Music blog

3 posts from May 2018

27 May 2018

Musgrave at 90

Today (27 May 2018) is the ninetieth birthday of Thea Musgrave, a composer in respect of whom the British Library possesses the largest known institutional collection of archival papers (an acquisition financed in part by the Eccles Centre for American Studies), as well as a substantial collection of sound recordings (both commercial and non-commercial). Some facets of Musgrave's compositional career to date are outlined in last year's anniversary posting, illustrated primarily by some of the concert programmes in the Library's Musgrave archive.

With an official work-list to date numbering over 150 compositions, it is perhaps unsurprising that Musgrave defies straightforward categorisation in terms of genre, a situation which, judging by a 1988 interview with Bruce Duffie, she seems to relish:

“I do chamber works, I do orchestral works, I do opera, I have done ballet, I've done songs, unaccompanied choral pieces — all sorts of things. I like to do different things, so I don't really like to be pigeonholed. There are even some electronic things — mostly with live music, not on its own.”

A 2017 interview with Frank Oteri suggests that Musgrave still has an appetite for such diversity:

“it’s always exciting to work on a slightly less familiar medium, for me that is — makes me consider new ideas. I like to work with everything. You know, just what happens, what comes along.”

As with many published contemporary composers, the vehicle for instigating a new Musgrave composition tends to be the commission. The influence of the commissioning context is manifested particularly in the manifold idiosyncratic instrumentations found in Musgrave's oeuvre. Yet, composing to commission should not be taken to imply a passive response on the part of the composer; in fact, perusal of Musgrave's scores and manuscript material demonstrates a creative praxis that thrives upon customising and stretching the precepts of the genres with which she engages. As she explains in a 2018 interview with Alyssa Kayser-Hirsh, she takes inspiration from a broad range of sources, including the performer for whom she is writing:

“My pieces usually begin as commissions for specific forces and presenting organizations or a particular performer. I frequently get inspired by what I read (poetry and novels) or see (paintings, plays, nature) away from my writing desk, and by what I know and sense about the performer.”

One recurrent Musgrave trait is the animation of instrumentalists with choreographic performance directions, extending their purview to encompass dramatic agency and visual spectacle. Musgrave often animates individuals within the orchestra, obfuscating the delineation between the role of soloist and of tutti (rank-and-file) orchestral player, especially where the animated player is afforded an uncharacteristic degree of virtuosity and of liberty from the conductor's yoke. Such liberty — sometimes characterised as rebellion or defiance — raises notational challenges that may not have an unequivocal solution, as is apparent from the papers relating to Night Music, a work for chamber orchestra in which "the two horn players are featured in a soloistic and dramatic way". It was premiered in 1969, yet the score and parts were revised by Musgrave in 1998, acting in response to feedback from the conductor Nicholas Kraemer.

Night Music is replete with phrases notated so as to afford some temporal liberties: whilst the rhythm is specified, the presence of fermatae and the absence of barlines in these phrases mean that they are not mapped precisely to the prevailing tempo. Various means of co-ordination are employed, ranging from fermatae to repeating cells (sometimes, these invite comparison to Lutosławski's box-notation, whilst at other times, they are little more than regular bars to be repeated “as necessary”, a device which might be described as a vamp, although Musgrave herself never uses the word).

The revisions in 1998 consisted principally of the addition of barlines and of more explicit directions for how the conductor is to signal the various points of co-ordination. The British Library possesses the annotated photocopies on which Musgrave indicated the planned revisions.

Some of these notational revisions can be characterised as clarifications rather than changes. For example, on pages 52–53 of the full score, the addition of a barline and indications as to which hand the conductor should utilise do not compromise the independence of a group comprising 2nd horn, oboes, violoncellos, and double basses. Rather, the conductor indications communicate cues for the events that trigger, or are triggered by, this group's metrically independent entries at a “Tempo di marzia” with its own time signature and barring. As for the added barline, shortly after figure 61, it straddles tied notes. Since the anacrusis is already cued by the first horn, the only potential diminution in independence entailed by the barline is the fixing of the point at which the diminuendo is to commence, aligining it to the violas' arrival on G (at the 2nd bar of figure 61). Instead, the added barline could be construed as serving a practical function, in that it elucidates the syntactical position of the group's entry relative to (circa) figure 61 and to the piccolo's unbarred ad libitum solo — this seems self-evident in the score, but may be harder to navigate in the parts.



Annotated photocopy of pp.52–53 of the full score (there were no changes to the pagination of the score), indicating
revisions planned in 1998 (but not implemented).
Copyright © Chester Music Ltd; reproduced with kind permission.

Ultimately, the revisions on these particular pages were not implemented in the revised edition. Perhaps, the additions were deemed self-evident after all. In fact, Musgrave's comment at the top of page 52 — “when Hrn 1º STANDS // easy to give signal” — suggests that it may not be necessary for the conductor to give such explicit signals. Archival papers can often reveal cases of ideas which were entertained but subsequently dismissed.

Elsewhere, however, notational revisions present on these annotated photocopies were not only implemented, but extended. For example, on pages 42–43, barlines were added to the bassoon, horns, and one solo double-bass. In the process, rhythms are regulated to fit into the prevailing time signature, mapped to the other parts. Whilst some of these mappings are to tied notes, thus eschewing audible alignment, the rhythmic and metric complexity has still been somewhat reduced, ossifying a particular solution to the co-ordination of formerly independent layers in the texture. In the annotated photocopies, these lines see a brief return to an unbarred "AD LIB" at the 4th bar of figure 49.



Annotated photocopy of pp.42–43 of the full score (there were no changes to the pagination of the score),
indicating revisions planned in 1998. 
Copyright © Chester Music Ltd; reproduced with kind permission.

In the revised edition, however, barlines have been added there as well, with the parenthesised fermatae just before figure 50 (which function much like the curlew symbol used by Britten) removed. Also absent from the revised edition is the conductor's double-handed downbeat indicated at figure 50. Judging by the crossed-out indication at figure 49, it seems that Musgrave vacillated over where to stipulate this downbeat, before opting not to stipulate it at all.

Although it is unusual for Musgrave to revise works decades after the première, Night Music is not the only work to have returned to occupy Musgrave over such a long timespan. Her choral work Voices of Power and Protest was first envisaged in 1977, initially under the title "Voices of Warning and Pity", and the Musgrave archive contains evidence of the early sketches, comprising a series of drawings illustrating the plot and choreography, as well as plans for the libretto, which, initially, had been envisaged as a collection of texts by various authors.



A series of drawings illustrating the plot and choreography for Voices of Power and Protest,
which Musgrave has dated “circa 1977”. Copyright © Thea Musgrave; reproduced with kind permission.


Some of the early plans, dating from 1977, for the libretto for and choreography in Voices of Power and Protest
(initially under the title “Voices of Warning and Pity”). Copyright © Thea Musgrave; reproduced with kind permission.

In 2006, Musgrave proceeded in earnest with writing the libretto and setting it to music, deciding to write her own original text. Nonetheless, she has incorporated a few notable quotations, such as the first stanza of the Dies irae plainchant (prolifically quoted in repertoire both sacred and secular) and the first two lines of the nursery rhyme Baa, baa, black sheep (Musgrave changed the subsequent couplet to “I'm here to take it for that is now the rule”, exemplifying the callous greed of the profiteer who sings these lines).



Fair copy of p.20 of the score of Voices of Power and Protest. The second and third lines of the Dies irae plainchant
can be seen in the basses; the first two lines of Baa, baa, black sheep can be seen in the tenor solo,
starting at the 5th bar of figure 44. Copyright © Novello & Co Ltd; reproduced with kind permission.

In this work, the members of the chorus take on acting roles, and the choreography entailed is indicated through diagrams in the score. Similar diagrams can be found in the composition draft, and even the musical sketches for the work. In a sketch for the ending, the diagrams indicate the splintering of the chorus, as they come to the realisation that ostensible victory in war is illusory: “We have, all of us, lost”.



A leaf from the “rough sketches” of the music for Voices of Power and Protest. Although the material after figure 62
has been struck-out, much of it, and the words above the final system, finds its way into the work. Although the dates
in the top-right do not specify a year, it is almost certainly 2006 (on the basis of the other leaves
that were in the same envelope). Copyright © Novello & Co Ltd; reproduced with kind permission.

These dramatic demands are liminal to the precepts usually associated with choral music, and, once again, seem to complicate categorisation. In the 2017 interview with Oteri, Musgrave outlines the manner in which Voices of Power and Protest combines the demands placed on an opera chorus with those placed on an unaccompanied choir:

“an opera chorus is used to memorizing and being blocked, and is usually accompanied by an orchestra. A [stand alone] chorus is not used to being blocked. They’re usually standing in rows, and they’re on book and are often unaccompanied, or maybe with a piano or organ. I thought it would be great if they could be off book and would become the set themselves.”

Musgrave's choral output has been prolific in recent years, ranging in scope from short, festive works such as Hear the Voice of the Bard and Sing to Celebrate Summer to longer works engaging with texts centred on fundamental questions of existence, such as her anthological oratorio, The Voices of Our Ancestors(which also features choreography, although it does not require the choir to sing from memory). Her latest pair of choral works, Missa Brevis and A Collect for John the Baptist, will be premièred at Wells Cathedral on Sunday 24th June, as part of the cathedral's liturgy that day[20]. Although the main birthday celebrations are taking place in New York, there will be several opportunities for audiences in the UK to hear works from Musgrave's oeuvre.


By Sasha Millwood, Doctoral Researcher (Arts & Humanities Research Council Collaborative Doctoral Partnership), Music Collections, British Library, and University of Glasgow

17 May 2018

Over There, All Over Again: American Sheet Music, World War 1 and Nostalgic Musicals

It is always a great pleasure when you find your research coinciding with that of your colleagues. There has been a recent spike in discussions around American Music and World War I in the Eccles Centre as Jean Petrovic is currently developing an online exhibition showcasing the British Library's excellent collection of American sheet music, whilst I am research American musicals of the early 1940s which looked back at World War I and vaudeville.

As part of her project, Jean has been focusing on World War I, which saw an explosion in printed music. At the turn of the twentieth century – prior to the rise of radio and the phonograph – pianos were still the main source of home entertainment. Recent innovations in production had bought about a sharp decline in prices and an inevitable rise in demand. Not surprisingly, this was a boom-time for song-writers and music publishers. Print runs of top-selling songs frequently exceeded hundreds of thousands and between 1900 and 1910 more than 100 songs sold over one million copies.

More than 10,000 songs about World War I were published in the United States during 1914-18. In the early days, many of these songs echoed the non-interventionist stance of President Woodrow Wilson and most Americans.

Within days of the US declaration of war in 1917, George M Cohan, already one of the country’s most successful songwriters, penned ‘Over There’. With its patriotic call to arms, its optimism and its references to liberty and the American flag it went on to become the nation’s favourite war song. It was performed and recorded by many artists and eventually sold more than two million copies.

Over There - LOC photo

















Above: George Michael Cohan. Over There. New York: Wm Jerome Publishing Corp., c1917.  British Library shelfmark a.318.(5) (other versions, h.3825.z.(52); h.1562; H.1860.i.(8); h.3825.ff.(7)); image courtesy of the Library of Congress

In 1936, President Franklin D Roosevelt presented Cohan with the Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of his contribution to US morale during World War I.  He was the first person in an artistic field to receive this honour.

And this is where I come in. During America’s participation in World War II, a notable body of musical films were produced which reflected on the current crisis through the historical metaphor of America’s role in World War I. By binding these wartime stories with settings concerned with vaudeville and performance, these films conveyed patriotic messages and made entertainment culture central to American values. 





















Above: promotional poster for Yankee Doodle Dandy (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1942, Warner Brothers)

In 1942, director Michael Curtiz made Yankee Doodle Dandy, a biopic about Cohan’s life. The narrative is framed by Cohan, in the present day, going to visit President Roosevelt at the White House where he discusses his career and receives the Congressional Gold Medal (despite the award actually being made 6 years previously). In the urgent context of World War II the film places Cohan (but also by extension Hollywood itself) as vital agents in America’s cultural mythmaking: the inclusion of his famous, popular songs (‘Over There’, ‘Give My Regards to Broadway’, ‘The Yankee Doodle Boy’ and ‘You’re a Grand Old Flag’) and production numbers involving a lot (and I mean A LOT) of flags, allow the fictional President Roosevelt to comment to Cohan that “your songs were weapons as strong as cannons and rifles in World War I."

Interesting, whilst the film was certainly an important part of Warner Brothers Studio’s commitment to the war effort, aimed partially at legitimizing their own work in the context of the war, the unashamedly patriotic film also served an interesting purpose for its star, James Cagney, who had personally struggled to deny Communist links.

Cagney had initially been opposed to making a Cohan biopic as he’d disliked Cohan since the Actor’s Equity Strike in 1919 when Cohan had sided with the producers. However, during the late 1930s and early 1940s Cagney had run-ins with the Dies Committee (the House Un-American Activities Committee): in 1940 he was named along with 15 other Hollywood figures in the testimony of John R Leech (an LA Communist Party leader) and the New York Times printed the allegation that Cagney was a Communist on its front page (August 15, 1940).

Although Cagney refuted the allegations and Martin Dies made a statement to the press clearing him, his brother, William Cagney, who managed his business affairs is reported to have said that “we’re going to have to make the [most] goddamndest patriotic picture that’s ever been made. I think it’s the Cohan story.”[1] The film certainly achieves this aim: Cagney went on to win an Oscar for the role (and the film was a huge box office success for Warners).

For those interested in learning more about the American sheet music collection at the British Library, Jean’s web exhibition will go live later this summer.  In the meantime, an older incarnation of the project can be found here.

I will be discussing ‘American Film Musicals and the Reimagining of World War I’ as part of the British Library’s Feed the Mind series on Monday 21 May at 12.30 in the Knowledge Centre. I can promise clips of Gene Kelly, which must rate as one of the best ways to pass a lunch break. I hope you’ll be able to join me.

By: Dr Cara Rodway, Deputy Head of the Eccles Centre for American Studies, with thanks to Jean Petrovic, Bibliographical Editor.

[1] Patrick McGilligan, Cagney: The Actor as Auteur (New York & London: Tantivy Press, 1975), pp145-8 [shelfmark: General Reference Collection X.981/20794]



04 May 2018

The Mozarts in London

It's April 1764 and Leopold Mozart was standing on the French shore of the Channel, waiting for the ferry to England. He was accompanied by his wife Anna Maria and their two children, Maria Anna (nicknamed Nannerl) and Wolfgang, aged 12 and 8 respectively. They had never seen the sea and any apprehensions they might have had were met with a rough crossing. Leopold reported in a letter that they made “a heavy contribution in vomiting.”1

On the 23 April they finally arrived in London from Paris, lodging above a barber’s shop near Trafalgar Square. They had left Salzburg almost a year before, as Leopold showed the prowess of his two child prodigies across different European courts. Britain wasn’t included in their initial plans, but they had been urged to make the journey by two Englishmen in the French Court: London was at the time the richest, the biggest and most successful city in Europe. It contained a wealthy class of merchants who patroned public performances. This was an important difference from previous countries they had visited, where concert life was mainly confined to the courts. 

The Mozart family spent around fifteen months in the British capital, but their experience was not as successful as they had hope so. Let’s find out more about their story through these three items from our collections

Violin Sonatas, KV 10–15 
R.M.11.f.5. 1b
Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus. Six Sonates Pour Le Clavecin ... Oeuvre III. London: Printed for the Author, 1765. British Library Shelfmark R.M.11.f.5 

The start of the trip was nonetheless auspicious. The letters of introduction from France had been very effective, as within a week the family was summoned to Buckingham House (a more modest predecessor to the current Palace), for the first of their three visits to the court of King George III and Queen Charlotte. Here Wolfgang’s skills were put to royal test:

The King placed before him not only works of Wagensil, but those of Bach, Abel, and Handel,2 and he played off everything prima vista. Then he accompanied the Queen in an aria which she sang, and also a flautist who played a solo. Finally he took the bass part of some airs of Handel and played the most beautiful melody on it and in such a manner that everyone was amazed. In short, what he knew when we left Salzburg is a mere shadow compared with what he knows now. It exceeds all that one can imagine.3

The Queen asked the Mozarts to be the dedicatee of one of Wolfgang's compositions. Leopold obliged, printing at his expense a run of three sonatas. The copy shown above, is the very one which was presented to the Queen.

God is our refuge, K. 20
K.10.a.17.(3)_f001rMozart, Wolfgang Amadeus.: ‘God is our Refuge’, K. 20; 1765 (detail). British Library Shelfmark K.10.a.17.(3) 

Towards the end of their London stay the Mozarts received an invitation to visit the British Museum (from which the British Library was born). It seems now hard to believe, but children weren’t allowed then. Wolfgang and Nannerl were indeed very privileged. Leopold and his daughter kept a travel diary and she recalls to have seen “the library, the antiquities, birds of all kinds, fishes, insects and fruits.” in the Museum 4

They presented the Museum directors with a copy of his first two sonatas (also in our collections); a copy of a print showing Leopold and his two children (in the British Museum); and the manuscript of ‘God us our Refuge’ K. 20 shown above (a digitised version is available here). This motet for four voices was especially composed and presented to the Trustees of the Museum. It was to be his only setting of English words during his life. Little Wolfgang seems to have had trouble fitting the words to their corresponding notes (noticeable in bars 7-9), so his father wrote them in the rest of the piece.

At the British Library we can boast that our collection of Mozart manuscripts is certainly the first to have been started by the composer himself!

Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser
NGDA - 01.06.1764
Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, 17 May 64 . British Library Shelfmark Burney 529.b.

The British Library has an important collection of Newspapers gathered by the Reverend Charles Burney (b.1757, d.1817), mostly published in London between 1604 and 1804. The collection has been digitised and can be viewed on any of our Reading Room terminals.

Leopold Mozart was no doubt an astute marketer, paying for several adverts on London papers where he announced performances by his children. They were often described as “prodigies of nature” and Leopold was more than ready to bend the truth slightly, purporting his children to be one or two years younger. The adverts here shown appeared on the Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, where Leopold published more frequently.

Their first few months of their London stay saw them play in the most fashionable gardens of London. However their luck changed in early July when Leopold fell gravely ill, developing from what he described as “a kind of native complaint, which is called a cold5. Without his guidance and promotion, performances stopped for a few months and by the spring of 1765 public interest in the child prodigies began to wane. Wolfgang in the meantime, occupied himself composing -among other works- his first symphony, which premiered in February at the Little Theatre in Haymarket.

Their bad fortunes may have also been influenced by external forces, as there are indications that malicious rumours were being spread about the family. One of the most outrageous no doubt, said that Wolfgang wasn’t a child but a small adult with a growth deficiency. His father Leopold was forced to deny this in an open letter

Understandably, by mid-1765 the Mozarts started to arrange their long return to Salzburg. Private concerts were being offered at reduced fees. By July 1765 the young Mozarts, who had started performing for the Royals, were now playing during lunchtime at the Swan and Hoop pub near Moorgate in the City... 



Special thanks to Maddy Smith, curator of printed heritage collections 1601-1900, for her assistance with this article.



  1. Letter from Leopold Mozart to his merchant and friend, Johann Lorenz von Hagenauer. London, 25 April May 1764 (extract)
  2. Composers Georg Christoph Wagenseil, Johann Christian Bach, Karl Friedrich Abel and the King’s favourite composer, George Frideric Handel
  3. ibid 1. London, 28 May 1764 (extract)
  4. Mozart. Briefe und Aufzeichnungen. Gesamtausgabe. (Kassel 1962) Vol I. pp196, 198-9. British Library Shelfmark 07902.e.4.
  5. ibid 1, "Chelsea near London", 13 September 1764.