Music blog

8 posts from May 2014

29 May 2014

Trouvère songs online

An exciting new addition to our Digitised Manuscripts website is a little anthology written in the thirteenth century which combines sacred Latin songs with French courtly lyrics. The vast majority of the British Library's medieval music manuscripts are connected with the church, but manuscripts such as this remind us that the division between sacred and secular should not always be taken for granted in the Middle Ages.

Egerton MS 274, f. 3r
Egerton MS 274 was probably originally written in the 1260s for use in private devotion. The first section begins with an initial letter 'A' depicting the Virgin and Child with a tonsured figure in a grey robe kneeling before them. By zooming into the image (at this link) it is just possible to make out that the man is holding a tiny book – about the size of this manuscript, the pages of which measure only 15 x 10 cm. Probably this is intended as a representation of Philip the Chancellor of Notre Dame in Paris, since the first section of the manuscript consists of 28 Latin songs which he composed, several of which are here set in two-part polyphony.

Egerton MS 274, f. 7v
O maria virginei flos, two-voice setting of verse by Philip the Chancellor

A possible clue to the identity of the first owner of this manuscript is found a few pages later, with a charming picture of an ape riding on horseback: his coat of arms is that of the Torote family, which included many prominent churchmen in the later thirteenth century, one of whom might have inspired this back-handed attention.

Egerton MS 274, f. 27v
As well as Philip the Chancellor's poems, the anthology includes 18 French songs of the trouvères, the northern French equivalents of the troubadours in the south. Curiously, and rather frustratingly, eleven of these songs have been defaced by a later owner: the first stanza of each poem has been erased, with a new Latin text written over the French words and usually a new melody too: all that remains is the initial letter, and the later verses of the French text, written without music on the following pages.

Egerton MS 274, f. 98

a Latin responsory chant written over a deleted trouvère song

The rest of the book includes some Latin narrative poems without music as well as substantial amounts of liturgical music, all in Latin and much of it added at around the time the French texts were defaced. These additions and alterations have the effect of making the book exclusively religious in content, and mainly liturgical in purpose. There is an interesting collection of sequences and other types of music used in church processions, some of them not known from elsewhere. At the end of the volume are a few pages written with German-style notation, instead of the square notes found earlier on.

Egerton MS 274, f. 156v

chants for the ceremony of foot-washing on Maundy Thursday

Egerton MS 274 has already been the subject of several articles and a Ph.D. thesis, but much remains to be explored in this eclectic manuscript. We will be publishing several more medieval music manuscripts on Digitised Manuscripts over the next few months, so please keep an eye on this blog for future updates.

23 May 2014

Nigerian music and dance records at the British Library

The South African-born choreographer and dancer, Peggy Harper (1923 – 2009), worked from 1963 to 1978 in Nigeria, mainly based at the University of Ibadan and the Obafemi Awolowo University (formerly the University of Ife), where she carried out extensive research on traditional dance styles and masquerades relating to ritual and recreational ceremonies and performances. Co-founder of the Ori-Olokun performing arts centre (or Cultural Centre), Peggy created and co-produced creative dance and theatrical works for the stage, collaborating with towering figures such as Wole Soyinka.


Gwari musicians from central Nigeria. Peggy Harper Archive C1074

Peggy expounded on her work and approach in an article for African Arts (vol. 1 no. 1, 1967)  (available via JSTOR electronically and in hardcopy at the BL). Peggy teamed up with anthropological film-maker, Frank Speed, who helped her record in film, audio and still photography many of the dances and masquerades.

Unidentified photo. Peggy Harper Archive C1074

Unidentified photo of masquerade. Peggy Harper Archive C1074



These materials were kindly donated to the British Library in 2003 where they are being digitised and made available for listening and viewing via our on-site services.

Although Peggy was not an archivist, librarian or historian, she had a keen mind to the importance of creating a record “using the most reliable and comprehensive means available to give an accurate, if possible, first-hand picture of the dancers in their original context” (African Arts as above, p80). She predicted that “these records will be of immense value historically and sociologically, and as raw material for the theatre of the future.”

As the British Library prepares for its major exhibition on West Africa, due to open in October 2015, the Peggy Harper Archive is indeed providing a valuable resource, some 50 years after their original making.


22 May 2014

Three free Sound Case events during June

The Saga Trust funds the Edison Fellowships for students to study recordings in the Classical Music department.  Each June on a Tuesday at 5pm the Fellows have an opportunity to give an illustrated talk on their current work.  This year the free presentations will be:-

Tue 10 Jun 2014, 17.00-18.00
Foyle Suite, Centre for Conservation

Matthew Rubery - From Shell Shock to Shellac: the Great War, blindness and Britain’s talking book library

 Matthew Rubery

Matthew Rubery

Tue 17 Jun 2014, 17.00-18.00

Foyle Suite, Centre for Conservation

Emily Worthington - Catch me if you can: Rubato and ensemble flexibility among British clarinettists on record, 1898-1953


Tue 24 Jun 2014, 17.00-18.00

Foyle Suite, Centre for Conservation

Margaret Dziekonski - Leopold Stokowski's performance aesthetic


More details of how to obtain free tickets can be found at

13 May 2014

Saharawi music in the refugee camps in SW Algeria

Violeta Ruano has been researching Saharawi culture and politics for almost three years, having been involved in different projects in the Saharawi refugee camps, in SW Algeria, throughout that time. Currently doing her PhD in Saharawi music at SOAS, between September 2013 and April 2014 she lived in the camps, conducting fieldwork and collecting samples of different Saharawi music styles. The results of her work have now been archived in the British Library, also leaving copies in local institutions in the camps. From traditional drum and voice songs to revolutionary modern band tunes, this unique collection portrays the musical diversity of Saharawi culture and documents the history of their struggle for independence. All the songs in this collection are sung in the local Arabic dialect, Hassaniya.

Female traditional band in a regional cultural festival in Al Aiun, Saharawi refugee camps (Dec 2012) Violeta Ruano

Answering the question ‘What is Saharawi music?’ has proven to be much more difficult than I thought it would be when I first became involved with Saharawi culture in 2011. During several trips to the Saharawi refugee camps, including a recent long stay, I have realised that Saharawi music is not something uniform, but a term that includes many beautiful and unique styles that contribute to a rich cultural heritage. Traditionally nomadic and dedicated to pastoralism, sharing stories and songs orally has been part of Saharawi culture for centuries. However, protracted exile, war and ongoing conflict have threatened this heritage throughout the past four decades, causing the disappearance of many traditional songs. For this reason, the Saharawi cultural authorities in the camps have supported different preservation and archiving projects that aim to protect and showcase this music. ‘Portraits of Saharawi music', in collaboration with the British Library, is one of them.

More than half of the indigenous Saharawis became refugees in 1975 when Morocco invaded their homeland, Western Sahara, and started bombing its population. At that time, the Saharawi liberation movement, the Polisario Front, had been fighting for their independence from the Spanish colonial power for more than 2 years. In 1976, they started a war from exile against the Moroccan army that lasted 16 years, while building their self-proclaimed country in refugee camps in SW Algeria. Understanding the importance of culture to raise awareness about their struggle and keep their traditions alive, the Saharawis have encouraged the organisation of festivals and the composition of new songs inspired by the situation. These, together with their traditional music and poetry, is today one of the best forms of documentation of their history and landscape.

The following video shows a performance of traditional spiritual music, known as medeh, in honour of Prophet Mohamed. These songs normally are performed by groups of women, the medahat, who sit informally in a semi-circle playing the traditional tbal drums, clapping and singing in a call and response style. On this occasion, Salwan, a professional medeh group, plays ‘Bismilah' (’Thank God’), led by Addala Doula and with famous medaha Faknash Abeid on the drum.


The next video features Tarba Buiebu, a young percussionist who performs both traditional and revolutionary songs. She has learnt all the music and rhythms she knows from her mother, who she still consults from time to time. She plays two samples of traditional love songs from the repertoire of the lashuar, short sung verses about daily things, and an early revolutionary song that follows the same musical style, but incorporates new lyrics.


Saharawi revolutionary music was born in 1973 with the foundation of the Polisario Front. The leaders of the independent movement, mostly young students, took a bunch of traditional songs that were well known by the population and changed the lyrics, adding didactic words about their cause. These songs were then performed in secret meetings, some of them recorded and distributed throughout the territory on smuggled cassettes. In the following video we can hear the first of these revolutionary songs, sung by Habuza, one of the original singers, 40 years after it was sung for the first time.


Once in the refugee camps, this music was institutionalised and really supported by the newly formed Saharawi government. It received the name of nidal (about the nation) and the cultural authorities created local and national bands exclusively dedicated to its performance. Throughout the war years, nidal music was one of the cultural milestones of the Saharawi struggle, raising awareness about it, encouraging the fighters at the front and keeping the revolutionary spirit high among the refugees. Songs such as ‘The Sahara is not for sale', featured in the following video, really helped in keeping the revolution alive. This performance was recorded in early 2013 in a concert in Spain led by its original singer, Um Reghia, who popularised the song in the late 1970s.


Video recorded by Violeta Ruano for Sandblast. Posted with permission.

After the war ended in 1991, Saharawi musicians continued to play music of the struggle, although they have adapted the lyrics to the new political line taken by the Polisario: diplomacy and peaceful resistance. Today, most songs are about the national unity or remember important figures, dates and events. Current Saharawi musicians also use their music to denounce the irregular situation of the territories that are still occupied by Morocco, where Saharawis suffer daily abuses and violations of their basic human rights. In this video, ElHafed Mahayub sings about the peaceful demonstrations that take place to protest against this situation, offering the support of the refugees to their brothers and sisters living in occupied Western Sahara.


Saharawi music, as well as Saharawi culture, is a fusion music: fusion of traditions picked up throughout their nomadic years, fusion of influences from their first encounters with the West during colonialism, and fusion of experiences of opening up to the world due to their need to spread the word about their situation. The perfect blend of all this, Saharawi music today has managed to keep its two most important functions - to be the voice of the Saharawi people and, as young singer Lmarabet Mahfud, featured in the last video, says, to ‘preserve the unique Saharawi identity’.


Violeta Ruano Posada. For more music and info:



09 May 2014

The virtual life of George Butterworth

In May 2013 we posted about the folksong The Banks of Green Willow and how composer George Butterworth made a wax cylinder recording of it being sung in 1909, the tune of which he later incorporated into an orchestral piece of the same name.

The cylinder is on long-term loan from the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS), which in the intervening months has completed The Full English project, cataloguing and digitising folk manuscripts to create the world’s biggest free digital archive of English traditional folk music and dance tunes. The British Library is one of seven archive partners for the project.  Our Ralph Vaughan Williams folksong collections are now fully searchable and viewable online through The Full English portal.

This kind of collaborative project demonstrates how the virtual environment can be used to intellectually and digitally unite items held in physically separate locations in different cultural institutions. Presented side by side, these items can build a meaning potentially greater than the sum of their parts and give us a wider understanding of a person, event or period in time.
George Butterworth is a good example. As well as listening to Butterworth’s recording of The Banks of Green Willow on the British Library’s Sounds website, it is now possible to see Butterworth’s original folksong transcriptions on The Full English website. EFDSS has made its own collection of Butterworth material available for all to see, and a quick search of the catalogue brings up the tune and words for The Banks of Green Willow noted down in Butterworth’s own hand.

These online resources allow us to compare versions of the same song. If we wish to go further, we can reassure ourselves that this is indeed Butterworth’s handwriting by comparing this image with another from the newest digital collection to feature Butterworth’s work, Europeana Collections 1914-1918. The Europeana Collections 1914-1918 project brings together printed and manuscript material held by libraries in eight European countries which found themselves on different sides during the First World War. The British Library has contributed a significant number of books, pamphlets, maps, drawings, diaries and other items relating to the war, among them this music manuscript written by Butterworth.

George Butterworth: Preface to Eleven Folksongs from Sussex for voice and piano (1912)
George Butterworth: Preface to Eleven Folksongs from Sussex for voice and piano (1912), British Library Add MS 54369, f. 41r

The manuscript contains Butterworth's Eleven Folksongs from Sussex for voice and piano (1912). In the preface Butterworth explains his methods for collecting folksongs from the singing of ordinary people by noting down the words and tunes.  He explains how he has collected these folk songs and kept the tunes exactly as they were sung, without “improvement”, but had to add or change some words because he believed they were corrupt or wrong. He says that “these folksongs are what Francis Jekyll and I have been collecting over the past six years”, thereby dating the period of collection from 1906 to 1912. The EFDSS manuscripts provide corroborative evidence: there, copies of The Banks of Green Willow are dated 1907 and 1908.

With these resources now online, Butterworth can be remembered, his works enjoyed and studied and his footwork appreciated.

This post is by Louise Bruton, who until recently worked as a Metadata Creator on the Europeana 1914-1918 project at the British Library.

From 10.30 to 13.30 tomorrow, the Full English Archive Open Day at the British Library will give access to some of the original manuscript folksong transcriptions of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Percy Grainger, with illustrated talks about the early folk revival and the collectors. - See more at:

06 May 2014

112-year-old recording of William Paull donated to the British Library

A recent call from Daphne Duthie alerted me to a small collection of LPs that she had purchased in Russia in the 1970s. There were a few of interest, but she then showed me another modest collection of 78 rpm gramophone discs that had belonged to her grandfather, Brigadier J.R.B. Knox. About 40 of the discs were recorded before the First World War and most of them were not held by the British Library. The repertoire is a mixture of classical and popular music, many with a Scottish flavour as it was from there that part of her family originated.

One single-sided disc by baritone William Paull in particular caught my attention. Born in Cornwall in the early 1870s, at the age of seven Paull was a chorister in London. He joined the Carl Rosa Opera Company and in 1897 sang the role of Marcello in the English premiere of Puccini’s La Bohème in Manchester under the supervision of the composer. Paull then toured Australia where he sang the baritone and bass parts in Elijah and Messiah in Sydney. 

In New York he sang the part of Wolfram in Wagner’s Tannhäuser in 1900 and the following year joined the Castle Square Opera Company. While in London at the turn of the century his popularity led the Gramophone Company to invite him to record around 68 sides for them during 1901 and 1902. While on tour in America he recorded one seven-inch disc for Victor of O du mein holder Abendstern from Tannhäuser on 16January 1903. Less than three weeks later on 5 February 1903 Paull was dead in a fall from the sixth-storey hotel window in St. Louis.

The recording, made 112 years ago in 1902, sounds remarkably clear for its age. Below are the label and a sound file.

Paull killed

William Paull label

Here is the recording of William Paull, singing "Wrap me up in my old stable jacket", a traditional song about a dying soldier. It has various texts and is also known as "Wrap me up in my tarpaulin jacket".

William Paull recording


01 May 2014

Preserving the legacy of Muriel Herbert

One of the most rewarding aspects of working in the British Library's Music department is having the opportunity to preserve music which could otherwise have been lost to the world. It is even more rewarding when that music turns out to be exceedingly good. The songs of British composer Muriel Herbert are just such a case in point.

Muriel Herbert died 30 years ago today, at the age of 86, leaving behind almost 100 songs and a small number of pieces for violin and piano. She had been born in Sheffield in 1897 and grew up in Liverpool, and in 1917 won a composition scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music with Charles Stanford. After leaving the Royal College she remained in London, composing, teaching and giving recitals. She met the composer Roger Quilter, who recommended her to the publisher Augener, and during the 1920s she had several songs published by Augener and Elkin.

Muriel Herbert
Muriel Herbert

The poets whose words Herbert chose to set ranged from the eighth-century Alcuin of York to James Joyce, and also included, among many others, Robert Herrick, Lord Byron, Christina Rossetti and Thomas Hardy. She seems to have been particularly inspired by James Joyce's poetry, setting four of his poems. She performed two of them, ‘I Hear an Army Charging’ and ‘Lean out of the Window’, in Paris for Joyce himself.

Herbert's performances of her own music appear to have been well received. This undated cutting relates to a recital she gave at the Sandon Music Room in Liverpool, where she sang and accompanied herself on the piano.

Review of a performance given by Muriel Herbert in Liverpool
Review of a performance given by Muriel Herbert in Liverpool

Herbert also gave several broadcast recitals on BBC radio, including this recital in 1938. Sadly, no recordings of any of Herbert's recitals appear to have survived.

Muriel Herbert BBC recital July 1938
Muriel Herbert, BBC recital in July 1938

Herbert had continued to compose throughout the 1920s, but then came marriage and motherhood, and subsequently the breakdown of her marriage, and she found less time for composition. She moved with her two children to Welwyn Garden City, where she became a respected music teacher. At her death, most of her works remained unpublished, preserved only in her neatly-written autograph manuscripts, in most cases in a single copy.

Muriel Herbert's younger daughter, the writer Claire Tomalin, was determined that the music should be preserved. As she later wrote in the Guardian, she searched out every scrap of music she could find and bundled all the manuscripts into folders. Although no one seemed interested initially, a BBC producer, Bill Lloyd, who had been taught by Herbert, suggested recording some of the songs. The musicologist Valerie Langfield also gave help and encouragement, and in 2009 the premiere recording was issued to great acclaim by Linn Records with singers James Gilchrist and Ailish Tynan and pianist David Owen Norris. You can hear clips from these songs on Linn's website, and listen to Claire Tomalin talking about her mother's music on Woman's Hour in 2009 on the BBC website.

We were delighted when Ms Tomalin decided to present the much-treasured collection of music manuscripts to the British Library. When we received them, some of the manuscripts were in a fragile state, fraying around the edges and in need of conservation. They have now been catalogued, conserved and bound into sturdy volumes to prevent further damage.

Thirty years on from Muriel Herbert's death, it seems that her legacy is rather more secure; other recordings and performances are in the pipeline, some of her unpublished songs have been printed for the first time and her autograph manuscripts are now available for present and future generations of performers and researchers to explore at the British Library, where they have the collection number MS Mus. 1724.

British Music at the British Library: two free events on 10 May

On Saturday 10 May 2014 in the Foyle Suite, British Library Centre for Conservation there will be two free events to celebrate the outstanding British music collections at the British Library.

The Full English Archive Open Day

From 10.30 to 1.30, the Full English Archive Open Day will give access to some of the original manuscript folksong transcriptions of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Percy Grainger, with illustrated talks about the early folk revival and the collectors. This presentation forms part of the Full English project, supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund and developed by the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS). For the first time 19 of the most significant manuscript collections of folk music, song and dance amassed in England during the folk revival of early 20th century are available to browse and search online. Also find out how The Full English digital archive works and can be used, and learn about the project’s development from author and folklorist Steve Roud and EFDSS Library Director Malcolm Taylor OBE.

This event is supported by the English Folk Dance and Song Society. Further information:


The British Music Society Annual Lecture:

'Sir John Barbirolli: British Music's Cockney Emissary'

File:Barbirolli Bust Bridgewater Hall.jpg

In the afternoon(starting at 2.30), join Dr Raymond Holden, the Sir John Barbirolli Lecturer in Music at the Royal Academy of Music, for a talk about 'Sir John Barbirolli: British Music's Cockney Emissary'. Dr Holden will use recordings, marked scores and other performance artefacts to chart the role of Sir John Barbirolli as British Music's leading international advocate. This presentation will be the Annual Lecture of the British Music Society. Material from both the Royal Academy of Music and the British Library will be on display. The lecture will start at 2.30pm and will be presented in two 50-minute halves with a short break.

This event is supported by the British Music Society. Further information:

Admission to both events is free, but to reserve a seat please book free tickets in advance through the British Library Box Office:

Full English: