Orchestral Performance Practice Revealed in a Conservatoire's Historic Collections

By Escott, Angela | Fontes Artis Musicae, July-September 2008 | Go to article overview

Orchestral Performance Practice Revealed in a Conservatoire's Historic Collections


Escott, Angela, Fontes Artis Musicae


'A veritable treasure trove', wrote the Editor of the new Barenreiter edition of Beethoven's symphonies, when he consulted the set of first edition parts in the Royal College of Music library. (2) These parts are bound in large volumes for each instrument, along with early edition parts of orchestral works by Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, and Spohr. In the course of revealing the diversity of the 'treasure trove' of collections of orchestral parts in the Royal College library, this article will discuss the importance of this performing material both to editors of authoritative new editions, and as the most fruitful source of information about performance practices.

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Our Walsh editions of Corelli, Handel, and Boyce are the same as those used by King's Music to publish the facsimile editions of parts currently used by period orchestras such as the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. These show as much about eighteenthcentury performances as the cuts and hand-written parts for additional instruments in Sir Malcolm Sargent's library of orchestral sets reveal about the confidence of conductors to make their own changes to great classics of the orchestral repertoire in the mid twentieth century.

My article is written from the point of view of an orchestral librarian, dealing with the day-to-day supply of performing materials for orchestras, although I touch upon matters of concern to the music editor and the musicologist. As I researched this article, and also as we moved our library's entire collection of performing sets in preparation for new shelving, I wondered how future performers, editors, and scholars might interpret the photocopied bumper parts for horns, trumpets, and trombones, or the numbers of parts in our sets of Corelli facsimile editions, or the number of matching bowed parts in our Brandenburg Concerto sets. What would all these things tell future generations about performances of these works in the early twenty-first century and is it the same thing that we read from the parts in our historic collections when we ask them about performance practice in the past?

We have not discovered in our vaults, as did the Royal Opera House Covent Garden library, parts with melted candle wax on them, as was the case with the only set of available parts of Rossini's Semiramide, which was needed for a London Symphony Orchestra recording of the work. (3) Neither do we have an old Breitkopf set of parts of Brahms Symphony No. 1 with blackened edges and holes made by players smoking cigarettes at rehearsal, as was found in the London Symphony Orchestra library. (4) But we boast a 'treasure trove' of orchestral parts in our own collections at the Royal College.

The RCM Library collections

The special collections of the Royal College of Music library are an amalgamation of a number of the libraries of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century concert societies, one of which, the library of the Concert of Ancient Music, was donated by Queen Victoria. To these were added the libraries of Sir George Grove and the Musical Union, over 200 volumes of duplicates from the British Museum, and bequests from Arthur Sullivan, Ivor Novello, and many other individual donors. (5) The significant donors of orchestral parts were the societies of the Concert of Ancient Music and The Musical Union, and Philip Joseph Salomons. The Concert of Ancient Music was an aristocratic concert society founded in 1776, whose 'tons of scores and parts' were removed to Bucking ham Palace on the demise of the society in 1848. (6) Its object was the preservation, by means of regular performances, of the great works of earlier composers, which might otherwise fall into oblivion. No work less than 20 years old could be played at the concerts, which consisted mainly of the works of Handel, with occasional performances of music by Purcell, J. S. Bach, Hasse, Gluck, Corelli, Geminiani, and Sammartini. (7) The Musical Union, from which we also inherited a number of significant sets of parts, was founded in 1845 by John Ella. …

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