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4 posts from December 2016

21 December 2016

It's pantomime time!

Come Santa Claus!

The children wait for thee.

Now's the season of the year,

Held by children very dear.

Santa Claus,

Now at your call,

Comes to gladden one and all.

Horace Lennard's lyrics for the opening number of the 'fairy pantomime' Santa Claus, staged at London's Lyceum Theatre from December 1894, are quaintly (or perhaps cloyingly, depending on your taste) late Victorian. Oscar Bennett's music perhaps even more so.

Oscar Barrett Santa Claus coverSelected numbers from Oscar Barrett’s 'fairy pantomime' Santa Claus (Metzler & Co., 1895). British Library F.688.(3.), title-page

I found myself looking at it recently having recently visited the British Library's Victorian Entertainments: There will be fun exhibition (open until March 2017). A connection formed between pantomime (represented in the exhibition particularly by Dan Leno, music hall star and famous Victorian pantomime dame), and a large collection of manuscript music from the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (where Leno regularly appeared).

Amongst that collection, now here at the British Library, are six boxes of music for the Santa Claus pantomime. Although the music that came from the Drury Lane theatre isn’t necessarily all from productions there, it includes a lot of material associated with the composer and theatrical producer Oscar Barrett (1847-1941). Barrett worked at the theatre as musical director for some time in the 1880s, but soon mounted rival pantomimes at the Lyceum. 

Through the 1870s, the productions of Sir Augustus Harris (both senior and junior), began a trend in pantomime towards scenic spectacle, rowdy audience participation, and star turns by music hall performers of the day such as Dan Leno and Marie Lloyd (who would often bring their own songs and routines with them). Under Barrett, the music at least seems to have become more tightly controlled and 'tasteful' (a term that crops up in a lot of the newspaper reports of these performances).

Barrett had a critical hit in 1893-4 with Cinderella, his first production at the Lyceum, which was seen by some as returning to earlier models of pantomime. Interestingly, this in turns seems to have influenced subsequent productions at Drury Lane. (Jeffrey Richards, The Golden Age of Pantomime, 2010, details the various rival productions, their mutual influences, and context in broader changing fashions for pantomime through the 19th century.)

1894-5 was the season for Santa Claus. The plot mixed Maid Marion, Robin Hood, the story of the Babes in the Wood, a dog called Tatters (a collie specifically, played by a Mr Charles Lauri), Queen Mab, and Santa Claus himself. The Bury & Norwich Post, 22 January 1895, tells us that William Rignold, who played him, was "admirably cheery" and delivered his speeches suitably "ore rotundo". Musically, it looks as though it was a similar hotchpotch, albeit one with a noticeable tendency towards certain ‘respectable’ styles (a kind of Arthur Sullivan-lite operetta one in particular). 

MS Mus 1716-65-1-sample-partSample orchestral part from MS Mus. 1716/65/1, orchestral packet 3

The manuscripts from the archive are fascinating for many reasons, but especially as testaments to a pragmatic and ephemeral world of music making – and a glimpse at the characters of the pit musicians themselves. (The most I could find about them was a brief mention of the "competent orchestra" in the Globe, 27 December 1894.)

Parts were clearly reused across different pantomimes, with various passages sometimes cut, sometimes reinstated; there are pieces of printed music by other composers (Mendelssohn at one point) that have been inserted and similarly reshaped as required.

There are also several doodles. The viola player in 'no.50 D', for example, has written 'sausage roll' and then a cryptic musical cipher!

Orchestral part for Queen of the Night MS Mus 1716-65-1Viola part for the song ‘Queen of the Night’, MS Mus. 1716/65/1,

The euphonium player for 'no.18' fancies himself a latter day van Dyck, and references the popular music hall song of the time "Where did you get that hat?"

Euphonium part Mus 1716-65-1 orchestral packet 2Euphonium part, MS Mus 1716/65/1, orchestral packet 2 

And then there is one of the second violins in 'no.21', who has left us a pencil sketch of some kind of bird. (I'd like to think it might be a turkey, but a colleague suggested it could be a goose in a bonnet ... !)

Second violin part MS Mus 1716-65-orchestral packet 2Second violin part part, MS Mus 1716/65/1, orchestral packet 2 

The ephemeral nature of this music and the kinds of productions it was used for has often left us with a sketchy and selective record of music for pantomime (and theatre productions more generally). In some cases this may not matter, but the insight into life and working practices that the surviving sources provide is fascinating. A case in point is a letter from Oscar Barrett detailing his vision for the choreography for a particular dance. A telling amendment to the score doubles the number of dancing robins for that scene from 12 to 24.

Chris Scobie - Rare Books & Music Reference Service

Notes on resources:

  • Newspaper content in this article was found via The British Newspaper Archive - also subscription based, but freely available in the British Library Reading Rooms
  • The Lord Chamberlain's Plays  contain scripts (although not music) for plays submitted to the Lord Chamberlain for licensing between 1824 and 1968 
  • A useful overview of 19th century pantomime can be found in Jeffrey Richards, The Golden Age of Pantomime: slapstick, subversion and spectacle in Victorian England, (London, 2010). British Library YC.2015.a.3620. ; and a collection of critical essays on the subject in Jim Davis (ed.), Victorian Pantomime, (Basingstoke, 2010). YC.2012.a.4426. 

19 December 2016

Benjamin Britten's A Boy was Born

Among the many Benjamin Britten works within the British Library’s collection of music manuscripts are the autograph vocal parts for one of his earliest choral works, A Boy Was Born.

Available to browse in full on the Digitised Manuscripts website, A Boy was Born consists of a series of choral variations with festive subjects. The first is a dialogue between Mary and Jesus, the second tells of the massacre of the innocents, whilst the third sets the text "Jesu as Thou art our saviour". The next concerns the three kings, before moving onto a setting of Rossetti's "In the Bleak Midwinter" and concluding with a return to the original theme.

Britten composed this work during his studies at the Royal College of Music. It proved to be the last project he completed at the College, and these parts date from the same period, 1932-33. However, it was not until over a year later on 17 December 1934 that it received its first public performance.  This took place at the Mercury Theatre under the baton of Iris Lemare.

Benjamin Britten A boy was born coverTitle-page (with composer’s signature) from the boys’ part of A Boy Was Born, British Library Add MS 59798, folio 1 recto

This and the following images from Add MS 59798 are made available by kind permission of The Britten Estate Ltd and of Chester Music Ltd.

All publishing rights exercised.

Britten was not at all happy with the first performance. In his diary entry for 17 December, he reflected that it was ‘mostly very poor I’m afraid’, and added that he left immediately afterwards, ‘not being able to stand the strain.’ But to his surprise, A Boy Was Born immediately proved to be popular with audiences and performers alike.

In some respects, Britten's reaction was unsurprising, given that he was already known as a perfectionist even at this early stage in his career. Interestingly, the British Library’s set of parts provides further evidence of his attention to detail and tendency to revise: many of the pages feature numerous paste-downs where alterations have been made during the copying process. Although these could have been corrections of simple errors, it is significant that Britten mentions making ‘odd alterations’ to the piece with his teacher Frank Bridge in a diary entry for 11 May, 1933. Perhaps these amendments result from compositional revisions rather than from proof-reading?

Benjamin Britten A boy was born folio 1Paste-down corrections (third stave from the bottom) in Variation 1 (boys’ part), Add MS 59798, folio 1 verso 

However, the general accuracy and legibility of the parts indicates that Britten intended them for performance rather than a simple run-through. The occasion was probably an earlier broadcast performance on the BBC, which was given in February. After a rehearsal at the BBC, the composer mentioned in his diary that he was impressed by the choir’s first reading: ‘They sang it excellently considering they were sight-reading it from M.S. parts (copied at 5.30 in morning!). I am very pleased & bucked.’

Benjamin Britten A boy was born folio 11vAn example of Britten’s clear copying in the Soprano 1 part of ‘Herod’, Add MS 59798, folio 11 verso

Perhaps most intriguing is Britten’s admission that he had found the final variation extremely difficult to complete. Both in his diary and letters he mentions his difficulties in constructing the work’s finale, and the autograph score shows many revisions and crossings out. Yet in the parts, the final movement is the only one which has no corrections at all, either as paste-downs or in pencil.

Benjamin Britten A Boy was Born folio 34 verso

The last page of the final movement, ‘Noel’ (alto part), Add MS 59798, folio 34 verso

It is possible that Britten’s earlier agonising over this movement simply meant that he took greater care when copying the parts, or maybe that the notes were simply more present in his mind. On the other hand, it may shed some light on the young composer’s mode of working – perhaps this movement’s difficult inception meant that he felt it needed less attention and revision later on. Whatever the answers to these questions, this set of parts provide a fascinating record of one of Benjamin Britten’s earliest successes and given an insight into his working methods at the start of his career.

Isobel Clarke

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

16 December 2016

Music Collections acquires Vincent Novello album

We are delighted to announce that a fascinating album has recently been added to the British Library's Music Collections, thanks to the diligent work of the Arts Council's Acceptance in Lieu scheme.

The album was compiled by Vincent Novello (1781-1861), organist and founder of the Novello music publishing house. Comprising 78 leaves, it is bound in leather with a gold-tooled harp crest on the front board and an elegant metal clasp.  It is featured in the Cultural Gift Scheme and Acceptance in lieu annual report 2015/16 (see page 70), and has now been formally added to the British Library's extensive collection of music manuscripts.

Novello-Album-front-coverThe recently-acquired Novello Album, British Library shelfmark MS Mus. 1816

The album contains autograph manuscripts by Liszt (58 bars from his Grand Galop Chromatique), Paganini (6 bars marked presto), Rossini (3 bars), Hummel (10 bars) and Mendelssohn (34 bars for an organ piece), Donizetti, as well as fragments by Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn. It also contains autographs of other performers, actors and artists, as well as literary figures such as Charles Dickens.

Novello-Album-folio-49-recto-MozartLeaf containing  a fragment of music in Mozart's own hand, together with a description by Vincent Novello

Vincent Novello was a major figure in London musical life in the first half of the 19th century and was well connected socially and professionally to key figures in the arts. The contents of the album reflects the importance of Novello and charts a fascinating period of British musical history. Born to an Italian family, he settled in England when he was 16 and devoted the rest of his life to furthering the cause of musical life and education in Britain. Novello’s interest in the music of previous generations meant that he built up a significant collection of music manuscripts from previous centuries. His work as an editor and publisher led to the formation of the company Novello & Co, which still exists today. Novello began compiling the album in 1829 when he and his wife journeyed to Austria to meet Mozart’s widow, Constanze, and son in Salzburg. Constanze contributed to the album herself, as did their youngest son Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart (known as Wolfgang Amadeus Jr), with a choral piece of his own, Die Nacht.

The album remained in the Novello family until it was consigned to auction in 1951 where it was bought by Novello & Co. Ltd. Novello & Co. was acquired by the Granada Group in 1970 and in 1989, Granada consigned the album and other Novello manuscripts for sale at auction where it was bought by the late Sir Charles Mackerras, the prominent conductor.


05 December 2016

A leaf from Mozart's grave: curiosities from British Library Music Collections

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died 225 years today on 5 December 1791.

To mark the occasion, we’re showcasing a very unusual item from our extensive music holdings.

Found within a miscellaneous collection of letters, locks of hair, and photographs of notable musicians, is a single leaf, neatly preserved in a polyester sleeve.

British Library Egerton-MS-3097-B-leaf-from-Mozart's-grave

Egerton MS 3097 B, folio 11: leaf gathered from Mozart’s grave on 6 April 1890

This leaf is the smallest item in our collection of music manuscripts. A note preserved with it suggests it was gathered from Mozart’s grave by one Frederick George Edwards during a trip to Vienna in  April 1890. 

British Library Egerton-MS-3097-B-description-of-Mozart-leaf

Description of the leaf in Egerton MS 3097 B, folio 11

Edwards was organist of the Surrey Chapel, moving to the newly-built Christ Church, Westminster Bridge, in 1876. He transferred to St John’s Wood Presbyterian Church in 1881, where he remained as organist until 1905. He was also a notable music historian. Besides books on hymn tunes and Mendelssohn’s Elijah, he wrote articles on cathedrals and the English Bach revival for the Musical Times, some 21 entries on 19th-century musical figures for the Dictionary of National Biography, and further articles for the second edition of Grove’s Dictionary. The leaf forms part of a 13-volume collection of his papers held at the British Library.

Mozart died just before 1am on 5 December 1791. The cause of his death was registered as ‘hitziges Friesel Fieber’ or severe miliary fever (‘miliary’ referring to a rash resembling millet-seeds). It was later diagnosed as ‘rheumatische Entzündungsfieber’ (rheumatic inflammatory fever).

The common belief that Mozart was buried in a pauper’s grave appears to be without foundation. Instead, in accordance with Viennese custom, he is thought to have been buried in a common grave at the St Marx cemetery outside the city of Vienna two days after his death. The term referred to an individual rather than a mass grave, belonging to a non-aristocratic citizen. The precise location of the grave is unknown.

The funeral arrangements were made by Mozart’s friend and patron Baron Gottfried van Swieten. The tale of stormy and snowy weather conditions also now appears to be false. In fact, the day was thought to have been calm and mild.