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83 posts categorized "Music"

19 April 2021

Introducing the Internet of Musical Events: a project to capture the history of live performance

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The British Library is delighted to be part of an innovative new project that seeks to develop digital tools and methodologies to help capture the history of live performance.

The Internet of Musical Events: Digital Scholarship, Community, and the Archiving of Performances (InterMusE) is a two-year project funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council UK as part of the UK-US New Directions for Digital Scholarship in Cultural Institutions programme. Led by Professor Rachel Cowgill, from the University of York’s Department of Music, it brings together an interdisciplinary team of musicologists, archivists, computer scientists, and performance providers from the University of York, the Borthwick Institute for Archives, Computational Foundry at Swansea University, the British Library, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The project arises from longstanding recognition of the challenges associated with the documentation of, and access to, collections of performance ephemera, for which the British Library is a key repository in the UK. Live musical events play a vital role in community life across the globe, yet they often leave only faint traces on the historical record, even in modern times. Sources can be tantalisingly incomplete, confusingly inconsistent, and often scattered between different archives and collections, if preserved at all. While some ensembles, venues and music societies have documented their histories (the Proms Performance Archive being one notable example), the picture is fragmented with no common standards of description or connection between related online resources, or efforts to archive data.

InterMusE will make possible new ways of capturing and, crucially, linking different forms of data around musical events to form a dynamic, open-access digital archive. The research team will work with a diverse range of concert materials including programmes, posters and other ephemera held at the British Library, the University of York’s Borthwick Institute for Archives, the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), Linen Hall Library (Belfast), the Royal College of Music, and three former chapters of the British Music Society (BMS): Huddersfield Music Society, the British Music Society of York, and Belfast Music Society. The richness of the resulting data will offer unprecedented opportunities to collect, analyse, and visualise information about musical events and how they have shaped and been shaped by community life over the past century. The digitised data will be used to create a series of online, open-access portals that can be linked with existing collections, resulting in a widely accessible digital archive of musical events.

Huddersfield Music Club programme for concert given by the Amadeus String Quartet on 12 October 1953
Huddersfield Music Club: Programme for concert given by the Amadeus String Quartet on 12 October 1953.

Central to the project is the ambition to equip performing arts organisations and their communities with tools to help promote and enhance their own musical histories and traditions. This is particularly significant as communities begin to recover from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, as the project’s Lead Researcher, Professor Rachel Cowgill states:

'The experience of living through a global pandemic has, for many, greatly increased the value of music at precisely the time the ‘live event’ has fallen victim to strictures on social distancing and lockdown. InterMusE addresses some of the key challenges emerging for the arts and humanities in post-Covid times, investigating the mutually sustaining relationships between live music and communities and harnessing the capacity of digital technologies to enable collaboration and engagement with members of the public.'

InterMusE will combine computational digital-archiving methods with more accessible, community-focussed approaches such as oral-history interviews, audience reminiscences, and citizen research. This will not only facilitate engagement between particular musical societies and their audiences, but also create a new layer of evidential material for studying the impact and community significance of performance events in the 20th and 21st centuries. As Hilary Norcliffe (Archivist of the Huddesfield Music Society) commented, “Concert attendees are often keen to express their views about what they have heard and experienced but currently there is no means of recording these thoughts. This project offers the means for members of the society to add personal comments, views, reminiscences and materials, whilst also following their own lines of inquiry, thus enriching the archive.”

For more information, see the project website:

AHRC logo       InterMusE logo

11 March 2021

Publishing Patriotism: the Napoleonic wars in musical print

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At the turn of the 19th century, British perceptions of revolutionary France and the Napoleonic wars were tied to myriad graphic, literary, and musical expressions. Between soldiers returning home, parading volunteer regiments, and theatrical renditions of war, the multiplicity of these imaginings were transformed and transported through print at a remarkable speed. After appearing in the London gazette, official news from the continent would go on a multimedia journey: passing through detailed (though often inaccurate) accounts in national and provincial newspapers; enduring the scrutiny of pamphlets and journals; being subjected to judgement in sermons; and set in public memory through the mockery of satirical cartoons.

Printed music was better placed than other media to incorporate military images because the large format of music publications meant that there was ample space on the title page for additional decoration. Taking advantage of the fashion for all things military, music publishers rushed to produce commemorative editions of battle music. In the months following The Battle of Camperdown (11 October 1797) Music publishers Joseph Dale, Longman & Broderip, and Corri, Dussek & Co. produced commemorative works celebrating the victory. They used the textual and graphic elements of the score to shape them into military souvenirs.

The cheaper editions (selling for between 1s 6d and 2s 6d), such as Joseph Dale’s, featured a standard unadorned title page. As was the practice with most editions of battle music, Dale fashioned the score into a commemorative object by including a date on the title page. This set these editions apart from other printed music of the period as publication dates were usually omitted to prevent later reprints seeming old or out of fashion. This shows that publishers considered the publication date to be part of the commercial appeal of these editions, so they were not concerned by the ephemerality this imposed on the printed object.

Unadorned title page of Joseph Dale’s publication commemorating The Battle of Camperdown
British Library g.138.(11.)

Longman & Broderip’s edition of Britannia by Daniel Steibelt (1765 - 1823) dresses the title in British imperial iconography, with a laurel wreath crossed with flags of the British empire. The naval scene at the foot of the title page captures the moment when the British flagship Venerable inflicts the final blow on the Dutch flagship Vryhied. Camperdown saw Duncan celebrated for his bravery and leadership, having taken his flagship into the heart of the action and in difficult waters. By using this moment at the battle’s climax, the score immortalises Duncan’s bravery and Britain’s naval dominance.

Title page of Longman & Broderip's edition of Daniel Steibelt's Britannia depicting a naval scene inspired by the Battle of Camperdown
British Library g.138.(3.)

The celebration of Duncan was not only due to his perceived courage but also the sheer extent of his victory. Within three hours of the start of the battle, Duncan was not only able to report a British victory but also the capture of eleven Dutch ships. Music publishers Corri, Dussek & Co. chose to show this side of the battle in their commemoration, avoiding the engagement itself and focusing on the outcome. Their chosen image emphasised the ‘Total Defeat’ of the Dutch fleet by showing their captured ships in tatters, being towed back to Britain, the punctured sails and post victory setting reminiscent of Thomas Whitcombe’s painting of the battle (1797).

Title page of Corri, Dussek & Co.'s edition commemorating the The Battle of Camperdown depicting the defeat of the Dutch fleet
British Library g.138.(13.)

The commercial opportunities that arose around the Napoleonic wars were not limited to events happening abroad, but also covered celebrations at home. In 1798 Corri, Dussek & Co. published the descriptive piece A Complete & exact delineation Of the Ceremony from St. James’s to St. Pauls: … to return thanks for the several Naval Victories obtained by the British Fleet over those of France, Spain, & Holland. The naval thanksgiving (1797) enlisted the full theatricality of public spectacle, involving the monarchy, government, members of the army and navy, and ordinary Britons lining the streets accompanied by bespoke music written by J. L. Dussek (1760-1812). The score provided an audio-visual reproduction of the event: it contained music written for the procession and church service and captured the visuality of the occasion through an ‘elegant Frontispiece’, which is unfortunately now lost. 

George III conceived the event to rival the civic ceremonies of revolutionary France in an attempt to promote a sense of national unity in Britain. This impact, however, was limited to those who lived near enough to London to attend the ceremony. The success of the occasion relied heavily on newspapers and periodicals circulating accounts to other parts of the country, but Corri, Dussek & Co.’s musical edition was unique in its capacity to deliver both the visual and audial spectacle to those who had not witnessed the event. This edition gave people who did not live in London the opportunity to experience and take part in the patriotic symbolism of the ceremony from afar.

The hype surrounding military victories provided a market for commemorative print in the short term, capitalising on spikes in patriotic sentiment and the celebrations linked to the events. In this context music scores became collectable objects alongside commemorative pottery, porcelain, and medals, together projecting idealised images of war and victory. They helped to facilitate celebration by reminding purchasers of important dates in the national calendar and providing the music with which to celebrate them. The graphic and textual additions to printed music meant that scores had commercial value beyond their musical content and appealed to the conspicuous consumption of print buying audiences, the visually idealised militarism of the title pages allowing Britons to fulfil their patriotic duty through purchasing the score.

Dominic Bridge, Collaborative PhD student, University of Liverpool and British Library

02 February 2021

Update on Music E-resources

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We are pleased to announce a number of new subscriptions to our Music e-resources offer this year, as well as changes to remote access for some of our existing subscriptions:

Remote access to RILM and RIPM (full text)

RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text

RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text contains more than 200 full-text journals, many of which are not available anywhere else online, with content spanning 50 countries and 40 languages. The full-text content encompasses all disciplines related to music including: Ethnomusicology; Jazz studies; Musicology; Pedagogy; Performance; Popular music and Theory. It also covers interdisciplinary subjects, such as: Archaeology; Dance studies; Dramatic arts; Literature; Philosophy; Psychology; Therapy.

Thanks to a kind offer by RILM we are pleased to offer this resource to our users until 30 September 2021.

The resource is available in all reading rooms (please note our reading rooms are currently closed) as well as via remote access to registered readers, and can be accessed via Explore.

RIPM Preservation Series: European & North American Music Periodicals (Full Text)

This new RIPM series is a collection of unique and rare full-text music titles, which complements RIPM Retrospective Index to Music Periodicals, which the Library also subscribes to. The resource includes over 100 titles of music periodicals published in Europe and North America ranging from the early 19th century to the middle of the 20th century.

This is a new subscription which is available in all reading rooms. The resource is also available via remote access to registered readers until 30 September 2021, and can be accessed via Explore.

An example of content on the RIPM Preservation Series: European & North American Music Periodicals (Full Text) database on the EBSCO platform


This is a new subscription which offers access to an online Library of contemporary music. The BabelScores catalogue contains music in full score by composers of the last 40 years and includes audio and video content for some of the music scores, and also short composer biographies and work descriptions.

This resource is currently only available in our readings rooms but we are working towards making it available remotely in the future.

BabelScores homepage

Our existing subscriptions to the Index of Printed Music and Music Index are now also available remotely to registered readers.

For any enquiries on how to search and use these e-resources please contact our Music Reference Team.

25 January 2021

Finding Beethoven: recent work in the catalogue

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Beethoven's monument in Bonn
Beethoven's monument in Bonn. Illustration in Erinnerung an L. van Beethoven und die Feier der Enthüllung seines Monumentes zu Bonn am 10., 11. und 12. August 1845. General Reference Collection DRT Digital Store 785.h.31.

In Spring 2020, music cataloguers working from home were temporarily without access to the British Library catalogue. Our Collection Metadata colleagues were able to supply us with some exported files of catalogue records to work on, and we chose to have sets of records with Ludwig van Beethoven as composer. While our normal work of cataloguing new acquisitions was suspended, due to the closure of the Library site, we set to work improving the quality of these Beethoven records, as a way of working productively at home, and also of celebrating Beethoven's anniversary year in a practical way. The work  complements other departmental activities to mark the anniversary such as the online Beethoven exhibition on Discovering Music, which was launched last month.

About 2000 amended records have now been loaded back into the catalogue. Although there is more work to do, this is a big step towards improving our representation of Beethoven's works.

Authority control

The work we did was in the area of Authority Control. This is the practice of giving an entity (for example a person, work or subject) a formal, standardised identity in the form of a text string, which is used to draw together all occurrences of the same entity.

For the Beethoven records we improved these identities for work titles. For example, in this basic ‘legacy’ catalogue record the uniform title was updated:  

Example of a Beethoven record on Explore

The publisher's title appears at the top of the record. Further down is the "uniform title" (or "preferred title"), constructed by a cataloguer. This is the authority-controlled version of the title, which in this case also holds the secret of exactly where in Beethoven's opera this piece of music comes from. It also identifies it with all the other editions and arrangements of this excerpt, not only in the British Library, but in any other institution using the same international (NACO) standard. It does this in the traditional library way, by being a left-anchored text string, located in a background alphabetical index. The title elements are presented in a conventional order and form. The NACO conventions are essentially those laid down in the mid- to late-20th century Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules. However, the principle of bringing works together under a standardised title goes back a long way, and can be seen in older, printed catalogues.

Historic headings

Printed catalogue entry example

Printed catalogue entry example
Images from The catalogue of printed music in the British Library to 1980. London: K.G. Saur, 1981-1987.

The Catalogue of Printed Music (1981-1987) was based on older catalogues dating back to the 1840s. When the printed volumes of the Catalogue of Printed Music were converted to machine-readable cataloguing, its headings were imported into the records as uniform titles. Over the years, as records for new acquisitions were created and imported, a variety of different "uniform" titles for the same work have proliferated in the catalogue, complicating the process of searching for a particular work. Aligning all these with the NACO standard is an ongoing task, and this is the work we were continuing in the case of Beethoven.

Catalogue entry in Explore

What does this mean in practice?

The major outcome is that, if a user now locates and searches on a standard NACO uniform title, all instances of the work will be retrieved, because we have replaced the variants which formerly would have confused the search.

For example, the standard title "Concertos, piano, orchestra, no. 1, op. 15, C major" will now retrieve all the publications of the work, having replaced variants such as:

"Piano Concerto No. 1. Op. 15"

"Concerto, piano, orchestra, no. 1, op. 15, C major"

"Concertos. Piano. No. 1"

Similarly, "Bagatelles, piano, WoO 59, A minor" has replaced variants such as:

"Bagatelle, Wo0 59"

"Für Elise. K.-H. 59"

"Für Elise".

The future of uniform titles

Our current cataloguing standard, RDA (Resource Description and Access), allows for traditional uniform titles, but prefers a different, linked data approach. The online environment in which library catalogues now operate requires more sophisticated manipulation of data elements than can be provided by uniform title text strings, which were designed for printed and card catalogues. Also, the implication that there is a single, universally "correct" way of expressing the title of a work, with other versions treated as variants, is something which RDA, as an international standard, encourages us to move away from.

Future library systems will be able to present works and their relationships in a way that is both clearer and more nuanced. Making our data as consistent as possible now will help enormously with this future development. In the meantime, we hope that anyone looking for the works of Beethoven in the British Library's catalogue will find their search a much better experience.

Caroline Shaw, Printed & Manuscript Music Processing & Cataloguing Team Manager

08 December 2020

Celebrating Beethoven: a new online exhibition on Discovering Music

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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.

10 November 2020

PhD placement opportunity – The Royal Music Library: understanding provenance and collecting practices

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We are pleased to announce a PhD placement opportunity to work in Music Collections on the project:

The Royal Music Library: understanding provenance and collecting practices

Royal Music Library

About the PhD placement scheme:

The scheme is open to current PhD students and offers an opportunity to work on a 3-month project in a specific area under the supervision of Library staff, and enables students to broaden their skill set, engage with research outside the academic context, and experience different career paths.

About the project

The Royal Music Library consists of music collected by several generations of the Royal Household, reflecting the musical tastes of its successive members. It contains about 1,000 volumes of manuscript music and 4,500 volumes of printed music, dating from the late 16th to the early 20th centuries. Among the many treasures are 97 volumes of Handel’s autograph manuscripts, and scores by Purcell, Steffani, J.C. Bach and Mendelssohn. With a few notable exceptions, such as the provenance of the Handel manuscripts, little is known regarding the provenance of the majority of the music, in terms of when it was acquired and by whom.

The PhD placement student will undertake a bibliographical study of selected parts of the Royal Music Library collection. Findings will improve understanding of its provenance and the collecting practices of members of the royal household, particularly George III, Prince Albert and Queen Victoria.

The project will help to improve the Music team’s work in curating and promoting this collection through agreed outputs emanating from the research, which will include metadata enhancement; writing content for online exhibitions and blogs; and using digital tools to analyse and visualise the collection.

How to apply

Full details about the project, the PhD placement scheme, and how to apply can be found here:

The deadline for applications is 5 pm on Friday 18 December 2020.

For any enquiries about the PhD placement scheme or project please contact the Research Development team ( in the first instance.


16 October 2020

Announcing the new RISM UK Catalogue!

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RISM UK is pleased to announce the launch of the new RISM UK Catalogue.

The catalogue is a subset of the international RISM Online Catalogue of Musical Sources. It contains all data from that resource on printed and manuscript music held in British libraries and archives, and pulls data directly from the international database to ensure it remains up-to-date.  We hope it will be of value and interest to researchers wanting to locate sources of printed and manuscript music held in repositories in Britain.

Image of the RISM UK catalogue homepage

The catalogue illustrates the rich resource of historic music materials that have been preserved in Britain. The information held can be searched in traditional ways, such as by composer and title, and also by the incipits of the musical notation.  A new feature makes it possible to identify and locate unica - printed editions that survive in single copies only. It is also possible to define the date ranges of searches more precisely than was possible before. Data from search results can be freely downloaded in simple CSV format, allowing researchers to reuse the information for their own purposes.  The database also provides access to digitised images, where they are available, from participating libraries via IIIF.

The new interface has been funded by the Strategic Knowledge Exchange Initiative at Royal Holloway, University of London. You can find out more about the RISM UK database at the Royal Holloway’s School of Music Research Projects and Centres pages.

Future projects

RISM UK in partnership with Royal Holloway, University of London, is currently completing a scoping study of the potential for further cataloguing projects involving music manuscripts and printed music in county record offices and other archives across the UK.

Work by postgraduate researchers Micah Neale and James Ritzema, supervised by Stephen Rose and Sandra Tuppen, has uncovered large holdings in county record offices especially of parish church music manuscripts from the 18th century, manuscripts of vernacular dance tunes, teaching manuscripts for learner musicians, and fragments of medieval music in the bindings of later volumes.

This scoping study is funded by the Strategic Knowledge Exchange Initiative at Royal Holloway, University of London.

We would also be very pleased to hear from holders of material within RISM’s scope who would be interested in adding its details to the database. Please contact Caroline Shaw, Secretary of the RISM (UK) Trust: if you would like to be involved.

12 October 2020

Ralph Vaughan Williams in the Boosey & Hawkes Archive

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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