Music blog

4 posts from October 2012

29 October 2012

BBC Opera Librettos

A recent donation of BBC Opera Librettos, from the library of Dr Aitken Cooper, which were broadcast during the 1920s highlights the scope and educational value of the service provided by the Corporation which from the outset strove to 'inform, educate and entertain'.  Initially, the librettos could be requested so that listeners could follow, often in translation, the text of the opera broadcast every month. 


The opera broadcasts began in 1926 and were transmitted from station 2LO at Marconi House in London with the transmitter positioned on the roof of Selfridges department store in Oxford Street.  They became so popular that by 1928 there were two broadcasts of the same work a few days apart and the BBC began a subscription scheme for the libretti, a series of twelve costing two shillings. 

Amongst favourite works such as Tannhauser, Rigoletto, Faust and the Barber of Seville can be found more unusual operas such as Balfe's Bohemian Girl, Flotow's Martha and Philemon and Baucis by Gounod.  However, the BBC upheld its claim to inform and educate by broadcasting unusual and new works such as The Red Pen, 'a sort of opera' by A.P.Herbert and Geoffrey Toye.

The Red Pen0001
The Red Pen20001

Although the librettos do not give details of the musicians involved in the broadcast, a glance at the Radio Times reveals that The Wireless Orchestra was conducted by the composer Geoffrey Toye. 

On 22nd November 1927, the same day that Clifford Curzon was heard in a recital with the Victor Olof Sextett, another unusual work was broadcast.  This was Penelope by Herbert Ferrers who gave up his studies of science and literature at the age of twenty to study composition under Sir Charles Stanford and Charles Wood at the Royal College of Music where he won the Sullivan Prize for composition.  He became musical director to Sir Frank Benson, studied in Paris, and conducted throughout England most notably with the Carl Rosa Opera Company.  Around 1922 his sight completely failed and today he seems to have all but dissappeared.  A rather sad letter from Haydn Wood to BBC Director of Music Productions in 1944 explained that 'Herbert Ferrers is a blind composer whom Wood likes to help by orchestrating his compositions, promoting his music and writing letters to musical organisations reminding them of Ferrers's financial needs.' 

It would seem that a standard cast was used for each broadcast as John Armstrong played the part of Telemachos in Penelope and that of Dan in Joseph and his Brethren by Etienne Henri Mehul.  Joseph was played by well known British lyric tenor Frank Titterton.


It is interesting to see that in January 1928 the Monteverdi opera The Return of Ulysses was broadcast from 'a new edition of this old work...prepared with great care by Vincent d'Indy.'  The first modern performance of the opera was given in Paris in this edition on 16th May 1925 and the BBC, then always keen to inform and educate, were quick to introduce the work to the British public.

25 October 2012

Music research archives in India

Chanan Khan, a Manganiyar musician performing at the IASA conference, 10 October 2012

The American Institute of Indian Studies, Archives and Research Centre for Ethnomusicology (ARCE), Delhi, hosted the 43rd International Association for Sound and Audiovisual Archives (IASA) Annual Conference from 7 - 11 October.

The World and Traditional Music collection at the British Library comprises both published and unpublished recordings. Within the sphere of sound and audiovisual archiving, the unpublished holdings bring us into the realm of the “research archive”, as defined by IASA and in contrast to Broadcast Archives or National Archives. The distinction is quite fine, of course, because all archives are used for research broadly defined. However, one way to think of a research archive is as one containing primarily unpublished materials made by researchers, for example, by musicologists during fieldwork. And one tends to find too that people leading research archives are themselves researchers who know the discipline and its research concerns and trends. There are many such archives around the world – the American Folklife Centre of the Library of Congress, the Ethnomusicology Archive at University California Los Angeles, the Vienna Phonogrammarchiv of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, the Research Centre for Ethnomusicology at the CNRS in Paris, the Archives of Traditional Music in Bloomington, USA, the International Library of African Music, the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies - all represented at the conference.

The conference theme was “In transition: access for all”, an apt one for a nation on the rise, but relevant throughout the world as we aim to transfer the results of ethnographic research over the past century into digital form so that communities, musicians, scholars and the general public can have access. Of concern to research archives is that access is provided fairly and ethically. Many papers were thus about preservation and access projects and there were several formal papers and led discussions on issues of intellectual property rights and ethics. In particular it was hugely interesting and inspiring to hear from colleagues in some of the research archive centres in India, such as the Travelling Archive, the Sangeet Natak Academy, the Archive of North Indian Classical Music in Kolkata, Naadsaager Archives and Documentation Society for South Asian Music, Samvaad Foundation in Mumbai.

Field recording formats at the ARCE
Field recordings are digitised and made available for researchers onsite

22 October 2012

Independent Labels

Despite many stories of the decline of the traditional record industry there seems to have been a growth in the number of Indie labels and self-released recordings in the UK of late. It is gratifying to see this reflected in a marked increase in the number of donations from Independents in recent months, largely due to the efforts of my colleague Jamie Tugwell who is contacting labels on a regular basis and explaining about the BL’s collection of sound recordings.

So this week I was pleased to meet Rachael from Stolen Recordings who came to the library in person with a wonderful collection of releases that we had not previously acquired.

Indies 001

Stolen were voted Small Independent Label of the Year last year and are on a bit of a roll at the moment so to receive some of their rarer recordings in hand-made sleeves and a variety of formats was timely.

Another arrival this week was a package from Allsorted Records based in Norwich. Allsorted’s Dudley had contacted me earlier in the year to ask about registering the label’s recordings with the BL. I was happy to point out that there is no registration process – just send us your records and they will be processed and added to our collection.

Indies 005

We don’t have the benefit of compulsory legal deposit for sound recordings so have to rely on donations. There are long-standing arrangements with the major record companies and we receive almost daily deliveries from them, but it is more time-consuming to track down smaller independent labels and make arrangements with them so we are always trying to play catch-up.

One label that is very familiar with the BL’s collection of recordings is Public Information, whose co-founder Alex Wilson is Video Manager in the BL’s Sound and Vision department. Alex brought in the two most recent releases in their catalogue this week and we now have a complete run of their output.

Indies 008


We hope to further increase the acquisition of recordings from Independent labels over the forthcoming months so if you are involved in a label you may well hear from Jamie or myself. Alternatively you can e-mail [email protected] to tell us about your label and we will happily arrange to receive your recordings.

16 October 2012

Fernando Valero (1854-1914) Rare recording previously thought lost

The rarest item in the recent donation of rare discs from Martin James Gordon Moir was undoubtedly a single sided shellac disc of the Spanish tenor Fernando Valero.  Because Valero only made a handful of discs for the Gramophone & Typewriter Company (probably only six sides) on 16th June and 15th July 1903, his discs are highly sought after – but the one donated to The British Library is of even greater interest because even though allotted a catalogue number and printed label, it is thought by collectors to be unpublished.  Indeed, Valero’s entry on Spanish Wikipedia claims that this recording of Mattinata by Tosti ‘appears to be “lost”’.


From 1880 Valero sang in Italy and appeared on the great opera stages of the world including Berlin, Lisbon, New York, Chicago and London while in 1885 he sang the role of Werther at La Scala.  However, the role he became most identified with was that of Don José in Bizet’s Carmen which he first performed in St Petersburg in 1884. 

Valero as Don Jose in Bizet's Carmen

Valero retired in 1902 and settled in St Petersburg where he died in 1914.

Cavalleria Rusticana (Mascagni)

The recording of Mattinata was transferred at 77 rpm with the music sounding in the key of A flat major as this sounds the most plausible pitch.

GRAMOPHONE MONARCH 052022 playback