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5 posts from May 2013

22 May 2013

Wagner goes online at 200

WagnerPhoto22 May 2013 is the 200th birthday of probably the most influential composer ever to have lived, Wilhelm Richard Wagner. The British Library is celebrating this anniversary with a study day on Wagner the Writer as well as a complete performance of the Ring cycle – without music! We have also taken the opportunity to publish those of Wagner’s original manuscripts which happen to reside in the Library on our Digitised Manuscripts website. Since many of them are extremely fragile and cannot normally be issued in our Reading Rooms, we are delighted to make high-resolution digital images of them freely available on the internet. They include some pivotal works in the development of Wagner’s career, and shed fascinating light on the working practices of the master of the music drama.

The British Library’s collection of printed editions of Wagner’s music is near comprehensive, with more than 2000 publications at the last count. Put together with a similar number of books about him, and perhaps 20,000 recordings, this makes the Library a major research resource for anyone with a serious interest in Wagner.

In this context, the Library holds only a minute amount of original material written in Wagner’s own hand, and most of it comes from early in his career. Nevertheless, it sheds much light on the way in which Wagner composed, and the means by which he honed his genius as a writer and a composer. 

The earliest manuscript in the Library’s collections is a draft piano score of an orchestral Overture in E minor, composed when Wagner was 18 years old. WagnerIt is one of his very first surviving compositions: although it is number 24 in the chronological catalogue ‘WWV’, many of the earlier pieces (from the age of 13 onwards) are now lost. It was performed in the Hoftheater in Leipzig on 17 February 1832 as the overture to King Enzio, a play by Ernst Raupach.  

Other very early works include an Entr’acte tragique in D major (WWV 25 no.1), for which there is a draft in short score as well as a fragmentary full score. In November 1832, Wagner’s first symphony was performed in Prague. His full score of the work is lost (though a copyist’s score survives at Bayreuth, and the work was published after his death), but Wagner made a piano duet version of the first movement. Incidental music for a festival play to welcome in the new year of 1835 was performed in Magdeburg and provides further evidence of Wagner’s early involvement with the stage.

Wagner’s three early forays into the medium of opera show us the starting points of the process which was to develop into the masterworks of his maturity. Die Feen (The Fairies) is based on a play by Carlo Gozzi and fits very much into the German Romantic tradition of Weber and his contemporary Heinrich Marschner. Already we see the composer working on drafts of the text separately from the music. Das Liebesverbot (The Love-Ban) derives from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, and is modelled much more closely on French and Italian opera, especially Auber and Bellini. LiebesThe opera was first performed in Magdeburg on 29 March 1836, and Wagner subsequently revised his German libretto in a densely-written French translation, in the hope of securing a production in Paris: this manuscript includes the draft of a letter to Meyerbeer (now lost) asking for his help in doing so. As well as the almost complete libretti in both languages, there is a draft score of the Overture and sketches for several later sections, some in pencil and others in ink, usually conceived on one or two staves. These initial ideas were later worked into a draft score, which in turn led to the complete full score. For his next stage work, Wagner turned more directly to Meyerbeer for inspiration: Rienzi is grand opera writ large. Although intended for the Paris stage, it eventually received its first performance in Dresden on 20 October 1842. The staging requirements were too onerous for the Hoftheater, and this detailed memorandum suggests means of coping with a smaller chorus. Unfortunately the full scores of all three of these operas are now lost: they were among the manuscripts acquired by Adolf Hitler on his 50th birthday.

Wagner’s compositional journey towards the Gesamtkunstwerk was gradual, and these early operas were followed by other occasional pieces, including his Overture ‘Polonia’, written in 1836 as a reminiscence of his time as a student in Leipzig when he befriended Polish soldiers fleeing  from the fall of Warsaw to the Russians in September 1831, who passed through Leipzig to exile in France.

RuleBAnother nationalist overture was written in 1837, this time for the Philharmonic Society in London, which declined to perform the work on grounds of its ‘being written on a Theme which is here considered common place’: Rule Britannia. Other curiosities include settings of poems by Victor Hugo, a chorus for a vaudeville and an instrumental arrangement of a popular number from an opera by Halévy.

The only work of Wagner’s maturity for which manuscripts are kept in the British Library is The Flying Dutchman. One consequence of the revolutionary principle of organic unity which Wagner first displayed in this work was that the overture continues straight into the music of Act I, as the curtain rises. In order to make the overture performable as a separate concert piece, Wagner therefore wrote an alternative ending, which he attached to this copy score of the overture. He also planned French translations of some of the work.


Finally, there are various letters by Wagner in the Library’s collections. Among these one stands out in particular: it is a letter written in January 1849 to Baron Ferdinand von Biedenfeld. BielefeldWagner outlines his belief in the interdependence of poetry and music, the natural consequence of which is that music drama is the highest possible form of art. These ideas were to find more extended exposure in his famous treatise on The Artwork of the Future — and of course would be manifested in the great works of his final years.

Almost all of these manuscripts were apparently collected by Leopold, Graf von Thun und Hohenstein (1811–88), Austrian minister for culture and a keen musical amateur. In 1887 they were acquired by the collector Albert Cohn, and in 1937 were sold to the great Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. His magnificent collection of musical, literary and historical autographs was presented to the British Library by his heirs in 1986, and this is the first stage in a project supported by the Derek Butler Trust to make all of the manuscripts in this remarkable collection freely available online.

To see a full list of all the digitised Wagner manuscripts, search for "Wagner" on For more information on other bicentenary events, including the British Library Study Day and complete reading of the Ring cycle, visit

16 May 2013

Wagner weekend at the British Library, 8-9 June

Saturday 8 June

Study Day: Wagner the WriterWagner caricature

British Library Conference Centre, 10.30-17.00

Wagner's writings range widely over subjects as various as race, climate, vegetarianism, aesthetics and modern science. Above all he was formulating ideas that would take dramatic shape in his operas. Distinguished musicologists, literary historians, and translators speak about Wagner's immense literary output with opportunities for discussion and debate. The day will include sessions on Wagner as Librettist, Wagner's Paris writings (1840-42), the Later Aesthetic Essays, and a roundtable discussion on translating Wagner's prose and poetic texts. Speakers include Roger Allen, Hilda Brown, Bojan Bujic, Katharine Ellis, Tash Siddiqui, David Trippett, and Emma Warner. The study day is presented in association with The Wagner Journal and the Wagner 200 Festival, and coincides with the digitisation of the Library's Wagner holdings.

Tickets and further details:

Sunday 9 June

Wagner's Ring cycle: a complete reading

British Library Conference Centre, 11.00-18.00Final scene of Götterdämmerung, by Arthur Rackham

A reading of the entire Ring cycle, in English, featuring Sir John Tomlinson and a company of young actors from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, directed by William Relton. This event provides a rare opportunity both to experience the richness and subtlety of Wagner's writing and to thrill to the drama of the text as poetry. The reading will be illustrated with scenes from the Ring, by artists including Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), projected on the big screen. 

Tickets and further details:


15 May 2013

The Banks of Green Willow

As cultural institutions make more of their material available online, great opportunities lie waiting to be discovered. Not only is it possible to browse collections from one institution, it's also possible to reunite objects, recordings and manuscripts which have been stored in separate institutions - sometimes for over a century.

The Wealth of Marshland (photographer, Peter Henry Emerson, 1887)

The English folksong "The Banks of Green Willow" is one such example. You can hear a version of this song, sung by David Clements and recorded by the composer George Butterworth, on our sounds website. It's a wax cylinder recording made in 1909 so the quality is not what we're used to now - but it's incredible we're able to hear it at all!

The cylinder is on long term loan to the British Library from the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS). For some more information about Butterworth's fieldwork, take a look at the EFDSS web page on George Butterworth in the "Take Six" section.

Now, if you search the catalogues of "Take Six", you'll find three transcriptions of "The Banks of Green Willow" and the catalogue entry mentions David Clements as a performer.

The third transcription at the bottom of the page closely matches the recording of our wax cylinder recording. If you listen to a recording of Butterworth's orchestral piece, "The Banks of Green Willow" (which you should, it's a wonderful piece of music), you'll hear David Clements' version of the song appearing as a kind of counter melody. Rather than variations on one theme, "The Banks of Green Willow"  may be seen as a montage of different versions of the same folksong that Butterworth discovered existed in the course of his fieldwork.

Butterworth served in the First World War and was twice awarded the Military Cross. Tragically, he was killed during the Battle of the Somme in 1916; his second Military Cross was awarded posthumously. Butterworth's friend, Vaughan Williams, inherited his fieldwork; the transcriptions above are in Vaughan Williams' handwriting.

The EFDSS has been working on "The Full English", a project to digitise a substantial part of its collection, in partnership with the British Library and others. The digitised resources will become available online in June 2013.

More information about Emerson's photograph can be found in our online gallery.


08 May 2013

Steve Martland

Steve Martland (c) Schott Music LtdWe were very saddened to hear of the death of Steve Martland, one of the most innovative British composers of his generation. Born in Liverpool in 1959, he studied composition with Louis Andriessen in The Hague. In many of his works one can hear the influence of American minimalism refracted through Andriessen's lens, but with many new aspects thrown in for good measure: a relentless rhythmic drive, very often amplified wind instruments, elements of jazz and rock, and a disciplined concern for overall form which perhaps owes something to his friend Michael Tippett.

The British Library acquired all of Steve Martland's music manuscripts in 2009: he was determined at that time to continue composing only on screen, not on paper. They offer a fascinating glimpse into his compositional laboratory, with extensive correspondence, research notes, sketches, rhythmic plans and draft scores preceding the final score, always meticulously neat and precise. This rich archive should provide much food for thought for future generations of researchers and musicians seeking to draw new inspiration from his legacy.

Steve Martland's masterpiece is Babi Yar, for very large orchestra. It was first performed on 22 November 1983 by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and a week later by the St Louis Symphony Orchestra. The score was extensively revised for a later performance in Glasgow. This page from the full score shows the extensive revisions - with a new bottle of correction fluid for every page! - as well as a characteristically abrasive, defiant instruction to the horns: 'VERY WILD! Bells in the air. Grace notes as fast as possible to create a wild, blurred, "wailing"'.

Martland Babi Yar

Steve Martland, Babi Yar, full score. Copyright Schott Music Ltd. BL MS Mus. 1783

01 May 2013

May Day at BL World & Traditional Music

As 1 May is May Day, we thought we would give you a glimpse of the Traditional Music in England collection available on BL Sounds. You can find many recordings of May Day celebrations such as this one recorded in the streets of Padstow on May Day in 1976.

Folklorist Peter Kennedy also recorded May Day celebrations. Here is an actuality recording of a May Day procession in Castleton, Derbyshire, England. You can hear the horses hooves march by to the tune of the brass band.

Padstow May Day
The Blue Ribbon 'Obby 'Oss: Market Square, Padstow, Cornwall, May Day (1 May), year not known (probably late 1940s); Photograph by Pictorial Press, London.

1 May is also a day for celebrating the international labour movement. Here are a few labour songs from around the world:

These women and girls, recorded in Uganda by Peter Cooke in 1964, are returning from doing their day’s work which would probably either consist of collecting grass or roofing.

The musicians and singers performing this song work in farming. In this recording, made by Rolf Killius in 2001, you can hear them describing the strains of the long agricultural year working in the barren fields in the mountains.

Our last recording was made by Peter Kennedy in 1953 at the Portland Stone Quarry in England. It was made for a film on the songs and work practices in the quarry entitled “Quarrymen’s Work Songs”. This is part of a group of work songs made by Kennedy, accompanied by the sounds of the work being carried out.