Music blog

4 posts from April 2017

28 April 2017

Nicola LeFanu at 70

To celebrate her 70th birthday on 28 April 2017, we are taking a closer look at the career and influences of composer Nicola LeFanu, and highlighting two of her works held within the music manuscript collections at the British Library.

Nicola LeFanu ©MichaelLynch1

Photograph ©Michael Lynch

Nicola LeFanu was born in England in 1947 to librarian William LeFanu and composer Elizabeth Maconchy. She studied composition with Jeremy Dale Roberts, Alexander Goehr, Goffredo Petrassi, Humphrey Searle and Thea Musgrave. She has been most strongly influenced by her mother, her husband David Lumsdaine (also a composer), her first tutor Jeremy Dale Roberts and by Korean-American composer Earl Kim.

Her first large orchestral work, ‘The Hidden Landscape’, was commissioned by the BBC for the 1973 Proms. In an article for The Guardian, LeFanu describes the absorption required when composing for orchestra and the thrill of the first rehearsal when she heard the piece come to life exactly as she had imagined it in her head.

The British Library holds a dyeline copy of the composer’s manuscript score of this work, annotated by Norman Del Mar, who conducted the first performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra on 7 August 1973. With the score is a letter from LeFanu to Del Mar dated 10 December 1975 along with a list of her alterations. These were produced in preparation for a recording of the work in January 1976.

LeFanu Hidden Landscape page 31

Nicola LeFanu: ‘The Hidden Landscape’. British Library MS Mus. 1820

One of LeFanu’s particular strengths is in writing dramatically for voice. Among the many works she has written for soprano is the 1981 monodrama ‘The Old Woman of Beare’, which is among her personal favourites. The libretto is based on a 9th- or 10th-century Irish poem about a courtesan woman who has entered a convent in her old age. Here she reflects on her life, her sexuality and her aging body.

The work is notable for its passion, the integration of sea and sexuality, the wide range of the vocal part and the instrumentation, which is like an orchestra in miniature. LeFanu deepens the passion of the poem by mixing the singing with spoken passages and by integrating imagery of the sea.

LeFanu The Old Woman of Beare page 31

Nicola LeFanu, ‘The Old Woman of Beare’ for soprano and thirteen players
© 1984 Novello & Co.
Reproduced by permission of Novello & Company Limited
British Library E.1500.r.(3.)

After studying at Oxford and the Royal College of Music, LeFanu won the Mendelssohn Scholarship in 1972 and was a Harkness Fellow at Harvard from 1973 to 1974. She was then Director of Music at St Paul’s Girls’ School from 1975 to 1977, followed by almost twenty years teaching at King’s College London. LeFanu became Professor of Music at the University of York in 1994, a post she held until 2008.

Nicola LeFanu is featured as ‘Composer of the Week’ on Radio 3 from 24 to 28 April 2017. Information about her works and recordings can be found on her website. Many of her scores and recordings are available at the British Library and some of her works can be heard on SoundCloud.

Nicola LeFanu ©MichaelLynch

Photograph © Michael Lynch

Andra Patterson
Head of Content and Metadata Processing South (and former Curator of Music Manuscripts)

26 April 2017

Leoncavallo meets the queen

Italian composer Ruggero Leoncavallo’s biggest hit remains his opera Pagliacci. This was first performed in 1892 when the composer was 34.

Or was he?

Largely due to his own inconsistent accounts, it was long thought that Leoncavallo was born in 1858, and it is this date that appears in many of the standard reference resources. However, recent biographer Konrad Dryden suggests he may in fact have been born 160 years ago, on 23 April 1857.

Ruggiero_leoncavalloRuggero Leoncavallo

Just as Leoncavallo’s reputation rests largely on one piece, the British Library holds one substantial music manuscript by him. This treasure from the Stefan Zweig collection is an orchestral score of a short piece, Cortège di Pulcinella (Zweig MS 48). This was published as a piano piece at the time, and only later in the orchestral arrangement. Subtitled ‘marche humoristique’, it has a somewhat morbid sense of humour, distantly reminiscent of Charles Gounod’s famous Funeral March of a Marionette.


Leoncavallo, Cortège di Pulcinella. British Library Zweig MS 48, folio 2 recto

Leoncavallo conducted Cortège in a concert at the Teatro Real in Madrid on 1 April 1906. The manuscript contains an inscription to ‘Angelo Berlinghi’ and copious annotations made with a coarse blue pencil. These markings suggest that it might have been the copy Leoncavallo used for performance. Another autograph manuscript is also extant, this time held at the Morgan Library in New York. This, too, contains markings that hint at its use for performance.

Rewind just over seven years to March 1899, and we find Leoncavallo in the company of none other than Queen Victoria. Shortly afterwards, Leoncavallo sent her beautifully-bound presentation copies of vocal scores for his operas Chatterton and La bohème (the latter first performed a year after Puccini’s more famous setting). These mementos include telling inscriptions to ‘La Reine Victoria’, and are now preserved in the British Library's Royal Music Library collection.

RM9d17 flyleaf  RM9d17_titlepage
Fly-leaf and title-page of Leoncavallo’s Chatterton. British Library R.M.9.d.17

Pagliacci was performed for the Queen at Windsor Castle in July that year. She apparently noted in her diary that, while “the music was beautiful [and] very descriptive”, she still preferred Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana

Chris Scobie
Curator, Music Manuscripts

13 April 2017

The man who found the straight banana

Did you know that bananas first went on sale in London in April 1633?

Inspired by this fact, we’ve been delving into our printed music collections, and have discovered that the humble fruit has inspired a surprisingly large number of songs.

These include the romantically-titled 'When the banana skins are falling, I’ll come sliding back to you' (1926), the evocative World War 2 song 'When can I have a banana again?', and the catchy 1920s number 'Yes, we have no bananas'.

When the banana skins are falling title page

Published 1926. British Library VOC/1926/FRAZZINI

In our quest for banana-inspired music, we also came across a song entitled 'I’ve never seen a straight banana'. This piqued our curiosity, particularly in light of recent press coverage surrounding Brexit.

Apparently, one voter was swayed to vote in favour of leaving the European Union on account of regulations relating to banana shape. As a BBC news article explains, according to European Commission Regulations:

Bananas must be "free from malformation or abnormal curvature". In the case of "Extra class" bananas, there is no wiggle room, but Class 1 bananas can have "slight defects of shape", and Class 2 bananas can have full-on "defects of shape”.

As our music collections reveal, though, concerns over banana shape, be they light-hearted or official, are not a new phenomenon. The comic song ‘I’ve never seen a straight banana’ dates from 1926 and was written by the elusive British music hall comedian Ted Waite. Our copy is an arrangement for banjo and ukulele – described as “banjulele” on the edition.

I've never seen a straight banana title page

Published 1926. British Library VOC/1926/WAITE

In 1927, it was made popular by American bandleader Fred Waring whose band, Waring's Pennsylvanians, recorded it.  The chorus runs:

I’ve seen bananas standing up,

And seen them lying down.

I’ve tried everywhere to find one,

Africa, Jamaica and Havana,

But I’ve never seen a straight banana.

Waite’s song was quickly “answered” by one Waff Walker. Setting words by Harry Arthur, he composed ‘I’m the man who found the straight banana’ in 1927. This went on sale the same year for the modest sum of sixpence.

I'm the man who found the straight banana title page

Published 1927. British Library VOC/1927/WALKER

Described as a “chorus song”, suggesting it could be sung by a group rather than as a solo, the final lines boldly declare:

I went and done a something

Millions of others couldn’t do

I’m the man who found the straight banana.

To explore these and other banana-related music items in our collections, visit our Explore catalogue and search for “banana music”.

11 April 2017

New folk-dance arrangements discovered

Imogen Holst, who was born on 12 April 1907, is well-known, among her many accomplishments, for her folk-song and folk-dance arrangements. Many of these published volumes, written for a variety of educational and recreational purposes, are available in the printed music collections here at the British Library.



Recently, however, we have come across a collection of Imogen Holst's folk-dance arrangements in her own hand which never made it into print. The manuscript, along with related correspondence, is contained within our recently-acquired Boosey & Hawkes archive, and gives further insight into Imogen Holst’s editorial approach to folk-song and dance, as well as her tireless commitment to the promotion of British music.

Imogen Holst folk dances

Newly-discovered Imogen Holst folk-dance arrangements in the British Library Boosey & Hawkes Archive. Reproduced with permission of the Holst Foundation

In June 1944, while she was busy running the music course at Dartington Hall, Imogen Holst received an invitation from the music publisher Boosey & Hawkes to edit and arrange two volumes of British folk-songs and dances for piano. She accepted with enthusiasm - ‘I cannot tell you what pleasure your suggestion gave me’ - and within 6 weeks had completed the manuscripts for both volumes.

The intention of Boosey & Hawkes was to promote the works internationally, capitalizing on pro-British sentiments in countries ‘where everything British will be much more appreciated after the war’. Imogen Holst replied that this was ‘a practical piece of internationalism that appeals to me very strongly’. Proofs for the first volume of folk-songs, complete with French and Spanish (but notably, not German) translations, were ready by January 1945, and publication followed in 1947.

However, the second volume of folk-dances remained in manuscript form. Languishing in the Boosey & Hawkes archive ever since, it contains piano arrangements for around 35 folk-dances from around the British Isles, along with handwritten introductions to both volumes. Imogen Holst had clear ideas about how folk-song and dance should be presented and was assertive about these in her correspondence with the company: ‘I feel very strongly indeed that most editions of traditional tunes are cluttered up with a lot of “expression” marks which might be all right in elaborate “composed” music of the 19th and 20th centuries but which are hopelessly out of place in simple tunes that sing themselves’.

Her keen stylistic sense, along with her understanding of traditional dance forms, also comes across in the introduction to the folk dances: ‘In the following piano arrangements the left hand has to supply the light, rhythmical accompaniment of the missing drum. Instead of providing solid harmonies it must let in the air between each rise and fall of the phrase, lifting the imaginary dancers off their feet’.

The related correspondence in the Boosey & Hawkes archive does not indicate why this second volume was never published. In 1951 Imogen Holst returned the volumes of folk-songs loaned to her by the publisher for the purposes of the project and a rather formal reply from Dr Rosen denied all knowledge of the current state of play regarding her work. By then Imogen Holst was set to leave Dartington and, after a period of travel in India, would soon become assistant to Benjamin Britten. Her subsequent dealings with Boosey & Hawkes were mostly concerned with this new creative partnership.

Emma Greenwood, Music Manuscript and Archival Cataloguer, British Library



Imogen Holst, composer, conductor, writer, and administrator, was born on 12 April 1907 and died at Aldeburgh on 9 March 1984. Her archive is held at the Britten-Pears Library and has recently been catalogued as part of the Holst Archive Project. Please note that cataloguing of the Boosey & Hawkes archive at the British Library is ongoing and that access to the archive is limited until the project is complete.