Music blog

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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

22 July 2024

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and the practicalities of performance

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I recently had the pleasure of visiting the British Library’s Beyond the Bassline exhibition. Admiring the autograph manuscript of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast led me to wonder: might not more of Coleridge-Taylor’s wonderful music be heard today if some of the obstacles to performance were removed?

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's autograph score of Hiawatha's Wedding Feast
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's autograph score of Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, British Library Add MS 62519

Be it through libraries, publishers, or online services like IMSLP, we are used to being able to access high-quality ‘performance-ready’ sheet music editions. It comes as something of a surprise, therefore, to learn that a significant amount of Coleridge-Taylor’s output is unavailable via these means. To understand why, a brief history of performance sets may be useful.

Performance sets in the early 20th century

In 1898, when Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast was composed, any large-scale work such as this was expensive to publish. In the days before computers and photocopiers, any sheet music part requiring multiple copies for performance would need to be hand-engraved onto copper plates, which could then be used for printing as many copies as were required. Vocal scores, containing all vocal parts and a piano reduction of the orchestral score, were printed in their thousands using this method, ensuring each choir member could have their own copy. String parts, too, with multiple desks to a part, were also often (but not always) engraved and printed in this way. For material requiring only one copy for performance, however – usually all wind, brass and percussion parts, as well as the conductor’s full score – it was uneconomical to engrave and print in this manner, and these were normally copied by hand by a professional copyist from the publishing house. Depending on the popularity of the work, only one or two copies of each of these parts would ever be produced.[1] Any choral society wishing to perform the work would purchase the printed vocal scores from which to rehearse, and hire the manuscript orchestral material from the publisher when ready to perform.

Manuscript parts for Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's opera Thelma
A typical performance set: professionally copied wind parts for the Prelude to Coleridge-Taylor’s opera Thelma. From RCM MS 4909. Reproduced with permission of the Royal College of Music, London.

Composers’ autograph scores used in performances

For those of us accustomed to revering a manuscript as an almost sacred object, it is amazing to learn that the composer’s autograph was often included in these performance sets for the conductor to use. The RCM’s manuscript of Coleridge-Taylor’s Kubla Khan, op. 61, for example, includes a label from the publishers reminding borrowers not to mark, or even cut out sections(!) from this unique object. This was rarely enough to entirely discourage conductors from annotating the scores, and many such scores contain obvious markings from prior performances.

A page from Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s autograph manuscript for Kubla Khan
Page from Coleridge-Taylor’s autograph manuscript for Kubla Khan, marked by a conductor. From RCM MS 4869. Reproduced with permission of the Royal College of Music, London.

This system of producing performance sets worked well enough, and met the needs of publishers and performers. Long term, however, this approach could lead to lost parts (which could be re-copied) or, much worse, lost scores (which could not!). Famously, Coleridge-Taylor’s only opera, Thelma, op. 72, was believed to be lost until it was rediscovered in 2003.

Eventually, as technology changed to make the printing of scores and parts easier and cheaper (along with the emergence of a more conservation-minded approach to composers’ autograph manuscripts), these performance sets left the ownership of publishers and made their way into libraries.[2] While this represented an important step for the long-term preservation of these works, their reference-only status in their new homes effectively put an end to their availability for performance – a symbolic change in status from ‘music for performance’ to ‘music for study’. In many cases, only the scores survived, the parts being deemed a ‘duplication’ of the scores’ contents, unworthy of study from a historical standpoint (not being in the composer’s hand), and therefore an unnecessary use of precious space.

Performing Coleridge-Taylor’s music today

Today, therefore, it is remarkably difficult for an orchestra or choral society to lay their hands on performance material for some of Coleridge-Taylor’s most popular works – and this despite much of his music being out of copyright and, in theory, freely available for all to enjoy. Works such as Choral Ballads, op. 54, or Ulysses, op. 49, may perhaps never be performed again as originally conceived, the scores and parts having completely vanished.[3] Yet for most of his works, the survival of an autograph or copyist score offers hope that they can be revived. The absence of orchestral parts is problematic, but not insurmountable.

The upsurge in interest in Coleridge-Taylor's music in recent years has given rise to some heroic efforts at revival and some inspiring stories of success. Following the discovery of Thelma, this opera was performed for the first time in 2012; a published score is also available to purchase. More recently, Legend, op. 14, for violin and orchestra, was given a new lease of life in 2022 by Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. The following year, working from autograph and copyist scores of The Atonement, op. 53, Bryan Ijames staged a production of this monumental work for Easter 2023.

Advertisement for the revival of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s The Atonement
Advertisement for the revival of Coleridge-Taylor’s The Atonement, March 2023

It would be remiss to fail to mention the English Heritage Music Series, whose formidable efforts in the production of performance material from library manuscripts have rescued many works by Coleridge-Taylor and his contemporaries from obscurity. All their performance editions are freely published, royalty-free, for download on their website; and their all-Coleridge-Taylor programme of rescued works will be live-streamed on 3 August 2024.

Each of these projects represents a phenomenal effort on the part of their respective leaders. The editing of performance material from a manuscript orchestral score – especially when the handwriting is as difficult to decipher as Coleridge-Taylor’s! – is a large and daunting task. Yet each is a valuable contribution to the continuing effort to promote the music of this fascinating composer and serve as an encouragement to those inspired to do the same. Many more of Coleridge-Taylor’s works are yet to be revived, and those with the drive to do so will be richly rewarded by bringing to life these treasures from the past.

Jonathan Frank, Assistant Librarian, Royal College of Music

[1] Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast is a rare exception, being so popular that it was deemed worthwhile to engrave the wind and brass parts.

[2] See Jeremy Dibble, ‘The RCM Novello Library’, The Musical Times 124 (1983), 99-101.

[3] In many cases, excerpts from these works survive in arrangements for smaller ensembles, such as voice and piano.

24 June 2024

Min’yō: a cultural heritage of sweat, toil, and joy

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The aftermath of World War II was a period of dramatic upheaval for Japan. What had been an empire nation was now struggling to rebuild amidst the ruins of two atomic bombs, under American occupation no less. An influx of Western culture alongside rapid industrialisation was the beginning of an irreversible transformation for Japanese society. For many, there was a pervasive sense of cultural loss, leading to large-scale efforts by the government to quickly preserve and maintain traditions on an institutional scale. On a musical level, ethnomusicologists, scholars, and musicians collected Japanese folk tales, texts, and songs with a new sense of urgency.

Among the collectors was Yoshiaki Machida, also known as Kashō Machida, a shamisen player and ethnomusicologist. Between 1944 and 1980, Machida edited a nine-volume anthology of transcriptions and song notations from different regions in partnership with Japan’s national broadcaster, NHK, which released a set of corresponding recordings. The anthology contains min’yō, which translates literally as ‘folk song’ in Japanese and encompasses a wide variety of traditional Japanese song with distinctive, region-dependent characteristics.

We have one out of the nine volumes in our collection, titled ‘Nihon min’yō taikan : Kyūshū en hokubu’ which translates to: ‘A survey of Japanese folksong : Kyushu district’. Published in 1977 (Showa 52), the book contains regional folk songs from the island of Kyūshū in southern Japan, relating to an assortment of activities – mining, farming, and fishing, and even tea making; there are also lullabies, and songs relating to religious festivals. Housed in a card box covered in textured washi paper, the book features a painted illustration of traditional whalers on the front cover.

Image of card box and front cover of Nihon min’yō taikan Kyūshū en hokubu showing an illustration of traditional whalers
Box and cover of Kashō Machida’s ‘Nihon min’yō taikan : Kyūshū en hokubu’

The book opens with a foreword written by Tomokazu Sakamoto, company president of NHK at the time. In it, Sakamoto thanks Machida for his editorial work on the book while paying tribute to his advanced age of 90 years old. Here is a translation of a passage from the foreword:

'We reflect on the past, when folk music continued to thrive in the working life of the population, alongside their daily lives. After the war, many jobs gradually began to mechanise and become more streamlined. Min’yō songs, the cultural heritage of our predecessors’ sweat, toil, and joy, gradually began to disappear. Therefore, it is our duty to preserve them as quickly as we can. Even though we call it ‘preservation’ using one word, this does not stop at merely keeping a record of the songs. If we do not understand the path of transmission of these songs, within their real context, it will be almost impossible to fulfil our goal.'

Excerpt from Nihon min’yō taikan  Kyūshū en hokubu
Excerpt from Nihon min’yō taikan, Kyūshū en hokubu

Although a lot of the folk music-related items we hold in our collection relate to British traditions, we also hold a rich variety of music books from around the world, which wouldn’t otherwise be accessible in the UK. Thanks to a generous donation, ‘Nihon min’yō taikan’ is one such item.

Gail Tasker, Music Cataloguer
Excerpt translated by Lucy Tasker

Further reading:

Groemer, Gerald. 'The Rise of 'Japanese Music.'' The World of Music, vol. 46, no. 2, 2004, pp. 9–33. JSTOR, Accessed 18 June 2024.

17 April 2024

Jane Manning & Anthony Payne: a celebration

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Foyle Room, British Library, London, Wednesday 1 May 2024, 2-3.30pm

Jane Manning and Anthony Payne in 1981. Reproduced by permission of the estate of Jane Manning and Anthony Payne.

Preparations are well under way for an exciting event here at the British Library on Wednesday 1 May 2024, celebrating the lives of soprano Jane Manning (1938-2021) and her husband, the composer Anthony Payne (1936-2021). Their archives were acquired by the British Library in 2022 so the event is also a chance to mark this and an opportunity to delve into the collections, exploring highlights and the many ways that the contents will be valuable for research.  

The event will be hosted by composer Steph Power, who knew and worked with both Jane and Tony over many years. And, importantly, there will also be plenty of live music too: with a mix of music by Tony and pieces that had been specially written for Jane. We are delighted to be joined by soprano Patricia Auchterlonie for this, together with Roger Montgomery (horn), Dorothea Vogel (viola) and Robert Manasse (flute). 



Sally Beamish:  Buzz, for voice and viola  
Erika Fox:  Singender Steige, for voice and flute  
Nicola LeFanu:  Songs for Jane, for voice and viola 
Elisabeth Lutyens:  Lament of Isis on the Death of Osiris 
Thea Musgrave:  Primavera, for voice and flute  
Anthony Payne:  Leap, Skip and Chase the Song, for solo viola  
Rhian Samuel:  Trois Chansons de François Villon, for voice and flute/piccolo  
Judith Weir:  Don't Let That Horse, for voice and horn 


As a soprano of phenomenal ability, Jane Manning premiered more than 350 new works by composers including John Cage, Judith Weir, Harrison Birtwistle and Oliver Knussen (memorably creating the role of Max in Knussen's operatic version of Where the Wild Things Are). Her repertoire also included many 20th century classics by the likes of György Ligeti, Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez and Arnold Schoenberg. Anthony Payne was a highly-respected composer of music that uniquely combined aspects of tradition with modernism. He reached widest attention through his elaboration of unfinished works by Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams – especially his work on the unfinished sketches for Elgar’s Symphony No. 3. Both Jane and Tony founded the new music ensemble Jane’s Minstrels in 1988, going on to support the work of several generations of composers. 

As well as celebrating their lives and careers, this event will be a chance to find out more about their archives. Particularly rich in material relating to the performance of contemporary classical music in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Jane and Tony’s collections sit alongside those of other composers and musicians they worked with here at the British Library, all together providing a rich resource for researchers of this period. Tony’s manuscript scores and sketches for pieces are included of course – ranging from the small scale, such as the solo viola piece that will be performed on the 1st May, through to bigger orchestral works like Time’s Arrow (depicting the Big Bang and subsequent expansion and contraction of the universe, no less). The archive also contains an extraordinary set of letters to Jane from the many composers she worked closely with, providing plenty of insight into what is involved in bringing these pieces to life through performance. Alongisde this, sound recordings, diaries and other papers all help to give a detailed picture of contemporary music making in this period. 

The event is taking place at the British Library, in the Foyle Room (in the British Library’s Centre for Conservation, at the back of the St Pancras site) on Wednesday 1 May 2024, 2-3.30pm. Tickets are free but are limited, so we would encourage booking in advance via the website here if you are interested in coming along: .

A further announcement about the archive will appear on the Music blog once it is catalogued and available for researchers.  


Chris Scobie, Lead Curator, Music Manuscripts & Archives