07 February 2008

Cool Things From Google Books

If any of you are interested in music of the 18th Century, or 18th Century Italian culture in general (of which music and opera were an important part) there are some books available on Google Books that you should take a look at. Some good books are available only if you have access through a participating library, but the books below are available to anybody.

The first is by Dr. Charles Burney, an English musician who traveled Continental Europe in search of interesting cultural experiences, went to parties with and interviewed many of the important musicians, composers and librettists of the day, and published books about all of it when he went home. His writings are extremely valuable to music historians, and his writing style is mostly engaging and readable, although the facsimile versions of his books sometimes require a mental adjustment to deal with the "s" that looks like an "f." (This has occasioned some hilarity on my part because it looks like the text version of speech impediment.)

The book by him which is available to the non-library-privileged reader is Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Abate Metastasio. Pietro Metastasio ("abate" indicates that he was a seminary student or minor cleric of some kind, like about every third Italian male of his social class at the time) was THE Italian poet of his day. The opera libretti that he wrote were given musical setting more times than any other--his most popular works were set as many as 120 times! After a successful early career in Italy, he was made court poet in Vienna and remained in that position for forty years. He was also the closest friend and confidant of the famous castrato Farinelli (whose life loosely formed the basis of one of the worst "historical" movies ever made); they called each other "brother" and "twin" and kept an extensive correspondence, though due to Farinelli's engagements in England and Spain they almost never saw one another.

Two volumes of John Hoole's nearly-contemporary English translations of Metastasio's work are also available here and here.

The other recommended work is that of Violet Paget, who wrote under the name of Vernon Lee. Violet Paget was born in 1856 and began her writing career in 1880, nearly a hundred years after most of the events about which she wrote in her non-fiction. Considering this, and considering that she did not have a university education, it is astonishing that she wrote with such understanding about 18th Century culture. In 1880 music history was still a relatively undeveloped "fringe" discipline, and until the middle of the 20th Century nearly all of the focus was on Germanic music, considered to have produced the greatest and most progressive composers--Beethoven and Wagner. 18th Century opera was considered by most to be rather silly, the music insufficiently passionate and the libretti unrealistic. Perhaps the libretti are unrealistic, but as Violet Paget understood, opera of the day had its own ideals and conventions and we would do better to try to judge the worth of the works by the standards by which 18th Century people would have judged them, rather than trying to compare a libretto by Metastasio with music by Vivaldi to an opera by Wagner. To be sure, she sometimes writes with a tone of irony about some of the sillier notions of 18th Century people, but overall her understanding is remarkable for a woman of her day who was mostly self-educated.

I have only taken a look at her Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy so far. Unfortunately the silver page decoration (which I saw on my professor's copy of the book) did not scan very well, so you will have to imagine how pretty the real book looks. There are several other of her works available online, as well, including The Enchanted Woods: and Other Essays on the Genius of Places and Juvenilia: Being a Second Series of Essays on Sundry Æsthetical Questions. I greatly look forward to having a few spare moments to peruse them.

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