Music blog

Music news and views


We have around 100,000 pieces of manuscript music, 1.6 million items of printed music and 2 million music recordings! This blog features news and information about these rich collections. It is written by our music curators, cataloguers and reference staff, with occasional pieces from guest contributors. Read more

04 December 2017

J. S. Bach’s 'Wo soll ich fliehen hin' in the BL Martin Luther Exhibition.

To mark the 500th anniversary of the publication of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses and the beginning of the German Reformation, the British Library is hosting a free exhibition in its Treasures Gallery which looks at Luther’s life, works and influence.

The cantatas of J. S. Bach are, of course, among the most widely known works of the Lutheran musical tradition, so it is entirely fitting that the exhibition should include Bach’s own manuscript score of one such work, Wo soll ich fliehen hin (BWV 5).

Zweig_ms_1_f003rThe two pages of Bach’s manuscript of Wo soll ich fliehen hin (BWV 5) currently on display in the Treasures Gallery. British Library Zweig MS 1 ff.2v-3r.

The autograph score for this work forms part of the Zweig collection (shelfmark Zweig MS 1), a large collection of manuscript treasures collected by the Austrian author Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) which was donated to the British Library by his heirs in 1986.

Image 2Austrian author and collector Stefan Zweig in 1912. From British Library Add. MS 73185.

Bach’s autograph (Zweig MS 1) consists of twelve folios, with the first two movements crammed onto just eight pages and additional staves ruled to accommodate loose ends. The following image shows how Bach ran out of space at the end of the bass aria, completing the final phrase with the separate parts side by side.

Image 3Phrase ends copied at the bottom of the page. Zweig MS 1 f.6v.

The manuscript has been fully digitised and is available to view on the British Library’s digitised manuscripts page.

The cantata was composed in the early years of Bach’s employment as the Cantor at Leipzig’s Thomaskirche, with the first performance taking place on 15 October 1724. The cantata’s text is derived from a hymn of the same name by Johann Heermann (1584-1647), the first line of which roughly translates as ‘Where shall I flee’; however the identity of the librettist of the full text used by Bach remains unknown.

In Leipzig, the congregation of the Thomaskirche clearly did not sing the original chorale melody first printed with Heermann’s Wo soll ich fliehen hin. Instead, the melody quoted by Bach in the soprano part is a tune more commonly associated with Auf meinen lieben Gott by Jacob Regnart.

Image 4Beginning of the chorale melody in the soprano part, opening chorus of J. S. Bach’s Wo soll ich fliehen hin (BWV 5). Zweig MS 1 f.3v.

The cantata is scored for four-voice choir, strings, basso continuo, oboes and, slightly unusually, ‘Tromba da tirarsi’ or slide trumpet. In addition to doubling the chorale melody in the opening chorus, the trumpet is most prominently heard in the aria Verstumme, Höllenheer (Be still, hordes of hell!), where the player must negotiate the long passages of triplet semiquavers described by John Eliot Gardiner as ‘ferociously demanding’.[1]

Image 5Excerpt from the Tromba da tirarsi part of the bass aria Verstumme, Höllenheer. Zweig MS 1 f.7v.

 In Bach’s time, the Lutheran cantata had taken the place of the motet which was traditionally sung after the gospel reading appointed for the day. In the tradition of these motets, the cantata was supposed to draw out themes and meaning from the gospel, fulfilling an exegetical role in the understanding of the word of God. Bach’s Wo soll ich fliehen hin is clearly composed in this tradition, taking its scriptural starting point from the prescribed passage in the Gospel of Matthew. This passage for the 19th Sunday after Trinity recounts the story of the man who is sick of the palsy, healed when Christ forgives his sins. Bach’s libretto is therefore largely concerned with sin and forgiveness, adapting the text of Heermann’s chorale to include references to the healing and atonement of sin by Christ’s blood.

The exhibition label accompanying this manuscript in the Treasures Gallery makes an interesting note of the fact that Heermann, whose chorale formed the textual basis for Bach’s libretto, is commemorated in the Lutheran calendar of saints along with fellow hymn writers Philipp Nicolai and Paul Gerhardt. Bach himself is, of course, commemorated in the same calendar on 28 July, the day of his death: his inclusion is undoubtedly well deserved on account of his great contribution to the Lutheran musical tradition, and is not simply for canonic variation.



By James Ritzema, Collaborative PhD student, Royal Holloway, University of London, and British Library


[1] John Eliot Gardiner, Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach, (London: Allen Lane, 2013), p270.

28 November 2017

Shostakovich at the V&A

   We continue our series of blog posts serving as accompaniment to the current V&A exhibition: ‘Opera: Passion, Power and Politics’ which features several items from our Music Collections. On this occasion we focus on ‘Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District’ Op 29 by the soviet composer Dimitri Shostakovich. The dramatic events surrounding this work compete with those taking place on stage.

G.1435. bDmitriĭ Dmitrievich Shostakovich, Ledi Makbet Mtsenskogo uezda…,( Moscow, 1935) British Library G.1435

    Lady Macbeth was composed between 1932 and 1934, with a libretto by Shostakovich and Alexander Preys. The story is based on a novel by Nikolai Leskov which takes place in the Russian pre-revolutionary days of serfdom. The unlikely heroine is Katerina Ismailova, the wife of a rich merchant from a bleak provincial town. Consumed with the crushing boredom of her empty life she becomes the mistress of one of her husband’s servants. When found out she murders her father–in-law and later, her husband. They are then sent to Siberia, where her lover forsakes her for another woman. In mad desperation, she kills her rival and then herself. 

G.1435. aTitlepage from the first edition of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District’, (Moscow, 1935) G.1435

    The British Library holds a rare vocal score of the opera, published in 1933 before its premiere and two years before the first regular edition shown in the image above.

  D.337 aDmitriĭ Dmitrievich Shostakovich, Ledi Makbet Mtsenskogo uezda…,( Moscow, 1933) British Library D.337.

D.337 aDmitriĭ Dmitrievich Shostakovich, Ledi Makbet Mtsenskogo uezda…,( Moscow, 1933) British Library D.337.

    Its rudimentary printing method and paper quality are indications that it may have been intended for limited rather than wide distribution. These were copies that perhaps circulated among musicians and collaborators during rehearsals for the Moscow production.

D.337 c“The corpse of Zinoviy Borisovich! Oh! Oh! Get the police!". Dmitriĭ Dmitrievich Shostakovich, Ledi Makbet Mtsenskogo uezda…,( Moscow, 1933) D.337.

    Lady Macbeth was premiered on 22 January 1934 in the Leningrad Malyi Opera Theatre with Samuil Samosud, who had been a close collaborator of Shostakovich in the latter stages of the production, as conductor. Two days later it opened in the Nemirovich-Dachenko Theatre in Moscow.

    The London premiere took place at the Queens Hall on the 18th of March 1936, under the baton of Albert Coates. Among the audience there was a 22-year-old Benjamin Britten who was especially impressed by the entreact music. One can only speculate whether he was equally impressed by the tenor singing the minor part of '2nd Foreman'. It wasn’t until later on that year that Britten formally met Peter Pears, who would become a lifelong personal and professional partner. 

Programme Programme of the Premiere in the Queen’s Hall, 18 March 1936, British Library X.0431/534.

    Our Music Manuscripts collection has a manuscript copy of the full score which appears to have been used in the preliminary stages of the London production. The music was copied by Soviet hands while the text was added later on in England. It follows the English translation prepared by the musicologist Michel Calvocoressi, while the music reflects earlier versions of the opera. Several pencilled cuts and annotations, probably by the conductor himself, are present throughout the score

148 3Dmitrii Dmitrievich Shostakovich, ‘Lady Macbeth (Katerina Izmaylova)’, op.29, British Library  MS Mus. 148

    While there was some initial criticism regarding the naturalist use of the music and the choice of subject, Lady Macbeth was a firm success. It was performed hundreds of times in its first two years, both in the Soviet Union and abroad. The Daily Herald called it ‘the Best modern opera since ‘Wozzeck’, while the Sovetskaia Muzyka praised it as “the chef d’ouvre of soviet creativity”. Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was hailed as the first great proletarian opera.

148 1Conductor cut mark. Dmitrii Dmitrievich Shostakovich,  ‘Lady Macbeth (Katerina Izmaylova)’, op.29,  MS Mus. 148

    Shostakovich’s fortunes would be dramatically reversed on the evening of 22 January 1936. The composer was requested to attend the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow for a production of the opera. Upon reaching his seat, he saw in the box across the stage were three of the most powerful men in the Soviet Union, Andrei Zhanov, Anastas Mikoyan and none other than Joseph Stalin himself. As the opera progressed, Shostakovich witnessed with horror how they winced and laughed every time a loud note emerged from the orchestra pit. Before the end of the third act, they had left the theatre.

    Two days later the Communist Party’s official newspaper, Pravda, published an article which has since been considered as one of the most prominent examples of art censorship.

PravdaPravda, (vol 27, no 6633), p3, 28 January 1936, British Library NEWS13616

    This page comes from the Pravda issue of 28th January 1936, a copy of which is in our Newspapers Collections. On the bottom left we can see the fateful article, which was titled 'Сумбур вместо музыки – Об опере Леди Макбет Мценского уезда’, or 'Muddle Instead of Music: On the Opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District'. Here Shostakovich is condemned as formalist, while giving in to bourgeois tastes. The music, on the other hand, “quacks, grunts, growls and suffocates itself.” His status as the foremost soviet composer rapidly dissolved into the paranoia and repression of the Great Purge, which unravelled that year.

    His peers from the Leningrad Composer’s Union unanimously voted to support the Pravda article. Shostakovich had no other choice than to buckle under party pressure and withdraw his Fourth Symphony shortly before its premiere. He would never write another opera again and it was not until 1963, after Stalin’s death, that Lady Macbeth was performed again, revised, and under a different name and opus number: Katerina Ismailova, op. 114
148 2Excerpt from the March of the Convicts. Dmitrii Dmitrievich Shostakovich,  ‘Lady Macbeth (Katerina Izmaylova)’, op.29,  MS Mus. 148

    This would be the first of two public denunciations of Shostakovich's music, the second of which took place in 1948. From both he was officially rehabilitated after managing to court back regime favour. This resilience and artistic conviction are captured in a 1943 letter to his friend Sir Henry Wood1

LetterLetter from Dimitri Shostakovich to Sir Henry Wood, 1 September 1943, British Library Add MS 56426 f 45.

 (…) I am sure that the hour is near when our common enemy will be smashed and when our peoples will be able to resume their upbuilding of culture and art. With all my heart and soul I believe that after the war our art, to which we give all our efforts and abilities, will flourish with redoubled glory and magnificence.

With kindest regards.

Yours very Sincerely,

Dmitry Shostakovich . 


 We would like to thank Ms Shostakovich and Mirjam Eck-Yousef from Sikorski Music Publishers for their kind authorization to feature some of the images above.

31 October 2017

Music Open Day 8 December 2017

Have you recently started a PhD in Music? Alternatively, are you Master's student thinking of going on to study at doctoral level? If so, the British Library's doctoral music open day on 8 December 2017 is for you.

Music Doctoral Open Day 2017 manuscripts show and tell

The music collections at the British Library are unparalleled in their scope and diversity, providing a wealth of material to aid and inspire researchers and performers. The Library’s holdings of written musical sources (printed music and music manuscripts) and related literature (books, journals, concert programmes) encompass all genres and countries from the Middle Ages to the present day. Equally valuable for researchers is the rich body of private papers, correspondence, and business archives relating to composers, performing musicians, music publishers and performing institutions.  Our sound and moving image collection is similarly extensive, covering commercial discs, pop videos and ethnographic field recordings from across the globe, as well as radio sessions, interviews, documentaries and live performances. These materials are relevant to students in music and many other disciplines.

With this amount of material on offer, it can be difficult to know where to start, which is where our open days come in.

Browse the draft programme (significantly revised from last year), and then book your place online.  

Comments from last year include:

“The day was excellent and demystified the British Library. ”

“It was not just about the library but also gave me lots of ideas. Very inspiring. Thank you.”

“Not to belittle the excellent and useful sessions, but the (carrot) CAKES!!!!”

We look forward to seeing you there!