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37 posts categorized "Music"

25 December 2015

The Stories of ‘Silent Night’

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Few Christmas carols are better known and loved than ‘Stille Nacht’ / ‘Silent Night’, and probably none has such a familiar romantic tale attached to its origins. Most people know the story of how the church organ in the small town of Oberndorf near Salzburg was found to be broken on Christmas Eve 1818, and how the priest, Joseph Mohr, and organist, Franz Xaver Gruber, hastily wrote the words and melody of a song which could be performed to a guitar accompaniment instead.

Stille Nacht MS 1836
Facsimile of a manuscript of ‘Stille Nacht’ made by Franz Xaver Gruber in 1836, from Alois Leeb, ‘Bibliographie des Weihnachtsliedes “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht”.’ Oberösterreichische Heimatblätter, Jg, 23 (1969). British Library

This is partly true. The song was indeed written by Mohr and Gruber and first performed, to a guitar accompaniment, at Christmas 1818, but Mohr had in fact written the words two years earlier and the story of the damaged organ is speculation (besides, presumably there were existing carols which could have been sung to a guitar…).

Stille Nacht 1832
The first published version of ‘Stille Nacht’, in three-verse form, from Vier ächte Tyroler-Lieder ... Gesungen von den Geschwistern Strasser aus dem Zillerthale.(Dresden, [1832?]) Hirsch M.1291.(18.)

Although the song quickly gained local popularity around Oberndorf, it was taken to a wider audience by two families of singers, the Strassers and the Rainers, who both came from another part of Austria, the Tyrolean Zillertal. The Strassers were glove-makers who started singing as a group to attract custom to their stall at the Leipzig Christmas fair. They were subsequently invited to perform at Christmas services and concerts in the city, and for a few years in the early 1830s they devoted themselves to a singing career, travelling around Germany with ‘Stille Nacht’ as a popular part of their repertoire. They cut Mohr’s original six verses down to three, and this is the form of the song that is known today and was first published in a collection of ‘authentic Tyrolean melodies’ as performed by the Strassers.

 Stiller Nacht StrassersTitle-page of Vier ächte Tyroler-Lieder...  with a (probably fanciful) picture of the Strassers

Incidentally, the Strassers apparently first heard of ‘Stille Nacht’ from Carl Mauracher, an organ-builder who rebuilt the church organ at Oberndorf in 1825. Could his role in the transmission of the song have inspired the story of a broken organ forcing Mohr and Gruber to improvise?

The Rainers were a more professional and longer-lived group. They travelled beyond Germany, taking  ‘Stille Nacht’ to international audiences, including America, where they toured from 1839 to 1843, and where the first English translation of the song appeared in 1849. Ten years later the most familiar English version was published by an American Episcopal priest, John Freeman Young

Stille Nacht Rainers
Fascimile signatures of the Rainer Family Singers, from an edition of ‘Tyrolese melodies’ published in London (R.M.13.f.22.). The signatures guaranteed that this was an authentic and approved edition, evidence of the Rainers’ more professional and businesslike approach to their singing career.

Like the Strassers, the Rainers were advertised as singing traditional Tyrolean songs, and ‘Stille Nacht’ was not attributed to either Mohr or Gruber in its earliest publications. The melody was generally thought to be either a Tyrolean folk-tune or the work of Michael Haydn. In 1854 the Prussian Court Chapel in Berlin wrote to St Peter’s Abbey in Salzburg asking for clarification; the letter found its way to Gruber who wrote an account of the song’s origins, identifying Mohr as author and himself as composer, although a  printed score in the British Library ( attributes the tune to Michael Haydn as late as 1921. 

Stille Nacht authentischer BerichtA facsimile of Gruber’s report of 1854, explaining the origins of ‘Stille Nacht’, from  Max Gehmacher, Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht! Das Weihnachtslied, wie es entstand, und wie es wirklich ist (Salzburg, 1937) 11858.c.95

Despite Grubers efforts, legends and misinformation continued to accumulate around the song. A completely untrue claim that Mohr translated the words from Latin dates from 1899 and was still being quoted nearly a century later. The story has been fictionalised several times and there have been film and theatre adaptations, all adding various romantic subplots and embellishments to the original tale, many of which can be found today presented as truth on the Internet and elsewhere.

But none of this mythology would have accumulated without the song’s genuine popularity and power to move. For British audiences in particular it has gained in emotional impact by becoming linked with the story of the 1914 Christmas Truce (another true story around which many legends have been built), when British and German soldiers sang it together across the lines. It has been translated into over 300 languages and dialects, and in countries all round the world Christmas would not be Christmas without it. No wonder we love the story of its rise from humble origins to worldwide fame.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies


22 May 2015

Sequins, songs and sociopolitical change - 60 years of Eurovision

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With the Eurovision Song Contest celebrating its 60th anniversary, and still regularly attracting around 200 million viewers, this year presents a great opportunity to look beyond the glitz of modern Eurovision and consider the changes in European culture, society and politics which it reflects.

We must thank the Italian members of the European Broadcasting Union  for the idea of the contest, originally conceived to help promote peace and harmony in a Europe still recovering from the Second World War. Since that first contest in 1956 in Lugano, Switzerland between seven participating countries, it has expanded to include as many as 43 entries in the record year of 2008;  now qualifying rounds are required before the grand finals.

 Eurovision map
Map of countries participating in the context and the years they first took part (picture from Wikimedia Commons)

How amazed those Italian broadcasters, whose stated mission was to “stimulate the output of original high- quality songs in the field of popular music by encouraging competition between authors and composers through the international comparison of their works,” would be to see the power of YouTube, enabling viewers to compare in seconds the first ever winner, Switzerland’s Lys Assia singing Refrain, with Conchita Wurst’s winning Rise like a Phoenix for Austria in 2014.

 Eurovision Song Contest 1958 - Lys Assia.pngAbove: 1956 Eurovision winner Lys Assia (image from Beeld en Geluidwiki via Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA-3.0). Below: 2014 winner Conchita Wurst (Photo: Albin Olsson, via Wikimedia Commons. CC-BY-SA-3.0)

File:ESC2014 - Austria 07.jpg

As a child of mixed heritage growing up in a small, monocultural English city, I loved the reporting of votes from the national juries even more than the songs – seeing the glamorous multilingual presenters, usually framed by an iconic national landmark first gave me a sense that I fitted in somewhere as a European and really inspired me to study foreign languages. Have you ever wondered what goes on behind the closed doors of those national juries? Wonder no more! Via the EU Screen portal you can now see the terribly solemn 1976 Belgian jury deliberating at length over a nice cup of tea and contributing to one of the highest scores ever for a winning entry – the UK’s Brotherhood of Man’s inimitable Save Your Kisses for Me

Everyone will have their favourite Eurovision moments and associations, but there is far more to this event than sequins, folk-costumes and cheesy songs. On one level, Eurovision can be viewed as consolidating nationalistic stereotypes, but by encouraging viewers to encounter Europe in their living rooms it can also be seen as contributing to a sense of a common European identity. It is family viewing for today’s European family in all its diversity – gay and straight, old and young – all sharing the same experience but bringing their own readings to it. This European identity is then projected further afield with many enthusiastic viewers around the world – the contest is so popular in Australia that in this  anniversary year Australia’s Guy Sebastian will be a guest participant.

Performers and audiences waving flags at the 2015 Eurovision Song Contest
Winners of the 2015 second semi-final, with a range of national flags on stage and in the audience (photo from  EUROVISION/EBU, © Andres Putting (EBU))

Through the prism of Eurovision we can also see the changing shape of Europe. In the 1990s there was a rapid expansion of participants from Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.  The socialist countries had previously held separate song contests, with only Yugoslavia breaking the mould by joining Eurovision in 1961. Viewers behind the Iron Curtain watched the annual Sopot Music Festival from Poland or its short-lived offshoot, the Intervision Song Contest. The Sopot Festival was the brainchild of Władysław Szpilman, the Polish Jewish musician immortalised in Roman Polanski’s film The Pianist, bringing singers from around the world to perform, initially at the Gdańsk shipyards, then moving along the coast to Sopot. Intervision/Sopot also attracted huge audiences not least because guest artistes such as Boney M were invited to play in the intervals. 

By the 1990s participating in Eurovision was often a way for the new entrants to assert sovereignty, contribute to nation-building and project a particular national image around the world. Take for example Ukraine’s 2004 winning entry Wild Dances, performed by Ruslana  and featuring a version of the dances, costumes and rituals of the Hutsul people from western Ukraine, which then came to represent universal Ukrainian folk traditions for international viewers.

Eurovision also brings its viewers face to face with key political issues facing contemporary Europe. One can learn much about regional and cultural alliances by observing voting patterns, or about  linguistic politics within Europe, such as the rapid rise of English as a lingua franca, demonstrated by the fact that so many entries are now sung in English in order to reach the widest possible audience. 

But perhaps one of the key reasons for Eurovision’s enduring success is the way in which it has come to symbolise diversity and tolerance, far exceeding the original hopes of the EBU. It can be seen to represent a certain stability and unity in the face of an increasingly fragmented Europe.  To quote Conchita Wurst, who was welcomed in November 2014 by UN Secretary General  Ban Ki-Moon as an ambassador for human rights, “The Eurovision Song Contest is about love and respect for different languages, cultures and people, who in the end have more in common than differences” 

Covers of books about the Eurovision Song Contest
Two of the many books about the Eurovision Song Contest in the British Library's collections

The British Library catalogue lists a huge range of resources relating to the Eurovision song contest – from books and academic articles, to audio and video recordings and archived websites. Some appear in unexpected places such as the article “ How does Europe Make Its Mind Up? Connections, cliques, and compatibility between countries in the Eurovision Song Contest” published in the scientific publisher Elsevier’s serial Physica A. (Vol. 360, No. 2, 2006, 576-598; British Library 6475.010000). However, not every author feels the love which Conchita Wurst refers to, as shown by S. Coleman’s article “ Why is the Eurovision Song Contest Ridiculous? Exploring a Spectacle of Embarrassment, Irony and Identity” in Popular communication (Vol 6, No. 3, 2008, 127-140; 6550.310000)

But whether they come to love or to mock, millions across the continent will be  sitting down this Saturday evening to watch the contest once again.

Janet Zmroczek, Head of European and Americas Collections

Further reading:  

Media, nationalism and European identities / edited by Miklós Sükösd, Karol Jakubowicz, (Budapest, 2011) YD.2011.a.8708

A song for Europe: popular music and politics in the Eurovision Song Contest / edited by Ivan Rakoff and Robert Deam Tobin (Aldershot, 2007) YC.2007.a.15111

John Kennedy O’Connor, The Eurovision Song Contest: the official history. (London, 2007) YK.2008.b.3530

Jan Feddersen, Merci, Jury: die Geschichte des Grand Prix Eurovision de la chanson. (Vienna, 2000) YA.2002.a.7182

K. Sieg , “Cosmopolitan empire: Central and Eastern Europeans at the Eurovision Song Contest” European journal of cultural studies. (Vol 16, No. 2, 2013), 244-226.  ZC.9.a.5325

Eurovision Song Contest 60th Anniversary Conference – webcast

SQS 2/2007 : Queer Eurovision/ Guest Editors: Mikko Tuhkanen & Annamari Vänskä


24 April 2015

“As though everyone were alive…”

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Type the word “Chernobyl” into our online catalogue, and a few thousand results will come for your attention. Unsurprisingly most of them will be scientific articles in academic journals and papers from international conferences as in the 29 years since the Chernobyl disaster a lot has been done by the world scientific community to assess the tragic event on 26 April 1986 and its consequences in all aspects. Articles and books have been published in many countries in various languages.  At the moment 13 theses about Chernobyl from universities in the United Kingdom are listed in our catalogue.

In addition our Belarusian and Ukrainian Collections offer researchers  ethnographical studies of the region of Polesia which was most severely affected by the catastrophe, as well as valuable albums of photographs by intrepid journalists who regularly visit the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. In the Zone they take pictures of the rich wildlife there and of people who refused to leave their ancestral land and continued living in the contaminated places (they are called samosely).

CHERNOBYLALBUMSDSC_3048 Albums from our Collections

For the commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the catastrophe Ukrainian photographers published the album Imennia zori Chornobyl (‘The star is called Chornobyl’; Kyiv, 1996; YA.2001.b.4323) and five years later the bilingual album Chornobyl: chas podolannia = Chornobyl: time of overcoming (Kyiv, 2001; LB.31.a.9541). British independent photographer John Darwell  travelled to the Exclusion Zone and produced a memorable album entitled Legacy. Photographs inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (Stockport, 2001; LB.31.a.10507).

One of the most impressive albums was published in 2006 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the catastrophe by the well-known Belarusian photographer, ethnographer and publisher Dzianis Ramaniuk  with the title and text in three languages: Charnobyl / Chernobyl / Tschernobyl (Minsk, 2006; LF.37.b.78) It contains outstanding colour and black-and-white photographs by Ihar Byshniou, Anatol Kliashchuk and Dzianis Ramaniuk. The album gives a comprehensive overview of the nature and history of the region and its inhabitants. The German photographer Rüdiger Lubricht took pictures of abandoned villages and of samosely and of people who were involved in dealing with the immediate results of the catastrophe (Verlorene Orte. Gebrochene Biografien (Dortmund, 2012) LF.31.a.4052). The most recent photographic album by German photographer Gerd Ludwig (he visited the Chernobyl area nine times in recent 20 years), The long shadow of Chernobyl/Der lange Schatten von Tschernobyl/L'Ombre de Tchernobyl (Baden, 2014 [Awaiting shelfmark]) with an essay by Mikhail Gorbachev has already been acquired for the British Library.  

This great catastrophe on an apocalyptic scale inspired poets from various countries – from Belarus to Wales and Venezuela – to reflect about it and the future of the nuclear energy.

ChernobylPoetryDSC_3046Books of poetry from our Collections

A poet from Venezuela, Lucila Velasquez (1928-2009), was one of the first to write a long poem El Arbol de Chernobyl = Tree of Chernobyl (Caracas, 1989; YA.1993.a.6858) based on her meditation about the catastrophe and the future of humankind. Poems by Belarusian authors were collected in the anthology Zorka Palyn (Minsk, 1993; YA.2000.a.14105). In Britain, poet and environmentalist Mario Petrucci published two poetry books: Half life: Poems for Chernobyl (Coventry, 2004; YK.2006.a.9836) dedicated to the prominent Belarusian writer and investigative journalist Svetlana Alexievich) and Heavy water: A poem for Chernobyl (London, 2004; YK.2005.a.16818). Some of these poems can be found here. Later two versions of a documentary film were made based on Petrucci’s poem: Heavy Water: A film for Chernobyl and a shorter version called Half Life: A journey to Chernobyl. They were shown at various festivals (one of reviews is available  here).

The Ukrainian poet, translator and journalist Liubov Sirota, who is a native of Pripyat and witnessed the catastrophe with her own eyes, writes extensively on the subject. Some of her poems are accessible online. The title of my blog which just touches on our vast collection about Chernobyl derives from Sirota’s poem “To an Angel of Pripyat”. The poem is dedicated to the talented young pianist Olenka Chemezova, who died from cancer in the summer of 1995. It was published in a photo album of the same name.  The poet imagines that the ghost city of Pripyat is returning to life through the magic touch of the young pianist:

The darkened eye sockets of dead buildings
will once again be filled with the heat of human beings…
The city will hold its breath for a moment
while you descend into your house…

And again a thousand voices from the street
will begin to sound the former daily happenings…
as though everyone were alive, and all had returned,
as though the city were still alive….

(Translated from the Russian by Liubov Sirota and Debra Romanick Baldwin)

Liubov Sirota worked together with Rolland Sergienko to create the film Porog (‘Threshhold’) about Chernobyl. The British Library does not hold many DVDs from Eastern Europe, but it has a DVD of the Belarusian film-maker Viktor Korzun’s, Verytsʹ tolʹki vetru: Charnobylʹ 20 hadoŭ paslia (Minsk, 2007; EF.2013.x.26)

ChernobylMUseumUkrainian_National_museum_'Tchornobyl'_in_Kyiv_1 90px-CC_some_rights_reserved_svg
Names of Lost villages, in the  Ukrainian National Chornobyl Museum (Photo by Volodymyr Levchuk from Wikimedia Commons)

Music is another powerful vehicle to express the human pain and horror caused by the Chernobyl catastrophe. Some specimens of musical works about Chernobyl are available in our Sound collections: from Chernobyl by Blanck Mass and Chernobyl Rain by Hibbs (Gong) to orchestral music (Chernobyl by Nancy van de Vate, performed by the Polish Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra). New musical works about Chernobyl are created every year. It is heart-warming to find out that on Sunday 26 April 2015 the London-based Ukrainian composer Alla Sirenko will present the premiere of her own work in London dedicated to the victims of Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Olga Kerziouk, Curator Belarusian and Ukrainian studies


Aleksievich, Svetlana. Voices from Chernobyl: chronicle of the future. Normall, Il., 2005. m05/30342

Medvedev, Zhores A. The legacy of Chernobyl.   Nottingham, 2011. YC.2012.a.15740

Mycio, Mary. Wormwood Forest: a natural history of Chernobyl. Washington, D.C., 2005. YC.2006.a.10733

Park, Chris C. Chernobyl. The Long Shadow. London, 1989. YC.1989.a.6423

Read, Piers Paul. Ablaze: the story of Chernobyl. London,1993. YK.1995.a.2707

Shcherbak, Iurii.  Chernobyl: a documentary story (translated from the Ukrainian by Ian Press; foreword by David R. Morples). Basingstoke,1989.  YC.1989.a.8562 and 89/12279.

16 March 2015

Who loved Three Oranges?

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In 1914 the Russian theatre director Vlesovod Meyerhold  set up a theatre magazine which he called Liubov’ k trem apel’sinam (The Love for Three Oranges). At this time Meyerhold was interested in the traditions of the Commedia dell'arte, rethinking them for contemporary theatrical reality. His theoretical concepts of the “conditional theatre” were elaborated in his book O teatre (On Theatre; shelfmark 11795.p.12) in 1913. The new magazine was named after Carlo Gozzi’s  play Amore delle tre melarance (1761) which he created as a polemic against the then extremely popular Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni. It started a tradition of Italian plays called fiabe – improvisations loosely based on a fairy-tale plot where the conflict between good and evil is shown by means of Commedia dell'arte. The publication Liubov’ k trem apel’sinam had the subtitle Zhurnal doktora Dapertutto (‘Dr Dapertutto’s magazine’).


Meyerhold – cartoon portrait by A.Liubimov from N.D.Volkov. Meierkhol’d. T.1. 1874-1908. (Leningrad, 1929). British Library 10797.a.13

Dr Dapertutto was Meyerhold’s pseudonym, suggested to him by the poet and composer Mikhail Kuzmin with whom Meyehold worked on one of the Komisarzhevskaia theatre productions in St Petersburg.  Cover designs were made by the theatre designers and artists Iurii Bondi (see more of his works here) and Aleksandr Golovin.

Cover design by Bondi for Liubov’ k trem apel’sinam (St Petersburg, 1914)

Golovin cover
Cover design by Golovin for Liubov’ k trem apel’sinam (St Petersburg, 1915)

Between 1914 and 1916 nine issues of the magazine were published. The print run was very small, between 300 and 500 copies and the first and prime subscribers were family members and friends. Aleksandr Blok, one of the most influential among Russian Symbolist poets, was responsible for the poetry section. In the articles published in the magazine, Meyerhold and his like-minded friends and colleagues discussed new approaches to the history and theory of theatre and promoted their new Theatre-Studio where Meyerhold taught his bio-mechanical system of acting. A full digital archive of this rare magazine is now freely available online.

In the first issue of the magazine Meyerhold published a theatre scenario Liubov’ k trem apel’sinam (‘The Love for Three Oranges’) based on Carlo Gozzi’s fiabe. Meyerhold’s co-authors were the poet Konstantin Vogak (1887-1938), who was at some point in correspondence with Blok, knew Anna Akhmatova and Nikolay Gumilev and later emigrated and died in Nice, and Vladimir Nikolaevich Solov’ev, one of the leading and most popular theatre directors in Leningrad in the 1920s, who died in 1941 during the siege of Leningrad.

When in April 1918 Sergey Prokofiev was commissioned to write an opera, he mentioned it to Meyerhold who immediately gave him the first issue of the magazine. In his diaries Prokofiev wrote: “Read The Love for Three Oranges. It is wonderful! Something could really be done with it, except that the plot would need to be completely rewritten. The music should be clear, lively, and as simple as it can be made” (Prokofiev, 2006. p. 273).

In the Prokofiev family archives there is a photograph taken in 1919 that shows Sergey Prokofiev, Boris Anisfeld who designed the sets for the first performance of the opera in Chicago, and Adolph Bolm, a Russian-born dancer and choreographer, a one-time member of  Diaghilev’s company, who was helping Prokofiev while he was on his first trip to America. The photograph is reproduced in the edition of Prokofiev’s diaries published in Paris in 2002 (YF.2012.a.11414; p. 27)

To see this image and many more rare and fascinating items from the British Library collections on Russian music theatre and art, join us on 19th March at a private view at the British Library organised in cooperation with the London Jewish Cultural Centre.


Sergey Prokofiev, Diaries / translated and annotated by Anthony Phillips. (London; Ithaca, N.Y., 2006- ). YC.2007.a.1259 (vol. 1); YC.2009.a.11249 (vol. 2); YC.2013.a.14822 (vol. 3).

Meyerhold on theatre. Translated and edited with a critical commentary by Edward Braun. (London, 1969) X.900/4423

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead East European Curator (Russian)

17 December 2014

A dish fit for the gods: 150 years of Offenbach’s ‘La belle Hélène’

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When in the 1690s the Académie Française was rocked by the so-called Querelle des anciens et des modernes between two factions headed by Nicolas Boileau and Charles Perrault respectively, history might have regarded it as a short-lived conflict unlikely to have much lasting influence on the development of French culture. However, in a society with a long tradition of respect for classical learning and its place within the educational system, it was never completely extinguished, and continued to flare up in the most unlikely places – such as the Paris comic opera stage.

By 1858, when the restriction limiting the number of performers in such productions to three was finally lifted, Jacques Offenbach (1819-1860) had already achieved considerable success in the small theatre which he had leased at his own expense, the Salle Choiseul, to accommodate his troupe, the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens, when unable to make a breakthrough at the Opéra-Comique. His tastes, though, ran towards the lavish, and once free of the previous limitations he set about engaging a cast of 20 principals and making plans to stage his latest work, Orphée aux Enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld).

Photograph of Jacques OffenbachAn early photograph of Offenbach, from ‘Argus’ Jacques Offenbach (Paris, 1872). 10602.e.4.

It success exceeded all his dreams, but not, perhaps, for the reasons which he had anticipated. Most unlike Monteverdi’s Orfeo or Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, it presents the hero not as a noble tragic figure descending to the realm of Hades to rescue his beloved wife but as a lackadaisical violin teacher whose wife is driven distracted by his trills and arpeggios, so that her abduction by the sinister king of the underworld, disguised as a shepherd, comes as a relief to both. Indeed, it was so far removed from the marmoreal world of classical antiquity that it provoked a furious outcry in the pages of the Journal des débats and Le Figaro. No voice was louder than that of the critic Jules Janin, who accused Offenbach of making a mockery of the austere values of Roman mythology so revered by the great figures of the Revolution. Behind this, though, lay a more contemporary target for satire – no less than the figure of the Emperor Napoleon III and his court in the guise of Jupiter (familiarly tagged as ‘Jupin’, i.e. Joops) and his entourage. The notoriety, as much as the sparkling music and witty libretto by Hector Crémieux, did wonders for the box-office takings, and in April 1860 the emperor himself ordered a command performance – and presumably was not disappointed, as that year he made a personal grant of French citizenship to the Cologne-born Offenbach, followed in 1861 by the Légion d’honneur.

Inspired by this success, Offenbach proceeded to tackle another classical subject, the story of Helen of Troy, in La belle Hélène. The librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy showed no more respect for their theme than their predecessor Crémieux, and fell foul of the censor for their portrayal of the Grand Augur, Calchas, which was viewed as an attack on the clergy. Pompous and hypocritical, Calchas cheats outrageously while gambling, and was at one point intended to fall into the water until the censor insisted that this was taking irreverence too far. Nor do Agamemnon, Menelaus and the other heroes fare any better; they appear as a gang of ridiculous blockheads who are easily trounced by the debonair ‘shepherd’ Paris (‘l’homme à la pomme’) in a series of word-games designed to sharpen the dull wits of the Greeks.

  Page of the music manuscript of La belle Helénè
The chorus which accompanies Orestes’ entrance, from Jacques Offenbach, La belle Hélène, autograph score, 1864. Zweig MS 72

Most startlingly of all, perhaps, Orestes makes his entrance as a precocious playboy, flanked by two good-time girls, Parthénis and Léoena, dancing in to the refrain ‘Tsing-la-la! Tsing-la-la! Oyé Kephalé, Kephalé oh-la-la!’ and intent on emptying his father’s coffers in the pursuit of pleasure. The role is sung by a soprano, and its creator, the all-too-aptly-named Léa Silly, proved a major headache to Offenbach. In a situation reminiscent of Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario), a skit involving a hapless director and his two warring prima donnas which Offenbach had staged some years earlier, she antagonized the diva Hortense Schneider, a long-term star of the company who was cast as Helen, by upstaging and mimicking her, dancing a cancan behind her back as she sang a major aria, and so enraging Schneider that she threatened to quit not only the production but Paris altogether.

Photograph of Hortense Schneider in the role of HelenHortense Schneider as Helen in La belle Hélène, from Louis Schneider, Offenbach (Paris, 1923) 7896.t.20.

Yet despite these trials the first night went ahead on 17th December 1864 at the Théâtre des Variétés, delighting critics and public so much that it launched a run of 700 performances. Among its admirers was the famous chef Auguste Escoffier, who created a special dish in its honour – Poire Belle Hélène, a luscious confection of poached pears and vanilla ice-cream topped with chocolate sauce and crystallized violets. Like the opera itself, it is a treat for the connoisseur – and certainly fit for an Emperor.

Susan Halstead, Curator Czech and Slovak

20 November 2014

A postmodern ‘War and Peace’

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During the summer I attended a cinema relay of a new production of Prokofiev’s opera War and Peace based on Tolstoy’s novel, broadcast live from the Mariinsky II Theatre, St Petersburg. Today's anniversary of Tolstoy's death (on 20 November 1910) seems an apt moment to reflect on this. The performance, conducted by Valery Gergiev, was directed by Graham Vick with set designs by Paul Brown. In Vick’s second production of War and Peace we are offered a postmodern version of the work with references to both early 19th century Russia and to a modern world of dissolution and drug-taking.  The costumes range from 19th century military and court dress to modern designer label jackets and jeans.

Vick’s angle in this production is to show the penetration of elements of war into the “Peace” section of the opera and vice versa. Thus in the first part tanks move across the stage while the chorus are dancing in period costume with the addition of gas masks; and in the second part (entitled War) a board with the word “mir” (peace) is on the stage all the time (as if it were a goal to aim for). The treatment of war in the second part is generalised to include references not only to the Napoleonic wars but also to the First and Second World War s, the invading forces having elements of both German and French uniforms and helmets. The production also includes film clips of 20th century wars.

The treatment of the military leaders is interesting: while Napoleon changes from his imperial costume to modern dress, Kutuzov wears a similar period costume to the one worn in Vick’s earlier production in 1991 (he is also played by the same singer). Though, unlike the previous one, this Kutuzov goes out and fraternizes with the audience in a Brechtian fashion.  Throughout there is a juxtaposition of the extremely colourful, conveying an intense feeling for life, and a more austere black and white, evoking a feeling of spiritual desolation. One striking use of colour is the yellow screen above a modern washroom. (You can see some images from the production here)

The relay also gave us an opportunity to experience the inside of the new Mariinsky II theatre with its splendid interior and acoustics. The vocal and orchestral performances of this performance under Gergiev were up to the Mariinsky’s usual high standard. I do hope this production will be released on DVD to complement Vick’s already highly valued earlier production.  If you are interested in Tolstoy and music take a look at the British Library web pages written for the centenary of Tolstoy’s death in 2010. These include sections on Tolstoy’s attitude towards music and contemporary composers together with lists of musical adaptations of Tolstoy’s works (scores and recordings held by the British Library). They also include information on early and rare editions of Tolstoy’s works held by the British Library.    

Peter Hellyer, Curator Russian Studies  

Photograph of Tolstoy wearing a peasant smockPortrait of Tolstoy, 1880s. British Library Add. MS 52772 f.120.

03 November 2014

Concert to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of the Friends of the British Library - Brahms’ Requiem

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The Friends of the British Library celebrate 25 years of support for the Library this year. To mark this special occasion, the British Library and British Museum Singers are holding a concert dedicated to the Friends of the British Library. The concert, on Thursday 13 November, will include excerpts from Brahms’ German Requiem in the composer’s own arrangement for piano duet, together with a selection of his Zigeunerlieder (‘Gypsy Songs’). This free lunchtime concert will take place in St Pancras Parish Church (opposite Euston Station) from 1.15 p.m. It will be conducted by Peter Hellyer and accompanied by Giles Ridley and Christopher Scobie.

The Friends are justly proud of their support for the British Library, and particularly for their contributions in the field of the Library’s music acquisitions. The acquisition in 2002 0f the archive of the Royal Philharmonic Society was significant, as the archive has been described as the single most important source for the history of music in England in the 19th century. The entire archive was digitised as part of the Nineteenth Century Collections Online database and can be viewed in the Library’s Reading Rooms.

Johannes Brahms as a young manJohannes Brahms, ca. 1853, from Alfred Orel, Johannes Brahms (Leipzig, 1937)

The choice of Brahms’ German Requiem as the centrepiece for the concert is particularly apt since it was first performed in Great Britain by the Philharmonic Society in 1873. It is a large-scale work for chorus, orchestra, and soloists, composed between 1865 and 1868. This sacred but non liturgical work has seven movements of which the Singers will perform the first five. Partial performances of the work also occurred during the course of its composition: the first three movements were performed in 1867 and six movements were performed in Bremen in 1868. Brahms added the fifth movement in May 1868 and the first performance of the complete work took place in Leipzig in 1869.

An alternative version of the work was also prepared by Brahms to be performed as a piano duet, four hands on one piano. This version also incorporates the vocal parts, suggesting that it was intended as a self-contained version probably for at-home use, but the vocal parts can also be omitted, making the duet version an acceptable substitute accompaniment for choir and soloists in circumstances where a full orchestra is unavailable. The first complete performance of the Requiem in London, in July 1871 at the home of Sir Henry Thompson  and his wife, the pianist Kate Loder, utilized this piano-duet accompaniment.

The Zigeunerlieder with words translated into German from Hungarian folk-songs by Hugo Conrat were originally composed in 1887 set for a vocal quartet (or choir) and piano. In the summer of 1888 Brahms produced an abbreviated version for solo voice as well. The Singers will perform a selection combining the two types of arrangement. A manuscript score of the arrangement for four voices and piano is held by the British Library in the Zweig collection . It is written in black ink with additional annotations by the composer in pencil and blue crayon mostly intended for the copyist. The Zweig collection was a gift to the British Library from the Heirs of Stefan Zweig, its presentation being accompanied by a series of concerts supported by the Friends.   

Peter Hellyer, Curator Russian Studies and Ed King, Former Head of British Library Newspaper Collections

  First page of Brahms's 'Zigeunerlieder' manuscriptThe first page of the Zigeunerlieder manuscript, British Library Zweig MS.20

15 October 2014

Lermontov – 200 years since the birth of the great Russian writer

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The Russian writer Mikhail Iur’evich Lermontov was born on 15th October 1814. As a poet he is ranked with Pushkin as one of Russia’s greatest and as a novelist and playwright he is regarded as one of the earliest exponents of Russian psychological realism. He was born in Moscow into an aristocratic family, his mother being a Stolypin and his father being descended from the Scottish family of Learmonth that had settled in Russia in the 17th century.  

Portrait of Lermontov seated at a desk, with a facsimile signature and four lines of verse beneathPortrait of Lermontov from A.G. Bil’derling, Lermontovskii Muzei Nikolaevskogo Kavaleriisskogo Uchilishcha (St Petersburg, 1883)

His early poetry shows the influence of Pushkin, German Romanticism and the works of the English poet Lord Byron. The most famous of these is Demon which he started in 1829 and worked on for 10 years.  It tells the story of the Demon, a fallen angel who attempts to seduce Tamara, a Georgian princess. After finally yielding to him she dies from his fatal kiss and he is left alone again at the end. The poem was banned for its carnality and for being sacrilegious by the Russian censors and was only published for the first time in full in Berlin in 1856. The British Library holds this edition.

Ilustration of the Demon embracing Tamara on a couchIllustration from an English translation of The Demon (London, 1875). 11585.g.28

It was first translated into English by A. C.  Stephen in 1875 and in the same year was made into an opera with music by Anton Rubinstein  (libretto: Pavel Viskovatov).  The opera was popular in its day and ha been revived several times in recent years (notably in a performance given by the Mariinsky Theatre conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Barbican, London in 2009). The British Library holds the original score of the opera (St Petersburg, 1876;  H.754.e), and the 1974 recording conducted by Boris Khaikin, just released on CD, will soon be acquired. The Demon was also the subject of  The Demon Seated (1890), one of the most powerful and influential paintings by the Russian painter Mikhail Vrubel.

Costume from 'Maskerade' for a woman with hat and veil

Costume for a man from 'Maskerade' with a tunic and feathered turbanCostume designs for Masquerade by Aleksandr Golovin from Maskarad Lermontova v teatral’nykh eskizakh A. IA. Golovina. (Moscow, 1941). 11797.f.44.

Lermontov’s most famous dramatic work is Maskarad (Masquerade), a play in verse written in 1835. The main character is Arbenin, a wealthy aristocrat who after a fit of jealousy at a masked ball has to face the consequences of murdering his innocent wife – the result is his descent into madness. This play also had a difficult time getting past the censors and it was only staged after Lermontov’s death in a revised version in 1852 at the Aleksandrinsky Theatre.  At the time of the February Revolution in 1917 a landmark production of the play took place in the Aleksandrinsky Theatre with designs and costumes by Aleksandr Golovin.  Produced by Vsevolod Meyerhold  with music by Glazunov it featured innovatory theatrical devices such as “tall mirrors that flanked the proscenium opening in order to break down the barriers between stage and audience” (see Meyerhold, On Theatre, translated by Edward Braun; London, 1969; X.900/4423.). This production was revived frequently until 1941.  In that year Aram Khachaturian wrote his famous incidental music for a production of the play at the Vakhtangov Theatre, Moscow. In 1954 Khachaturian recorded the waltz, nocturne and mazurka from the Suite conducting the Philharmonia orchestra for Columbia (BL Shelfmark 1CD0058649). The Kondrashchin version from 1958 (1CD0149609) is also recommended.  

Title-page of 'A Hero of our own Time' with a frontispiece illustration of a man and woman on horseback in a mountain landscape Title page and illustration “The Princess Mary” from Mikhail Lermontov, A Hero of our own Times (London, 1854). 12590.f.14

For a period of his life Lermontov was exiled to the Caucasus, the scenery, people and customs of which provided a background to many of his works including his great novel Geroi nashego vremeni (A Hero of our Time). Pechorin, the hero (or rather anti-hero) of the title is an example of the psychological type in Russian literature known as “the superfluous man” (Lishnii chelovek). This type, usually a well-educated young man from the upper echelons of society who has no outlets for his talents in contemporary life, is condemned to roam the world cynically playing with the ambitions and emotional lives of others just out of boredom and a sense of the futility of life (an embryonic existentialist in fact!).  However like his forerunner Eugene Onegin, this Byronic hero is not only manipulative and pleasure- seeking, but also sensitive and intelligent and deeply aware of his own contradictions. The novel consists of five interlocking stories with Pechorin as the main protagonist. In  the longest story, Princess Mary, Pechorin not only flirts with Princess Mary (whom he doesn’t really desire) at the same time as having an affair with his ex-lover Vera, but in the process also manages to kill his best friend in a duel. Even at the end when he believes his true feelings lie with Vera, he gives up chasing after her when his horse collapses. Perhaps the key to the meaning of the title of the novel is in Lermontov’s foreword “A Hero of our Time … is in fact a portrait, but not of an individual; it is the aggregate of the vices of our whole generation in their fullest expression”.

The British Library holds the first part of the original publication of Geroi nashego vremeni and the second part in the third edition (St Petersburg 1840, 1843; 12590.e.2.) It was first translated into English as Sketches of Russian Life in the Caucasus (London, 1853; 12590.f.18), and as A Hero of our own Times (London, 1854; 12590.f.14). A notable later translation was made by Vladimir Nabokov in 1958 (the British Library holds an edition published Oxford, 1984; X.958/21060).

The British library also holds two rare early editions and two fine art editions of Lermontov’s poetry:

Stikhotvoreniia. (St. Petersburg, 1840, 1842). C114.h.13 and C.114.h.14.

Kaznacheisha. With a frontispiece, title page and vignettes by M. V. Dobuzhinsky. (St Petersburg, 1913). Cup.501.g.19.

A song about Ivan Vasilyevich … translated by John Cournos. With decorations by Paul Nash. (London, 1929). C.98.h.30.

Peter Hellyer, Curator Russian Studies

04 October 2014

Ploughing, scattering and translating, or, You know more German hymns than you think.

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Around this time of year churches in Britain are celebrating Harvest Festival, and many congregations will no doubt sing the favourite seasonal hymn ‘We plough the fields and scatter’. But  not many of the singers may be aware that this seemingly integral part of a British – or at least an Anglican – Harvest Festival service is in fact a translation of a German hymn, ‘Wir pflügen und wir streuen’, with words taken from a poem by the 18th-century German poet Matthias Claudius.

The English translation first appeared in 1861 in a collection entitled A Garland of Songs: or an English Liederkranz compiled by Charles S. Bere, a Devon clergyman. Bere was apparently something of a Germanophile: in a preface he speaks admiringly of the role played by vocal music in German homes and communities and expresses the hope that his English collection of secular and religious songs will encourage a similar culture among his compatriots. The translator, modestly described as “a lady … who wishes to be nameless”,  was Jane Montgomery Campbell (1817-1878). Among her other contributions to the collection is a version of ‘Stille Nacht’ beginning ‘Holy Night, peaceful night’ (the more familiar – and frankly better – translation ‘Silent Night’ was made two years earlier by an American Episcopal priest, John Freeman Young).

Music and words of J.M. Campbell's translation of 'Silent Night'Jane Montgomery Campbell’s translation of ‘Stille Nacht’ from A Garland of Songs.

German hymns had been making their way into English for a long time before Bere and Campbell collaborated on their Garland. The Latin-German macaronic carol ‘In dulci jubilo’ and Luther’s ‘Ein’ feste Burg’ appeared in English versions as early as the 16th century, and John Wesley made some translations from German in the 18th century. But the 19th century was the golden age of German-English hymn translation. For example, most of us know  ‘Ein’ feste Burg’ best in Thomas Carlye’s translation as ‘A safe stronghold’ (or in another 19th-century American translation as ‘A mighty fortress’), and most of the German hymn translations in the Church of England’s standard hymnal, Hymns Ancient and Modern, date from this period.

Perhaps the most active 19th-century translator and promoter of German hymns in  Britain was Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878). Winkworth really deserves a blog post to herself: she was not only a translator but also a social reformer and a pioneering advocate of women’s higher education, but here we must restrict ourselves to her collection of hymn translations, Lyra Germanica, which first appeared in  1855. Winkworth moved in intellectual Christian circles where contemporary German theology was much admired. The hymns in Lyra Germanica – over a hundred in all – were translated from a collection compiled by the ambassador and scholar Karl Josias von Bunsen (Winkworth’s sister Susanna also translated one of Bunsen’s prose works on theology). Winkworth followed up the success of her first series of translations with a second series and a study of German devotional lyrics, Christian Singers of Germany.

Decorative binding of 'Lyra Germanica' in red and green leather with gold tooling including the image of a lyre Binding from an 1868 luxury edition of Lyra Germanica (3434.f.19.), designed by John Leighton who was also one of the illustrators.

Although only a small percentage of the many hymns Winkworth translated are in general use today, those that are remain some of the most familiar and recognisable German hymns in Britain. The latest edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern (now simply called Ancient and Modern) includes six of her translations, perhaps the best known being no. 739 ‘Now thank we all our God’ (‘Nun danket alle Gott’) and no. 765, ‘Praise to the Lord’ (‘Lobe den Herrn’). Other German hymns in the collection include no. 9 ‘When morning gilds the skies’ (‘Beim frühen Morgenlicht’) translated by Edward Carswell and no. 181 ‘O sacred head surrounded’, Henry Williams Baker’s translation of Paul Gerhardt’s ‘O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden’. It is also worth noting that many of the tunes  in the book – for both German and other texts – are of German origin.

German hymns, then, are still sung in churches up and down the country, but it seems that they are waning somewhat in popularity. ‘Silent Night’ still holds its own in polls of favourite carols (although it has lost the top spot in recent years to a French rival, ‘O holy night’), but the only German entry in a recent BBC vote for ‘The UK’s top 100 hymns’ was ‘Now thank we all our God’, languishing at no. 65 in the chart. However, there is a German element within a wider European story behind the hymn which topped that poll, ‘How great thou art’. This is based on a Swedish original, and the most familiar English translation is by Stuart K. Hine, who discovered it when working as a Methodist missionary in the Carpathian Mountains in the 1930s. He translated it from a Russian version which was based in turn on an earlier German translation.

So whether at harvest time, Christmas or in the church year generally, an ‘English’ hymn may have an international story to tell. And if you are a churchgoer, you probably know more German hymns than you think.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

References/further reading:

A Garland of Songs: or an English Liederkranz, edited by the Rev. C. S. Bere. (London, 1861). A.745

Lyra Germanica: Hymns for the Sundays and Chief Festivals of the Christian Year, translated from the German by Catherine Winkworth. (London, 1855). 3436.f.27.

Catherine Winkworth, Christian Singers of Germany (London, 1869).

Ancient and Modern: Hymns and Songs for Refreshing Worship. (London, 2013). D.845.t

Robert Maude Moorson, A Historical Companion to Hymns Ancient and Modern (London, 1885). 3436.g.55.

An Annotated Anthology of Hymns, edited with a commentary by J.R. Watson. (Oxford, 2002). YC.2002.a.10594.

Susan Drain, ‘Winkworth, Catherine (1827–1878)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 []


20 August 2014

The Drama of Marinetti by Mikhail Karasik

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The British Library has recently acquired the rare Russian artist’s book Drama Marinetti v odinnadt︠s︡ati kartinakh  (‘The Drama of Marinetti in eleven pictures’)  by Mikhail Karasik (St. Petersburg, 2008; shelfmark HS.74/2177).

Title page in the style of Marinetti;s typographical designs
Russian title page as a post card (Sheet 0). Reproduced with kind permission of Mikhail Karasik.

The book is one of a limited edition of 15 signed copies and consists of 12 sheets in the form of large postcards. On one side of each appears a lithographic illustration made with reworked old photographs. On the reverse side appears the offset text of the drama composed from contemporary newspaper and literary sources. The text inside the book is printed in Russian; an English version is designed as a newspaper – The Drama of Marinetti, special issue – and inserted into the book. For a full description see Mikhail Karasik: catalogue raisonné 1987-2010 (Nijmegen, 2010), p.157.

Collage of Marinetti arriving in RussiaMarinetti is met (Sheet 4)

Bearing the sub-title “The Story of How the Leader of World Futurism Flopped in Russia”, it graphically evaluates Marinetti’s  legendary visit to Russia in 1914. Highlighting the differences between Italian Futurism which as Karasik suggests “promoted urbanism, the cult of technology and machines, the destruction of tradition and old culture”, and Russian Futurism which “focused on folk culture, and the Russian icon”, it will complement the British Library’s outstanding collection of Italian and Russian Futurist books.

Collage showing Marinetti in  a military uniform at a barber's shop

At the Barber's (Sheet 3)

One particularly interesting feature of the book’s graphics is the way in which works of Russian Futurists are referenced in the collaged lithographs. For example sheet no 3 At the Barber’s clearly refers to Larionov’s painting The Officer’s Barber (1910) with the heads of the officer and barber being replaced by those of Marinetti and Larionov; and later in sheet no 5 Marinetti and Venus, Marinetti appears in his car with a figure of Venus familiar from Larionov’s painting of Venus from 1910.

Marinetti in a car in front of a large image of Larionov's painting 'Venus'
 Marinetti and Venus (Sheet 5)

There are several heated debates in the Drama of Marinetti about the nature of Futurist poetry. The Italian approach embodied in Marinetti’s idea of “Words in Freedom” is contrasted with the Russian idea of Zaum’ (transrational or trans-sense language). Whereas Marinetti in scene 7 sees them as essentially the same, Benedikt Livshits sees the Italian approach as maximizing chaos “so as to minimize the intermediary role played by reason” and tries to explain the experiments of Russian Futurists, in particular Khlebnikov.

Collage of heads against a decorative background

 The Studio of Kulbin (Sheet 8)

Marinetti finally, in an aside in the same scene, concludes that “Russian Futurism has little in common with Western Futurism” though he does admit that “when it comes to Futurist music then Russia has to be recognized as taking the lead”. He continues: “In 1910 Kulbin was the first to proclaim the principle of free ‘music of noises’ and now we Italians are merely following in his footsteps”. In recognition of this remark sheet no. 9 Soundnoises (see picture below)  is based on a photograph of the Italian Futurist composer Russolo and some of his sound and noise machines or Intonarumori out of which emerge the heads of Kulbin, Khlebnikov, Kruchenykh and Marinetti. Kulbin’s theories on Free music, Colour music (synaesthesia) etc are set out in Studio of the Impressionists [Studiya Impressionistov, 1910], the cover of which is used as a backround for the superimposed heads of Russian Futurists in sheet no. 8 The Studio of Kulbin (see picture above). For a description of Kulbin’s theories on music see my article on Studiya Impressionistov in The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines, Vol. III, Part II, pp.1260-4. (Oxford, 2013; YC.2013.b.1128)

Collage of heads emerging from Russolo's 'noise machines'

Soundnoises (Sheet 9)

Karasik’s book will be an invaluable addition to an already large number of his works held by the British Library. A list of works written and illustrated by him as well as works of others published by him are included in Hellyer, Peter, A catalogue of Russian Avant-Garde Books 1912-1934 and 1969-2003 (London,  2006; YC.2006.b.2068 ). More recent items can be found on the webpage for Russian Avant-Garde Artists’ Books 1969-2010 in the British Library. 

Peter Hellyer, Curator Russian Studies