The earliest opera in English saved for the nation: The Bodleian library acquires Erismena

16 January 2009

erismena_smallThe Bodleian Library has been able to save for the nation Erismena, the earliest surviving score of an opera in the English language. The acquisition has been made possible thanks to the generous donations offered by the members of the general public and grants given by the V & A Purchase Grant Fund, the Friends of the Bodleian, theFriends of the  National Libraries, West Green Opera, All Souls College, New Chamber Opera and Esmee Fairbairn Foundation.

Written by Pietro Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676), the leading Italian opera composer of the mid-17th century, Erismena dates from the 1670s, 30 years before any other Italian operas were known to have been performed in Britain. The manuscript now enriches the Bodleian Library’s outstanding music collection and is an important addition to the Library’s existing holdings of English 17th- and 18th-century opera and theatre music.

The score has been part of a private collection and has been studied by only a small number of scholars in the past 50 years.  It is one of the most significant British 17th-century music manuscripts to have appeared in recent decades.

In August 2008, the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Cultural Goods placed an export bar on Erismena’s sale to an institutional buyer abroad because of the manuscript’s ‘outstanding significance for the study of the history of music in the UK’.

A public appeal to raise £85,000 needed to acquire this unique manuscript was launched last November. This appeal was adopted as a key component of Oxford Thinking: The Campaign for the University of Oxford, launched last May to raise a minimum of £1.25bn.  The Bodleian, the world-renowned research library of the University, is seeking new funding to build its historic collections, and make them more accessible to students, researchers and scholars globally.

Richard Ovenden, Keeper of Special Collections and Associate Director, Bodleian Library, said: ‘The Bodleian Library thanks all the members of the general public and the organizations whose donations made it possible for the Erismena to be saved for the nation. The acquisition makes it possible for us to conserve this unique and significant manuscript for the benefit of generations to come.’

During recent research, Dr Harry Johnstone, retired Music Faculty lecturer at the University of Oxford discovered that Erismena was sold in 1797 at the auction of the library of William and Philip Hayes, who had been successive Professors of Music at the University of Oxford. The acquisition makes it possible for the music manuscript to return home to Oxford.

Erismena is the earliest known opera manuscript to have been written in English and almost certainly dates from the 1670s, 30 years before any other Italian operas were performed in Britain. The importance of the manuscript is that it is written in English, by an as-yet unidentified hand. The manuscript is also unique in containing an allegorical prologue, which features a different cast of characters from those in the Italian libretto, and suggests that this English version may have been intended for a Royal audience. The New Chamber Opera will stage Erismena in Oxford as one of their summer productions, bringing the manuscript to life, for the enjoyment of the wider public.

The Bodleian’s Music collections form the second largest research library for music in the UK. Apart from natural strengths in British music from the medieval period onwards, its collections cover music and its literature from many parts of the world.

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