Introduction to the Airs de différents compositeurs

by John S. Powell


Airs de différents compositeurs is a small collection of French, English, Italian, and Spanish songs in one and two parts, bound in calf skin, and housed in the Chapter Library of Westminster Abbey.  Its title page, with its title in French, suggests a continental origin.  While the date 1678 is visibly evident on the title page, upon closer scrutiny it becomes clear that the page once bore the date 1668, notated just to the right of the 1678 date (see below; this date is more legible on the original MS):

(click on image above for retouched image)

These two dates encompass the chronological range of the datable music contained therein.  Among the music by Lully, there are two  laments:  one from the comédie-ballet George Dandin (1668), and one from the tragédie en musique Isis (1677).

Internal evidence suggests that the collection was first compiled from French sources.  The recto pages of the first part of the MS includes the French airs on the recto side and the English airs on the verso.  For example, the anonymous English air Dost Thou Not Once, Aminta begins on p. 8 and continues with the text of the second couplet on p. 10; in between, on p. 9, is the French air Par mes chants tristes et Michel Lambert.  A similar intercalation of French and English airs occurs on pp. 50-52.  Thereafter, beginning on p. 54 with Lully's air, Le ciel protege les heros (from Alceste, 1674), French, English, Italian, and Spanish numbers appear successively on the recto and verso sides.

Numerous gaps in the page numbering suggest that pages were removed at various times from the MS.  In addition, there appears to have once been a companion volume for the continuo.  Airs such as Enfin de nos bergers by Charles Hurel (p. 86, shown at left) begin with four measures of rest--thus suggesting the probable existence of an instrumental prelude in another volume.  The collection also includes two striking landscape engravings on the flyleaves, which (when identified) might well provide a clue to the provenance of the manuscript:



When and where this MS was compiled remains a mystery.  That many of the "compositeurs" (an interesting choice of term--as in France "autheur" is much more common) included in this collection were among the French musicians who migrated to England in the mid-1670s seems more than coincidental.  At least three different hands are visible in the manuscript: one for the French airs, and two for the English, Italian, and Spanish ones.  The hand represented in the majority of French airs (shown at right, above) have several readily identifiable traits:  a florid G-2 clef with a curly-cue; quarter and eighth notes with descenders on the left, half notes with descenders on the right; eighth note downward flags pointing left.  Later on in the MS, another hand appears with the French airs.  This one (shown at right, below) has right descenders for the quarter notes, and the stem for half notes descends more toward the center of the note head.

The English airs have a distinctly different hand (shown at left).  The G-3 clef is less florid, the downward stems are on the right, and the downward flags jut angularly toward the right.

The one Italian air (actually, a duet, shown at right) evidently was copied by the same hand as the most common of the French airs: descenders on the left for quarter and eighth notes; descenders on the right for half notes.  Although not shown here, the eighth note flags point left--as in the first hand.

The one Spanish air reveals yet a fourth hand.  Here (shown at left) the G-3 clef is elongated--extending four lines above and below the staff; the descenders are all to the right of the note head, and the downward flags all point to the left.  This hand appears at the end of the MS, and it notates the upside-down French air on the final page.


Peter Leech examined the watermarks of this MS, and believes that the paper is of Dutch origin.