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72 posts categorized "Manuscripts"

06 March 2024

Harriet Cohen and Astra Desmond: introducing two newly catalogued archives

Within Music Collections, we have an ongoing 18-month project to catalogue several archives of 20th-century women musicians. The project is part of the Library’s ‘Unlocking Hidden Collections’ initiative, which aims to make available selected Library collections that for various reasons, including cataloguing backlogs and metadata issues, remain undiscoverable and ‘hidden’ to users. The initiative places particular emphasis on materials relating to demographics which are underrepresented within the Library’s special collections.

The subjects of the two archives discussed below – pianist Harriet Cohen and contralto Astra Desmond – were near-contemporaries and had interlinked musical networks. Both were keen internationalists involved in various strands of British cultural diplomacy over several decades. Both were also esteemed for their intellect and partook in scholarly projects – for instance, they each contributed chapters to a 1943 book about Dvořák, on his piano music and vocal music respectively.[1] Their archives are quite different in scope and type, but both provide unusual and striking insights into the mechanisms of musical life in Britain across the first half of the 20th century.

MS Mus. 1917: Harriet Cohen Papers (Part II)

Harriet Cohen (1895-1967) was a concert pianist active from the late 1910s to the 1950s. She is best remembered today for her recordings and transcriptions of Bach; her promotion of new music, especially by British, Spanish, and Soviet composers; her 40-year love affair with Arnold Bax; and her fundraising and activism on behalf of Jewish and Zionist causes. Cohen was a prolific writer and lecturer on music, producing two books titled Music’s handmaid and A bundle of time alongside countless articles and opinion pieces for books and magazines.[2]

Cohen’s archive has a convoluted history. She died suddenly in November 1967, at the age of 71, and in her will bequeathed four trunks of letters and papers to the British Museum. The trunks contained some 1,900 letters between Cohen and Bax, along with letters from other ‘close men friends’ (as she called them) and prominent musical figures, and material formerly owned by Bax. It’s clear that Cohen considered these letters and papers to be of significant music-historical importance, and – once her stipulated 30-year embargo on the materials elapsed – that she wished for them to be viewed by musicologists. This first Cohen collection has been fully catalogued for many years now at MS Mus. 1626-1677. Cohen’s will also included donations of material elsewhere: her substantial art collection was given to the Royal Academy of Music, while individual music manuscripts in her possession (by Bax and others) were distributed to various universities and libraries. It is fair to say, therefore, that she carefully curated her own archival legacy and managed its destinations.

Not mentioned specifically in the will, however, were Cohen’s own personal and professional papers, which had clearly been useful while writing her memoir, and which it appears were in the process of being sorted at the time of her death. These papers went first to Cohen’s literary executor, and were eventually donated to the British Library by his widow in 2008, 40 years after the first Cohen bequest. This later archive has recently been arranged and catalogued as MS Mus. 1917: Harriet Cohen Papers (Part II).

One series of files contains a loosely chronological paper trail of her concert activity, with invitations, fee negotiations, contracts, travel itineraries, expenses receipts, draft running orders, and sometimes concert programmes. Another series contains her writings, lectures, and broadcasts on all sorts of topics: matters of musical interpretation and practical pianism; recollections of her work with composers such as Bax, Elgar, and Sibelius; lectures and debates on political and social issues. There’s a lot of correspondence – professional, personal, and political – with evidence of very patchy attempts by Cohen or an associate to order the hundreds of letters chronologically, alphabetically, or (slightly chaotically) by profession of correspondent; the final cataloguing order embraces these half-sequences, in order to preserve prior curatorial processes.

Cohen’s papers present an unusually full account of a performer’s efforts to advocate for herself and her career. While in-demand as a soloist, recitalist, and recording artist in the interwar years and during the second world war, Cohen’s engagements and opportunities decreased significantly after 1945, especially in the aftermath of life-changing illnesses and injuries. Letters show that Cohen would frequently ask conductors, programmers, and producers directly for engagements, or ask musical friends to pull strings on her behalf; copies of these outbound letters are found together with generally negative replies – some kind and explanatory, some short and blunt. Cohen believed she was discriminated against as a woman (especially as she grew older), and as a Jewish person who openly advocated for Jewish causes, which is very probably true in both cases. At the same time, Cohen was a complex and sometimes difficult character. Her proprietorial tendency comes across in letters to young Bax enthusiasts, where she refuses them permission to play works which she considered ‘hers’, and in remonstrations to conductors and organisations in cases where other soloists had been invited to perform ‘my Vaughan Williams’ or ‘my Elgar’ – with the possessive pronoun often underlined. Cohen’s mastery of the strongly worded letter was not limited to musical contexts: the archive includes an elaborate explanatory missive following a court summons for a driving infraction, and a letter to the Wine and Food Society threatening resignation as a member unless it addressed the prevalent sexist treatment of lone female diners in restaurants.

We may speculate that Cohen would not have wanted all of this preserved for posterity – especially when encountering occasional papers marked ‘Rubbish’ and ‘Discard’. Considering the Library’s two Cohen collections side by side inevitably leads to reflections upon the original bequest’s carefully curated presentation of an artist’s life and work – which ultimately revolved around her relationships with the creative men in her life[3] – and the much fuller, unfiltered and messy snapshot of the same life and work found in Part II. In the latter, the breadth and depth of Cohen’s own contributions to, and struggles within, the musical and political life of the 20th century shine through (alongside her Fortnum and Mason bills, cruise ship quiz certificates, and cat photos).

Image of Harriet Cohen and  Astra Desmond concert posters
Concert posters from the collections of Harriet Cohen (MS Mus. 1917) and Astra Desmond (MS Mus. 1952)

MS Mus. 1952: Astra Desmond Papers

The papers of contralto Astra Desmond (1893-1973) arrived at the Library in 2022, along with a set of test pressings donated to the Sound Archive. Between the late 1910s and early 1950s, Desmond maintained a busy schedule as a recitalist and soloist for oratorio and concert performances (with occasional appearances on the operatic stage too). She was perhaps best known in her time for the Angel role in Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius – which she performed widely with the composer at the podium – and she appeared in the first performances of Vaughan Williams’s Five Tudor Portraits and Serenade to Music. Desmond made frequent broadcasts for the BBC when the corporation was brand new, and as its music programmes developed she contributed a wide variety of recitals, talks, and reviews.

The collection reflects the full range of Desmond’s professional activity. There’s an extensive chronological run of concert programmes, which documents Desmond’s evolving recital repertoire and relationships with conductors, pianists, organisations, and venues. Files containing lists of repertoire and plans for recitals demonstrate both her thoughtful artistic programming and her consideration of audience demographics. There are papers relating to her roles as vocal professor at the Royal Academy of Music (1947-1963) and her adjudication notes for major vocal competitions.

Among the most important and unusual material in the Desmond collection relates to her work as a translator. Desmond had a good command of 12 European languages, and strongly preferred to sing art song in its original language while also recognising the importance of English ‘singing translations’ for the dissemination and appreciation of foreign-language songs in the UK. She learned Swedish and Norwegian in order to promote little-known songs by Grieg, Sibelius, and Kilpinen in the UK, and went on to write important early studies of the songs of Grieg and Sibelius; she published ‘singing translations’ of Grieg, Brahms, and Dvořák songs, and, when singing in original languages, printed her translations in concert programmes wherever possible. Newspaper reviews of her performances by critics around Europe applaud her linguistic prowess and excellent pronunciation. Topics of song, language and translation were hotly debated among British critics throughout Desmond’s performing years, and this material offers an invaluable insight into this aspect of song performance history.[4] What’s more, as the difficult, complex and imaginative work of translators still so often falls by the wayside in discussions of creativity (musical and otherwise), it is unusual and exciting to have a substantial archival resource of this kind.

The correspondence series in the Desmond collection is quite small, but includes a couple of alphabetically-arranged files of letters from important musicians – including one short letter from Harriet Cohen, addressed to ‘Gwen’ (Desmond’s real name was Gwendoline Neame).[5] In turn, there is one short note from Desmond to Cohen preserved in the Cohen collection, relating to the Society of Women Musicians, of which Desmond was president in the mid 1950s, and for which both gave concerts and/or talks. Beyond this, paper traces of their many, illustrious mutual friends and colleagues point to the wider social networks behind so much of British musical life in the early and mid 20th century.


[1] Gerald Abraham, ed., Antonin Dvorak: His Achievement (London: Drummond, 1943).

[2] Music’s handmaid (London: Faber, 1936); A bundle of time: The memoirs of Harriet Cohen (London: Faber, 1969).

[3] Helen Fry’s biography of Cohen is titled Music and Men: The Life and Loves of Harriet Cohen (Stroud: The History Press, 2008). A reader may instinctively critique such a title in line with wider problematic tropes of understanding the lives of creative women through their relationships with creative men, of which there are no shortage of examples; however, this should be contextualised with the knowledge that Cohen’s own self-perception was to a great extent bound up in similar tropes, which she embraced – for instance, she would often speak proudly of her ‘life’s work’ being bound up with Bax’s compositions.

[4] For context on the politics of singing language and translation during the interwar period, see Laura Tunbridge, Singing in the Age of Anxiety: Lieder Performances in New York and London between the World Wars (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), especially Chapter 2, ‘Singing translations’.

[5] At some point, Desmond also modified this spelling to ‘Gwendolyn’. It is unclear from the papers exactly when she took on the professional name of Astra Desmond, but it was in use by the time of her official recital debut at Steinway Hall on 9 February 1916.

Frankie Perry, Music Manuscripts and Archives Cataloguer

26 January 2024

Restoring access to the British Library’s Music Collections (January 2024)

Following the recent cyber-attack on the British Library, the Library has now implemented an interim service which will enable existing Registered Readers to access most of our printed music, music manuscripts, and paper-based archival collections relating to music. This service will be expanded further in the coming weeks so please see the British Library's temporary website for the most up to date information. 

We understand how frustrating this recent period has been for everyone wishing to access our printed music, and music manuscripts and archives, and we would like to thank you for your patience. We are continuing to work to restore our services, and you can read more about these activities on our Knowledge Matters blog

The Using the Library page on our temporary website provides general information on current Library services, and advice for those without an existing Reader Pass. Please read on for information about the availability of specific music collections.

Printed music

You can now search for printed music using a searchable online version of our main catalogue of books and other printed material. Online and advance ordering is unavailable, so Registered Readers will need to collect a paper order form from staff in the Rare Books & Music Reading Room and fill in the required details. Please write the shelfmark exactly as it appears in the online catalogue.

Printed music with shelfmarks that start with the following letters should be available: a-i, A-H, Hirsch, I, N, P, R.M.5-R.M.17., RPS, Tyson. Unfortunately we cannot guarantee availability, as an item may, for instance, be in use by another Reader. If you wish to gain greater assurance on the availability of a particular item before you visit us, please contact our Reference Services Team by emailing

For other material, including printed music shelfmarks beginning K.,M., Mad. Soc., R.M.18.-R.M.27., VOC and INS we would also advise checking before you visit as some material is not yet available. The lending collection of modern printed scores held at our Boston Spa site is also currently unavailable.

Music manuscripts and music-related archival documents

Although the Library’s online catalogue of archives and manuscripts is not currently available, the Reference Services Team can assist with queries about these collections, checking paper catalogues and other sources. Please speak to the team in the Rare Books & Music Reading Room or email

In addition, the following digitised copies of older catalogues give details of music manuscripts acquired before about 1900: Hughes-Hughes, Augustus, Catalogue of Manuscript Music in the British Museum, 3 vols (London: British Museum, 1906-1909).

Most music manuscripts and archives can now be made available to existing Registered Readers, including restricted category material, although some material may need approval to see first. This includes manuscripts with the following prefixes:

  • Soc. (Madrigal Society Loan Collection)
  • Music Loan
  • M. manuscripts
  • RPS MS (RPS printed music is available, but not RPS manuscripts)
  • Zweig MS

As well as some music manuscripts from the following collections: Add MS, Egerton, Royal Appendix, Royal, King’s, MS Mus. The Reference Services Team can advise on whether a particular item is likely to be available. Please speak to the team in the Rare Books & Music Reading Room or email

To place a request to see a music manuscript or archival document relating to music, Registered Readers need to collect a paper order form from staff in the Rare Books & Music Reading Room and fill in the required details, including the shelfmark (manuscript number).

For restricted items, both printed and manuscript, readers are encouraged to contact Reference Services via LibAnswers who can advise about applying for access to this material category. Please note that applications can take up to 3 working days to process.


The Reference Services Team in the Rare Books & Music Reading Room has a full list of microfilms of printed and manuscript music.

Digital resources

You can search for most of our digitised printed music on Google Books.

Early Music Online contains images of 16th-century anthologies of printed music in the British Library.

We regret that our digitised music manuscripts and electronic research resources are not currently available.

We thank you, once again, for your patience as we continue to work to restore our services. Please do check this blog and the temporary British Library website for further updates.

Sandra Tuppen, Head of Music Collections

January 2024 (last updated 5 June 2024)

12 April 2022

Beethoven and Zweig

Of the exhibits in our current Beethoven exhibition, no fewer than 12 come from the collection of autograph manuscripts assembled by the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, and generously bequeathed to the British Library by his heirs in 1986.

Photograph of Stefan Zweig
Stefan Zweig by Bassano Ltd. 24 May 1939. NPG x156327 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Stefan Zweig as a collector

Zweig was a keen collector of autographs from an early age and built up one of the finest collections of its kind. He particularly sought out examples which he felt showed the process of creativity in the writers, composers and other historical figures he most admired. Beethoven was certainly one such, and fitted Zweig’s image of the true creative genius, but most of Zweig’s Beethoven material in fact comprised not music manuscripts that show Beethoven the genius composer at work, but items such as letters and notebooks that shed light on Beethoven the man.

This was no doubt in part because Zweig had an equally wealthy and eager rival when it came to collecting Beethoveniana, the Swiss bibliophile Martin Bodmer, but Zweig also had a liking for ‘relics’ of great men as well as actual examples of their work. One of his happiest moments as a collector came in 1929 when he was able to purchase Beethoven’s writing-desk and various other realia once belonging to the composer, such as a lock of hair, a violin and even a compass, from the descendants of Beethoven’s friend Stephan von Breuning. (These were later acquired by Bodmer and are now in the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn.)

Exhibits from the Zweig collection in the Beethoven exhibition

Two of the items from the BL Zweig manuscripts currently on display show a very humdrum side of Beethoven’s life: a laundry list and a page of kitchen accounts. The latter gives a glimpse into Beethoven’s diet: a lot of meat, bread and potatoes, spiced with mustard and horseradish, and washed down with wine and rum. Vegetables do feature, but usually lumped together as ‘Zuhspeis’ (literally a ‘side-dish’). Perhaps this was one of the reasons for his frequent ill health, referred to with a dash of self-deprecating humour in a letter of 1817 inviting his friend Johann Bihler to visit and mentioning that ‘Dr Sassafras’ will also be in attendance – a reference to the diuretic sassafras root.

A page from Beethoven’s kitchen accounts
A page from Beethoven’s kitchen accounts. British Library Zweig MS 209, f.1r

Other items show more ‘elevated’ aspects of Beethoven’s life. A notebook from the early 1790s lists expenses from his first months in Vienna, including a series of composition lessons with Joseph Haydn, the main reason he had come to the city. Another collection of notes from 1815 contains transcriptions of poems by Johann Gottfried Herder with some snatches of music and some reflections on nature by Beethoven. By this time Beethoven’s loss of hearing loss was very advanced, but he writes that this seems not to trouble him in the countryside and that “every tree seems to speak to me, saying ‘Holy! Holy!’” Despite a number of health and personal problems at this time, another piece from 1815 strikes a similar note of optimism: a short three-part canon written in the autograph album of fellow-composer Ludwig Spohr sets words from a play by Friedrich Schiller, “Kurz ist der Schmerz und ewig ist die Freude” (“Pain is brief and joy is eternal”).

Beethoven’s three-part canon in Spohr’s autograph album
Beethoven’s three-part canon in Spohr’s autograph album. British Library Zweig MS 11, f. 1r

Beethoven’s admiration for Schiller’s work would culminate of course in the setting of the ‘Ode to Joy’ in his Ninth Symphony, but he also set works by the other literary giant of the age, Goethe. Zweig was particularly pleased to acquire the manuscript of the song ‘Die Trommel gerühret’ (‘The drum is beaten’) from Beethoven’s incidental music to Goethe’s play Egmont as it combined the work of both men. In the play the song is sung by Egmont’s mistress Clärchen, who dreams of dressing as a soldier to follow her beloved to war. It is one of the pieces that forms the soundtrack to the exhibition, along with another work owned in manuscript by Zweig and on display, the 1808 Sonata for Piano and Cello in A major.

Beethoven’s initial musical ideas for the song ‘Die Trommel gerühret’ in his music for Goethe’s play Egmont
Beethoven’s initial musical ideas for the song ‘Die Trommel gerühret’ (op. 84 no. 1), sung by the character of Clärchen in his music for Goethe’s play Egmont. British Library Zweig MS 8, f.1r

The last Zweig items displayed relate to Beethoven’s death and funeral. A book of sketches by Josef Teltscher includes two studies of the composer on his deathbed. Teltscher was in attendance and his moving images of an exhausted Beethoven are no doubt more realistic that the legend that Beethoven died shaking a fist in defiance. A list of expenses for Beethoven’s funeral shows what a costly affair it was, with details of money spent to pay the priests and to provide candles and roses. It was one of the most lavish funerals ever granted to a commoner in Vienna and the streets were packed with onlookers. Access to the service was by invitation only; the invitation on display is thought to have belonged to Stefan von Breuning. Finally there is a list of donors to a fund to help Beethoven’s servants after his death, something that brings us back to the household accounts and laundry list and reminds us of the people behind them who ran Beethoven’s various households in Vienna.

Drawing of Beethoven on his deathbed by the artist Josef Teltscher
Drawing of Beethoven on his deathbed by the artist Josef Teltscher. British Library Zweig MS 207, f.1v

Some of Zweig’s contemporaries – and more recent critics – may have been cynical about the relic-hunting aspect of Zweig’s collecting, something nowhere more obvious than in his Beethoven holdings. But these items can help us to see a more rounded picture of Beethoven and his world rather than just the genius at work.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

References/further reading:

Arthur Searle, The British Library Stefan Zweig Collection: Catalogue of the Music Manuscripts (London, 1999).

Oliver Matuschek (ed.), Ich kenne den Zauber der Schrift: Katalog und Geschichte der Autographensammlung Stefan Zweig, mit kommentiertem Abdruck von Stefan Zweigs Aufsätzen über das Sammeln von Handschriften (Vienna, 2005).

Oliver Matuschek, Three Lives: a Biography of Stefan Zweig (London, 2011).

Michael Ladenburger, Das “kollektive Sammler-Empfinden”: Stefan Zweig als Sammler und Vermittler von Beethoveniana: Begleitbuch zu einer Ausstellung des Beethoven-Hauses Bonn, 12. Mai-4. Oktober 2015 (Bonn, [2015]) (A brief PDF guide to the exhibition that this book accompanied can be found here:)

21 February 2022

Beethoven exhibition update: some new arrivals from Berlin

We’ve had two very exciting additions to our Beethoven exhibition recently, in the form of loans from the Music Department and Mendelssohn Archive of the Berlin State Library – Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation.

With a big drumroll…

Detail from Beethoven's 9th symphony printed score

We are thrilled to announce that the autograph manuscript of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has arrived – its first time in the UK. The piece is often thought to be among Beethoven’s greatest achievements and, with its famous ‘Ode to Joy’ movement, one of his most immediately recognisable works. Its arrival in the UK is especially significant as the piece was first commissioned by the Philharmonic Society in London. It is even more of a privilege that the manuscript has been lent for the exhibition, since it became the first musical score to be added to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register in 2001.

A page from the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony autograph score
Autograph score of the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, p. 89. Beethoven, L. v. 2; Beethoven, L. v., Artaria 204. Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Musikabteilung mit Mendelssohn-Archiv.

The first complete score

The autograph score from Berlin represents the first complete manuscript of the symphony, committed to paper by Beethoven between 1822 and 1824. The pages on display show a climactic passage in the final part of the setting of the ‘Ode to Joy’, a poem by Friedrich Schiller celebrating universal friendship and equality.

How does it relate to London and the exhibition?

In November 1822 the Directors of the Philharmonic Society in London decided to offer Beethoven £50 for a new symphony for their season the next year: this was to become the Ninth. The minute books from that meeting are among the objects in the exhibition showing some of the realities behind the creation of famous works of art – a receipt, signed by Beethoven for his £50 fee, is another one. 

Opening showing the Minutes of the Directors of the Philharmonic Society, agreeing to offer Beethoven £50 for a new symphony
Minutes of the Directors of the Philharmonic Society, agreeing to offer Beethoven £50 for a new symphony. British Library RPS MS 280, f.2.

The commission was supposed to have given the Philharmonic Society the premiere of the new work and exclusive rights for 18 months after, but Beethoven in fact arranged for the first and second performances of the piece to be held in Vienna in May 1824.

A neat manuscript, prepared by copyists under Beethoven’s supervision and incorporating some changes in his hand was sent to London in fulfilment of the commission at some point in 1824, probably after those first Vienna performances. This, a star item from the Royal Philharmonic Society Archive, acquired by the British Library in 2002, is also on display in the exhibition: the first time the two manuscripts will have been side by side since 1824.

Side-by-side, the autograph manuscript of the Ninth Symphony together with the copy sent to the Philharmonic Society
Side-by-side, the autograph manuscript of the Ninth Symphony together with the copy sent to the Philharmonic Society. On the left: Beethoven, L. v. 2; Beethoven, L. v., Artaria 204. Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Musikabteilung mit Mendelssohn-Archiv, p. 89, and on the right: British Library, RPS MS 5, f. 143r.

Conversing with Beethoven

Another artefact on loan from Berlin, of no less significance in telling the story of Beethoven’s life, is one of the composer’s conversation books. By 1818 Beethoven’s hearing had deteriorated to such an extent that he carried with him a ‘conversation book’ so that his companions could write down their contribution to the dialogue. Beethoven normally replied verbally, so only one side of the conversation survives in most cases. The book on display dates from April 1824, with several visitors giving insights into an assortment of unconnected and unremarkable issues from Beethoven’s daily life. However, a musical excerpt in the composer’s hand appears on one of the pages on display, showing him explaining that the emphasis in the final line of the ‘Ode to Joy’ should be on the word ‘Sternen’ (‘stars’).

A page from one of Beethoven's conversation books with notes in pencil
A page from Konversationheft 61, on loan to the British Library from the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Musikabteilung mit Mendelssohn-Archiv. Beethoven, L. v. 51,59.
Persistent URL to digitised content:

Beethoven’s hearing loss

The conversation book joins several other items in the exhibition that help to illustrate Beethoven’s struggles with increasing deafness through his life. This theme is reflected in some of his own writings, in the accounts of people who met him and in a specially-created installation that allows visitors to experience Beethoven’s music through vibrations and visualisation.

Visit the exhibition!

Both loans had had to be postponed due to Covid-19 restrictions that were implemented before the opening of the exhibition in December 2021. Happily though, the loan has now been able to go ahead. With the exhibition open until Sunday 24 April, we hope as many people as possible get to see these iconic manuscripts from Berlin, alongside the diverse and surprising range of scores, letters and other artefacts from the British Library’s own collections.

Photograph from the British Library exhibition showing the section about the 9th symphony
Inside the British Library Beethoven: Idealist. Innovator. Icon exhibition. Photo by Chris Scobie.

Chris Scobie, Lead Curator, Music Manuscripts

07 February 2022

Conserving creativity – the case of Beethoven’s ‘Kafka’ sketch miscellany

In this blog post we look at a recent conservation project involving an important Beethoven manuscript known as the ‘Kafka’ sketch miscellany (Add MS 29801).

How did the manuscript come to be in the British Library?

The manuscript’s name comes from its previous owner, Johann Nepomuk Kafka (1819-1886), an Austrian pianist, composer and manuscript collector.

The British Museum bought it, together with a manuscript of Beethoven’s cadenza for the last movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor and some scores by Franz Schubert and Gioachino Rossini, in 1875 for a total of £323.

A page from the ‘Kafka’ sketch miscellany
A page from the ‘Kafka’ sketch miscellany, Add MS 29801, f. 88r

What is contained in the volume?

Although the ‘Kafka’ volume is sometimes referred to as a sketchbook, that is only really true of the first 37 folios, which would have originally formed a bound entity in their own right. This section dates from about 1811 and shows the in-demand Beethoven at work on music for the play Die Ruinen von Athen (‘The Ruins of Athens’) – now most famous for its overture and ‘turkish’ march.

Sketches in Beethoven's hand for the play ‘The Ruins of Athens’
Sketches for Beethoven’s music for the play ‘The Ruins of Athens’, Add MS 29801, f. 8r

The rest of the volume (ff. 39-165) is actually something of a jumble. The earliest of these pages date from about 1781 when Beethoven was just 11 years old. There are also examples from throughout his early life, charting his formative years, his move from Bonn to Vienna in 1792, and the period following that when he was busy establishing a name for himself.

Beethoven probably kept leaves like this unbound, perhaps revisiting them at different points in his life. It seems unlikely that he kept them in any kind of consistent order, but even if he had, they are unlikely to have retained it after his death. There was a lively market for manuscripts and mementos of the composer through the 19th century, and such relics changed hands frequently – often, sadly, with the result of related pages being separated and scattered among different owners.

An opening of Add MS 29801 showing vulnerable folia
An opening of Add MS 29801, showing leaves mounted on guards. Photograph by Zoë Miller.

This particular bundle of miscellaneous leaves were brought together with the 1811 sketchbook into a composite volume at some point after Beethoven’s death, with each individual folio eventually mounted on a small stub of paper (known as a guard) and bound together.

The contents of these pages range from relatively neat drafts of complete pieces – like this movement of a sonatina for mandolin and piano – to barely legible scribbles, capturing ideas quickly in a burst of inspiration.

A folio showing Beethoven developing ideas for an uncompleted song in C major
A folio showing Beethoven developing ideas for an uncompleted song in C major, Add MS 29801, f. 46v.

Many examples show initial musical ideas being worked over and over, developed on the page. Sometimes these ideas came to nothing, but other times they ended up as pieces we know today.

Beethoven’s creative process, and how it is reflected on paper, has been the subject of a lot of discussion over the years, but there is a useful introduction by Barry Cooper.

What was the conservation journey of the ‘Kafka’ volume?

The ‘Kafka’ volume was flagged for conservation attention in 2019 due to a number of pages displaying wear and tear along the edges. Of particular concern was the potential loss of Beethoven’s annotations at the extremities of sometimes fragile and weakening paper.

What were the challenges?

The range of different paper and ink types in the volume, as well as the jumbled nature of the contents, presented a varied situation though, and meant that careful consideration and close collaboration between curators and conservators was important. Whatever we did needed to balance a respect for the object and its history with long-term preservation needs.

The general approach to treatment was to make the volume fit for purpose but with minimal intervention. So, we took a targeted approach, retaining the structure of the object but identifying vulnerable leaves where the paper was particularly weak or worn at the edges, or where text was in danger of being gradually worn away.

Image showing vulnerable and exposed paper at the fore-edge of the volume.
Vulnerable and exposed paper at the fore-edge of the volume. Photograph by Zoë Miller.
Image showing a fragile leaf on removal from its guard, prior to repair work.
A fragile leaf on removal from its guard, prior to repair work. Photograph by Zoë Miller.

Another factor we considered was how the volume is used, both now and in the future. It had already been digitised, and a facsimile and transcription of the contents were published in the 1970s, and these have helped reduce the number of times the volume is handled for study.

What’s next for this iconic manuscript?

As an iconic manuscript in public ownership, it is something that we want to be able to display periodically, both at the British Library and occasionally on loan to other institutions.

Given the disparate content there are many possibilities as to what might be chosen to be exhibited. The fact that the manuscript is bound means either displaying the whole volume or else needing to lift individual leaves from the guards. The latter is certainly possible, but not something to be undertaken regularly or repeatedly. In prioritising leaves for conservation work, we took into account the likelihood of use in future displays.

Image showing work in progress inside the British Library Conservation Centre.
Work in progress – inside the British Library Conservation Centre. Photograph by Zoë Miller.

As well as some small paper repairs to support areas of fragile ink and small tears to the edges of some folia, the main solution was to remove the identified leaves from the original guards and hinge them onto a sheet of archival handmade paper with fine Japanese tissue.

Image showing Add MS 29801 after work to create support pages.
Add MS 29801 after work to create support pages. Photograph by Zoë Miller.
Detail showing the new support pages.
Detail showing the new support pages. Photograph by Zoë Miller.

This both helps to reduce direct handling of the manuscript pages and to create a buffer between the inks, which themselves can have a deteriorating effect over time. Additionally, this treatment will help make it easier for particular folios to be removed from the volume for display without damage or disruption in a sufficiently stable condition to withstand transport and display requirements.

Finally, a custom–made drop back box was constructed to better support the volume while in storage, providing a buffer against the environment and a safe way to transport it.

This conservation work was undertaken with generous support from the Idlewild Trust and has meant that several leaves from this unique volume are now on display in our exhibition Beethoven: Idealist. Innovator. Icon. – open until Sunday 24 April 2022.

Selected pages of this volume are also featured on our Discovering Music webspace, where you can find out more about it – and images of all 162 folios are available to view up on Digitised Manuscripts.

Inside the British Library Beethoven exhibition
Inside the British Library Beethoven exhibition. Image credit: Justine Trickett


Zoë Miller, Conservation Team Leader

Chris Scobie, Lead Curator, Music Manuscripts

04 August 2021

Digitised Manuscripts from the Royal Music Library

In the last year we digitised nearly 40 manuscript volumes from the Royal Music Library, including autographs by Agostino Steffani, J.C. Bach, Alessandro Scarlatti, and other composers.

Among the manuscripts digitised are 24 volumes with works by Agostino Steffani (1654-1728), who served as Kapellmeister and diplomat at the court of Duke Ernst August of Hanover from 1688 until 1703. The manuscripts in the Royal Music Library, some of which are in his own hand, are thought to have been brought from Hanover to England by King George I. They include numerous volumes with Steffani's chamber duets and operas, which survive in their original bindings.

The binding of volume X of Agostino Steffani’s 13-volume set of vocal duets The opening of the duet ‘Gia tu parti’ in Steffani’s own hand

The original leather binding of volume X of Agostino Steffani’s 13-volume set of vocal duets, and folio 59r with the opening of the duet ‘Gia tu parti’ in Steffani’s own hand. British Library R.M.23.k.18.

Original binding of Agostino Steffani’s opera La superbia d’Alessandro
The volume with the 1st Act of Agostino Steffani’s opera La superbia d’Alessandro (1691) in its original leather binding. British Library R.M.23.f.12.

All surviving volumes of Steffani’s 13-volume set of vocal duets at R.M.23.k.13-20 have now been digitised, with volumes R.M.23.k.16-20 available to view via our Archives and Manuscripts catalogue and Universal Viewer. The operas by Steffani that have been digitised include the Hanoverian operas La Superbia d’Alessandro, Orlando Generoso and Henrico Leone (the latter is available to view on our Digitised Manuscripts portal).

Other manuscripts that were digitised include autographs by Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782), music master to Queen Charlotte from 1763 to 1782, including his 3-act opera Artaserse from 1761 (R.M.22.a.18-20), and two Te Deum in D major (R.M.22.a.14, R.M.22.a.15) and Magnificat in C major  (R.M.22.a.11 and R.M.22.a.13).

Opening page of J.C. Bach’s Magnificat in C major in the composer’s hand
Opening page of J.C. Bach’s Magnificat in C major in the composer’s hand. British Library R.M.22.a.13, f.1v.

Also digitised is a volume with 12 autograph symphonies by Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725) (R.M.21.b.14).

Opening page of Alessandro Scarlatti’s Sinfonia Prima
Opening page of Alessandro Scarlatti’s Sinfonia Prima & Concerto grosso con due flauti. British Library R.M.21.b.14, f.1r.

Other highlights include autographs by Francesco Bianchi (1752-1810), and François Hippolyte Barthélémon (1741-1808), the opera Semiramide by Francesco Araja (1709-1770), and volumes with operatic arias and duets by Steffani, Pietro Torri (1650-1737), and Benedetto Marcello (1686-1739).

Title page of Francesco Araja’s opera Semiramide riconosciuta
Title page of Francesco Araja’s opera Semiramide riconosciuta stating his position as 'Maestro di Capella' at the court of Empress Anna Iovanovna at St. Petersburg in 1737.
The volume is preserved in its original velvet binding and with the note ‘this volume belongs to the Queen 1788’ on the flyleaf which we find marked on a number of volumes in the Royal Music Library that belonged to Queen Charlotte. British Library R.M.22.a.6.

Alongside the digitised autograph Handel manuscripts in the Royal Music Library, the digitisation of these volumes is helping to highlight examples of well-represented composers in this collection and their autograph manuscripts, and also preserve manuscripts that survive in their original, and quite often fragile bindings.

08 December 2020

Celebrating Beethoven: a new online exhibition on Discovering Music

We are pleased to announce a new Discovering Music space on 19th-century music, which launches now with an exhibition celebrating the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth.

Discovering Music 19th century

The exhibition features 27 collection items, including several manuscripts in Beethoven’s own hand, as well as articles written by experts in the field, and much related content!

Find out more about the composition history and context of some of Beethoven’s most celebrated works, including his ‘Pastoral’ and Ninth symphonies, his violin concerto, and several of his piano and chamber music works.

The opening of Beethoven’s Symphony no.9 in D minor op.125
The opening of Beethoven’s Symphony no.9 in D minor op.125. RPS MS 5

The space also offers insights into Beethoven’s compositional processes that formed his music, for which evidence may be found in his intricate and notoriously difficult to decipher sketchbooks.

Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony sketchbook. At the bottom of the page Beethoven has written: 'Sinfonia caracteristica oder Erinnerungen an das Landleben' (‘Characteristic symphony, or memories of country life’).
Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony sketchbook. At the bottom of the page Beethoven has written: 'Sinfonia caracteristica oder Erinnerungen an das Landleben' (‘Characteristic symphony, or memories of country life’). Add MS 31766.
Folio 87r from the ‘Kafka’ sketch miscellany showing the opening of a sonata for mandolin and keyboard WoO 47.
Folio 87r from the ‘Kafka’ sketch miscellany showing the opening of a sonata for mandolin and keyboard WoO 47. Add MS 29801.

The space also features collection items reflecting Beethoven’s career as a keyboard performer, personal items such as his tuning fork; as well as collection items reflecting both the inspiration and consolation he found in nature and the mental and physical struggles arising from his debilitating loss of hearing.

Beethoven’s cadenza for the last movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor (K. 466).
Beethoven’s cadenza for the last movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor (K. 466). Beethoven is known to have admired Mozart’s D minor concerto, and it is possible that he performed it in a benefit concert for Mozart’s widow, Constanze, in 1795. Add MS 29803

Also featured on the space are People pages for musicians that Beethoven collaborated with as well as famous literary figures who inspired his music, such as Goethe and Schiller.

This single leaf of sketches contains Beethoven’s initial musical ideas for the song ‘Die Trommel gerühret’ from his incidental music to Goethe’s play Egmont.
This single leaf of sketches contains Beethoven’s initial musical ideas for the song ‘Die Trommel gerühret’ from his incidental music to Goethe’s play Egmont. Zweig MS 8.

You can explore our Beethoven holdings further by visiting our Digitised Manuscripts and Explore catalogues of printed, audio and manuscript music.

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.  ‘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 []).

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’,


[1] Editorial comment, ‘The Letters of Ralph Vaughan Williams’, Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Leslie Boosey, 6 August 1933, letter number 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<>, 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, <> , 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, <>, retrieved 28 August 2020.

Dominic Newman, Manuscripts Cataloguer


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