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15 December 2021

Exploring the Provenance of Italian Manuscript Editions in the Royal Music Library (2)


In the first part of this blog, it was established that a particular sub-collection of Italian manuscript editions present in the Royal Music Library are likely to have been acquired in Italy by members of the Cawdor family in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. How did this personal collection become part of the Royal Music Library today?

The Concert of Antient Music

The story continues with the musical pursuits of John Campbell, 1st Earl Cawdor (1790-1860), who, in addition to creating an impressive personal music library, was a member of the ‘Concert of Antient Music’, also known as the ‘Ancient Concerts' or ‘The King's Concerts’. This influential London concert series ran between 1776 and 1848, and was one of several musical clubs and societies in the late 18th century devoted to performing exclusively ‘ancient music’.[1]

To some extent, series like the Concert of Antient Music represented a reaction against the fashion for the melody-driven music of the early Classical period, and indeed, any work performed at their concerts had to be more than 25 years old. The fact that John Campbell, 1st Earl Cawdor, was heavily involved with this series is significant, for it was linked, explicitly from 1785, to the musical circle of traditional nobility surrounding the monarch, and is described by McVeigh 'almost as a court activity'.[2] This was particularly the case from 1785, after which date George III regularly attended the society’s concerts, and influenced their programming.

It is unsurprising that George III became personally involved in the performance of ‘ancient’ music: he was known for his ‘old-fashioned’ musical tastes, preferring the works of Handel to newer, galant works by composers such as Johann Christian Bach, his wife’s music master. The British Library holds a number of programmes written in his hand, revealing his music choice for performances held at Windsor Castle.[3]

Notably, the Concert of Antient Music sourced unusual works from Europe for performance in London, and in such a way built up a substantial library of printed and manuscript works.[4] It is possible that John Campbell, 1st Earl Cawdor, as one of the directors of the Concert in the 1840s, was partly responsible for the maintenance of this library. In 1844, Cawdor directed the sixth concert of the year, conducted by Henry Bishop, which was recorded in detail in the Musical Examiner. [5] The first item in the programme was Jommelli’s Te Deum, a work which is present in manuscript (albeit in a different binding style) in the Royal Music Library.[6]

It is possible that at some point between 1817 and the 1840s, the Cawdors’ personal music collection became practically linked with that of the Concert, as the first Earl became more involved. A small number of individual editions bound in these volumes bear the initials ‘T.G.’, presumed to be Thomas Greatorex, the conductor of the concerts from 1793 until his death in 1831. Cawdor may very well have been gifted these by Greatorex, or acquired from him upon his death. Certainly, music belonging to at least two members of the Concert of Antient Music must have been absorbed into this collection and subsequently bound together.

Title page for an Aria by Domenico Cimarosa with the inscription ‘Cawdor’ at the top
Title page for an Aria by Domenico Cimarosa with the inscription ‘Cawdor’ at the top. British Library R.M.22.b.17.(1.)


Title page for an Aria by J.C. Bach with the initials ‘T G’ at the top
Title page for an Aria by J.C. Bach with the initials ‘T G’ at the top thought to stand for Thomas Greatorex. British Library R.M.23.d.5.(11.)

Prince Albert, the Concert’s Last Director

Another keen member of the Concert of Antient Music was Prince Albert himself, who became the series’ final director before it folded in 1848.

Portrait of Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha
Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Replica by Franz Xaver Winterhalter 1867, based on a work of 1859. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Albert directed several concerts during the 1840s, including one on 16th April 1845, in which a significant amount of ‘ancient’ music was performed. Queen Victoria, aged 25, recorded her response to the concert programme in her journal:

It was a beautiful Concert, full of curious productions of old world music. My beloved Albert has such exquisite taste and takes such pains in collecting rare and curious, as beautiful pieces of music. There was a Concert of the date of 1600 by an Italian, Emilio del Cavaliere… which was performed on all the ancient instruments of those days, and this was very curious, and the effect very pleasant. A ‘Romanesca’ of the 15th Century was played on the same instruments and was very simple and beautiful.[7]

Not everyone enjoyed the timbre of the Prince Albert’s collection of old instruments: The Musical World expressed derision typical of the period, describing the sonic effect as that ‘of a tooth comb, covered with paper, blown upon with the breath…’[8] Nonetheless both accounts attest to Prince Albert’s personal interest in music of previous centuries. Indeed, for this concert, Albert sourced a viola da gamba, an instrument now held by the Victoria and Albert Museum, though it is unclear to what extent players of this period used historical performance techniques.[9]

Indeed, his personal dedication to the series is borne out by his 1875 biographer, Sir Theodore Martin, who declared that, “The Prince made the selection of music for these performances themselves a never-failing source of delight. As every year brought a heavier strain upon his thoughts and energies, his pleasure in them appeared to increase. They seemed to take him into a dream-world, in which the anxieties of life were for the moment forgotten.”[10] Given his musical interests, and his position as director of the series until 1848, it is not at all surprising that Prince Albert acquired the extensive library of the Concert of Antient Music, which was moved in the same year to Buckingham Palace. 

Yet the Cawdor manuscript volumes do not appear to have been explicitly part of the Concert’s library, which was presented to the Royal College of Music in 1883 by Queen Victoria, forming one of its founding collections. Furthermore, despite similarities in content, (the Concert’s library also contains Italian 18th-century manuscripts), a brief comparison with bindings held there has confirmed that these volumes bear no visual resemblance to volumes in the Concert’s library, and do not appear in its 1791 catalogue.

Nonetheless, it seems reasonable to assume that these volumes, alongside others acquired by Prince Albert, were moved to Buckingham Palace in 1848 as part of his personal collection. Unlike the official library of the Concert of Antient Music, however, these vellum manuscript volumes remained at Buckingham Palace after 1883, and remain in the Royal Music Library to the present day. It is possible, of course, that they represented duplicates within the Concert’s library, or for some other reason were not deemed suitable to be included in the bequest to the Royal College of Music. There is at least one other volume within the RML which bears the annotation ‘for the Antient Concert’, suggesting that some volumes were left behind.

Title page of Sacchini's aria 'Lieta quest’alma' with the annotation on the top left 'for the Antient Concert'.
Title page of Sacchini's aria 'Lieta quest’alma' with the annotation on the top left 'for the Antient Concert'. British Library R.M.23.g.7.(6)

More probably, these volumes, associated with directors and conductors of the Concert rather than forming part of its library, were acquired, perhaps in the 1840s, by Prince Albert, though the exact moment of acquisition will remain a mystery. It is possible that Albert purchased the collection from Cawdor, or was gifted it, and that Albert himself ordered them to be rebound at this stage. However, this plain vellum binding seems perhaps too practical a choice for a monarch. On the other hand, few volumes of Prince Albert’s presumably extensive music collection have been positively identified within the Royal Music Library; it is quite possible that parts of his collection may be visually unspectacular. Alternatively, these volumes may have been bound by Cawdor before they passed to Prince Albert; they feature an index in the same hand (as yet unidentified), presumably added at the point of binding.

Further research regarding Prince Albert’s music collection within the RML may in future enable a more certain context for the last link in the chain of provenance of this fascinating sub-collection. 

Mary-Jannet Leith

PhD Placement Student, The British Library


[1] Davies, J.E. The Changing Fortunes of a British Aristocratic Family 1689-1976: The Campbells of Cawdor and their Welsh Estates (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press) (2019), p. 280.

[2] McVeigh, S. ‘The Professional Concert and Rival Subscription Series I London, 1783-1793’, Royal Musical Association Research Chronicle, 22:1 (1989), p. 19.

[3] British Library MS Mus. 1780.

[4] McVeigh, S. ‘London: Musical Life: 1660-1800: Concert Life’, Grove Music Online (2001).

[5] CONCERTS, &C. The Musical examiner: an impartial weekly record of music and musical events; May 25, 1844; 2, 82, p. 594.

[6] British Library R.M.22.g.1.

[7] Queen Victoria’s Journals: Volume 19, p. 138: Wednesday 16th April 1845.

[8] The Musical World, XX (April 1845), p. 192.

[9] Cawse, J.R. “Prince Albert’s Early Music”, The Galpin Society Journal, Aug. 1989, Vol. 42, p. 7;

[10] Martin, Sir Theodore: ‘Life of His Royal Highness the Prince Consort’, London, 1875: Appendix A: ‘Memorandum as to the Influence of H.R.H. the Prince Consort upon Musical Taste in England’, pp. 486-487.


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