This is the first of a new series of posts where we take an item or two from the thousands in the music stacks which has caught our eye for one reason or another and home in to find out more. I have chosen two, completely unrelated, works from a box of unbound music in the MRA.210 sequence resting quietly on the shelves underneath the Anderson Room which I came across when fetching something else for a reader. (It’s far too easy to get sidetracked here…).
My first piece is Thomas Billington’s Te Deum and Jubilate for three voices and continuo. Er, “Why?” you might ask, “Why not his Gray’s Elegy – surely better known?”. Well perhaps that’s one of the reasons why not (and also we don’t hold a copy), but what really caught my eye here were the delightful “Instructions” he provided as an introduction to the piece.
But first a little background on Billington himself: born in Exeter in 1754 but living in Charlotte Street in London for most of his life, he not only composed, but sang and played (indeed he described himself as a “harpsichord and singing master”). He took part in the 1784 Handel Commemoration, which was not only the same year his setting of Gray’s Elegy was published but also that of the publication of the Te Deum. His approach to composition was economic in that he would often borrow material from other composers and tuck it in alongside his own, or simply adapt it for his own purposes.Back to the Instructions: Billington has provided them, he explains, because the piece was written at the behest of some friends and “when it is considered how delicate a matter it is to insinuate to a friend his imperfections, then a public and impartial observation or two, I trust, will be readily executed.” He then discusses the importance of sight-singing and being able to pitch intervals correctly, he advocates that “A good Shake [trill] at a close is absolutely necessary…” and that “One great object to singing in Parts is to sing in tune, and not to be louder than the rest of the performers”. He has some brisk observations on bass singers who swoop up to a note from below and to tenors who do the opposite “in consequence of not managing the breath properly”. Singers should “Always look up, and sing from a high desk or hold the book high, that their voices may have a free passage.” All good practical stuff and absolutely delightful to read. I hope his friends took note as they sang the work.
My second choice from this box, a volume of Motets for one, two and three voices by Astier which belonged at some point to the renowned French musicologist Geneviève Thibault, comtesse de Chambure, is delightful in a completely different way. In short, it is simply, the most stunning demonstration of the printer’s art. The title page speaks for itself:Sadly, I can find nothing more about poor M. Astier other than what is proclaimed on the title page of his work: “Doyen de Bondesir, & cy-devant Aumônier de S. E. Monseigneur le cardinal de Furstemburg.” (Dean of Bondesir, and previously Chaplain to Cardinal Furstemburg – this is, I assume, Wilhelm Egon von Furstemburg (or Fürstenberg), Bishop of Strassbourg who retired to the Abbey of St-Germain-des-Prés and after whom the Place de Furstenberg in Paris is named).
The printing house, of course, is another matter: Robert Ballard and his cousin Adrian Le Roy were granted Royal privilege to print and sell music by Henri II in 1552 and the firm remained in business for over 200 years, passing entirely to the Ballard family after Le Roy’s death in 1598. This particular Ballard is Christophe (1641 – 1715), the great-grandson of Robert. You will note that the music is set using moveable type invented back in the 16th century, despite the 1712 publication date (engraved plates had been more and more in use since the mid 17th century). Gradually, engraved music plates took over and the house of Ballard went into decline. But that’s another story: this is about the superb engraving on the title page, the beautiful illustrated inital letters and the sheer craftsmanship of the fine printing. Enjoy!