I’m back! On another research adventure!

Another month and another research trip! However, I have not travelled too far away. In fact, I am basing myself in London for the next week and spent today looking at some fascinating collections at The British Library. I think I can guess what you are all thinking: ‘What am I up to now?’. Well, the British Association for Romantic Studies kindly granted me the Stephen Copley Award so that I could explore The songs sung by Mrs Billington.

Elizabeth Billington (1765-1818) was one of the most sought after British prima donnas of the late 18th and early 19th centuries and she demonstrated a unique and individual vocal style that directly impacted future generations of singers including Maria Malibran (1808-1836) and Nellie Melba (1861-1931). She was known for her incredible vocal virtuosity and expression, a rare but highly prized quality in an operatic soprano of this period. Amateur and professional singers aimed to mimic Billington’s vocal abilities and this prompted Thomas Busby (1755–1838) to create two publications that showcase her ‘graces and embellishments’ found in her most popular operas.  These publications provide detailed insight into Billington’s vocal abilities, but also the kind of ornamentation that became highly popularised. In this project, I plan to create an edition of Busby’s two publications, which will provide in-depth insight into the vocal stylings of one of Britain’s most popular sopranos.


Elizabeth Billington (1765-1818)


With a similar intention as Domenico Corri had for his ambitious 4 volume treatises A Select Collection of the Most Admired Songs published in 1779, I hope that my edition will provide practitioners with necessary information about late 18th-century vocal ornamentation, to help them form their own ornamentation in similar repertoire of this period. Corri’s treatise provided detailed information about the popular ornamentation of the day and I can see the similarities between his work and the ornamentation notated in The Songs Sung by Mrs Billington. But perhaps more on that in another blog post.

The British Library has a few editions of these two works, but I also opted to examine the ‘simplified’ versions of these songs. That is, the songs intended to be purchased by amateur vocalists who would perform these in their home. Some of these editions also include ornamentation, and I am going to compare Busby’s work with these editions questioning how different each song is with Billington’s ornamentation included, similarities and differences in melody and accompaniment etc.


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Melody version with some ornamentation of ‘If o’er the cruel tyrant love’ from Artaxerxes, Courtesy of The British Library


But of course, as is the nature of looking at works such as this, they are bound into larger volumes of collected songs. While I would have loved to spend time examining each collection in its entirety, the British Library has so many of these, it would probably take more than a lifetime to do so. However, I did come across some beautifully illustrated musical pieces that I have never come across before. It is a wonderful example of a number of art subjects coming together on one page – music, dance, poetry and illustration.


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The age of horrors by J Beuler, Courtesy of The British Library





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