‘Incredible’ Donizetti songs to be heard for first time in 200 years | Opera

Stella McDaniel

Up to 90 previously unknown songs by one of classical music’s greatest composers, Gaetano Donizetti, will be heard for the first time in more than 200 years after their discovery by a leading British musicologist.

Roger Parker, a professor of music at King’s College London, described the scores as “incredible” and worthy of Donizetti’s most popular operas, masterpieces that include Lucia di Lammermoor.

“It’s an amazing collection of songs, of which a huge number are entirely new,” he said. “Some may have been published once in the 19th century but have never been performed in modern times. There are loads that have literally never, ever been played since the 19th century.” The melodies would leave the listener humming afterwards, he added.

During two years of convoluted detective work, he has tracked down songs in archives and collections worldwide. In one case, the briefest of references in an old book led him to an Austrian monastery near Linz, only for his email to go unanswered. He turned to a German musicologist who called the receptionist, who put him in touch with an Austrian priest, who photographed the scores, confirming their significance to an excited Parker. “There was a whole series of songs that were thought to be completely lost. We found utterly unknown things there,” he said.

Others were unearthed in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris, where Donizetti settled in 1838, as well as archives in Naples, where he was house composer at the San Carlo opera house, and in Bergamo in Lombardy, where he was born to a relatively impoverished couple. Some were scattered as far afield as Britain and Australia.

Parker said: “Very often, Donizetti would write a song in an evening and give it to a friend as a present. So they got dispersed all over the place. I’m sure there are all sorts of other ones out there somewhere. I did as well as I could to collect them all.”

He added: “Donizetti’s songs, although they sometimes crossed over into operas, are for the most part in a different vein, one in which the musical mood is usually less extravagant, as are the vocal demands. But the composer’s ability to capture an emotional state in music is, as always, unerring.”

While each solo song is scored for voice and piano, some include additional instruments.

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Donizetti is best known for his operas – he wrote nearly 70 of them, but also composed numerous many songs. Photograph: Print Collector/Getty Images

The previously unknown French songs include Quand je vis que j’étais trahie (When I saw that I was betrayed), which was composed in 1841, with an extensive role for an orgue expressif, a predecessor of the harmonium, which had been exhibited in 1810 in Paris and achieved dynamic variation through bellows operated by the player’s feet.

Parker said: “This is one of Donizetti’s most ambitious songs, lasting about six minutes. It tells the tale of a young female novice who seeks the consolation of the church after disappointment in love.”

Other unknown French songs included Oh! Ne me chasse pas (Oh! Don’t shun me), composed in about 1840, “a passionate, agitated lament for a tenor, asking his beloved not to drive him away”, Parker said.

Of the Italian songs in the Austrian monastery, he described Non v’è più barbaro (There is nothing more barbarous) of the 1820s as an “ambitious” piece, a small musical drama set to words by the famous 18th-century librettist Pietro Metastasio.

The songs will be performed and recorded in a major project launched this autumn by Opera Rara, a London company dedicated to rediscovering the forgotten vocal heritage of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It works with the best performers: the conductor Sir Mark Elder was formerly its artistic director, and Renée Fleming, the US superstar soprano, is its honorary artistic patron.

Over three years, the Donizetti songs will be heard at the Wigmore Hall in London, as well as in a series of eight planned recordings.

Henry Little, Opera Rara’s chief executive, spoke of the new songs’ “remarkable quality” and said that Parker, the company’s repertoire consultant, had achieved “an astonishing feat” in rediscovering them and editing them so that they could be performed today, with Ian Schofield acting as music engraver.

The project celebrates the 225th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Donizetti was just 50 at his death in 1848. His opera classics include La Fille du Régiment, La Favorite and L’Elisir d’Amore.

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