Music blog

Music news and views

Introduction

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

29 January 2024

Celebrating Women Musicians, past and present

To mark International Women’s Day 2024 we are holding a study day on women musicians on Friday 8 March in the British Library Pigott Theatre.

The study day will feature a series of presentations and discussions by expert musicologists, performers, composers, and British Library curators, on various aspects of the lives and music of women musicians, ranging from the 18th century until today. This will include case studies on specific composers and performers; more general talks on their achievements, challenges and barriers they faced in their careers; as well as aspects of acquiring, curating, and researching women musicians’ archives at the British Library.

Programme details and information on how to book a free ticket can be found at: https://thebritishlibraryculturalevents.seetickets.com/event/celebrating-women-musicians-past-and-present/british-library/2915297

19th century wood engraving of three women singers on stage
'Mdlle Jenny Lind as "Susanna" in "Le Nozze di Figaro" at Her Majesty's Theatre'. Wood engraving by Frederick James Smyth (active 1841-1867). NPG D45841. ©National Portrait Gallery, London.

26 January 2024

Restoring access to the British Library’s Music Collections

Add comment Comments (0)

Following the recent cyber-attack on the British Library, the Library has now implemented an interim service which will enable existing Registered Readers to access most of our printed music, music manuscripts, and paper-based archival collections relating to music. This service will be expanded further in the coming weeks.

We understand how frustrating this recent period has been for everyone wishing to access our printed music, and music manuscripts and archives, and we would like to thank you for your patience. We are continuing to work to restore our services, and you can read more about these activities in this blogpost by our Chief Executive.

The Using the Library page on our temporary website provides general information on current Library services, and advice for those without an existing Reader Pass. Please read on for information about the availability of specific music collections.

Printed music

You can now search for printed music using a searchable online version of our main catalogue of books and other printed material. Online and advance ordering is unavailable, so Registered Readers will need to collect a paper order form from staff in the Rare Books & Music Reading Room and fill in the required details. Please write the shelfmark exactly as it appears in the online catalogue.

Printed music with shelfmarks that start with the following letters should be available: a-i, A-H, Hirsch, I, M, N, P, R.M.5-R.M.17., RPS, Tyson. Unfortunately we cannot guarantee availability, as an item may, for instance, be in use by another Reader, or restricted for other reasons. If you wish to gain greater assurance on the availability of a particular item before you visit us, please contact our Reference Services Team by emailing [email protected].

We regret that printed music with shelfmarks beginning K., Mad. Soc., R.M.18.-R.M.27., VOC and INS is not yet available. The lending collection of modern printed scores held at our Boston Spa site is also currently unavailable.

Music manuscripts and music-related archival documents

Although the Library’s online catalogue of archives and manuscripts is not currently available, the Reference Services Team can assist with queries about these collections, checking paper catalogues and other sources. Please speak to the team in the Rare Books & Music Reading Room or email [email protected].

In addition, the following digitised copies of older catalogues give details of music manuscripts acquired before about 1900: Hughes-Hughes, Augustus, Catalogue of Manuscript Music in the British Museum, 3 vols (London: British Museum, 1906-1909).

Most music manuscripts and archives can now be made available to existing Registered Readers. We regret that the following collections are not currently available:

  • Soc. (Madrigal Society Loan Collection)
  • Music Loan
  • M. manuscripts
  • RPS MS (RPS printed music is available, but not RPS manuscripts)
  • Zweig MS

A few music manuscripts from the following collections are also restricted and currently unavailable: Add MS, Egerton, Royal Appendix, Royal, King’s, MS Mus. The Reference Services Team can advise on whether a particular item is likely to be available. Please speak to the team in the Rare Books & Music Reading Room or email [email protected].

To place a request to see a music manuscript or archival document relating to music, Registered Readers need to collect a paper order form from staff in the Rare Books & Music Reading Room and fill in the required details, including the shelfmark (manuscript number).

Microfilms

The Reference Services Team in the Rare Books & Music Reading Room has a full list of microfilms of printed and manuscript music.

Digital resources

You can search for most of our digitised printed music on Google Books.

Early Music Online contains images of 16th-century anthologies of printed music in the British Library.

We regret that our digitised music manuscripts and electronic research resources are not currently available.

We thank you, once again, for your patience as we continue to work to restore our services. Please do check this blog and the temporary British Library website for further updates.

Sandra Tuppen, Head of Music Collections

11 October 2023

Samuel Wesley’s Fugue for Mendelssohn

Just before the end of his life, Samuel Wesley – the elder composer, 1766–1837, the middle of the three main Samuels in the Wesley dynasty – experienced something of a revival in his spirits. Since his adolescence he had suffered long periods of depression alternating with stretches of creative activity and success. In the last two decades of his life, however, two serious breakdowns, one following the loss of an infant child in 1816 (which led to his confinement for a time to a mental asylum), and a second in 1830 (after which he seldom appeared in public), effectively brought his performing and composing career to an end. But in the summer of 1837, aged 71, the shadows lifted, his powers returned, and he enjoyed a final flourishing of activity and of relative contentment. 

One newly-catalogued music score originates with the last major public event of Wesley’s life, and possibly one of the happiest. It is a score of a Fugue in B Minor for organ ‘composed expressly’ for Wesley’s fellow composer-organist Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847), whom he met during the latter’s second visit to London in September 1837. It is not known exactly how the meeting came about, but was possibly arranged in advance by Wesley’s daughter Eliza, who is known to have met Mendelssohn on 7th September.  Wesley composed the fugue on the 9th, and the two composers met on the 12th, after Mendelssohn’s organ recital at Christ Church, Greyfriars (just opposite St. Paul’s Cathedral). Although it is not known whether Wesley played his Fugue for Mendelssohn, he did improvise at the organ after the recital. The younger composer was deeply impressed, but according to Eliza her father only said, ‘Oh, Sir, you have not heard me play; you should have heard me forty years ago!’

MS Mus. 1933 - B
The opening of Samuel Wesley’s ‘Fugue composed expressly for Dr. Mendelssohn' (MS Mus. 1933, f.1)

The present manuscript (British Library shelfmark MS Mus. 1933) is most likely in a contemporary copyist’s hand, though an inscription on folio 4 is in Wesley’s own writing.  It complements his own autograph manuscript at shelfmark Add MS 35007, f. 99b

Wesley died less than a month after the meeting, on 11 October 1837, seemingly a happier man than he had been for some years. Mendelssohn, only 28 at the time of their meeting, followed him only slightly over ten years later, and at scarcely more than half Wesley’s age, on 4 November 1847.

MS Mus. 1933 - E
The opening of a ‘Desk Voluntary’ in Wesley’s own hand  (MS Mus. 1933, f. 2v.)

Reference sources:

Olleson, P., & Pelkey, S.  (2001). Wesley, Samuel. Grove Music Online. Retrieved 5 Oct. 2023, from https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-60000202959.

Olleson, P.  (2004, September 23). Wesley, Samuel (1766–1837), composer and organist. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 5 Oct. 2023, from https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-29072.

Brown, Geoffrey Ernest, ‘The organ music of Samuel Wesley’, (Durham University thesis, 1977), pp. 168–169. Retrieved 6th July 2023 from Durham Theses, http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/9873/.

Dominic Newman

Music Manuscript and Archival Cataloguer