sigismondo Chigi.  They also go into detail about the distinguishing characteristics of the counterfeit editions.  The pictures below show our three Italian editions: Case oML 50.2.C66S47 1775 (BLC 14); Case oML 50.2.C66S47 1775c (BLC136); Case oML 50.2.C66S47 1775b.  The French edition (F 46 .655 v. 23 no. 16), cataloged in January, is in our collection of Dutch pamphlets, also cataloged as part of the CLIR project.

Second counterfeit: Case oML 50.2.C66S47 1775 (BLC 14); first counterfeit: Case oML 50.2.C66S47 1775c (BLC136); authentic edition: Case oML 50.2.C66S47 1775b


In contemporary wrappers. Case oML 50.2.C66S47 1775 (BLC 14), Case oML 50.2.C66S47 1775c (BLC136), Case oML 50.2.C66S47 1775b.

Papal conclave in satire and song

Papal coat of arms during the vacancy of the Holy See

In light of the papal conclave that commences in earnest today, I give you this:

Il conclave dell’anno MDCCLXXIV : dramma per musica da recitarsi nel Teatro delle dame nel conclave del MDCCLXXV.

The piece is an operatic satire of the epically long conclave (October 1774 to February 1775) that resulted in the election of Giovanni Angelo Braschi (Pius VI).  The Newberry has two editions of this work, both in the Howard Mayer Brown Libretto Collection and recently cataloged (see below for details).  Though attributed to Pietro Metastasio and Niccolò Piccini in the introductory matter, Il conclave dell’anno MDCCLXXIV is actually by Gaetano Sertor who, according to Oscar Sonneck (Librettos, I, p. 307), “simply used the two names then most in vogue.”

Our two editions — slight variants, both printed by Gian Francesco Chracas — are

If you are curious about Sertor’s satire but can’t get to our reading rooms, one of these is now available online via Google Books:

Title page of Il conclave dell'anno MDCCLXXIV (via Google Books)

Il conclave dell'anno MDCCLXXIV (via Google Books)


Giovanni Battista Andreini’s ‘La centaura’

Throughout the project to catalog all of the Howard Mayer Brown Libretto Collection I have become more and more interested in the dramas and festival pieces from the 16th and 17th centuries that are scattered throughout this collection.  One of my more recent finds is Giovanni Battista Andreini‘s La centaura (BLC 788 – Case PQ4562.A7 C46 1622).  Andreini (1576-1654) was an Italian actor, dramatist and poet, and son of the famous commedia dell’arte players Isabella and Francesco Andreini.  Anderini himself became a prominent figure in of the commedia dell’arte and by 1604 Andreini had formed his own troupe, Compagnia dei Fedeli, who were a resident company at the Gongzaga court in Mantua.  Andreini and his troupe performed in Paris beginning in 1613, through an invitation from the royal family, and were again in residence in 1622 when La centaura was premiered.

La centaura BLC 788

Andreini’s dramas are known for pushing the boundaries of traditional theatrical practices, and many of his works used music as important component.  La centura  amply demonstrates these qualities as it is divided into three acts, each of which is a different dramatic genre (Act 1-comedy, Act 2-pastorale, Act 3-tragedy) and  contains “substantial provision[s] for musical performance, including a sung prologue, finale, eight choruses and scenes sung in stile recitativo.” (New Grove dict. of music and musicians I, p. 625)

Cataloging this work was interesting because at first it was not clear whether it should be classified as an opera or drama (i.e. Italian literature) as is the case with many works from this time period that blur the line between play and opera. It was obvious from indications in the text that, indeed, there were portions of the work that were intended to be sung, as in the case of the prologue and choruses (as can be seen in the images below), but after a bit of research into Andreini and his works it was clear this work is a play.

La centaura prologue

La centaura - chorus


Mini-collections within the BLC

The Howard Mayer Brown Libretto Collection (BLC) comprises many smaller collections.  In the process of cataloging, we’ve come to recognize the bookplates of Pietro Gerini (d. 1939) and Pietro Buoninsegno (fl. 1802-1814), for instance, as dozens of their libretti found their way into Howard Mayer Brown’s hands.  There are less formal groupings as well, such as the many early-18th-century oratorios performed at the Oratorio di San Filippo Neri in Bologna, many of which were published by Costantino Pisarri.

Two interesting collections-within-the-collection of this sort are now making their way through the workflow.  The first consists of dozens libretti performed in at the Regio Ducal Teatro in Milan from 1698 through at least the 1750s, organized chronologically (BLC 712-760).

There’s no indication in the pieces themselves who might’ve put together this collection, but it is prodigious in scope and will serve scholars well.


The second mini-collection is pithier.  The ten libretti BLC 632-641 (titles and call numbers below) were used as the basis for new productions in Florence, mostly at the Teatro del Cocomero.  That is to say: they are full to the brim with alterations.  Many of these are made directly in the text, changing title page information and cast lists or altering text and stage instructions.  Some of the changes are so extensive, however, that they burst from the page, with slips of handwritten text pasted in or entire sheaves of alterations sewn up into a messy, wonderful package.  The most jam-packed of these is Case ML50.2.E33 L35 1724 (BLC 636) La Mariane.  The printed libretto was for a production at the Teatro di S. Angelo in 1724; the new production was at the Teatro del Cocomero in 1726.

Changes to the title page of La Mariane. Case ML50.2.E33 L35 1724 (BLC 636)

The cast, of course, changed.

Changes to the cast list of La Mariane. Case ML50.2.E33 L35 1724 (BLC 636)

Many of the additions and alterations are pasted in, like the folded slip on the left in the image below.  On the right is a leaf that has been inserted.

Insertions pasted down and sewn into La Mariane. Case ML50.2.E33 L35 1724 (BLC 636)

Indeed, in BLC 636, there is a veritable pile of loose sheets which have been inserted and then the whole package sew together–not for use, but to keep everything in one place.

La Mariane -- more loose sheets, some folded. Case ML50.2.E33 L35 1724 (BLC 636)

I can’t wait for someone to work on this little collection and reveal all of its secrets.   Someone has!  William C. Holmes’ Opera Observed: Views of a Florentine Impresario in the Early Eighteenth Century.  The third appendix is dedicated to these annotated libretti (plus one or two more).  From this desk in Collection Services, it is easy to forget that, although the BLC has not been fully cataloged, it has been available — and mined by scholars — for decades.

“Bella assai”: notes from the opera, Rome 1720

The Howard Mayer Brown Libretto Collection (BLC) has yielded another gem — a snapshot of the 1720 opera season in Rome through the eyes of two opera-goers.  The first libretto is Tito Sempronio Gracco, performed at the Teatro Capranica (Case ML50.2.T585 S33 1720, BLC 431).  Throughout the work, someone has made marginal comments, mostly complimentary: “non dispiace” (not displeasing);

"Non dispiace." Tito Sempronio Gracco, p. 24. Case ML50.2.T585 S33 1720 (BLC 431)

“bella assai” (rather beautiful);

"Bella assai." Tito Sempronio Gracco, p. 55. Case ML50.2.T585 S33 1720 (BLC 431)

“bella, bellissima, non puo essere meglio” (beautiful, most beautiful, couldn’t be better).

"Bella, bellissima, non puo essere meglio." Tito Sempronio Gracco, p. 56. Case ML50.2.T585 S33 1720 (BLC 431)


These charming comments could very well be about the text and not the performance, but that seems less likely in light of the second annotated libretto.  In Tito Manlio (Case ML50.2.T583 N67 1720), performed the same year at the Teatro della Pace, the same commenter (same hand and similar descriptions) is joined by another, who seems more focused on the music.  While they never comment on the same passage, they do seem to be in a conversation of sorts.

On p. 43, Listener 1 comments on Tito’s “bellissimo recitativo” (beautiful recitative). Just above, alongside Lucio’s aria, Listener 2 comments (in Neapolitan) “O che portiento” (Oh what a marvel)*.

"O che portiento." Tito Manlio, p. 43. Case ML50.2.T583 N67 1720 (BLC 451)

Listener 2 proves to be the more trenchant of the two.  On p. 56, again commenting on a passage by Lucio, he writes “E di questa che ne dite ò ò ò” (And what do you say about this, ho ho ho).  Is Listener 1′s “Bonissima” (very very good) a reply, or simply a comment on the following aria by Manlio?

"E di questa che ne dite ò ò ò." Tito Manlio, p. 56. Case ML50.2.T583 N67 1720 (BLC 451)

Chiming in again regarding the last scene, Listener 2 writes, “Quanto spiccan’ in q[ues]t’aria m[ise]r Lucio, e miser Decio capitan de’ Mamalucchi à à à à à” (How they over-articulate in this aria, Mister Lucio and Mister Decio, captain of the Mamelucos, ha ha ha ha ha).

"Quanto spiccan' in quest'aria miser Lucio, e Miser Decio, capitan de' Mamalucchi à à à à à." Tito Manlio, p. 70. Case ML50.2.T583 N67 1720 (BLC 451)

Almost all the notes by our wry second commenter pertain to Lucio, sung in this performance by Gaetano Fracassini from Verona.   It’s also interesting to note that one of the marginal comments (“mediocre,” p. 49) regards an aria that has a replacement a the end of the libretto; I wonder which version was really performed?

*Italianists: I’m reading that “chi” as “che,” since I can’t make sense of “who” in this context.  Thoughts?


Learning “purely by chance” from the Brown Libretto Collection

One of the delightful aspects of working behind the scenes in a library is the opportunity to lay your hands and eyes on large swaths of material.  If a scholar in open stacks is like a kid in a candy store, a cataloger is a kid whose job is to assay every piece of candy in a given box (and one box after another).  For the Brown Libretto Collection (BLC), Jennifer and I are cataloging libretti in batches of fifteen. We’re also peer reviewing each others’ work, so both of us are seeing every single libretto being cataloged.  In addition to being a real treat and a great learning experience, this process has the potential to unearth interesting information, and I have my eyes open for things that might be useful to my musicologist friends.

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed something peculiar in the libretto of Vologeso re de’ Parti (Case ML50.2.V65 S35 1759), performed at the Teatro della Pergola in Florence in 1759.   In the cast list, the dancers’ names are arrayed in a circular diagram.  I’ve never seen such a thing in a primary source, though it does bring to mind the sort of illustrations used by scholars of opera seria to express the hierarchy of relationships between and among characters.

Cast list for Vologeso re de' Parti. Case ML50.2.V65 S35 1759 (BLC 74)

I consulted with two of my colleagues, specialists in 18th-century music for the stage, and they’d never seen such a thing, either.  An anomaly, perhaps?  Well, yesterday I found another example.

Cast list for Enea e Lavinia. Case ML50.2.E53 G84 1789 (BLC 279)

In Enea, e Lavinia (Case ML50.2.E53 G84 1789), a 1789 performance at the Teatro Rangone in Modena, a certain group of the ballerini are listed in a circle with the description “a perfetta vicenda” (“purely by chance,” i.e. not by order of importance), and this explanation confirms the implicit meaning of such an arrangement.  For a genre as shot through with hierarchy as opera seria—both in its plots and character structure and in its performers jockeying for social and professional status—the circle is a strikingly egalitarian symbol.  German dramatist August von Kotzebue sheds light on this very issue.  In describing a particular opera seria performance in Florence, he is unable to identify an outstanding dancer by name.  This situation was unusual enough to demand an explanation.

The reason of my not being able to give the name of this lady with certainty proceeds, from a singular species of vanity or jealousy among the Italian singers and dancers.  When several lay claim to equal distinction, the director, to avoid giving offence, is obliged to have their names printed in a circle or a cross, so that a person cannot know where to begin reading; and a notice is subjoined of perfetta vicenda (“perfectly equal”), though this is scarcely ever true.

I find it interesting that both of my examples pertain to dancers and that Kotzebue’s specific reference is to a performer in a pantomime.  Could dancers possibly have been more vocal than singers in their complaints about top billing?  In any event, these circular cast lists index, in their own small way, the complex social negotiations that were the real fabric of opera as produced and as experienced in the 18th century.

Anyhow, no earth-shattering discoveries yet, but at least one interesting tidbit that was news to some scholars.  I’ll keep on the lookout as we continue cataloging and will share more highlights in later posts.

Cataloging the Howard Mayer Brown Libretto Collection

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.

Antonio Salieri correspondence regarding the opera “La princesse de Babylone”

Case FRC 22112

Generally speaking, the librettos that I have encountered in the French Revolution Collection (FRC) only indicate the librettist, not the composer of the musical score.  I was delighted then when I came across a pamphlet (Case FRC 22112) containing the libretto for La princesse de Babylone, that indicated the composer -   “M. Saliéri, premier maître de chapelle de la Cour de Vienne.” The libretto itself, an adaptation of Voltaire‘s work of the same title, is attributed to “M. Martin, député du commerce près l’Assemblée nationale, membre du Club des amis de la constitution et chef de la Société académique des Enfans d’Apollon, pour 1791.” Also included in the pamphlet is a series of letters, and excerpts from letters, (p. 73-96) between Marie-Joseph-Désiré Martin and Antonio Salieri discussing the libretto and effect of the French Revolution on the operatic scene in Paris.

Case FRC 22112

My research into where La princesse de Babylon fit into Antonio Salieri’s operatic output raised several questions that require closer reading of the correspondence and further research on Salieri’s relationship with Paris during the early part of the Revolution.   Salieri first came to Paris in the early 1780′s to take over an operatic commission for Christoph Willibald Gluck.  Throughout the same decade Salieri composed several other operas for Paris but is thought to have been “cut off from Paris” during the Revolution.   La princesse de Babylone is not included in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians works list for Salieri.  His later work, Palmira regina di Persi (1794) with the libretto by Giovanni de Gamerra, another adaptation of Voltaire’s original work, is included.  A glance through the correspondence between Salieri and Martin indicates Salieri’s interest in Martin’s libretto and that the musical score for the first act was completed by August 1789.  It would be interesting to examine any extant primary sources for the two operatic scores to see if the music from the French opera was reused or adapted for the later Italian libretto.