Music blog

29 posts categorized "Music"

21 March 2017

An Amsterdam edition of Lully’s Persée

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This week sees the 330th anniversary of the death of naturalised French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687). Born Giovanni Battista Lulli to Tuscan parents, Lully moved to Paris in 1646, marking the beginning of a spectacular rise in his career and fortunes. His accession to the office of Surintendant de la Musique de le Chambre du Roi in 1661 heralded twenty-six years of dominance over music-making at Louis XIV’s court, ended only by his death from a famously self-inflicted wound sustained when conducting his own Te Deum.

This anniversary coincides nicely with a recent development in the British Library’s own Lully collection, relating to his tragédie (or opera) Persée. The premiere of this work in 1682 was promptly followed by two corresponding publications of the same year: the first was a particularly imposing score by Christophe Ballard in Paris, sole music printer to Louis XIV; the second was a curious set of string parts for the overture and airs of Persée, printed by Jean Philip Heus in Amsterdam.

Ballard Title PageTitle-page of Ballard’s score of Persée (Paris, 1682).  British Library Hirsch II.542, folio 1r

As well as holding three copies of Ballard’s score (Music Collections I.302, Hirsch II.542 and R.M.12.a.5), since 1924, the British Library has been in possession of an incomplete set of Heus’s string parts (K.7.c.2.). The only known surviving copy of Heus’s edition, this had lacked a Haute-contre de violon part since its acquisition some ninety-three years earlier. Remarkably, however, a copy of the missing part recently came to light and was acquired by the British Library.

Frontispiece new part Lully K-7-c-2Title-page of the newly-acquired Haute-contre part, British Library K.7.c.2.

The engraved frontispiece shows Persée, armed with the head of Mèduse, rescuing Andromède from the sea monster (Act IV)

In addition to being satisfying from a bibliographic perspective, the completion of this set facilitates comparison with the Ballard score published the same year. Ballard’s edition is the ‘authorised’ text in both senses: it was produced in cooperation with the composer, who provided an extensive letter of dedication to the King, while the title-page declares that it was printed ‘AVEC PRIVELEGE DE SA MAJESTIE’. Heus’s publication, on the other hand, demonstrates a printer freely plundering the tragédie for its instrumental highlights, clearly unperturbed by the ‘privilege’ given to Ballard as the sole printer of Lully’s works.

The two editions also demonstrate quite different practical and economic approaches to music printing. Ballard’s rather grand and lavish offering is unlikely to have been constructed for performance, and was probably aimed at libraries of wealthy individuals or institutions. By contrast, Heus’s publication is very much a performing edition, possibly aimed at a growing middle-class market. Unlike Ballard’s edition, which was printed with movable type, it was produced using the considerably more fashionable technique of engraving. The result is a more florid and seemingly handwritten style, which would have appealed to this customer base.

Ballard edition movable type

Heus edition engraved
Ballard’s large score, printed using movable type (folio 3r) (upper image), and Heus’s  smaller engraved edition (folio 2r) (lower image)

Heus’s edition of the overture and airs of Persée constitutes an interesting example of cultural transfer between France and the Netherlands. In this case, highly-formalised music from the heart of the French royal musical establishment has been translated into a more ‘popular’ and commercialised form for recreation among the Dutch middle classes. To a degree, these different musical and publishing outlooks might even be said to reflect the greater societal ideals and attitudes of the absolutist French state and the commerce-driven Dutch Republic.

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

17 March 2017

British Library Music Collections welcomes King's music students

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A highlight of the work of British Library Music Collections this week has been hosting a visit of second and third year music students from King's College London studying sixteenth-century polyphony.

Display of C16 British Library music items

Display of printed items for the visit

Assisted by British Library music staff and her colleague Uri Smilansky, Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow Elisabeth Giselbrecht gave a fascinating insight into a selection of items from the printed music collections. These included the Liber selectarum cantionum (Augsburg: Grimm and Wirsung, 1520), Motetti C (Venice: Petrucci, 1504) and the first edition of Monteverdi's Orfeo (Venice: Amadino, 1615).

King's music students with BL music books

Students and lecturer discussing early music printing

Students were also treated to a special introduction to some highlights from the collection of music manuscripts, including a set of partbooks belonging to Edward Paston (1550-1630) (Additional MS 29388-29392) and a choir book from the workshop of Petrus Alamire (Royal 8 G VII).

The choir book is available to browse in full online, and is also featured elsewhere on this blog. Dating from circa 1513 to 1544, it was probably produced for Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. In colours and gold, it includes a miniature depicting the royal arms with dragon and greyhound supporters. Also present are the heraldic emblems of the Tudor rose and pomegranate (the latter being Catherine's emblem).


British Library Royal MS 8 G VII, folio 2 verso


14 March 2017

MGG Online

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We're pleased to announce that a free trial to MGG Online is available in our St Pancras and Boston Spa reading rooms until 23 March 2017.

Screenshot of MGG Online

Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart (MGG) is a general encyclopedia of music. It offers in-depth articles on every aspect of music as well as many related areas such as literature, philosophy, and visual arts. 

Key benefits of the online version include:

  • Easy access to the complete second edition of Bärenreiter and J.B. Metzler’s Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart (published 1994–2008)
  • Access to updated and newly-written articles found only in MGG Online
  • Powerful search and browse capabilities 
  • Option to translate content

To try MGG Online for yourself, go to from any British Library reading room terminal. Please email any comments on the resource to 

St Pancras reading room


10 March 2017

Music and poetry from the Zweig Collection (20 March, 7pm)

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As regular readers of this blog will know, the Stefan Zweig Collection is one of the jewels in the crown of the British Library. Featuring works by Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner and Stravinsky, to name just a few of the principal composers, the collection offers a treasure trove of iconic musical masterpieces from the 18th to the 20th centuries. 

Beethoven  Der Kuss

Beethoven, Der Kuss, song with piano (words by Christian Felix Weisse), op. 128.  Autograph manuscript (Zweig MS 10.)

Zweig’s stated aim was to assemble a collection that represented the entirety of high European culture, literally bringing under his hands key works by what he considered to be a ‘magical circle of sublime figures’ – not only composers, but also literary and historical figures. Largely assembled between the two World Wars, the collection also gave tangible expression to Zweig’s hopes for European unity, an ideal dashed by the rise of Hitler and Zweig’s exile from the continent he loved. 

A handsomely illustrated catalogue of the music manuscripts in the collection, with detailed descriptions and commentaries by Arthur Searle, was published in 1999. A companion volume exploring the literary and historical manuscripts, issued to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Zweig’s death last month, brings to life the breadth of his interests and literary sympathies, from Goethe to Balzac to Byron.  To mark this publication, we are hosting several events at the Library in St Pancras: a free exhibition of selected items from the collection in the Treasures Gallery (‘Stefan Zweig: the Magic of Manuscripts’, until 11 June), a study day with invited speakers to explore the historical and cultural contexts for Zweig’s collecting (‘Stefan Zweig: European, Humanist, Collector’, 20 March); and a recital of music and poetry from the collection (‘Music and poetry from the Zweig Collection’, 20 March at 7pm).  

Schubert  An die Musik

Schubert, An die Musik, for voice and piano (words by Franz Schober), D. 547. Autograph manuscript (Zweig MS 81A.)

The recital will conjure up in words and music the culture that Zweig inhabited and the social and political climate that shaped his life. Featuring the actor Samuel West, with pianist Simon Callaghan, soprano Ilona Domnich and baritone Simon Wallfisch, the recital will include some of the most beautiful songs from the collection, ranging from Mozart and Beethoven to Hugo Wolf and Richard Strauss.  These will be interspersed with a narrative charting Zweig’s life and approach to collecting, with readings from works by Shelley, Keats, Verlaine and Wilde, among others.  Tickets for this event and the study day are available through the links above.

Wolf  Gesang Weylas

Hugo Wolf, Gesang Weylas, song with piano (words by Eduard Mörike). Autograph manuscript (Zweig MS 130.)


07 March 2017

Torvill and Dean meet British Library Music Collections

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What do world-champion ice-skaters Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean have in common with British Library Music Collections?

The answer lies in the content of the Zweig Collection, a cornerstone of the British Library’s holdings of music manuscripts, and the subject of one of our current exhibitions, a study day and a performance later this month.

In 1984, Torvill and Dean shot to fame at the Sarajevo Winter Olympics, receiving twelve perfect 6.0s and six 5.9s for their performance. They skated to Ravel’s captivating Boléro (1928). 

Within the Zweig Collection, we are fortunate to hold a version of this work for piano four hands  (Zweig MS 74). This dates from around 1929 and is for the most part in Ravel's own hand. The French composer was born 142 years ago today, 7 March 1875, so it seems fitting to celebrate this well-loved work in this post.

Boléro takes its name from a Spanish popular dance or song, in which the dancers are called “boleros” or “boleras”. However, it quickly found favour beyond Spain, and was particularly popular in Paris. Ravel’s composition is characterised by obsessive repetitions of a single theme and a distinctive underlying rhythm. As the work progresses, the orchestration increases, and the work culminates with a dramatic climax.

Ravel-Bolero-Repeated-RhythmRepeated underlying rhythm in Ravel's Boléro

Initially conceived under the title Fandango, Boléro is one of Ravel’s late works. He described it as “a masterpiece…without any music in it” and also once declared that he wanted it performed in a factory.

At the top left of the first page, the words “Reduction pour Piano a 4 mains (original)” in pencil have been almost completely erased, but beneath them, “Maurice Ravel” is still easily legible. Over the erased portion, in what appears to be the same hand, is written in pencil “1 - Manuscrit Piano 4 m.”.

Ravel-Bolero-Zweig-MS-74-folio-1Ravel's Boléro (reduction for piano 4 hands). British Library Zweig MS 74, folio 1 recto

Although written largely in ink by Ravel himself, this manuscript includes annotations and corrections in pencil throughout. Some of these are in the composer’s hand, but, as with the inscription at the beginning, more still are the work of someone else. This could well have been an editor, their purpose being to bring the manuscript into line with the published score.

This manuscript can be browsed in full on the British Library Digitised Manuscripts website:

28 February 2017

Rossini in London

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“Rossini, the composer, is at present the great object of curiosity and attraction in the fashionable circles.”

Morning Chronicle,  13 January 1824

Rossini in 1865Rossini in 1865. From Wikimedia Commons

Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) – whose 225th birthday falls at the end of this month – made a particularly profitable visit to England between December 1823 and July 1824. As well as conducting and supervising performances of some of his existing operas at the King’s Theatre in London, he was commissioned to write a new work, performed for King George IV at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, and was generally in demand for appearances at the most fashionable and exclusive social events. His fee, it was widely and sensationally reported, was 50 guineas a night. What is more, as the music journal The Harmonicon acerbically put it:

This, it was thought, was not doing enough; some subscription concerts therefore were suggested, for the purpose of more adequately rewarding the gran maestro for the risque he encountered, and the inconvenience he endured, in crossing the abominable Straits of Dover. 

The Harmonicon,  11 June 1824

The commissioned opera, Ugo, re d’Italia, may or may not have been finished [i], but was certainly never performed. At least one piece was written and performed during his visit though – a lament on the death of Lord Byron, who had died in April 1824. This exists in a manuscript in the composer’s hand here at the British Library (Additional MS 30246). 

Rossini_Additional_MS_30246_f007rRossini, Il pianto delle Muse in morte di Lord Byron. British Library Additional MS 30246, f. 7 recto

Originally described in our catalogue as a cantata for tenor solo called ‘Apollo’ (the manuscript gives no title for the piece, and that name appears next to the vocal line in the score), this is the work published and known as Il pianto delle Muse in morte di Lord Byron – based in part on a chorus from Rossini’s 1820 opera Maometto II.

Rossini sang the solo tenor part himself in the second of two benefit concerts at Almack’s Assembly Rooms on 11 June 1824. Claws still out, The Harmonicon informs us that he “certainly did not spare his lungs on the occasion”.

The British Library's printed music collections also include a piano reduction of the work dating from 1824 and signed by none other than the composer himself. This seems to have been used as the basis for a further printed edition produced for the composer by publisher Thomas Boosey that same year (and whose archive features elsewhere in this blog).  

Rossini_Byron_H_400_41Printed score of Il pianto delle Muse in morte di Lord Byron. British Library, H.400.(41.)

The manuscript (Additional MS 30246) shows plenty of tangible evidence of links with printed editions, with various light pencil annotations contrasting with Rossini’s heavily-inked notation. It appears to have been ‘marked up’ for, or by, the engraver, for layout, and to point out ‘hazards’, such as where the vocal line needed to be moved from the tenor to the treble clef. It is particularly interesting to see how the markings for system and page breaks match up with the printed end result.

Three other complete pieces by Rossini are also included in Additional MS 30246, all for a combination of solo voices and piano: Dall’ oriente, for piano and four voices; In giorno si bello, titled ‘Noturno a tre voci’; and O giorno sereno. Each of these, along with the Byron-inspired piece, were separately published a few years later in Paris by Antonio Pacini . The handwritten plate numbers on these manuscripts suggests that they were used as the basis of those publications as well.

Rossini_In_giorno_si_bello_f014rRossini, In giorno si bello, Noturno a 3 voci. British Library, Additional MS 30246, folio 14 recto

Working out how and why a particular manuscript came to be in the British Library's collections can sometimes be a bit of puzzle. While we usually have some kind of record of who it was purchased from, the trail often runs cold before that. In this case, a very brief note in the acquisitions records states that the bundle of manuscripts (which were only bound together later) was purchased from a ‘Mdme. Paul Gayard’ in January 1877. It seems likely that this was Paule Gayrard-Pacini, who received several notices in The Times and the Morning Post of piano recitals in London that year. Neatly, she was also the granddaughter of Rossini’s French publisher, the aforementioned Antonio Pacini.

And the Pacini connection deepens. Additional MS 30246 also contains some short passages by Rossini intended for a pasticcio opera on Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, which Pacini had compiled and adapted from Rossini’s existing operas (seemingly under the composer’s supervision). Ivanhoé was performed in Paris in 1826, and it is known that a few small sections of music were especially written for it - most notably an early version of the famous tune from William Tell, which appears as a brief fanfare between spoken dialogue. Additional MS 30246 includes some accompanied recitative and a short orchestral passage marked ‘sinfonia’, which was possibly originally intended to open the opera. However, in the end, the tried-and-tested overture for Semiramide was used instead.

Rossini_Ivanhoe_Additional_MS_30246_f026rMusic for Ivanhoé. Additional MS 30246, folio 26 recto

Chris Scobie
Rare Books & Music Reference Service

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22 February 2017

Introducing British Library Music Collections

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Earlier this month, British Library staff held a special open day aimed at doctoral music students

The programme included presentations on printed music, music manuscripts and sound recordings. There was also a chance to chat to curators and to see items from the British Library's collections.

Music Doctoral Open Day 2017 manuscripts show and tell

Attendees at the 2017 music open day browsing music manuscripts with Head of Music Collections, Richard Chesser

If you're a doctoral music student and missed the open day, or if you are new to music research at the British Library, help is still at hand. Our presentations on digital research support at the British Library and on digital musicology can be accessed below.

In addition, there's a wealth of information on the various music sources available at the British Library on our music subject page. You can also ask the music enquiries team or browse the library experts page for further advice.


13 February 2017

British Library Music Cataloguing Vacancy

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A vacancy has arisen for a Music Cataloguer in the Content and Metadata Processing Team at the British Library, St Pancras.  Please visit for further information and to apply. The closing date is midnight on 26 February 2017.

The post holder will join a small team responsible for cataloguing printed and manuscript music materials. Tasks will include creating and deriving catalogue records for printed music using RDA and MARC21, supporting Legal Deposit claiming, and interpreting and implementing professional cataloguing standards.

The post holder will be an experienced cataloguer with excellent communication skills and an analytical and flexible approach to problem solving. You will have the ability to concentrate on abstract concepts and make sound and timely cataloguing decisions. You will be able to work successfully in a team environment.

The role gives scope for the post holder to help to strengthen C&MP South as a centre of excellence for cataloguing, to contribute to the formulation and development of British Library cataloguing policy, and to develop personal professional expertise and knowledge in relation to changes in bibliographic standards, in particular RDA development. You will work with the BL's important music collections, with the opportunity to contribute to the music outreach and events programme within your own specialism as required.