Music blog

67 posts categorized "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


05 October 2020

Digitising Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius at the Birmingham Oratory

Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, a setting of Cardinal John Henry Newman’s poem of the same name for voices and orchestra, is an important work that sealed Elgar's reputation as a composer of international significance. With its references to Catholic doctrine concerning Mary, Mother of God and Purgatory, it is also strongly connected to Elgar’s background as a Roman Catholic, and proved controversial in its early performances. Despite the significance of the work, the manuscript has been historically difficult to access, as it was donated by Elgar to the Oratory of St Philip Neri in Birmingham.

Dr Joanna Bullivant of the University of Oxford has therefore organised a project with the British Library, the National Institute of Newman Studies, USA, and the National Trust (who run the Elgar Birthplace Museum) to digitise and curate the manuscript for scholars and the general public. As well as digitising the manuscript and making it available online, the project involves developing new expert commentary for the British Library Discovering Music pages and organising a series of events with school children. The manuscript score together with related Newman manuscripts at the Birmingham Oratory were digitised by Eugenio Falcioni who writes about the process and special techniques used during digitisation, whilst Joanna Bullivant comments about the manuscripts and their significance for research.

Photograph of the Birmingham Oratory Church

Photograph of the Birmingham Oratory Library Photograph of the Cardinal Newman room at the The Birmingham Oratory
The Church, Library, and Cardinal Newman Room at the Birmingham Oratory. Photos by Eugenio Falcioni

The British Library on-location digitisation service

The British Library has offered on-location digitisation services to external customers for some time. For these customers, an on-location service is usually preferable due to the precious nature of their collection items, or in some cases, because they are too fragile or bulky to be sent to the London studio.

To fulfil an on-location job, an experienced heritage photographer will travel to the location of the item(s) along with state of the art photographic equipment and a number of digitisation and collection care tools approved by conservation experts at The British Library.

The digitisation of Elgar’s original score and the two Newman manuscripts of The Dream of Gerontius at The Birmingham Oratory is a prestigious example of this service. The Newman manuscripts consist of the author’s rough draft of his poem and the first autograph fair copy. The Elgar manuscript is the autograph score used in the first performance. All these documents contain myriad rich details that give insight into the history of poem and music: not only crossings-out, corrections, and notes on performance, but also Elgar’s remarks on the weather and the signatures of everyone involved in the first performance.

The digitisation process of the Elgar and Newman manuscripts at the Birmingham Oratory

The project, carried out in March 2020, took four days of intense work, capturing every page of the manuscripts. This process may seem straightforward, but involves many crucial aspects, such as transport and setup of various specialist equipment; extreme care in handling the original manuscripts; a technically flawless photographic process; and consistent image management. These elements are crucial in delivering the finest digitised product to the customer in a relatively short time.

Photograph of the temporary digitisation workstation setup at the Birmingham OratorySetup of the temporary digitisation workstation at the Birmingham Oratory. Photo by Eugenio Falcioni

Fortunately, the three manuscripts were all in excellent condition, which made the imaging process quite smooth and without any particular hitches. 

Having the opportunity to work on such important items, in a fascinating place like The Birmingham Oratory, is enough for a photographer to feel satisfied. But what made this project really interesting and challenging from a photographic point of view was the fact that a number of pages in Elgar’s manuscript score had been covered with additional sheets, glued over parts of the original score. Elgar did this where he made emendations to the musical text in the form of adding bars or material for particular parts. As a painstaking editor of his music for performance, it was common for Elgar to want to make these kinds of changes.

Reading the information covered by this layer of paper is almost impossible with the naked eye. Even by magnifying the new digital images it was difficult to see anything. Given the great interest in uncovering the original information and the importance of the manuscript, following the normal imaging process, I undertook a special imaging cycle to try to reveal the hidden text. A couple of attempts were made using an infrared camera and subsequently trying to illuminate the manuscript under ultraviolet torches, but both proved unsuccessful. As a last attempt, the technique of 'transmitted light' finally revealed the original hidden text.

Photograph showing the transmitted light technique for the digitisation of a Newman manuscript Photograph showing the transmitted light technique for the digitisation of a Newman manuscript with the light placed behind the manuscript page and the camera on the other side
Applying the transmitted light technique on a Newman manuscript at the Birmingham Oratory with the light placed behind the manuscript page and the camera on the other side. Photos by Eugenio Falcioni

Transmitted light is a photographic technique where only one lighting source is placed at the back of the photographed object, making it possible to photograph the passage of light through it. This technique is mainly used on supports like paper or canvas that don’t completely block the light and is often used at the BL to capture watermarks in paper documents. The technique itself is not particularly complicated, although it requires a good mastery of the lighting systems and particular care in leafing through the original document. It is essential to have no other sources of light apart from the photographers' lamp, to avoid unnecessary light pollution that may affect the output. The lamp must also be placed at a reasonable distance from the photographed page, so as not to transmit any heat.

Uncovering hidden text in Elgar’s score

By back-lighting the pages of Elgar’s manuscript it was possible to reveal the information contained on its inner side. At first sight it would seem that much of the covered information is now legible, albeit with some difficulty due to the overlapping of the scores. Although Elgar probably never imagined that anyone would uncover the music he attempted to conceal, it was a privilege to use my photographic skills to help scholars further understand the context and meaning of his work.

The final step of the process was a patient post-production effort, carried out to emphasize the contrast of the ink recovered. This resulted in being able to distinguish the overlapping scores from each other to make it more visible to those who wish to study it. While there is no lost aria or the secret of the ‘Enigma’ Variations concealed beneath the glued-down corrections, they reveal a more quotidian but no less important side of Elgar.

By tracing the minute alterations made as the work reached its final version, we witness the composer’s working methods, his attention to detail, and his sensitivity to the impact of the work in performance.

Page 35 from Elgar's score of The Dream of Gerontius score Page 35 from Elgar's score of The Dream of Gerontius with the transmitted light technique

Detail from page 35 of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius

Elgar’s score of The Dream of Gerontius at the Birmingham Oratory. The transmitted light photographic technique reveals the hidden text on page 35 of the score. Images by Eugenio Falcioni. Reproduced with kind permission from The Fathers of the Birmingham Oratory.

Fully digitized versions of the Elgar and Newman manuscripts in IIIF can be viewed on the NINS website.

Written by Eugenio Falcioni, Senior Imaging Technician, The British Library, and Dr Joanna Bullivant, Lecturer, University of Oxford Faculty of Music

02 September 2020

Digitised Music Manuscripts

During the last few months we have been actively publishing music manuscripts on Digitised Manuscripts. Approximately 60 digitised manuscripts are listed below grouped in rough chronological order. Highlights include: The ‘Cosyn’ and ‘Forster’ virginal books and autographs by Purcell; Henry Lawes; Haydn; Thomas Arne; Rossini; Mendelssohn; Verdi; Arthur Sullivan; Berlioz; Gounod; Liszt; Offenbach; Mahler; and Elgar.

16th-century music manuscripts

A collection of motets, masses, Te Deum, and Kyrie, in four volumes, by English composers (Add MS 17802; Add MS 17803; Add MS 17804; Add MS 17805); A collection of services, anthems, and a few part-songs, for five voices, by English composers (Add MS 30480; Add MS 30481; Add MS 30482; Add MS 30483; Add MS 30484); A collection of sacred compositions in parts (Add MS 32377); A collection of parts of masses, motets, and services (Add MS 34191); A miscellany of Middle English verse, including ballads by Chaucer and Lydgate; 'The Flyting of Montgomerie and Polwart' by Alexander Montgomerie; 'Nebuchadnezzar's Fierie Furnace'; the 'Annals of Oskell'; grammatical exercises in Latin and Greek; and Old songs of Durham (Harley MS 7578); Masses and motets, in parts, by Nicolas Ludford (Royal Appendix MS 45; Royal Appendix MS 46; Royal Appendix MS 47; Royal Appendix MS 48); A collection of largely sacred music of English origin, composed for instruments and voice (Royal Appendix MS 74; Royal Appendix MS 75; Royal Appendix MS 76); A collection of French and Italian compositions by anonymous authors (Royal Appendix MS 55); A collection of frottole, strambotti, and odes, with music for four voices, by Italian composers of the 15th and early 16th century (Egerton MS 3051).

Opening page from a Te deum from the Cantus part-book.
A Te deum from the Cantus part-book, Add MS 30480, f. 4r.

17th-century music manuscripts

A volume with miscellaneous writings, ornamented with initials, portraits of saints, royal arms, etc. including songs with lute accompaniment in tablature (Add MS 4900); A volume with keyboard and lyra viol music (Add MS 63852); The Cosyn Virginal Book (R.M.23.l.4); The Forster Virginal Book (R.M.24.d.3); The autograph of Henry Purcell’s The Yorkshire Feast Song (Egerton MS 2956); The Henry Lawes Music Manuscript (Add MS 53723); Canons for 4 voices to the first lines of the Psalms (Vulgate version), by Sydrach Rahel, with a dedication, in French , to James I (Royal Appendix MS 64).

Image from The Cosyn Virginal Book
The Cosyn Virginal Book. R.M.23.l.4, f. 2r
Opening page from Purcell's The Yorkshire Feast Song
Henry Purcell’s The Yorkshire Feast Song. Egerton MS 2956, f.1r

18th-century music manuscripts

Original letters of Joseph Haydn (Egerton MS 2380); Sonatas, suites and other works for keyboard instrument by G. F. Handel and other composers (MS Mus. 1587); A collection of anthems, in score, by G.F. Handel (Add MS 30309); The Chandos Music Manuscripts (Add MS 62099; Add MS 62100; Add MS 62101; Add MS 62102; Add MS 62103); A collection of songs, excerpts from operas, and an anthem, by Thomas Arne (Add MS 29370); Autograph cantatas by Antonio Caldara (Add MS 31549); Sonatas for the viola-da-gamba by Carl Friedrich Abel (Add MS 31697); 19th century letters and papers relating to the ownership of the Mozart string quartets in Add MS 37763-37765 (Add MS 37766).

Letter from Joseph Haydn to the music printer William Forster
Letter from Joseph Haydn to the music printer William Forster. Egerton MS 2380, f. 3r

19th-century music manuscripts

Selected autograph vocal pieces by Gioacchino Rossini (Add MS 30246); Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s autograph of his String Quartet in E flat (Add MS 30900); The Scherzo, Notturno, and Wedding March from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night's Dream arranged by the composer for piano (Egerton MS 2955); Giuseppe Verdi’s autograph of his opera Attila (Add MS 35156); The autograph of Robert Schumann's piano sonata in F minor (Add MS 37056); Charles François Gounod’s Messe Solennelle (Add MS 37639); The autograph score of Arthur Sullivan’s operetta The Gondoliers (Add MS 53779); Letters from Hector Berlioz to members of his family (Add MS 56237); Songs by Thomas Moore arranged by Henry Bishop and others (Add MS 19569); Songs with piano accompaniment by Hortense Bonaparte, wife of Louis Bonaparte, King of Holland (Add MS 30148); 19th-century copy of The ‘Lamentabatur Jacob' by Cristobal Morales, and a setting of ‘Incipit Lamentatio Hieremiæ’ by Thomas Tallis (Add MS 34070); Autograph compositions by Franz Liszt (Add MS 34182); The musical autograph album of Eliza Wesley, containing short pieces, inscriptions and signatures of numerous composers, musicians, and singers (Add MS 35026); Miscellaneous autograph compositions by various composers (Add MS 38070); Music by Michael Haydn and Carl Maria von Weber (Add MS 41634); Airs from the cantatas and other works of J.S. Bach, arranged by Robert Franz for alto and tenor voices with pianoforte accompaniment (Add MS 41635); Jacques Offenbach’s autograph score of his comic opera Fantasio (Add MS 42064); Miscellaneous music, partly autograph, by various 18th- and 19th-century composers (Add MS 47860).

Opening page from Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E flat.
Autograph of Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E flat. Add MS 30900.


Musical quotation from ‘Amami Alfredo’ from Verdi’s opera La traviata in the composer’s autograph
Musical quotation from ‘Amami Alfredo’ from Verdi’s opera La traviata in the composer’s autograph. Add MS 35026, f. 69r

Early 20th-century music manuscripts

Cancelled folio from the draft orchestral full score of the third movement, ‘Rondo-Burleske’, of Gustav Mahler's Symphony no.9 in D major (MS Mus. 97); Sketches and drafts by Edward Elgar (Add MS 49973 B).

Cancelled folio from Mahler’s draft orchestral full score of his Symphony no.9 in D major
Cancelled folio from Mahler’s draft orchestral full score of his Symphony no.9 in D major. Third movement, ‘Rondo-Burleske’. MS Mus. 97.


29 June 2020

Innovations in music notation in late medieval Syria: British Library manuscript Or. 13019

The Qatar Digital Library (QDL) is a collaboration between the British Library and the Qatar National Library, in which historical records from the former India Office are being catalogued and digitised, along with Arabic manuscripts on scientific topics from the British Library’s collection. Music theory has always been considered a scientific pursuit by Arabic scholars – as it had been by Plato and Pythagoras – on account of the mathematical nature of topics such as intervals, modes, rhythm, transposition, and tonal relationships.

Musical manuscripts digitised for the QDL so far include a copy of a commentary on an influential theoretical treatise, the Book of Cycles (Kitāb al-adwār) by Ṣafī al-Dīn al-Urmawī (d. 1294) (Add MS 7471, ff. 41v-92r), a work on the construction of musical instruments (Or. 9649), a cosmological treatise on music (Add MS 23494), and a recently-catalogued copy of the Kitāb al-inʻām bi-maʻrifat al-anghām (Book of Generosity on the Understanding of Melodies; Or. 13019) by the 16th-century music theorist Shams al-Dīn al-Ṣaydāwī. [Note that although this manuscript has been digitised it is not yet available to view on the Qatar Digital Library.]

The Kitāb al-inʻām is a short text in verse, remarkable for its presentation of an innovative and apparently unique system of music notation. It is also a feast for the eyes: both its text and its many diagrams are copied using a range of brightly-coloured inks which are not merely decorative, but rather an inherent aspect of this notation system. While several other copies of this text are known, the QDL’s high resolution, full-colour digitisation is a first, allowing its fundamental aesthetic and graphic features to be appreciated on an accessible digital platform for the first time.

Opening page of the treatise Or 13019 in Arabic script
Figure 1: Or 13019, f. 1v, opening of the treatise

Little is known about the author, although his name indicates origins in Ṣaydā (Sidon) in today’s Lebanon. His dates are uncertain, but he may have died in Damascus in 1506, which would mean that Or. 13019 – dated to 906 in the Islamic hijrī calendar (equivalent to 1501 CE) – was produced within his lifetime, as well as being the earliest known surviving copy. Ownership marks recorded on folio 1r indicate predominantly Syrian owners over the centuries. It was bought by the British Museum in 1966.

Following an introduction [fig. 1], al-Ṣaydāwī opens the treatise by outlining the four fundamental musical modes (called ‘uṣūl’) used in his time: Rāst, ʻIrāq, Zīrāfkand and Iṣfahān. Modes are constructed of sets of tetrachords which may be present within more than one of them, establishing complex familial relationships between them. From each of these four basic modes, two further ‘branch’ modes (furūʻ) are derived, which maintain a musical relationship with their ‘parents’. In addition to these groups of four and eight, al-Ṣaydāwī also enumerates six secondary modes called awāzāt, each of which is likewise related to two of the twelve fundamental and branch modes already outlined.

Or 13019, f. 9v, depicting the fundamental mode Rāst, and its branch modes Zankulā and `Ushshāq using a stave-like diagram of eight labelled parallel horizontal lines enclosed within a circular frame
Figure 2: Or 13019, f. 9v, depicting the fundamental mode Rāst, and its branch modes Zankulā and `Ushshāq

To present these modes and describe further aspects of their performance, al-Ṣaydāwī uses a stave-like diagram [fig. 2] of eight labelled parallel horizontal lines enclosed within a circular frame, representing the degrees of the scale (buḥūr). The lowest pitch is indicated on the bottom line, and the highest (an octave above) on the second-highest line (the uppermost line in each diagram is a framing device and not indicative of a note).

Or 13019, f. 7r, description of colours used in the stave diagram
Figure 3: Or 13019, f. 7r, description of colours used in the stave diagram

Al-Ṣaydāwī follows established convention in using Persian terms to describe these notes as yekgāh (first position), dūgāh (second position), etc. However, he innovates in additionally colour-coding each line, with the eighth line from the bottom the same colour as the lowest, as the notes represented are an octave apart (the uppermost line in the diagrams is only a frame). The specific colours are described in the introduction to the text [fig. 3].

Al-Ṣaydāwī goes on to outline a system for representing notes above and below the basic octave, independently of this graphic stave. To do this, a table [fig. 4] presents colour-coded Arabic alphanumeric abjad letters indicating microtonal intervals. These notes are paired with a ‘question’ and ‘response’ concept indicating further notes, at fixed intervals of separation totalling an octave, and allowing the total range of notation to be expanded.

Or 13019_f.13v, table of notation beyond the basic octave
Figure 4: Or 13019, f. 13v, table of notation beyond the basic octave

The second unique aspect of al-Ṣaydāwī’s work is a notational system applied to the stave diagram which, in combination with instructions in the text, indicates aspects of the performance of the mode [fig. 5]. The letter mīm (م), standing for ma’khadh (مأخذ, meaning ‘place from which one takes something’) is written on the starting note/line of the mode and in the same colour, on the left of the diagram. The mode’s final note – often also its tonal centre – is indicated with the word rakz (with the sense of ‘setting, fixing’), written on the corresponding line, to the right.

Or 13019, 10v, instructions for playing Zīrāfkand
Figure 5: Or 13019, 10v, instructions for playing Zīrāfkand

The instruction iṣʻad (اصعد, ‘ascend’) in red, denotes a transition to a higher pitch. Conversely, a yellow letter hāʼ (ھ, from the root هبط, ‘descent’) indicates a transition to a lower pitch. These ascents or descents must be performed note-by-note (bi-al-tartīb) if the letter ‘tā’’ (ت, in red) is written next to the note towards which the pitch ascends or descends, whereas the player should jump directly to that pitch if iṣʻad or hāʼ is written with a long ‘tail’. Other abbreviations indicate additional aspects of performance such as prolongation, staccato articulation, and trill-like ornamentation.

This work presents difficulties of interpretation due to the poetic text and some ambiguity in terminology. For example, yekgāh, meaning the first note of the scale, also indicates the particular mode which starts on that note, i.e. rāst, while buḥūr also has variant meanings. Similarly, while the word maqām these days means ‘mode’ in general, in al-Ṣaydāwī’s time it still retained a more literal meaning of ‘placement’. Furthermore, the meaning of some of the notational abbreviations is unclear; some of the diagrams in the extant copies appear unlabelled and unfinished; and Or. 13019 lacks at least one folio (between the present folios 11v and 12r).

Al-Ṣaydāwī’s musical notation remains a fascinating and enigmatic theoretical experiment, unique of its time. While it permitted a wide range of notes to be succinctly conveyed, their relationships to each other expressed, and an unprecedented level of codified performance detail to be indicated, no later texts are known to have developed this system further.

Jenny Norton-Wright

Arabic Scientific Manuscripts Curator, British Library Qatar Project


Antar, Thérèse B. (translation and commentary), Exploitation de la couleur en musique: Livre de la connaissance des tons et leur explication. Mouhammad Chams al-Din al-Saydawi al-Dimachqi (Beirut: Presse Chemaly and Chemaly, 2001).

Ghrab, Anas, 'Livre de la générosite dans la connaisance des modes: Edition et traduction (Unpublished thesis submitted for the Diplôme d'études approfondies, Université Lumiere-Lyon, 2002).

Shiloah, A. and A. Berthier, 'A propos d’un "petit livre arabe de musique"', in Revue de musicologie, 71.1 (1985), pp. 164-77.


05 July 2019

The Susan Bradshaw Papers: Archive of an Insightful Communicator

The archive of Susan Bradshaw (1931-2005) is now catalogued and available for consultation in the Library’s Rare Books and Music Reading Room. Proceeds from the British Library's purchase of the archive went towards the Royal Philharmonic Society's establishment of the Susan Bradshaw Composers’ Fund, as arranged by Brian Elias, composer and Bradshaw's close friend.

Susan Bradshaw at the piano_MS Mus.1755-6-1
Susan Bradshaw, London, September 1971. © Unknown photographer
(BL MS Mus. 1755/6/1, f. 30)

Susan Bradshaw pianist, teacher and writer on music, was born in Monmouth on 8 September 1931. After spending time in India and Egypt during her childhood, where her father’s work in the army had taken their family, Bradshaw embarked on learning piano and violin. She later studied at the Royal Academy of Music with Harold Craxton (piano) and Howard Ferguson (composition). Then, in 1957, Bradshaw seized the chance to expand her musical world, taking up a French Government Scholarship to study composition with modernist figurehead, Pierre Boulez, and Max Deutsch in Paris.

Bradshaw’s student ID card_MS Mus.1755-4-3
One of Susan Bradshaw’s student ID cards for her French Government Scholarship year
(BL MS Mus. 1755/4/3, f. 259)

That year in France proved a catalyst for melding musical partnerships and alliances. Bradshaw formed a piano duo with her close friend Richard Rodney Bennett, and the Mabillon Trio with Philip Jones (oboe) and William Bennett (flute). However, the year in France signalled the decline of her activity as a composer, and on her return to the UK, Bradshaw moved her energy to accompaniment and performance.

Bradshaw was an ardent advocate of new music. She helped contemporary composers by including them in ensemble programming, promoting new works with first performances and using broadcasts to share what she recognised as important and progressive about such music. Concert ephemera, cuttings from radio show advertisements and draft programme scripts in her papers record her efforts and enthusiasm.

Composers’ Guild of Great Britain award_MS Mus.1755-4-4
The Composers’ Guild of Great Britain presented Susan Bradshaw with a special award of Instrumentalist of the Year, for her services to the music of living British composers. (BL MS Mus. 1755/4/4, f. 209)

Inside Bradshaw’s Archive

Bradshaw’s archive reflects the breadth of her own musical experience and contains:

  • Draft scores of over thirty of Bradshaw’s compositions, largely from the period 1951-1958
  • Drafts of her writings on music, on individual composers/works/musical aesthetics
  • A collection of printed materials compiled by Bradshaw into composer information files
  • Scrapbooks and collected programmes, tracing Bradshaw’s musical career
  • Select correspondence from composers and friends
  • A box of 60th birthday tributes: musical compositions, letters and cards
  • Publicity photographs and documents relating to her wider musical involvements.
The Mabillon Trio by Milein Cosman_1755-4-3
The Mabillon Trio, drawn by Milein Cosman (Susan Bradshaw, piano; Philip Jones, oboe; William Bennet, flute). (BL MS Mus. 1755/4/3, f. 3: Mabillon Trio programme)

Related Resources at the British Library

Many items in the British Library Sound Archive complement and enhance the vibrant resource of Bradshaw’s paper archive. Examples include:

  • A recording of Bradshaw’s Eight Hungarian Folksongs, broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 1978. Catalogue reference: M7663.
  • Susan Bradshaw’s talk with recorded illustrations, In search of Pierre Boulez, given at the National Sound Archive in their Spring Lectures, 1985. Catalogue reference: B627/1.
  • A recording of an event dedicated to the music and literary work of Lord Berners, Lord Berners: an entertainment in words and music, 1972. Susan Bradshaw and John Betjeman both performed at this. Catalogue reference: T706, M5087.
  • William Bennett and Susan Bradshaw performing Boulez’s Sonatine for flute and piano. Catalogue reference: 2LP0048923; 1LP0073897.

Translating the ‘Shapes and Sounds’ of Composers’ Imaginings [1]

Bradshaw was well-positioned to act as a mediator between composers and audiences. She had a deep understanding of musical composition, performance and analysis, and used her knowledge of all three to interpret the works she encountered and to bring composers’ imaginings to life. Bradshaw believed that these three strands of musical endeavour were inter-related, and mutually nourishing. She appreciated that each was essential for advanced musical understanding, and furthermore, that the true product of this understanding was the communication of meaning. Whether that communication was musical (in performance), linguistic (for example, in academic writing), or pedagogical, Bradshaw saw the need to balance emotional experience with enquiry:

Passionate involvement precedes – must precede – cool appraisal; but when narcissistic pleasure starts to cancel out enquiry, when the sense of striving to understand and to reveal ceases to be the outcome of delight, when wonder becomes complacency, then great art becomes commonplace in the mind of the beholder and creation and recreation lapse into mere repetition. [2]

Bradshaw’s influence on the musical world can be seen in the archive. To trace it, one might begin with her scrapbook programmes (signalling, for example, her involvement with the Darmstadt International Summer Courses) and move to the exchange of ideas with fellow musicians in her correspondence, before visiting the vividly-expressed opinions in her writings.

New Ways of Hearing: “Untuning the Tempered Scale” [3]

The catastrophic destruction brought about by two world wars permeated all aspects of social existence; many composers felt that the old musical systems were inadequate for the development of the art. In a parallel to the destruction of societal structures through war, it was as if the hierarchies of the diatonic tonal system had to be broken down also. Composers looked to expand the resources available to them – the boundaries between music and noise blurred, and the number of notes in the conventional system increased with experiments in microtonality.

As musical modernism turned from the tradition of western diatonic tonality, it wrenched audiences from their familiar sound worlds. To the modernist composers, the rules and patterns of diatonic harmony represented predictability and constraint. Bradshaw’s broadcasting demonstrates her use of radio as a medium to promote modern music but also to challenge audiences to question the nature of listening: Why do we listen to music? What function does it have in our lives? She strove to help listeners navigate contemporary music, pointing out features and techniques, and highlighting composers’ search for truth in music.

As an individual whose influence and reach in the contemporary classical music scene was extensive, and well-evidenced in her archive, it is fitting for her papers to sit alongside those of many composers and musicians who so appreciated her support, here at the British Library.


Sarah Ellis, Archivist and Cataloguer of the Susan Bradshaw Papers (MS Mus. 1755)


[1] Susan Bradshaw, untitled (London, British Library, MS Mus. 1755/2/3, f. 152, undated).

[2] Susan Bradshaw, draft letter to the editor of Music Analysis journal (London, British Library, MS Mus 1755/2/3 ff. 45-46, undated).

[3] Susan Bradshaw, untitled (London, British Library, MS Mus. 1755/2/3, f. 152, undated).

02 October 2018

Welcome to Discovering Music

    The British Library has the pleasure of bringing you an exciting free educational resource providing unparalleled access to our music collection: Discovering Music.

   Aimed at A level students, teachers, undergraduates and the general public, the site features manuscript and printed sources as well as recordings to support the study of particular music topics. The site also sheds light on the historical, political and cultural contexts in which key musical works were composed and musicians operated.

MS. Mus. 1810 - Debussy - f01r - Article 3Claude Debussy (1911) 'Brouillards', from Préludes, Book 2 British Library Shelfmark MS Mus. 1810

The first stage focuses on music from the early 20th century, while other periods will be explored in the future. This present web space highlights some of the Library’s most treasured collection items, in high-resolution digitised images, including manuscripts by Benjamin Britten, Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Frederick Delius, Gustav Holst, Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel, Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and others. In addition, the site features a rich range of contextual material, including letters, notebooks, illustrations, newspapers, photographs and other forms of ephemera. 

You can explore this exciting web space from different angles: Themes, Collection items, Works and People. These gravitate around the centrepiece of Discovering Music, an exciting series of articles:

BThe Second Viennese School: Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern
Mark Berry introduces the three composers labelled as key members of the ‘Second Viennese School’, each influential in his own way on musical modernism throughout the remainder of the 20th century.

Music and the creative process: Elgar’s Third Symphony
The composer Anthony Payne, who completed Elgar’s unfinished Third Symphony, describes Elgar’s compositional methods as seen in the surviving sketches for this work at the British Library.

Delius in performance
Joanna Bullivant explores how Delius’s compositions were brought to life by various interpreters. Did he give his performers enough information? How important are the contributions made by the famous musicians with whom he worked: the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, the pianists Theodor Szántó and Evlyn Howard-Jones, and the violinist May Harrison?

Folksong revival in the early 20th century
Eric Saylor surveys the social contexts and musical impact of the folksong revival in the early 20th century.

Ballet in Paris in the early 20th century
Jane Pritchard discusses the ballet companies and their artists who were active in Paris in the early 20th century.

BBritish composers in the early 20th century
Jeremy Dibble gives an overview of British composers in the early 20th century and their context.

Delius, Paris, Grez
Lionel Carley explores Delius’s long association with France, and how the distinctive landscapes of Paris and Grez-sur-Loing inspired some of his most famous scores.

Exploring Elgar's 'Enigma' Variations
Julian Rushton discusses the early history of Elgar’s ‘Enigma’ Variations.

The use of the instruments of the orchestra
Lucy Walker surveys three orchestral masterpieces of the early 20th century.

Music and the First World War
Kate Kennedy examines the impact of the First World War on British composers and the music composed both during the war and in its aftermath.

Music and the Holocaust
Stephen Muir examines the impact of the Holocaust on musicians and musical life in Germany and Austria in the Second World War.

SkMusic for film: Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten
Music formed an important component of the propaganda and educational films produced during the Second World War and its immediate aftermath. In this article, Nicholas Clark explores the film scores composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten between 1940 and 1948.

Music and the Russian Revolution
Pauline Fairclough discusses the impact of the Russian Revolution on Russian composers’ lives and careers.

Delius and America
Daniel M. Grimley explains the significance of America in Delius's life, music, and career.

Stravinsky and Neoclassicism
Stephen Walsh discusses Neoclassicism as a concept focussing on the music of Stravinsky who extensively used this compositional ‘attitude’ in his music.

The Society of Women Musicians
Sophie Fuller discusses the history of the Society of Women Musicians and some of its leading members.

Delius's workshop
Daniel M. Grimley examines Delius's compositional routine and looks at the processes involved in assembling a large-scale musical work.

Tonality in crisis? How harmony changed in the 20th century
Arnold Whittall explores changing approaches to harmony and the concept of tonality in early 20th-century music.

Vaughan Williams and The English Hymnal
Simon Wright explores the role of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams in selecting and arranging the music for The English Hymnal.

Teaching resources

These 19 articles are accompanied by three teaching resources to support the study of 20th-century classical music at GCSE and A Level.

Composition: learning from Delius and Elgar
Use Delius's and Elgar's sketches to develop compositional skills and understand their music.

Music and place: sacred music and folksong
Learn how English composers were inspired by folksong and ideas of the sacred.

Overturning tonality: into the 20th century
Explore new ways of composing in the early 20th century


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