Music blog

29 posts categorized "Digitisation"

31 January 2014

A song in praise of music: Schubert’s ‘An die Musik’

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This is the first in a new series of blog posts highlighting some of the British Library’s music treasures. We’ll be focusing in each post on a particular item or collection and looking at the story behind it. In the spotlight today are Franz Schubert, born on this day in 1797, and his exquisite song ‘An die Musik’ (‘To Music’).

Schubert composed more than 600 songs in his short life, the first at the age of 14 and the last shortly before his death, aged 31, in November 1828. ‘An die Musik’, which Schubert wrote in 1817, is one of his most famous songs, popular both for its beautiful melody and its lyrics - penned by Schubert's near namesake, Franz von Schober - about the power of music to “kindle the heart to warm love” and carry us into a better world.

Here is a classic recording of the song made for Decca by Kathleen Ferrier, contralto, and Phyllis Spurr, piano, in 1949 (British Library Shelfmark 1CS0042998):

Schubert - An die Musik

Schubert wrote two versions of the song, and his autograph manuscript of the second version is now held by the British Library. The manuscript was formerly owned by the Austrian writer and collector Stefan Zweig, and Zweig’s delight at acquiring the autograph of this famous song is evident from his card catalogue, in which he described it as a crowning piece in the art of song and also graphically extraordinarily beautiful.

Franz Schubert: 'An die Musik'
Franz Schubert: 'An die Musik', autograph manuscript, Zweig MS 81 A

Schubert wrote out the music in brown ink on just one side of a single leaf of manuscript paper and signed it ‘Franz Schubert m[anu propr]ia’ (signed with one’s own hand). The leaf seems originally to have formed part of someone’s manuscript album, but it is not known where or for whom Schubert wrote the music out. The leaf was later removed from the album and came into the possession of a German violinist, Ludwig Landsberg, who had it mounted in a pink folder, along with a lithographed portrait of Schubert, and who presented the assemblage to the wife of the French Ambassador in 1852.

Portrait of Franz Schubert
Portrait of Franz Schubert by Josef Teltscher, published shortly after Schubert's death. Zweig MS 81 B

The manuscript then passed through the hands of a German conductor, Siegfried Ochs, before being acquired in 1940 by Stefan Zweig from the music seller Otto Haas. The manuscript was loaned to the British Library in 1981 and presented outright to the Library in 1986 by Stefan Zweig’s heirs, as part of the magnificent Zweig Music Collection. The manuscript has just been digitised and made available on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website. The presentation folder and portrait, a lithograph made by Josef Teltscher in 1826 and published shortly after Schubert's death, have also been digitised.

22 August 2013

Kevin Volans' collection of music from Southern Africa

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The South African born composer Kevin Volans recorded a wide range of music in Lesotho and South Africa during the 1970s. His fieldwork focused on the Zulu, Swazi and Xhosa people. This collection is now available online on the BL Sounds website.

Close up of the quill portion of a lesiba, taken at the Drum Cafe in Johannesburg. (c) Jenny Buccos 2007.

There is a recording of a lesiba being played: this is a stringed-wind instrument which has a quill attached to a long string. The quill is blown across, causing the string to vibrate and resulting in a sound rather similar to a didgeridu. Other names for this type of instrument are gora (see here for an example on the Europeana portal), ugwali and ugwala.

Other highlights from the collection include songs sung by Princess Constance Magogo, accompanying herself on the ugubhu or musical bow. There are several other types of musical bows which feature in Volans' collection, including the segankuru which you can read about in an earlier blog.

As well as the broad range of musical recordings, Volans also recorded some very beautiful soundscapes of birdsong, cicadas, thunderstorms and other atmospheric recordings. 

 More information can be found about Kevin Volans on his website.


17 July 2013

Music and Monarchy

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11 E XI fol 2r'Music and Monarchy' is the theme of a new four-part television series, presented by Dr David Starkey, which 'reveals how British kings and queens shaped the story of the nation's music: as patrons and tastemakers, and even as composers and performers'. The series promises a refreshing approach, looking at the role played by music in some of the great moments of British history - but always primarily from a historian's point of view.

As with many of his earlier series, Dr Starkey draws heavily on the British Library's collections when telling his 'history of England written in music'. This post draws attention to some of the British Library manuscripts which feature in the first programme, all of which are freely available online.

Old hall
Two pieces of music in the Old Hall Manuscript are attributed to 'Roy Henry': they are settings of the 'Gloria' and 'Sanctus' of the Mass, both composed in three parts. There has been a great deal of discussion about the true identity of this King Henry, much of it taking place while the manuscript was owned by St Edmund's College at Old Hall Green in Hertfordshire, from where the manuscript gained its modern name before entering the British Library's collections in 1973. Earlier scholars identified the composer as Henry VI or Henry IV, but the consensus is now firmly in favour of Henry V. The manuscript was compiled between about 1415 and 1421, but it is quite possible that Henry composed these pieces before acceding to the throne in 1413.

Images of the complete Old Hall Manuscript are available to view on the Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music (, together with a detailed description, list of contents and extensive bibliography about the manuscript. (This link leads directly to the Old Hall page.) DIAMM requires users to set up a user account before accessing high-resolution images, for reasons of copyright licensing, but this is a simple process.


A later king whose musical predilections are more widely known is Henry VIII. As with 'Roy Henry', music survives which is apparently composed by the king himself: the Henry VIII Songbook was probably compiled around 1518, and includes twenty songs and thirteen instrumental pieces ascribed to ‘The Kynge H. viij’, as well as 76 pieces by other musicians associated with the court. It is most likely that Henry composed this music while still a prince, though some pieces may date from the early years of his reign. The manuscript is not written by Henry himself, and was never part of the royal library: it appears to have been compiled for Sir Henry Guildford (1489-1532), controller of the royal household. It is now numbered as Add. MS 31922, and a description and images are available on DIAMM at this link.

PoemgranateTwo other important music manuscripts presented to Henry VIII survived in the king's own library, which now forms part of the British Library's collections. One of them is a magnificent choirbook produced in the workshop of Petrus Alamire, a famous Flemish music scribe who made several similar choirbooks for other European courts. He also acted as a spy, informing Henry of the movements of Richard de la Pole, exiled pretender to the English crown. The opening pages are the most richly decorated, with various Tudor symbols as well as Catherine of Aragon’s pomegranate. This manuscript, Royal MS 8 G VII, is available on DIAMM at this link.

Rose canonThe other grand manuscript was prepared for Henry VIII in 1516 by a successful Flemish merchant named Petrus de Opitiis. It includes a canon (or round) for four voices: two voices sing the music as written and another two sing the same melody a perfect fourth higher, beginning when the first singers reach the points marked with a sign. The words praise the root that has brought forth the scarlet rose of the Tudor dynasty, and it may have been composed to commemorate the reunion of Henry and his two sisters for the first time in 13 years. Royal MS 11 E XI is available on DIAMM at this link, as well as on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website here.

David Starkey's series will be screened on BBC 2 starting on Saturday 20 July 2013. Future posts will feature some recent discoveries that shed light on the relationship between music and monarchy in later periods.


22 May 2013

Wagner goes online at 200

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WagnerPhoto22 May 2013 is the 200th birthday of probably the most influential composer ever to have lived, Wilhelm Richard Wagner. The British Library is celebrating this anniversary with a study day on Wagner the Writer as well as a complete performance of the Ring cycle – without music! We have also taken the opportunity to publish those of Wagner’s original manuscripts which happen to reside in the Library on our Digitised Manuscripts website. Since many of them are extremely fragile and cannot normally be issued in our Reading Rooms, we are delighted to make high-resolution digital images of them freely available on the internet. They include some pivotal works in the development of Wagner’s career, and shed fascinating light on the working practices of the master of the music drama.

The British Library’s collection of printed editions of Wagner’s music is near comprehensive, with more than 2000 publications at the last count. Put together with a similar number of books about him, and perhaps 20,000 recordings, this makes the Library a major research resource for anyone with a serious interest in Wagner.

In this context, the Library holds only a minute amount of original material written in Wagner’s own hand, and most of it comes from early in his career. Nevertheless, it sheds much light on the way in which Wagner composed, and the means by which he honed his genius as a writer and a composer. 

The earliest manuscript in the Library’s collections is a draft piano score of an orchestral Overture in E minor, composed when Wagner was 18 years old. WagnerIt is one of his very first surviving compositions: although it is number 24 in the chronological catalogue ‘WWV’, many of the earlier pieces (from the age of 13 onwards) are now lost. It was performed in the Hoftheater in Leipzig on 17 February 1832 as the overture to King Enzio, a play by Ernst Raupach.  

Other very early works include an Entr’acte tragique in D major (WWV 25 no.1), for which there is a draft in short score as well as a fragmentary full score. In November 1832, Wagner’s first symphony was performed in Prague. His full score of the work is lost (though a copyist’s score survives at Bayreuth, and the work was published after his death), but Wagner made a piano duet version of the first movement. Incidental music for a festival play to welcome in the new year of 1835 was performed in Magdeburg and provides further evidence of Wagner’s early involvement with the stage.

Wagner’s three early forays into the medium of opera show us the starting points of the process which was to develop into the masterworks of his maturity. Die Feen (The Fairies) is based on a play by Carlo Gozzi and fits very much into the German Romantic tradition of Weber and his contemporary Heinrich Marschner. Already we see the composer working on drafts of the text separately from the music. Das Liebesverbot (The Love-Ban) derives from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, and is modelled much more closely on French and Italian opera, especially Auber and Bellini. LiebesThe opera was first performed in Magdeburg on 29 March 1836, and Wagner subsequently revised his German libretto in a densely-written French translation, in the hope of securing a production in Paris: this manuscript includes the draft of a letter to Meyerbeer (now lost) asking for his help in doing so. As well as the almost complete libretti in both languages, there is a draft score of the Overture and sketches for several later sections, some in pencil and others in ink, usually conceived on one or two staves. These initial ideas were later worked into a draft score, which in turn led to the complete full score. For his next stage work, Wagner turned more directly to Meyerbeer for inspiration: Rienzi is grand opera writ large. Although intended for the Paris stage, it eventually received its first performance in Dresden on 20 October 1842. The staging requirements were too onerous for the Hoftheater, and this detailed memorandum suggests means of coping with a smaller chorus. Unfortunately the full scores of all three of these operas are now lost: they were among the manuscripts acquired by Adolf Hitler on his 50th birthday.

Wagner’s compositional journey towards the Gesamtkunstwerk was gradual, and these early operas were followed by other occasional pieces, including his Overture ‘Polonia’, written in 1836 as a reminiscence of his time as a student in Leipzig when he befriended Polish soldiers fleeing  from the fall of Warsaw to the Russians in September 1831, who passed through Leipzig to exile in France.

RuleBAnother nationalist overture was written in 1837, this time for the Philharmonic Society in London, which declined to perform the work on grounds of its ‘being written on a Theme which is here considered common place’: Rule Britannia. Other curiosities include settings of poems by Victor Hugo, a chorus for a vaudeville and an instrumental arrangement of a popular number from an opera by Halévy.

The only work of Wagner’s maturity for which manuscripts are kept in the British Library is The Flying Dutchman. One consequence of the revolutionary principle of organic unity which Wagner first displayed in this work was that the overture continues straight into the music of Act I, as the curtain rises. In order to make the overture performable as a separate concert piece, Wagner therefore wrote an alternative ending, which he attached to this copy score of the overture. He also planned French translations of some of the work.


Finally, there are various letters by Wagner in the Library’s collections. Among these one stands out in particular: it is a letter written in January 1849 to Baron Ferdinand von Biedenfeld. BielefeldWagner outlines his belief in the interdependence of poetry and music, the natural consequence of which is that music drama is the highest possible form of art. These ideas were to find more extended exposure in his famous treatise on The Artwork of the Future — and of course would be manifested in the great works of his final years.

Almost all of these manuscripts were apparently collected by Leopold, Graf von Thun und Hohenstein (1811–88), Austrian minister for culture and a keen musical amateur. In 1887 they were acquired by the collector Albert Cohn, and in 1937 were sold to the great Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. His magnificent collection of musical, literary and historical autographs was presented to the British Library by his heirs in 1986, and this is the first stage in a project supported by the Derek Butler Trust to make all of the manuscripts in this remarkable collection freely available online.

To see a full list of all the digitised Wagner manuscripts, search for "Wagner" on For more information on other bicentenary events, including the British Library Study Day and complete reading of the Ring cycle, visit

12 April 2013

Interviews with Ethnomusicologists now online!

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You can now hear the recorded interviews of leading ethnomusicologists on the British Library “Sounds” website. These interviews were made by Dr Carolyn Landau from 2010 to 2012.

The interviews offer an insight into the researchers’ musical upbringing and education and what drew them to the field of ethnomusicology in the first place. The interviews also discuss the researchers’ perceptions of ethnomusicology as they began their careers and how the subject is viewed now.

Image of Bartok

Here’s a short clip of one of the interviews, from John Baily, originally a psychologist who studied under the late John Blacking at Queen's University Belfast.


In this clip, Baily talks about the influence of Blacking on his research into the music of Afghanistan. Baily goes on to discuss whether, for example, ethnomusicologists need to have “big ears” – in other words, whether they need the transcribing skills of the composer Béla Bartók (pictured). If you're interested in seeing handwritten examples of Bartók’s transcriptions, some of them can be found in the Milman Parry Collection, Harvard University.

As well as hearing the interviews, you can also hear the recordings that some of these ethnomusicologists deposited with the British Library. For example, Peter Cooke made recordings of Ugandan music and Donald Tayler & Brian Moser made recordings in Columbia.

15 February 2013

Kalahari San [Bushmen] music online

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Over 1000 recordings of music recorded by John Brearley in Botswana, primarily among San or Bushmen people in the Kalahari, have been made available on the British Library Sounds website.

Oba plays the zhoma (pluriarc) while children look on.
Oba plays the zhoma (pluriarc) while children look on.

Recording of Oba playing the zhoma and singing.

John Brearley’s collection began with his first trip to Botswana in July 1982 to investigate and record traditional music, and to observe the extent to which the influence of radio and recorded music had interrupted the use of traditional instruments. In particular he wanted to learn about the music of the Basarwa (San / Bushmen) and so the collection includes recordings from a range of Bushmen groups including the !Kung, Nharo and Makoko, and features performances of healing dances, games, and instrumental tunes on a range of indigenous instruments. John returned to the Kalahari many times from 1982 to 2007.

Women playing tandiri [dakateri] musical bow
Women playing tandiri [dakateri] musical bow

Recording of women playing tandiri, 1989

During his travels in northern Botswana John came into contact with the anthropologist Hans-Joachim Heinz. Heinz had also made recordings of music and ceremonies, which he deposited at the British Library. These are also available online. Heinz also made films during his research in Botswana. Copies of these are in the British Library's collections as C312.

John wrote a report of his very first trip in 1982 which was published in Botswana Notes and Records (volume 16). This includes details of instrument tunings and musical transcriptions of brief extracts from the recordings.

28 January 2013

British and Irish traditional music online

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150 hours of audio and almost 100 photographs from the Peter Kennedy Collection have been made available this week via the British Library Sounds website.

Sheila Gallagher
Sheila Gallagher, 1953, Middle Dere, Donegal

Sheila Gallagher talks and sings

Peter Kennedy (1922 – 2006) was one of the most important collectors of music traditions from the British Isles. Picking up from work begun by Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams in the first decades of the twentieth century, he started recording in the early 1950s with his aunt, Maud Karpeles (founding member of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, along with Sharp and Peter’s father, Douglas Kennedy), work that instigated the presentation of folk music and traditions on the BBC. He was greatly inspired by Alan Lomax, wishing to demonstrate that the folklore tradition was alive and well in Britain and Ireland. In just over 50 years he amassed a collection of audio and video recordings amounting to approximately 1500 hours, plus several hundred photographs and many cabinets of papers including correspondence, notes and song texts. The recordings now made available represent a small portion of the field recordings Peter Kennedy made during the four decades from the late 1940s in which he was most active "in the field”.

Peter Kennedy is in good company on the website, with an additional 20,000 recordings of songs, tunes and interviews mainly from the British Isles recorded by Bob and Jacqueline Patten, Bob Davenport, Carole Pegg, Desmond and Shelagh Herring, John Howson, Keith Summers, Nick and Mally Dow, Reg Hall, Roy Palmer, Steve Gardham and Terry Yarnell.

Notes: Peter Kennedy passed away in 2006 and we acquired the collection in collaboration with Topic Records who have been drawing on the Collection for their new Voice of the People series of publications. When the photographs, papers and original tape recordings came to the BL in 2007, all Peter's commercial LPs and his book collection went to Halsway Manor. In March 2012 we received a grant from the National Folk Music Fund to catalogue the photographs onto the Library’s Integrated Archives and Manuscripts System. This online project was supported by the British Library Friends.

19 December 2012

Cataloguing and Processing the Ethnographic Wax Cylinder Collection

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On 30 October 2012 the World and Traditional Music department started the final phase of cataloguing and processing numerous wax cylinder recordings made between 1898 and 1941. This involves taking previously digitised wax cylinder recordings and checking and updating the related catalogue information, and finally uploading this information onto the The British Library catalogue for public access.

These recordings, totalling around 3,000, were made by prominent anthropologists and ethnomusicologists such as Prof. William Baldwin Spencer and Arnold Bake, and in various locations around the world including Australia (Spencer), Nepal, India and Sri Lanka (Bake), Japan, China, Papua New Guinea, Africa and the Americas.

Ethnographic Wax Cylinder Player
Wax Cylinder Player


Wax Cylinders
Wax Cylinders

While steadily working my way through the first batch of around 1,000 recordings and related documentation (in the form of previous cataloguer’s comments, original recording notes and archival correspondences), several have stuck in my mind (for various reasons) and, I think, are worth sharing. Therefore, the following sample recordings represent a small selection of the digitised wax cylinder recordings housed at The British Library and are available (or soon to be available) for public access.

1) C6/1183, Baldwin Spencer Cylinder Collection. A recording of exclamations used at sacred ceremonies by men dancing round performers: "The emu will soon lay some eggs"; "The Dalhousie men are making rain today and the Creek will run tomorrow"; "The wild ducks are laying eggs"; "The pelican is too thin to eat"; "Fat snakes make us fat, thin snakes make us thin" etc. Recorded in Stevenson Creek, South Australia in 1901 by Walter Baldwin Spencer and Francis James Gillen.


2) C624/963, Madras Museum Cylinder Collection. A recording of the song Bavanutha; Ragam – Mohanam – played by P. Sanjiva Rau (bamboo flute), accompanied on harmonium. Recorded in India in 1909 by Edgar Thurston and Kadambi Rangachari.


3) C675/317, Temple Cylinder Collection. Male vocal solo, with algaitas (West African oboe) and drum. Recorded in Nigeria around 1912 by Mrs Temple.


These early recordings, complete with crackles, pops and period charm, suggest that we can look forward to more interesting and unique musical gems in the next batch of 2,000 or so waiting to be processed.

Update, 2 April 2013: A new post is now available on this collection.