Researching at Cambridge University Library

Three days, three libraries and my mission to examine all the editions of The Songs Sung by Mrs Billington is complete. There is, of course, much more analytical work to be done on the scores, but thanks to the modern digital camera I can begin to look for any subtle changes and issues with the original prints. One of the big questions I have for these prints is what they tell me about Billington’s vocal style and I wonder if I will find similarities in the use of ornamentation across all the scores.

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The Songs Sung by Mrs Billington in the opera Artaxerxes, 1800, Courtesy of Cambridge University Library

My preliminary analysis of each print suggests that there are similar rhythmic patterns, which could suggest that Billington had a series of different ornaments that she reused. Most singing treatises of the period suggested that all ornamentation should be improvised, but Billington sang many performances and concerts throughout her career. Imagine walking out on stage to perform an aria with no plan for the elaborate ornamentation necessary to entertain your audience. Yes, that was what was demanded of opera singers during the period, but I find it difficult to believe that all ornamentation would have been improvised. An anecdote about Billington follows my line of thinking:

‘At Milan, John Braham met Mrs. Billington, with whom he was forced into rivalry by the jealousy of her husband (Felissent). It is said that, owing to Felissent’s jealousy, a scena of Braham’s was cut from Nasolini’s ‘Trionfo di Clelia,’ in which both the English singers were to appear. Braham revenged himself by appropriating all Mrs. Billington’s embellishments and florid passages, which it was well known she only acquired through many hours of practice, being quite incapable of any sort of improvisation. Fortunately, the dispute ended in their becoming good friends, and Braham continued to sing at Milan for two years’ ([Grove’s Dict. of Musicians, i. 269 a).

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Complex rhythms in the vocal ornamentation, which is very similar to ornamentation found in The Songs sung by Mrs Billington in The Duenna.

Billington was frequently praised for her elaborate ornamentation, so she would have had to be very skilled to convincingly reuse ornaments in different arias, while making them appear as spontaneous improvisation. My theory is that she did this by building a mental database of elaborate rhythms and stringing these together to form bravura-style ornamentation in whatever key that was necessary. I may not be able to answer this question fully in this project, but these scores will provide me with much more information.

Cambridge University Library (a vast building, with several departments inside that took quite a bit of navigating to work out – I was very grateful for the map!) had one of the earliest copies of The Songs Sung by Mrs Billington in the opera Artaxerxes from 1800. Once again, I expected a large volume of music with the print I was looking for bound inside, but what I was confronted with was something else. The print was at one point bound into a larger volume of music as I can tell this from the shabby edging where it has been crudely cut away, but any information about provenance has been removed with original binding.


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Print cut away from original binding, leaving a ragged edge


This print did have subtle pencil markings, but there were no clues as to who had written these in or when. Also, I was surprised to find a page had been cut out from the middle score, but there were no missing pages in the print itself.


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Page torn out from inside the original print


Had something been bound mistakenly into this print? Was there another piece? I have contacted the department to see if they have any more information, but unfortunately, the catalogue details don’t seem to provide any hints.

It could be that the library received this copy after it had already been ripped apart from the original binding, but this is where it would be useful to have information about who donated, or where the library purchased their items to hand as part of the catalogue entry. It doesn’t affect this particular project, but it is an intriguing mystery I would love to be able to solve.


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