Wednesday, August 28th, 2013...5:28 pm

What’s New: Méhul figures some bass

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John M. Ward, one of the Theatre Collection’s most generous donors, cherished great admiration for the composers who survived the French Revolution. Cherubini, Paër, and Méhul were particular favorites, and Ward collected their music extensively. Believing as he did that keeping one’s head through such interesting times demanded special characteristics, he hoped that the materials he assembled would help document just what made these composers so successful through so many tricky changes of regime. Cataloging their works always brings back happy memories of Wardian discourse.

2010TW-259 Page1

Today, it’s a Méhul autograph article. A teacher as well as a composer, Étienne Méhul published didactic texts as well as exercises for singers and instrumentalists. Recognizing his talents in this direction, in 1795 the government appointed him one of the five inspectors of the newly reorganized Paris Conservatory. In this newly-cataloged autograph manuscript, Méhul explores the subject of the figured bass, known as “Chiffres” in French.

2010TW-259 Pages 6-7

I was unable to find this article published anywhere, but can well imagine Méhul needing to explain the subject to his students if not for a wider audience. Several sections of the manuscript are heavily edited, and smaller notes like the one below are laid in between several of the pages.

2010TW-259 Pages 6-7 insert

Méhul was actually in an interesting position to explore the figured bass. While composers were not using figures in his lifetime, I expect that his own teachers might have. And much of the music printed before about 1750 was figured, so as a musician, he and others of his time would have needed to be conversant with the conventions. Would the distance of a generation give him a unique perspective? Brush up your French, and see what you think.

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

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.

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