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

11 March 2021

Publishing Patriotism: the Napoleonic wars in musical print

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At the turn of the 19th century, British perceptions of revolutionary France and the Napoleonic wars were tied to myriad graphic, literary, and musical expressions. Between soldiers returning home, parading volunteer regiments, and theatrical renditions of war, the multiplicity of these imaginings were transformed and transported through print at a remarkable speed. After appearing in the London gazette, official news from the continent would go on a multimedia journey: passing through detailed (though often inaccurate) accounts in national and provincial newspapers; enduring the scrutiny of pamphlets and journals; being subjected to judgement in sermons; and set in public memory through the mockery of satirical cartoons.

Printed music was better placed than other media to incorporate military images because the large format of music publications meant that there was ample space on the title page for additional decoration. Taking advantage of the fashion for all things military, music publishers rushed to produce commemorative editions of battle music. In the months following The Battle of Camperdown (11 October 1797) Music publishers Joseph Dale, Longman & Broderip, and Corri, Dussek & Co. produced commemorative works celebrating the victory. They used the textual and graphic elements of the score to shape them into military souvenirs.

The cheaper editions (selling for between 1s 6d and 2s 6d), such as Joseph Dale’s, featured a standard unadorned title page. As was the practice with most editions of battle music, Dale fashioned the score into a commemorative object by including a date on the title page. This set these editions apart from other printed music of the period as publication dates were usually omitted to prevent later reprints seeming old or out of fashion. This shows that publishers considered the publication date to be part of the commercial appeal of these editions, so they were not concerned by the ephemerality this imposed on the printed object.

Unadorned title page of Joseph Dale’s publication commemorating The Battle of Camperdown
British Library g.138.(11.)

Longman & Broderip’s edition of Britannia by Daniel Steibelt (1765 - 1823) dresses the title in British imperial iconography, with a laurel wreath crossed with flags of the British empire. The naval scene at the foot of the title page captures the moment when the British flagship Venerable inflicts the final blow on the Dutch flagship Vryhied. Camperdown saw Duncan celebrated for his bravery and leadership, having taken his flagship into the heart of the action and in difficult waters. By using this moment at the battle’s climax, the score immortalises Duncan’s bravery and Britain’s naval dominance.

Title page of Longman & Broderip's edition of Daniel Steibelt's Britannia depicting a naval scene inspired by the Battle of Camperdown
British Library g.138.(3.)

The celebration of Duncan was not only due to his perceived courage but also the sheer extent of his victory. Within three hours of the start of the battle, Duncan was not only able to report a British victory but also the capture of eleven Dutch ships. Music publishers Corri, Dussek & Co. chose to show this side of the battle in their commemoration, avoiding the engagement itself and focusing on the outcome. Their chosen image emphasised the ‘Total Defeat’ of the Dutch fleet by showing their captured ships in tatters, being towed back to Britain, the punctured sails and post victory setting reminiscent of Thomas Whitcombe’s painting of the battle (1797).

Title page of Corri, Dussek & Co.'s edition commemorating the The Battle of Camperdown depicting the defeat of the Dutch fleet
British Library g.138.(13.)

The commercial opportunities that arose around the Napoleonic wars were not limited to events happening abroad, but also covered celebrations at home. In 1798 Corri, Dussek & Co. published the descriptive piece A Complete & exact delineation Of the Ceremony from St. James’s to St. Pauls: … to return thanks for the several Naval Victories obtained by the British Fleet over those of France, Spain, & Holland. The naval thanksgiving (1797) enlisted the full theatricality of public spectacle, involving the monarchy, government, members of the army and navy, and ordinary Britons lining the streets accompanied by bespoke music written by J. L. Dussek (1760-1812). The score provided an audio-visual reproduction of the event: it contained music written for the procession and church service and captured the visuality of the occasion through an ‘elegant Frontispiece’, which is unfortunately now lost. 

George III conceived the event to rival the civic ceremonies of revolutionary France in an attempt to promote a sense of national unity in Britain. This impact, however, was limited to those who lived near enough to London to attend the ceremony. The success of the occasion relied heavily on newspapers and periodicals circulating accounts to other parts of the country, but Corri, Dussek & Co.’s musical edition was unique in its capacity to deliver both the visual and audial spectacle to those who had not witnessed the event. This edition gave people who did not live in London the opportunity to experience and take part in the patriotic symbolism of the ceremony from afar.

The hype surrounding military victories provided a market for commemorative print in the short term, capitalising on spikes in patriotic sentiment and the celebrations linked to the events. In this context music scores became collectable objects alongside commemorative pottery, porcelain, and medals, together projecting idealised images of war and victory. They helped to facilitate celebration by reminding purchasers of important dates in the national calendar and providing the music with which to celebrate them. The graphic and textual additions to printed music meant that scores had commercial value beyond their musical content and appealed to the conspicuous consumption of print buying audiences, the visually idealised militarism of the title pages allowing Britons to fulfil their patriotic duty through purchasing the score.

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

02 February 2021

Update on Music E-resources

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We are pleased to announce a number of new subscriptions to our Music e-resources offer this year, as well as changes to remote access for some of our existing subscriptions:

Remote access to RILM and RIPM (full text)

RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text

RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text contains more than 200 full-text journals, many of which are not available anywhere else online, with content spanning 50 countries and 40 languages. The full-text content encompasses all disciplines related to music including: Ethnomusicology; Jazz studies; Musicology; Pedagogy; Performance; Popular music and Theory. It also covers interdisciplinary subjects, such as: Archaeology; Dance studies; Dramatic arts; Literature; Philosophy; Psychology; Therapy.

Thanks to a kind offer by RILM we are pleased to offer this resource to our users until 30 September 2021.

The resource is available in all reading rooms (please note our reading rooms are currently closed) as well as via remote access to registered readers, and can be accessed via Explore.

RIPM Preservation Series: European & North American Music Periodicals (Full Text)

This new RIPM series is a collection of unique and rare full-text music titles, which complements RIPM Retrospective Index to Music Periodicals, which the Library also subscribes to. The resource includes over 100 titles of music periodicals published in Europe and North America ranging from the early 19th century to the middle of the 20th century.

This is a new subscription which is available in all reading rooms. The resource is also available via remote access to registered readers until 30 September 2021, and can be accessed via Explore.

An example of content on the RIPM Preservation Series: European & North American Music Periodicals (Full Text) database on the EBSCO platform


This is a new subscription which offers access to an online Library of contemporary music. The BabelScores catalogue contains music in full score by composers of the last 40 years and includes audio and video content for some of the music scores, and also short composer biographies and work descriptions.

This resource is currently only available in our readings rooms but we are working towards making it available remotely in the future.

BabelScores homepage

Our existing subscriptions to the Index of Printed Music and Music Index are now also available remotely to registered readers.

For any enquiries on how to search and use these e-resources please contact our Music Reference Team.

25 January 2021

Finding Beethoven: recent work in the catalogue

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Beethoven's monument in Bonn
Beethoven's monument in Bonn. Illustration in Erinnerung an L. van Beethoven und die Feier der Enthüllung seines Monumentes zu Bonn am 10., 11. und 12. August 1845. General Reference Collection DRT Digital Store 785.h.31.

In Spring 2020, music cataloguers working from home were temporarily without access to the British Library catalogue. Our Collection Metadata colleagues were able to supply us with some exported files of catalogue records to work on, and we chose to have sets of records with Ludwig van Beethoven as composer. While our normal work of cataloguing new acquisitions was suspended, due to the closure of the Library site, we set to work improving the quality of these Beethoven records, as a way of working productively at home, and also of celebrating Beethoven's anniversary year in a practical way. The work  complements other departmental activities to mark the anniversary such as the online Beethoven exhibition on Discovering Music, which was launched last month.

About 2000 amended records have now been loaded back into the catalogue. Although there is more work to do, this is a big step towards improving our representation of Beethoven's works.

Authority control

The work we did was in the area of Authority Control. This is the practice of giving an entity (for example a person, work or subject) a formal, standardised identity in the form of a text string, which is used to draw together all occurrences of the same entity.

For the Beethoven records we improved these identities for work titles. For example, in this basic ‘legacy’ catalogue record the uniform title was updated:  

Example of a Beethoven record on Explore

The publisher's title appears at the top of the record. Further down is the "uniform title" (or "preferred title"), constructed by a cataloguer. This is the authority-controlled version of the title, which in this case also holds the secret of exactly where in Beethoven's opera this piece of music comes from. It also identifies it with all the other editions and arrangements of this excerpt, not only in the British Library, but in any other institution using the same international (NACO) standard. It does this in the traditional library way, by being a left-anchored text string, located in a background alphabetical index. The title elements are presented in a conventional order and form. The NACO conventions are essentially those laid down in the mid- to late-20th century Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules. However, the principle of bringing works together under a standardised title goes back a long way, and can be seen in older, printed catalogues.

Historic headings

Printed catalogue entry example

Printed catalogue entry example
Images from The catalogue of printed music in the British Library to 1980. London: K.G. Saur, 1981-1987.

The Catalogue of Printed Music (1981-1987) was based on older catalogues dating back to the 1840s. When the printed volumes of the Catalogue of Printed Music were converted to machine-readable cataloguing, its headings were imported into the records as uniform titles. Over the years, as records for new acquisitions were created and imported, a variety of different "uniform" titles for the same work have proliferated in the catalogue, complicating the process of searching for a particular work. Aligning all these with the NACO standard is an ongoing task, and this is the work we were continuing in the case of Beethoven.

Catalogue entry in Explore

What does this mean in practice?

The major outcome is that, if a user now locates and searches on a standard NACO uniform title, all instances of the work will be retrieved, because we have replaced the variants which formerly would have confused the search.

For example, the standard title "Concertos, piano, orchestra, no. 1, op. 15, C major" will now retrieve all the publications of the work, having replaced variants such as:

"Piano Concerto No. 1. Op. 15"

"Concerto, piano, orchestra, no. 1, op. 15, C major"

"Concertos. Piano. No. 1"

Similarly, "Bagatelles, piano, WoO 59, A minor" has replaced variants such as:

"Bagatelle, Wo0 59"

"Für Elise. K.-H. 59"

"Für Elise".

The future of uniform titles

Our current cataloguing standard, RDA (Resource Description and Access), allows for traditional uniform titles, but prefers a different, linked data approach. The online environment in which library catalogues now operate requires more sophisticated manipulation of data elements than can be provided by uniform title text strings, which were designed for printed and card catalogues. Also, the implication that there is a single, universally "correct" way of expressing the title of a work, with other versions treated as variants, is something which RDA, as an international standard, encourages us to move away from.

Future library systems will be able to present works and their relationships in a way that is both clearer and more nuanced. Making our data as consistent as possible now will help enormously with this future development. In the meantime, we hope that anyone looking for the works of Beethoven in the British Library's catalogue will find their search a much better experience.

Caroline Shaw, Printed & Manuscript Music Processing & Cataloguing Team Manager