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19 posts categorized "Acquisitions"

22 March 2013

Reuniting music manuscript collections

The past weeks have been busy in the British Library’s music department, with negotiations taking place over the acquisition of several twentieth-century composers' music manuscripts. We’ll be providing news of these in future posts.

It’s our policy to acquire, preserve and make available to researchers the original manuscripts and papers of major British composers, as well as the papers of other pre-eminent musicians and musical organisations active in Britain. We also acquire, where the opportunity arises at a reasonable cost, representative manuscripts of important foreign composers.

Zweig MS 8
Autograph sketch by Beethoven for his 'Egmont' overture, acquired as part of the Stefan Zweig Collection

Sometimes we acquire music manuscripts direct from a composer. In other cases we acquire his or her archive of manuscript scores, correspondence and other papers as a bequest on death, or as a result of a sale. In some fortunate instances, the archive will contain a complete or virtually complete collection of the composer’s original manuscripts.

But there are other composers’ archives for which the story is very different: their manuscripts may have been dispersed during their lifetime, given to dedicatees, friends or publishers, or sold, and some may have been lost altogether. One of the pleasures of working at the British Library is seeing some of these dispersed music collections reassembled – brought together for the first time since they left the hands of their creator, and made available for researchers and musicians to consult.

Sometimes this assembling of a corpus of a composer’s works takes place over many years. And, of course, it is not always possible to rebuild a single collection of an individual’s works. Some manuscripts may remain in private hands, or be owned by other libraries. This is where digital technology come into its own. The opportunity now exists for dispersed collections to be reunited virtually on the web. A pioneer in this field is Bach Digital, which brings together digitised versions of Bach's autograph manuscripts as well as copyists' manuscripts.

In some cases, however, it has been possible to reunite most of a creator’s original manuscripts physically.  Such is the case with the music manuscripts of Robert Simpson (1921-1997). Simpson was one of the most important composers of symphonies to emerge in Britain in the second half of the 20th century.  He was, in addition, a prolific writer on music and a BBC producer.  Simpson produced a wide variety of works (11 symphonies, 15 string quartets, numerous pieces for brass, and other chamber and keyboard works). With a deep interest in Scandinavian music, he also brought Carl Nielsen to public attention in Britain.

Carl Nielsen
Carl Nielsen, whose music was promoted in Britain by Robert Simpson

After Robert Simpson’s death, his widow presented many of his music manuscripts to the British Library. Over the following decade, and thanks to the efforts of Mrs Simpson and of the Robert Simpson Society, almost all of Simpson’s other autograph manuscripts have now been deposited at the British Library.

Full description of the Robert Simpson Collection (PDF file)

The Robert Simpson Collection is now fully catalogued and is available to be consulted by researchers at the British Library. 

01 March 2013

Update on the Malcolm Sargent Collection

The cataloguing of the Malcolm Sargent Archive has now generated over 4,000 individual catalogue records of Sargent’s general correspondence. Since my last blog post, coverage has been extended to the year 1958, by which time Sargent had become one of the most celebrated public figures in Britain.

Correspondence from 1948-58 covers a number of significant landmarks in Sargent’s musical life, including the Opening Ceremony of the 1948 Olympic Games, the Festival of Britain, and Sargent’s appointment and tenure as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Cataloguer working on the collection
Researchers can benefit from the fact that the files of the 1950s contain significantly more carbon copies of Sargent’s own letters than are preserved in earlier years, providing a clearer view of his personal outlook.

This includes, for example, Sargent’s opinions on performance practice, which are often expressed in correspondence with music critics. Typical is an exchange with Frank Howes of The Times in May 1957 in which Sargent provides cogent arguments for his addition of several instruments to the score of Messiah, including horns (they were used once by Handel himself), clarinets and flutes (had they been available for Handel, he would have used them), and piano (‘it is difficult to understand people who really like the sound of the harpsichord’).

Whilst Howes is sympathetic to the co-existence of a practical ‘Victorian’ and more historically informed 20th-century performance practice, Peter Pears is less tolerant of Sargent’s practicality. ‘Surely it is not necessary to butcher it so?' he asks in dismay on seeing the cuts to be made in a forthcoming performance of the St Matthew Passion, believing them to destroy the dramatic narrative. Dismissive of such high-mindedness, Sargent sees nothing wrong with a version originally used by Walford Davies, and besides, ‘there is always the scramble for buses afterwards’.

Box of correspondence
If accounts of Sargent often imply vanity in his cultivation of a showman image and reputation as a social climber, the correspondence also reflects his benevolence as a patron, president or fund-raiser for a wide range of charities, and shows he often took a surprising personal interest in the fortunes of individuals unknown to him. Following his broadcast appeal for the RSPCA, for instance, he receives a letter from a Devonshire woman who has adopted a horse to save it from slaughter. On hearing she cannot afford to buy hay for ‘Gay Marion’ for the winter months, Sargent donates £5 for two consecutive years. On another occasion he responds to an appeal from a blind charity by funding private music lessons for the two sons of a blind man in Dorset.

Some requests are too presumptuous. There is no response from Sargent to a Falmouth mother who seeks a deposit to obtain a £2000 loan to build a bungalow for her family, necessary because she has no windows in her kitchen (‘I know a builder’, she reassures him). Likewise, he has no time to examine the work of a man who announces he has sacrificed his profession and devoted 14 years of his life to the composition of an oratorio (the benefit of which is ‘after years of constant attunement to this vibration of sound … I could quite easily compose four oratorios a year’).

Sargent’s sense of Christian duty is less sympathetic to appeals of a political nature. He refuses a request from Sir Steuart Wilson to sign a letter voicing opposition to the Communist-sympathetic Musicians Organisation for Peace. Likewise, he declines to become a member of the League of Empire Loyalists after they support his objection to changing the words of the second verse of the National Anthem: rather he believes it to be a mistake to shout aggressively one’s patriotism, especially as a frequent traveller. He also declines to support an appeal for African American singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson, stating that, as he does not know why America has blacklisted Robeson, he has not the ‘slightest justification in taking part in any disturbance on the matter’ (only belied by the fact he has written and underlined the word ‘Communist’ on the letter.)

30 November 2012

Cataloguing the Malcolm Sargent Collection

Last week we began a new project at the British Library to catalogue the Malcolm Sargent Collection. As the project archivist, I will be posting regular updates over the next few months to illustrate the work in progress.

Papers from the Sargent Collection
The Malcolm Sargent Collection comprises correspondence, engagement diaries, repertoire books, concert programmes, press cuttings and photos, some compositions, and a small number of Sargent’s own conducting scores. A few personal possessions, including his batons and pocket metronome, are also included.  Assembled between 1920 and 1968 by his private secretaries, it provides an extensive record of Sargent’s professional life.

The 120 boxes of material are currently listed in files broadly corresponding to their original arrangement. My task will be to catalogue each of these files at a more detailed item level. My first few days have been spent working through the series of Sargent’s general correspondence from 1928 onwards. This series excludes correspondence relating to specific concert series or events. So far I have reached 1948.

Correspondence from 1928-1939 was found to be full of requests for Sargent to conduct or adjudicate at provincial festivals. It also includes numerous speculative enquiries from musicians seeking orchestral work, the opportunity to perform a concerto, or to have a composition performed.

There were fewer letters during the war years, but evidence of Sargent’s personal efforts to prevent talented musicians being posted abroad. In November 1944 he writes to the Government requesting that bass singer Norman Walker is spared a posting to Iceland in order to be available for a recording of ‘The Dream of Gerontius’. He considers his concerts “to be of national importance in entertainment value to civilians, factory workers and the Forces”. Walker later sang in Sargent’s Gerontius recording of 1945.

An unusual item is a copy of a humorous poem written to a friend during his second Australian tour in 1938, in which he describes lying awake at night and experiencing a vision of accidentally setting alight a hedge with a casually discarded cigarette, “A hedge of which she was so very fond / That had the culprit even been a parson / She’d ‘have him up’ – and sue the fool for arson”.

Sargent's personal effects
More sardonic is a 1945 New Year greeting to the principal trumpet-player of the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra concerning his Christmas performances: “When I asked you if you would like a third trumpet to help you out”, he writes, “it was never my intention that he should play third throughout and the second play first …You do realise that as it was, my second trumpeter played far more of the ‘Messiah’ than you did”.

There is evidence of Sargent’s efforts to cultivate relationships with high society. In addition to correspondence concerning his membership of London gentleman’s clubs such as the Garrick, they include an invitation from the Earl of Clarendon to lunch at St James’s Palace, and messages acknowledging letters received by Montgomery of Alamein, Winston Churchill, and the Queen.

A letter from the Ministry of Education dated 8 January 1946 requests Sargent conduct for a film they are making called ‘Instruments of the Orchestra’. “The score has been specially composed by Benjamin Britten and, in the opinion of those who have heard it on the piano, it is a brilliant piece of work”.

Sargent agreed to conduct and provide the narration for Britten's work, which became famous as the 'Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra'. The British Library acquired the autograph manuscript of the ‘Young Person’s Guide’ earlier this year.

Letter to Sargent concerning 'The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra'
Some correspondence relates specifically to the Courtauld-Sargent Concerts, the main records of which are to be catalogued later. Examples include a heated discussion with Arthur Maney, Secretary of the London Symphony Orchestra, in which Sargent implies the orchestra has tried to claim more than it is due in costs for extra musicians. On another occasion, Maney is upset that the Orchestra’s name has been omitted from all promotional material.

Concert-related material also refers to the organisation of UK premieres of works including the Hindemith Piano Concerto, Szymanowski’s ‘Symphonie Concertante’, and Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto and Symphony of Psalms (“a curious score, the Violins and Violas are not used at all”). These examples suggest many more interesting records will emerge later in the cataloguing process.

08 November 2012

The Stephen Oliver Archive at the British Library

It's twenty years since the English composer Stephen Oliver died, aged 42, leaving behind a huge array of musical works, from small instrumental pieces to operas.

Stephen Oliver’s published music is issued by Chester Novello. But many of his compositions, notably small-scale chamber pieces and songs, remain unpublished.

Stephen Oliver’s family have generously presented his archive of music manuscripts and papers to the British Library. The 177 volumes of material have now been fully catalogued and are available for researchers to consult in the Rare Books & Music Reading Room at the Library. The archive reveals the talent and versatility of the composer and the extraordinary quantity of music he produced in his short life.

Full description of the Stephen Oliver Archive (PDF file, 105KB)

Stephen Oliver began composing as a child.  He wrote his first mini-opera, Thespis, or The Gods, Grown Old for soloists, chorus and piano in 1966, when he was 16. At Oxford, where he studied with Robert Sherlaw Johnson and Kenneth Leighton, his operas All the Tea in China (1969), The Duchess of Malfi (1971) and The Dissolute Punished (1972) were performed. The Duchess of Malfi drew particular praise, and within a few years Oliver was able to earn his living as a full-time composer. 

The young Stephen Oliver

Oliver would become one of the leading composers of theatrical music of his generation, writing 40 operas, incidental music to more than 15 Royal Shakespeare Company productions, the musical Blondel and scores for TV and radio, including for the BBC radio production of The Lord of the Rings. Oliver also gave lectures on music and took part in radio and TV broadcasts.

Recordings of a number of Oliver's compositions are preserved at the British Library, including his symphony and the opera Timon of Athens. Also held are recordings of plays featuring his music, notably the Royal Shakespeare Company's productions of Shakespeare's Othello (1980) and David Edgar's Maydays (1984). Oliver's soundtrack for The Lord of the Rings and excerpts from Blondel also feature in the Library's Sound Archive, and there are several recordings of interviews with Oliver. Finally, there is a copy of a tribute programme presented by Michael Finnissy after Oliver's death in 1992. None of these recordings is available online for copyright reasons, but all can be made available to researchers on-site at the British Library.

Twenty years on from Stephen Oliver's death, it's a pleasure to make his archive available for consultation. I hope it will provide researchers of 20th-century music and culture with a wealth of material to explore, and that musicians seeking new repertoire will bring some of the unpublished pieces to light once more.

22 October 2012

Independent Labels

Despite many stories of the decline of the traditional record industry there seems to have been a growth in the number of Indie labels and self-released recordings in the UK of late. It is gratifying to see this reflected in a marked increase in the number of donations from Independents in recent months, largely due to the efforts of my colleague Jamie Tugwell who is contacting labels on a regular basis and explaining about the BL’s collection of sound recordings.

So this week I was pleased to meet Rachael from Stolen Recordings who came to the library in person with a wonderful collection of releases that we had not previously acquired.

Indies 001

Stolen were voted Small Independent Label of the Year last year and are on a bit of a roll at the moment so to receive some of their rarer recordings in hand-made sleeves and a variety of formats was timely.

Another arrival this week was a package from Allsorted Records based in Norwich. Allsorted’s Dudley had contacted me earlier in the year to ask about registering the label’s recordings with the BL. I was happy to point out that there is no registration process – just send us your records and they will be processed and added to our collection.

Indies 005

We don’t have the benefit of compulsory legal deposit for sound recordings so have to rely on donations. There are long-standing arrangements with the major record companies and we receive almost daily deliveries from them, but it is more time-consuming to track down smaller independent labels and make arrangements with them so we are always trying to play catch-up.

One label that is very familiar with the BL’s collection of recordings is Public Information, whose co-founder Alex Wilson is Video Manager in the BL’s Sound and Vision department. Alex brought in the two most recent releases in their catalogue this week and we now have a complete run of their output.

Indies 008


We hope to further increase the acquisition of recordings from Independent labels over the forthcoming months so if you are involved in a label you may well hear from Jamie or myself. Alternatively you can e-mail [email protected] to tell us about your label and we will happily arrange to receive your recordings.

28 September 2012

British Library Journal: 38 music articles now available online

The British Library Journal began its life in 1975, shortly after the establishment of the British Library, to continue the tradition of the British Museum Quarterly. Since 2002 the British Library Journal has been published exclusively online, with PDF downloads of articles freely available at It is a pleasure to report that scanned files of the 25 volumes of the printed journal have now been added to the website.

Music has always featured prominently in the journal, and this post provides a list of all the music-related articles that have appeared over the last 37 years. Design for a revolving reading deskThey range from discussions of medieval music theory to Adorno, from core collections including the Handel manuscripts in the Royal Music Library to more obscure names such as the organist John Watts. Contributors include several of the leading musicologists of today, and several articles by present or former members of staff.

The eBLJ continues to welcome scholarly research into the contents and history of the British Library and its collections. All articles are peer-reviewed, and the editor, Dr Barry Taylor, welcomes submissions: see

A collection of German religious songs of the mid-sixteenth century
David Paisey
Some occasional aspects of Johann Hermann Schein
David Paisey
Notes: An unknown Mendelssohn autograph
Oliver Neighbour

The Ayrton Papers: music in London, 1786-1858
Pamela Willetts
Vignettes in early nineteenth-century London editions of Mozart's operas
Alec Hyatt King
Paul Hirsch and his music library
Alec Hyatt King

The library of the Royal Philharmonic Society
Alec Hyatt King
The Elgar sketch-books
Pamela Willetts
Alban Berg and the BBC
Nick Chadwick
The Curzon collection
Oliver Neighbour
Julian Marshall and the British Museum: music collecting in the later nineteenth century
Arthur Searle

Recent acquisitions: Department of Printed Books: notable acquisitions 1964-1985: music library
Oliver Neighbour
A friend of the Clementis
C. J. Wright

Thomas Tudway and the Harleian Collection of 'Ancient' church music
William Weber

Recent acquisitions: music: a monument of the ancient music
Graham Pont

Working with Vaughan Williams: some newly discovered manuscripts
Roy Douglas

The 'Tregian' manuscripts: a study of their compilation
Ruby Reid Thompson

Alec Hyatt King (1911-1995)
P. R. Harris and O. W. Neighbour

A new English keyboard manuscript of the seventeenth century: autograph music by Draghi and Purcell
Christopher Hogwood

An early eighteenth-century manuscript of harpsichord music: William Babell and Handel's 'Vo' far guerra'
Graham Pont

A book of cantatas and arias bought in Florence, 1723
Reinhard Strohm

'The art of dancing, demonstrated by characters and figures': French and English sources for court and theatre dance, 1700-1750
Moira Goff

John Field: the 'hidden manuscripts' and other sources in the British Library
Robin Langley

From Purcell to Wardour Street: a brief account of music manuscripts from the Library of Vincent Novello now in the British Library
Chris Banks

Mátyás Seiber's collaboration in Adorno's jazz project, 1936
Nick Chadwick

Music Library: notable acquisitions 1985-1994
Malcolm Turner

The dating of Seiber/Adorno papers held by the British Library
Evelyn Wilcock

The Tyson Collection
Oliver Neighbour

A Late Renaissance Music Manuscript Unmasked
Richard Charteris

Who was Mozart's Laura? Abendempfindung and the Editors
David Paisey

A Wesleyan Musical Legacy
Graham Pont

Guy of Saint-Denis and the Compilation of Texts about Music in London, British Library, Harl. MS. 281
Constant J. Mews, Catherine Jeffreys, Leigh McKinnon, Carol Williams, and John N. Crossley

The Royal Music Library and its Handel Collection
Donald Burrows

The First British Performances of Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony: The Philharmonic Society and Sir George Smart
Arthur Searle


1793: A Song of the Natives of New South Wales
Keith Vincent Smith



Cornelius Cardew’s Music for Moving Images: Some Preliminary Observations

Clemens Gresser


A Place for Music: John Nash, Regent Street and the Philharmonic Society of London

Leanne Langley



A Donizetti Manuscript in the Zweig Collection

Christopher Scobie

24 August 2012

British Library at WOMAD

2012 saw the 30th anniversary of the UK World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) Festival. Just three years after its inaugural event in Shepton Mallet,  British Library staff started recording the event to create an archive that would be available for generations to come.

In the early years the BL team had to cart around heavy reel to reel recording machines and the tapes had to be copied one by one, stored on basement shelves and manually retrieved for every request. As technology advanced the team recorded on VHS and subsequently DAT tapes and nowadays it’s all recorded digitally. Recordings are made and backed up on site with data entry compiled at the same time, making it very much easier to process back at the Library. The result is that this year's recordings are available for listening via computer terminals in the reading rooms at the St Pancras building in London less than one month after the event.

20 August 2012

Closing ceremony - where to start?

Today sees the CD release of the music from the Closing Ceremony of  London 2012, a copy of which has already found its way into the BL's pop music collection (1CD0330501). The closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympics was always going to suffer from comparison with Danny Boyle's innovative, lavish and epic opening ceremony. The end ceremony promised a 'symphony of British Music' which would soundtrack 'the best-ever aftershow party' and prompted much speculation as to what would and wouldn't be included. Symphony

Artistic Director Kim Gavin and Music Director David Arnold somehow selected thirty hits from the past fifty years of British Music and, given the choice on offer, it is unlikely that any other two people would agree on the same playlist. The final choice inevitably gave rise to a number of gripes about who was missing and what was not represented, but it is a nigh on impossible task to represent every facet of British popular music in such a presentation. One of the most daunting tasks that faces the pop music collections at the BL is keeping track of what is happening out there - and as the myriad forms of music, subcultures and genres of popular music keep expanding it is important that we represent all types of music that is created in Great Britain. Should Kim Gavin have wished to do so, he could have come to the BL, browsed our catalogue and listened to more than 100,000 different vinyl singles to audition his playlist. To then narrow down the task to 30 or so tracks (having also auditioned our digital collections to come bang up to date) would be the difficult part, which is where Gavin's experience in staging large-scale mainstream events such as Dancing On Ice Live and Take That arena concerts will have shaped his wishlist. 2012-08-12 21.41.38Where the relatively radical Opening Ceremony could include punk rock and a track by F*** Buttons, the closing ceremony was always going to be more similar to a wedding disco or an inoffensive edition of Top of The Pops. Allowance also has to be made for artists on the initial list - such as The Rolling Stones, Kate Bush, David Bowie, Adele -  who either declined to appear or were unavailable. Gavin had stated that he wanted to provide a big party for the ending and in trying to provide that for as wide an audience as possible the playlist had to be recognisably full of big hits and nothing more ambitious than that. It seemed to work.

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