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