Monday, July 29th, 2013...10:00 am

What’s New: Italian opera seria manuscripts from the library of the Ducs de Luynes

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D'Albert Luynes Arms
The Harvard Theatre Collection recently purchased an interesting collection of manuscript 18th century opera arias at Sotheby’s. Owned by the Ducs de Luynes, and kept in their ancestral Château de Dampierre, some of these arias may have been in the D’Albert family since before the French Revolution. An intriguing provenance indeed, which raises many questions: how did these manuscripts survive the Revolution intact? Why would a French family assemble such a large collection of Italian opera? Most of the manuscripts are in one of two recognizable hands: who were the copyists, and what was their relationship to the family? What do these scores tell us about the nobility and their connection to the opera world? The arias are for soprano; was there an aspiring singer in the family ranks? Perhaps the sixth Duc, Louis-Joseph-Charles-Amable d’Albert de Luynes, or some member of his immediate family was the original collector. One of the scores in the fourth volume has this note “les parties d’accompag. sont de Md. La Comtesse d’Albert” on the caption. Was she a composer? Many fascinating research possibilities lurk in these six volumes!

2013MT-1 Volume 3, p. 10

The collection contains examples from many of the most popular opera seria composers of the day, including Johann Christian Bach. The aria above from Temistocle is typical of the collection: the soprano part noted in soprano clef, with continuo accompaniment. In some cases like this one, instrumental cues are occasionally included on the soprano line. These are not working manuscripts, but rather, well-written copies. Some of the arias appear to be scores which were copied to be sold or otherwise disseminated, in the same way we would buy or share printed sheet music today. Indeed, most of the members of the D’Albert family at this time would have been capable of copying music themselves, or at the very least, hiring someone to do so for them.

2013MT-1 volume 4, p. 110

Singing styles in the 18th century included a large component of improvisation, and manuscripts of the time sometimes capture that most elusive creature: vocal ornamentation. Sometimes ornamentation is written right into the score, and difficult for one to recognize without comparing with another score note by note. But in many cases, the ornamentation is annotated later, or as in the case above, jotted in the margins. Such examples are a great help in understanding how this ephemeral art was realized.

2013MT-1 volume 5, p. 45

This particular score is my favorite in the collection. Recitative “Vada sì dal mio bene,” with the aria “Sì t’intendo ombra diletta,” from Ipermestra by Johann Gottlieb Naumann, is written out in a most unusual format. The copyist has added a staff above the vocal line throughout the aria, just to write out ornamentation. Was this typical of singers’ working methods? I’ve never seen this before, but then I haven’t examined huge numbers of manuscripts from this period.

2013MT-1 volume 4, p. 117

2013MT-1 volume 4, p. 153

The fourth volume consists entirely of compositions by Honoré François Marie Langlé, many of which appear to be in his own hand. Intriguingly, the text “Imiterò souvente” appears realized in two slightly different versions, as seen in the two images above.

2013MT-1 volume 4, p. 216

Langlé has been remembered chiefly for his theoretical and didactic works, and this volume includes several examples of amazing solfèges. Looking at this singing exercise (and remember, it’s in soprano clef so it isn’t QUITE as scary as it looks) I can’t help thinking that he must have been one heck of a rigorous teacher! He taught voice at the Paris Conservatory from 1784 to 1802, as well as serving as librarian for much of that time. And in that fact may lie an answer to some of the questions above: the hand prevalent in this volume appears also throughout the other volumes. Is it in fact that of Langlé? Was he connected somehow to someone in the D’Albert family, perhaps as a teacher? We’ll never know until someone gets to work on these wonderful additions to the Theatre Collection!

This post is part of a series called “What’s New.” Throughout the year, Houghton staff members will be blogging about new acquisitions and newly digitized materials. All posts associated with this series may be viewed by clicking on the What’sNew tag.

[Thanks to Andrea Cawelti, Ward Music Cataloger, for contributing this post.]


  • Fascinating post! I was especially interested in the fact that ornamentation is explicitly written out. In Divas and Scholars, Phillip Gossett mentions that (later on) Rossini would write out appoggiaturas, etc. on scores and sheet music for amateur performers because they wouldn’t have been as conversant with the conventions as professional singers. I wonder if this is a similar idea?

  • That’s a terrific question, Jeff! My working hypothesis that this set of scores was at least partially assembled by Honoré Langlé (or a student of his) as a teaching tool would certainly support your conjecture. The other predominant handwriting in the set seems to me to be amateur in nature and it’s also entirely possible that s/he may have incorporated ornamentation right into the vocal lines as written. I just wish I were more familiar with this particular repertoire off the top of my head so that I might recognize this kind of variation at sight! Sadly this level of examination will have to wait for an opera seria expert.