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Princess Grace's collection of Irish-American sheet music

Written by Dr Axel Klein, October 2012 www.axelklein.de Contact

This collection of (mainly) Irish-American music is probably the largest publicly accessible collection of its kind in Europe. It consists exclusively of songs, mainly published in the United States between the 1880s and the 1930s, a period in which Irish ballads formed a significant part of the recital repertoire across the English-speaking world. The scores were mostly published in New York and Boston, some in London, and very few elsewhere.

The oldest scores date from the first and second decades of the 19th century. One is a song by Michael Kelly (1762-1826), the well-known tenor, theatre manager, composer and friend of Mozart (from Kelly's time in Vienna). The song is called Here's a health to thee Tom Moore to words by Lord Byron and represents one of the very few proofs of friendship between Kelly and Thomas Moore, the poet and editor of the Irish Melodies (1808-1834). The piece was published by William Pond in New York, the paper suggesting a slightly later print than the (probably) first English edition. Probably even older are two copies (of the same song) by one J. Whitaker (probably John Whitaker, 1776-1848). In chronological order, the next item is one of the early volumes of Moore's Irish Melodies, followed by a very interesting collection of 1830s/40s songs by Samuel Lover (1797-1868), a Dublin-born composer of songs and operettas, including a large bound volume. With the exception of a mid-19th century collected volume of Moore's Melodies, there follows a gap of some 30 to 40 years of publishing history before the American repertory begins.

The American songs form the bulk of the collection, most of which representing the personal collection of Princess Grace. The overarching themes of the song texts are emigration from Ireland and nostalgic Irish sentiments among the emigrants and the following Irish-American generations. The newer the songs the more this melancholy mixes with a pride to be American, i.e. to have left poverty behind. Numerous decorative title pages representing artistic styles and fashions of several decades depict romanticised scenes from Ireland like wild landscapes, parting lovers and (initially poor) emigrant life in the US. Later editions carry portraits of Irish-American singer-composers like Edward Harrigan (1844-1911), Chauncey Olcott (1858-1932), George M. Cohan (1878-1942) and Morton Downey (1901-1985). In fact, the collection contains valuable examples of early American musicals (i.e. the 'greatest hits' from these performances), in particular by Olcott and his collaborator Ernest Ball, as well as by Cohan and Victor Herbert (1859-1924), two of the most important early Broadway composers (and both of Irish families). Apart from these well-known names, the majority of the composers in the collection are today forgotten.

Musically, there are but few arrangements of traditional Irish songs. Most are newly composed songs and ballad tunes written in a traditional style.

Irish-born composers represented in the collection – most of them without any American connection – include Lover, Moore, Charles V. Stanford (1852-1924), Charles Wood (1866-1926), Hamilton Harty (1879-1941) and Charlotte Milligan Fox (1864-1916). In fact, there are quite a few songs by the latter which are usually hard to find. There is also a copy of the opera Eithne (1909) by Robert O'Dwyer (1862-1949), a rare example of an opera in the Irish language which was performed in 1909 and 1910 (with excerpts in 2004 and 2008).

Finally, there are some recent scores by Irish composers Tom Cullivan and Eibhlis Farrell, the result of visits by these composers to the Princess Grace Irish Library.

Many scores carry the stamp of one former owner – Michael E. O'Donnell – suggesting that Princess Grace received the majority of the collection in one large bulk rather than collecting them over a longer period of time.

“O'Kelly - an Irish Musical Family in Nineteenth-Century France” by Axel Klein.

Published in May 2014.

Available for order on http://www.bod.de/buch/axel-klein/okelly/9783735723109.html