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05 October 2020

Digitising Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius at the Birmingham Oratory

Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, a setting of Cardinal John Henry Newman’s poem of the same name for voices and orchestra, is an important work that sealed Elgar's reputation as a composer of international significance. With its references to Catholic doctrine concerning Mary, Mother of God and Purgatory, it is also strongly connected to Elgar’s background as a Roman Catholic, and proved controversial in its early performances. Despite the significance of the work, the manuscript has been historically difficult to access, as it was donated by Elgar to the Oratory of St Philip Neri in Birmingham.

Dr Joanna Bullivant of the University of Oxford has therefore organised a project with the British Library, the National Institute of Newman Studies, USA, and the National Trust (who run the Elgar Birthplace Museum) to digitise and curate the manuscript for scholars and the general public. As well as digitising the manuscript and making it available online, the project involves developing new expert commentary for the British Library Discovering Music pages and organising a series of events with school children. The manuscript score together with related Newman manuscripts at the Birmingham Oratory were digitised by Eugenio Falcioni who writes about the process and special techniques used during digitisation, whilst Joanna Bullivant comments about the manuscripts and their significance for research.

Photograph of the Birmingham Oratory Church

Photograph of the Birmingham Oratory Library Photograph of the Cardinal Newman room at the The Birmingham Oratory
The Church, Library, and Cardinal Newman Room at the Birmingham Oratory. Photos by Eugenio Falcioni

The British Library on-location digitisation service

The British Library has offered on-location digitisation services to external customers for some time. For these customers, an on-location service is usually preferable due to the precious nature of their collection items, or in some cases, because they are too fragile or bulky to be sent to the London studio.

To fulfil an on-location job, an experienced heritage photographer will travel to the location of the item(s) along with state of the art photographic equipment and a number of digitisation and collection care tools approved by conservation experts at The British Library.

The digitisation of Elgar’s original score and the two Newman manuscripts of The Dream of Gerontius at The Birmingham Oratory is a prestigious example of this service. The Newman manuscripts consist of the author’s rough draft of his poem and the first autograph fair copy. The Elgar manuscript is the autograph score used in the first performance. All these documents contain myriad rich details that give insight into the history of poem and music: not only crossings-out, corrections, and notes on performance, but also Elgar’s remarks on the weather and the signatures of everyone involved in the first performance.

The digitisation process of the Elgar and Newman manuscripts at the Birmingham Oratory

The project, carried out in March 2020, took four days of intense work, capturing every page of the manuscripts. This process may seem straightforward, but involves many crucial aspects, such as transport and setup of various specialist equipment; extreme care in handling the original manuscripts; a technically flawless photographic process; and consistent image management. These elements are crucial in delivering the finest digitised product to the customer in a relatively short time.

Photograph of the temporary digitisation workstation setup at the Birmingham OratorySetup of the temporary digitisation workstation at the Birmingham Oratory. Photo by Eugenio Falcioni

Fortunately, the three manuscripts were all in excellent condition, which made the imaging process quite smooth and without any particular hitches. 

Having the opportunity to work on such important items, in a fascinating place like The Birmingham Oratory, is enough for a photographer to feel satisfied. But what made this project really interesting and challenging from a photographic point of view was the fact that a number of pages in Elgar’s manuscript score had been covered with additional sheets, glued over parts of the original score. Elgar did this where he made emendations to the musical text in the form of adding bars or material for particular parts. As a painstaking editor of his music for performance, it was common for Elgar to want to make these kinds of changes.

Reading the information covered by this layer of paper is almost impossible with the naked eye. Even by magnifying the new digital images it was difficult to see anything. Given the great interest in uncovering the original information and the importance of the manuscript, following the normal imaging process, I undertook a special imaging cycle to try to reveal the hidden text. A couple of attempts were made using an infrared camera and subsequently trying to illuminate the manuscript under ultraviolet torches, but both proved unsuccessful. As a last attempt, the technique of 'transmitted light' finally revealed the original hidden text.

Photograph showing the transmitted light technique for the digitisation of a Newman manuscript Photograph showing the transmitted light technique for the digitisation of a Newman manuscript with the light placed behind the manuscript page and the camera on the other side
Applying the transmitted light technique on a Newman manuscript at the Birmingham Oratory with the light placed behind the manuscript page and the camera on the other side. Photos by Eugenio Falcioni

Transmitted light is a photographic technique where only one lighting source is placed at the back of the photographed object, making it possible to photograph the passage of light through it. This technique is mainly used on supports like paper or canvas that don’t completely block the light and is often used at the BL to capture watermarks in paper documents. The technique itself is not particularly complicated, although it requires a good mastery of the lighting systems and particular care in leafing through the original document. It is essential to have no other sources of light apart from the photographers' lamp, to avoid unnecessary light pollution that may affect the output. The lamp must also be placed at a reasonable distance from the photographed page, so as not to transmit any heat.

Uncovering hidden text in Elgar’s score

By back-lighting the pages of Elgar’s manuscript it was possible to reveal the information contained on its inner side. At first sight it would seem that much of the covered information is now legible, albeit with some difficulty due to the overlapping of the scores. Although Elgar probably never imagined that anyone would uncover the music he attempted to conceal, it was a privilege to use my photographic skills to help scholars further understand the context and meaning of his work.

The final step of the process was a patient post-production effort, carried out to emphasize the contrast of the ink recovered. This resulted in being able to distinguish the overlapping scores from each other to make it more visible to those who wish to study it. While there is no lost aria or the secret of the ‘Enigma’ Variations concealed beneath the glued-down corrections, they reveal a more quotidian but no less important side of Elgar.

By tracing the minute alterations made as the work reached its final version, we witness the composer’s working methods, his attention to detail, and his sensitivity to the impact of the work in performance.

Page 35 from Elgar's score of The Dream of Gerontius score Page 35 from Elgar's score of The Dream of Gerontius with the transmitted light technique

Detail from page 35 of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius

Elgar’s score of The Dream of Gerontius at the Birmingham Oratory. The transmitted light photographic technique reveals the hidden text on page 35 of the score. Images by Eugenio Falcioni. Reproduced with kind permission from The Fathers of the Birmingham Oratory.

Fully digitized versions of the Elgar and Newman manuscripts in IIIF can be viewed on the NINS website.

Written by Eugenio Falcioni, Senior Imaging Technician, The British Library, and Dr Joanna Bullivant, Lecturer, University of Oxford Faculty of Music


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