The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Music Manuscripts

Recently, I have found myself answering a number of reference questions concerning our musical holdings (a reference librarian manifestation of the frequency illusion perhaps?). Whatever the reason, it has been a nice reminder that some of our manuscript holdings contain more than traditional text.

The Folger holds a great deal of music in manuscript form. The most complete source for the manuscript music is An Annotated Catalogue of the Music Manuscripts in the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington D.C., by Richard Charteris (Pendragon Press, 2005). According to this census, the Folger holds almost 170 manuscripts that contain music.

Of these, several of our earliest examples are actually vellum waste that was removed from the bindings of other books (which is quite common with books even up to the 19th century; the Smithsonian Magazine recent had an article about using spectrometry to help identify such bindings).

For example, this fragment of liturgical music, in stroke notation for the Gregorian chant, was bound into the 19th century binding of a 1523 Hebrew grammar book!

Folger MS X.d.556
The manuscript fragment, Folger MS X.d.556, encapsulated in mylar for protection, after it was removed from the binding of Folger 210- 977q.
Detail of Folger MS X.d.556
Detail of X.d.556, showing the notation of the Gregorian chant.

Unsurprisingly, the bulk of our manuscript music is from the 16th and 17th centuries. Probably our most well-known manuscript is a “Collection of songs and dances for the lute,” better known as the Dowland Lute Book. Dowland, himself a noted lutenist, has come down to us as one of the best known composers of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. This manuscript is particularly notable1 for containing autograph copies of a number of Dowland’s works.

Folger MS V.b.280, fol. 22v
“My Lady Hunsdons Allmande,” in Dowland’s own hand. V.b.280, fol. 22v

In addition to Dowland, two other well-known composers are well represented in our collection: Henry Purcell and George Frideric Handel.

Of the Purcell we hold, I’m particularly fond of two, although only one of them was actually composed by Purcell.

The one we’re confident that Purcell composed was copied ca. 1710:

Folger MS V.b.197, page 35
“A Song in King Arthur,” with text by John Dryden and music by Henry Purcell. ca. 1710 (V.b.197, page 35)

And the other, from ca. 1790, is widely attributed to Purcell (including here on this manuscript), but was actually composed by Richard Leveridge:

Folger MS W.b.529, fol. 38v
“Musick in Mackbeth,” words by William Shakespeare (and adapted by William Davenant), music attributed to Henry Purcell (but actually by Richard Leveridge). W.b.529 fol. 38v.

As anyone who reads music will tell you, these professional copyists produced wonderfully legible scores. And speaking of professional copyists, two of our Handel manuscripts are particularly amazing in that regard.

Although it only contains the trumpet parts for various Handel works, this manuscript, produced around 1740, was probably made by one of Handel’s own copyists:

Folger MS W.b.527, fol. 8r
W.b.527, fol.8r, the “Revenge” aria from the ode Alexander’s Feast.

With writing like this, it’s no wonder Handel kept this person gainfully employed!

Similarly, this ca. 1760 compilation of Handel overtures, arranged for harpsichord, contains some of the most beautiful music handwriting I’ve seen (which makes sense since Charteris speculates that it was likely a presentation copy). Yes, it really is all hand-written, even the title page.

Folger MS W.b.528 title page and page 45
W.b.528 title page and p.45, which contains the beginning of the overture to Water Music.

My own favorite music manuscript in our collection turns out to be neither a beautiful copyist hand, nor even an early modern piece.

It is, instead, Folger MS V.a.372.

Folger MS V.a.372, page 3
Folger MS V.a.372, page 3

This is an autograph manuscript of the concert overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Felix Mendelssohn. It dates to 1829, only three years after he wrote the Overture, at just 17 years old. It is scored for two pianos, and I love the image of Felix, on his visit to London that year (where he conducted the British premiere of the overture) carefully copying out the arrangement that he and his sister Fanny had so carefully worked on. Charteris speculates that this manuscript was then presented to an English musical colleague.

Folger MS V.a.372, title page
Folger MS V.a.372, title page: Overture to Shakespeare’s Midsummer night’s dream arranged as a duet for two performers [manuscript], 1829? July 10 by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy.

Edit, June 22, 2016: Correction and clarification about the composer of the “Musick for Macbeth”; many thanks to Dr. Amanda Eubanks Winkler, Syracuse University, for bringing the error to my attention.

  1. I am heroically resisting all of the musical puns that present themselves.

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