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

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!


13 October 2017

Verdi at the V&A

Add comment Comments (0)

A number of British Library collection items are on loan to the Victoria & Albert Museum at the moment for their blockbuster exhibition, Opera: Power, Passion and Politics. Based around seven operatic premieres, the exhibition explores the relationship between those works and the cultural and political events of their time. A selection of books, pamphlets, maps and manuscript scores recently made the short trip from St. Pancras to South Kensington and are now on display alongside an amazing selection of artefacts from collections around the world. To mark the exhibition we will be posting a series of short articles here over the coming months, delving further into our collections to find more related to each of the composers represented.

'The Ballet Scene from Meyerbeer's Opera Robert le Diable', Edgar Degas (1876). The famous painting, from the V&A's own collection, is also exhibited.

Verdi’s Nabucco, first performed in Milan in 1842, is one of the featured operas in the V&A's exhibition (as Verdi’s birthday was earlier this week it seems appropriate to focus on him in this first blog post!). The audience at that opening night may or may not have found resonances with their political situation in the famous ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ (Va, pensiero), but the piece's associations have certainly become well established since.

A handwritten copy of the vocal line appears in a collection of political songs used by the twentieth-century experimental composer Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981). The back of this single page reveals the chorus included in a set list of songs to be performed at an event in the 1970s, sitting alongside more overtly political songs such as the Red Flag and El Pueblo Unido.

Cardew set list
Set list, including 'Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves'. Cornelius Cardew Collection, British Library, Add MS 70772, f.1v

For a later performance Cardew talks of the piece being "an allegory of the plight of the modern composer, isolated from the broad masses (whose activity should be his main source of inspiration) in the Establishment's Ivory Tower for New Music".*1

Nabucco is often described as a key work in establishing Verdi’s reputation. That reputation grew relatively quickly – Ernani, his first opera to be performed in Britain, was given at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London in 1845. Nabucco followed the next year but theatre licensing rules of the time dictated that biblical characters were not allowed to be represented on the stage. This meant some changes to the story, and the name of the title character (and the whole opera) was altered from Nebuchadnezzar (/Nabucco) to Nino.

We are lucky to have performance materials from some of these nineteenth-century productions of Verdi’s operas in London. The image below gives some impression of the perils the scores and instrumental parts have faced over the years, most notably escaping a fire at the theatre in 1867.

Fire damage
Fire damage. Chorus score for Nabucco from the King's Theatre Archive. British Library, MS Mus. 1715/65/1

An annotated chorus part, possibly from those first London performances in 1846, shows some of the minor changes to text that Va, pensiero was given as a result of the plot and character changes: Giordano (Jordan) became Eufrate (Euphrates), while Sione (Zion) became Babele (Babel).  

Chorus part changed words
Chorus part for Nabucco. From the King's Theatre Archive. MS Mus.1715/65/1

A manuscript score for the chorus master, probably from a slightly later 1850s performance, gives intriguing insight into the personalities of musicians involved – this caricature appears throughout the score, but looms especially large at the opening of the chorus. 

Chorus caricature
Chorus master's manuscript for Nabucco. From the King's Theatre Archive, MS Mus. 1715/65/2

While Verdi’s operas were described as popular with the public in London, critical opinion seems to have been divided. Massimo Zicari’s book on Verdi’s reception in London at the time discusses plenty of examples of this, but a review of Nabucco from 1846 by James Davison, editor and owner of the influential periodical, The Musical World, is particularly eye catching:

“the choruses are nothing but the commonest tunes arranged almost invariably in unison – perhaps because the composer knows not how to write in parts”

Whatever the critics said, the popular appetite for Verdi’s operas helped feed a sub-industry of associated tie-in publications – arrangements of tunes from the operas for piano and other instruments in the form of paraphrases, pot-pourris and fantasies. Even, as in this case, arranged as a quadrille for dancing. 

Nabucco quadrilles
Quadrilles on tunes from Nabucco, by P. Pavini. British Library, h.937.(23.)

Franz Liszt’s operatic paraphrases are perhaps the pinnacle of the form. Below is a page from an autograph manuscript of his paraphrase on themes from Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. Liszt’s endless process of revision, rethinking and reworking of his pieces is particularly apparent in this score.

Liszt Verdi 2
Franz Liszt, Paraphrase on Verdi's 'Simon Boccanegra'. Egerton MS 2735

Last but certainly not least in this brief show-and-tell of Verdi-related items in the British Library collections is a complete opera in Verdi’s hand! This is his ninth opera, Attila, which was premiered in Venice the same year Nabucco was first given in London (1846). The manuscript was purchased by the British Museum in 1898 from Josef Coen, and an inscription inside tells us that at some point it was also owned by an F. Goring in Florence. Beyond that, its provenance - and the route it took from Verdi’s desk to us - remains something of a mystery.

Verdi Attila
Autograph score of Verdi's Attila. British Library, Add MS 35156

Chris Scobie, Curator of Music Manuscripts



*1 quoted in Tony Harris, The Legacy of Cornelius Cardew (London, 2016). ELD.DS.53926.

28 July 2017

Digitised Music Manuscripts Summer 2017

Since our post last spring summarising digitised materials from our music manuscripts collection, we’ve been busy adding to this content.

From Byrd to Britten and Monteverdi to Mozart, a wealth of music manuscripts are available to browse, free-of-charge, on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website.

At the time of writing, you can view no fewer than 335 music manuscripts on the site. Additional content is added regularly.

Our last digitised manuscript, published just a few days ago, was Lansdowne MS 763. Dating from the fifteenth century and written on vellum, this is a collection of music treatises by various authors.

Lansdowne MS 763

For a full list of what is currently available, please see this file: Download PDF of BL digitised music manuscripts summer 2017.

This is also available in the form of a spreadsheet (although this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers): Download spreadsheet of BL digitised music manuscripts summer 2017.


24 July 2017

Sir Malcolm Sargent: A Life in Music

This evening’s concert at the BBC Proms is a recreation of a programme conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent on 23 July 1966 – it was in fact the 500th promenade concert he had conducted since (literally) taking over the baton as chief conductor of the annual music festival in 1948. Sadly that 1966 season was to be his last. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Sargent's death in 1967.


Regular readers of this blog might remember posts in 2012 and 2013 about cataloguing the Malcolm Sargent Collection here at the British Library. With work on the rich and varied archive well under way we thought this year would be a perfect time to celebrate Sargent and his life and work with one of our regular study day events.

Sir Malcolm Sargent: A Life in Music will introduce the Sargent archive as well as offering the chance to hear from people who worked with the conductor: his secretary Sylvia Darley OBE, clarinettist Colin Bradbury and timpanist Pat Brady. We will also take the opportunity to reassess his recorded legacy with record producer Andrew Keener and conductors David Lloyd-Jones and Sian Edwards. Musicologist Donald Burrows will present on Sargent's interpretations of Handel, while David Kidger will focus on the Courtauld-Sargent and Robert Mayer children's concerts. Richard Aldous, whose 2001 biography of Sargent drew on source material from the archive, will be interviewed by Tom Service.   

The study day also coincides with the Last Night of the Proms, an event which in many ways helped make Sargent a household name. In fact it was at the Last Night in 1967 that Sargent made his final public appearance – footage of his surprise appearance onstage at the end of that concert will also feature in the study day.

The event will be held at the British Library's Knowledge Centre, 9 September 09.30-17.30. Tickets can be booked via the British Library box office.


06 July 2017

Cardew in Kassel

Some music manuscripts from the British Library’s collections have recently taken a trip to Kassel for this year's Documenta exhibition – the 14th of the quinquennial series that started in 1955. Displays of international contemporary art have been brought together by the artistic director (this year Adam Szymczyk ) and team of curators in venues around the city. This time a parallel exhibition is also taking place in Athens – with a spectacular ‘parthenon of books’ in Kassel bringing something of the Greek capital to Germany, in a striking visualisation of the overarching theme: ‘Learning from Athens’.  


The Parthenon of Books

The Parthenon of Books (2017), by Marta Minujín (under construction). Friedrichsplatz, Kassel. Photograph by Lesley Thomas.


The manuscripts on temporary loan are all scores by Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981). Cardew’s music evolved from a post-war modernist style conveyed through detailed notational intricacies, to something that leaves open decisions about interpretation of signs on the page to performers – as in his iconic 193-page graphic score, Treatise.

Treatise p47

Cornelius Cardew, Treatise, p.47 ( ©1967 ). Used by kind permission of Peters Edition Limited, London.


The Great Learning, another of Cardew’s celebrated pieces, arose from the experimental music class he taught at Morley College and the ensemble connected with it, the Scratch Orchestra. With performers from a range of backgrounds and musical abilities, this communal and democratic ‘coming together’ was reflected in the instructional nature of the score; consisting of a mixture of written words, traditional notation and illustrative diagrams.

Documenta 14 features other examples of scores that represent sound (or perhaps the actions that create sound – something suggested by John Cage) in a wide variety of ways. These often have a very immediate visual appeal too and blur the boundaries between art, music, sound, poetry and other modes of performance, as in the work of Katalin Ladik .  

As well as published scores, books and articles, the British Library has three main manuscript collections relating to Cardew. The first, acquired in 1991 (Add MS 70727-70774 ), consists mostly of autograph scores. In 2010 the Library also acquired a large collection of Cardew’s papers (MS Mus. 1817) and scores - notably his annotated copy of Treatise used in early performances. In 2011 the British Library was also presented with a series of Cardew’s notebooks with sketches, jottings and writings dating from 1958-1980 (MS Mus. 1741). Complementing all of this are recordings of oral history interviews  with people who knew Cardew (C1430) and, of course, recordings of performances of the pieces themselves - searchable in our Sound & Moving Image catalogue.


Chris Scobie, Curator of Music Manuscripts. British Library. 


30 June 2017

Swayne at 71

Today (30 June 2017) is the seventy-first birthday of the composer Giles Swayne, born in Hitchin, Hertfordshire. Swayne’s undergraduate education was at Trinity College, University of Cambridge, where he studied classics and music. This was followed by postgraduate study in composition at the Royal Academy of Music under Harrison Birtwistle, Alan Bush, and Nicholas Maw. Like most composers, Swayne’s early career featured a range of related musical activities. These include working as a répétitur at Glyndebourne in 1973–1974, and as an editor for Novello, which was also his publisher from the late-1970s to 2002, after which he switched to the publishing company he had founded in 2001, Gonzaga Music.

The British Library possesses two major Swayne holdings. The first consists of recordings made by Swayne in 1982 of Jola music in Senegal and the Gambia. Traditional musics from various African cultures are an important influence on much of Swayne’s compositional output, starting with CRY, op. 27, an eighty-minute work for twenty-eight amplified voices and electronic treatment composed in 1979 and dedicated to Messiaen, with whom Swayne had recently studied as a visiting member of Messiaen’s class at the Paris Conservatoire in 1976–1977 (one of the errands Swayne ran for Messiaen during that time was to obtain English-language ornithological books). In his programme note for the work, Swayne speaks of a fascination with a recording which he first heard in 1977 of music from the Ba-Benzele pygmies: “I played the record until it was nearly worn out, then tried to work out how the music was put together.”.

The second holding, acquired last year, is the Giles Swayne Collection, containing music manuscripts, scores, and work-books dating from 1968 to 2015. This material elucidates some of the processes Swayne deploys in his approach to composing. One recurrent process is his construction and deployment of modes. The utilisation of these modes is rendered explicit in his Bagatelles for solo pianoforte, of which Book 2 was the first to be published, in 2012. For the Bagatelles, each individual piece is allocated a particular numbered mode: for example, the eleventh uses “mode 11 on B-flat”. The mode itself is written-out in a draft of the work:

IMG_4592Composition draft of the opening of the eleventh of Swayne’s Bagatelles. Ff. 66v–67r of work-book 85. British Library shelfmark: MS Mus. 1808/1/25. Copyright © Giles Swayne and Gonzaga Music; reproduced by kind permission of the same.

This is part of a larger schema for the allocation of a whole family of modes across Swayne’s Bagatelles (including those not yet composed):

IMG_4595[1]Grid outlining the allocation of modes among his Bagatelles for solo pianoforte. Verso of the first leaf after the front cover of work-book 81. British Library shelfmark: MS Mus. 1808/1/24. Copyright © Giles Swayne and Gonzaga Music; reproduced by kind permission of the same.

Swayne’s process for assembling a family of related modes resembles the construction of a tone-matrix in dodecaphony through processes of transposition, retrograde, and inversion. However, this modal lexicon differs from dodecaphony in that it does not seek to utilise all twelve pitch-classes. A wont for limiting the pitch-material can, arguably, be traced back to CRY and to the impact of Swayne’s first hearing of the traditional music of Ba-Benzele pygmies in 1977, after which he cultivated a compositional style with an aversion to the high density of distinct pitches often associated with dodecaphony, instead seeking, as he describes in his programme-note for CRY, “to shift the musical weight from the pitch and harmony to rhythm”.

A closer scrutiny of the means employed by Swayne to construct his modes can be discerned from the sketches for his Symphony no. 1, op. 112 (not to be confused with his earlier work Symphony for small orchestra, op. 37, where the label “Symphony” is intended to be ironic). These demonstrate a systematic approach, grounded in atonal theory, to the assembly of modes, one which might be compared to Messiaen’s modes of limited transposition or to Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns. However, Swayne’s methodology for assembling modes seeks neither the restrictions characteristic of Messiaen’s modes nor the exhaustiveness of Slonimsky’s collection. Rather, Swayne’s collection of modes is assembled by dividing the octave into two cells starting a tritone apart, each cell containing four notes and sharing the same Basic Interval Pattern (that is, the combination of intervals between each pair of adjacent notes, including the first note of the next cell to complete the last pair), but with different Successive-Interval Arrays (that is, the permutation between the aforementioned pairs).*

IMG_4600Sketches for the Symphony no. 1, op. 112, showing some of the modes. Ff. 66v–67r of work-book 80. British Library shelfmark: MS Mus. 1808/1/24. Mode I has a Successive-Interval Array of 1‒1‒3‒1‒3‒1‒1‒1 (each of the two cells comprising the Basic Interval Pattern 1113), whilst Mode III has a Successive-Interval Array of 1‒2‒2‒1‒2‒1‒1‒2 (each of the two cells comprising the Basic Interval Pattern 1122). The top line on the right shows Mode I arranged according to a particular syntax for the degrees of the mode (as opposed to ascending order), these being denoted by the numbers in circles above the stave (1, 2, 4, 7, 3, 8, 6, 5). This syntax is then applied to Mode II on the following line. Copyright © Giles Swayne and Gonzaga Music; reproduced by kind permission of the same.

The array of transpositions of Mode I present on the left is derived from the mode itself, the result being that the mode can be discerned both horizontally and vertically. Swayne equates the role of the tritone, as the bisector of the modes, to the “dominant”, a term which alludes to the vocabulary of diatonic functional harmony. This allusion is furthered by Swayne’s selection (the circled passages on the left of the “dominant” form of Mode III (with G-sharp as the root) to counterbalance the “tonic” form of Mode I (with D as the root), a procedure which could be said to parallel the role of the dominant key as a source of contrast in musical forms governed by diatonic harmony.

When it comes to situating the role of the modes in the compositional process, the lacunae offer a hint as to Swayne’s workflow:

IMG_4593Sketches for the Symphony no. 1, op. 112, showing a passage for which some facets have been drafted very precisely, and others yet to be determined. Ff. 43v–44r of work-book 81. Shelfmark: MS Mus. 1808/1/24. Mode I and Mode II (which has the Successive-Interval Array 1‒1‒2‒2‒1‒2‒1‒2, each cell thus having the same Basic Interval Pattern as Mode III) are combined, with the union (“Aggregate mode”) containing eleven pitch-classes and the intersection (“Common mode” — that is, the notes common to both modes) containing five. At the bottom, Swayne constructs two “Urchords” for each mode, the first chord utilising (from bottom to top) the 8th, 5th, 1st, & 3rd degrees of the mode, and the second chord utilising the 2nd, 6th, 7th, & 4th degrees of the mode. Copyright © Giles Swayne and Gonzaga Music; reproduced by kind permission of the same.

Here, Swayne has indicated the quantity of bars, their time-signatures, and the modes to be deployed therein. The near-absence of individual notes and rhythms suggests that they may not have been determined at the time that this sketch was written (alternatively, this absence may denote an abandoned attempt at a fair copy, but the context renders such a conjecture implausible). In other words, it seems that, as with the Bagatelles, the deployment of modes in his Symphony no. 1 is a structural element determined at an early juncture.

The Giles Swayne Collection affords rich insights into some of his compositional processes, although it also raises many questions. Foremost among them is the question of what Swayne will compose next. He is most prolific as a composer of choral music, and his output includes commissions from both amateur and professional choirs, and especially the choir of Clare College, University of Cambridge, where he was Composer-in-Residence from 2006 to 2014. Nonetheless, the numeration of his Symphony no. 1 seems to suggest that Swayne is open to commissions for another symphony…


Sasha Millwood, Doctoral Researcher (Arts & Humanities Research Council Collaborative Doctoral Partnership), Music Collections, British Library, and University of Glasgow 


 *A Successive-Interval Array is a means of describing of a scale, mode, or set of notes in terms of the intervals between each adjacent pair of notes, resulting in a series of numbers which denote the successive intervals, in semitones. The term is utilised by Parks in his book The Music of Claude Debussy to describe pitch-class sets in a manner which takes account of the permutation of intervals between adjacent pitches. A Basic Interval Pattern (as conceived by Forte in his book The Structure of Atonal Music) describes the combination of the aforementioned intervals present, but ordered according to size of interval rather than according to their syntax within the scale, mode, or set of notes itself.

31 May 2017

Music treasure lost and found

Music cataloguing had a rather shaky beginning in the British Library. In the Library's early years when it was part of the British Museum, no separate music department existed. The sheet music which did come sporadically into the Museum was regarded as a problem: it was hard to catalogue by the rules appropriate to books (this remains true today), difficult to store (this also remains true), and, as music was not yet regarded as a proper subject for academic study, not particularly valued.

From the 1820s onwards the study of music grew in importance,  and Museum library users started to complain about the lack of access to music in the collection. In February 1838, a piece in the journal Musical World expressed their frustration:

Treasures there are: but the individual in search of them is in the situation of Tantalus, hearing the gurgling, ever-living springs, but doomed never to slake his thirst. Your attendant affirms that there are piles, folios, sheets innumerable of music: but they are admitted to the bewildered enquirer to be in the most admired confusion. (Quoted in Alec Hyatt King, A wealth of music (1979), p. 29).

At the behest of Anthony Panizzi, Keeper of Printed Books, a report on the collections of music was prepared for the Trustees in 1841 by the Principal Librarian , Henry Ellis. As a result of this, it was decided to create a separate catalogue of music, both printed and manuscript. Panizzi submitted plans for the work, including eight rules to be followed by the temporary cataloguer (a fascinating smaller relative of his famous 91 rules published in the same year, and of great importance for the future development of music cataloguing). The successful candidate for this job was Thomas Oliphant, who remained in charge of the printed music collections thereafter until 1850, despite an unfriendly working relationship with Panizzi, and despite initial disapproval of his appointment from some contemporaries; the Musical World describing him as an "amateur", and a writer in The Musical Examiner referring to him as "Mr Elephant"!

The music was physically separated from the rest of the collection, and work began on cataloguing. Oliphant  separated the collection into two divisions, vocal music and instrumental music. To vocal music he assigned shelfmarks beginning with upper-case letters, and to instrumental music, shelfmarks beginning with lower-case letters. The letter indicated the height of a volume, with "A" being the smallest and "I" the tallest.

Shelfmarks hymns

Vocal music shelfmarks (beginning with upper-case letter)  

Shelfmarks violin

Instrumental music shelfmarks (beginning with lower-case letters)

There were up to five components to a shelfmark; a letter, a number, a letter, a number, and often also a bracketed number. For example, H.5.g.3.(4.) indicated  a vocal music publication, in the "H" height sequence, in the fifth press (cupboard) of that sequence, on shelf "g" of that press, in the third volume on that shelf, and comprising the fourth bound item in that volume.

This system has outlived its original cases and cupboards and in its essentials (vocal/instrumental division, height, sequential allocation of letter/number, and tract number or bound item number) is still in use today. It is accommodated in our library management system which has been "tweaked" to be case-sensitive where music shelfmarks are concerned. It has lasted due to the infinite number of possibilities for adding to Oliphant's sequences, and has also enabled the Library to maximise space by placing items of a similar size together.

By 1850, Oliphant had single-handedly prepared catalogues of both the manuscript and printed music. The printed music catalogue alone contained 27 volumes. During his time at the Museum, Oliphant must have personally catalogued 24,000 titles! Cataloguing rules and library systems have changed vastly since then, but today's library and catalogue users are indebted to the ingenuity and energy of these early British Library staff members.

Caroline Shaw, Music Processing and Cataloguing Team Manager

Based on a presentation by James Clements, 2004, with information from: Alec Hyatt King, Printed music in the British Museum (London, 1979). YA.1997.a.10519