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

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

06 March 2024

Harriet Cohen and Astra Desmond: introducing two newly catalogued archives

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Within Music Collections, we have an ongoing 18-month project to catalogue several archives of 20th-century women musicians. The project is part of the Library’s ‘Unlocking Hidden Collections’ initiative, which aims to make available selected Library collections that for various reasons, including cataloguing backlogs and metadata issues, remain undiscoverable and ‘hidden’ to users. The initiative places particular emphasis on materials relating to demographics which are underrepresented within the Library’s special collections.

The subjects of the two archives discussed below – pianist Harriet Cohen and contralto Astra Desmond – were near-contemporaries and had interlinked musical networks. Both were keen internationalists involved in various strands of British cultural diplomacy over several decades. Both were also esteemed for their intellect and partook in scholarly projects – for instance, they each contributed chapters to a 1943 book about Dvořák, on his piano music and vocal music respectively.[1] Their archives are quite different in scope and type, but both provide unusual and striking insights into the mechanisms of musical life in Britain across the first half of the 20th century.

MS Mus. 1917: Harriet Cohen Papers (Part II)

Harriet Cohen (1895-1967) was a concert pianist active from the late 1910s to the 1950s. She is best remembered today for her recordings and transcriptions of Bach; her promotion of new music, especially by British, Spanish, and Soviet composers; her 40-year love affair with Arnold Bax; and her fundraising and activism on behalf of Jewish and Zionist causes. Cohen was a prolific writer and lecturer on music, producing two books titled Music’s handmaid and A bundle of time alongside countless articles and opinion pieces for books and magazines.[2]

Cohen’s archive has a convoluted history. She died suddenly in November 1967, at the age of 71, and in her will bequeathed four trunks of letters and papers to the British Museum. The trunks contained some 1,900 letters between Cohen and Bax, along with letters from other ‘close men friends’ (as she called them) and prominent musical figures, and material formerly owned by Bax. It’s clear that Cohen considered these letters and papers to be of significant music-historical importance, and – once her stipulated 30-year embargo on the materials elapsed – that she wished for them to be viewed by musicologists. This first Cohen collection has been fully catalogued for many years now at MS Mus. 1626-1677. Cohen’s will also included donations of material elsewhere: her substantial art collection was given to the Royal Academy of Music, while individual music manuscripts in her possession (by Bax and others) were distributed to various universities and libraries. It is fair to say, therefore, that she carefully curated her own archival legacy and managed its destinations.

Not mentioned specifically in the will, however, were Cohen’s own personal and professional papers, which had clearly been useful while writing her memoir, and which it appears were in the process of being sorted at the time of her death. These papers went first to Cohen’s literary executor, and were eventually donated to the British Library by his widow in 2008, 40 years after the first Cohen bequest. This later archive has recently been arranged and catalogued as MS Mus. 1917: Harriet Cohen Papers (Part II).

One series of files contains a loosely chronological paper trail of her concert activity, with invitations, fee negotiations, contracts, travel itineraries, expenses receipts, draft running orders, and sometimes concert programmes. Another series contains her writings, lectures, and broadcasts on all sorts of topics: matters of musical interpretation and practical pianism; recollections of her work with composers such as Bax, Elgar, and Sibelius; lectures and debates on political and social issues. There’s a lot of correspondence – professional, personal, and political – with evidence of very patchy attempts by Cohen or an associate to order the hundreds of letters chronologically, alphabetically, or (slightly chaotically) by profession of correspondent; the final cataloguing order embraces these half-sequences, in order to preserve prior curatorial processes.

Cohen’s papers present an unusually full account of a performer’s efforts to advocate for herself and her career. While in-demand as a soloist, recitalist, and recording artist in the interwar years and during the second world war, Cohen’s engagements and opportunities decreased significantly after 1945, especially in the aftermath of life-changing illnesses and injuries. Letters show that Cohen would frequently ask conductors, programmers, and producers directly for engagements, or ask musical friends to pull strings on her behalf; copies of these outbound letters are found together with generally negative replies – some kind and explanatory, some short and blunt. Cohen believed she was discriminated against as a woman (especially as she grew older), and as a Jewish person who openly advocated for Jewish causes, which is very probably true in both cases. At the same time, Cohen was a complex and sometimes difficult character. Her proprietorial tendency comes across in letters to young Bax enthusiasts, where she refuses them permission to play works which she considered ‘hers’, and in remonstrations to conductors and organisations in cases where other soloists had been invited to perform ‘my Vaughan Williams’ or ‘my Elgar’ – with the possessive pronoun often underlined. Cohen’s mastery of the strongly worded letter was not limited to musical contexts: the archive includes an elaborate explanatory missive following a court summons for a driving infraction, and a letter to the Wine and Food Society threatening resignation as a member unless it addressed the prevalent sexist treatment of lone female diners in restaurants.

We may speculate that Cohen would not have wanted all of this preserved for posterity – especially when encountering occasional papers marked ‘Rubbish’ and ‘Discard’. Considering the Library’s two Cohen collections side by side inevitably leads to reflections upon the original bequest’s carefully curated presentation of an artist’s life and work – which ultimately revolved around her relationships with the creative men in her life[3] – and the much fuller, unfiltered and messy snapshot of the same life and work found in Part II. In the latter, the breadth and depth of Cohen’s own contributions to, and struggles within, the musical and political life of the 20th century shine through (alongside her Fortnum and Mason bills, cruise ship quiz certificates, and cat photos).

Image of Harriet Cohen and  Astra Desmond concert posters
Concert posters from the collections of Harriet Cohen (MS Mus. 1917) and Astra Desmond (MS Mus. 1952)

MS Mus. 1952: Astra Desmond Papers

The papers of contralto Astra Desmond (1893-1973) arrived at the Library in 2022, along with a set of test pressings donated to the Sound Archive. Between the late 1910s and early 1950s, Desmond maintained a busy schedule as a recitalist and soloist for oratorio and concert performances (with occasional appearances on the operatic stage too). She was perhaps best known in her time for the Angel role in Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius – which she performed widely with the composer at the podium – and she appeared in the first performances of Vaughan Williams’s Five Tudor Portraits and Serenade to Music. Desmond made frequent broadcasts for the BBC when the corporation was brand new, and as its music programmes developed she contributed a wide variety of recitals, talks, and reviews.

The collection reflects the full range of Desmond’s professional activity. There’s an extensive chronological run of concert programmes, which documents Desmond’s evolving recital repertoire and relationships with conductors, pianists, organisations, and venues. Files containing lists of repertoire and plans for recitals demonstrate both her thoughtful artistic programming and her consideration of audience demographics. There are papers relating to her roles as vocal professor at the Royal Academy of Music (1947-1963) and her adjudication notes for major vocal competitions.

Among the most important and unusual material in the Desmond collection relates to her work as a translator. Desmond had a good command of 12 European languages, and strongly preferred to sing art song in its original language while also recognising the importance of English ‘singing translations’ for the dissemination and appreciation of foreign-language songs in the UK. She learned Swedish and Norwegian in order to promote little-known songs by Grieg, Sibelius, and Kilpinen in the UK, and went on to write important early studies of the songs of Grieg and Sibelius; she published ‘singing translations’ of Grieg, Brahms, and Dvořák songs, and, when singing in original languages, printed her translations in concert programmes wherever possible. Newspaper reviews of her performances by critics around Europe applaud her linguistic prowess and excellent pronunciation. Topics of song, language and translation were hotly debated among British critics throughout Desmond’s performing years, and this material offers an invaluable insight into this aspect of song performance history.[4] What’s more, as the difficult, complex and imaginative work of translators still so often falls by the wayside in discussions of creativity (musical and otherwise), it is unusual and exciting to have a substantial archival resource of this kind.

The correspondence series in the Desmond collection is quite small, but includes a couple of alphabetically-arranged files of letters from important musicians – including one short letter from Harriet Cohen, addressed to ‘Gwen’ (Desmond’s real name was Gwendoline Neame).[5] In turn, there is one short note from Desmond to Cohen preserved in the Cohen collection, relating to the Society of Women Musicians, of which Desmond was president in the mid 1950s, and for which both gave concerts and/or talks. Beyond this, paper traces of their many, illustrious mutual friends and colleagues point to the wider social networks behind so much of British musical life in the early and mid 20th century.


[1] Gerald Abraham, ed., Antonin Dvorak: His Achievement (London: Drummond, 1943).

[2] Music’s handmaid (London: Faber, 1936); A bundle of time: The memoirs of Harriet Cohen (London: Faber, 1969).

[3] Helen Fry’s biography of Cohen is titled Music and Men: The Life and Loves of Harriet Cohen (Stroud: The History Press, 2008). A reader may instinctively critique such a title in line with wider problematic tropes of understanding the lives of creative women through their relationships with creative men, of which there are no shortage of examples; however, this should be contextualised with the knowledge that Cohen’s own self-perception was to a great extent bound up in similar tropes, which she embraced – for instance, she would often speak proudly of her ‘life’s work’ being bound up with Bax’s compositions.

[4] For context on the politics of singing language and translation during the interwar period, see Laura Tunbridge, Singing in the Age of Anxiety: Lieder Performances in New York and London between the World Wars (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), especially Chapter 2, ‘Singing translations’.

[5] At some point, Desmond also modified this spelling to ‘Gwendolyn’. It is unclear from the papers exactly when she took on the professional name of Astra Desmond, but it was in use by the time of her official recital debut at Steinway Hall on 9 February 1916.

Frankie Perry, Music Manuscripts and Archives Cataloguer

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:

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.