Music blog

6 posts from September 2016

28 September 2016

Discovering Music

Have you ever wanted to know more about the British Library's music collections?

With over 100,000 music manuscripts, 1.6 million items of printed music and 2 million sound recordings, it can be difficult to know where to start.

But that's where our exciting new resource, Discovering Music, comes in.

Taking it's cue from our popular Discovering Literature site, it will provide music lovers with the opportunity to explore the British Library's greatest musical treasures with the help of expertly-curated contextual information and browse-able collection items.


Key composers will be explored and linked to iconic musical works, among them Handel's Messiah, Elgar's Enigma Variations, Beethoven's 9th Symphony, Ravel's Bolero and Holst's The Planets.

We'll be releasing the first batch of content in late 2017. In the meantime, we will be posting regular updates on our blog and on Twitter, so stay tuned!

Music collections image



21 September 2016

Digitisation: Delving Deeper

In July 2016, we announced the exciting news that we'd completed a three-year project to digitise our Handel autograph manuscripts. But how did this come about? And what exactly was involved? In this blog post, we delve deeper into the digitisation process to provide an insight into the practicalities of this fascinating and growing area of our work.

With just over one hundred volumes, British Library Music Collections holds the single largest autograph collection of Handel’s works in the world. The vast majority of these volumes form part of the Royal Music Library and are easily recognisable by their ‘R.M.’ shelfmarks, the most famous being Messiah (R.M.20.f.2).  Aside from Messiah, which had been made available via the British Library’s popular Turning the Pages web pages back in 2008, no autograph Handel manuscripts had been made accessible digitally prior to the outset of the project. 

Image 1 - Messiah on Turning the Pages

Opening of the ‘Halleluja Chorus’ from Handel’s Messiah (British Library, R.M.20.f.2), as displayed on Turning the Pages

The content was released in phases over the three years of the project, and the digitisation was generously supported by the Derek Butler Trust. Preservation of the originals and the resulting digital surrogates was a key consideration. The British Library has digitisation studios at both its London and Yorkshire sites. However, in order to minimise the risks associated with transportation, the manuscripts were digitised in London, where they are housed.

Image 2 - British Library Imaging Studio London

Digitisation studio at the British Library, London.

Prior to photography, each volume was assessed by a conservator.  Professional photographers then photographed each manuscript cover-to-cover, using the equipment and book supports recommended by the conservator. Following image capture, the photographer deposited a set of master images for each manuscript in both TIFF and JPEG formats on one of the Library’s secure servers. Staff in the Music Department then used image-processing software to convert the TIFFs into tiny tiled images, thereby facilitating zooming. 

  Image 3 - Zadok on Digitised Manuscripts

Digitised version of Handel’s ‘Zadok the Priest’ (British Library R.M.20.h.5) on the British Library Digitised Manuscripts website (

All of the British Library’s autograph Handel manuscripts are categorised as ‘restricted’. For visitors to the British Library’s Rare Books and Music Reading Room, this means that access to the originals is granted only with curatorial permission. The availability of the Handel manuscripts on the British Library Digitised Manuscripts website makes inconvenient microfilm a thing of the past. It also opens up a wealth of valuable primary source material to a much larger audience, free of charge, and from the comfort of a home or office PC.


13 September 2016

Arthur Sullivan and the English Opera Companies

Don't miss out on this special event in the British Library Conference Centre on Thursday 22 September 2016, 18.30-20.00.

New-York based playwright and theatre historian John Wolfson will explore the work of composer Arthur Sullivan, focusing on the time he spent with a number of opera companies during his lifetime.

Sir_Arthur_Seymour_SullivanSir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) 

Arthur Sullivan is well-known for his association with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, whose archive was recently acquired by the British Library. However, there were five other companies with which he was also connected during his lifetime. In his talk – accompanied by readings by a guest actor – John Wolfson will consider Sullivan's lifelong preoccupation with finding an opera company devoted to the production of grand opera in English.

For further information and online booking go to

06 September 2016

London's Burning!

Readers of our previous blog post will be aware that today is the last day of Shakespeare in Ten Acts, the British Library’s popular exhibition celebrating the 400th anniversary of the birth of the Bard.

As the exhibition draws to a close, our attention has turned to the Great Fire of London. After raging for several days, it was finally extinguished on 6 September 1666, 350 years ago today.

Here in Music Collections, we have one particular question in mind: what do Shakespeare, music and the Great Fire of London have in common?

The answer lies in the well-known song "London’s burning":

         London's burning, London's burning

        Fetch the engine, fetch the engine

        Fire, fire! Fire, fire!

        Pour on water, pour on water

Still popular in schools today, the song is often sung in a round, with each singer starting after the previous one has sung one line of text. The words are often considered to be about the Great Fire of London. However, the earliest known notated version actually dates from 1580 and bears the words “Scotland it burneth”. It forms part of the Lant Manuscript, held in the collections at King’s College Cambridge (King's College, Rowe MS 1), and is set to essentially the same music.

Rowe MS 1_item 36

“Scotland it burneth” (King's College, Rowe MS 1). Reproduced by permission of the Provost and Scholars of King’s College, Cambridge


And now for the Shakespeare connection. The song is alluded to in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Act 4, Scene 1. Grumio asks Curtis to prepare a warm fire for guests:

        Curtis: Who calls so coldly?

        Grumio: A piece of ice. If thou doubt it, thou may'st slide from my shoulder to my heel, with no greater a run but my head and my neck. A fire, good         Curtis.

        Curtis: Is my master and his wife coming, Grumio?

        Grumio: O ay, Curtis, av; and therefore “fire, fire; cast no water”.

If you’re struggling to remember how the tune goes, here’s a version from our printed music collections for four-part choir arranged by one William Schaeffer and published in 1930. Enjoy!


British Library,  VOC/1930/SCHÄFFER

02 September 2016

Setting Shakespeare to Music

The British Library's popular exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts closes on 6 September 2016.  Over the years, the Bard has had a profound influence on music. Our holdings reflect this, with music contemporary to Shakespeare, new music composed for Shakespeare and music inspired by Shakespeare all to be found in our extensive music collections.

One particular gem is our manuscript of Felix Mendelssohn's incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream (Egerton MS 2955). Composed in 1843 as a result of a royal commission from Friedrich Wilhelm IV, it comprises the music for the famous Scherzo, Notturno and Wedding March movements (pictured below). The manuscript itself dates from around 1844 and is a piano arrangement of these well-known excerpts in Mendelssohn's own hand. 


Felix Mendelssohn's 'Wedding March' for A Midsummer Night's Dream (Egerton MS 2955, folio 12 verso)

We're also in possession of the sketches and libretto for Richard Wagner's Das Liebesverbot, an opera based on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. Both form part of the extensive Zweig Collection (Zweig MSS 104 and 119).


 Sketch for Richard Wagner's Das Liebesverbot (Zweig MS 104, folio 1 recto)

From September 1839 to April 1842, Wagner spent a rather miserable two-and-a-half years in Paris. He was forced to earn a living by making arrangements of operatic selections and by musical journalism. This unhappy period also saw the composition of his opera Das Liebesverbot, which was accepted by the Théâtre de la Renaissance in March 1840. However, the work was a resounding flop, with the second performance cancelled because of backstage fisticuffs. Two months later, the theatre was forced into bankruptcy and the work was never again performed in Wagner's lifetime.

Full digital versions of the sketches and libretto of Wagner's Das Lieberverbot are available, and Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream is on our wishlist for digitisation. In addition, if you don't think you'll be able to get to the British Library to catch the Shakespeare exhibition before it closes, fear not - a wealth of Shakespeare-related material can be found on our Shakespeare web pages

01 September 2016

Calling all language enthusiasts!

Whether or not you consider yourself knowledgeable in seventeenth-century Germanic languages and dialects, you might want to try identifying the meaning and contexts of the two songs discussed in this post. These were published in New Ayres and Dialogues Composed for Voices and Viols (London, 1678), printed by one ‘M.C’ for Henry Brome. The title page is shown in Illustration 1. Note that the two composers named on the title page, Banister and Low, may have been responsible only for the second part of the publication (Lessons for Viols or Violins), which does not concern us here.

Illustration 1
Illustration 1: Title page of New Ayres and Dialogues (London, 1678), British Library K.2.a.6.

The volume contains 67 English songs, dialogues, ‘trialogues’ and catches, including ‘A Song after the Italian Mode’ (‘See how Thames Silver Streams are now detain’d for you’) by a ‘Seignior William in Northampton-Shire’. With its excessively long melismas, one of which spans eight bars of four crotchet beats and mostly semiquavers, the song seems to be a parody of the virtuosic Italian vocal style. In addition to the 67 English-language pieces, there are two which at first glance appear to be in German (see Illustration 2). The text is written in ‘Gothic’ script (known in German as Fraktur) and the titles appear in the (alphabetical) table of contents amongst the other vocal pieces in the collection.

To a speaker of modern German, however, none of the texts make any real sense. There are occasional words and phrases that are clearly German, such as ‘mutter’ (in the first song), ‘Das Erste Lied’ (the title of the second song, which actually reads ‘The first song’) or ‘In fremden Landen’ (stanza III of the second song). Other phrases appear to use idiosyncratic spelling, but can still be discerned: ‘In meiner Jugunt’ (‘in my youth’, stanza III of the second song). There are also words that appear to be English (‘right’ and ‘Knight’, both stanza III of the first song). Many words and phrases are very hard to make out at all.

Illustration 2a CROPPED
Illustration 2b CROPPED
Illustration 2: Pages 136-139 of New Ayres and Dialogues (London, 1678), British Library K.2.a.6.

Crucially, however, what would the average buyer of the volume have done with such songs? He or she would hardly have had any knowledge of German, but would probably have been able to read Blackletter (‘Gothic’ script), as this was still used to some extent in English publications (see the title page, where ‘Voices and Viols’ is written in a similar type). They could only have sung the text phonetically, pronouncing the words as if they were (nonsensical) English words.Indeed, some words and phrases appear to be phonetic spellings of German words for an English reader/singer, as in stanza V of the second song: ‘Wann dan fortuna / Den Zeek getone / Der hat grosse rome / Wens compt zur lyten / Aufs byden ziten’, which could be meant to read ‘Wenn [or ‘wem’] dann Fortuna den Sieg getan, der hat große[n] Ruhm; wenns kommt zur Leuten [or ‘Läuten’], auf beiden Seiten’. This in turn would roughly translate as ‘When [or ‘for whom’] Fortune achieves victory, he has great fame; when it comes to people [or ‘ringing’] on both sides’. At least this appears to carry some kind of meaning, even if it remains somewhat mysterious, given that the three lines following this are difficult to decipher in a similar way.

Some of the pronunciation of the German words could have been in a particular (seventeenth-century) dialect, making the phonetic spelling even more difficult to understand with a background in modern German. It could also be that the two songs were intended as parodies of an unidentified German singer that was known in some London circles at the time. After all, the ‘Song after the Italian Mode’ seems to be a parody of Italian singing, although the text is entirely in English and does not shows any signs of Italian pronunciation.

A hypothesis that would draw together several of these ideas is that the text was read or sung by a German singer, perhaps in the form of the present songs, though the attribution to what appears to be an English name, ‘Abr. Coates’, would suggest otherwise. The composer of the present songs could have notated the text phonetically, inevitably mishearing some words and thereby effectively rendering the original text difficult or impossible to reconstruct for us today. These texts could then have been set to music as a kind of parody. The songs are musically extremely simple, suggesting either that they were folksongs that were transcribed, or that Abraham Coates was not a particularly gifted composer, though some of his other songs are slightly more interesting.

A precedent for such ‘aural transmission’ of vocal music is found in Daniel Henstridge’s commonplace book, British Library Add. MS 29397. As Rebecca Herissone has shown, Henstridge preserved a performance of Pietro Reggio’s ‘Arise ye subterranean winds’ as the composer himself may have sung it, with some ‘Italian’ pronunciation such as added vowels at the ends of words (‘more-a’) and a dropped initial ‘h’ in ‘howl’ (Rebecca Herissone, Musical Creativity in Restoration England (Cambridge: University Press, 2013), 377-83).

New Ayres and Dialogues actually contains seven more of Abraham Coates's songs (in English), one of which is certainly a parody (see Illustration 3). Its text uses a number of French phrases and the pronunciation of some English words is supposedly ‘French’: ‘anie odder tinge of noate’ (‘any other thing of note’). Whatever the meaning and contexts surrounding the two ‘German’ songs, it seems like a fascinating puzzle to me, and one that – as far as I know – has yet to be solved.

Illustration 3
Illustration 3: Page 119 of New Ayres and Dialogues (London, 1678), British Library K.2.a.6.

Stephan Schönlau (University of Manchester)

PhD placement student