THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Music blog

3 posts from October 2020

16 October 2020

Announcing the new RISM UK Catalogue!

RISM UK is pleased to announce the launch of the new RISM UK Catalogue.

The catalogue is a subset of the international RISM Online Catalogue of Musical Sources. It contains all data from that resource on printed and manuscript music held in British libraries and archives, and pulls data directly from the international database to ensure it remains up-to-date.  We hope it will be of value and interest to researchers wanting to locate sources of printed and manuscript music held in repositories in Britain.

Image of the RISM UK catalogue homepage

The catalogue illustrates the rich resource of historic music materials that have been preserved in Britain. The information held can be searched in traditional ways, such as by composer and title, and also by the incipits of the musical notation.  A new feature makes it possible to identify and locate unica - printed editions that survive in single copies only. It is also possible to define the date ranges of searches more precisely than was possible before. Data from search results can be freely downloaded in simple CSV format, allowing researchers to reuse the information for their own purposes.  The database also provides access to digitised images, where they are available, from participating libraries via IIIF.

The new interface has been funded by the Strategic Knowledge Exchange Initiative at Royal Holloway, University of London. You can find out more about the RISM UK database at the Royal Holloway’s School of Music Research Projects and Centres pages.

Future projects

RISM UK in partnership with Royal Holloway, University of London, is currently completing a scoping study of the potential for further cataloguing projects involving music manuscripts and printed music in county record offices and other archives across the UK.

Work by postgraduate researchers Micah Neale and James Ritzema, supervised by Stephen Rose and Sandra Tuppen, has uncovered large holdings in county record offices especially of parish church music manuscripts from the 18th century, manuscripts of vernacular dance tunes, teaching manuscripts for learner musicians, and fragments of medieval music in the bindings of later volumes.

This scoping study is funded by the Strategic Knowledge Exchange Initiative at Royal Holloway, University of London.

We would also be very pleased to hear from holders of material within RISM’s scope who would be interested in adding its details to the database. Please contact Caroline Shaw, Secretary of the RISM (UK) Trust: caroline.shaw@bl.uk if you would like to be involved.

12 October 2020

Ralph Vaughan Williams in the Boosey & Hawkes Archive

It was with characteristic self-deprecation that Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958) – whose birthday is today, 12th October – reacted to Boosey & Hawkes’ proposed republication of two pieces that he had written 30 years before: [1] ‘These youthful indiscretions were a great shock to me’, he wrote. [2]’.

The ‘Two Old Airs’, arrangements of German folk-melodies for voice and piano, were now rather too old for the composer’s liking.  They dated from the early 1900s, about the time of his involvement in the English folk-song revival, and before his studies with Maurice Ravel were to lend his music the distinctive textures he wryly called ‘French polish’. By 1933, the time of this letter, his style had undergone considerable development — this was the discordant era of the furious Fourth Symphony (Add MS 50140) and ‘Job: A Masque for Dancing’ (Add MS 54326) — so the composer’s opinion of the early pieces was rather lower than Leslie Boosey’s (1887–1979), and he was anxious that they should not be mistaken for new work.  â€˜I am not very proud of them’, was Vaughan Williams’s verdict; ‘If you do decide to issue them I must insist that the date of composition must be printed on the copy’. [3]  Boosey agreed, and the songs were re-issued later that year.

Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Leslie Boosey regarding the re-issue of another previously-published work
Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams (in the hand of his wife Adeline, signed by Ralph) to Leslie Boosey, probably 13 August 1933, regarding the re-issue of another previously-published work: ‘Rondel’, composed in 1896: ‘I have no objection to your issuing the songs if, as I say, the date of composition is printed on the copies. […] There is nothing particularly wrong with them technically – they are only, to me, rather characterless’. MS Mus. 1813/2/1/281/8. © The Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust. Reproduced by kind permission of The Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust.

Boosey & Hawkes Ltd. were not the main publishers of Vaughan Williams's music, their rights being mainly in his early chamber works, but their archive (MS Mus. 1813) nevertheless holds a number of his letters.  Many, like the above, concern mainly formalities: rights, reprints or new arrangements of works for different instruments.  (This kind of correspondence was continued after the composer’s death by his widow Ursula).  Other exchanges, however, shed interesting light on both Vaughan Williams’s life and the publisher’s role in the musical world.  In May 1938, for instance, Vaughan Williams wrote to Leslie Boosey with an unusual request:

Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Leslie Boosey, 16 May 1938
Ralph Vaughan Williams to Leslie Boosey, 16 May 1938. MS Mus. 1813/2/1/219/8. © The Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust. Reproduced by kind permission of The Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust.

Can you help me with some advice — I have been asked to arrange the music for a pageant — one scene is a garden party in 1900 — Could you find out from your records what were the popular songs about 1895 (I had better ante-date it a bit)

— (1) what a military band at a party would be likely to be playing?

— (2) what a young lady would be likely to sing when asked for a song with piano accomp[animent]?

— It will be very kind of you if you can help me in this [4]

Vaughan Williams would surely have had a fairly good idea of these things himself, but evidently wished to be sure of historical accuracy.   The pageant in question, a collaborative effort between several composers entitled 'England's Pleasant Land' (Add MS 57290-57291) was performed two months later at Milton Court near Dorking, with Vaughan Williams conducting. [5]  It depicted the phemonena old and new that have threatened the peace of the English countryside and the freedom of its people: land enclosures, industrialisation and wanton urban growth.  Interestingly, some of the themes Vaughan Williams composed for this pageant later reappeared, in transfigured form, in the much-loved Fifth Symphony (1943) (Add MS 50371-50372) whose serenity was to bring such peace and consolation to war-battered Britain.

Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Leslie Boosey, 31 October 1940
Letter from Vaughan Williams (in the hand of his wife Adeline, signed by Ralph) to Leslie Boosey, 31 October 1940. MS Mus. 1813/2/1/281/6. © The Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust. Reproduced by kind permission of The Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust

Vaughan Williams's involvement in the war effort (in both World Wars) is well-known.  One form his service took during the Second was his chairmanship of a board which sought to aid foreign-born musicians interned in Britain as 'Enemy Aliens'.  The policy of internment, though precautionary in intention, inevitably resulted in the imprisonment of innocent people, many of whom had moved to Britain precisely in fear or defiance of Nazism.  Several times Vaughan Williams sent lists of names to Leslie Boosey, asking if he knew them well enough to be able to attest to their character.  The favour was to be repaid when the same board helped to secure the release of three of Boosey's own staff — Erwin Stein, Alfred Kalmus and Ernst Roth — after they were interned in July 1940.  (For more about this tale, see this blog [https://blogs.bl.uk/music/2020/05/ernst-roth-and-the-business-of-music.html]).

Copy letter from Leslie Boosey to Ralph Vaughan Williams, 11 October 1940
Copy letter from Leslie Boosey to Ralph Vaughan Williams, 11 October 1940. ‘I am afraid there are some very stupid people in charge of [affairs] here today’. MS Mus. 1813/2/1/281/6. © Boosey & Hawkes. Reproduced by kind permission of Boosey & Hawkes Ltd.

A final category of Vaughan Williams’s correspondence consists of his letters of recommendation in support of younger or less prominent composers and musicians.   In July 1938 he wrote to Boosey ‘to introduce to you Mr. William Cole — a composer of talent and a first rate organist’. [6]  He did the same for the composer Franz Reizenstein (1911–1986), whom he introduced as his ‘friend and ex-pupil’ — adding, ‘though indeed there was nothing he needed to learn from me’. [7]  Reizenstein, being German by birth, was among those later interned and for whose release Vaughan Williams was to intervene. [8]

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ letter of introduction for Franz Reizenstein, sent to Leslie Boosey, 9 July 1937
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ letter of introduction for Franz Reizenstein, sent to Leslie Boosey, 9 July 1937. MS Mus. 1813/2/1/281/8. ©  The Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust. Reproduced by kind permission of The Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust.

Letters like these show both composer and publisher working quietly behind the scenes for the flourishing of the musical world.  The tone of the correspondence also reveals the esteem in which each held the other.  Yet it would only have embarrassed Vaughan Williams had Leslie Boosey told him directly what he had written to the Norwegian composer Sverre Hagerrup Bull (1892–1976): 'RVW is our greatest living Composer, and probably the best purely English composer we have ever had'.

Full transcriptions of the letters quoted in this article can be found on the website ‘The Letters of Ralph Vaughan Williams’, http://vaughanwilliams.uk.

References

[1] Editorial comment, ‘The Letters of Ralph Vaughan Williams’, Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Leslie Boosey, 6 August 1933, letter number VWL5061<http://vaughanwilliams.uk/letter/vwl5061>, retrieved 18 July 2020.

[2] Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Leslie Boosey, 6 August 1933.  Full text transcribed at ‘The Letters of Ralph Vaughan Williams’, letter number VWL5061<http://vaughanwilliams.uk/letter/vwl5061>, retrieved 18 July 2020.

[3] Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Leslie Boosey, 6 August 1933. 

[4] Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Leslie Boosey, 16 May 1938.  British Library, MS Mus. 1813/2/1/219/8.

[5] Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘England’s Pleasant Land’, The Redress of the Past, <http://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/pageants/1061/> , retrieved 28 August 2020.

[6] Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Leslie Boosey, 3 July 1938.  British Library, MS Mus. 1813/2/1/212/6.

[7] Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Leslie Boosey, 9 July 1937.  British Library, MS Mus. 1813/2/1/281/8. 

[8] Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to the Secretary of the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning, 22 October 1940.  Full text transcribed at ‘The Letters of Ralph Vaughan Williams’, letter number VWL 4969, <http://vaughanwilliams.uk/letter/vwl4969>, retrieved 28 August 2020.

Dominic Newman, Manuscripts Cataloguer

 

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