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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

28 August 2019

From Music to Meme (1): Musical Expressions of National and Regional Identity on Postage Stamps

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The word ‘stamp’ certainly brings music to a Philatelist’s ear, yet they are also literally a musical medium for the masses!  Postal authorities worldwide have issued countless postage stamps incorporating reproductions from musical manuscripts, or notations into their designs. Including other stamps depicting instruments, composers and famous musicians, the British Library’s Philatelic Collections are an invaluable resource for cultural historians, manuscript specialists and musicologists.

In  ‘Banal Nationalism’ (Sage, London 1996) Michael Billig argues that an underlying, non-extremist, endemic type of national identity is formed by everyday encounters with representations of authority on official and consumable objects including coins, stamps, paper money and flags. This phenomenon stems from their mechanical mass reproduction, widespread dissemination and consumption making stamps an excellent meme-complex for transmitting multiple memes or units of cultural expression from one person or group to another. National anthems are a popular way for nations to eulogise their history, traditions and struggles musically since the nineteenth century, a period coinciding with the ‘invention’ of adhesive postage stamps. Consequently, it should come as no surprise to learn that anthems form a very popular design theme on stamps.

Many designs juxtapose the music and lyrics alongside a range of national symbols to create a multi-tiered symbolic identity. On 6 June 1983, the People’s Republic of China issued a 20f stamp commemorating the Sixth National People’s Congress designed by Wan Weisheng depicting music and Chinese text by Tian Han and Nie Er for the national anthem, ‘Yìyǒngjūn Jìnxíngqǔ’ below the national flag (Figure 1). Taiwan adopted a similar format for its $2.50 stamp commemorating the country’s 60th National Day issued on 10 October 1971. Designed by Yen Ki Shih and printed by the Government Printing Works in Tokyo, it depicts the music and lyrics for Taiwan’s national anthem, ‘Zhōnghuá Mínguó guógē’ beside the national flag overlaying a map of the island overlaid by the music and text (Figure 2).

1983 stamp depicting music and Chinese text
Figure 1. Henke Collection. China.
1971 stamp depicting the music and lyrics for Taiwan’s national anthem
Figure 2. Universal Postal Union (UPU) Collection: Taiwan.

Uruguay issued a 15p stamp designed by A. Medina on 19 May 1971 to commemorate the National Anthem depicting a few bars of music by Francisco Jose Deballi with Francisco Acuna de Figueroa’s lyrics beside the nation’s armorial bearings. The stamp’s selected colour scheme is identical to those adopted upon Uruguay’s flag (Figure 3).

1971 stamp depicting music and lyrics from the Uruguay's national anthem
Figure 3. UPU Collection: Uruguay.

On 25 October 1980, Costa Rica issued two stamps commemorating the national anthem. On this occasion, each design incorporates a portrait to embed the artist and music into the national symbolic and ritual narrative. The 1c stamp depicts a portrait of lyric writer, Jose Maria Zweledon Brenes (Figure 4) whilst the 10c stamp depicts the composer Manuel Maria Gutierrez whom President General Juan Rafael Mora allegedly imprisoned until he had completed the anthem score (Figures 5)!

1980 stamp depicting the music of Costa Rica's national anthem with the portrait of Jose Maria Zweledon Brenes in front of it
Figure 4. UPU Collection: Costa Rica.
1980 stamp depicting the music of Costa Rica's national anthem with the portrait of Manuel Maria Gutierrez in front of it
Figure 5. UPU Collection: Costa Rica.

Liberia issued a 6c stamp commemorating the inauguration of the Antoinette Tubman Child Welfare Foundation on 25 November 1957, depicting a group of children singing in the foreground, symbolising the nation’s future. Behind them is a song-sheet with Olmsted Luca’s music for the national anthem, juxtaposed next to a depiction of the Foundation’s headquarters (Figure 6)

1957 stamp depicting a group of children singing in the foreground and the music for Liberia's national anthem in the background
Figure 6. UPU Collection: Liberia.

K. K. Karmacharya’s designs for Nepal’s 18 February 1974 National Day Issue incorporate elements of the national anthem. The 25p stamp illustrates the Devanagari script for the old national anthem ‘Rastriya Gaan(Figure 7), whilst the 1r stamp depicts the musical score overlaying a Nepalese instrument, possibly a Sarangi (Figure 8). The anthem changed in 2006 following political unrest culminating in the abolishment of the monarchy consequently stamps depicting the old anthem are very political.

stamp from Nepal illustrating the Devanagari script for the old national anthem ‘Rastriya Gaan’
Figure 7. UPU Collection: Nepal.
stamp depicting music overlaying a Nepalese instrument
Figure 8. UPU Collection: Nepal.

On 1 December 1976, Barbados issued a set of four stamps celebrating the 10th Anniversary of Independence, all designed by PAD Studios. The 25c value depicts the anthem’s musical score and text with a range of wind and percussion instruments indicating the music should be performed (Figure 9). The $1 stamp design portrays musicians at the Independence Day Parade where the national anthem would have been part of the performance, demonstrating how anthems are an established component of state performance and ritual (Figure 10).

1976 stamp depicting the Barbados national anthem score with wind and percussion instruments surrounding it
Figure 9. UPU Collection: Barbados.
1976 stamp depicting musicians at the Barbados Independence Day Parade
Figure 10. UPU Collection: Barbados.

On 16 May 1972, Venezuela released a 5b stamp as part of their ‘Venezuela in the Americas’ Issue. It illustrates the anthem’s music overlaying flags for every nation in the Americas and Caribbean (Figure 11). The design uses the anthem’s music to reinforce national identity whilst forming part of a wider international community. Some national stamps incorporate music in their designs recognising regional identities. On 28 April 1981, Spain issued a 12p stamp commemorating Galician Autonomy, depicting the music from the ‘Himno Galego’ overlaying a map of the region above Galicia’s armorial bearings (Figure 12).

1972 stamp from Venezuela illustrating the anthem’s score overlaying flags for every nation in the Americas and Caribbean
Figure 11. UPU Collection: Venezuela.
1981 stamp depicting music from the ‘Himno Galego’ overlaying a map of the region above Galicia’s armorial bearings
Figure 12. UPU Collection: Spain.

Finally, in 1973 the Kingdom of Bhutan issued a set of seven ‘talking stamps,’ which are playable miniature records comprising the national anthem, folk music and historic narratives. Predominantly designed for the collecting community, this issue provides an excellent example of how manufacturing technologies are able to incorporate audio recordings into stamp design (Figure 13).

1973 stamp from the Kingdom of Bhutan depicting a miniature record
Figure 13. UPU Collection: Bhutan.

Postage stamps are therefore an important research resource illustrating the cultural transmission of national anthems across the national and international stage.  The design elements also incorporate a range of visual and mnemonic techniques to represent sound, music and national identity. The majority of them are musically accurate, leading one to query whether developments with MEI, OMR, TEI, Geo-Referencing and cataloguing technologies can be utilised on stamps to generate big data to support such a thesis. One hopes specialists reading this blog will be stimulated enough to develop these ideas further.

Richard Scott Morel

Curator, British Library’s Philatelic Collections

30 July 2019

Talking about research collaboration: the first British Library Digital Musicology day

On Monday 1 July, the British Library held the study day Digital Musicology and Libraries: Challenges and Opportunities. The aim of the study day was to present different perspectives on Digital Musicology projects, developments and needs, and explore ways Librarians, Musicologists and Digital Musicologists can work together to support each other. The day also intended to inspire attendees to consider collaborating with the British Library on future research projects.

Digital Musicology study day welcome slide
Digital Musicology study day. Photo by Amelie Roper

The keynote lecture was given by Dr Kevin Page, Senior Researcher, Oxford e-Research Centre. In an overview of the methods, temptations and experiences of digital musicology, he emphasised the importance of knowing your sources, knowing your methods, and recognising that there is information that will not be retrieved because of the limitations of these. He urged us to "embrace imperfect data"! The desire for perfect data is a temptation, but the perfect dataset does not exist. Instead we should use what exists, being wise to its limitations, and embrace simultaneous perspectives and encodings, rather than expecting one approach to give all the answers.

Speakers at the Digital Musicology Study Day
Digital Musicology study day. Photo by Amelie Roper

Throughout the day speakers introduced their specific projects or general approaches to working with different types of digital musicological data.

The Libraries’ perspective session opened with Richard Chesser, Head of Music at the British Library, who gave an overview of projects that the British Library has been involved with in Digital Musicology, including Early Music Online, A Big Data History of Music, The Delius Catalogue of Works and Discovering Music, as well as content the Library is making available through digitisation and other routes that can be used in Digital Musicology research.

Dr Andrew Hankinson, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford talked about Digital Musicology activities at the University of Oxford and specifically about the advantages of the IIIF technology (International Image Interoperability Framework) for conducting research with digitised images of Libraries’ collection items.

Speakers at the Digital Musicology Study Day
Digital Musicology study day. Photo by Amelie Roper

Dr Christopher Hilton of the Britten-Pears Foundation described the archival cataloguing system used by the Archive & Library, which includes work-level information, and the plans to open this up to a wider audience by making archival descriptions available as linked data. He gave interesting insights into the kind of information held: for example, the financial records of Britten and Pears, usually the dullest part of a personal archive, are revealing about how carefully and creatively the financial affairs of a gay couple had to be managed in the era before the de-criminalisation of homosexuality.

Speakers at the Digital Musicology Study Day
Digital Musicology study day. Photo by Amelie Roper

Katharine Hogg, of the Gerald Coke Handel Collection, The Foundling Museum, gave an overview of digital activities undertaken, and of planned collaborations. One type of material which the Gerald Coke Handel Collection is keen to acquire is datasets and preparatory material brought together for PhDs and publications; valuable research data which tends to disappear once the work based on it has been published.

Speakers at the Digital Musicology Study Day
Digital Musicology study day. Photo by Amelie Roper

The Academic Partners’ perspective session included presentations by Dr Emmanouil Benetos (Queen Mary, University of London), Dr Joanna Bullivant (University of Oxford), Professor Stephen Rose (Royal Holloway, University of London), and Professor Tim Crawford (Goldsmiths, University of London). Speakers talked about Digital Musicology projects they undertook in collaboration with the British Library (Digital Music Lab, Digital Delius, A Big Data History of Music, and F-Tempo respectively), and gave their perspective on the challenges and benefits of collaborative projects.

The session on Digital Archives explored challenges and opportunities around born-digital archives, as well as the Library’s digitised sound archives. Music Curators discussed recent steps that the department has undertaken to acquire born-digital archives of composers, whilst Jonathan Pledge, Curator, Contemporary Archives, Politics and Public Life at the British Library, described the methods recently developed in the Library for acquiring and making available personal digital archives of writers and scientists. Born-digital files are acquired and processed via a six-stage workflow[1].

Amelie Roper, Research Development Manager at the British Library talked about the British Library’s annual research report and the ways academics and researchers can collaborate through outlining the Library’s research collaboration process.

Some themes emerged from the day. Recurring challenges were rights clearance, sustainability of projects, differing priorities and expectations of libraries, researchers and funding bodies, technical and institutional challenges (for example difficulty in hosting non-standard software), and staff skills gaps and time constraints.

It was inspiring, however, to hear from projects exploiting opportunities. For example, IIIF technology can bring images and datasets together, so a digital copy of a manuscript can be viewed side by side with an interpretation or commentary coming from a completely different source. MEI (Music Encoding Initiative) and OMR (Optical Music Recognition) techniques can be used to enable semantically meaningful full-text analysis of certain types of digitised music, for example 16th-century lute and vocal music, resulting in new work identifications. Other opportunities arise from combining the researchers' ability to focus on a single project with libraries' expertise in the curation of metadata.

Anecdotal evidence was that libraries and researchers can work positively together to overcome challenges, and unlock new musical knowledge.

Caroline Shaw, British Library

[1] Further information in: Jonathan Pledge and Eleanor Dickens (2018): ‘Process and progress: working with born-digital material in the Wendy Cope Archive at the British Library’, Archives and Manuscripts Volume 46, Issue. 1, pages. 59-69.

05 July 2019

The Susan Bradshaw Papers: Archive of an Insightful Communicator

The archive of Susan Bradshaw (1931-2005) is now catalogued and available for consultation in the Library’s Rare Books and Music Reading Room. Proceeds from the British Library's purchase of the archive went towards the Royal Philharmonic Society's establishment of the Susan Bradshaw Composers’ Fund, as arranged by Brian Elias, composer and Bradshaw's close friend.

Susan Bradshaw at the piano_MS Mus.1755-6-1
Susan Bradshaw, London, September 1971. © Unknown photographer
(BL MS Mus. 1755/6/1, f. 30)

Susan Bradshaw pianist, teacher and writer on music, was born in Monmouth on 8 September 1931. After spending time in India and Egypt during her childhood, where her father’s work in the army had taken their family, Bradshaw embarked on learning piano and violin. She later studied at the Royal Academy of Music with Harold Craxton (piano) and Howard Ferguson (composition). Then, in 1957, Bradshaw seized the chance to expand her musical world, taking up a French Government Scholarship to study composition with modernist figurehead, Pierre Boulez, and Max Deutsch in Paris.

Bradshaw’s student ID card_MS Mus.1755-4-3
One of Susan Bradshaw’s student ID cards for her French Government Scholarship year
(BL MS Mus. 1755/4/3, f. 259)

That year in France proved a catalyst for melding musical partnerships and alliances. Bradshaw formed a piano duo with her close friend Richard Rodney Bennett, and the Mabillon Trio with Philip Jones (oboe) and William Bennett (flute). However, the year in France signalled the decline of her activity as a composer, and on her return to the UK, Bradshaw moved her energy to accompaniment and performance.

Bradshaw was an ardent advocate of new music. She helped contemporary composers by including them in ensemble programming, promoting new works with first performances and using broadcasts to share what she recognised as important and progressive about such music. Concert ephemera, cuttings from radio show advertisements and draft programme scripts in her papers record her efforts and enthusiasm.

Composers’ Guild of Great Britain award_MS Mus.1755-4-4
The Composers’ Guild of Great Britain presented Susan Bradshaw with a special award of Instrumentalist of the Year, for her services to the music of living British composers. (BL MS Mus. 1755/4/4, f. 209)

Inside Bradshaw’s Archive

Bradshaw’s archive reflects the breadth of her own musical experience and contains:

  • Draft scores of over thirty of Bradshaw’s compositions, largely from the period 1951-1958
  • Drafts of her writings on music, on individual composers/works/musical aesthetics
  • A collection of printed materials compiled by Bradshaw into composer information files
  • Scrapbooks and collected programmes, tracing Bradshaw’s musical career
  • Select correspondence from composers and friends
  • A box of 60th birthday tributes: musical compositions, letters and cards
  • Publicity photographs and documents relating to her wider musical involvements.
The Mabillon Trio by Milein Cosman_1755-4-3
The Mabillon Trio, drawn by Milein Cosman (Susan Bradshaw, piano; Philip Jones, oboe; William Bennet, flute). (BL MS Mus. 1755/4/3, f. 3: Mabillon Trio programme)

Related Resources at the British Library

Many items in the British Library Sound Archive complement and enhance the vibrant resource of Bradshaw’s paper archive. Examples include:

  • A recording of Bradshaw’s Eight Hungarian Folksongs, broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 1978. Catalogue reference: M7663.
  • Susan Bradshaw’s talk with recorded illustrations, In search of Pierre Boulez, given at the National Sound Archive in their Spring Lectures, 1985. Catalogue reference: B627/1.
  • A recording of an event dedicated to the music and literary work of Lord Berners, Lord Berners: an entertainment in words and music, 1972. Susan Bradshaw and John Betjeman both performed at this. Catalogue reference: T706, M5087.
  • William Bennett and Susan Bradshaw performing Boulez’s Sonatine for flute and piano. Catalogue reference: 2LP0048923; 1LP0073897.

Translating the ‘Shapes and Sounds’ of Composers’ Imaginings [1]

Bradshaw was well-positioned to act as a mediator between composers and audiences. She had a deep understanding of musical composition, performance and analysis, and used her knowledge of all three to interpret the works she encountered and to bring composers’ imaginings to life. Bradshaw believed that these three strands of musical endeavour were inter-related, and mutually nourishing. She appreciated that each was essential for advanced musical understanding, and furthermore, that the true product of this understanding was the communication of meaning. Whether that communication was musical (in performance), linguistic (for example, in academic writing), or pedagogical, Bradshaw saw the need to balance emotional experience with enquiry:

Passionate involvement precedes – must precede – cool appraisal; but when narcissistic pleasure starts to cancel out enquiry, when the sense of striving to understand and to reveal ceases to be the outcome of delight, when wonder becomes complacency, then great art becomes commonplace in the mind of the beholder and creation and recreation lapse into mere repetition. [2]

Bradshaw’s influence on the musical world can be seen in the archive. To trace it, one might begin with her scrapbook programmes (signalling, for example, her involvement with the Darmstadt International Summer Courses) and move to the exchange of ideas with fellow musicians in her correspondence, before visiting the vividly-expressed opinions in her writings.

New Ways of Hearing: “Untuning the Tempered Scale” [3]

The catastrophic destruction brought about by two world wars permeated all aspects of social existence; many composers felt that the old musical systems were inadequate for the development of the art. In a parallel to the destruction of societal structures through war, it was as if the hierarchies of the diatonic tonal system had to be broken down also. Composers looked to expand the resources available to them – the boundaries between music and noise blurred, and the number of notes in the conventional system increased with experiments in microtonality.

As musical modernism turned from the tradition of western diatonic tonality, it wrenched audiences from their familiar sound worlds. To the modernist composers, the rules and patterns of diatonic harmony represented predictability and constraint. Bradshaw’s broadcasting demonstrates her use of radio as a medium to promote modern music but also to challenge audiences to question the nature of listening: Why do we listen to music? What function does it have in our lives? She strove to help listeners navigate contemporary music, pointing out features and techniques, and highlighting composers’ search for truth in music.

As an individual whose influence and reach in the contemporary classical music scene was extensive, and well-evidenced in her archive, it is fitting for her papers to sit alongside those of many composers and musicians who so appreciated her support, here at the British Library.


Sarah Ellis, Archivist and Cataloguer of the Susan Bradshaw Papers (MS Mus. 1755)


[1] Susan Bradshaw, untitled (London, British Library, MS Mus. 1755/2/3, f. 152, undated).

[2] Susan Bradshaw, draft letter to the editor of Music Analysis journal (London, British Library, MS Mus 1755/2/3 ff. 45-46, undated).

[3] Susan Bradshaw, untitled (London, British Library, MS Mus. 1755/2/3, f. 152, undated).