Music blog

7 posts from November 2016

29 November 2016

Gustav Mahler’s 'Urlicht' manuscript at the British Library

On the day that the autograph full score of Mahler’s second symphony was sold at auction in London, it seems appropriate to take draw attention to a related manuscript held by the British Library (Zweig MS 49) that reveals part of the work’s early genesis. The fourth movement of the symphony famously introduces a setting for alto of the poem Urlicht (‘primeval light’) from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a collection of poems by L. A. von Arnim and Clemens Brentano.  Written in the key of D flat major, rather remote from the symphony’s overall tonality of C minor, Urlicht offers a brief and otherworldly moment of repose between the turbulent scherzo that precedes it and the transcendental finale. 


Urlicht was not, however, originally intended to form part of the symphony. Mahler first composed it as a song with piano accompaniment in about 1892, before scoring it for orchestra in the version now held by the British Library.  It then formed part of a collection of songs drawn from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, which Mahler published in 1899.  The manuscript of this early version is dated at the end ‘Steinbach 19 Juli 1893’, coinciding with the period in which Mahler was working on the first three movements of the symphony. 


It nevertheless differs in various significant ways from the Urlicht movement we recognise in the symphony.  The scoring, for example, is slightly thinner, with fewer horns and one harp rather than two.  The musical text also reflects Mahler’s early thoughts and includes numerous corrections, amendments, erasures, and other annotations in his hand, both in pencil and in ink. Some but not all of these revisions were later incorporated in the manuscript full score and first edition. 


It was only later, at some point between the summer of 1893 and the end of 1894, that Mahler decided to adapt the song and include it as the fourth movement of the second symphony. The Urlicht manuscript held at the British Library forms part of the collection assembled by the writer Stefan Zweig and his heirs, which was very generously donated in 1986.  It may be viewed in full via the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website.

28 November 2016

Youth's Delight on the Flagelet: Samuel Pepys and his lessons with Thomas Greeting

Nearly 350 years ago, the English diarist Samuel Pepys wrote in his entry for Thursday 28th February 1667 that he had employed a man named Thomas Greeting to teach the flageolet to his wife.  According to the entry, this was something of an impulsive arrangement: Greeting had gone with the flageolet-maker Drumbleby to deliver a new instrument to the diarist, who appears to have leaped upon the opportunity to arrange instruction for Mrs. Pepys.

Pepys’s musical enthusiasms feature prominently in the diary, particularly his passion for playing the flageolet and recorder.  He seems to have been well-connected within the world of professional musicians, so this association with Thomas Greeting, who was perhaps the most renowned flageolet tutor book author of the period, is not surprising.

Two copies of Greeting’s tutor books are held within the British Library’s collection of English 17th-century printed music: an enlarged third edition of his first tutor book, The Pleasant Companion (shelfmark K.11.e.8.) and a copy of his second tutor book, published in 1682/3 (shelfmark K.4.a.20). Both consist of 13 pages of instruction for the flageolet, followed by (different) sets of tunes, with fingerings supplied for each note.

The Pleasant Companion title pageTitle-page from the third edition of The Pleasant Companion, British Library K.11.e.8

A closer look at the copy of the second tutor book, The Second Part of Youth's Delight on the Flagelet, reveals two significant imperfections: the insertion of two manuscript pages which have been erroneously supplied from a 1675 edition of The Pleasant Companion – a title-page, and the final page of the ‘Directions for Playing on the Flagelet’.

There is also another, entirely different addition which is far more noteworthy: two monograms of Samuel Pepys in his autograph, which have been inscribed on the blank verso of the last page of music.

Samuel Pepys initials

The two monograms of Samuel Pepys, in his hand, which appear in British Library K.4.a.20

But does the fact that this volume once belonged to Samuel Pepys shed any new light on his music-making activities? It is already well-known that Pepys was a keen musician, although there is little evidence in his diary that Elisabeth Pepys shared his passion. Her flageolet studies seem to have been rather sporadic, probably indicating that the lessons arranged by her husband were his enthusiasm rather than hers. A month after her instruction had commenced, Pepys still seemed optimistic about Elisabeth’s progress:

Being returned home, I find Greeting, the flageolet-master, come, and teaching my wife; and I do think my wife will take pleasure in it, and it will be easy for her, and pleasant.

Entry for 1st March, 1667

But by 17th May he was complaining that she was not doing enough practice and feared that her lessons would seem a ‘bad bargain’ to Greeting.  ‘I did think that the man did deserved some more consideration,’ wrote Pepys, ‘and so will give him an opportunity of 20s. a month more, and he shall teach me, and this afternoon I begun, and I think it will be a few shillings well spent.’

On 9th September, he admits that she has been exceeding his expectations, and three days later he noted that her sight-reading had improved:

[…] and mightily pleased with my wife’s playing on the flageolet, she taking out any tune almost at first sight, and keeping time to it, which pleases me mightily.

Entry for 12th September, 1667

It seems that after this point the lessons may have ceased for a while, but a year later Pepys wrote that Greeting had called round to play some Matthew Locke duets with him, and that he had booked his wife in for lessons again, ‘for I have a great mind for her to be able to play a part with me’.

This entry probably holds the key to the real reason behind Elisabeth’s flageolet lessons with Thomas Greeting: namely, that her husband considered that playing duets with him was a logical and entirely reasonable extension of her wifely duties. But where does the British Library copy of The Second Part of Youth's Delight on the Flagelet fit into the picture? The date of the publication is certainly significant. Despite the lack of this copy’s original title-page, the term catalogues reveal that this publication was only printed in the years 1682 and 1683 – well after Elisabeth’s death in 1669, which indicates that Pepys continued playing the flageolet himself after this date. Although this might seem unsurprising on the face of things, it is actually the only real evidence we have to suggest this, since Pepys had also stopped writing the diary in 1669 because of his deteriorating eyesight.

Since the copy bears no annotations besides the two monograms, it is impossible to ascertain whether Pepys would have actually used this tutor book for instruction. Since he would have been far from a beginner by this point, he may have bought it simply to supply himself with a new set of tunes to play, since the songs and dances in this publication are entirely different to those contained within The Pleasant Companion. It is also worth noting that the book includes several pieces by John Banister  – another musical acquaintance of Pepys.

John Banister Jigg

No. 9 from The Second Part of Youth’s Delight on the Flagelet, ‘A jigg by Mr. Io Ban:’, British Library K.4.a.20

Equally though, the book may have been merely a casual or symbolic purchase – perhaps a gesture of support to his friend, Thomas Greeting, or even a memento of his late wife’s less-than-enthusiastic studies. Nevertheless, the existence of this copy does provide a telling indication that Samuel Pepys’s interest, and presumably his enjoyment of the flageolet, continued until long after its last mention in his diaries.


Isobel Clarke

Doctoral student, Royal College of Music, and PhD placement student, British Library Music Collections


22 November 2016

Treasures of the BL: Handel's Birthday Ode for Queen Anne

The final episode in the Sky Arts series ‘Treasures of the British Library' features the renowned trumpet soloist Alison Balsom. Following the format of the other episodes in the series, Alison visited the British Library to view and explore six items from the collection relating to her interests and professional life, and she was especially keen to see manuscripts of works that form part of her musical repertory.  Of particular interest was George Frideric Handel’s Birthday Ode for Queen Anne (HWV 74), scored for choir, orchestra, vocal soloists, and featuring an important obbligato role for the trumpet. The work is also known from the title provided by the first line of text, ‘Eternal source of light divine’. The manuscript is one of 96 volumes of Handel’s manuscripts now held by the British Library as part of the Royal Music Library collection (shelfmark R.M.20.g.2.).


Handel settled in London in the autumn of 1712 and this ‘Birthday Ode’ represents one of the first works he wrote in England, completing an initial version in early 1713 before revising it a year later. The words were by the English poet and politician Ambrose Philips (1674-1749) and celebrated not only the Queen’s birthday but also the Treaty of Utrecht, which had been negotiated in 1712 to end the War of Spanish Succession. The text thus includes the refrain ‘The day that gave great Anna birth / Who fix'd a lasting peace on earth’.


Queen Anne’s birthday fell on 6 February and it seems likely that the work was performed in her presence in 1714, either at St. James’s Palace or Windsor Castle, although no record of this performance is known. Handel does, however, write the names of the solo singers at the beginning of this manuscript, including the countertenor Mr [Richard] Elford, though not – alas! – the name of the trumpet soloist.


In accordance with our understanding of contemporary musical practice, trumpeters typically embellish the expansive melodic line in the first movement of the Ode with trills mirroring the vocal line (for an example, see Alison Balsom’s recording). It’s instructive to note, however, that the only trill that Handel himself marked in the manuscript is in the trumpet line at this climactic point at the end of the movement:


As an occasional piece, the Ode inevitably had a limited shelf-life, allowing Handel to reuse much of the material in later compositions. This manuscript therefore represented a source to be plundered for recycling. On his death, Handel bequeathed it with all the other manuscripts in his possession to his assistant John Christopher Smith. Smith’s son subsequently presented the collection to King George III who placed it in what became knwon as the Royal Music Library at Buckingham Palace.  A digital copy of the entire manuscript is available to view via the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website


21 November 2016

The pianist who transformed the Cold War

In 1958, a 23-year-old Texan pianist named Van Cliburn arrived in Moscow to try his luck in the first International Tchaikovsky Competition. With Cold War tensions soaring and a Soviet pianist already selected as the intended winner, few thought an American stood an outside chance. Yet the moment the tall, boyish Texan began playing, the Soviets fell in love with his personality and his grandly romantic way with their beloved music.


Amid political machinations that reached all the way to newly installed premier Nikita Khrushchev, Cliburn stormed his way to an upset victory. The result astonished the world and launched a career that catapulted Cliburn to rock-star celebrity in both the United States and the Soviet Union. A political naïf who strove and often struggled to live up to his unsought role as a musical ambassador, Cliburn continued to play a role in pivotal Cold War events right up to the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in 1987.

To launch his new book, Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story—How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War, Nigel Cliff will piece together the politics, personality and pianism of this extraordinary character in a special British Library event. This will take place this Friday, 25 November 2016, 19.00-20.30, in the British Library Conference Centre.

For further information and booking, see


16 November 2016

Dragons and greyhounds: a day in the life of a digital music curator

In February 2016, I started a new job at the British Library working as Curator, Digital Music. Friends and family often ask me what this involves. The short answer is an awful lot of things, ranging from collecting digital sheet music as part of the non-print legal deposit regulations, to planning new music content for the web pages and writing blog posts to highlight our work and collections.

But one of the most exciting things I do is assist in managing music digitisation projects. Some of these, such as our recent Handel digitisation project, deal with large bodies of content. Others deal with just one or two manuscripts or printed items.

I recently received a request from the Alamire Foundation in Leuven for copies of a manuscript from our collections for use in their new Integrated Database for Early Music. After dealing with licensing issues and liaising with my colleagues in the Manuscripts department regarding the supply of the images, I actually got a chance to look at the manuscript itself - always a highlight of the job.

The manuscript in question, Royal MS 8 G VII, dates from circa 1513 to 1544 and is a book of 28 motets for four voices. All are apparently anonymous, although later research has since identified works by Jean Mouton and Josquin Desprez, amongst others.

The manuscript was produced in the workshop of Petrus Alamire in the southern Netherlands. Born into the Nuremberg merchant family of Imhof, Petrus settled in the Low Countries in the 1490s and became famous as a music scribe, having made several similar choir books for other European courts.

Browsing through the images, I was struck by the miniature below, which  appears on folio 2 verso.


British Library Royal MS 8 G VII, folio 2 verso

This manuscript was probably produced for Henry VIII and  Catherine of Aragon. In colours and gold, the miniature depicts the royal arms with dragon and greyhound supporters. Also included are the heraldic emblems of the Tudor rose and pomegranate (the latter being Catherine's emblem). The striking borders depicting flowers, insects and birds is in a distinctly Flemish style. Meanwhile, the portcullis badge appears on folio 3.


British Library Royal MS 8 G VII, folio 3 recto

Presented to the British Museum by George II in 1757 as part of the Old Royal Library, this beautiful manuscript can be browsed in full on our Digitised Manuscripts website.



05 November 2016

Remember, remember, the fifth of November

"Remember, remember, the fifth of November, gunpowder treason and plot!"

Many of us will see and hear ‘Bonfire Night’ or ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ celebrations on 5th November, even if we don’t attend them ourselves. Of course, these celebrations, commemorating the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, have a history dating back to the very first anniversary of the conspiracy.

The failure of the Gunpowder Plot was immediately seized upon by printers in Jacobean England, who were quick to cash in on the publishing opportunities arising from the plot’s failure. A quick glance through the Stationers’ Company register shows some of the virulently anti-Catholic publications going to print in the months after the plot’s discovery, among them Great Brytayns great Delyuerance from the great danger of popishe powder poysoned by the hand of God and The Vnmaskinge of Murder. Or. An extemporrall Declaracon of the Cacolyke complotted treason Lately Discouered.

Somewhat remarkably, this polemic is also found in some of the music publications in the British Library’s collections. The composer Richard Alison, for example, appended three plot-commemorating anthems to the end of his 1606 publication, An Howres Recreation in Muiscke. The title-page of this collection describes them as "a prayer for the long preseruation of the King and his posteritie, and a thankesgiuing for the deliuerance of the whole estate from the late conspiracie".

Alison Title Page Richard Alison, A Howre’s Recreation in Musicke (London: John Windet, 1606). British Library Music Collections K.3.m.1

Yet behind the relatively gentile wording of this frontispiece is a vitriolic condemnation of the plot, sweetly arranged for five-part consort performance in the home. Alison’s "thanksgiving for the deliverance" is rounded off by this chorus, which describes the "bloody bloody treasons" as the direct work of the devil himself:

Alison ChorusAlison, Howres Recreation in Musicke, Cantus Secundus f.15r

Alison was not alone in his musical celebration of the failure of the Gunpowder Plot, and the printing of commemorative music for this occasion seems to have persevered for some time. John Amner, in his Sacred Hymnes (1615), observed the occasion with this short thanksgiving ‘Alleluia’, which is wholly typical of the composer’s elaborate and energetic style:

Amner Title Page 

Amner 'I will sing unto the Lord John Amner, Sacred Hymnes (London: Edward Allde, 1615). British Library Music Collections K.3.h.2. 

Cantus Primus title-page (above) and Cantus Secundus f.11r (below)

"I Will singe vnto the Lord" would appear to be a joyous celebration of James I’s triumph over the traitorous plot, the discovery of which demonstrated God’s protection of the anointed king. However, Amner’s choice of text for this is peculiar, to say the least. "I will sing unto the Lord", also known as the "Song of Moses" is the celebratory canticle of the Hebrews after they successfully crossed the Red Sea in their escape from Egypt. The Book of Exodus tells us that this escape was achieved by divine intervention, when God drowned the pursuing Pharaoh, with all his chariots; it is rather curious, therefore, that Amner should celebrate James I’s narrow escape with a story of regicide.

Amner doesn’t stop there. At the bottom of every page in this collection, there is a one line Latin paraphrase of the text which summarises the content of each motet. Yet, for this piece, Amner selects a completely different verse from Paul’s letter to the Romans, translated in the King James Version as "If God be for us, who can be against us?":

Amner 'Si deus nobiscum' original John Amner, Sacred Hymnes. Cantus Secudus, f.11r.

Amner is clearly saying that God is on one side in the conflict between James’s Calvinist government and Catholic dissenters. Given the anti-Catholic sentiments in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot, his ambiguity over which side he means is, at the very least, brave.

James Ritzema

Collaborative PhD student, Royal Holloway, University of London, and British Library


02 November 2016

Musical chess

Fascinating fact for the day: on 2 November 1924 (92 years today!), the Sunday Express published the first crossword to appear in a British newspaper.

We’re marking the occasion with a musical puzzle of our own: Ghiselin Danckerts’ ‘Ave maris stella’. This ingeniously-crafted canon is presented in the form of a chessboard, with each of the 64 words of text appearing on a separate square.


Ghiselin Danckerts, ‘Ave maris stella’, in Pietro Cerones El melopeo maestro (Naples: Giovanni Battista Gargano and Lucrezio Nucci, 1613), p. 1129. British Library Hirsch I.114

Born in Tholen, Zeeland around 1510, the Netherlandish composer, singer and writer on music Ghiselin Danckerts was little-known and sparsely published. This curiosity was first printed on a single sheet in 1535, though this edition has since been lost. The earliest extant copy is that produced in Augsburg in 1549 by the Melchior Kriegstein firm, a copy of which can be found in the Herzog-August-Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel (186 Musica div. fol. (1)). It is pictured here in a reproduction found in Pietro Cerones’ treatise on music El melopeo maestro (Naples: Giovanni Battista Gargano and Lucrezio Nucci, 1613).

At the time of its first publication, it had an impact on the Italian composer and theorist Nicola Vicentino (1511-1576). On 2 June 1551, Danckerts was chosen along with the Spanish-born composer Bartolomé de Escobedo (ca. 1505-1603) to judge the debate between Vicentino and Vicente Lusitano on the role of the chromatic and enharmonic genera in contemporary musical practice. Unlike Vicentino, Danckerts clung to the ideal of modal purity, a viewpoint that earned him a reputation as having a preference for conservative compositional methods.

Vicentino lost the debate, and with this in mind, it is no coincidence that Danckerts’ canon is discussed in scathing terms in Vicentino's 1555 treatise L’antica musica ridotta alla moderna prattica. Entitled “Rule for discovering an unwritten canon, and how it should be sung”, chapter forty contains a veiled reference to Danckerts’ work. Here, Vicentino declares that a composer “should not make a canon in the shape of a tower, a mountain, a river, a chessboard or other objects, for these compositions create a loud noise in many voices with little harmonic sweetness”. Danckerts clearly disagreed!