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4 posts from November 2013

26 November 2013

Parthenia: an anniversary celebration

Four hundred years ago, the first attempt to print a book of music for keyboard was made in England. This landmark publication was Parthenia or The Maydenhead of the first musicke that ever was printed for the Virginalls. The British Library holds two copies of the first edition, and a further six copies are known to survive in other libraries around the world.

Title page of Parthenia
Parthenia or The Maydenhead of the first musicke that ever was printed for the Virginalls. Shelfmark R.M.15.i.15.

Last night we celebrated the 400th anniversary of Parthenia's publication with a lecture-recital at the British Library, hosted in collaboration with the Royal Academy of Music. It was a sell-out event, and featured performances on three instruments from the time of Parthenia: the virginals (a delicate-toned keyboard instrument, pictured on Parthenia's title-page, above), the dulcimer and the Renaissance fiddle or lira da braccio.

Oliver Neighbour, leading scholar of the music of William Byrd and former head of music at the British Library, talked about the background to Parthenia's publication and the music it contains. He also shed light on some of the social niceties of the time. While the virginals would have been played at court and in high-ranking households, the dulcimer was considered a lower-class instrument.

The music in Parthenia was written by three of the greatest English composers then living: William Byrd, John Bull and Orlando Gibbons.  Each was from a different generation, Byrd having been born in about 1540, Bull in about 1562 and Gibbons in 1583.  Colin Huehns, lecturer at the Royal Academy of Music, selected music by all three composers for yesterday's recital, in which the principal role was taken by Royal Academy of Music student Martyna Kazmierczak, playing the virginals. 

Although all the music in Parthenia was composed for solo virginals, Colin experimented with adding a Renaissance fiddle to the texture in some of the pieces.  It may not have been what the composers originally intended, but adapting music to suit all kinds of instruments was a very common practice in the 17th century, and the effect was certainly interesting. 

Martyna Kazmierczak and Colin Huehns
Martyna Kazmierczak (virginals) and Colin Huehns (Renaissance fiddle) with the dulcimer in the foreground

The final two pieces, played by Colin Huehns and Elsa Bradley respectively, were performed on the dulcimer.  Colin reprised Byrd's 'Preludium no. 1' from earlier in the evening, and it was interesting to hear how the work sounded on an instrument with a quite different sonority from the virginals.

The virginals used in the recital was an original Renaissance instrument kindly loaned by the Royal Academy of Music from their collecton of historic instruments, while the fiddle and dulcimers were modern replicas of early instruments. On display were a copy of Parthenia and several related items and, at the end of the evening, the audience had a chance to have a close look at these and at the musical instruments.

Why is Parthenia important?

Printers in Italy, Germany, France and England became highly proficient at printing music from moveable type during the 16th century.  But this kind of printing, in which each note - with its own staff lines  - sits on a separate piece of type, was not suitable for the fast notes and chordal writing found frequently in keyboard music.  Music for keyboard therefore continued to be transmitted in manuscript. The most magnificent example of these manuscripts is 'My Ladye Nevells Booke' (MS Mus. 1591), compiled by the scribe John Baldwin in 1591, which contains music by a single composer, William Byrd. 

My Ladye Nevells Booke
My Ladye Nevells Booke (f. 166r)

By the early 17th century, engraved music - created by engraving each page of music onto a metal plate and printing from this - was becoming more prevalent, and it was only a matter of time before an attempt was made to engrave complex keyboard pieces.  Here is a typical page of music from Parthenia:

Music by Orlando Gibbons from Parthenia
Music by Orlando Gibbons from Parthenia

The above runs of semiquavers would have been very difficult to produce using moveable type.

It is somewhat ironic, as Oliver Neighbour observed during his talk last night, that by the time such an innovative publication as Parthenia appeared, the high point in the development of English Renaissance keyboard music had passed.  However, interest in 16th-century keyboard music - and indeed in Parthenia - continued well into the 17th century.  The music was reprinted several times - in 1651 with a somewhat more demure female performer on the title-page.

The publication was then all but forgotten until the 19th century, when the enterprising Musical Antiquarian Society produced a new edition.  Since then, the music has been re-published in facsimile, in modern scholarly editions and in arrangements for other instruments, including recorders, flutes and keyboard and cello, and it has also been recorded many times. Four hundred years on, the music from Parthenia remains vibrant and engaging.

15 November 2013

"Go Stedman!" A bellringing anniversary

If you hear the sound of church bells on 16 November they will probably be ringing to mark the tercentenary of Fabian Stedman’s death. And if you regularly hear and enjoy the sound of bellringing but are not a ringer yourself, Fabian Stedman (1640-1713) might be one of the most influential people you’ve never heard of.

The peculiarly English art of change-ringing developed from the late 16th century. A way of hanging church bells had been found which enabled ringers to control the speed at which they rang, making it possible to change the order in which the bells sounded – hence the name change-ringing. So for example five bells in a tower no longer had to ring over and over in a single basic order 1-2-3-4-5, 1-2-3-4-5, but pairs of them could now be swapped round each time: 1-3-2-4-5, 1-3-2-5-4, 1-3-5-2-4 etc.

As the 17th century progressed, some ringers began to further develop the range of changes which could be rung. Stedman was one of them. The son of a Herefordshire clergyman, he was apprenticed to a printer in London, where he became an active ringer. In 1668 his professional and personal interests combined when he published the anonymous Tintinnalogia, or the Art of Ringing (attributed to ‘a lover of that art’), the first book on change-ringing.

The title-page of Duckworth’s and Stedman’s Tintinnalogia (London, 1668). British Library C.175.d.46.
The title-page of Duckworth’s and Stedman’s Tintinnalogia (London, 1668). British Library C.175.d.46.

Stedman had collaborated with another ringer, Richard Duckworth, on Tintinnalogia but nine years later he produced (and again published) his own work on the subject Campanalogia, or the Art of Ringing Improv’d. The British Library holds first editions of both books.

The title-page of Stedman’s Campanalogia (London, 1677). British Library  C.175.d.45.
The title-page of Stedman’s Campanalogia (London, 1677). British Library C.175.d.45.

The importance of these works was that they set out the theory and practice of what were then called ‘cross-changes’. In the example I gave above, only one pair of bells at a time swaps places; in cross changes more than one pair can swap at once, so we can go from 1-2-3-4-5 to 1-3-2-5-4, then 3-1-5-2-4.

A wide variety of patterns can be formed this way – growing larger as you increase the number of bells. These patterns, known as ‘methods’, are the music of change-ringing, and Stedman was the first to produce printed versions which helped to codify them. Today ringers are used to seeing the methods printed, but in 1688 this was an innovation.

Some of the methods Stedman and Duckworth describe, such as Plain Bob and Grandsire, are familiar to modern ringers, but others are less so and have intriguing names such as ‘the whirligigge’, ‘the wild-goose chase’, ‘topsie-turvie’ or ‘a cure for melancholly’.

But it is the method (for ringing pedants actually a ‘principle’) which bears Stedman’s own name which keeps that name alive more than anything else for today’s ringers. It appeared for the first time in Campanalogia and will of course be the method most bands will choose to ring for the tercentenary. You can see and hear it rung on 12 bells here.

‘Stedman’s principle’ on five bells, as printed for the first time in Campanalogia (1677) – and as still rung today
‘Stedman’s principle’ on five bells, as printed for the first time in Campanalogia (1677) – and as still rung today

If you fancy following, however humbly, in Stedman’s footsteps, most bands of ringers welcome new recruits, and I can heartily recommend the exercise. You can find out more on the website of the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies (and Assistant Ringing Master, All Saints’ Church Fulham)

04 November 2013

Thea Musgrave, Christopher Raeburn, and 16th-Century Music Printing: New Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships at the British Library

The British Library invites applications from UK Higher Education Institutions to participate in three collaborative doctoral awards in music, as part of its Collaborative Doctoral Partnership (CDP) award from the AHRC. The areas of study for which expressions of interest are invited from HEIs are as follows:





Each studentship will be jointly supervised by a member of the British Library curatorial staff and an academic from a Higher Education Institution. The HEI will administer the studentship, receiving funds from the AHRC for fees and to cover the student’s maintenance. The British Library will provide additional financial support to cover travel and related costs in carrying out research of up to £1,000 a year.


We would now like to invite applications from HEIs to work with us on one or more of these proposed topics. The deadline for receiving applications will be Friday 13 December 2013. From the eight topics identified across the Library we will then select the six proposals with the strongest HEI applications to start in the next academic year, commencing October 2014. HEI applications will be assessed according to the following criteria: development of the research theme; the proposed academic supervisor’s research interests and expertise; the ability of the proposed Department to support the student; and evidence of previous successful collaboration with non-HEI partners.


The studentships will then be further developed in collaboration with the successful academic partner in each case before being advertised to prospective students. The successful student will contribute to the final agreed research topic.


Further information on the proposed subjects and an application form are available on the BL website: Please send any queries to [email protected]



01 November 2013

Edison Fellow Raymond Yiu is short listed for 2013 British Composer Awards


Current Edison Fellow Raymond Yiu has been shortlisted for the British Composer Awards 2013. His work The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured was selected for the orchestral catagory.  The title comes from a pamphlet held at the British Library issued by an 18th-century Londoner outraged at his cruel treatment, and the work received its first performance at the Barbican in January 2013.

Born in Hong Kong, Yiu came to London in 1990.  Two years of A-levels at Kent College, Canterbury, were followed by a four-year degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Imperial College, London.  Yiu said, 'It was during my time at Imperial College that I toyed with the idea of composing; for four years I listened to music with scores borrowed from the Imperial College Library. I learned to write down the ideas I had in my head, but I did not hear any of my music being performed until 1999.'  More on Yiu's career can be read on his Wikipedia page

With an interest in many aspects of music, Yiu's topic for his Edison Fellowship research is the Australian pianist Noel Mewton-Wood who died at the age of thiry-one.

The 11th British Composer Awards will be held on 3 December at Goldsmiths’ Hall in London, and will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 7 December.