Sometimes, when the Pendlebury Library is quiet and term has ended, I disappear from my workplace to reach the secret corners of the library, rooms accessible only to library staff. A door in the library annexe separates the accessible part from “my realm”. There is where we keep rare books and scores.
I love browsing among the Pendlebury hidden collections, smelling the scent of old books, touching with care the fragile sheets, thinking about their history, their owners and the route they followed before reaching the library. Most of the time many of my questions are (and probably will stay) without answers, but it is fascinating to make conjectures.
In the last months I have catalogued items containing music for piano solo or for piano with the accompaniment of other instruments (unfortunately many times the library holds only the keyboard part). It is always funny and intriguing to see what has been bound together. Sometimes it’s a mix of entertaining pieces, pieces still famous and played today together with pieces forgotten (probably fittingly) by history, but anyway they are interesting because they reflect the style of a specific period. Many times the composers are unknown or it is possible to have only meagre news of them.
I recently came across a thick volume of music for piano (PEN XRa.850.18A.X8), with no owner’s or donor’s name and a half leather binding with marbled paper cover and gilt ornaments on spine. It contains 44 pieces (it took me some weeks to create a record for each piece of music!), all published in London by different publishers probably between 1800 and 1830. Beside a pair of studies and exercises, the item collects together traditional airs such as the celebrated traditional Scottish song Auld lang syne and My love she’s but a lassie yet, both arranged by Thomas Valentine, Selected Caledonian melodies in the arrangement of Francis Joseph Klose, a Tyrolese peasant’s song arranged with variations by William Grossé, or popular national melodies such as Partant pour la Syrie and Carnival of Venice.
Many of the pieces, according to the habit of the beginning of nineteenth century, are arrangements of “most applauded arias” appeared on the stage. This is the case with a selection of airs from Der Freischütz performed for the first time in Berlin in 1821, or two separate dances from Auber’s La muette de Portici, published as arrangements for piano solo just after the first performance in Paris in 1828, or the famous cavatina Tu che accendi questo core in Rossini’s Tancredi.
One of the most recurring pieces among the Rare Books Collection I have catalogued until now, is The Battle of Prague, a very often played and most popular concert piece during much of the nineteenth century; the piece, a programmatic sonata composed in 1788 by the Bohemian composer Franz Kotzwara in remembrance of a battle fought in 1757, was originally published for piano, violin, cello and optional drums, the same instrumentation of the present edition published around 1827 by Goulding, D’Almaine, Potter & Co. (but there is no mention of “drums” on title page).
The pieces that immediately gained my attention are two single sheets published in London probably between 1828 and 1830 by William George. In both cases there is a hand coloured sheet music cover titled; this appears not only to be the front cover but also the score! As indicated in a note at the bottom of the page, “wasps at the signature are sharps (#) and the flowers represent the notes of the piece”. The first piece, Le blouet: a waltz, reports a generic “by Flora”; the second one, The lover’s chaplet: waltz is known to be “arranged for the piano forte by Flora”. So far, despite my researches, I’ve not been able to discover who “Flora” is.
My treasure hunt continues …