- In Memory of William Ashbrook (January 28, 1922–March 31, 2009)
He was the father of us all. It is hard to remember what the study of Italian opera was like when Herbert Weinstock in 1963 and Bill Ashbrook in 1965 published their biographies of Donizetti. Here was a composer who had written more than seventy operas, of which we knew a handful at best. There was Rossini who wrote almost forty, with a similar history. Verdi's works before Rigoletto had been consigned to the dustbin of history and were roundly considered "minor." As for composers such as Pacini, Mercadante, or Coccia, they were mere names remembered by few, treasured by none.
Weinstock went on to write similar books about Rossini and then Bellini, fine achievements in their way, but Ashbrook pursued and intensified his lifelong love affair with Donizetti, while later adding studies of Puccini. Still, it was for his Donizetti work that he will long be remembered, and the town of Bergamo, inspired by the local Donizetti Foundation, did itself proud by proclaiming him an honorary citizen of Donizetti's birthplace. Bill taught for many years at Indiana State University in Terra Haute, Indiana, where he was a mainstay of the humanities program, retiring as Distinguished Professor Emeritus. He had previously studied musicology at Harvard University, where he received an MA in 1947. He served as editor of Opera Quarterly from 1993 through 1997 and collaborated extensively with periodicals such as Opera News and the Donizetti Society Journal.
I trust I will not be misunderstood if I say that Bill was at his greatest as a devoted amateur, as a lover of the musical theater of Donizetti who knew how to express his love in beautifully constructed paragraphs. He was not averse to more musicological activities, to be sure, and his second Donizetti book, Donizetti and his Operas (1982), considers the history and musical and dramatic content of each and every Donizetti opera. In his Donizetti work, Bill was always sure footed. For any serious study of a Donizetti opera today, it is still with Ashbrook's Donizetti and his Operas that one must begin. No one expected Bill to have gone and [End Page 1] consulted all the musical sources, autographs, manuscript copies, printed editions, and librettos, for each and every of the Donizetti operas he discusses. That is the job of the critical edition of a selection from Donizetti's operas which began publication in 1991 with Maria Stuarda, edited by Anders Wiklund. Among the most important volumes, however, was the 2000 edition of Poliuto, co-edited by Ashbrook and Roger Parker, a complex score with a convoluted history (it was never performed as the composer planned it during his lifetime). It was—and remains—amazing how much information Ashbrook succeeded in gathering together about all of Donizetti's operas.
In addition, Bill was always a gentleman, someone who shared freely with others his vast store of knowledge, who could be counted upon for a kind word, and who was well known to be an ideal drinking partner. But Bill summed up his own intellectual achievement best in the Preface to Donizetti and his Operas, when he wrote,
There is still much work to be done on Donizetti. There is great need for scholarly editions of his major scores and work is already afoot to fill that need. There are corners of his life, details concerning his use of sources, his compositional processes, his non-operatic works, a wealth of topics that need further study. This volume is an attempt to fulfill two perhaps not entirely reconcilable functions: first, to give the general reader a good deal of information about the composer and his operas; second, to serve as a point of departure for further, more detailed studies.
Bill reconciled beautifully the two functions he conceived for his book. In doing so, he laid the groundwork for generations of others who continue to stand in awe of his achievement and who are trying to accomplish his program. He will be sorely missed. [End Page 2]