Magdalene Partbooks

Two pages from the Magdalene Partbooks showing musical notation.
Old Library F.4.35. The first treble part in the 55th sett, including music by James Paisible (no.3) and Henry Purcell (no. 4).

The Magdalene Partbooks are a collection of over 650 pieces, many of which have been identified as arrangements of incidental music from plays of the 17th and early 18th centuries, in the Old Library of Magdalene College.  Comprising five volumes – Treble, Second Treble, Tenor, Bass and Trumpet – the partbooks form an important source of material by composers such as James Paisible (c. 1656-1721), with eighty-one identified pieces, Henry Purcell (c. 1659-1695), with forty-one pieces, and Gottfried Finger (c. 1655-1730), with thirty-two pieces.  Professor Rebecca Herisonne, in her comprehensive journal article The Origins and Contents of the Magdalene College Partbooks, identifies many of the composers and works contained in the volumes. 

However, there are many works in the partbooks still waiting to be identified.  Each piece in the partbooks has now been individually catalogued (with the inclusion of incipits) in the foremost international catalogue for music sources, RISM. During the cataloguing process, it has been possible to identify some other composers previously not known to be associated with the manuscript, thanks to recent discoveries in other music manuscripts.  In Erik Albertyn’s article entitled The Hanover Orchestral Repertory, 1672-1714…  he identifies Etienne (or Stephan) Valoix the composer of works featured in MS. 1227 of the Hessische Hochschul- und Landesbibliothek, Darmstadt, Germany.  This builds on Herrisonne’s work where she identifies instances of the same music being present in both MS 1227 and the Magdalene Partbooks. 

The Magdalene Partbooks and MS 1227 from Darmstadt also share the same neat hand of the copyist Charles Babel.  Babel (c. 1636-1716) was the copyist and oboist for the Hanover court orchestra.  During his later years he played in the orchestra of the Drury Lane theatre and became a British citizen in April 1699.  The Magdalene Partbooks and other manuscripts attest to his other source of income: copying music for well-to-do Londoners.   Babel’s association with the Hanover court is certainly evident in the Magdalene Partbooks, with works appearing by composers such as the aforementioned Etienne Valoix and also Agostino Steffani.  

Magdalene College has a large collection of music across both of its special collections libraries – the Old Library and, perhaps more famously, the Pepys Library.  It is hoped that more of Magdalene College’s music collections can be added to RISM in the future.

By Catherine Sutherland

Deputy Librarian, Pepys Library and Special Collections

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