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Collection of Italian opera libretti now accessible through database

By Alicia Dietrich

Title page of the libretto for Jacopo Peri and Ottavio Rinuccini's L'Euridice, Florence, 1600.
Title page of the libretto for Jacopo Peri and Ottavio Rinuccini's L'Euridice, Florence, 1600.

A major collection of Italian opera libretti is now accessible through an online database. The collection of 3,421 items was donated in 1969 by New York rare book dealer Hans P. Kraus. The collection consists primarily of texts of Italian operas but also includes Italian cantatas, serenatas, oratorios, dialogues and Passions. The collection, which dates from the 17th through the 20th century, documents musical performances by Italian, French, German and Austrian composers performed in numerous Italian cities and elsewhere. Learn more about the collection.

Music inspired by Poe's works

By Elana Estrin

While vacationing in Rome in 1907, composer Sergei Rachmaninoff received an anonymous letter from a cello student whom he had never met. An admirer of Rachmaninoff and of Edgar Allan Poe, the student urged Rachmaninoff to set Poe’s poem, “The Bells,” to music. Rachmaninoff read a Russian translation of “The Bells” and was won over. He completed his choral symphony (“The Bells”) in 1913 and later deemed it his personal favorite of all his compositions.

Rachmaninoff based his composition on a Russian translation of “The Bells” by Konstantin Balmont, which took several liberties with Poe’s poem. Most notable is Balmont’s additions to the “Silver Bells” stanza, in which he adds a meditation on death as a “universal slumber—deep and sweet beyond compare” (retranslation by Fanny S. Copeland). Basing his composition on Balmont’s translation, Rachmaninoff composed cheerful rather than solemn music for the “Silver Bells” stanza.

Rachmaninoff is not the only composer to find inspiration in Poe’s works. Claude Debussy began composing an opera, “La chute de la maison Usher,” based on Poe’s short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher.” A leaf from the libretto of this opera is on display in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe. Debussy worked on the opera between 1908 and 1918 but never completed it. More recently, minimalist composer Philip Glass completed an opera based on “The Fall of the House of Usher” that premiered in 1989.

English composer Joseph Holbrooke also caught Poe fever. He set several of Poe’s poems to music, including “Annabel Lee,” “The Raven,” “The Bells,” and created a ballet based on “The Masque of the Red Death.”

Holbrooke’s works and Poe-inspired works of several other composers can be viewed in the Edgar Allan Poe digital collection.

These works are part of the William H. Koester collection, acquired by the Ransom Center in 1966 and the source of most of the items featured in the Ransom Center’s current Poe exhibition.

Hearing Music in the David O. Selznick Collection

By Elana Estrin

Occupying almost 5,000 document cases, the archive of film producer David O. Selznick is the Ransom Center’s largest archive. Nathan Platte, a Musicology Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan, navigated through this enormous collection last year with a dissertation fellowship jointly sponsored by the Ransom Center and The University of Texas at Austin Office of Graduate Studies. Platte shares his experiences conducting research at the Ransom Center for his dissertation, “Musical Collaboration, Coercion, and Resistance in the Films of David O. Selznick, 1932–1948.”

While writing a dissertation on the films of David O. Selznick, I had the fortunate opportunity to conduct extensive research in the Harry Ransom Center’s gargantuan David O. Selznick collection. When one thinks of a film producer’s archive, images of contracts, correspondences, scripts, photographs, storyboards, and costumes might come to mind. The Selznick collection contains all of these items, but my project focused on a different facet. As a musicologist, I was most interested in the musical scores of Selznick’s films—the famous “Tara” theme that plays as Scarlett and her father watch the sun set in Gone with the Wind (1939), the eerie electronic sounds that waft through spooky sequences in Rebecca (1940) and Spellbound (1945), the brass fanfares that gild scenes of pageantry in The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), and even the piano piece performed by the icy murderess of The Paradine Case (1947).

What exactly is the archival footprint of film music? The list is actually quite daunting: instructions from Selznick detailing musical ideas and impressions, pencil sketches made by the composer, full orchestral scores arranged by orchestrators, orchestral parts and “short” scores rendered by copyists, recording logs that state when the score was recorded, who played in the orchestra, and how many performances it took before the conductor was satisfied… There are also standard studio documents related to music: contracts for composers, correspondences between Selznick and music directors, and occasional photographs of the musicians who worked behind the scenes. Put simply, the Selznick collection is a treasure trove for the film musicologist.

My dissertation examines the process of scoring a film. This involved documenting many steps, including the collaboration (and arguments) between Selznick and composers. I also studied the input of directors like Alfred Hitchcock and John Cromwell, whose ideas on music differed from Selznick’s. Music editors also influenced the musical content of Selznick’s films even though they did not compose new music. Audray Granville, for example, reshaped Miklós Rózsa’s score for Spellbound through artful cutting and pasting. Reading her correspondences with Selznick is illuminating; the producer trusted her judgment more than the composer’s!

I was always excited to find music not used in the final film. These rejected passages tell stories of their own, and the reasons for their exclusion reveal more about the musical effects intended by Selznick, his composers, and music staff. At times like these, the process of film scoring changed my understanding of music’s relationship to story and visuals. With the rich sources of the Selznick collection and the generous support of a Ransom Center dissertation fellowship, I found this research to be both exhilarating and revelatory.

Mozart's "A Musical Joke"

By Elana Estrin

ADDENDUM: The Ransom Center is pleased to share new information about the manuscript of Mozart’s “A Musical Joke.” During a recent visit to the Ransom Center, Neal Zaslaw, Herbert Gussman Professor of Music at Cornell University, examined the manuscript and has since been able to shed light on its origins.

Professor Zaslaw has established that the copyist who wrote out the score was Christian Traugott Brunner, born in 1793. He has also determined that the Stadler for whom the copy was made was not Abbé Maximilian Stadler, but probably Albert Stadler, 1794–1888, and that the date in which the copy was made is much later than previously thought. Finally, Dr. Zaslaw concluded that the copy was made not from Mozart’s original manuscript, but from the first German edition of 1803–04.

Professor Zaslaw is a world-renowned expert on Mozart’s music and the editor of the forthcoming Der neue Köchel, a revision of the complete catalog of Mozart’s works.

The Ransom Center thanks Professor Zaslaw for his valuable insights into the history of this item.

Original post: In 1787, more than a century before Weird Al Yankovic penned “Amish Paradise,” Mozart poked fun at the Coolios of the eighteenth century with his parody “A Musical Joke: Village Musicians.”

The Ransom Center houses one of the earliest surviving manuscripts of “A Musical Joke” and a copy of the 1856 edition, one of only two known copies in the world.

Ransom Center visitors can hear the piece performed in tonight’s Music from the Collections event, “Can You Tell a Joke with Music?” University of Texas Professor of Music Robert Freeman will tackle this question using “A Musical Joke,” among other illustrative and humorous compositions. This program will be webcast live.

“It’s a parody of what unskilled musicians and composers may do,” Freeman explains of Mozart’s piece. “There are a lot of untutored, rustic, untalented musicians who don’t know how decently to make music. They get all kinds of stuff wrong.”

Ransom Center librarian Richard Workman shares some examples of these musical jokes told at the expense of incompetent musicians and composers alike.

“Normally in the classical period, everything is in multiples of two and four. But Mozart will have a three-bar phrase, another three-bar phrase, then a four-bar phrase. It does kind of throw you off. At the very end of the piece, some instruments veer off into a different key and go crashing into dissonant chords. I think that joke is aimed at musicians who couldn’t read music very well,” Workman says.

According to Freeman, Mozart got the idea to tell this musical joke from his father, composer and violin pedagogue Leopold Mozart, who wrote a piece titled “Peasant Wedding.” Freeman guesses that “Peasant Wedding” might also have been intended as a parody.

“It’s a very primitive piece. It has a hurdy-gurdy in it, which makes it sound out of tune…[sometimes] cheering, whistling, and gunshots break out. Leopold was always mad at the Salzburg archbishop, so he may have written it to give his boss a hard time,” Freeman says.

According to Workman, the manuscript housed at the Ransom Center was penned by Mozart’s friend and admirer Abbe M. Stadler. Stadler most likely based his copy on Mozart’s original autograph manuscript, which was owned by composer Franz Schubert at one point, but is now lost.

The edition (published in 1856 in honor of the centenary of Mozart’s birth) was most likely based on the manuscript housed at the Ransom Center, according to Workman.

The Ransom Center acquired the manuscript and second edition in 1958, when the Center acquired the library of violinist and bibliophile Edwin Bachmann. During his travels as a violinist, Bachmann collected manuscripts and early editions of music by such composers as Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Frédéric Chopin, among others.