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A journey of musical discovery – how previously unknown songs by Donizetti were found

Roger Parker, Professor Emeritus of Music at King’s College London, discovered nearly 90 unknown songs by 19th-century Italian composer, Gaetano Donizetti. His research, which began at the start of the global pandemic, took him, among other places, to an Austrian monastery and the Bibliothèque Nationale in France, on a digital Indiana Jones-style quest to discover manuscripts scattered around the world. Speaking to King’s, Professor Parker explains how this discovery changes the perception of Donizetti’s musical expression.

The image shows Professor Roger Parker
Professor Roger Parker

When Roger Parker, Professor Emeritus of Music, retired from King’s at the beginning of 2020, the world was embroiled in the global coronavirus pandemic and the first waves of lockdowns had just started. It was then that Professor Parker started a new stage of his extensive research into the work of Gaetano Donizetti, a famous Italian composer of the 19th century.

The most exhaustive catalogue of Donizetti’s works at the time, says Professor Parker, was published about 50 years ago. A standard reference tool, it included a list of around 200 solo songs from Donizetti and in which libraries the manuscript sources were located. The catalogue, however, was notorious for being full of mistakes and duplications. Professor Parker started his work by going through the list and finding out whether the information it contained was accurate. The location of a large number of songs was listed as unknown, and many of them were stated to be in private hands.

The image shows a portrait of Gaetano Donizetti, an Italian composer.
Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848). Lithography by Roberto Focosi

Professor Parker turned then to library catalogues. Carrying out most of his research online, he started looking for as much information as he could in library databases. This is how he found out about a monastery in north-west Austria, which stored a great number of previously unknown Donizetti songs. In particular, the monastery was in possession of three volumes of Canzonette containing around 50 songs, 15 of which were completely unknown before. It became clear that these songs were the ones known to have been in the possession of a Countess Medici in Rome in the 19th century. For reasons that are still not clear, she gave the manuscripts to the monastery’s library. This decision seemed rather surprising: usually, people would donate such valuable objects to libraries famous for their musical archives. Storing Gaetano Donizetti’s songs in the monastery effectively meant burying them in an archive, says Professor Parker, because no one had ever thought to look at their catalogue.

A lot of previously unknown material was found in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, where Donizetti moved in 1838. During the last years of his life, the composer wrote mostly in French. Quite a lot of his manuscripts ended up miscatalogued in the Parisian archives, but again not known about because scholars and cataloguers had mistakenly assumed them to be sketches, drafts or otherwise unfinished material.

Altogether, the active search, conducted by Professor Parker in collaboration with independent music engraver Ian Schofield, lasted for a year and a half. Many scholars, including musicologists from Italy, Sweden, Germany and Switzerland, helped track down the songs by suggesting libraries, catalogues and individual collections to explore. It was quite difficult at times, Professor Parker admits.

Bibliothèque nationale de France
Gaetano Donizetti was very prolific and very fast at composing. He would often write songs for private performances and simply give them away, for instance to people who were going to perform them at that time. This is how his manuscripts ended up being dispersed around the world. Operas, unlike songs, are usually archived by music publishers and, therefore, there are certain mechanisms for finding them. There are only four libraries in the world that contain the majority of Donizetti’s opera manuscripts, but his songs are all over the place.– Roger Parker, Professor Emeritus of Music

This posed another issue – verification of authorship. How does one determine that a 19th-century manuscript really belongs to Gaetano Donizetti? The easiest way to do so, says Professor Parker, is by handwriting, if the source in question is written by the composer himself. Otherwise, though, authorship can be verified based on internal evidence within songs, or occasionally by mentions of them in Donizetti’s private correspondence.

‘I have been quite careful verifying that these songs are actually by Donizetti', says Professor Parker. 'For example, I have found that about 10 songs ascribed to him are forgeries. Most date back to the late 19th century, when Donizetti was a famous opera composer, and unscrupulous publishers would often invent something and claim it to be a forgotten song by Donizetti’.

For Professor Parker, one of the most memorable of Donizetti’s newly discovered songs is a work written for soprano, piano and an early version of the harmonium. It tells a story of a woman who is disappointed in love and decides to join a religious institution. The monologue about her unhappy love life is overtaken by strains of the harmonium, the sound of which resembles the sound of an organ, taking the woman into religious consolation. The six-minute piece was incredibly difficult to decipher owing to Donizetti’s cramped handwriting, but its unusual composition makes it a complex and interesting song, says Professor Parker.

Songs were a major part of Gaetano Donizetti’s musical expression. Verdi and Bellini, for example, each wrote a small number of songs (both around 10), while Donizetti created about 200. From looking at these songs one can get an alternative view of the composer. Songs must make an impact quickly, and this corpus of work demonstrates that Donizetti was fully capable of capturing an emotion in a brief musical moment.– Roger Parker, Professor Emeritus of Music

The complete Donizetti solo songs discovered by Professor Roger Parker will be recorded by Opera Rara, a London-based recording company. They will be performed by eight of the best singers in the world, each of them recording a separate CD. The collection is scheduled to be released within the next four years. Donizetti’s songs will also be published by Casa Ricordi, the Italian publishing house known for its large catalogue of operas by Rossini, Verdi and Puccini.

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Roger Parker

Roger Parker

Professor of Music, Emeritus

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