"New" Keyboard Music by William Babell

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

We recently came across this article by Andrew Woolley concerning a collective manuscript in Bergamo (I-BGi XIV 8751 H 1, RISM ID no. 850014351):

Andrew Woolley, “New light on William Babell’s development as a keyboard composer,” Early Music 46, no. 2 (May 2018): 251–270. Short title in RISM: WoolleyB 2018, available online.

Woolley writes that “the holdings of the Biblioteca Musicale Gaetano Donizetti in Bergamo have recently been brought to wider attention thanks to RISM’s expanding online catalogue” (p. 253). And it is thanks to scholars such as Woolley that close studies of music manuscripts are carried out, leading to new insights and enabling us to enhance the RISM database.

This article packs a punch. Woolley argues that this music manuscript—containing eleven toccatas, two suites, seven preludes, and two other pieces—has up to now been falsely attributed to Georg Friedrich Händel: it is in fact an important source of music by William Babell (1688–1723).

William Babell was a London-based keyboard player, violinist, and composer, and he arranged numerous opera arias for keyboard. RISM has fourteen printed editions by Babell, including the Suits collections for keyboard, and manuscripts preserved in England, Germany, and Sweden. In Woolley’s view, concordances with the Suits as well as with authenticated autograph manuscripts at the British Library and the Foundling Museum, plus other musical characteristics, point to authorship by Babell.

One might wonder what the purpose of this manuscript was, which includes, at the very end, a fragment of the song “Sally in our alley” by Henry Carey. The manuscript has numerous pencil corrections that suggest it might have been Babell’s own composing manuscript; in any case, it shows a familiarity with Babell’s hand, which points to the possibility that a close member of his family was involved in its creation: his father Charles, or maybe his sister Elizabeth?

More details can be read in the full article, including Babell’s relationship with Handel’s music and the music of other composers such as Jean-François Dandrieu. We have updated the RISM entries for the Bergamo manuscript in accordance with Woolley’s findings.

Image: Babell’s Toccata no. 3 in a transcription by Grant Colburn, based on the Bergamo manuscript. This and other selections from the manuscript are available on IMSLP (CC BY-SA 4.0)

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