THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Music blog

22 March 2013

Reuniting music manuscript collections

The past weeks have been busy in the British Library’s music department, with negotiations taking place over the acquisition of several twentieth-century composers' music manuscripts. We’ll be providing news of these in future posts.

It’s our policy to acquire, preserve and make available to researchers the original manuscripts and papers of major British composers, as well as the papers of other pre-eminent musicians and musical organisations active in Britain. We also acquire, where the opportunity arises at a reasonable cost, representative manuscripts of important foreign composers.

Zweig MS 8
Autograph sketch by Beethoven for his 'Egmont' overture, acquired as part of the Stefan Zweig Collection

Sometimes we acquire music manuscripts direct from a composer. In other cases we acquire his or her archive of manuscript scores, correspondence and other papers as a bequest on death, or as a result of a sale. In some fortunate instances, the archive will contain a complete or virtually complete collection of the composer’s original manuscripts.

But there are other composers’ archives for which the story is very different: their manuscripts may have been dispersed during their lifetime, given to dedicatees, friends or publishers, or sold, and some may have been lost altogether. One of the pleasures of working at the British Library is seeing some of these dispersed music collections reassembled – brought together for the first time since they left the hands of their creator, and made available for researchers and musicians to consult.

Sometimes this assembling of a corpus of a composer’s works takes place over many years. And, of course, it is not always possible to rebuild a single collection of an individual’s works. Some manuscripts may remain in private hands, or be owned by other libraries. This is where digital technology come into its own. The opportunity now exists for dispersed collections to be reunited virtually on the web. A pioneer in this field is Bach Digital, which brings together digitised versions of Bach's autograph manuscripts as well as copyists' manuscripts.

In some cases, however, it has been possible to reunite most of a creator’s original manuscripts physically.  Such is the case with the music manuscripts of Robert Simpson (1921-1997). Simpson was one of the most important composers of symphonies to emerge in Britain in the second half of the 20th century.  He was, in addition, a prolific writer on music and a BBC producer.  Simpson produced a wide variety of works (11 symphonies, 15 string quartets, numerous pieces for brass, and other chamber and keyboard works). With a deep interest in Scandinavian music, he also brought Carl Nielsen to public attention in Britain.

Carl Nielsen
Carl Nielsen, whose music was promoted in Britain by Robert Simpson

After Robert Simpson’s death, his widow presented many of his music manuscripts to the British Library. Over the following decade, and thanks to the efforts of Mrs Simpson and of the Robert Simpson Society, almost all of Simpson’s other autograph manuscripts have now been deposited at the British Library.

Full description of the Robert Simpson Collection (PDF file)

The Robert Simpson Collection is now fully catalogued and is available to be consulted by researchers at the British Library. 

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