William Ashbrook (1922-2009)

The American musicologist William Ashbrook, died in Denver, Colorado, on March 31, 2009, aged 87. One of the most significant and productive Italian opera scholars of his generation, he was particularly appreciated for his encyclopedic knowledge of historic singers and for his pioneering, still indispensable, scholarly work on Donizetti and Puccini.

Born in Philadelphia in 1922, Bill Ashbrook graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1946 and took an MA at Harvard in 1947. He taught humanities at Stephens College, English literature at Indiana State University, and was Professor of Opera at the Philadelphia College of the Performing Arts before returning to Indiana State as a Trustees Distinguished Professor.

Opera was his life-long passion: a trip down the steep stairs to his subterranean offices in Terre Haute or Philadelphia (he called them, with typical self-deprecation, his ‘‘bilges’’) revealed an imposing, bewildering mass of records, tapes and scores, collected over decades. What is more remarkable, though, is that this collector’s passion developed into a second career as a formidable opera scholar. After extended research trips to Bergamo and elsewhere, he published in 1965 his first operatic book, Donizetti; at a time when public interest in the composer’s lesser-known works was just beginning, and with very little reliable scholarship on them in any language, the book immediately became a standard. Three years later came The Operas of Puccini, whose sympathetic appraisal of the music was counterpointed by telling discussions of the autograph scores and skilful expositions of the tangled genesis of each one of Puccini’s operas.

Many more years of arduous research resulted, in 1982, in Donizetti and His Operas. This magnum opus, which started life as a revision of his earlier book on the composer, became a complete overhaul. It has remained to this day, nearly thirty years later, the essential source for those interested in the composer, and a work whose Italian translation inspired a younger generation of scholars in the composer’s homeland. The control of detail and powers of synthesis that enabled Bill to sift through the scattered detritus of Donizetti sources, and then to come up with a coherent narrative of all the operas, remain entirely remarkable. Quite how he did all this amidst his other commitments and distractions remains a mystery (Bill was also, and famously, devoted to the joys of conviviality); but – for all of us who love Italian opera and its singers – the results continue to be a source of enlightenment and pleasure.

In later life, Bill enjoyed the scholarly recognition he richly deserved: as contributor to academic journals and symposia; as translator from French and Italian; as co-author (with Harold Powers) of a monograph on Turandot; and, between 1993 and 1997, as the enterprising editor of «Opera Quarterly». In 2002 the Fondazione Donizetti of Bergamo and the Centro Studi Giacomo Puccini of Lucca dedicated an entire international conference to him and his work: a fitting climax to the career of a man who will be remembered with extraordinary fondness by his many, many friends and colleagues.

Estratto da «Studi pucciniani», 4, 2010