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Re-discovered Treasure from the Long Room

Giordani music manuscripts rediscovered during Old Library redevelopment preparations

The unseen high galleries and closed stacks of the Old Library at Trinity College Dublin are currently a hive of activity, as a small army of library staff and project assistants have begun to empty the shelves in preparation for the restoration and redevelopment of the building which is due to begin late next year. Each individual volume must be cleaned and measured, its physical condition assessed and recorded, an electronic tag attached, and its catalogue description checked for accuracy. All of this information must then be entered in the Library’s online database before the volume is carefully packed away and sent to secure off-site storage (where it will remain retrievable for researchers throughout the project).

This amounts to the most detailed and systematic shelf check of this material for many years, and already it has thrown up some interesting new discoveries. One such occurred when examining the contents of a volume of assorted vocal and instrumental sheet music collected in the late 18th century by a member of the Balfour family of Townley Hall, (a country house near Drogheda in Co. Louth, about 55 kilometres from Dublin). Bound in at the back of this volume (shelfmark OLS X-2-1) was a hitherto undocumented music manuscript, faintly headed “Giordani Solfeggio”.

Music score of 18th century composerTommaso Giordani, titled “Giordani Solfeggio”

Tommaso Giordani (c.1733-1806) was an Italian composer, violinist and keyboard player who was resident in Dublin 1764-1766 and again from 1783 until his death in 1806, presenting operas and concerts in several theatres – Smock Alley and Crow Street in particular. Today he is best known for the song Caro mio ben, usually attributed to him though possibly composed by his father Giuseppe or by another unrelated Giordani (also named Giuseppe).

The manuscript of this Solfeggio (a vocal exercise), attributed to Giordani, was written with such flair and confidence that it seemed possible that this was an original autograph score. On discovering that the British Library holds an autograph manuscript of one of Tommaso Giordani’s songs –  ‘Let soft desires your heart engage’ (BL Add MS 32435, ff. 157-162) – we were able to obtain images of this verified source for comparison. In consultation with a music curator at the British Library and a musicologist at Trinity College Dublin, we concluded that this was indeed almost certainly an original autograph score. Amongst the characteristics observed in both manuscripts were similarities and idiosyncrasies in the formation of clefs, rests, sharp and flat signs, time signatures and the beams and stems of the musical notes themselves.

Further along the same shelf another volume of music from Townley Hall (shelfmark OLS X-2-10) yielded an additional surprise: two further undocumented manuscript insertions containing music by Giordani. One contained another set of three solfeggi in the same hand, this time explicitly signed ‘Tomaso Giordani’; the other a recitative and aria from an opera, Ezio (words by Metastasio): ‘Misera, dove son!…Ah! non son io che parlo’. The latter is not in Giordani’s hand, but seems to be a transcription by Mary Frances Townley Balfour, whose signature appears at the head of both manuscripts.

Music score of 18th century composer Tommaso Giordani
Music score of 18th century Italian composer, Tommaso Giordani with signature of Mary Frances Townley Balfour, owner of the manuscript

Mary Frances Townley Balfour (1772-1820) and her elder sister Anna Maria Vesey Dawson, née Townley Balfour (1770-1820) between them established an impressive collection of music in the library at Townley Hall, so it seems likely that they were accomplished musicians. The presence of the two manuscripts of vocal exercises (solfeggi) by Giordani suggests that the composer may have visited the house to give one or both of them singing lessons. Dr Andrew Johnstone, lecturer in music at Trinity College Dublin, remarks (on the evidence of the first solfeggio) that in his opinion “Clearly Giordani knew how to write fioriture [embellishment of a melody] in the most up-to-date manner, and thoroughly understood post-Handelian vocal virtuosity.” These newly-discovered items will therefore be of particular interest to historians of bel canto singing technique.

What other discoveries may emerge as the Old Library Redevelopment Project continues?

Roy Stanley, Music Librarian, The Library of Trinity College Dublin