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We have around 100,000 pieces of manuscript music, 1.6 million items of printed music and 2 million music recordings! This blog features news and information about these rich collections. It is written by our music curators, cataloguers and reference staff, with occasional pieces from guest contributors. Read more

06 August 2023

New Tippett acquisitions

The exciting discovery of a previously unknown letter written by Michael Tippett is the latest in a series of acquisitions relating to the composer. The letter was recently donated to the BL and featured in an article in the Guardian newspaper

Photographic portrait of the composer Michael Tippett, by J. S. Lewinsk
Sir Michael Kemp Tippett, portrait by J. S. Lewinski (June 1977) © National Portrait Gallery, London

Letter sent from Wormwood Scrubs (MS Mus. 1943)

The letter (now catalogued as MS Mus. 1943) was sent to Tippett’s close friend Evelyn Maude in August 1943. It was written while the composer was an inmate at Wormwood Scrubs, imprisoned as a conscientious objector for two months during the Second World War. Prisoners were restricted to a single correspondent and one letter a fortnight, but Tippett made up for the limitations by writing five packed letters.

Image of the first page of the letter, showing the strict regulations for prisoners and their correspondents
Part of the front of the letter, showing the strict regulations for communication with prisoners,  as well as Tippett's prisoner number (5832) added in pencil in the bottom left hand corner. British Library, MS Mus. 1943.

Intriguingly, this letter is missing the top portion of one side, so we don't know how it begins - but the rest of it covers a mix of personal reflection, descriptions of prison life, future plans and long strings of requests. Evelyn Maude had lived near to Tippett in Oxted in Surrey, her son was taught French by him at the local school and they generally connected through a shared love of music. She was the dedicatee of his early Symphony in B flat (the manuscript of which was the subject of a blog post back in 2018) and a fellow pacifist, also helping to house and care for refugee families and evacuees during the war.

Image of Evelyn Maude in the 1930s
Evelyn Maude in the 1930s. Image reproduced by permission of Alice Nissen.

The newly acquired letter completes a set of five, with the other four already at the British Library (MS Mus. 1752, ff. 26-32). Although this one is undated, we can work out that it must have been sent on 2 August. It is the penultimate one in the sequence and paints a vivid picture of someone impatient to return to their life outside of prison. The letter includes plans for a busy first day out, with ‘breakfast + bath at Ben’s’ (Benjamin Britten’s house – Britten, along with Peter Pears, had visited Wormwood Scrubs the previous month, in order to give a concert to prisoners), followed by a performance of Tippett’s second string quartet at the Wigmore Hall and then straight onto Cornwall via Paddington station (the night train left at 9.50pm). There is also a lengthy passage about plans for the choir at Morley College (where Tippett was director of music) in the coming autumn term.

We are delighted that this letter has come to light, and extremely grateful to Alice Nissen for donating it to the British Library on behalf of the estate of Stella Maude.

Manuscript of the first piano sonata (MS Mus. 1926/1)

A few months ago the British Library received another important donation, this one the earliest known manuscript of Tippett’s first piano sonata. It is dated 1 June 1938, and at this point in time titled ‘Fantasy Sonata’, ‘op. 4’ (it is now listed as Tippett’s second official work). This manuscript helps fill in another part of the somewhat convoluted story of this piece. It was first performed by Phyllis Sellick (1911-2007) at the Queen’s Hall in 1938 (a recording was also made by her in 1941), then first published in 1942. A revised version was published in 1954. As well as the two published editions, the British Library already held Tippett’s own copy of the first edition, annotated by the composer with the revisions that were to become the second version (Add MS 72017). 

Also in the BL's collection is a manuscript copy of the piece dated July 1938, with fingerings added in pencil, possibly by Phyllis Sellick herself (Add MS 72016). The new manuscript dates from a month before that copy and includes a number of differences (most notably the change in note values for the last movement), all of which are incorporated into the first edition.

Tippett sonata opening
Opening of Tippett's first piano sonata, in the newly acquired manuscript. British Library, MS Mus. 1926/1.

The new manuscript (now catalogued as MS Mus. 1926/1) was generously donated by Kit and Jean Martin, who inherited it from Cyril Allinson, brother of Francesca Allinson, the eventual dedicatee of the piece. The donation also included a draft of a book on English folk-song that Francesca Allinson was planning (MS Mus. 1926/2).

Tippett letters and papers

The largest recent Tippett acquisition arrived at the British Library last year: a collection of letters and other papers, including several important series of correspondence, mostly from Tippett to key figures in his life, such as Anna Kallin, David Ayerst, Meirion Bowen and Francesca Allinson – dedicatee of the first piano sonata mentioned above. ‘Fresca’, among other things a musician and author (her book A Childhood was published by Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press in 1937), was one of the people closest to Tippett in his life. Without a doubt the most affecting item here is the despairing note she left for him before her suicide in April 1945.  

Tippett's 'dream diaries' are another particularly personal element to this collection – written descriptions and possible interpretations of dreams, compiled in early 1939 around the time that he was undergoing Jungian analysis with John Layard, himself a noted anthropologist and pupil of Carl Jung (Layard's book on dream analysis, The Lady of the Hare, was published in 1944). Among other things, Tippett used these sessions to explore, and come to terms with, aspects of his sexuality. Extracts of these diaries were published in Tippett autobiography, Those Twentieth Century Blues (London, 1991) but this will be the first time that the complete set will be available for researchers.

Cataloguing of this much larger collection - which also includes material relating to the promotion, marketing and commissioning of Tippett's music in the last decades of his life, as well as a small amount of sketch material - has yet to begin, but an announcement will be made once it is available to researchers.


Research materials (MS Mus. 1942)

Both the piano sonata manuscript and the collection of letters and papers mentioned above have resurfaced thanks to research undertaken by Oliver Soden for his biography of Tippett published in 2019. A small but important collection of material collected by Oliver as part of this research is another recently catalogued Tippett collection. This includes various items relating to Tippett’s early folk-song opera Robin Hood, including a draft libretto, a contemporary account of the performance and photographs. There are also copies of letters from Tippett and others to Karl Hawker, where the originals are in private collections or, in a number of cases, untraced. This material has been catalogued as MS Mus. 1942 and descriptions can be read in our online catalogue.  

An overview of Tippett manuscripts at the British Library

Like the collections of other 20th-century composers, the Tippett manuscripts have been acquired over a number of years - the earliest in 1971 and continuing up to the present day. The list below provides collection level descriptions of all the main Tippett items in the BL, together with links to the online catalogue.

Main collections

Add MS 61748-61804. Tippett Collection Part I. 57 volumes. Music manuscripts for most major works composed before 1977. Purchased from Otto Haas, 1980. 

Add MS 63820-63840. Tippett Collection Part II. 21 volumes. Music manuscripts, including scores and sketches for The Mask of Time, the Triple Concerto, String quartet no. 4 and piano sonata no. 4. Purchased from Otto Haas, 1986. 

Add MS 71099-71103. Tippett Collection Part III. 5 volumes. Manuscripts of New Year, Byzantium and String quartet no. 5. Purchased from the Tippett Foundation, 1992. 

Add MS 72001-72065. Tippett Collection Part IV. 65 volumes. Music manuscripts plus a series of 32 notebooks, containing sketches and plans for works and written texts. Purchased Tippett Foundation, 1994. 

Add MS 72066-72071. Tippett Collection Part V. 6 volumes. Early works, purchased from John Amis, 1994. 

MS Mus. 1757. 6 volumes. Material from various sources, including letters to Paul Crossley and Evelyn Maude, autograph score of the early Symphony in B-flat major and sketches and drafts for other works. 

MS Mus. 1765. Michael Tillett collection. 40 volumes of scores, papers and correspondence mainly relating to Tillett’s work as assistant and amanuensis to Tippett. Donated by the estate of Michael Tillett, through the offices of Schott Music, 2011. 

Music Deposit 2022/07. Letters and papers of Michael Tippett from the collection of Nicholas Wright. Purchased March 2022.

Individual manuscripts

Add MS 59808. String quartet no. 1 (first version). Purchased in 1976 as part of the Macnaghten Concerts Collection .

Add MS 61891, ff. 75-76. Discarded leaf from The Ice Break. Purchased from Maggs, 1981. 

Egerton MS 3786. King Priam, autograph full score. Purchased from Karl Hawker, 1971. 

MS Mus. 1858. Four Songs of the British Isles, autograph working manuscript. Purchased from Sotheby’s, 2018. 

MS Mus. 1926. Manuscript material belonging to Michael Tippett and Francesca Allinson (including Piano Sonata no. 1, autograph manuscript). Donated, May 2023. 

MS Mus. 1942. Materials collected by Oliver Soden during research for his biography of Michael Tippett. Donated October 2019.

MS Mus. 1943. Letter from Michael Tippett to Evelyn Maude, 2 August 1943. Donated, July 2023.



Chris Scobie, Lead Curator, Music Manuscripts & Archives

03 May 2023

Music for British Coronations

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To mark the Coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla we are highlighting some of the finest examples in our collections of manuscript and printed music associated with coronations in Britain.

Music in Coronation Ceremonies

Music has formed an important part in coronation ceremonies throughout English, and later British, history. The musical selection for each coronation has varied through the centuries, with newly commissioned works and coronation anthems by prominent composers featuring alongside many other sacred and secular pieces. Not only does the music contribute to the grandeur and splendour of the ceremony as a whole, it also plays an important liturgical role in the religious service at the heart of the ceremony, with certain pieces traditionally being performed in specific parts of it.

Coronation Music

Handel’s Coronation Anthems

Arguably the most well-known piece associated with the coronation ceremony is George Frideric Handel’s ‘Zadok the Priest’. One of a series of four anthems Handel composed for the coronation of King George II and Queen Caroline in 1727, it has been performed at every coronation since then. Handel’s autograph manuscripts of all four anthems are held in the Royal Music Library at the British Library.

‘Zadok the Priest’ is scored for SATB chorus and an orchestra consisting of strings, oboes, bassoons, trumpets, timpani and basso continuo. The words are drawn from the first Book of Kings (1 Kings 1:38-40), a text that describes the anointing of Solomon as King by the Priests Zadok and Nathan, an act mirrored in the anointing of the new monarch at the solemn heart of the coronation service itself. Handel’s anthem is fittingly performed at this moment in the proceedings.

Reproduced below is a page from Handel’s manuscript showing the opening section of the anthem with the words ‘God Save the King’. The manuscript in full can be viewed on our Digitised Manuscripts website

Image of the manuscript in Handel's handwriting of 'Zadock the Priest'
British Library R.M.20.h.5, f.5r. Zadok the Priest, HWV 258.


You can also follow the opening pages of the manuscript together with the music below:

G.F. Handel: 'Zadok the Priest', HWV 258. Music licensed courtesy of Naxos Music. Catalogue no. 8.578072.

At King George II and Queen Caroline’s ceremony, Handel’s other coronation anthems were sung during the Recognition part of the service (‘The King shall rejoice’), the Inthronisation (‘Let thy hand be strengthened’) and the coronation of the Queen (‘My heart is inditing’). ‘My heart is inditing’ was also set to music by other composers for the crowning of a Queen Consort, such as Henry Purcell (1659-1695) who composed this anthem for the coronation of Queen Mary of Modena in 1685 and William Boyce (1711-1779) who composed the anthem for the coronation of Queen Charlotte in 1761.

Although it was not written for use in coronation ceremonies, Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ from Messiah also featured in several coronations, from that of George IV (1821) onwards.

The opening page of Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ from Messiah
The opening page of G.F. Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ from Messiah. British Library R.M.20.f.2, f. 100r.

Elgar’s Coronation music

Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) composed a number of works for the coronations of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra in 1902, and King George V and Queen Mary in 1911, although not all of them were actually performed during the coronation ceremonies. These included the Coronation Ode op. 44 composed in 1902, the Coronation March op. 65 and the anthem ‘O hearken thou’ composed in 1911. His Military Marches op. 39 (‘Pomp and Circumstance’) were also performed at the coronations of George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1937 (no.1), and Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 (nos. 1, 2 and 4), where also the Variation no.9 (‘Nimrod’) from his famous ‘Enigma’ variations op. 36, was heard before the coronation service. Shown below is the title and opening page from the autograph manuscript of Elgar’s anthem ‘O hearken thou’, in a version for voices and organ accompaniment:

Title page from the vocal score of Edward Elgar’s anthem ‘O hearken thou’ in the composer’s hand


Opening page of Elgar's anthem 'O hearken thou'
Title and first page from the vocal score of Edward Elgar’s anthem ‘O hearken thou’ in the composer’s hand. British Library Add MS 58049, f. 5r-v.

The coronation of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra also included a new setting for the coronation anthem ‘I was glad’ by Sir Hubert Parry (1848-1918). An anthem based on these words is traditionally sung during the monarch’s entrance into Westminster Abbey, and has been set to music by a number of composers, including William Boyce (1711-1779) and Thomas Attwood (1765-1838). Parry’s setting has been used in every coronation since its performance at the coronation of King Edward VII (1902).

Title page of Hubert Parry’s coronation anthem ‘I was glad’

The opening page from the 1902 Novello edition of Hubert Parry’s coronation anthem ‘I was glad’.
Title and opening page from the 1902 Novello edition of Hubert Parry’s coronation anthem ‘I was glad’. British Library: F.231.r.(28.).


Vaughan Williams’s coronation music

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) composed his Festival Te Deum for chorus, organ and orchestra for the coronation of King George VI on 12 May 1937. It was based on traditional themes and was performed during the procession from the throne into St. Edward’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey. Shown below is the opening page of the full score in Vaughan Williams’s hand.

Opening page from Ralph Vaughan William’s Festival Te Deum
Opening page from Ralph Vaughan William’s Festival Te Deum. British Library Add MS 50459. © Oxford University Press. Reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press.

Vaughan Williams’s music also featured prominently in the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on 2 June 1953. The service included the ‘Creed’ and ‘Sanctus’ from his Mass in G minor (Add MS 50443-50444) originally composed in 1920-1921, and he also composed the congregational hymn ‘All people that on earth do dwell’, and the anthem for voices only ‘O taste and see’.

Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation also included William Walton’s (1902-1983) Te Deum Laudamus, for double chorus, semi-chorus, organ and orchestra, which was especially composed for her coronation. It was performed in the same position in the proceedings that Vaughan Williams’s Festival Te Deum was performed for the coronation of King George VI, during the procession into St. Edward’s Chapel. Below are reproduced the title and opening page from Walton’s autograph manuscript:

Title page of William Walton's Te Deum laudamus in D
Opening page of William Walton's Te Deum Laudamus in D.
Sir William Walton: Te Deum Laudamus in D. British Library Add MS 47898, ff.1r-v. © Oxford University Press. Reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press.

Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation additionally included the anthem 'I will not leave you comfortless’ ('Nos vos relinquam orphanos') for solo voices by William Byrd (ca. 1540-1623), whose 400th anniversary is celebrated this year. Below is a page from the soprano (cantus) part of this piece in the original Latin version ‘Non vos relinquam orphanos’:

A page from William Byrd’s ‘Non vos relinquam orphanos
William Byrd’s ‘Non vos relinquam orphanos’ from his Gradualia published in London in 1607. Cantus primus part. British Library, K.2.f.6.

‘God Save the King’

We also hold in our collection what is believed to be the earliest surviving manuscript of the words and music of what has since become Britain’s national anthem. Although the words and tune are anonymous, the anthem has been arranged and harmonised by numerous composers since it first became known in the mid-18th century. The arrangement shown below is in the hand of the composer Thomas Arne (1710-1778) and was sung at Drury Lane Theatre in London in 1745. The words are slightly different from the established version and include mention of the king at the time, George II. Historically, it was not uncommon for the national anthem to mention the name of the King or Queen.

‘God bless our noble King’ in the hand of Thomas Arne harmonized for 3-part chorus, with instrumental accompaniment.

‘God bless our noble King’ in the hand of Thomas Arne harmonized for 3-part chorus, with instrumental accompaniment
‘God bless our noble King’ in the hand of Thomas Arne harmonized for 3-part chorus, with instrumental accompaniment. British Library Add MS 29370 ff. 114r-v.


Dr Loukia Drosopoulou, Curator, Music


Matthias Range, Music and Ceremonial at British Coronations: from James I to Elizabeth II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Anselm Hughes, ‘Music of the Coronation over a Thousand Years, Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association, 79th Session, May 1953, pp. 81-100.

Janet Leeper, ‘Coronation Music’, The Contemporary Review, volume 151, January 1937, pp. 554-562.

29 March 2023

Remembering Tim Neighbour

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The 1st of April 2023 marks 100 years since the birth of Oliver Wray (Tim) Neighbour (1923-2015) former Music Librarian of the British Library, scholar and Library benefactor, who is fondly remembered by his former colleagues.

Tim began working at the British Museum Library as a cataloguer in 1946. He became Assistant Keeper in the Music Room in 1951, and was Music Librarian from 1976 until his retirement in 1985. His work was focused on building up the printed music collections (music manuscripts at that time were the responsibility of the Department of Manuscripts), adding appropriately to the existing collections. As his musicological knowledge informed this collection development activity, so his librarian's intimate knowledge of sources informed his scholarly writing. His publications include works on the consort and keyboard music of William Byrd, and the music of composers as varied as Orlando Gibbons, Richard Wagner, Arnold Schoenberg and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

During his time as Head of the Music department, he also oversaw the publication of the 62 volumes of The Catalogue of Printed Music in the British Library to 1980 (London: K.G. Saur, 1981-1987). This important work was the first published catalogue of the printed music collections, whose converted entries form the bulk of the records for printed music resources in the current online catalogue.

Photograph of Tim Neighbour
Tim Neighbour in the Music Room at the British Museum in 1998 [?] Photo: Robert Parker

During and after his tenure as Music Librarian, Tim was gradually building up a private collection of music manuscripts, which he left to the Library in his will; this collection includes autograph manuscripts of Corelli, Clementi, Puccini, Debussy, Coleridge-Taylor, Britten, Lutyens, Schoenberg, Stravinsky and many other composers. He also made a significant bequest to the British Library for the purchase of printed and manuscript music.

Tim's dedication to the British Library's music collections continued well beyond his retirement, as he transferred seamlessly to a Voluntary Assistant role and continued to attend every working day. Current members of the music teams have memories of him dating from the 1990s and 2000s.  Tim walked from his home in Marylebone to the Library every morning.  His arrival (at 10.34 precisely) was the signal for all who were so inclined to take a coffee break, where work matters might be discussed, along with other wide-ranging topics; from plans for walking and bird-watching holidays on the Isle of Skye (Tim was a keen ornithologist), to the merits of Alice in Wonderland, to the best method of drying clothes in a London flat, to the difference between the Catalogue of Printed Music's 'suppositious' and 'supposititious' works. He would then spend the rest of the day at work in the music office, lending his expertise to curatorial selection decisions and carrying out other projects.

At this time Tim chose to contribute through his existing specialist knowledge rather than spend time learning new technologies. He never embraced email as a means of communication; instead, explanatory notes were written in small neat handwriting with one of his selection of improbably short pencils. To copy him in to an email correspondence meant laying a printed copy of the relevant email on his desk!

Tim was always encouraging to colleagues and willing to share his detailed knowledge of the music collections and the quirks of their history. He was a familiar figure at social gatherings and outings, which he enjoyed, and was always interested in his colleagues' lives and activities, inquiring kindly after family members. We join his family and friends in remembering him with affection at this time.

Caroline Shaw, Music Cataloguing and Processing Team Manager

Further reading

Chesser, Richard. “Oliver Wray ‘Tim’ Neighbour (1923–2015)”, Fontes Artis Musicae, vol. 62, no. 4, 2015, pp. 349–51. JSTOR, Accessed 27 Mar. 2023.

Shenton, Kenneth. ‘Oliver Neighbour: Versatile librarian and scholar who played a vital role in raising musicological standards in postwar Britain’, The Independent, Thursday 26 March 2015. Accessed 27 Mar. 2023.

28 March 2023

Preserving Bach's manuscripts

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Two Johann Sebastian Bach manuscripts in the British Library’s music collections, the autograph manuscript of the second book Das wohltemperierte Klavier (The Well-Tempered Clavier, BWV 870-893) and of the cantata ‘Wo soll ich fliehen hin?’ (BWV 5), recently received some much deserved attention from our colleagues in Conservation – and thanks to generous support from The Leche Trust. This blog post focuses on the work undertaken on the Well-Tempered Clavier manuscript, which we’re pleased to say is now complete.

Manuscript of the prelude in C major by J.S. Bach
Autograph manuscript of the Prelude in C major, from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II (BWV 870). Add MS 35021, f. 1.

The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II

Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (named after a system of tuning – ‘well temperament’) is one of those musical works that seems to justify the grand claims made about it. On the face of it, it’s a simple series of preludes and fugues in every key, major and minor: 24 in all, with two sets of these (giving the series its nickname ‘the 48’)’. But it’s also a jaw-dropping feat of compositional virtuosity, with Bach using his immense contrapuntal skills to weave together separate musical lines that fit together logically (but never too predictably) and yet also produce inspired music at the same time.

The British Library’s manuscript of the second book of the Well-Tempered Clavier (Add MS 35021 and Add MS 38068) is really a set of individual manuscripts for 21 of the preludes and fugues in the second book (those in C-sharp minor, D major and F minor are unfortunately not preserved here and must have been separated from the others at an earlier date). These were composed between 1739 and 1742.

Each prelude and fugue was mostly written out to (very satisfyingly) fit on a single side of an open folded page, avoiding the need to turn the sheet over – even if this at times means a bit of a squeeze. (No amount of squeezing was going to fit the lengthy prelude and fugue in A-flat major onto one side – this carries on over to the next side). Most of the pieces have been written out by Johann Sebastian Bach himself, apart from four and a bit which are known to be in the hand of his second wife, Anna Magdalena (those in C minor, D minor, E major, G major and the beginning of the prelude in F major).


Manuscript of the prelude in C minor by J.S. Bach, in the hand of Anna Magdalena Bach
Manuscript of the Prelude in C minor (BWV 871), in the hand of Anna Magdalena Bach. Add MS 35021, f. 2

Planning – what were the issues?

Unfortunately, even in optimal storage conditions, chemical and physical processes that pose a risk to manuscripts like these can, over time, still occur. We minimise threats to the collection as much as possible, by controlling factors like temperature and humidity, by using appropriate housing and by limiting access to, and use of, particularly vulnerable materials. However, even with strict environmental monitoring a common problem that is difficult to halt entirely is one of iron gall ink corrosion. Like much music of this period and earlier, these Bach manuscripts are especially at risk from this due to the make-up of the inks that were used – iron sulphate and acidic tannins in particular, which, over time, oxidise and ‘eat away’ at the paper. There’s an interesting blog post on this on our Collection Care blog.

When it came to planning conservation work, there were two main issues to consider. One was the corroding ink, as mentioned above. This is a particular problem where the ink is applied thickly to a small area, as tends to happen when writing music notation. There were various examples of this on the Bach manuscript, ranging from visible holes to less obvious hairline cracks, making it extremely vulnerable.

Image showing the effects of iron gall ink corrosion on paper - there is a whole in the page
The effects of iron gall ink corrosion

The other issue was the previous method of preserving the manuscript. The manuscript pages were bound into a single large volume, with each folio mounted into paper windows. This mounting paper had aged poorly however, and you can see in the picture below how, over time, its acidic properties have led to it discolouring and becoming brittle – meaning some were no longer secure in the binding. Tension from the acidic border was also causing stress to the centre of each bifolio of the manuscript, increasing the risk of splitting. It was clear that the time had come to give the manuscript a more appropriate long-term home.

The old binding for Add MS 35021
The old binding for Add MS 35021
Image from inside the old binding, with the manuscript mounted in the old paper
Inside the old binding. Here you can see the manuscript in the old paper mounts.

Conservation over time

Something that really made an impression in the course of this project was the changing approach to conservation over the years – understandable given evolving knowledge, the emergence of new technologies and shifting emphasis in professional standards. So, while work undertaken decades ago might appear questionable now, nevertheless we can understand that it was done with the best intentions given the tools and knowledge available at the time.

A good example is in relation to iron gall ink. There are very few ways to fully halt the corrosive effects of the ink and limiting the damage is often the only approach. However, one treatment that emerged in the mid-1990s involves an aqueous treatment, using a Calcium Phytate solution to neutralise the acidic iron content in the ink.

In recent years, the British Library has established processes for this treatment. But still it is not something to be undertaken lightly. While extensive testing prior to treatment ensures that both the structure of the paper and the ink will remain secure, nonetheless the process has the effect of washing the paper, so removing dirt and accretions but also, potentially, valuable but less obvious evidence of historical use.  

The decisions are not easy, as weighed against the potential risk of sometimes losing potential sources of historical evidence, such as staining on the paper, is the risk of the manuscript deteriorating to such an extent that any kind of study becomes impossible.


Given the iconic status of this manuscript, many people were involved in decision making and the project was a collaboration between curatorial and conservation teams. One objective that was clear was that the folios of the manuscript needed a new form of housing, which would keep them more secure.

In terms of treatment of the iron gall ink, we decided to take a cautious approach for now, and only apply calcium phytate treatment to two folios, which suffered from different and more pressing issues from the others. These (which contained the A-flat major prelude and fugue, ff. 13 and 14), had been removed from the bound volume more than a century ago. At different points since then they had received conservation work of differing levels of invasiveness, including a coating of transparent heat set tissue applied to one side of the prelude and repairs along the fold of that page too. The aim in focusing a higher level of treatment on these particular folios was to remove the corrosive properties of the ink on one of the most problematic examples among the Well-Tempered Clavier manuscripts and also to reverse some of the ill effects of previous treatments. This work would also make it possible to more safely and securely house these folios in the same way as the other folios, removing them from their temporary housing.

Image of the Prelude in A-flat major (BWV 886), showing one leaf protected by heat-set tissue
Prelude in A-flat major (BWV 886), showing previous conservation work. Add MS 35021, f. 13v.

Conservation work begins

All our manuscripts are special and unique of course, and receive due care and attention to ensure their long-term preservation. But sometimes there are those manuscripts that are so iconic that to even look at them fills you with awe: in these cases the responsibility of ensuring their long-term safekeeping is immense. This was certainly the case here and it was a wonderful, humbling moment when the volume containing the manuscripts was unpacked in the conservation studio. We took a moment to listen to the pieces as we looked at the score - with the notes on the page almost dancing in front of us!

After thorough documentation and testing, treatment began by disbinding the volume and removing the folios from the acidic inlay paper; this was done mechanically using a poultice of sieved gelatine mousse. Whilst removing the old acidic paper mounts we uncovered the edge of the text previously covered by the inlay.

Aqueous treatment of the two folios

The treatment of folios 13 and 14 was achieved in three stages: first the documents were washed then treated with calcium phytate and then calcium bicarbonate. This helped stabilise the corrosive properties of the ink and remedy some of the ill effects of the previous treatment. 

Image showing conservation work under way - the manuscript is being lifted from the old paper mount in an aqueous solution
Removing the acidic paper inlay during aqueous treatment

Prior to immersion, multispectral images of these folios were also taken by our imaging scientist, ensuring we have a clear record of the manuscript prior to treatment. Multispectral imaging captures image data within determined wavelength ranges across the electromagnetic spectrum. It can be used to examine discolourations and staining, by comparing the "spectral fingerprint" of an accretion to a known chemical substance. It can also reveal things that are only visible on different parts of the spectrum and allow us to capture the true colours of the image to accurately assess any ink changes after treatment.

The existing condition of these particular folia made them a priority to treat in this way, but the experience of doing so will allow us to weigh in the balance the benefits or not of undertaking similar treatment on other folios in the future, should the degradation of the corrosive ink progress. For now, fragile inks on the other folios of the manuscript have been supported with a very fine toned Japanese tissue and gelatine using a low moisture technique. This was carried out over a light box to ensure any weakened areas of iron gall ink were spotted.

After Treatment

All the folios have now been housed individually in a more sympathetic, double sided mount. This rigid mount allows each page to be correctly supported and viewed in full and is suitable for both storage and exhibition display, minimising the need for handling or further work. These card mounts have then been stored in several specially made acid-free card boxes to offer protection on the shelf.

Image showing new card mounts for the manuscirpt
The new card mounts for each folio, with protective flaps at the front in back to keep the manuscripts safe in storage.
Image of one folio after treatment, in the new card mounts
Add MS 35021, f. 23r, after treatment, in the new card mount.


This work, undertaken thanks to the expertise of colleagues in Conservation and with generous support from The Leche Trust, has ensured that the manuscripts themselves are now better preserved and protected for posterity.

The British Library’s responsibility as custodian of these iconic examples of Bach’s creativity involves finding a balance between protecting the manuscripts themselves and finding ways for them to be appreciated by a wide audience. High-quality digital images are a key tool for providing access, but this conservation project will also make it possible for researchers to work with the original material where this is necessary – further enhancing our understanding of Bach’s creative practice. It will also make it safer to exhibit these iconic collections beyond the reading room, in our gallery spaces, where you can join us and experience the real thing.



Samantha Hare (Conservator)

Chris Scobie (Lead Curator, Music Manuscripts)

08 November 2022

Nino Rota’s I due timidi - an opera for radio transmission

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On 15 November 1950 the RAI (Radio Televisione Italiana) Third Programme broadcast I due timidi, an ‘opera radiofonica’ composed by Nino Rota to a libretto by Suso Cecchi d’Amico, for the first time. It had been commissioned by the Italian public broadcasting company, which aimed to create an original repertoire exclusively intended for radio. It was the beginning of a remarkable journey: over two decades the opera would be performed across different media, languages and cultures, ranging, with appropriate adjustments, from the darkness of radio to the limelight of the stage and television, constantly reshaping to adapt to new contexts, while keeping its own poetic, aesthetic, dramatic, and musical substance. This is indeed a fascinating story, with a relevant chapter unfolding in Britain during the 1950s, which documents preserved in the British Library allow us to reconstruct.

The work

Nino Rota (1911-79) and Suso Cecchi d’Amico (1914– 2010) were invited to create a new opera for broadcasting in late 1949. They had been close friends since their youth, sharing from different sides the exciting adventure of Italian post-war cinema. Rota, a talented pupil of Ildebrando Pizzetti and Alfredo Casella, was successfully making his way as a composer of both classical and applied music, and was already known in England as the author of the score for films such as The Glass Mountain. Cecchi d’Amico, the daughter of eminent scholar Emilio Cecchi and painter Leonetta Pieraccini and the wife of the distinguished music critic Fedele d’Amico, was successfully making her way as a screenwriter, the co-author of the script for Vittorio De Sica’s film The Bicycle Thief.

Working together in perfect harmony, in a few months they conceived and created an original story that takes place over a single day in a lower middle-class apartment block in an unnamed city – a recurring setting in Italian movies at the time. A young man, Raimondo, and a young woman pianist, Mariuccia, who are in love with each other from a distance but have never met, have settled close to each other, hoping to be able one day to declare their mutual love. Raimondo lives in a boarding house held by a mature landlady, while Mariuccia resides in a modest flat with her mother, gracefully practising the piano to Raimondo’s delight. However, fate has different plans for them. An accident and a subsequent misunderstanding cause each of them to declare their love to the wrong person, which turns out to be fatal: both Raimondo and Mariuccia are too shy to express their true feelings in order to put right the difficult situation. In an elliptical, bittersweet finale, set two years later, we hear an exhausted pianist practising at night-time – it is Mariuccia, now the wife of an elderly doctor, mother of two kids - and an angry male voice: Raimondo, now the landlady’s husband and the landlord of the boarding house, who is manifestly annoyed by that disturbing noise.

Flyer for the world stage premiere of I due timidi
Flyer for the world stage premiere of I due timidi. BL MS Mus. 1743

I due timidi in the UK

I due timidi received a special mention at the Prix Italia 1950, where its immediate expressiveness and the fresh quality of its soundscape were greatly appreciated, including by delegates from the BBC. Within a few months the BBC Third Programme broadcast the Italian production of the opera and the operatic department at the BBC produced an English version, first aired on 5 March 1952, again on the Third Programme, under the title The two shy people. A few days later, on 17 March 1952, the opera received its world stage premiere at the Scala Theatre in London, a production of The London Opera Club in association with the Arts Council of Great Britain.

A page from the typescript libretto of The two shy people
Typescript libretto of The two shy people

The intense British life of I due timidi during the 1950s is retraceable in detail from documents kept in a folder preserved at the British Library (MS Mus. 1743) presumably collected by David Harris, the BBC Opera Manager who was the producer of the opera’s BBC broadcast and the author of the English version of its libretto. The folder is rich in press cuttings related to the 1952 radio performance and to a new production, also curated by Harris and broadcast on the BBC Home Service on 1 April 1957, whose typewritten opening and closing announcements are preserved. The folder additionally contains a considerable number of reviews of the stage premiere, but no press cuttings referring to the BBC production of the opera for television, which adopted the English version by Harris and was first broadcast after his death, on 30 March 1961.

Signed vocal score of I due timidi
Signed vocal score of I due timidi


The vocal score

The core of the folder lies in the musical material. The vocal score of the opera, a diazotype copy of a non-authorial manuscript of the original version signed by Harris on the cover and by the whole cast of the 1952 production inside, has Rota’s autograph dedication to Harris inscribed on the front page. The playbill flyer of the stage premiere is pasted on the inside cover.

The score clearly testifies to the work undertaken to make the opera more intelligible to a British audience. The English translation is added in red ink in exact alignment with the Italian text and carefully notes slight alterations to the original version, such as the addition of a 25-bar prologue before the original opening (using the same music as the closing 25 bars of the opera) followed by a brief spoken description of the scene.

Vocal score of I due timidi showing English additions in red
Vocal score of I due timidi showing English additions in red


Recordings and UK revival

It is especially interesting to look at the musical material while listening to the recordings of the 1952 (Product note 1LL0011884-95) and 1957 (Product note 1LL0011487-1LL0011499) BBC broadcasts, which are kept in the Library and available for listening as audio files. There is still uncertainty over the exact identity of the recording of what seems to be a studio performance of the English piano version (Product note 1LL0012460-73, presumably dated 19 February 1961).

The documents as a whole prove to be an invaluable source to allow a close examination of the opera in its multiple versions and to integrate with the precious autograph material relating to the opera preserved in the Fondo Nino Rota at the Fondazione Cini, Venice.

I due timidi received its Italian stage premiere on 19 January 1971 at the Teatro Petruzzelli in Bari – a city in the South, where Rota was the director of the local Music Conservatory for almost 30 years. From that moment on, it was gradually included in the opera repertoire. Seventy years after the world stage premiere, the opera returns to the London stage, presented by the Guildhall School’s Opera Department at the Silk Theatre. We would like to imagine that Nino Rota, who had a special affection for London and was happy to have some of his operas staged by students in academic institutions, would be delighted to be together with his dearest friend Suso Cecchi d’Amico in the audience.

Prof. Angela Annese

Conservatory of Music “Niccolò Piccinni”, Bari


Further reading

Pier Marco De Santi, La musica di Nino Rota (Roma-Bari, 1983).

[BL Shelfmark: General Reference Collection LB.31.b.4190]

Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Storie di cinema (e d’altro); raccontate a Margherita d’Amico (Milano, 1996; Milano, 2002).

Francesco Lombardi (ed.), Fra cinema e musica del Novecento: il caso Nino Rota (Firenze, 2000).

Veniero Rizzardi (ed.), L’undicesima musa: Nino Rota e i suoi media (Roma, 2001).

Richard Dyer, Nino Rota: Music, Film and Feeling (London, 2010).

[BL Shelfmark (2nd edition, 2019): General Reference Collection DRT ELD.DS.550948]

Francesco Lombardi (ed.), Nino Rota: un timido protagonista del Novecento musicale (Torino, 2012).

Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Suso a Lele: lettere (dicembre 1945 – marzo 1947), a cura di Silvia e Masolino d’Amico (Milano, 2016).

[BL Shelfmark: General Reference Collection YF.2019.a.15133]


Further listening

Nino Rota: I due timidi (original radio production, 1950), Twilight Music TWI CD AS 06 27 (2006)

Nino Rota: La notte di un nevrastenico / I due timidi (live recording, Rieti, Teatro Vespasiano, 2017), Dynamic DVD 57830 (2018)

Nino Rota: La notte di un nevrastenico / I due timidi (live recording, Rieti, Teatro Vespasiano, 2017), Dynamic CDS7830.02 (2019)

12 October 2022

Happy Birthday Vaughan Williams

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Happy 150th birthday to Ralph Vaughan Williams!

Born on Saturday 12 October 1872, ‘RVW’ remains one of the towering figures of music in Britain in the first half of the 20th century. His wide-ranging works continue to be well-loved and frequently performed in many countries around the world; and his legacy, both through the music itself and through the support he gave to future generations of musicians (and continues to give, thanks to the work of the RVW Trust) is an enduring one.

Photographic portrait of Ralph Vaughan Williams, taken in 1903
Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1903. Photo credit: Vaughan Williams Foundation


Vaughan Williams manuscripts at the British Library

Vaughan Williams, along with Elgar and Handel, also takes a central position in the British Library’s music collections. In the years since his death in 1958 our manuscript holdings related to RVW have grown to become one of the most comprehensive for any composer represented here. Looking through our departmental files, it seems it all started in 1959 with the purchase of the autograph full score of the composer’s Fourth Symphony (Add MS 50140) – a work famously at odds with the perceived sound world of the composer’s music.

The next year saw the start of a series of generous gifts from Ursula Vaughan Williams, the composer’s widow. First was a series of letters and postcards to Vaughan Williams from Maurice Ravel (Add MS 50360). These date from between 1908, immediately following the period that Vaughan Williams spent studying in France, and 1919. The correspondence ranges from discussion of particular works (such as RVW’s song cycle, On Wenlock Edge), or particular performances (including of Ravel’s ballet, Daphnis et Chloé), through to the train times between Newcastle and King’s Cross.

Postcard written by Maurice Ravel and sent to Ralph Vaughn Williams
Postcard sent by Maurice Ravel from Newcastle, to Ralph Vaughan Williams. 1911. BL Add MS 50360, f. 13

Later in 1960, following an enormous effort to bring all the material together in conjunction with Vaughan Williams’s various publishers, Ursula presented what was described by the Keeper of Manuscripts at the time as: “one of the largest collections of music of a single composer ever offered to the Museum”. Accessioned as Add MS 50361-50482, these 122 volumes include autograph scores and some sketch and draft material for most of Vaughan William’s major works, from the small scale to colossal works like his ‘Sea Symphony’.

Opening page of Vaughan Williams's 'A Sea Symphony'
'A Sea Symphony', first performed in 1910. Part of the opening with the text: 'Behold, the sea itself!'. BL Add MS 50365A. © The Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust. Reproduced by permission.


Further donations from Ursula Vaughan Williams

Over the next 48 years another five collections were presented to the BL by Ursula, alongside a number of individual items. All the material is described in our online catalogue, both at the level of the volume (which may contain several items, depending how things have been grouped) and at the level of the collection as it was presented. The links below will take you to the collection level description for each of these and from there you can choose ‘Browse this Collection’ to explore the collection hierarchy in a separate window – or select ‘See Contents’ from within the catalogue description. Alternatively you can search for a particular work in the search field to see what material the BL holds.

Picture of bound volumes of Vaughan Williams manuscripts on the shelf at the British Library
Some of the Vaughan Williams manuscripts at the British Library


Add MSS 54186-54191. Music manuscripts of Ralph Vaughan Williams (6 volumes)

Presented 1967. This collection includes Vaughan Williams’s earliest composition, written in 1878 at the age of 6. This collection also includes a series of notebooks used to write down the folk songs he heard in different parts of the country between 1903 and 1926. These are all digitised and available to view via the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library’s website, alongside the manuscript material they hold and details of the songs and tunes written down.


The first known composition by Vaughan Williams, called 'The Robin's Nest'
'The Robin's Nest': Vaughan Williams's first known composition. 1878. BL Add MS 54186. © The Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust. Reproduced by permission.

Add MSS 57265-57295. Vaughan Williams Manuscripts (Second Collection) (37 volumes) 

Presented in 1971. This collection includes a number of smaller and occasional pieces as well as a volume of his compositions from his time as a student at the Royal College of Music and some miscellaneous sketchbooks.

Add MS 71476-71493. Supplementary Vaughan Williams Manuscripts (18 volumes)

Presented in 1994. This collection includes a number of unpublished works, such as the music for the masque ‘Pan’s Anniversary’, with music by Vaughan Williams and also arrangements of 16th century dances by his good friend, the composer Gustav Holst.

MS Mus. 153-165. Supplementary Vaughan Williams Manuscripts (13 volumes) 

Presented 1995. Vaughan Williams’s orchestral arrangement of the song cycle ‘On Wenlock Edge’ appears in this collection (MS Mus. 153), as well as a wider range of types of material, such as correspondence, awards, certificates, copyist manuscripts and annotated proofs. It also includes the so-called ‘Seatoller’ log book – a record of a reading holiday in Cumbria that RVW took around Easter 1895 with some of his fellow Cambridge students, including George Trevelyan (later a famous historian), Maurice Amos and Ralph Wedgwood. The volume includes contributions from all of them, in them of stories, jokes, drawings and more.

Front cover of the 'Seatoller' log book
'The log book - Seatoller'. BL MS Mus. 163.

MS Mus. 1714. Papers of Ralph and Ursula Vaughan Williams (135 volumes) 

Bequeathed by Ursula Vaughan Williams, this material arrived at the British Library in 2008. The majority of the collection is made up of letters, but it also contains a large number of photographs and other papers, related to Vaughan Williams’s family history for example. It also contains items shedding more light on Ursula’s life too, both in her tireless work to continue Ralph's legacy, but also in her own work as a poet too.

A large selection of RVW’s letters were included in Hugh Cobbe’s 2008 collection, published by OUP, and they have since been joined by many, many more in the online Vaughan Williams Letters database. This freely accessible database is both endlessly fascinating and incredibly useful - with all of the letters conveniently transcribed for those of us who would otherwise struggle to read the composer’s notorious handwriting.

Beethoven’s tuning fork

This tuning fork, which is said to have belonged to Beethoven and then given by him to the violinist George Bridgetower, featured in our Beethoven exhibition last year (there is a bit more about it here). Less well-known is that, having been in Bridgetower’s family for a number of years, then passed to several other musicians, it then apparently ended up with the composer Gustav Holst in 1921. In turn, Holst gave it to Vaughan Williams, and then Ursula presented it to the British Library in 1992.

Material from other sources

The larger collections listed above are just one aspect to the variety of materials here at the British Library. Other items have entered the collections by other routes and from other owners. These include things like the autograph manuscript of the ‘London’ symphony, presented by Sir Adrian Boult in 1963 (Add MS 51317). Or, more recently, the draft vocal score for the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’, which was among the material donated by Joyce Kennedy in memory of her husband, Michael Kennedy (MS Mus. 1752/1/5). We are still acquiring Vaughan Williams material as well: earlier this year, a poem written by Vaughan Williams in the early 1950s to Eva Hornstein was generously donated by the dedicatee (MS Mus. 1870). And watch this space for another RVW acquisition announcement a bit later this year…

Poem by Vaughan Williams, written for Eva Hornstein
Poem by Vaughan Williams, written to Eva Hornstein. BL MS Mus. 1870. © The Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust. Reproduced by permission.

The only known manuscript for what must be Vaughan Williams’s most famous work, The Lark Ascending, is another item in this category (Add MS 52385). This was donated in 1964 together with some letters of the violinist Marie Hall, who gave the first performance of the work (the letters are from earlier in her career however). The manuscript is actually primarily a copy, and in the version for violin and piano, however there are many alterations and pasted over corrections in Vaughan Williams’s hand too, showing the often extremely detailed changes he continued to make to the piece. 

Lark Ascending title page
Title page, mostly in RVW's handwriting, for a manuscript copy of 'The Lark Ascending', in the version for violin and piano. Mostly in a copyist's hand, but with autograph annotations and corrections. BL Add MS 52385. © Oxford University Press.


RVW in context

It would be difficult to describe the Vaughan Williams materials here at the British Library as an archive as such, having been collected together from many different sources over a long period of time. But the end result is certainly archival in character, in its wide-ranging types of content and in the rich detail those items can provide about the life and work of a composer. And of course, this blog post has only focused on the manuscript materials here at the British Library: that material is further enriched by study of it alongside published sources, recordings and broadcasts.

What's more, neither Ralph Vaughan Williams nor the collection of material relating to him exist in isolation: as part of the wider British Library music collections the context in which he lived and worked is also represented - be it other composers, performers or musical institutions. While it would be impossible to collect on the same scale for every musician and composer, we nevertheless attempt to capture a representative cross section of music making at different times; to attempt to capture a sense of the breadth of what was going on.

More RVW...

On Monday 14 November we are holding a Study Day at the British Library Foyle Visitor and Learning Centre to celebrate his anniversary further. More information and details on how to book a place can be found on our What's on pages. There will also be a small display of his manuscripts in our Treasures of the British Library gallery in December (until then, you will be able to see the autograph manuscript of the Pastoral symphony in the main music display case, alongside Beethoven's tuning fork which he also owned). 

Bust of Vaughan Williams outside the Rare Books & Music Reading Room
Vaughan Williams (2nd from the right), in the company of Handel, J.S. Bach and Virginia Woolf - at the entrance to the Rare Books & Music Reading Room at the British Library

21 April 2022

Beethoven's legacy

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As we come into the final few days of our Beethoven: Idealist. Innovator. Icon exhibition, open until Sunday 24 April, we are concluding our series of Beethoven blog posts with a blog dedicated to Beethoven’s legacy.

Join us also for our last events celebrating Beethoven on Friday 22 April at 19.00: Beethoven in concert, with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and the Bach Choir and on Saturday 23 April at 19.30: Late at the Library: The Will Gregory Moog Ensemble.

Drawing from the rich collection of Beethoven material kept at the Library, the objects on display have given visitors a unique opportunity to experience the composer’s manuscripts, published scores, notebooks, letters, and personal belongings in the flesh. The immediacy of Beethoven’s chaotic handwriting shows his creative imagination at work, his personal notebooks reveal an individual troubled by progressive hearing loss, and his letters show that Beethoven was as much an astute businessman as a composer. But whilst the intimacy of these objects gives us access to Beethoven the individual, it remains difficult to gain a single perspective on the composer.

Beethoven’s image

It is the often-ambiguous image of Beethoven that carries his influence through music, literature, and the visual arts; to frequent adaptations and reinterpretations in popular culture; and that has allowed his music to be appropriated by diverse (often conflicting) political movements since his death. Beethoven’s image was elusive even during his lifetime. Prints of the composer circulated widely in Europe, and likenesses were contested by his contemporaries and even by Beethoven himself. The exhibition features several depictions of Beethoven that show the changing image of the composer in his life, death, and legacy.

Photograph of British Library Beethoven exhibition billboard

The title image of the exhibition recreates a portrait of Beethoven by Carl Jager (1870). The painting was completed over 40 years after Beethoven’s death. It shows a highly Romanticised image of the composer with a thoughtful look and swept-back hair. After its completion, an engraved version was printed and distributed by major publisher Frederick Bruckmann who traded in Berlin, Paris, New York and London.

Johann Peter Lyser’s sheet of Beethoven sketches (1833) include a full-length image of Beethoven in a top hat and coat and one of his head in profile. Although Lyser had never met Beethoven, the lithograph was considered a good likeness and was popular throughout the 19th century. Lyser produced the image from written descriptions of Beethoven but implied its authenticity visually by writing ‘Created after an original drawing’ below the image and including a copy of Beethoven’s signature. The British Library’s copy of the print made its way to England via Ignaz Moscheles, co-director of the Philharmonic Society in London, who included it in his autograph book.

Johann Peter Lyser’s sketches of Beethoven
Johann Peter Lyser’s sketches of Beethoven in Ignaz Moscheles’s album. Zweig MS 215, f.7r

One of the most striking moments in the exhibition are the sketches made by Austrian painter and lithographer Josef Teltscher who attended Beethoven at his deathbed. The two images show a rough sketch of the deathbed scene (right) and a touched-up version (left). Teltscher’s depictions sit on the boundary of Beethoven’s life and legacy. The rough sketch on the left shows a stark representation of Beethoven’s death, departing life with fists clenched, hair dishevelled, and face grimaced, whilst on the right we are presented with an image of Beethoven at rest, his softened facial features and pillow detail remarkably peaceful in contrast. Between these two images we see the Romanticisation of Beethoven in process: the immediate observations of the artist’s preliminary sketch followed by the idealised reconstructed image, perhaps ready for reproduction in paint or print.

Josef Teltscher’s sketch of Beethoven on his deathbed Josef Teltscher’s sketch of Beethoven on his deathbed
Josef Teltscher’s sketches of Beethoven on his deathbed. Zweig MS 207, f.1v-2r.

At the centre of the final section of the exhibition on Beethoven’s legacy sits a bust of Beethoven, copied from one sculpted by Johann Nepomuk Schaller (1777-1842). The bust presents the Romantic image of Beethoven in full swing. His swept back hair, classical attire, and piercing look form one of the most recognisable images of the composer today. The bust was donated to the Philharmonic Society in 1870 and has featured at every Society concert since 1871. The Society have adopted this image of Beethoven as 'a symbol of enduring musical excellence', and use the image for their prestigious gold medal.

Photograph of a plaster bust of Beethoven
Plaster bust of Beethoven from one sculpted by Johann Nepomuk Schaller (1777–1842). ©British Library Board, BLWA 43. Photography by Justine Trickett

Since the production of contemporary prints, the deathbed sketch, and Schaller’s iconic bust, Beethoven’s image has become ubiquitous in popular culture, reimagined in the screen prints of Andy Warhol (1987) and in Terry Adkins’ Synapse (2004) as part of his Black Beethoven series.

Legacy section

The legacy section of the exhibition provides a glimpse of the myriad ways Beethoven has influenced art, politics, and popular culture over the past two hundred years. Visitors are invited to contemplate the adoption of Beethoven’s music by a diverse range of political movements, his influence on countless composers, writers, and visual artists, and how his music and image have frequently found their way into popular culture.

A pamphlet of Wartime Songs from the BBC (1944) broadcast to Nazi-occupied France sees Beethoven’s music playing a part in the V for Victory campaign during the Second World War; May Byron’s romanticised fictional account of the composer’s daily life (1910) show his image being adopted into popular literature; Charles Schulz’s yearly celebration of Beethoven’s Birthday in his Peanuts cartoons brought Beethoven to a younger audience; and the Voyager Golden Record sees Beethoven’s music sent drifting out into deep space.

A page from Charles Schulz's It’s a Dog’s Life, Charlie Brown. A New Peanuts book highlighting Beethoven’s birthday
Charles Schulz highlighting Beethoven’s birthday in It’s a Dog’s Life, Charlie Brown. A New Peanuts book (1962). X.429/1504
Image of the Golden Voyageur record
The ‘Golden Record’ which included the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the ‘Cavatina’ movement from the String Quartet in B flat major (opus 130). 1ss0013021

There are only a few days left to experience this Beethoven material on display, until the exhibition itself becomes part of Beethoven’s legacy. But the items on show only scratch the surface of the Beethoven material available at the library, and readers will be able to explore Beethoven through the rich physical and digital collections that have made this exhibition possible.

Dominic BridgeCollaborative PhD student, University of Liverpool and British Library

12 April 2022

Beethoven and Zweig

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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:)