Music blog

4 posts from July 2013

17 July 2013

Music and Monarchy

11 E XI fol 2r'Music and Monarchy' is the theme of a new four-part television series, presented by Dr David Starkey, which 'reveals how British kings and queens shaped the story of the nation's music: as patrons and tastemakers, and even as composers and performers'. The series promises a refreshing approach, looking at the role played by music in some of the great moments of British history - but always primarily from a historian's point of view.

As with many of his earlier series, Dr Starkey draws heavily on the British Library's collections when telling his 'history of England written in music'. This post draws attention to some of the British Library manuscripts which feature in the first programme, all of which are freely available online.

Old hall
Two pieces of music in the Old Hall Manuscript are attributed to 'Roy Henry': they are settings of the 'Gloria' and 'Sanctus' of the Mass, both composed in three parts. There has been a great deal of discussion about the true identity of this King Henry, much of it taking place while the manuscript was owned by St Edmund's College at Old Hall Green in Hertfordshire, from where the manuscript gained its modern name before entering the British Library's collections in 1973. Earlier scholars identified the composer as Henry VI or Henry IV, but the consensus is now firmly in favour of Henry V. The manuscript was compiled between about 1415 and 1421, but it is quite possible that Henry composed these pieces before acceding to the throne in 1413.

Images of the complete Old Hall Manuscript are available to view on the Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music (, together with a detailed description, list of contents and extensive bibliography about the manuscript. (This link leads directly to the Old Hall page.) DIAMM requires users to set up a user account before accessing high-resolution images, for reasons of copyright licensing, but this is a simple process.


A later king whose musical predilections are more widely known is Henry VIII. As with 'Roy Henry', music survives which is apparently composed by the king himself: the Henry VIII Songbook was probably compiled around 1518, and includes twenty songs and thirteen instrumental pieces ascribed to ‘The Kynge H. viij’, as well as 76 pieces by other musicians associated with the court. It is most likely that Henry composed this music while still a prince, though some pieces may date from the early years of his reign. The manuscript is not written by Henry himself, and was never part of the royal library: it appears to have been compiled for Sir Henry Guildford (1489-1532), controller of the royal household. It is now numbered as Add. MS 31922, and a description and images are available on DIAMM at this link.

PoemgranateTwo other important music manuscripts presented to Henry VIII survived in the king's own library, which now forms part of the British Library's collections. One of them is a magnificent choirbook produced in the workshop of Petrus Alamire, a famous Flemish music scribe who made several similar choirbooks for other European courts. He also acted as a spy, informing Henry of the movements of Richard de la Pole, exiled pretender to the English crown. The opening pages are the most richly decorated, with various Tudor symbols as well as Catherine of Aragon’s pomegranate. This manuscript, Royal MS 8 G VII, is available on DIAMM at this link.

Rose canonThe other grand manuscript was prepared for Henry VIII in 1516 by a successful Flemish merchant named Petrus de Opitiis. It includes a canon (or round) for four voices: two voices sing the music as written and another two sing the same melody a perfect fourth higher, beginning when the first singers reach the points marked with a sign. The words praise the root that has brought forth the scarlet rose of the Tudor dynasty, and it may have been composed to commemorate the reunion of Henry and his two sisters for the first time in 13 years. Royal MS 11 E XI is available on DIAMM at this link, as well as on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website here.

David Starkey's series will be screened on BBC 2 starting on Saturday 20 July 2013. Future posts will feature some recent discoveries that shed light on the relationship between music and monarchy in later periods.


12 July 2013

Lamellophones on Europeana

The Europeana portal is an aggregation of objects, images and manuscripts from over 2,200 content providers from all over Europe. This means that a search for a particular type of object can yield a large amount of data.

Take for example the African instrument, the mbira. The mbira is an instrument made of lamellae - long strips of wood, cane or metal - which are attached to a board or box and which vibrate when plucked. The same kind of effect can be achieved by holding a ruler over the edge of a table and plucking its free end.

The generic name for this instrument is lamellophone or lamellaphone, but often mbira is used as a generic name as well. A search for mbira on Europeana will yield around 90 objects from different collections around Europe. A search for lamellophone will yield even more - about 890 objects. The lamellophone we see here is courtesy of the Musik & Teater Museet, Stockholm, Sweden.

Lulimba, courtesy of Musik & Teater Museet

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

This lamellophone is from the region of South West Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia and is known as a lulimba or ulimba. Unlike other lamellophones, the lamellae are driven into solid wood rather than being fastened to the front of the instrument using a bridge. Once these lamellae have been driven into the wood, that's it - they can't be retuned. The tuning is usually pentatonic with the lamellae arranged in the shape of a v, with the lowest note at the centre.

To hear examples of different types of lamellophones being played, please go to the British Library "Sounds" website and try putting "lamellophone" into the search box. Or, you can search our Sound and Moving Catalogue for further details about ulimbas, ilimbas, kalimbas and other lamellophones.


11 July 2013

Oral History of Glyndebourne opera

Opera house  turbine new (sam stephenson) (2)

In 1990 the British Library initiated its Oral History of Glyndebourne project.  For the next seven years 68 interviews were conducted, not just with singers, but with a whole range of people connected with Glyndebourne and the running of the annual opera festival.  Among the musicians can be found singers Janet Baker, Ian Wallace and Elisabeth Söderström as well as instrumentalists Philip Jones, Jack Brymer and Evelyn Barbirolli (Rothwell) who tells how she joined the very first orchestra in 1934.  The history of the running of the opera company is recounted by administrators, finance directors and producers while insights into other areas are provided by gardeners, stage technicians and day to day staff. 

Some of the interviewees recall their experiences before the War and, twenty years on, many of them are no longer with us, so this is not only a comprehensive record of the microcosm that is Glyndebourne Opera, but a record of some people who may not otherwise have been recorded in interview.

09 July 2013

War and peace in Britten

This is the second of our posts highlighting some of the themes of the British Library exhibition Poetry in Sound: the Music of Benjamin Britten. Today, Britten's pacifism comes under the spotlight.

Britten developed an anti-war stance well before the outbreak of World War II, involving himself with the Peace Pledge Union in the 1930s. The Union was formed in 1934 by Dick Sheppard, a popular Anglican priest, in response to the growing threat of war in Europe. It quickly became one of the most prominent organisations in Britain committed to peace, commanding the support of many writers and thinkers, including Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell and Siegfried Sassoon. Britten and Michael Tippett were among the musicians attracted to its cause. During World War II, the Peace Pledge Union published booklets and leaflets encouraging people to shun the war and become conscientious objectors. This flyer was issued in about 1939.

Peace Pledge Union flyer
Peace Pledge Union flyer, YD.2007.a.1206.

Britten composed a marching song, Pacifist March, for the Peace Pledge Union. It appears to have been modelled on the political propaganda songs popular in mainland Europe. Britten intended it to be performed by two-part choir and orchestra but - although the words and music for the chorus were printed in 1937 - Peace Pledge Union members apparently disliked the piece, and it was quickly withdrawn. A rare surviving copy is on display in the exhibition. The words are by Ronald Duncan (1914-1982), author of a pamphlet entitled The Complete Pacifist. Duncan's lyrics begin with the lines 'Blood, mud and bitterness have been used in painting our history, That's been smudg'd with the stain of war. Empire we've stolen, swollen, Our imperial greed for more.'

In April 1939 a left-wing 'Festival of Music for the People' was held in London. It included a pageant for 500 singers and 100 dancers featuring the American singer Paul Robeson as soloist, a balalaika orchestra playing Russian tunes, music by the communist composer Alan Bush, and Britten's Ballad of Heroes. The Ballad, with words by W.H. Auden and Randall Swingler, was performed by 'Twelve Co-operative and Labour Choirs'. Britten had been horrified by the bloodshed of the Spanish Civil War and wrote: 'It seemed natural to choose a piece which could express my sympathy with the beleagured Spanish Republic and honour a brave, unhappy people'.

Programme for the Festival of Music for the People, 1939
Programme for the Festival of Music for the People, 1939. LD.31.b.1980.

Britten left the UK for America just before the start of World War II, for which he was roundly criticised in the British press. An overwhelming longing for home led him back to England in 1942, where he faced a tribunal as a conscientious objector. In 1945, he gave two concerts with the violinist Yehudi Menuhin at the newly liberated Belsen concentration camp, an experience that would colour his later works.

The wartime destruction and subsequent rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral provided the impetus for Britten's War Requiem, which he composed for the reconsecration of the cathedral in 1962. In it the text of the Latin Mass of the Dead is interspersed with and transformed by the poetry of Wilfred Owen. Britten's powerful musical response to Owen's poems reflected his deep admiration for the poet. 'Owen is to me by far our greatest war poet, and one of the most original and touching poets of this century', he wrote.

Posted to France in 1916, Owen had returned to Britain in 1917, diagnosed with shell-shock. At hospital in Edinburgh he met fellow patient and poet Siegfried Sassoon, who later edited his works for publication. Owen wrote or revised most of his poems shortly before his return to France – where he was killed days before the Armistice.

On display is Britten's draft manuscript of his War Requiem, alongside one of the Library's literary treasures, a manuscript of Owen's poems in the poet's own hand. We have chosen to display his poem 'Anthem for Doomed Youth', which Britten used in the War Requiem and which, in its published version, opens with the following lines:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.

The manuscript on display is an early draft of the poem, bearing annotations in the hands of both Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. The manuscript reveals that Owen originally called the poem 'Anthem for Dead Youth'.

Wilfred Owen: draft of Anthem for Doomed Youth
Wilfred Owen's first draft of Anthem for Doomed Youth. Add MS 43721, f. 54.

In our next exhibition-related post we'll be exploring the poems that inspired one of Britten's best-known works, his Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings.