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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

02 December 2021

Beethoven: Idealist. Innovator. Icon exhibition

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A new exhibition celebrating the life and music of Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the most influential composers of the Western classical tradition, opens on Friday 3 December at the British Library.

Beethoven exhibition billboard

Against the backdrop of war and revolution raging in Europe and the United States, Beethoven grew up in Bonn inspired by the ideals of freedom. He battled the blank page to compose some of the most inspiring pieces of music ever written, challenging conventions along the way, whilst also struggling with his own progressive hearing loss.

See the mind of this creative genius at work through items belonging to the composer himself and manuscripts scrawled in his own distinctive hand – we’ve picked a selection which you can find below.


A page from Beethoven's sketchbook for the Pastoral Symphony
Beethoven’s sketches for his Pastoral Symphony. British Library Add MS 31766

Beethoven started using bound sketchbooks to jot down and develop musical ideas in 1798. Before this time he had been using loose pages, like examples from the ‘Kafka’ Miscellany, which are also on display in the exhibition. The image shown here is from the sketchbook for his Symphony No. 6, op. 68 (known as the ‘Pastoral’), and contains material for the second movement (‘By the Brook’). Beethoven has marked at the top ‘Memories of country life’ (Erinnerungen an das Landleben).

Beethoven’s cadenza to a Mozart piano concerto
Beethoven’s cadenza to a Mozart piano concerto. British Library Add MS 29803

Shown here is Beethoven’s cadenza for the last movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor (K. 466). Beethoven is known to have admired Mozart’s D minor concerto, and it is possible that he performed it in a benefit concert for Mozart’s widow, Constanze, in 1795. His cadenzas for the first and last movement were probably realised in notation at some point before 1809, when he published cadenzas for the first four of his own piano concertos. Perhaps significantly, it was also around this time, in 1808, that his increasing deafness forced Beethoven to give his last public performance with orchestra.

At the exhibition you’ll also have a chance to meet the man behind the music by getting close to the personal belongings that shine a light on his everyday life, such as his tuning fork, and even a hand-scrawled laundry list.

Beethoven's tuning fork
Beethoven’s tuning fork. British Library Add MS 71148 A

Tuning forks were invented in the early 18th century, and were used primarily for tuning string instruments (violins, violas, cellos guitars) to a common resonance for the note ‘A’ above middle ‘C’. Tests have shown that Beethoven’s tuning fork resonates at 455.4 Hertz, over half a semitone higher than today's standard ‘A’ pitch of 440 Hertz. As well as seeing it in the exhibition, you can hear what it sounds like.

At the end of your journey in the exhibition, reflect on your own relationship with Beethoven’s music today, found in film, comics and literature. Learn how the Ninth Symphony – and its choral section based on Friedrich Schiller’s poem Ode to Joy – became the soundtrack to political and social movements worldwide, played everywhere from the Tiananmen Square student protests to the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

View of the Kärntnertortheater where Beethoven’s Ninth symphony was first performed in 1824
View of the Kärntnertortheater in Vienna where Beethoven’s Ninth symphony was first performed in 1824. British Library K.Top.90.41.g

Explore Beethoven’s music, life and legacy further through a series of events, including talks, discussions and performances by David Wyn Jones, Adrian Brendel and Simon Callaghan, Jessica Duchen and Viv McLean, the Will Gregory Moog Ensemble, Boxwood & Brass, and exhibition curators Richard Chesser and Rupert Ridgewell. Visit also our Discovering Music Beethoven pages to uncover more about the composer’s creative genius, and the context in which he lived and worked.

23 November 2021

Exploring the Provenance of Italian Manuscript Editions in the Royal Music Library

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The Royal Music Library represents the music interests and collecting efforts of several British monarchs and members of the royal family. Establishing the line of provenance for the majority of individual volumes in the collection is a challenging task, however, as apart from notable exceptions, such as the Handel autographs that formed part of George III’s music collection[1], volumes with music by Agostino Steffani that were brought to England from Hanover by George I, volumes belonging to Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, and other examples, it is not possible to ascertain to which member of the royal family individual volumes belonged to. This is especially the case with pre-19th century volumes, as both Prince Albert and Queen Victoria were also keen collectors of antiquarian music, which means that 17th- and 18th-century volumes in the collection were not necessarily acquired then.

A three-month project at the British Library is helping to answer some of the questions regarding provenance of individual volumes in the collection, through bibliographical research on certain characteristics of manuscript and printed volumes, such as binding types, copyists’ handwriting, ownership marks, and other. This blog discusses a particular sub-collection in the Royal Music Library and its Italian connections.

Volumes of Italian Manuscript Editions

A number of volumes in the Royal Music Library are bound in cream vellum, with a (faded) title on each spine [Figure 1]. The vast majority contain what we might call ‘manuscript editions’ - a manuscript copy of a piece of music designed to be sold in a music shop as with a printed edition. These are often identifiable by the presence of an ornate frontispiece or price, or the publisher's imprint, engraved or handwritten, though these are not always present. In the volumes examined in this sub-collection, each contains a number of manuscript editions of works by late 18th-century/early 19th-century Italian composers, such as Jommelli, Paisiello, and Cimarosa, most commonly short selections from Italian operas of the period.

Binding of R.M.22.a.4
Figure 1: Aprile (Giuseppe), 16 Vocal Duets and a Canon, British Library R.M.22.a.4.

Upon first glance, the variety of copyists and publishers contained within individual volumes suggests that binding occurred much later than purchase, and was undertaken by persons other than the first owner(s). Indeed, in some volumes, editions bearing the initials of more than one former owner have been bound next to each other. In general, each volume contains the musical hands of a number of different copyists, based mainly in Venice or Naples, both major music publishing centres in the late 18th century. There are significant overlaps in copyists’ hands across the collection, suggesting that the editions were acquired by their original owner(s) at around the same time. Indeed, even where several copyists’ hands are present, editions often bear the same style of frontispiece, pointing to groups of copyists associated with specific publishers.

In some cases, it is possible to identify a publisher (though not the copyist) by name, based on the presence of ornate frontispieces. The name of the publisher Alessandri e Scattaglia (active 1770-1803), for example, is printed clearly on the example in Figure 2.

Title page of R.M.22.a.3 (1)
Figure 2: Aprile (Giuseppe), Arias and duets, British Library R.M.22.a.3 (1).

It is sometimes possible to extrapolate this kind of information across volumes. The frontispiece in Figure 3, for example, bears the name of the publisher Luigi Marescalchi, active first in Venice (1770-1775) and then in Naples (1785-1799). The distinctive design also appears on the frontispiece of an entirely different edition in another volume; we can surmise therefore that this was also sold by Marescalchi.

R.M.22.a.3 (1) title page
Figure 3: Paisiello (Giovanni), Arias and duets, British Library R.M.8.e.8.
R.M.22.f.10 (6) title page
Figure 4: Jommelli (Nicolo), Opera arias and duets, British Library R.M.22.f.10 (6).

However, it is best to be cautious when identifying the publishers of manuscript editions. The functions of publisher and distributor in late 18th-century Italy were vaguely defined, and publishers sometimes moved around, muddying the waters when it comes to establishing the location of a particular publication.[2] For the purposes of establishing the line of provenance for this sub-collection, however, this kind of detail is not essential. It is enough to conclude that the broad similarities encountered here between volumes suggest that most of the music contained therein was acquired in Italy, in the late 18th century, probably in Naples and Venice, and subsequently brought back to England.

Traces of ownership of Italian manuscript edition volumes

There are several indicators of former ownership which help us to establish who may have purchased these manuscript editions in Italy. On the frontispieces of several individual tracts, and on one front binding, the names 'Cawdor' and 'Elizabeth Campbell' denote ownership. This couple were John Campbell (1790-1860), 1st Earl Cawdor, and his wife Elizabeth (née Thynne of Bath) (1795-1866). The first Earl’s father, 1st Baron Cawdor (1753-1821), also John Campbell, was a dedicated antiquarian, acquiring such an extensive art collection that he was able to exhibit it in his own home on Oxford Street from 1790 to 1800.[3] Both he and his wife Caroline were keen patrons of the arts, particularly Italian opera, and visited Italy on numerous occasions, where they are known to have purchased numerous pieces of art and sculpture, particularly in Naples and Sicily. Extensive travel diaries of the European travels of both John and Caroline are held at the Carmarthenshire Record Office.[4]

It is likely therefore that much of the manuscript music in this sub-collection may have been purchased in Italy by John Campbell, 1st Baron, and inherited later by his son, John Campbell, 1st Earl. The Earl inherited his parents’ love of music, and retained a serious and scholarly devotion to the subject for the rest of his life, so he is likely to have cherished his father’s music, and no doubt added to the family collection. John and Elizabeth married in 1816, and in 1817 travelled to Italy as part of their honeymoon trip, and it is possible that they purchased music during their travels.[5] 

Portrait of John Frederick Campbell, 1st Earl Cawdor
Figure 5: John Frederick Campbell by Richard James Lane, after James Rannie Swinton. Lithograph, 1848 (1848). NPG D22186. © National Portrait Gallery, London
Portrait of Elizabeth Campbell
Figure 6: Portrait of Elizabeth, Countess Cawdor after Lawrence. 1832. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

It is often Elizabeth’s name (either as Campbell or Cawdor) that appears on an individual edition, sometimes accompanied by ‘1817’, suggesting either that she acquired in Italy in 1817 or, perhaps, that she was gifted it by her husband upon marriage. Elizabeth’s travel diary from the trip survives, and in it, she frequently provides criticisms of pieces of art she encounters, demonstrating more than a passing knowledge of artistic quality and taste.[6] With further research, it may therefore be possible to establish whether she did in fact buy music in Italy during her honeymoon. Overall, although it may not be possible to establish exact circumstances of purchase by the Cawdor family, it is reasonable to conclude that, by the 1820s, the vast majority of individual editions in this sub-collection belonged to John and Elizabeth, First Earl and Countess of Cawdor.

The second part of this blog, to be published in a few weeks’ time, will follow the journey of these vellum volumes from the Cawdor family to Prince Albert, and through him, to the Royal Music Library of today.

Mary-Jannet Leith,

PhD Placement student, British Library


[1] Donald Burrows, 'The Royal Music Library and its Handel Collection', Electronic British Library Journal (2009), pp.1-40. All volumes of Handel’s autographs in the Royal Music Library have been digitised and are available to view on Digitised Manuscripts.

[2] Macnutt, R. ‘Alessandri & Scattaglia’, Grove Music Online (2001)

[3] Davies, J.E. The Changing Fortunes of a British Aristocratic Family 1689-1976: The Campbells of Cawdor and their Welsh Estates (Woodbridge, The Boydell Press) (2019), p. 276.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Davies, J.E. The Changing Fortunes of a British Aristocratic Family 1689-1976: The Campbells of Cawdor and their Welsh Estates (Woodbridge, The Boydell Press) (2019), p. 279.

[6] Ibid.

06 October 2021

Lithography and the satirical song sheet

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Alongside the religious and art music published during the 19th century, there was a substantial market for printed popular songs. The music of the London theatres and pleasure gardens had cultivated a steady demand for engraved song sheets throughout the 18th century, but the invention of lithography by Alois Senefelder (c.1797) injected a new graphic vitality into the genre. In a flurry of editorial experimentation brought about by lithography, printers played with the combination of music and image through the production of satirical song sheets. These were typically musical scores which featured a title page image as well as humorous caricatures that surrounded the notation adding a visual accompaniment to the musical narrative.

Title page of Robert Southey’s Quadrilling: A favourite Song, ascribed to the Authors of ‘Rejected Addresses' A page from Robert Southey’s Quadrilling: A favourite Song, ascribed to the Authors of ‘Rejected Addresses  A page from Robert Southey’s Quadrilling: A favourite Song, ascribed to the Authors of ‘Rejected Addresses' A page from Robert Southey’s Quadrilling: A favourite Song, ascribed to the Authors of ‘Rejected Addresses'

Figures 1-4: Robert Southey’s Quadrilling: A favourite Song, ascribed to the Authors of ‘Rejected Addresses’. British Library

Lithography offered a number of benefits over the engraving and etching that dominated music printing in the 18th and 19th centuries. Instead of engraving images onto metal plates with punches and burins, artists could use familiar materials such as crayons and pencils. It was even possible for the artist to work directly onto paper (with a special greasy ink) and for the printer to then transfer the image onto the absorbent stone used for making impressions. Drawing on a stone could be done ‘in the same way as one would execute a drawing on paper with ink or common chalk.’[1] This made it easier to reproduce maps, topographical plans, landscape drawings, portraits, and other works and, as Senefelder put it, ‘it has been generally observed that drawings of the less excellent artists, appear to greater advantage on stone, than on copper.’[2]

The precision of etching and engraving meant that it remained the dominant method for printing music in the 19th century, but the graphic flexibility and accessibility of lithography encouraged non-musical printers to experiment with music notation. Printers who specialised in graphic prints, keen to show off the capabilities of the new technology, jumped at the chance to apply lithographic techniques to printed music. One such publisher was William Hawkes Smith (1786-1840) of Birmingham. Smith was primarily an author and draughtsman who notably produced a set of illustrations for Robert Southey’s Thalaba the Destroyer.[3] In 1821 he published QUADRILLING; A favourite Song, ascribed to the Authors of ‘REJECTED ADDRESSES.’ [Figures 1-4] The edition was designed to show off Smith’s lithographic skills as the title page boasts, ‘Decorations designed and executed by WILLIAM HAWKES SMITH,’ and explicitly advertises the work as ‘printed by the Lithographic process.’

The song satirises the quadrille, a popular contemporary square dance for four couples. The title page features images of four respectable-looking couples standing in formation preparing to dance, setting up for the cacophony of humorous imagery on the following pages. The score contains just three lines of music overwhelmed by images that visualise the musical comedy: surrounding the stave and song text are depictions of different social classes attempting the dance.  Courtiers and citizens dance together, a man is pickpocketed as he falls over, Terpsichore (Greek muse) dances amongst men holding her lyre, and baronets, moneylenders, brokers, lawyers, and scullery maids are all made fun of in the commotion.

Although the combined novelty of a song sheet and a satirical cartoon must have impressed contemporary print- and music-buying audiences, this edition reveals a technology in its infancy. The smudging, inconsistent thickness of the text and the almost illegible publisher information at the foot of the title page [Figure 1] suggest that Smith had not yet mastered the new printing technique. Teething issues like these slowed down the uptake of lithography in the early 19th century, but technical treatises were published outlining solutions to the problems faced by those new to lithography.

Raucourt's A Manual of Lithography (1832) addressed some of the issues Smith faced. It explained in some detail what the printer should do if ‘the impressions are pale’, ‘The impressions are uneven’, ‘A part of the impression is wanting’ with over 100 other pieces of advice on mixing ink, cleaning and polishing the stones, etching drawings, imitating woodblocks etc. To fix the uneven impressions in this edition (most noticeable on the third line of notation (figure 2 and at the top of figure 3), for example, Smith would have had to ‘Increase the pressure of the scraper until it [took] up all the ink.’

Part of the image is missing at the top of the second page [Figure 3]. The manual suggested that this meant 'The stone, or the scraper, is not level: if this accident proceeds from the stone, some paper must be pasted on the leather of the box.' A later copy of Quadrilling (held at the Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection) suggests that these problems persisted throughout the process with faded and incomplete sections appearing in different parts of the score as the publisher worked to correct the mistakes. In the later copy Smith has also omitted the illegible text from the title page of the previous edition.

Manuals like this one helped to improve the quality of lithography in Britain and by the mid-1820s Smith seems to have perfected the process. In 1825, Smith published Washing Day: a proper new Ballad for wet weather [Figures 5-8]. The song was a popular ballad that made fun of a wife’s temperament on washing days. Clearly more confident in his abilities Smith was now trading as ‘the Lithographic Press.’ The title page of Washing Day attests to his technical improvement: the precise lines and contrasting textures of the text and image show a fluency not apparent in the comparatively clumsy printing of Quadrilling.

Title page of W. Hawkes Smith’s Washing Day: a proper new Ballad for wet weather A page from W. Hawkes Smith’s Washing Day: a proper new Ballad for wet weather

A page from W. Hawkes Smith’s Washing Day: a proper new Ballad for wet weather A page from W. Hawkes Smith’s Washing Day: a proper new Ballad for wet weather

Figures 5-8: W. Hawkes Smith’s Washing Day: a proper new Ballad for wet weather. British Library H.1652.n.(21.).

Inside the score, we also see a printer more confident in his experiments. Rather than the images following the stave, the music physically bends around Smith’s cartoons and the lines of the stave become part of the graphic comedy. The notation yields to the windy weather depicted on the title page as it is literally blown out of shape by cherubs (top right of figure 6) and as the husband is told ‘with a frowning look, To get out of [his wife’s] way,’ the staves also move to avoid her. Women were often satirised in 19th-century popular songs and here the visual and musical comedy combine to reinforce the sharply defined gender roles of Victorian society.

The printed music collections at the British Library are particularly rich in this kind of visual material but satirical song sheets are currently difficult to find. They are usually catalogued as ordinary song sheets (with the first line of the song used for the catalogue title) and the graphic elements of the scores are seldom included in catalogue record. Satirical song sheets have thus received little scholarly attention, but each of these editions provides a unique insight into the creative responses of publishers to new printing technologies and help us to understand the interplay between the print and music trades during the 19th-century.


[1] Colonel Raucourt, A manual of lithography, or memoir on the lithographical experiments made in Paris, at the Royal School of the Roads and Bridges ... Translated from the French, by C. Hullmandel., ed. Charles Joseph Hullmandel, Third edition corrected. ed. (London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green and Longman, 1832), 86-7.

[2] Johann Nepomuk Franz Aloys Senefelder, A complete course of lithography ... accompanied by illustrative specimens of drawings. To which is prefixed a History of Lithography ... With a preface by F. von Schlichtegroll. Translated from the German by A. S[chlichtegroll] (London : Printed for R. Ackermann, 1819. (W. Clowes [printer]). 1819).

[3] Robert Southey, Essays in design drawn and etched by W. H. Smith, ... illustrative of the poem of Thalaba the Destroyer, by R. Southey, ed. William Hawkes Smith (Birmingham, 1818).

Dominic Bridge, Collaborative PhD student, University of Liverpool and British Library