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UK Export Drama Over 17th Century Opera Manuscript

Department for Culture, Media And Sport (UK)

Export drama over earliest manuscript of opera in English

Culture Minister, Margaret Hodge, has placed a temporary export bar on an important musical manuscript, giving UK purchasers a last chance to acquire it before it is sold abroad.

The manuscript, which dates from the second half of the seventeenth century, is an English translation of the opera Erismena by the Italian composer Cavalli. It is the earliest surviving score of an opera in the English language.

The Minister's ruling follows a recommendation by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, administered by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. The Committee recommended that the export decision be deferred on the grounds that the manuscript is of outstanding significance for the study of the history of music in the UK.

Erismena was first performed in Venice in 1655, and several manuscript copies of the work are known in Italy. The importance of this manuscript is that it is unique in having English rather than Italian words, written in an as-yet unidentified hand. An allegorical prologue, unique to this copy, features a different cast of characters from those in the Italian libretti, and suggests that this English version may have been intended for a Royal audience. It almost certainly dates from the 1670s, thirty years before any other Italian operas were performed in Britain.

Dr Christopher Wright, Reviewing Committee member, said: "Only someone well-versed in musical performance could have produced this fine singing translation of Erismena. The manuscript is a unique survival from the birth of opera in England and its study will add to our understanding of musical theatre in the 17th century."

The decision on the export licence application for the manuscript will be deferred for a period ending on 6 November inclusive. This period may be extended until 6 January 2009 inclusive if a serious intention to raise funds with a view to making an offer to purchase the manuscript at the recommended price of £85,000 is expressed.

Anyone interested in making an offer to purchase the manuscript should contact the owner's agent through:

The Secretary
The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest
Museums, Libraries and Archives Council
Wellcome Wolfson Building
165 Queen's Gate
South Kensington
London SW7 5HD


1. The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest is an independent body, serviced by MLA, which advises the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on whether a cultural object, intended for export, is of national importance under specified criteria. Where the Committee finds that an object meets one or more of the criteria, it will normally recommend that the decision on the export licence application should be deferred for a specified period. An offer may then be made from within the United Kingdom at or above the fair market price.

2. The manuscript, probably a presentation copy, dates from the second half of the 17th century. It consists of 176 leaves of good quality paper in a contemporary goatskin binding and measures 218 x 289 mm. The music is by the Italian composer Pietro Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676). In place of the original Italian text is an anonymous English translation in an unidentified scribal hand. Prefacing the main body of the opera is a prologue featuring a different cast of characters from those in extant Italian sources.

3. The manuscript is the earliest extant score of an opera in the English language. It is also the earliest known English translation of an Italian libretto. The prologue is the earliest example of an opera prologue in English with extant music.

4. In the 1960s the manuscript was made available to the late Lionel Salter, whose unpublished performing score of Erismena, based on this source, was used in a BBC studio recording in 1967 and in a performance and recording directed by Alan Curtis in 1968.


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