August 28th, 2013

What’s New: Méhul figures some bass

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
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August 23rd, 2013

New Digitization Roundup, Part I

Sheet music featuring the Grossmith family. “The parrot and the cat.” MS Thr 853 (10)It’s been a while since we updated you on the new digitization activity that is constantly going on here at Houghton, so here is a sampling of some of the items we’ve recently digitized in their entirety. This batch includes papers from the Dreyfus Affair, a Tchaikovsky score, and letters from the journalist and radical activist John Reed. (As a reminder, we also feature single images that have been digitized on the Houghton Library Tumblr.).
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August 16th, 2013

“Footprints on the sands of time”

“A Psalm of Life”: Autograph manuscript (detail): MS Am 1340 (72) – Trustees of the Longfellow House Trust, 1976Rejecting the Psalmist’s solemn emphasis on death and the life hereafter, Cambridge poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in “A Psalm of Life” famously exhorts his readers to seize the day and leave their mark in this world:

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of Time …

This beloved poem first appeared in the Knickerbocker Magazine (October, 1838) and was later included with other early works in Voices of the Night (1839). A rough draft came into the possession of Longfellow’s close friend, Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, who returned it in a letter to the poet’s wife Fanny on New Year’s Day 1845, “which has let its first stealthy footsteps on the snow” – a clever play upon Longfellow’s footprint trope.
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August 13th, 2013

Reading Ira Aldridge

Readers of The New Yorker may have noticed the recent article by Alex Ross on the great 19th century African-American actor and expatriate Ira Aldridge and his daughter Luranah.

An abundance of related material (printed books, ephemera, manuscripts – even an entire extra-illustrated album devoted to Aldridge and formerly owned by Augustin Daly) can be found in the Harvard Theatre Collection. Keep reading →

August 12th, 2013

Good things also come in fancy packages

MS Thr 7 Title Page Detail

Having recently taken a course on the history of binding at Rare Book School, I’m more aware than ever of the splendid bindings sitting on our shelves unnoticed. The binding of a book or score is not always indicated in its catalog record, depending on when the item was cataloged, so I recently stumbled completely unaware upon a gorgeous binding of black morocco with a semé pattern (a background pattern of small tools) of decorative hearts.

MS Thr 7 Cover
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August 9th, 2013

Box its ears and send it home


If this book should chance to roam/
Box its ears and send it home

That bit of doggerel has been inscribed on books for many years in the hopes that if lost, they would be returned to the rightful owner. It came to mind when the story of a book roaming from our collections was recently brought to my attention. The newly published book Thieves of Book Row opens with a harrowing description of an unscrupulous bookseller and his henchman on a “shopping trip” through Harvard’s Widener Library in 1929, plundering the shelves of a hundred valuable books and later purging them of ownership markings for resale. One particularly choice item, A Set of Plans and Forts in America, was sold to a Manhattan bookseller, who then sold it to the New-York Historical Society. As can be seen from the digitized copy at the Massachusetts Historical Society, the book is an attractive and historically significant set of colonial maps with a particular emphasis on locations relevant in the Seven Years’ War. It’s quite rare, so as curator of this time period, if I had to replace it today, I’d be hard pressed to do so.

Thankfully, this story has a happy ending, and I don’t have to. Just three years after the theft, in 1932, the New-York Historical Society discovered the nefarious origins of its purchase and promptly returned it to Harvard. We can positively identify the copy now in the Houghton collection as this wayward sheep, because it still has the N-YHS bookplate in it (despite a penciled note calling for its removal). The discovery of the theft led to dramatically improved security measures at Widener, including the enlargement of the Treasure Room, a special area for the most valuable collections, and the precursor to Houghton.

A set of plans and forts in America. (London, 1763) US 2737.63*

[John Overholt, Curator of the Donald and Mary Hyde Collection of Dr. Samuel Johnson and Early Modern Books & Manuscripts, contributed this post.]

August 5th, 2013

Double vision?

2007TW-83(62) Page 42, Detail
I’m currently cataloging a nice run of English opera imprints from the 18th century, many published by John Walsh. This particular score, William Boyce’s The Chaplet, seemed to be another in much the same vein. These Walsh scores are engraved, and provide a wide variety of printing variations, both expected, and … unexpected.

2007TW-83(62) Title page

Now granted, after a weekend out in the sun, when I turned to page 42 at first I took off my glasses to clean (cursing aging eyes quietly to myself) then looked more closely.
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August 2nd, 2013

What’s New: Acquisitions from the Collection of Charlotte and Arthur Vershbow

Betti, Giovanni Battista. A' dilettanti delle bell'arti. Firenze, 1779. 2013H-10In the second half of the twentieth century Charlotte and Arthur Vershbow of Boston formed a notable private rare book collection. They were close friends of Philip Hofer, founding curator of Houghton Library’s Department of Printing and Graphic Arts, and their collecting was deeply influenced by Hofer’s collection and attitude toward collecting. After the deaths of Charlotte in 2000 and Arthur in 2012, the Vershbow family decided to sell the collection, which is being offered in a series of sales at Christie’s New York. From Part Three of the auction, June 20, 2013, Houghton Library was fortunate enough to acquire three outstanding eighteenth-century illustrated Italian books. All are quite rare, and all had eluded even Philip Hofer. Although books from the Vershbow collection have been bringing high prices at auction, the library was able to acquire these highly desirable items using funds from the Philip Hofer Charitable Trust in the Department of Printing and Graphic Arts, supplemented generously with central Houghton Library funds.
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August 1st, 2013

New on OASIS in August

Will of Thomas Carlyle, 1873. MS Am 1792 (8)Finding aids for six newly cataloged collections, and preliminary box lists for two recent acquisitions, have been added to the OASIS database this month, including documents concerning Thomas Carlyle’s bequest of his library to Harvard.
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July 29th, 2013

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

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!
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