By Michael Talbot

I first came across Francesco Barsanti (ca. 1690–1775) in the early 1960s, when I bought an LP with concertos for one or more French horns and orchestra that contained one rather attractive item by him. I gave him little thought over the next five decades, when my research focused on various less obscure Italian composers from the same period, primarily Albinoni and Vivaldi. But my interest was rekindled when, following retirement from my academic post at the University of Liverpool, I began, partly for practical reasons, to direct my attention also to music composed in eighteenth-century Britain: initially music by Italian immigrants, but very soon compositions by native musicians as well. In this perspective, Barsanti, who lived for most of his working life in England and Scotland, was an ideal composer and musical personality to investigate. The fact that one of my former doctoral students, Jasmin Cameron, had moved to take up an academic post at the University of Aberdeen, in the vicinity of Barsanti-related sources, made the enterprise even more attractive, since she and I could trade ideas and information. We have in fact written together a long, mainly biographical journal article (“A Many-Sided Musician: The Life of Francesco Barsanti [c. 1690–1775] Revisited,” Recercare 25 [2013]: 95–154), and I have also written separate articles on two salient aspects of Barsanti’s career: his work as a music copyist and his lifelong interest in “antique” and national (in the sense of “folk”) music: “A Busy Copyist and a Shy Composer: Two Sides of Francesco Barsanti (ca. 1690–1775),” De Musica Disserenda 11 (2015): 125–146; and “Francesco Barsanti and the Lure of National Song,” Il saggiatore musicale 22, no. 1 (2015): 33–59. It seemed to both of us that Barsanti’s vocal music deserved priority over his instrumental music as far as preparing modern critical editions was concerned, partly because it offered a more stimulating challenge (as vocal music is apt to do!), and partly because this part of his oeuvre illuminated his life and musical personality more strongly. Jasmin and I parceled out the vocal works roughly equally—she took the sacred vocal works, and I the secular—and the result has been two moderately thick volumes for A-R Editions (RRMBE 197 and 200).

Barsanti’s secular vocal music output encompasses four very different genres. First, there are five preserved Italian chamber cantatas, all written in Britain. Like Barsanti’s flute and recorder sonatas, they are highly contrapuntal, with interesting and effective thematic interactions between the soprano vocal part and the continuo bass, as well as some striking harmonic experiments, including enharmonic changes. Second, Barsanti composed a four-voice Italian madrigal, “Chi mai vi fe’ sì belle,” on a recitative text from one of these cantatas. His interest in the music of the Renaissance (which he was involved with in any case as a music copyist) led him to be a member of the Madrigal Society, for which he evidently wrote this backward-looking composition (which nevertheless has some highly idiosyncratic features that would have surprised Palestrina!). Next, there is a set of six short strophic French airs for soprano and continuo—apparently written for inclusion in an album hastily compiled in 1743, under G. F. Handel’s supervision, for George II’s musically gifted daughter Princess Louisa, who was about to marry the Danish crown prince and therefore emigrate. (The album is described and discussed in my article “A Leaving Present for Princess Louisa? Handel, Barsanti and Bodmer Ms. 11461–7,” Händel-Jahrbuch 61 [2015]: 343–81.) In their original form these airs were monophonic, and Barsanti’s main contribution was, as in his earlier famous instrumental Collection of Old Scots Tunes (1742), to devise basses for the melodies, which he did excellently. Lastly, there are two four-part English catches. One, “Happy is the man that findeth wisdom,” is short and moralistic (taking its text from Proverbs 3:13) and functioned as a kind of musical calling card for the composer. The other, “Fye! What mean you drunken elves,” long and riotous but very sophisticated contrapuntally, was written in 1763 for the newly established (1761) Noblemen and Gentlemen’s Catch Club.

Barsanti not only integrated himself well into British musical life but also contributed something truly individual to it. As a composer, he was always disadvantaged by the fact that he was only a rank-and-file performer on the oboe (and, later, viola) instead of a dominant figure who could take a leading role in the performance and promotion of his music. His personality seems, indeed, to have been unhelpfully self-effacing. But the fact that his compositional activity was led by personal interest rather than hope of career advancement had the positive effect of strengthening its individuality.

I may return in the future to undertake further editorial work linked to Barsanti’s music. In the meantime, I am very happy (thanks, of course, to A-R) to have engaged with one corner of it. Naturally, I hope that his vocal music achieves professional performance in the same way that his ten concertos now seem to be doing very successfully. But where modern performance is concerned, an editor does well to be very patient.

Jonathan Wainwright

Michael Talbot (b. 1943) received his education in music and musicology from the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music in London, and finally at the University of Cambridge between 1961 and 1968, where he received his doctorate in 1968 for a thesis on the instrumental music of Tomaso Albinoni. He joined the music staff of the University of Liverpool in 1968, becoming full professor there in 1986 and remaining in that post until 2003, when he retired with the title of Emeritus Professor. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and an external member of the Ateneo Veneto and the Slovenian Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has been a member of the Editorial Committee of the Istituto Italiano Antonio Vivaldi since 1980 and the co-editor of this institute’s yearbook Studi vivaldiani (and its predecessor Informazioni e studi vivaldiani) since 1995.

Since 1970 he has been continuously active as a writer and editor of books, a writer of articles and reviews, and an editor of early music. Except for his book The Finale in Western Instrumental Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), his work has centered on music, musicians, and musical institutions during a period broadly stretching from 1650 to 1800 and in most major genres. He is best known for his very numerous writings and editions concerned with Vivaldi or Venice, but his work has extended to many other musicians and localities in Italy, and increasingly in recent years to other parts of Europe, including Britain, France, Germany, and Scandinavia. His previous editions for A-R, all of which reflect his work on Venetian subjects, are Antonio Vivaldi, The Manchester Violin Sonatas (1976; RRMBE 26); Tomaso Albinoni, Twelve Cantatas, opus 4 (1979; RRMBE 31); Tomaso Albinoni, Pimpinone: Intermezzi comici musicali (1983; RRMBE 43); and Girolamo Polani, Six Chamber Cantatas for Solo Voice (2011; RRMBE 172).