Music blog

5 posts from October 2016

31 October 2016

Dances of death

For some, Halloween is a chance to go trick-or-treating, carve pumpkins and indulge in some apple-bobbing. For others, the eve of All Hallows’ or All Saints’, as it is also known, is a chance to remember the dead.

Through the ages, music has played a vital role in celebrations associated with 31 October. In the medieval and renaissance periods, symbolic representations of death as a skeleton or procession of skeletons leading the living to the grave became codified in a phenomenon known as the “dance of death”. In more recent times, the dance of death has come to mean simply a dance performed by skeletons, usually in a graveyard.

Skeletons and music famously come together in Les simulachres et historiées faces de la mort of 1538. Later known as the “Totentanz”, this collection of woodcuts by Hans Holbein the Younger includes several images depicting dancing skeletons playing instruments.

1044-f-30-1  1044-f-30-2  1044-f-30-3
 Les simulachres et historiées faces de la mort (1538). British Library, 1044.f.30

The earliest music that can be linked definitively with the dance of death is a Mattasin oder Toden Tantz in August Nörmiger’s Tabulaturbuch auff dem Instrumente (1598). This genre then underwent something of a revival in the nineteenth century. Drawing inspiration from Goethe’s poem Der Todtentanz, the dance of death became a midnight revel by resurrected skeletons.

One of the most famous works to come from this period was Camille Saint-Saëns’s symphonic poem Danse macabre (“Dance of death”), opus 40, of 1874. On Halloween night, skeletons rise from their graves and dance to a haunting violin melody. A xylophone is used to imitate the sound of their rattling bones. They dance all night until dawn, when they must return to their graves until next year.

F-82-c-melodyFamous violin melody from Camille Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre (1874). British Library f.82.c

Franz Liszt famously went on to make a piano transcription of the work three years later. However, Saint-Saëns’ orchestral version was actually based on a song the French composer had written in 1872. It sets words from a well-known poem by Henri Cazalis, similar to Goethe’s Der Todtentanz.

H-1777-n-5-title-page  H-1777-n-5-page-1
Danse macabre (earlier song by Camille Saint-Saëns; words by Henri Cazalis). British Library H.1777.n.(5.)

Both the song and later orchestral version quote the Dies irae. Meaning “Day of wrath”, the plainchant sequence traditionally associated with the pre-Vatican requiem mass is famously used for its inherent symbolism of death.

Don’t have nightmares!

28 October 2016

Son of an African Prince

As Black History Month draws to a close, we’re showcasing the achievements of virtuoso violinist George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower (1780-1860). The son of a West Indian father and a European mother, he was born in Biala, Poland. At the tender age of ten, he made his debut as a violinist at the Concert Spirituel in Paris. Then followed a move to England, where the young prodigy was marketed as the “son of an African Prince”.

Bridge_bmportraitlgePencil and watercolour portrait of Bridgetower. Copyright © The British Museum 1876-7-8-2379

In December 1789, Bridgetower performed at the Assembly Rooms in Bath to much acclaim. 550 guests, among them King George III, attended his first concert. During the next decade, he went on to play at many prestigious London venues, appearing alongside Haydn at Salomon’s series and elsewhere.

From 1795 to 1809, Bridgetower was first violinist in George III’s private orchestra. However, in 1802, he obtained leave to visit his mother in Dresden where he gave concerts on 24 July 1802 and 18 March 1803. Then followed a trip to Vienna in April 1803. Here he was introduced to Beethoven, who had already begun sketching the first two movements of what was to become the Sonata for Pianoforte and Violin in A, opus 47, otherwise known as the ‘Kreutzer’ sonata.

KreutzerlgeFirst edition of the Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata, opus 47. British Library Hirsch IV.287

The work was first performed at a concert given by Bridgetower at the Augarten-Halle in Vienna on 24 May 1803. Beethoven himself played the piano part, and he was evidently pleased with the performance, going on to present Bridgetower with his tuning fork, which now forms part of our extensive music collections.

TuningforklgeBeethoven’s tuning fork, which was presented to Bridgetower following the premiere of the Kreutzer sonata. British Library Add. MS 71148A and B 

Back in London, Bridgetower was elected to the Royal Society of Musicians in London on 4 October 1807, and in June 1811 took the degree of B.Mus. at Cambridge. He played in the Philharmonic Society’s first season in 1813, leading the performance of Beethoven’s ‘Quintett’. He was also recommended for membership of the Royal Philharmonic Society in 1817.

Bridgerps1817Recommendation for membership of the Royal Philharmonic Society (1817). British Library RPS MS 315, f.4

The end of Bridgetower’s life is rather mysterious. He was rumoured to have died in 1850, but his death certificate shows that “George Polegreen Bridgetower, Gentleman” died at 8 Victory Cottages, a small back street in Peckham, on 29 February 1860.

Bridgetower’s legacy was remarkable. He clearly transcended his childhood celebrity to become a respected member of London’s musical community. However, his achievements extended beyond the purely musical, illustrating both the possibility to transform and transcend personal circumstances.

An extended article on Bridgetower by Dr Mike Phillips can be found here.

17 October 2016

Beethoven's Pastoral Sketchbook

One of the great treasures in the British Library’s extensive music collections is featured in the first instalment of the series ‘Treasures of the British Library’ (Sky Arts, Tuesday 18 October at 9pm).  Beethoven’s Pastoral sketchbook (shelfmark Add. MS 31766) was purchased by the Library in 1880.  It contains a wealth of musical material associated with the Pastoral symphony, one of Beethoven’s best-loved works and a staple of the orchestral repertory. 

Beethoven Pastoral Sketchbook 1

The sketchbook offers a fascinating insight into the composer’s creative mind as he worked on the symphony during the course of 1808.  An early title for the symphony, given on the first page of the sketchbook, was ‘Sinfonie Caracteristica oder Errinerungen an das Landleben’ (‘Characteristic symphony or Remembrances of country life’):

Beethoven Pastoral Sketchbook 2

While the symphony includes imitations of bird calls, babbling brooks and a thunderstorm, Beethoven stressed that it was not intended as a representation of particular pastoral scenes.  Writing to his publisher Breitfopf in Leipzig, he described it instead as an expression of the feelings evoked by the countryside.  In the sketchbook itself he states that ‘One leaves it to the listener to work out the situations’ (‘Man überlasst es dem zuhören sich selbst die Situationen auszufinden’):

Beethoven Pastoral Sketchbook 3

Beethoven is well-known for the chaotic appearance of his musical handwriting, his manuscripts often being full of deletions, amendments and scribbles. The Pastoral sketchbook is no exception.  At first glance, it may seem impossible to decipher the hastily scribbled notation, seemingly applied to the page with little regard for intelligibility or precision.  Look more closely, however, and it becomes clear that the sketches represent a painstaking process of refinement and re-drafting, as each musical idea is developed in relation to the emerging structure for the work as a whole. 

Beethoven Pastoral Sketchbook 4

The first page of the sketchbook, discussed with Lord Winston in the first episode of the Sky Arts series, contains the building blocks for the symphony’s lyrical opening melody.  Beethoven described the first movement as ‘Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the countryside’ (‘Erwachen heiterer Empfindungen bei der Ankunft auf dem Lande’).  Each constituent part of the theme is represented here in various permutations, including (from the eighth stave onwards) an outline of the first 40 or so bars. 

Beethoven Pastoral Sketchbook 5

The theme is developed further in the following pages, as Beethoven fleshed out the accompanying parts in short score.  One forms the impression of an almost obsessive mind, as the composer repeatedly re-writes fragments of notation in different permutations.

Beethoven Pastoral Sketchbook 6

Describing his working method many years later in a letter to his patron and pupil the Archduke Rudolf, Beethoven described how it was important to position a small table next to the piano, so that one learns to ‘pin down immediately the most remote ideas’ (1823).  An idea captured on paper is in no danger of escaping and – unlike some composers – Beethoven was careful to preserve much of his sketch material, not least because they often contained a great detail of material that was not absorbed into the finished work.  Indeed, the need to keep a written record of his thoughts seems to have increased with age and encroaching deafness.  In the last 12 years of his life he also kept a pocket sketchbook with him at all times, allowing him to jot down musical ideas or melodies as they came to him. 

Some 30 volumes of Beethoven’s sketches survive in libraries around the world.  Deciphering and analysing this material has become almost a scientific discipline in itself, and started as long ago as the second half of the 19th century.  The British Library has digitised the Pastoral sketchbook and it is available to view via the Digitised Manuscripts website.  Now anyone can explore the intricacies of a great composer’s working method and marvel at the creativity of a musical genius in full flow. 


Further reading

David Wyn Jones, Beethoven: Pastoral Symphony (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)

Douglas Johnson, Alan Tyson and Robert Winter (ed.), The Beethoven Sketchbooks: History, Reconstruction, Inventory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985)

Philip Gossett, ‘Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony: sketches for the first movement’, Journal of the American Musicological Society 27 (1974), p. 248-84.

Alan Tyson, ‘A reconstruction of the Pastoral Symphony Sketchbook (British Museum Add. MS 31766)’, in Beethoven Studies 1 (New York: Norton, 1973), p. 67-96.


13 October 2016

Bob Dylan at the British Library

What was the first Bob Dylan song you ever heard - 'Blowin' in the Wind', 'The Times They are A-Changin', 'Like a  Rolling Stone', or something else entirely?

After the momentous news that the 75-year-old rock legend has won the Nobel Literature Prize, now is a great time both to revisit your old favourites and discover something new.


And with well over a thousand Dylan-related items in our collections, the British Library catalogue is a great place to start. Our latest Bob Dylan acquisition arrived only a few weeks ago in the form of the Bob Dylan ukulele chord songbook (British Library shelfmark E.1080.o) - proof that our music collections are not only about classical music. 


 British Library shelfmark E.1080.o


11 October 2016

"Symphonic boa-constrictors"?

Anton Bruckner died 120 years ago this week (11 October 1896).

A late starter, he only began to compose seriously at the age of 37. Arguably one of the most innovative composers of the second half of the 19th century, he is remembered primarily for his eleven symphonies and sacred compositions.


Johannes Brahms famously had no great love for his contemporary. In a veiled reference to their scale and uniqueness of harmony, he dubbed Bruckner's late works “symphonic boa-constrictors”. By contrast, Richard Wagner effused “I know of only one composer who measures up to Beethoven, and that is Bruckner”.

The affection was mutual. One of Bruckner’s best-known works, the Seventh Symphony, was written between 1881 and 1883 and revised in 1885. On 14 February 1883, however, work on the end of the second movement was interrupted by news of Wagner’s death. The closing bars went on to become Bruckner’s lament on the passing of the “Meister aller Meister”, who he had last seen in summer 1882 at the première of Parsifal in Bayreuth.

Performed by the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig on 30 December 1884, the première of the Seventh Symphony brought Bruckner the greatest success he had known in his life.  Pictured below is an extract from an early draft of the finale (British Library MS Mus. 1810).


Sketch of the Finale of Anton Bruckner's Seventh Symphony (British Library MS Mus. 1810) 

The sketch as a whole contains the equivalent of bars 71 to 104. We can learn something of Bruckner's compositional process from this fragment. The music for bars 71 to 92 is notated at twice the speed of the final version, and that corresponding to bars 89 to 92 occurs earlier in the position of 85 to 88.

The manuscript found its way into our collections as a result of the generosity of Oliver Neighbour (1923-2015), one of the outstanding music librarians of his generation. He devoted virtually his entire professional life to the British Library, where his major contribution was to build and develop the collections of printed music. However, “Tim”, as he was invariably known to friends, was also a private collector, assembling a personal collection of music manuscripts during his long life.

With characteristic modesty, he quietly gave this material to the British Library in 2007, saying it consisted of “odd pages or sketches” that would “fill a few gaps”. In fact, Tim’s collection contained some two hundred manuscripts of composers such as Clementi, Donizetti, Berlioz, Puccini, Debussy, Satie, Ravel, Bartók, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Stravinsky, Berio, Boulez and Stockhausen, as well as Bruckner. 

It is with gratitude that we showcase this fragment here to celebrate Bruckner’s anniversary.