Music blog

22 posts categorized "Digitisation"

16 November 2016

Dragons and greyhounds: a day in the life of a digital music curator

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In February 2016, I started a new job at the British Library working as Curator, Digital Music. Friends and family often ask me what this involves. The short answer is an awful lot of things, ranging from collecting digital sheet music as part of the non-print legal deposit regulations, to planning new music content for the web pages and writing blog posts to highlight our work and collections.

But one of the most exciting things I do is assist in managing music digitisation projects. Some of these, such as our recent Handel digitisation project, deal with large bodies of content. Others deal with just one or two manuscripts or printed items.

I recently received a request from the Alamire Foundation in Leuven for copies of a manuscript from our collections for use in their new Integrated Database for Early Music. After dealing with licensing issues and liaising with my colleagues in the Manuscripts department regarding the supply of the images, I actually got a chance to look at the manuscript itself - always a highlight of the job.

The manuscript in question, Royal MS 8 G VII, dates from circa 1513 to 1544 and is a book of 28 motets for four voices. All are apparently anonymous, although later research has since identified works by Jean Mouton and Josquin Desprez, amongst others.

The manuscript was produced in the workshop of Petrus Alamire in the southern Netherlands. Born into the Nuremberg merchant family of Imhof, Petrus settled in the Low Countries in the 1490s and became famous as a music scribe, having made several similar choir books for other European courts.

Browsing through the images, I was struck by the miniature below, which  appears on folio 2 verso.


British Library Royal MS 8 G VII, folio 2 verso

This manuscript was probably produced for Henry VIII and  Catherine of Aragon. In colours and gold, the miniature depicts the royal arms with dragon and greyhound supporters. Also included are the heraldic emblems of the Tudor rose and pomegranate (the latter being Catherine's emblem). The striking borders depicting flowers, insects and birds is in a distinctly Flemish style. Meanwhile, the portcullis badge appears on folio 3.


British Library Royal MS 8 G VII, folio 3 recto

Presented to the British Museum by George II in 1757 as part of the Old Royal Library, this beautiful manuscript can be browsed in full on our Digitised Manuscripts website.



02 September 2016

Setting Shakespeare to Music

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The British Library's popular exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts closes on 6 September 2016.  Over the years, the Bard has had a profound influence on music. Our holdings reflect this, with music contemporary to Shakespeare, new music composed for Shakespeare and music inspired by Shakespeare all to be found in our extensive music collections.

One particular gem is our manuscript of Felix Mendelssohn's incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream (Egerton MS 2955). Composed in 1843 as a result of a royal commission from Friedrich Wilhelm IV, it comprises the music for the famous Scherzo, Notturno and Wedding March movements (pictured below). The manuscript itself dates from around 1844 and is a piano arrangement of these well-known excerpts in Mendelssohn's own hand. 


Felix Mendelssohn's 'Wedding March' for A Midsummer Night's Dream (Egerton MS 2955, folio 12 verso)

We're also in possession of the sketches and libretto for Richard Wagner's Das Liebesverbot, an opera based on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. Both form part of the extensive Zweig Collection (Zweig MSS 104 and 119).


 Sketch for Richard Wagner's Das Liebesverbot (Zweig MS 104, folio 1 recto)

From September 1839 to April 1842, Wagner spent a rather miserable two-and-a-half years in Paris. He was forced to earn a living by making arrangements of operatic selections and by musical journalism. This unhappy period also saw the composition of his opera Das Liebesverbot, which was accepted by the Théâtre de la Renaissance in March 1840. However, the work was a resounding flop, with the second performance cancelled because of backstage fisticuffs. Two months later, the theatre was forced into bankruptcy and the work was never again performed in Wagner's lifetime.

Full digital versions of the sketches and libretto of Wagner's Das Lieberverbot are available, and Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream is on our wishlist for digitisation. In addition, if you don't think you'll be able to get to the British Library to catch the Shakespeare exhibition before it closes, fear not - a wealth of Shakespeare-related material can be found on our Shakespeare web pages

03 June 2016

Peter Kennedy Archive

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As part of an AHRC Cultural Engagement project grant awarded to City University and partially funded by the National Folk Music Fund, ethnomusicologist Andrew Pace, has engaged in a project to catalogue thousands of paper and photographic files from Peter Kennedy’s collection of British and Irish folk music held at the British Library.

This month we have launched a unique website - - in which listeners can retrace the chronology and geographical routes of Kennedy's extensive field recording activity. In the text below, Andrew describes the project and walks us through the website's main features.

Peter Kennedy interviewing Edgar Button. Thebburton, Suffolk, 1956 [PR0925]

Peter Kennedy was one of the most prolific collectors of British and Irish folk music and customs from the 1950s up until his death in 2006. Working closely with other collectors of his generation, such as Alan Lomax, Sean O’Boyle and Hamish Henderson, he recorded hundreds of traditional performers ‘in the field’, including Margaret Barry, Fred Jordan, Paddy Tunney, Harry Cox, Frank and Francis McPeake and Jack Armstrong. In 2008 his collection came under the care of the World and Traditional Music section of the British Library.

I’ve been working on Peter’s sizeable collection periodically since 2010, cataloguing thousands of audio tapes and photographs of traditional performers and uploading some of this material to Sounds. In fact, just this month an additional 500 photographs and 70 audio recordings from Peter’s collection have been added to the existing collection available online. 

Bob Copper, John Copper, Ron Copper and Jim Cooper photographed by Peter Kennedy in Rottingdean, Sussex, 1950s [025I-MSMUS1771X1X-0201A0]

However, Peter’s paper files, comprising song texts, scores, contracts, draft manuscripts and a large amount of correspondence between himself and performers, collectors, institutions and enquirers, hadn’t been catalogued. This is the task that I’ve been undertaking since January. All of these papers will be uploaded to the Library’s catalogue in due course.

Amongst these papers I discovered 31 reports written by Peter for the BBC’s ‘Folk Music and Dialect Recording Scheme’, a project on which he was working during the 1950s. Across 180 typewritten pages, Peter describes his daily itinerary recording traditional performers around the UK and Ireland between 1952 and 1962. Full of anecdotes and insightful information about the musicians he recorded - including confirmation of when and where he recorded them - these documents reveal a great deal about Peter’s fieldwork during this period.

I decided to use these reports as the basis for a new website which brings these narratives together with all of the audio recordings and photographs from Peter’s collection that have been digitised so far:

These reports feature ‘hotspots’ placed over the names of the more than 650 musicians that Peter recorded during these trips. Clicking on the name of a performer reveals any sound recordings or photographs taken of them by Peter on that particular day that are available to view and listen to on Sounds. Additionally, links to entries in the British Library’s catalogue are provided for any related material that hasn’t yet been digitised, such as Peter’s tapes or BBC transcription discs.

What makes this website unique is the way it contextualises recordings and photographs of performers with Peter’s own notes about them. Whilst the British Library’s catalogue is useful as a search tool, it doesn’t reveal how a collection was formed and developed – and it doesn’t tell us very much about who created it. This new website gives us a better idea of what’s in this collection by refocusing attention on Peter as a recordist and reconstituting his material into a form that better resembles how he created it.

I hope will prove useful to researchers and musicians alike and encourage more people to explore Peter’s collection at the British Library. As more of his field recordings are digitised and attached to the site, it should become an increasingly valuable resource

- Andrew Pace

Find out more about the work of the British Libary's Sound Archive and the new Save our Sounds programme online.

Follow the British Library Sound Archive @soundarchive and the British Library's World and Traditional Music activities @BL_WorldTrad on Twitter.


27 October 2015

Curatorial vacancy in the Music Collections

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We recently advertised details of a vacancy that has arisen in the British Library’s music department. The post will have a particular focus for exploring digital opportunities with music materials, but will also involve working with the Library’s rich heritage music collections in manuscript and print format. The post will require a mix of musicological and professional library-based skills and experience, as well as technical knowledge relevant to digital humanities in the field of music. The closing date is 1 November, and interviews are scheduled for 16 November in London. For further details please see the Vacancies section of the Library’s website:

23 September 2014

A Donizetti Discovery

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The British Library's Stefan Zweig Collection of musical, literary and historical autograph manuscripts includes many well-known treasures, but there are other pieces which have proved more difficult to identify. When Stefan Zweig bought a manuscript of Gaetano Donizetti from a dealer in Milan in 1938, he thought that he had acquired a piece for string quartet. He did not pursue the matter further, and the manuscript remained unknown until it was presented, with the rest of his collection, to the British Library in 1986 by his heirs.

 Donizetti folio 1

In an article just published in the Electronic British Library Journal, Christopher Scobie has identified the music in this manuscript for the first time. A look at the clefs at the opening of the piece makes it clear that contrary to Zweig's initial assumption, the piece is not for string quartet but for piano duet.

At first the music appears to be a conflation of two pieces: the opening 'Larghetto' section is Donizetti clefsknown from Anna Bolena, the opera that made Donizetti's name on its premiere in December 1830, while the following 'Allegro' is part of the overture to his much less successful opera Il diluvio universale, which was first performed earlier in the same year. In fact, as the article shows, both sections were originally used for Il diluvio universale, but after Donizetti had recycled the 'Larghetto' in Anna Bolena, he composed a new opening for the first overture, which was used in its revival in 1834 and ever since. 

Some questions remain about exactly when and for what purpose this manuscript was written, and various proposals are made in Christopher Scobie's article. The complete manuscript is available on our Digitised Manuscripts website, and see our earlier blog post for a list of other music-related articles in the British Library Journal.

08 September 2014

Archiving WOMAD 2014

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The British Library’s relationship with WOMAD (World of Music Arts and Dance) is nearly as long as the festival's existence, recording performances for archival purposes since 1985. The first recording in the WOMAD Collection, C203/1, was of the Chinese sheng and flute players, the Guo Brothers, who had recently arrived in London to study at the Guildhall School of Music and were just beginning to create a name for themselves in this country. It was made on Ampex 456 ‘Grand Master’ tape at half-track stereo and in the recordists' notes, strong winds were reported as interfering with the quality of the recording.

1985 flyer from Steve Sherman

Since 1985 and each year, with the exception of three, a small team of staff from the British Library record as many of the performances as possible, including workshops and interviews. This summer, between 24 and 27 July, six members of staff attended the festival equipped with portable digital recorders and recorded ninety-one performances, covering 95% of the festival. These recordings have recently been catalogued and processed and are searchable on our catalogue. They can be listened to free of charge through our listening service on-site at the British Library in King's Cross in London and in Boston Spa, Yorkshire. 

The British Library holds a significant number of early UK appearances by artists who, since performing at WOMAD, have made great inroads on the international music scene; artists such as Baaba Maal, first recorded by the British Library at WOMAD in 1991, Thomas Mapfumo, first recorded in 1990 and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, first recorded in 1985, to cite only a few. In total we hold around 2,100 hours of audio (you would need close to 3 months of non-stop listening to listen to it all!) of performances at WOMAD, held on different physical formats such as open reel tape, DAT, CD-R and digital audio files; all are stored in our basements and backed up digitally for preservation and access.

Womad advert

The British Library holds five million recordings on over one million items dating back to the 1890s and possibly earlier. The sound collections have their origin in 1906, when the British Museum began collecting metal masters from the Gramophone Company. Recording performances at WOMAD is one example of the many ways in which the British Library actively develops its sound collections although the majority of material is acquired through donations, purchases or loans.

Steven Dryden, Sound and Vision Reference Specialist, was a member of the WOMAD team this year. In this paragraph he relays his highlight of the festival: experiencing the live sound of DakhaBrakha, made possible thanks to Dash Arts, the creative agency which brought the group to the United Kingdom.

My highlight of WOMAD 2014 has to be ‘Ethno Chaos’ founders DakhaBrakha - brooding, shamanic ‘noisescapes’ from Ukraine. The Siam Tent filled to capacity throughout the four piece set, the atmosphere building and building with each song. The sound is eclectic, in the truest sense of the word; there is a traditional folk element but also, dance, hip-hop and tribal rhythms. The songs often build to terrifyingly claustrophobic dins, but remain rhythmic and chant like - just as the ‘Ethno Chaos’ tag might suggest, there is a lot of beauty in this chaos. One couldn’t help but reflect on everything that has happened in the Ukraine in the last year. Perhaps DakhaBrakha are capturing the zeitgeist of a generation of Ukrainians? The performance is swamped with pride, Ukrainian flags are featured on stage and amongst the audience. But there is something more here, the sound of the four piece is defiant and confident, totally uncompromising between the past and the future sounds of the Ukraine. This band sucks you in to their world of noise and forces you to contemplate, all while moving your feet.

Listen to an excerpt from DakhaBrakha's performance

Andrea Zarza Canova, Curator of World and Traditional Music, attended WOMAD festival for the first time.

Bernie Krause's talk at the Society of Sound Stage was an inspiring complement to the numerous musical performances I recorded at WOMAD: The Good Ones, Monsieur Doumani, Aar Maanta, Siyaya, Amjad Ali Khan, Mulatu Astatke, Kobo Town, Magnolia Sisters, amongst others. In his talk, the bio-acoustician and founder of Wild Sanctuary, an organization dedicated to recording and archiving natural soundscapes, invited the audience to reflect on the origins of music by suggesting structural relationships between what he identifies as the three layers of the soundscape - the geophony ('non-biological sound that occurs in the natural world'), biophony ('all of the sounds that animals create collectively in a natural wild environment') and the anthrophony ('all the human noise we create'). Using spectograms and audio recordings from his personal archive and recordings of the BayAka Pigmies made by Louis Sarno, his points were made audible.

Listen to an excerpt from Bernie Krause's talk

Andy Linehan, Curator of Pop Music, attended the first WOMAD festival in 1985.

As ever, it is difficult to pick out the highlights of WOMAD – there is so much to see, hear, taste and enjoy even though we are working - but Manu Dibango has long been a personal favourite on record so it was great to see him live and Richard Thompson’s late-night set reminded me what a great guitarist and songwriter he is. Ibibio Sound Machine played a storming set on Saturday afternoon and Youssou N’Dour was as classy as ever that evening. Sunday brought my favourite band of the weekend – Les Ambassadeurs, the reformed band led by Salif Keita who revisited their 1970s blend of afrobeat, funk, jazz and soul in an all-too short 75 minutes of aural pleasure.  And in a contrast of style the final performance of the weekend was a blistering set by Public Service Broadcasting (probably the first band to have played both the British Library Entrance Hall and Womad) who enthralled a packed Siam tent and drew proceedings to a close. It didn’t rain either.

Listen to an excerpt from Public Service Broadcasting's performance

Get in touch to listen to performances from WOMAD on-site at the British Library and listen online to sounds from World & Traditional Music and Pop Music online! See you next year for WOMAD 2015!

29 May 2014

Trouvère songs online

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An exciting new addition to our Digitised Manuscripts website is a little anthology written in the thirteenth century which combines sacred Latin songs with French courtly lyrics. The vast majority of the British Library's medieval music manuscripts are connected with the church, but manuscripts such as this remind us that the division between sacred and secular should not always be taken for granted in the Middle Ages.

Egerton MS 274, f. 3r
Egerton MS 274 was probably originally written in the 1260s for use in private devotion. The first section begins with an initial letter 'A' depicting the Virgin and Child with a tonsured figure in a grey robe kneeling before them. By zooming into the image (at this link) it is just possible to make out that the man is holding a tiny book – about the size of this manuscript, the pages of which measure only 15 x 10 cm. Probably this is intended as a representation of Philip the Chancellor of Notre Dame in Paris, since the first section of the manuscript consists of 28 Latin songs which he composed, several of which are here set in two-part polyphony.

Egerton MS 274, f. 7v
O maria virginei flos, two-voice setting of verse by Philip the Chancellor

A possible clue to the identity of the first owner of this manuscript is found a few pages later, with a charming picture of an ape riding on horseback: his coat of arms is that of the Torote family, which included many prominent churchmen in the later thirteenth century, one of whom might have inspired this back-handed attention.

Egerton MS 274, f. 27v
As well as Philip the Chancellor's poems, the anthology includes 18 French songs of the trouvères, the northern French equivalents of the troubadours in the south. Curiously, and rather frustratingly, eleven of these songs have been defaced by a later owner: the first stanza of each poem has been erased, with a new Latin text written over the French words and usually a new melody too: all that remains is the initial letter, and the later verses of the French text, written without music on the following pages.

Egerton MS 274, f. 98

a Latin responsory chant written over a deleted trouvère song

The rest of the book includes some Latin narrative poems without music as well as substantial amounts of liturgical music, all in Latin and much of it added at around the time the French texts were defaced. These additions and alterations have the effect of making the book exclusively religious in content, and mainly liturgical in purpose. There is an interesting collection of sequences and other types of music used in church processions, some of them not known from elsewhere. At the end of the volume are a few pages written with German-style notation, instead of the square notes found earlier on.

Egerton MS 274, f. 156v

chants for the ceremony of foot-washing on Maundy Thursday

Egerton MS 274 has already been the subject of several articles and a Ph.D. thesis, but much remains to be explored in this eclectic manuscript. We will be publishing several more medieval music manuscripts on Digitised Manuscripts over the next few months, so please keep an eye on this blog for future updates.

24 April 2014

Mozart Manuscripts Online

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250 years ago, on 23 April 1764, the eight-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart arrived in London with his father Leopold, mother Anna Maria, and sister Maria Anna (Nannerl).  The visit formed part of an ambitious European tour, in which the Mozart children were presented as musical prodigies in public concerts and to private patrons. 

Their visit to London, which would last for 15 months, has special significance for the British Library, since Mozart may be counted as the first in an illustrious line of composers to have presented manuscripts to the Library.  This event took place during the course of the family's visit to the British Museum, in July 1765.  On that occasion, Mozart deposited a copy of his first sacred composition (and only setting of an English text), God is our Refuge, written with the assistance of his father Leopold, together with copies of two sets of keyboard sonatas published the previous year in Paris. 

Mozart, God is our Refuge, K. 20

Since that time, the Library has maintained a long tradition of collecting printed and manuscript sources for Mozart’s music, cultivated both under its previous guise as part of the British Museum and in its present incarnation as an autonomous library based at St. Pancras. 

The Library’s Mozart holdings have therefore grown apace, with items acquired individually from dealers and at auction, via the legal deposit of music published in the UK, and as part of larger collections – notably those amassed by Vincent Novello, Edward Meyerstein, and Stefan Zweig.  

The most spectacular single acquisition came in 1986, with the donation by Stefan Zweig’s heirs of his collection of musical and literary autographs, which contained among other treasures twelve Mozart manuscripts.  Most notable among these is the thematic catalogue ('Verzeichnüss aller meine Werke vom Monath febrario 1784 . . .') that Mozart maintained from 1784 till his death in 1791, in which he noted - among other details - the date, title and first few bars of music for each work.  In 2006, this rich and revealing document became the first of the Library’s Mozart sources to be digitised and was made available via the Turning the Pages website to mark the composer’s 250th anniversary.  It is also available as an e-book and via the Library's Digitised Manuscripts portal

The Library has now digitised the remaining Mozart autograph manuscripts in its collection. For ease of reference, we thought it would be helpful to provide the following classified list with a brief title or description of each work and a hyperlink (embedded in the shelfmark) to the digital images.  Unless otherwise specified, the manuscripts are full autograph scores of the respective works.

For anyone curious to explore a little further, click on the Köchel numbers for links to the relevant entries in Wikipedia (where available), where you'll also find links to public domain recordings and editions available from the Neue Mozart Ausgabe and the International Music Score Library Project.  Using these resources will make it possible to compare Mozart’s notation with various editions, or to follow the composer’s score while listening to a recording in the comfort of your own home. 


Chamber music

Minuet in F (K. 168a): Add MS 47861a, f. 10v (lower portion of divided leaf) and MS Mus. 1040, f. 1v (upper portion of divided leaf)

String Quartet in B flat (K. 172): Add MS 31749

String Quartet in D minor (K. 173), movement IV only: Zweig MS 52

String Quartet in G major (K. 387): Add MS 37763, ff. 1r-13v

String Quartet in D minor (K. 421): Add MS 37763, ff. 14r-22r

String Quartet in E flat major (K. 428): Add MS 37763, ff. 34r-44r

String Quartet in B flat major Hunt (K. 458): Add MS 37763, ff. 23r-32v

String Quartet in A major (K. 464): Add MS 37763, ff. 45r-56r

String Quartet in C major Dissonance (K. 465): Add MS 37763, ff. 57r-68r

String Quartet in D major (K. 499), Hoffmeister: Add MS 37764

String Quintet in C minor (K. 516b): Add MS 31748

String Quartet in D major (K. 575): Add MS 37765, ff. 1r-14v

String Quartet in B flat major (K. 589): Add MS 37765, ff. 29r-44v

String Quartet in D minor (K. 590): Add MS 37765, ff. 15r-28v

String Quintet in E flat (K. 614): Zweig MS 60

Adagio and Rondo in C minor/major for armonica, flute, oboe, viola and cello (K. 617): Zweig MS 61


Keyboard music (with or without accompaniment)

Minuet no. 3 and trio no. 6 of a set of dances for orchestra, arranged for piano (K. 176): Add MS 14396, f. 13r-13v

Sonata in B flat for piano duet (K. 358/186c): Add MS 14396, ff. 21v-29v

Sonata for violin and piano in F (K. 377/374e): Zweig MS 53

Rondo for keyboard and orchestra in A (K. 386), fragment: Add MS 32181, ff. 250-252

Leaf containing bar 65 to the end of the first movement of the Piano Sonata in B flat (K. 570): Add MS 47861a, ff. 13-13v


Orchestral music

March for orchestra in C (K. 408, no. 1/383e): Zweig MS 54

Concerto for horn and orchestra in E flat (K. 447): Zweig MS 55

Fugue in C minor (K. 546), in an arrangement for string orchestra: Add MS 28966

Five contredanses for flute, strings (2 violins, cello and bass) and drum (K. 609): Zweig MS 59


Vocal music

Chorus, 'God is our Refuge', K. 20: K.10.a.17.(3.)

Song ‘Das Veilchen’, for voice and piano (K. 476): Zweig MS 56

Aria ‘Non so più cosa son’ from Le nozze di Figaro (K. 492, no. 6), draft: Zweig MS 57

‘Difficile lectu mihi Mars’, three-part vocal canon (K. 559): Zweig MS 58

'O du eselhafter Peierl’, four-part vocal canon (K. 560a/559a): Zweig MS 58

Duettino ‘Deh prendi un dolce amplesso’ from La clemenza di Tito (K. 621, no. 3): Zweig MS 62



Cadenza to the second movement (Andante) of a Keyboard Concerto by Ignaz von Beecke (K. 626a, Anh. K): MS Mus. 1040, f. 10r (upper portion of divided leaf: presented here with the lower portion, Add MS 47861a)

Cadenza to the first movement (Allegro maestoso) of the Keyboard Concerto K. 40, arranged from sonata movements by Honauer, Eckard and C.P.E. Bach: Add MS 47861a, f. 10r (lower portion of divided leaf)

Recitative and aria, "Giunse alfin il momento" and "Al desio di chi t'avora" from Le nozze di Figaro (K. 492): Add MS 14396, ff. 15r-21v (copyist's score, with autograph cadenza on f. 21v)


Copies in Mozart’s hand

Georg Reutter, ‘De Profundis’, in four parts, with organ accompaniment, in score, copied by Mozart, K. 93 / Anh. A 22: Add MS 31748, f. 1

Johann Michael Haydn, Ave Maria in F (for Advent or the Annunciation), for 4 voices with basso continuo and violins (KV3 Anh. 109VI, no. 14, KV6 Anh. A 14): Add MS 41633, f. 60-63



Thematic catalogue, 'Verzeichnüss aller meine Werke vom Monath febrario 1784 . . .': Zweig MS 63

Letter to Maria Anna Thekla Mozart, 5 November 1777: Zweig MS 64

Letter to Maria Anna Thekla Mozart, 28 February 1778: Zweig MS 65

Letter to Maria Anna Thekla Mozart, 23 December 1778: Zweig MS 66

Letter to Maria Anna Thekla Mozart, 10 May [1779]: Zweig MS 67

Letter to Anton Klein; Vienna, 21 May 1785: Zweig MS 68

Contract of marriage between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Constanze Weber, 3 August 1782: Zweig MS 69