Univ's Musical Manuscripts

The subject of this month’s Treasure is Univ’s musical manuscripts. MS 210 is a group of five volumes which contain copies of music composed by various seventeenth century Italian composers.

Three of these volumes, MS 210/1-3, contain a copy of the opera Il Giasone (see right). The music was composed by Frederico Cavalli (1602-76) and Giacinto Andrea Cicognini (1606-51) wrote the libretto.  

The plot of Il Giasone was loosely based on the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece. It was first produced in 1649 at the Venetian opera house Teatro San Cassiano. Most seventeenth century operas ran for just a single season. But Cavalli’s Il Giasone proved to be a hit and was revived an unrivalled 24 times in opera houses all over Italy, making it the most popular Italian opera of the seventeenth century.

There is no orchestration indicated in this copy but it’s likely that in addition to the singers there would have been two groups of players: an ensemble of strings and basso continuo. The strings would have played the prologues to each act (see right) and doubled the voices in the larger chorus numbers. The “basso continuo” would have been played by a keyboard instrument (such as the harpsichord) and a bass instrument (‘cello or violone) to accompany the recitatives and solo arias (see below right).

For each production, performing parts and scores had to be copied out. Very often commemorative editions were also made. Before the advent of audio recording, this was how musical works were promoted and disseminated. The

decorations such as the fancy initials which appear at the start of each scene (see bottom right), and the absence of annotations and performance markings both suggest that MS210/1-3 was made to be a promotional copy.

This particular copy is thought to have been made in Rome around the time of the 1671 revival. The production was billed as Il novello Giasone as it was an updated version with musical alterations by the composer Alessandro Stradella (1639-82), and other changes to the libretto and structure. MS210/1-3, however, represents the earlier version Il Giasone. Perhaps it was made to allow for comparison with Il novello Giasone.

This is the only seventeenth century copy of Il Giasone known to be in the United Kingdom, and it is one of twelve sources for the opera known to exist in libraries around Europe.

The earliest known record of it being at Univ is found in the Library Committee minutes (UC: L3/A1/1). At a meeting in 1942, the Librarian reported that some rare books had been found, among them a collection of seventeenth century musical manuscripts. They were sent to Sir Hugh Allen, the Heather Professor of Music, for examination, and it was decided that they would be offered on permanent loan to the Bodleian or the Heather Library (forerunner of the Music Faculty Library).

In the event they landed up at the latter and remained there until 1995 when the Music Faculty Library sent its manuscript collection to the Bodleian. This is when it was discovered that MS 210 had bookplates and shelfmarks marking it as belonging to Univ. It was deposited in the Bodleian Library where it is now held on permanent loan with Univ's other manuscripts.

So we know about MS 210’s creation and its history from 1942, but not of its life between 1671 and 1942. How and why it came to England and Univ remains unsolved.


Select Bibliography:

Glover, Jane, Cavalli (London: Batsford, 1978).

Rosand, Ellen (ed.), Readying Cavalli’s Operas for the Stage: Manuscript, Edition, Production (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013).