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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

05 November 2019

Boosey & Hawkes: first series of business archive now available

The archive of Boosey & Hawkes at the British Library represents, by volume, probably the largest distinct addition ever made to the Music Collections, comprising almost a century’s worth of historical records of one of Britain’s foremost music publishing firms.  The ongoing cataloguing of this substantial collection is a correspondingly sizeable undertaking, but a significant milestone has just been reached: the first major series of business files, the Directors’ papers (MS Mus.  1813/2/1), is now fully catalogued and available to Readers.

Material from the archive of Boosey & Hawkes
Material from the archive of Boosey & Hawkes, MS Mus. 1813

Boosey & Hawkes was formed in October 1930 by a merger between Boosey & Co. and Hawkes & Son, both established London family firms engaged in the publication of sheet music and the manufacture of musical instruments.  Boosey & Co. had been founded as a bookshop by Thomas Boosey in the late eighteenth century, achieved prominence in the late Victorian age as publishers of popular ballads and organisers of the London Ballad Concerts, developed a line in manufacturing woodwind instruments and cultivated a speciality in educational music.  Hawkes & Son, meanwhile, had, since its establishment in 1865, built up a reputation in music for military and brass band, as well as in the manufacture of brass and reed instruments.

Photograph of Leslie Boosey
Leslie Boosey (1887–1979). © Boosey & Hawkes.

An element of more direct competition emerged over the course of the 1920s, during which Hawkes in particular began an expansion into serious, or art music (as distinct from popular and band music).  Board meetings of the Performing Right Society gave each of the companies’ respective chairmen, Leslie Boosey (1887–1979) and Ralph Hawkes (1898–1950), the opportunity to observe the other closely, first as a competitor, and then as a potential fellow in partnership.  They evidently realised that their rather different characters complemented each other: Hawkes, a keen yachtsman, was bold and impulsive, whereas Boosey was the steadier and more diplomatic of the pair.  ‘He was the engine, I was the brakes’, Boosey recalled of his colleague. [1]

Photograph of Ralph Hawkes
Ralph Hawkes (1898–1950). © Boosey & Hawkes.

The expansion into serious music lost no momentum after the merger.  It bore fruit not only in contracts with prominent British composers such as Benjamin Britten, Gustav Holst, Cecil Armstrong Gibbs and Gerald Finzi, but also in the acquisition of publishing rights for major international composers including Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Aaron Copland, Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók.  In 1938, Boosey & Hawkes secured the publishing expertise of Ernst Roth, Erwin Stein and Alfred Kalmus when the Nazi Anschluss eliminated their positions at the Universal Edition publishing house in Vienna, and in 1943 acquired the rights to much of the catalogue of the Fürstner house, including the operas and ballets of Richard Strauss.

Correspondingly, the firm cultivated growth overseas.  From the American agency already shared by the two old firms a new subsidiary, Boosey & Hawkes, Inc., was founded.  Hawkes’ outpost in Paris was also developed and expanded, while branches were established in Canada, South Africa, Australia and Germany, and agencies set up in various South American cities.  There were even contracts involving Communist Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union: just before the Cold War set in entirely, Alfred Kalmus oversaw the formation of the Anglo-Soviet Music Press, a subsidiary company with the right to distribute English-language editions of new Soviet music.  By the mid-twentieth century, Boosey & Hawkes was an international name.

Amid all this, though, the firm’s spiritual home remained the London headquarters at 295, Regent Street.   It was mainly here that the present archive was accumulated.  The newly-catalogued Directors’ papers record the activities of various directors of Boosey & Hawkes, and of the firm more generally.  They include the files of Dr. Ernst Roth (1896–1971) Managing Director from 1945 to 1964, and of Leslie Boosey himself , some dating from before the 1930 merger.  Internal and external correspondence, memoranda and reports concern all aspects of the printing, publishing and performance of music.  There is correspondence with the general public, schools, musical groups and orchestras (both amateur and professional), festivals, broadcasters, other publishing houses in Britain and abroad, and Boosey & Hawkes' own overseas branches: the correspondents range from the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra to the Horlicks Amateur Dramatic Society.

Photograph of Ernst Roth
Dr. Ernst Roth, Managing Director 1945–1964. © Boosey & Hawkes.

As might be expected, the archive also contains extensive correspondence with a great number of composers and musicians: the names Eric Coates, Benjamin Britten, Ivor Novello, Igor Stravinsky, Adrian Boult, Imogen Holst, Elizabeth Poston, Bohuslav Martinů, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ethel Smyth, Cyril Scott and Andrzej Panufnik are barely representative of the whole list.  The letters often allow great insight into the relationship between composer and publisher – often, too, the tact and grace sometimes required to maintain it – and the various happenings and topics of conversation that require the publisher’s attention: timpani for Khachaturian, Stravinsky’s Cadillac, John Ireland’s dentist, and the ‘7,550 Cigarettes’, ‘17 bottles of Gin’ and ‘29 bottles of Whisky’ ordered as Christmas gifts for the Music Department in 1964.  As a whole, the Boosey & Hawkes archive preserves a copious and detailed and record of ‘the Business of Music’, as Ernst Roth called it: the ever-changing work of the music publisher at the strange intersection between intangible art and hard commerce.

[1] Wallace, Helen, Boosey & Hawkes: the publishing story (London: Boosey & Hawkes, 2007), p. 2.

Dominic Newman

Manuscripts Cataloguer

17 October 2019

Upcoming Elgar events at the British Library

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We are holding two events in November to celebrate Elgar’s music and the rich collections of his works at the Library.

On Friday 8 November there will be an evening concert with pianist Iain Farrington, featuring works by Elgar that are represented in the Library’s collection, throwing light on the composer’s creative process and unearthing some surprises! 

To find out more details and to book a place please visit the British Library website here:

On Monday 25 November there will be a study day focussing on the sources of Elgar’s works.

Photograph of Edward Elgar composing music at his desk
Edward Elgar. Photo by May Grafton

Elgar’s sources, ranging from manuscript sketches and scores, printed music, letters and recordings, reveal important information about his compositional practices and the origin of some of his most famous works, such as the Enigma variations, his concertos, symphonies, and oratorios. They also tell us important stories about his personal and professional life, his close family relationships and friendships, as well as his remarkable personality. Speakers specialising in the music of Elgar and Music curators will discuss his compositional practices and aspects of his life and reception.


10.00-10.20: Registration 

10.20-10.30: Welcome and Introduction to the day – Richard Chesser (Head of Music, British Library)

10.30-11.15: Keynote – Julian Rushton (Professor Emeritus, University of Leeds)

11.15-11.45: The Elgar Birthplace Museum – Michael Messenger

11.45-12.00: Comfort break 

12.00-12.45: The Elgar Sources: an overview – Professor Dan Grimley (University of Oxford)

12.45-14.00 – Lunch [not provided]

14.00-14.40: Elgar recordings – Jonathan Summers (British Library)

14.40-15.30: Discoveries in Elgar Sources – Speakers: John Norris, David Lloyd-Jones

15.30-15.50: Comfort break 

15.50-16.30: Biographical Issues in Elgar Scholarship – Chair: Dr Jo Bullivant (University of Oxford)

Speakers: Jo Bullivant, Dr Sophie Fuller (Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance), Dr Nalini Ghuman (Mills College), Julian Rushton

16.30-17.00: Future plans on the Elgar sources at the British Library – Richard Chesser and Chris Scobie (British Library)

To book a place please visit the British Library website here:

We hope to see you there!


10 October 2019

Additional Discovering Music content published!

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We recently published additional content on our Discovering Music: early 20th century space:


Three additional articles are now featured on the space: Shadow and light in war and peace: Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time written by Oliver Soden, Holst and India written by Nalini Ghuman and Promoting New Music in Britain written by Annika Forkert.

Opening of Discovering Music article Promoting New Music in Britain

Collection items

Nine additional collection items have been created to accompany the newly published articles and three further ones have been added to the existing articles on British Composers in the early 20th century, The Second Viennese School and Music and the Creative Process: Elgar’s Third Symphony. The collection items feature autograph manuscripts and letters by Michael Tippett, Gustav Holst, Anton Webern, Alban Berg, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Edward Elgar.

The title page of the published vocal score of Berg's Wozzeck
Alban Berg: Wozzeck. Vocal score. Shelfmark: H.3455.d. © Public domain.


Titlepage of Holst's autograph manuscript of Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda
Gustav Holst: Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda. Shelfmark: Add MS 57873, f.2r. © Public domain.

People pages

An additional People page has been added to the space for the composer Michael Tippett.

Discovering Music People page of Michael Tippett

About Discovering Music

Discovering Music: early 20th century is a free online learning resource that provides unprecedented access to the Library’s music collections.

This phase of the project features over 100 20th-century treasures from the British Library’s collection including sketches, first editions, letters, concert programmes, sound recordings and photographs. 

Reflecting a period of intense musical development, the site reveals the ways in which key musicians of the period captured the world around them by rejecting inherited traditions and experimenting with new forms and themes. The site includes fascinating manuscripts by, among others, Benjamin Britten, Edward Elgar, Frederick Delius, Maurice Ravel, Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern. Users can also browse articles, information on specific musical works, and teachers’ notes designed to support the study of music at GCSE and A Level. With this material the Library hopes to illuminate the social, political and cultural context in which this music was written.