Yesterday, while at Cambridge University Library I took the opportunity to looked at some manuscripts written for Billington’s mother. Elizabeth Billington was born into a very successful musical family. Her father Carl Weichsel[l] was principal oboist at The King’s Theatre, while her mother Frederika, was a popular singer, who notably performed at the Vauxhall Gardens. Elizabeth’s earliest appearances, first as a forte-piano player and then as a singer were at her mother’s benefit concerts and it seems likely that her vocal stylings were influenced by her mother’s powers.
But, how do I know this? At the moment, I don’t know for certain, but since the manuscripts happened to be in a library I was going to be in, I thought there was no harm in having a quick peek. The songs were written by Hook for Weichsell between 1780-1800 and Hook even wrote some songs for Billington later in her career. The manuscript scores are a bit of a mess, as bars have been scored out, re-written, pages glued together to remove mistakes and I will probably need to retype all of these out to get a sense of the vocal line and the ornamentation. Held in the library is a complete score of The Lady of the Manor, an opera that Billington was reported to have starred in at Drury Lane theatre. I expected to find a number of songs in the score sung by Billington, but in actual fact, I only came across one. It is possible that this was a later score of the opera, where Billington made a guest appearance to perform the da capo aria but I am going to have to do a little more investigation work to find out.
These manuscripts are beautifully bound together, but the bindings are modern – having been bound in 1929 by a former professor of the university whose family donated the scores to the library. How he came to pick up the original manuscripts is uncertain from the catalogue entry, but at least I have a clue about provenance and can use the names to investigate.
A big question that punctuates the history of opera singers: is vocal skill inherited or trained? The answer may seem obvious – a bit of both, but I don’t believe there is a study that really investigates the musical skills of an 18th-century family, how these skills were passed down, used, adapted and progressed from mother to daughter, father to son. Perhaps a study such as this would give us more information about the education of 18th-century singers and how the art form became what it now today.