Academic journal article Notes

A Long-Lost Partbook of French Chansons Resurfaces at the University of Virginia

Academic journal article Notes

A Long-Lost Partbook of French Chansons Resurfaces at the University of Virginia

Article excerpt


In 1986 the University of Virginia came into possession of an important collection of early modern French literature. The collection includes a single musical item: a tenor partbook without title page or colophon that clearly formed part of a published collection of French chansons. Considerable investigation has revealed the partbook to be the long-lost tenor part from II primo libro de le canzoni franzese published in Venice by Ottaviano Scotto in 1535, and reprinted the following year. Its reappearance allows us to add seven pieces to the early chanson repertory, including two by Adrian Willaert, that have been hitherto available only in incomplete state. The article tells the story of how this identification was made, and reports on the partbook's owners in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It also summarizes both the musical style of the volume's contents, and the chansonnier's importance for the early history of the Parisian chanson in the years prior to and contemporaneous with Attaingnant's establishment of the genre's classic characteristics.


Recently, a printed tenor partbook of chansons came into the possession of the University of Virginia Library as part of a collection of early modern French literature. It was the only item of music in the collection and came with a certain amount of information about its provenance. Following up on the given information led to the discovery that it is in fact the missing partbook to a very important chanson publication produced from the press of Ottaviano Scotto in 1535/36. (1) It allows us to add seven new pieces to the repertory in their complete form, including two by Adrian Willaert. This article chronicles the process of discovery that revealed the importance of this chanson collection for the history of the genre.


The collection was amassed by the late Douglas bluntly Gordon, of Baltimore, Maryland, who bequeathed it to the University of Virginia Library in December 1986. (2) Gordon, who was a noted attorney and historic preservationist, had served as president of St. John's College, Annapolis, and was one of the leading bibliophiles in America. He had embarked on his book-collecting career while traveling in France during his undergraduate days at Harvard. During that period, he became a devoted Francophile as well. For his work in promoting French culture, he was awarded the French Legion d'honneur in 1957, and the Palmes academiques in 1959. By the time of his death in March 1986 he had accumulated a superb collection of French literature numbering 1,243 volumes, including a complete edition of Diderot's Encyclopedic, unique in its inclusion of a volume of 300 pages of proofs with Diderot's original, uncensored texts. (3) Gordon's bequest to the library also included all of his books in English printed before 1850.

Although Gordon received his undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard, the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia preserves correspondence between Gordon and various university librarians, presidents, and rare-book curators dating from the early 1960s into the 1980s. One letter written in 1980 from Gordon to the University of Virginia's university librarian, curator of rare books, and the curator of the Tracy W. McGregor Library notes that his grandfather, Douglas Hamilton Gordon, was "the first former student whoever contributed a fund for the purpose of the purchase of books for the library." (4) Gordon obviously marked this as a point of pride, and his bequest can be viewed as a continuance of that family legacy on a grand scale.

A significant feature of the Gordon collection is the use of fine leather bindings decorated with filets, doublures, and ornamental gold tooling executed by French master binders. Over 600 volumes in the collection were printed before 1600, and many of these are preserved in bindings of the period. …

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