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2 posts categorized "Literature"

06 September 2016

London's Burning!

Readers of our previous blog post will be aware that today is the last day of Shakespeare in Ten Acts, the British Library’s popular exhibition celebrating the 400th anniversary of the birth of the Bard.

As the exhibition draws to a close, our attention has turned to the Great Fire of London. After raging for several days, it was finally extinguished on 6 September 1666, 350 years ago today.

Here in Music Collections, we have one particular question in mind: what do Shakespeare, music and the Great Fire of London have in common?

The answer lies in the well-known song "London’s burning":

         London's burning, London's burning

        Fetch the engine, fetch the engine

        Fire, fire! Fire, fire!

        Pour on water, pour on water

Still popular in schools today, the song is often sung in a round, with each singer starting after the previous one has sung one line of text. The words are often considered to be about the Great Fire of London. However, the earliest known notated version actually dates from 1580 and bears the words “Scotland it burneth”. It forms part of the Lant Manuscript, held in the collections at King’s College Cambridge (King's College, Rowe MS 1), and is set to essentially the same music.

Rowe MS 1_item 36

“Scotland it burneth” (King's College, Rowe MS 1). Reproduced by permission of the Provost and Scholars of King’s College, Cambridge


And now for the Shakespeare connection. The song is alluded to in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Act 4, Scene 1. Grumio asks Curtis to prepare a warm fire for guests:

        Curtis: Who calls so coldly?

        Grumio: A piece of ice. If thou doubt it, thou may'st slide from my shoulder to my heel, with no greater a run but my head and my neck. A fire, good         Curtis.

        Curtis: Is my master and his wife coming, Grumio?

        Grumio: O ay, Curtis, av; and therefore “fire, fire; cast no water”.

If you’re struggling to remember how the tune goes, here’s a version from our printed music collections for four-part choir arranged by one William Schaeffer and published in 1930. Enjoy!


British Library,  VOC/1930/SCHÄFFER

02 September 2016

Setting Shakespeare to Music

The British Library's popular exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts closes on 6 September 2016.  Over the years, the Bard has had a profound influence on music. Our holdings reflect this, with music contemporary to Shakespeare, new music composed for Shakespeare and music inspired by Shakespeare all to be found in our extensive music collections.

One particular gem is our manuscript of Felix Mendelssohn's incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream (Egerton MS 2955). Composed in 1843 as a result of a royal commission from Friedrich Wilhelm IV, it comprises the music for the famous Scherzo, Notturno and Wedding March movements (pictured below). The manuscript itself dates from around 1844 and is a piano arrangement of these well-known excerpts in Mendelssohn's own hand. 


Felix Mendelssohn's 'Wedding March' for A Midsummer Night's Dream (Egerton MS 2955, folio 12 verso)

We're also in possession of the sketches and libretto for Richard Wagner's Das Liebesverbot, an opera based on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. Both form part of the extensive Zweig Collection (Zweig MSS 104 and 119).


 Sketch for Richard Wagner's Das Liebesverbot (Zweig MS 104, folio 1 recto)

From September 1839 to April 1842, Wagner spent a rather miserable two-and-a-half years in Paris. He was forced to earn a living by making arrangements of operatic selections and by musical journalism. This unhappy period also saw the composition of his opera Das Liebesverbot, which was accepted by the Théâtre de la Renaissance in March 1840. However, the work was a resounding flop, with the second performance cancelled because of backstage fisticuffs. Two months later, the theatre was forced into bankruptcy and the work was never again performed in Wagner's lifetime.

Full digital versions of the sketches and libretto of Wagner's Das Lieberverbot are available, and Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream is on our wishlist for digitisation. In addition, if you don't think you'll be able to get to the British Library to catch the Shakespeare exhibition before it closes, fear not - a wealth of Shakespeare-related material can be found on our Shakespeare web pages