My story as a researcher

Gaining skills

At the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music in the four years 1951-1955, the library took up two rooms with a few tables. But there were musical treasures that I could access there, including the complete works of my idol, J. S. Bach. As I learned to read music and hear it in my head, I studied his cantata for tenor solo and a few instruments, Cantata no. 189.  (Many years later I learned that someone else actually wrote that music!)  Because very little music was imported from Europe in the post-war years, the only way I could perform the cantata was to copy out the parts for flute, oboe, violin and cello, and to copy and harmonize (realize) the bass part for the organist to play.  That was a big job, but my parents had taught me to write clear music manuscript, and CCM’s theory classes had taught me to imitate the Bach style.  I produced the parts, rehearsed my friends to play them, and performed the cantata to open my senior recital on March 19, 1955.  I still have the parts, although published parts are available now.

Benedetto Marcello

While I was in the U.S. Navy, stationed on a ship that was often in San Francisco, I made the acquaintance of an elderly coach named Lester Hodges.  He never mentioned an achievement that I learned about many years later: He had selected the songs that G. Schirmer published as 24 Italian Songs and Arias.  (Schirmer probably paid him a cash fee for assembling one of their all-time big sellers, but they did not acknowledge his name until the 2009 edition.  I learned his name from Library of Congress catalog cards.)

In 1957 I was about to be discharged from the Navy, and “Maestro” Hodges gave me a farewell gift, a Durand edition of Psalm settings by Benedetto Marcello.  As a graduate student at the Eastman School of Music, I began to explore the famous Sibley Music Library and found an authentic early edition of Marcello’s Psalms under their correct title, Estro poetico-armonico (poetic-musical inspiration).  I learned that Marcello’s works were multi-movement pieces for from one to four voices; the Durand edition contained mostly single-movement excerpts. Marcello, composing in the early 1700s, used a basso continuo notation that required keyboard players to read the bass part and play the appropriate chords; that skill was mostly lost during the 1800s, and so the Durand versions had piano accompaniments.  The piano parts doubled the voices, which would never happen in Marcello’s time.

Choosing a topic for a master’s degree document, I studied the history of Marcello’s masterpiece, a massive setting of the first 50 Psalms. I decided to edit one of them and perform it on my degree recital.  I translated the text, which was in Italian verse and considerably more wordy than the original Biblical text.  And I wrote a piano accompaniment, using Marcello’s continuo part without doubling the voice part.  Knowing the Bach style helped, and my advisor required me to justify my musical choices by finding similar passages in other Baroque music.  By going through those steps, I gained the techniques that I needed later to work with Baroque arias.


After my year in Germany on a Fulbright scholarship, I started as a new voice teacher at the University of Wisconsin. My focus was on German in those years, when I was giving annual lieder recitals along with my mentor from Stuttgart, Prof. Hermann Reutter. But as a teacher I was frustrated by my inadequate Italian, and I audited some courses to get a better reading skill.

Two of my earlier voice teachers, Franklin Bens and Julius Huehn, had used Vaccai’s Practical Method of Italian Singing, and so I also adopted the book for my students at whatever level. I found it indispensable for developing a legato line, for practice with a variety of Italian texts, and for acquaintance with the most common ornaments that occur in music from 1700 into the early 1800s.

In 1968 I moved to the University of Colorado at Boulder to teach the art song class that had previously been taught by the legendary Danish tenor, Aksel Schiotz, who was obeying a royal invitation to return to his homeland. I also taught voice and the diction classes.  I continued to visit Italian classes occasionally, especially the ones taught by Graziana Lazzarino, one of the most brilliant teachers I have ever met; she later wrote a popular textbook, Prego!  With some help from the Italian faculty, I was finally able to translate the Metastasio texts in Vaccai’s book.

Still, certain passages in Vaccai’s exercises did not make sense to me. I began to suspect that G. Schirmer’s 1894 edition was at fault; I needed to find the first edition, wherever it might be. Although Vaccai was a native of Italy, I learned that he had taught for a certain period in London and in Paris. Maybe he had written and published his book in one of those cities.

In 1972, while visiting friends in England, I had a chance to test my theory. My friends dropped me off at the British Museum, which then housed the British Library. I spoke to an official inside and gained a one-day reader’s pass, which allowed me to use the historic circular reading room where Darwin, Marx, Huxley and other great intellectuals had done their research. (The room is still there, but now the domed structure is completely sheltered under Norman Foster’s soaring glass roof. The interior, kept for its historical significance, can be viewed through well placed windows.) I had a numbered spot at a reading table.

The catalog in those days was kept in hundreds of great loose-leaf binders, in which slips of paper like catalog cards were pasted onto the large, dark pages. In a few minutes I had found what I hoped for, Vaccai’s book published in 1834 by Boosy [sic]. I requested to have the book brought to me, and during the waiting time I explored the possibility of ordering a photocopy of it.

When the book was in my hands, my heart beat fast with excitement.  Sure enough, the appoggiatura exercise that had nonsensical note values in the Schirmer edition was perfectly clear in the original. I looked at a few other pages, then took the book to the photocopy window and ordered a complete copy to be sent to my home in Colorado. It was easy and not very expensive. When I left the Museum to rejoin my friends, I was perspiring from excitement.  In less than an hour I had solved a mystery and experienced the thrill of research with a primary source.

At the NATS convention in December, I approached the G. Schirmer representative with an eye to revising Schirmer’s edition of Vaccai. I didn’t know that he was Hans Heinsheimer, a giant in music publishing and the author of several entertaining books, including Best Regards to Aida. Mr. Heinsheimer saw the value of what I was offering and took it on.

My edition came out in February 1975. The old engraving was retained, with the necessary corrections. We kept the old format with separate vocal lines for Italian and my new English translation, but we moved the Italian text from the lower staff to the upper one.  I introduced the IPA symbols for open E’s and open O’s, a practice that I borrowed from Joseph Louis Russo’s Italian textbooks of the 1940s. And in addition to the singable translations, a literal translation of each text was printed at the bottom of the page where the music appeared. So far as I know, that had never been done before.

Arie antiche

My Italian was improving, especially with the help of a month of study in Siena, and I had gained confidence with the publication of the Vaccai edition in 1974.  My next ambition was to learn what I could about “old Italian songs,” as they were called in my undergraduate years.  Did they come from operas?  What kind of piano accompaniment should they have?  Why were they not mentioned in the music history books?  G. Schirmer called them “songs and arias.”  Were songs different from arias?  If so, which were which?  How would I know?

Clearly, I had to find the sources of the songs.  Somehow I found out that most of the songs came from Arie antiche, edited by Alessandro Parisotti and published in three volumes by G. Ricordi.  In 1972 I required all of my students to buy AA, volume I, and learn songs from it.  In 1973 they all bought AA2 and in 1974 AA3.  By that means I gained at least some knowledge of each of the 99 songs and one duet in that venerable collection.  I started a card file of the facts that I knew about each one.  I could look at any Italian song title and know instantly whether it was one of the 100 Parisotti numbers.

Rome, Italy, 1975

In my research I had come across the Wellesley Cantata Index Series, which were studies initiated and led by Prof. Owen Jander.  These books attempted to list all of the solo cantatas known to exist by specific composers, and I wanted to emulate the scholars who had researched this beautiful music in the libraries of Italy.  In answer to some questions, Prof. Jander wrote a long and detailed letter full of helpful common sense.  Because I asked how one might know which cantatas were outstanding for their time, he reminded me that every manuscript represented someone’s investment of time or money.  The more copies one finds in various libraries, the more significant the piece was judged to be in its time..

I was ready to go to Italy.  The University of Colorado gave me a research grant in the form of a semester of paid leave to study Italian baroque solo cantatas in Rome.

The first step was to enroll in the Università per Stranieri in Perugia in order to further improve my Italian.  I planned two months there, August and September.  Responding to a notice posted at the UpS, I joined the choir of the cathedral to sing in special masses for the holy day of San Lorenzo, and in the choir I made treasured friendships with the Burini family.

An ad in the Rome Daily American led me to a beautiful apartment in Rome, but it was necessary to take it over in September.  I was subletting from an American professor of art history, and his apartment came with a spectacular view and a maid who worked five mornings a week.  The location high on the Gianicolo (west side of the Tiber), necessitated exhausting hours of trolley travel, but space, fresh air and full furnishings were all persuasive advantages.

Biblioteca Santa Cecilia

The Santa Cecilia Library in those days was accessed from two side streets, just to the east of Via del Corso.  A story about the two doors:  One morning I found the north door of the building locked, with a sign that said “Sciopero,” strike!  I figured I might as well go home, but took a walk in the neighborhood.  The south door, located on a different street, was open and people were coming and going.  It turned out that the north doorman was on strike, but the south doorman belonged to a different union, and he was not on strike.

The reading room of the library was then entered from the cloister– the building had been a convent in earlier times.  An attendant sat at the desk inside the door and he answered my questions about how to proceed.

… to be continued.

3 Responses to My story as a researcher

  1. Pingback: Turns from Vaccai’s Più non si « Rudi Seitz

  2. John, your story is inspiring! As a budding researcher, I absolutely identify with the thrill you describe when you are doing research on a topic dear to your heart.

  3. June C Goudey says:

    Hi John_ will you send me reminders when you post. Enjoyed the mistrial essay. Glad you spoke up. It wa the right thing to do. June

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