Using Special Collections for Teaching Music Undergraduates

Studying Music at University is a core module for all first-year Arts-Music students at University College Cork. The module is a study skills and writing course that introduces the various disciplines of music, and covers the history of the subject in third-level education. This year, the students will work in small groups to create public websites, podcasts or vodcasts. I have built in revision of drafts (as well as peer review and peer editing) into the assessment process, so the students will practice writing, evaluating, and revising. I’ve arranged sessions on creating websites with Claire Fennell and Dr Sarah Thelan (Instructional Design), on making podcasts or vodcasts with John Hough (Music), on professional and entrepreneurship skills with Peter Finnegan and Trish Gibbons (Blackstone LaunchPad), and on library and search skills with the subject librarian, Claire O’Brien. Helping students to learn to critically evaluate sources and communicate their evidence-based findings in a clear manner feels more important than ever.

What has me really excited this year is that students will be using primary sources available in UCC Boole Library’s Special Collections and Archives. Elaine Harrington and Emma Horgan found a range of materials, including mentions of music in George Boole’s correspondence, in the UCC Record (a publication covering the early years of the university), as well as printed music (including music by Annie Patterson), and autograph music manuscripts by Seán Ó Riada and Arnold Bax. There’s also the Henebry wax cylinder collection which was recently digitized.

I’m very grateful to Dr Jill Rogers for alerting me to Elaine Harrington’s enthusiasm for bringing students in to the archives. When I began lecturing at UCC in 2005, I was informed there were no music-related holdings in Special Collections or Archives available for use by music students. Several collections were catalogued and made available while I was away on my fellowship (2011-14) but until I contacted Elaine Harrington and Emma Horgan, I had no idea of the extent of our holdings.

Elaine’s interview with Shush! Sounds From UCC Library explains more about Special Collections and the ways she collaborates with UCC academics to bring undergraduate and postgraduate studies in to the reading rooms.

Joy in the archives

My archive trip was great fun and, as is often the case, productive in ways that I was not anticipating. I was looking for material relating to two different patrons: Cardinal Pompeo Colonna, and Felice Orsini Colonna. I didn’t find so much on the cardinal—I think there are probably better places to look—but I came away with some wonderful material pertaining to Felice. So, that’s all good. In addition, I read several letters from sixteenth-century musicians. The letters were catalogued in the inventory, so not really a discovery, but I don’t think anyone has published on them yet. Anyway, I have plenty of work to do, and I am already working out when I can return.

In a previous blogpost, I wondered how Felice Orsini Colonna had learned to run a household and to perform her identity as a Roman noblewoman. Not long after that post, I heard from a fellow scholar that Cardinal Sforza had entrusted Felice to the care of Giovanna d’Aragona—Felice’s future mother-in-law. So, in my recent visit to the archives, I decided to look for useful tidbits of information in the daily letters Felice wrote to her mother-in-law when they lived in separate cities. They had shared interests, and I imagined their letters must have been full of information about this or that writer, or musician. In fact, the letters I read (not all of them; I couldn’t see everything I wanted to see in a fortnight) were entirely taken up with relating the health of Felice’s children, and asking after her mother-in-law’s own health. Of course, this could have been in part down to their correspondence not being private (thanks, Valeria De Lucca!), as much as it could be related to the relationship between the women, or between grandmother and grandchildren, and to the very real and understandable concerns over health given the standard of medical care (not to mention the cultural importance given to male heirs).

I did eventually find the kind of information I sought, but in a different place: in Felice’s letters to Cesare Gallo, her husband’s secretary. In those letters, she thanks Gallo for sonnets that he sent her; she sometimes mentions artists, and on one occasion a musician. I didn’t get through all of this correspondence either, but I made a good start.

The other reason this trip was so joyful was that I brought my daughter and my mother with me. Introducing my daughter to real Italian food and gelato was a pleasure. Some researchers who are parents are able to travel for weeks without their young family. I could not bring myself to do it, even though I knew our daughter would thrive with her dad, as he’s more than capable, and I knew that I really wanted—needed, even—to do this work. I couldn’t have done any of that work without my mother coming to provide childcare, and I’m very grateful for that. So, thank you, Mum, for your labour, and thanks to my daughter for being a fun travelling companion.

Thanks, also, to other parents for blogging about how to fly with a car seat. In case it helps someone else: I used bungee cords to attach the FAA/TÜV-approved car seat to a lightweight, collapsible hand trolley. I packed our clothes into one large suitcase with good wheels, and had our carry-on items in a small rucksack. When my daughter was too tired to walk during the travel, I wore her in a buckle carrier. It was manageable. More than that, it was liberating, even, to find that I could balance work and family that worked for us.

The staff of the archive were enormously helpful, informative, and welcoming. I am so glad to have met them.

Now I’m back home, and the new semester is starting in two weeks. I have a lot of material to sift through in my research time, and I’ve plenty of writing to do. It’s good to have found my archive feet again.

Nifty Tool for Setting Writing Targets & Strategy

This past week, I discovered an online ‘flexible planning tool for writers & students’: Pacemaker. I’ve created a plan that (if I stick to it) should mean I can finish a draft of a monograph chapter by the end of August while still taking a couple of weeks of holiday. I took the basic ‘Rising to the Challenge’ strategy and then tweaked it to suit the time I have available (not as much as I’d like, given the quality of work I’d like to produce). I’m only a few days in, and I’ve found it really motivating so far. I’m exceeding my writing targets (I do expect to slow down, alas), and I’ve discovered that I know more than I thought I did about the topic and this relatively new material. So, that’s a nice confidence boost.

I’m also preparing to head in to the archives next week and I’m feeling a bit nervous. My spoken language skills feel very rusty. I know they will return given a little time. The staff of this particular library are among the friendliest, most helpful people I’ve ever met, so it will all be OK. If I was better prepared for the practical side of things (it’s a long time since I’ve experienced temperatures above 22C, let alone above 30C), I’d probably be less nervous. I do have positive feelings about this trip too. I’m excited. It turns out that I really, really enjoy sitting in a quiet library to read and figure out other people’s account books and letters.


‘Return’ is the theme of the summer for me (not in the equivocal sense!). I’ve worked out how to turn my doctoral dissertation into a book, and I seem to have the stomach for writing it now, too, so I’m returning to some familiar material and of course taking quite a new angle. I’m heading to Italy to do some archival research—back to Italy, back into archives after what feels like a long break. I’ve also been revisiting one of the primary sources I began to look at during my Marie Curie fellowship. (One of the chapters I’d planned to include in a monograph on music & eroticism in 16th-century Rome that I think will fit better in the villotta book.) I’m racing to have my introduction, sample chapter and book proposal ready to send off by the time teaching resumes in early September. Gulp.

Conspicuous by its absence (music & the Orsini Family Papers at UCLA)

I’ve been reading the Orsini Family papers held in UCLA Special Collections for a little while now (Finding Aid). Among other things, I’ve read inventories of various family palazzi, an inventory prepared after the death of Cardinal Flavio Orsini (not to be confused with Fulvio Orsini), and various inventories prepared after the death of Paolo Giordano Orsini, Duke of Bracciano, who was first married to the music-loving Isabella de’Medici, whom he murdered, and then to Vittoria Accoramboni, until his own untimely death (perhaps at the hands of relatives of his first wife). One inventory was made in Padua after Vittoria Accoramboni’s death (Paolo Giordano’s brother was convicted in Venice of her murder). So far, I have found absolutely no reference to any musical instruments, or music books, or even liveries for ducal musician servants. On the one hand, I am not surprised: while Isabella de’ Medici was an active music patron and an amateur musician, Paolo Giordano’s name rarely appears in music book dedications. On the other, I am a little surprised. Isabella and Paolo Giordano’s son, Virginio Orsini, housed the composer Luca Marenzio in Rome during the early 1590s and thus is generally presumed to have been quite a music lover. I assumed Virginio would have had music lessons as a child, and that there would be musical instruments or some evidence of musical activities in the household inventories. But I haven’t yet turned up anything, and I’ve been wondering why. Perhaps any musical instruments were Isabella’s, and perhaps they were returned to her family after her death (that’s a complete guess, and I haven’t reached the boxes of wills and testaments yet). It is highly possible that Isabella was the only one in her generation of the family to have maintained any particular interest in music. Perhaps Virginio’s interest in music came not from a love of playing or singing but from a need to be seen to be cultivated? Straying into pop psychology territory, was his patronage of Marenzio perhaps a way to differentiate himself from his father? (Note: this is very early stage research for me and I haven’t yet done much reading up on Virginio Orsini. Perhaps my questions have already been answered!) Of course, it is also possible that all the music records are in the portions of the archive in Rome.

I am beginning to build up some kind of a picture of the various extended family members. Cardinal Flavio Orsini (I believe he was the uncle of Paolo Giordano) was clearly extraordinarily wealthy, and well educated. His inventory took days to compile, and stretches to 49 folios. The first two pages are devoted to his jewels—ruby, diamond, emerald, and topaz rings, pearl earrings and so on—which, if I’ve understood correctly, he gives to one Joanna Caetana. I haven’t yet quite worked out who she is, but I imagine she’s the Giovanna Gaetana Orsini who is the dedicatee of a book of three-voice spiritual songs in 1585. (The dedication and other excerpts, are available via Gaspari, the online catalogue of the music library in Bologna). The inventory is pretty comprehensive, and includes clothing, furniture, livery, and armaments, as well as a number of paintings, globes, and numerous books in Latin, Italian, Spanish, and French, on topics such as astrology, the history of the Este family, India, France, noble Neapolitan families, architecture…. I could go on. (The books on France presumably helped him to prepare for his role there.)

[Update, 2 Nov. 2011: Giovanna Gaetana appears to be the wife of one of Flavio’s relatives.]

I suppose another reason I am surprised by the absence of music from this portion of the family’s archival records so far is probably because, back in 2009, I found so many references to music and musicians in the archives of the Colonna family. Among musicologists working on the sixteenth century, the Colonna family does not enjoy nearly the reputation of the Orsini when it comes to music patronage. Given that in only five days in the Colonna family I found payments to and letters from several musicians (including Giulio Cesare Brancaccio and Sebastian Raval, plus members of the dell’Arpa family and one Diego Ortiz who may or may not be the musician), I am somewhat disappointed by my lack of discoveries in the Orsini archives. My experience suggests that the Colonna were much more active in their support of music than musicologists have realised thus far. Perhaps they were more important than the Orsini. It seems that, for the simple reason that the family archive is located outside Rome and the family were not associated with any composers deemed historically significant (and I suspect there’s a very interesting historiography project there, in part to do with Spanish composers in Italy and how the ‘canon’ is formed), the Colonna have been somewhat overlooked. I am itching to get back to their archive near Rome!