THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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10 posts from September 2019

30 September 2019

Recording of the week: in Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire …

This week's selection comes from Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English.

H-dropping – the tendency for some speakers to omit the initial <h> sound in words like house – has a long history. It’s extremely common in England, Wales and parts of the Caribbean, but rare in Scotland, Ireland or indeed the USA and most other English-speaking parts of the world. Because of its association in the UK with ‘local’ speech, it’s extremely stigmatised and frequently provokes criticism as these speakers confirm.

Discussion about H-Dropping & Hypercorrect H. BBC Voices Recording from Devizes, Wiltshire, 2004 (C1190/34/03)

For many years, self-conscious speakers in the UK have been anxious to avoid this social gaffe. In some cases insecurity over when to include <h> and when to leave it out can prompt a speaker to insert a <h> sound where there is none in the written word – a process referred to by linguists as hypercorrection. In the 19th century as social status became increasingly associated with accent, elocution classes, instruction manuals and pamphlets, such as 'Poor Letter H', were extremely popular among lower-middle-class speakers keen to acquire prestigious pronunciation forms.

Illustration from 'Poor Letter H: its use and abuse' (1854)Illustration from 'Poor Letter H: its use and abuse' (1854)

More than 150 years of middle-class anxiety about H-dropping has occasionally led to a change in the way we pronounce individual words. In contrast to the advice given here in 'Poor Letter H', we now seek to pronounce humble, humour, humility and hospital with initial <h> in formal speech, although they were originally pronounced without it even in ‘polite circles’. We also expect herb with an audible <h> in the UK, although the older form (without <h>) persists in the USA and opinions vary as to the ‘correct’ pronunciation of hotel and historic (is it a historic moment or an historic moment?). Perhaps the increased tendency to pronounce the letter aitch as ‘haitch’ as discussed here is an example of a similar change in progress. If prompted by our continued disapproval of H-dropping, it’s particularly interesting as it requires speakers to insert a <h> sound that is not reflected in the spelling.

Personally, I can think of no greater guilty linguistic pleasure than a judiciously dropped H or indeed a hypercorrect one. One of my fondest memories of my dad (b. Castleford, 1934) is of the occasion he took me to a prestigious boarding school for a hockey match and asked a rather condescending-looking schoolmaster the way to the hall-weather ockey pitch. That was 1983 – I wish he were around now to ask for directions to the hastroturf.

Find out more about social variation in British English on our British Accents and Dialects website and follow @VoicesofEnglish for tweets about language.

25 September 2019

Sounds from Bohemia: exploring the Bohemian Quartet’s recordings of Dvorak and Smetana

Bohemian Quartet drawingBohemian Quartet (Tully Potter collection)

Guest blog by Edison Fellow Rosalind Ventris, a concert violist and teacher of viola and chamber music at the Royal Irish Academy of Music

Listen to these two examples of the opening of Smetana’s String Quartet No.1 in E minor ‘From my life’. First, the Bohemian Quartet recorded in 1928

01 Smetana mvt 1 opening

and now the Pavel Haas Quartet

Here we have two interpretations by Czech quartets separated by almost ninety years, each passionate and invigorating, but how different they sound!

I first became aware of the Bohemian Quartet (or Ceské Kvarteto) in a fascinating talk Robert Philip gave at the IMS Prussia Cove Open Chamber Music in 2013, in which he played their recording of Dvořák’s American Quartet. This initial encounter made a strong impression on me and I have since spent time at the British Library as an Edison Fellow delving into the Sound Archive's collection of early recordings of Czech quartets playing Czech repertoire. The Bohemian Quartet’s recordings are especially revealing, and exemplify an approach to expressivity and ensemble that differs markedly to some performance styles today. In particular, their use of variation in bow technique, portamento, vibrato, tempo and rhythm all stand out as noteworthy. Perhaps surprisingly, performance practice of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Czech music has received less scholarly attention than other national schools, and the work that has been done in this field is not often reflected in performance today.

A particular interest in Dvořák led to my proposing his lesser-known quartets for a recording cycle with my former string quartet (the Albion) for Signum Classics. One of the CDs also features Josef Suk’s short Meditation on the Old Czech Hymn 'St Wenceslas' for String Quartet, Op. 35a. Two discs coincided with initial visits to the British Library. The Edison Fellowship has since provided a valuable opportunity to dig deeper into questions that arose when listening to the Bohemian Quartet and recording Czech string quartets.

Experts in historical recording are united in their praise of the Bohemian Quartet, and particular for their achievement of a genuine equality across the four players. Chamber music specialist Tully Potter describes them as ‘by common consent, the first great modern chamber ensemble’ (liner notes to The Czech Quartet Tradition, Biddulph), and Robert Philip calls them ‘the string quartet acknowledged as the first modern “ensemble of equals”’ (Robert Philip Performing Music in the Age of Recording, 21). Celebrated violin pedagogue Carl Flesch first encountered the Bohemians in 1894, writing in his Memoirs:

Hitherto, one had been accustomed to see in quartet ensembles chiefly a foil for the dominating leader, as was the case above all in the Joachim Quartet... here for the first time one heard ensemble playing by four congenial individualities who were on the same technical level. (Philip Performing Music in the Age of Recording, 122-123)

Their career spanned forty years of chamber music making from the early 1890s to the 1930s, with few changes of membership in that time. By the time the ensemble reached its tenth birthday they had already performed a thousand concerts, and they kept up this pace for most of the quartet’s existence. They toured extensively throughout Europe and collaborated with the likes of clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld (1906), violist Lionel Tertis (1906 and 1929) and many other illustrious musicians. Great composers such as Elgar and Janáček were among their many admirers. On hearing them rehearse his String Quartet Elgar exclaimed, ‘The reason I have lived so long is so as to experience your performance’ (Tully Potter, unpublished chapter). Czech composer Janáček was similarly enthralled by their playing, writing to his muse Kamila Stösslová, ‘I’ve not yet heard anything so magnificent as the way the Bohemian Quartet played my work’ (Tully Potter unpublished chapter). When Czechoslovakia came in to being in 1918 the group changed their name to the ‘Czech Quartet’, although in practice the name ‘Bohemian’ stuck.

Bohemian Quartet 1895The Bohemian Quartet in 1895  Karel Hoffmann, Hanuš Wihan, Oskar Nedbal, Josef Suk

The quartet’s members knew Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) personally and were closely associated with the music of Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884). When the violinist Antonín Bennewitz (1833-1926) became Director of the Prague Conservatory in 1882 he, alongside the cello professor Hanuš Wihan (1855-1920), began encouraging more chamber music at the institution. In 1891, at Wihan’s suggestion, the Bohemian Quartet was formed. The original membership consisted of violinists Karel Hoffmann (1872-1936), Josef Suk (1874-1935), violist Oskar Nedbal (1875-1930) and cellist Otakar Berger (1873-1897). The upper three were pupils of Bennewitz, and Berger studied with Wihan. After Berger’s illness and early death he was subsequently replaced by Wihan, who then became the group’s cellist for the bulk of their career.

The quartet’s teachers were also closely connected to Dvořák and Smetana. Both professors worked alongside Dvořák at the Prague Conservatory (Dvořák later succeeded Bennewitz as Director). Bennewitz gave the public premiere of Quartet No.7 Op.16 in A minor (29th December 1878, Prague). Wihan premiered the ‘Dumky’ Trio with the composer himself at the piano, and was the dedicatee of Dvořák’s B minor Cello Concerto, the arrangement of Silent Woods for cello and piano, and the Rondo in G minor. The Bohemian Quartet’s original members also all had close personal relationships with Dvořák. Three of the group’s founders: Suk, Nedbal and Berger were also Dvořák’s composition students, and Suk was also his son-in-law. The quartet gave the world premiere of Dvořák’s G major quartet Op.106 (9th October 1896), having given the first Prague performance of the A flat Quartet Op.105 earlier in that year on 21st January.

Bennewitz premiered Smetana’s Trio in G minor, and was a founder of the Kammermusikverein in 1876, a chamber music society whose nationalist principles spurred Smetana to write his first string quartet later that year. In the British Library Archive there is a very interesting radio programme from 1995 (H5456/2) by Duncan Druce on ‘From my life’, in which he talks of the initial resistance to this piece in some quarters. The Bohemians, however, made it their own: they first performed it in 1892, and so it was part of their repertoire from the beginning. Nedbal’s delivery of the opening viola solo— turning round to face the audience and playing it from memory— was much commented on by many illustrious witnesses, such as Sir Arnold Bax and Eric Coates.

By the time the Bohemians made their recordings in the 1920s, Hoffmann and Suk were still in the group, but in rather acrimonious circumstances in 1913 Wihan had been replaced by the younger Ladislav Zelenka (1881-1957) and Nedbal by Jiří Herold (1875-1934). (Happily, though, the British Library also has a couple of short recordings of Oskar Nedbal. Nedbal’s departure caused a scandal as he ran off ran off with first violinist Karel Hoffmann's wife in 1906!)

Given its members’ personal connections to Dvořák, the Bohemian Quartet’s recordings should clearly be a starting point for anyone interested in performance practices for this repertoire. With their pedigree it is perhaps particularly striking that the expressive devices that this group used—with one foot still firmly rooted in the nineteenth century—have largely been overlooked, especially when we think of the interest in period performance and the rise of this with regard to the music of nineteenth-century composers. Dvořák seems to have been particularly neglected. As Martin Jemelka has commented in a recent article (‘Antonin Dvořák’s Music made on period instruments’ Czech Music, 2012), only a small handful of chamber music discs of this repertoire touch on historically informed stylistic awareness.

Although the Bohemian Quartet’s recordings date from the 1920s, they clearly embody a fundamentally nineteenth-century performance style. They played on gut strings throughout their careers, there is considerable flexibility in their approach to tempo and use of rubato (they are far from metronomic), ensemble is less tight, rhythms are more gestural than exact, and obviously portamento is much more audibly prevalent than vibrato. There are some lapses of intonation in these recordings, which perhaps should be put down to the players’ advancing years. Since vibrato and portamento have been discussed in studies of historical recordings elsewhere, albeit not greatly in relation to this repertoire, I would like to draw attention here to some different features—those involving the players’ use of the bow.

In a sense it is surprising that the bow has received so little attention, since any string player would agree with Louis Spohr’s proclamation that the bow is the ‘soul of playing’ (Milsom Theory and Practice in late 19th-century violin performance, 34). Robert Philip provides some clarity as to the Bohemian Quartet’s general style, and comments that the

old ‘German’ way of playing extended far beyond Joachim’s direct influence. Different versions of it can be heard in recordings of the Rosé, Bohemian, Capet and the original Budapest Quartet. . . . The so-called German school was therefore not just a narrow group associated with Joachim, but a wider culture of violin playing, which, for a time, resisted the trend towards more powerful and assertive styles. Its preference for a broad style of bowing, and little vibrato, was a continuation of early nineteenth century practice. (Philip Performing Music in the Age of Recording 192-3)

Earlier Philip describes the old German grip 'with the low elbow, the fingers are close together, and roughly at right-angles to the bow.' 

Articulation markings seem to carry implications for bowing that are not exemplified in performances of this repertoire today. Where staccato dots are marked, the stroke is much more varied and often on the string (which is to say that the bow is not lifted off the string at the end of the note, as would be more common in modern performance). Moreover, any figure marked with a dot at the end is sometimes stopped rather than lifted. There are many examples of this in the Bohemian recordings, such as in the second movement Polka from Smetana’s Quartet No.1.

02 Smetana Polka BQ opening

In the score all the un-slurred notes are marked staccato. In this clip these are definitely more on the string before loosening up at the very end of the recording in bar 11.

We can compare the Bohemians with another contemporaneous version available in the British Library, which is similar in its approach to articulation.

03 Smetana Polka Sevcik Lhotsky opening

This recording is by a slightly younger Czech group—the Ševčík-Lhotský Quartet—which was made just a year after the Bohemian Quartet’s own. Again we hear the more on-the-string style that we encountered with the Bohemians. In the Ševčík-Lhotský’s rendition occasionally the bow will be thrown as an effect (e.g. violin 1 second movement bar 11), whereas the Bohemians were a little more controlled here.

Similarly, in the opening of the ‘American’ quartet of Dvořák both Hoffmann and Herold from the Bohemians prefer a more ‘on-the-string’ approach.

04 Dvorak mvt 1 BQ opening

This prevalence for more on-the-string strokes might in part be a result of the old ‘German’ style of bow-hold described above, lending itself more to these kinds of on the string strokes. Clive Brown (in Classical and Romantic Performing Practice 1750-1900) and David Milsom (in Theory and practice in late nineteenth-century violin performance) have also both commented that in the nineteenth-century German school the upper-half of the bow was used more frequently for off-the-string strokes.

It is also noticeable that the Bohemians are not always consistent with their strokes: they sometimes vary articulation on a repeated passage on a second hearing. Often this is clearly for musical variety, but there are also examples where differences in articulation could be down to age. This is illustrated in the accompaniment in the first movement in this passage in the Dvořák ‘American' Quartet.

05 Dvorak mvt 1 BQ acc fig

Clearly Hoffman’s bow control is not the same—or perhaps this could also be put down to different priorities. If you listen again to the very start of the movement in the previous extract you can audibly hear Hoffmann put the bow to the string and the sound is slightly shaky.

It is worth pointing out that the Bohemian’s articulation and right-hand choices often link to emphasising rhythmic shapes and gestures. For instance, double-dotting is apparent in the extracts above in the first movement of the Dvořák ‘American’ and the Smetana ‘From my life’ opening. In the Smetana Polka we heard earlier the ‘quasi Tromba’ theme is double-dotted in the viola and violin, and is particularly striking when it reaches the first violin in terms of rhythmic gesture: the first two quavers of the bar are marked slurred with a dot under the second, and Hoffmann and Herold play with the beat-placement here to make the rhythm particularly dance-like.

06 Smetana Polka BQ rhythm

Hear the opening of third movement of the Dvořák ‘American’ for the same effect

07 Dvorak mvt 3 BQ rhythm

In fact, wherever there are a couple of repeated rhythmic values together they are often played with a lengthening of the first of the group. One good example is the evocative harmonic turning point in the first movement of the Dvořák ‘American’

08 Dvorak mvt 1 BQ flex (2)

Often this rhythmic flexibility will be led by the first violinist, and there are many examples of this throughout the recordings. For me, the Bohemian Quartet’s rendition of the second movement of the Dvořák ‘American’ offers a masterclass in rhythmic flexibility.

In line with nineteenth-century practice the group significantly slows down into more restful passages of music and then rushes through more excited bits: listen again to the opening of the polka extract from the Smetana ‘From my life’ second movement above, and here again is a fuller version of the last extract to show how the group first pushes through, followed by an extreme winding down into the second theme.

09 Dvorak mvt 1 BQ winddown

Portamento is used by the players to emphasise the dissipating of energy in this passage—a device which is used with similarly effective results elsewhere.

The Ševčík-Lhotský Quartet also use rubato and portamenti in the manner of the Bohemians. As a final example, listen to this beautiful, swooping rendition of Osakar Nedbal’s Valse Triste played by the Ševčík-Lhotský Quartet recorded on 28th May 1929.

Disc label Valse TristeDisc label (1CL0074346 BL collections)

10 Nedbal Valse Triste 1CL0074346

Although the Ševčík-Lhotský Quartet clearly had their own very different interpretations of Czech masterpieces, the fact that they also used similar expressive devices as the Bohemians bolsters the argument that these were fundamental to the character of this repertoire and not just the product of an unusual idiosyncratic ensemble.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many ways in which the time spent with these recordings during this Fellowship has influenced my approach to this repertoire in my playing. I am looking forward to building on the work undertaken during my Fellowship with a Research trip next month to Prague, as a recipient of the Royal Irish Academy of Music’s Amplify Grant. This visit will then feed back into my chamber music teaching at the RIAM, to help the students develop a performer-oriented understanding of stylistic traits and broaden their expressive palettes.

I am very grateful to the British Library and to Jonathan Summers for his guidance throughout this Fellowship, and to Tully Potter for sharing his fascinating materials and insights into the world of the Bohemian Quartet with me.

During my fellowship I also wrote an article on Ševčík’s teaching for The Strad magazine.

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

23 September 2019

Recording of the week: The Beautiful Garden

This week's selection comes from Adonis Lebotho, Social Media Intern for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

I recently came across Robert Pogue Harrison’s Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, a book on the cultural, historical and philosophical significance of gardens. Throughout, Pogue reflects on the relationship between ‘care and gardens’.[1] The act of tending to and cultivating a certain special place, he says, frames gardening as a model for tenderness and responsibility, above all ‘as a counterforce to history’s deleterious drives’.[2] In other words, gardeners take time and effort to cultivate a small perfectible corner of the world, against the chaos and disorder around them.

I mention this book as gardens have come to my attention several times recently, namely through The Beautiful Garden'an acapella vocal piece performed by Valerie Chapman found in the Roy Palmer English Folk Music Collection and the opening of the British Library’s community Story Garden. Click here to learn more about the Story Garden, a temporary community-run garden giving space for people to plant, cook and be together.

Photograph of a woman planting flowers in a flowerbedA woman plants flowers in a flowerbed

‘The Beautiful Garden’ tells the story of a boy and girl from vastly different backgrounds who strike up a chance friendship while playing from either side of a garden fence. The song considers how unfortunate and petty the things that divide them are and imagines a time when the pair might happily walk ‘side by side.’

They played in their beautiful garden, the children of high degree
Outside the gates the beggars passed in their misery
But there was one of the children that could not join the play
And a poor little beggar maiden watched for him day by day
Once he had given her a flower and oh, how he smiled to see
The thin pale hand through the railing stretched out so eagerly
She came again to the garden to see the children play
But the little white face had vanished, little feet gone astray
She crept away to a corner down by a murky stream
But the thin pale face in the garden shone through her restless dream
But the thin pale face in the garden shone through her restless dream
That highborn child and the beggar maid passed onwards side by side
For the ways of men are narrow but the gates of heaven are wide
For the ways of men are narrow but the gates of heaven are wide

The Beautiful Garden (C1023/6)

Though there’s very little information about Valerie Chapman, there is a little more about her father, George Dunn. George’s recordings, from which ‘The Beautiful Garden’ is taken, form a significant part of the Roy Palmer English Folk Music Collection. A chain maker and traditional singer from the village of Quarry Bank, Birmingham, George was descended from a line iron workers. He performed at private parties and public houses, but once he’d retired from the life of a musician, even his daughter was largely unaware of his musical background.

Beginning in the 1960s, Roy Palmer dedicated himself to collecting and sharing traditional music and folklore, including soldier’s songs and folk drama. The Roy Palmer Collection consists of 140 hours of field recordings of traditional English music in 1549 sound items. These recordings were largely produced in Warwickshire, Gloucestershire, and Birmingham, where Dunn was based.

Click here to find out more about the Roy Palmer English Folk Music Collection.

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[1] Robert Pogue Harrison, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, (University of Chicago Press, 2008), pg. 7.

[2] Robert Pogue Harrison, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, (University of Chicago Press, 2008), pg. X.

Follow @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

 

18 September 2019

Ernö Goldfinger at Open House 2019

‘He was rational about absolutely everything, down to how you sharpened your pencil.’

British architects and architecture in Britain have long been affected by influences from overseas. In the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, a traditional training was based on the classical architecture of Greece and Rome and students spent hours painstakingly copying capitals and columns. Classical orders from the Encyclopedie, engravings of capitals and columns

Capitals and columns. Classical orders, engraving from the Encyclopédie vol. 18. 18th-century French engraving, 1761

By the early twentieth century, some architects responded to the technological changes occurring in infrastructure, communications and engineering. They argued that architecture should reflect these changes by using new forms and materials, and by mirroring how people lived in the present, rather than looking to the past. In this period, Britain experienced the arrival of a small but significant wave of European architects such as Berthold Lubetkin and Serge Chermayeff from Russia, and Ernö Goldfinger from Hungary. These architects created some of the most important buildings of the modern movement in Britain: Highpoint in Highgate, the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill and Willow Road in Hampstead. A small and inter-connected group, they knew each other and even lived in each other’s houses. Ernö Goldfinger lived in Highpoint in North London before creating his family home nearby at 2 Willow Road. This home, built in 1939, received much public criticism when built, but has now become a local landmark and was opened to the public in 1996. Iris Strachan remembers her first visit to the house, ‘it was a revelation!’

Iris Strachan describes 2 Willow Road (C467/60)

2 Willow Road, Hampstead. Photographed by Niamh Dillon.

2 Willow Road, Hampstead. Photographed by Niamh Dillon.

Later, after the Second World War, Goldfinger designed larger residential blocks in London, notably the Trellick and Balfron Towers, both of which are open as part of Open House 2019. Often fiercely criticised when built, Goldfinger’s works are now increasingly in demand both as homes and visitor attractions. Here, long-time collaborator Jacob Blacker recalls working with Goldfinger, ‘he was a geometrician’.

Jacob Blacker describes Goldfinger as a geometrician (C467/52)

Trellick Tower. Photographed by Mark Ramsay.

Trellick Tower. Photographed courtesy Mark Ramsay. Licensed under CC BY 2.0

Open House London takes place this weekend, 21-22 September 2019. Hundreds of buildings will be open to the public for free – including five designed by Ernö Goldfinger (1902-1987). For information about visiting 2 Willow Road see the National Trust website. For information about visiting Trellick Tower see the Open House London website.

Blog by Dr Niamh Dillon, Architects' Lives Project Interviewer

17 September 2019

Beginnings: Arabic music in the 'Ezra Hakkāk and Emile Cohen Collection

Hazem Jamjoum joined the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Project in April 2019 as Gulf Audio Curator and Cataloguer. Over the next 2-3 years he will be working on the Library's audio collections connected with the Gulf region to scope, catalogue and research them, to manage their preservation and access and to write about them. In this blog Hazem talks of his introduction to the collections.

 

It was at the very beginning, less than three weeks into my role as Gulf History Audio Curator that I found myself with British Library Sound Archive doyen Ian Macaskill in the disc and tape-bestrewn room through which newly acquired sound and moving image materials enter the British Library’s collections. At the end of this audio-cataloguer rite of passage, one foot already out the door, I was beckoned back into the room to describe my role at the Library to another veteran of the accessioning team. As if awaiting confirmation that I would work with Arabic language materials, a bemused Jowan Collier rose from his seat and began the dance around the stacks of CDs to the other end of the room. “I imagine there’s a box that’s been sitting here that might just pique your interest.” A few dozen shellacs in an assortment of discrepant sleeves lay in a dark wooden box marked “532: Emile Cohen Collection.” A yellow sticky note, curled up like a delaminated lacquer disc on the side of the box announced October 25, 2016 as the donation date.

Image of Emile Cohen Box
“…there’s a box that’s been sitting here that might just pique your interest.”


I eventually found out that it was my predecessor on the British Library-Qatar Foundation partnership, Rolf Killius, who had arranged for this gift. Rolf had delivered a lecture about Iraqi music at the British Institute for the Study of Iraq after which an elderly gentleman introduced himself, and soon thereafter offered to donate a collection of shellacs to the British Library. This was Emile Cohen. Born in Baghdad in 1943 to a secular scion of a rabbinical family, Emile spent the evenings of his youth listening to the dozens of guests who would assemble at his grandfather’s house for edifying conversation. Given the centrality of Baghdad’s Jewish community to the city’s musical life, much of this conversation centred on things musical. It didn’t hurt that from the roof of their house they could eavesdrop on the regular musical performances at the nightclub next door. Cohen had obtained the recordings from 'Ezra Hakkāk. The Hakkāk’s owned a shop on al-Rasheed Street in Baghdad and another in Tehran that started off selling leather goods, branching out into sewing machines, electronics and, ultimately gramophone machines and records.

Emile narrates much about these and other stories in an oral history interview conducted by Richard Green and held at the Library as part of the Sephardi Voices UK Collection (C1638), and which comprises oral history testimony about the settlement of Jews from West Asia and North Africa in the UK.

Image of Emile Cohen with Collection – photo by Rolf Killius 2016
Emile Cohen just before a trip to the British Library to donate his shellac collection. Photo: Rolf Killius, 2016.

Much can be said about what was in that little box, but ‘beginnings’ might be ‘a very good place to start’ given how many of the recordings contained in that box of wonders embodied career-launching events in the contributing artists’ biographies. At the very top of the box’s stack of discs lay two Baidaphon records by the legendary Laylā Murād (1918-1995). Though Murād had achieved enough fame as a teenager in one of Cairo’s top music halls to be cast in one of the earliest full length Egyptian films (al-Dhaḥāyā [The Victims], 1932, dir. Bahija Hafez and Ibrahim Lama), hers was a minor role in the silent film. She achieved a bit more notoriety when that film was reissued as a ‘talkie’ a few years later, landing her a recording deal with Baidaphon that resulted in Ḥabbayt w shuft ktīr (I've loved and seen a great deal), which was also in the box. But it was not until her 1938 collaboration with Moḥammad ʻAbd al-Wahhāb on the film Yaḥyā al-Ḥubb (Long Live Love, dir. Moḥammad Karīm) that her career as a superstar singer and actor began. Indeed, the two records at the top of the delightful box were Yā mā ʼaraqq al-nasīm (oh how soft the breeze) and Yā qalbī mālak (oh my heart, what is the matter), both written by Aḥmad Rāmī and composed by ʻAbd al-Wahhāb, and both from that film’s soundtrack.

Image of Habbayt w shuft kteer on the Baidaphon label
“Ḥabbayt w shuft ktīr” on the Baidaphon label. Recorded when she was 19 years of age, it was one of Layla Murad’s very first recordings.

Nestled among the shellacs in the box of wonders was a little 17cm disc in its original sleeve proclaiming the artist as “Om Kalsoum”, one of more than a dozen variations on the Egyptian diva’s name. The recording is “Enta fein wel ḥobb fein” which roughly translates as “love is here, and you are way over there”, a song much better known after its opening verse "ḥubb eh illi-inta gayy tʼūl 'aleh" (what love is it that you speak of). By 1960, when this song was first performed, Um Kulthūm was already well established as the pre-eminent Arab artist across the region. Indeed, at that time Egypt and Syria had united into the United Arab Republic, and Um Kulthūm had been chosen to sing the union’s national anthem. But it was the largely unknown composer of this runaway hit who skyrocketed to regional fame when it was first performed. Balīgh Ḥamdī (1931-1993) had studied music since the age of nine, spending his college years between law school and the music academy before trying his hand as a singer in the late 1950s. It was around this time that Um Kulthūm was looking for a new sound, meeting Ḥamdī at the recommendation of singer (and Misrphon label owner) Moḥamad Fawzī. In the two decades that followed the success of ḥubb eh, Ḥamdī became one of the most sought after composers in the Arab world, composing for every major artist of the mid-twentieth century as well as for radio, television, theatre and the cinema. Hip hop aficionados will be very familiar with Timbaland’s sampling of the melody from Ḥamdī’s Khusāra khusāra on Jay Z’s first major hit single, Big Pimpin’. Intellectual property enthusiasts are likely also familiar with it after Ḥamdī’s nephew sued Jay Z, Timbaland and EMI in 2007 for copyright infringement. The court summarily dismissed the case in 2015, finding that Egyptian law was not applicable, and that as a result the artists and the recording company were under no obligation to seek the permission of Ḥamdī’s family for what the family considered a debauched use of Balīgh Ḥamdī’s work.

Image of Um Kulthūm on the cover of Enta Fein wel Hobb Fein
The original sleeve of Um Kulthūm’s ḥubb eh, composed by Balīgh Ḥamdī


In addition to a host of other career-making recordings, Emile Cohen’s gift can tell the tale of another sort of beginning; the beginning of Egyptian music’s regional dominance in the interwar period. Many of those involved in the development of cultural production in Egypt since the nineteenth century were artists whose families had moved to Egypt from Greater Syria, a trend that continued well into the twentieth century. From this collection alone, some names that stand out include:

  • Ṣabāḥ, who was brought to Egypt from Mount Lebanon by filmmaker ’Āssia Dāgher and ultimately recorded over 3000 songs and performed in over 100 plays and films;
  • Moḥammad Salmān, who moved to Cairo from Mt. Lebanon to pursue a career in music but would later find his passion as an actor and filmmaker in the Egyptian capital;
  • Ḥalīm al-Rūmī, who grew up in Palestine performing as an amateur until he was sent to study at the music academy in Cairo in 1937. There, he became deeply involved in composing and performing for radio audiences before eventually becoming head of music programming at the Near East Broadcasting Service in Palestine until the expulsion of, and denial of return to, two-thirds of the Palestinian population in 1947-1948. After a few years with the broadcast service which had moved to Cyprus, he moved to Lebanon to head the music department at the Lebanese radio service al-Sharq al-Awsat;
  • Najāḥ Salām’s Beiruti father was a well-known composer and ‘ūd player and took the chanteuse, already known in Lebanon, to Cairo in 1948 to meet many of the leading musical figures of the Egyptian capital. This, of course, did wonders for her career. So much so that by the mid-1970s she was granted honorary Egyptian citizenship.
  • Sihām Rifqī who moved from Syria to Egypt for a music and film career, recording over a dozen hits before an early retirement;
    and of course
  • Farīd al-‘Aṭrash and Amal al-‘Aṭrash (aka Asmahān), brother and sister born to a notable Druze family that had led the resistance against the French occupation of Syria, moving to Egypt because of the anticolonial connections between their family and that of the Egyptian independence movement’s leader Sa‘d Zaghlūl. The siblings rose to dominate the music and musical film scene in Cairo by the 1940s.
Image of Baidaphon sleeve featuring their top recording artists
Baidaphon was a Beirut-based record label, and possibly the first homegrown music recording company in the Arab world. This sleeve from the 1940s showcases the company’s top recording artists. It is notable that all of these artists hail from Greater Syria, and all of them launched their stardom and regional celebrity in Egypt. Clockwise from the top: Asmahān, Najāḥ Salām, Ḥalīm al-Rūmī, Sihām Rifqī, Moḥammad Salmān, Ḥanān. The record in the photograph is by an Egyptian dancer of Syrian origin, Bibā ʻIzz al-Dīn, who achieved far more notoriety for her live shows in Cairo’s music halls than she did for her recorded output.

Those familiar with postcolonial dynamics will be particularly aware of just how politicised cultural battles between former coloniser and colonised can be. In the case of Arab states emerging from British, French and Italian colonial rule, and in light of the centrality of Cairo described above, the battle over national culture was also waged with an eye to Egypt. Whether in Tunisia, Iraq, or elsewhere, the mid-twentieth century witnessed an immense amount of activity that practically accepted Egyptian cultural production as the language of Arabic culture, but each of these fledgling nation-states sought to develop and elevate their own dialect within that. The dynamic between language and dialect is not only metaphor; any composer in the interwar period who wanted to produce 'serious' music had to do so in either classical Arabic or an Egyptian dialect, while other dialects were reserved for their own folklore. After the post-WWII wave of postcolonial independence, composers and lyricists beyond the confines of Cairo sought a legitimacy for their own dialects, including other Egyptian dialects, as ones that could convey a cultivated urbanity.

The recordings in this collection help tell that story as it unfolded in Lebanon. The early recordings by Ṣabāḥ and Wadī‘ al-Ṣāf ī in the collection typify the folkloric bent of the music recorded in Lebanon well into the 1940s. One of the more significant recordings in the collection is the song Waynik yā Laylā (Where are you Layla) by Sāmī al-Ṣaydāwī, who originally composed the song for Lebanese singer Kamāl al-Ṭawīl. Both Ṣaydāwī and Ṭawīl had built careers performing in the Egyptian dialect to audiences in both Egypt and Greater Syria; Waynik yā Laylā was one of the early non-folkloric songs performed and recorded in the Syro-Lebanese dialect, forming part of a trend that would continue and grow over the decades that followed.

Image of the iconic cover art of Fairūz and the Raḥbānī brothers’ 1952 hit: ʻItāb (reproach)
The iconic cover art of Fairūz and the Raḥbānī brothers’ 1952 hit: ʻItāb (reproach)



The artists who did the most to propel Lebanese song into the more exalted register regionally all had a part to play in yet another item in the box of wonders. The song ʻItāb (reproach), appearing on the Zodephone label in the early 1950s, was an instant hit, one that proved momentous for the emergence of Beirut as Cairo’s main musical rival. The vocalist, Nuhād Haddād, had been 'discovered' a few years earlier by Mohamad Flayfel, composer of such songs as Mawṭini (‘my homeland’, the popularly accepted national anthem of Palestine, and the post-2003-occupation anthem of Iraq) and Ḥumāt al-Diyār (‘defenders of the home,’ the national anthem of Syria). Flayfel encouraged Haddād to study music at the conservatory, and to immerse herself in that repository of vocal technique at the heart of ecstatic Arabic song: Qur’anic recitation (tajwīd). While at the conservatory, Ḥalīm al-Rūmī heard her sing and decided to take her under his wing, introducing her to his friends the Raḥbānī brothers, ‘Assī and Manṣūr. Rūmī also decided to pick out a stage name for her, one that means turquoise, and that millions of people now associate with their morning coffee: Fairūz.

As a romance blossomed between ‘Assī Raḥbānī and Nuhād (they married in 1955), so did their creative collaboration, the first fruit of which was the song ʻItāb that is on this recording. The airing of this song on Lebanese and then Syrian radio in late 1952 launched Fairūz’s regional fame, enabling her to sign her first recording contract with Zodephone. Indeed, Zodephone's early success as a record company was based on the company's recordings of Fairuz songs.

All that’s left to say is a big warm thank you to Emile Cohen and ‘Ezra Hakkāk for such wonderful beginnings!

 

Written by Hazem Jamjoum, Gulf Audio Curator and Cataloguer, British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Project (BLQF), which produces the Qatar Digital Library. Follow the BLQF Project @BLQatar

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16 September 2019

Recording of the week: Whooper Swans take flight

This week's selection comes from Greg Green, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Swans are often portrayed as elegant and beautiful birds, and while they can be very aggressive, they are certainly among my favourite birds to see and hear. So it was an absolute joy when I had the chance to catalogue many reels of swan recordings. I enjoyed many of the recordings in these reels, including the stunning wingbeats of Mute Swans in flight and even a heartbeat which I previously selected as a recording of the week last year.

19th century illustration of a Whooper Swan19th Century Illustration of a Whooper Swan (Biodiversity Heritage Library CC-BY)

This recording of Whooper Swans (Cygnus cygnus) by John Corbett was captured in the tranquility of the Swedish lakes. Two whoopers can be heard bellowing to each other. An impressive sound on its own, but here the sound diffuses, reverberates and echoes throughout the vast mountainous surroundings so perfectly that it’s as though the landscape was designed especially for these calls. Or perhaps these vocalisations evolved in this habitat to resonate further for long distance communication. The pair take flight as the recording plays on, beautifully demonstrating the Doppler effect as they fly past the microphones and out to the horizon, their calls gradually fading into the echoes from the environment. Just stunning!

Whooper swans recorded by John Corbett (WS1734 C5)

This recording has been digitised as part of the library's Unlocking our Sound Heritage project.

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09 September 2019

Recording of the week: representing Britain at the Venice Biennale

This week's selection comes from Camille Johnston, Oral History Assistant Archivist.

Every two years since 1895 the Venice Biennale has been bringing together artists from across the globe to take part in an almighty exhibition. This year is the 58th exhibition, and 89 countries are taking part. For our Recording of the Week we’re returning to 1956, when Lynn Chadwick (1914-2003) won the International Prize for Sculpture.

Chadwick was described as the ‘breakthrough artist’ when he first exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1952, and in 1956, Alan Bowness described him as ‘a figure of international artistic importance’.[1]

Lynn Chadwick, surrounded by sculptures, at his home in GloucestershireLynn Chadwick, surrounded by sculptures, at home in Lypiatt Park, Gloucestershire, where his Artists' Lives recording took place. Courtesy Cathy Courtney.

Despite being awarded such a prestigious prize, when asked about the Biennale Chadwick’s response is humble. Clearly delighted for his work to be exhibited internationally, he remembers how it felt to be the centre of attention.

Lynn Chadwick on the Venice Biennale and the life of an artist (C466/28)

The second half of this audio extract comes from a different part of Chadwick’s interview – and reveals a different side to the life of an artist. Chadwick recalls a conversation shared with German surrealist Max Ernst, and reflects on how artists fall in and out of fashion.

Lynn Chadwick CBE RA was interviewed for the National Life Stories project Artists’ Lives in 1995. Despite his wish to go to art school, which was refused by his parents, Chadwick began his working life in an architect’s office through a placement organised by his school headmaster. He trained to be an architectural draughtsman before realising that he would not succeed as an architect, and after the war moved to a small cottage in Gloucestershire where he began experimenting with mobiles (partly inspired by the work of fellow artist Alexander Calder). Gradually Chadwick’s work became more fixed as he developed his own techniques for working with metal, and is he known today for his distinctive sculptures in bronze and steel.

These clips and image are taken from Michael Bird’s essay, ‘Opening up to international influences: British art in the 20th century’ on the website Voices of art.

[1] UK Artists at the Venice Biennale in the 1950s. British Council.

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06 September 2019

Ernest Shackleton and the Farthest South

The ‘Nimrod’ expedition (1907-1909) was the first of three expeditions to the Antarctic led by Sir Ernest Shackleton. The mission was very much a private affair and at the time didn’t receive the support of the major scientific organisations. The ship itself didn’t meet Shackleton’s expectations, as we can tell from his appraisal when he first caught sight of it on the Thames on 15 June 1907:

I must confess that I was disappointed when I first examined the little ship, to which I was about to commit the hopes and aspirations of many years. She was dilapidated and smelt strongly of seal-oil, and an inspection in dock showed that she required caulking and that her masts would have to be renewed.1

Nimrod sailed from England on 7 August 1907. This was the first attempt made by the British to reach the Antarctic. However the Nimrod (named after a great biblical figure ‘the first on earth to be a mighty man’2, as written in Genesis) didn’t actually make it to the South Pole. The most southern point was reached on 9 January 1909 at latitude 88ᵒ23’S and longitude 162ᵒE.

Listen to the voice of Shackleton recorded on 23 June 1909 (Bl ref. 1CL0029071)

The Nimrod, having the party of the British Antarctic Expedition, left New Zealand on 1 January 1908. We landed at Cape Royds in the Antarctic under the great volcano Mount Erebus at the beginning of February. On 3 March a party ascended that mountain, encountering severe blizzards, and for the first time in human history the great Erebus, 13,350 feet high, was ascended by men.

The Southern journey started from Cape Royds on 28 October 1908 and on January 9 of this year, 1909, the British flag was hoisted in latitude 88 23 South and longitude 162 East. We retraced our steps over crevasses through soft snow encountering blizzards till eventually on 1 March of 1909 we arrived at winter quarters, having covered 1,708 miles on the journey...

Black and white photograph of the ship Nimrod off Cape RoydsPhoto of Nimrod off Cape Royds. From Shackleton, E. H. “Some Results of the British Antarctic Expedition, 1907-9.” The Geographical Journal, vol. 34, no. 5, 1909, pp. 481–500. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1777278.

The dash to the South Pole is certainly the central episode of the whole expedition.3 Even though the main target of reaching the South Pole was not attained, the expedition represents the first ever registered record to reach the South Magnetic Pole.

The expedition was also a product of the Empire: the British flag was now flying over the Northern and Southern Poles for the first time.

Eric Marshall, Frank Wild and Ernest Shackleton at their Farthest South latitudePhotograph of Eric Marshall, Frank Wild and Ernest Shackleton at their Farthest South latitude, 88°23'S, Nimrod expedition 9 January 1909. From the book The Heart of the Antarctic by Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Men go out unto the void spaces of the world for various reasons. Some are actuated simply by a love of adventure, some have taken thirst for scientific knowledge, and others again are drawn away from the trodden paths by the ‘lure of little voices’, the mysterious fascination of the unknown. I think that in my own case it was a combination of these factors that determined me to try my fortune once again in the frozen south.4

This recording is part of the UCL Phonetics Collection (British Library ref.: 1CL0029071), original issue: Gramophone (HMV) D 377. The collection was acquired by the British Library Sound Archive from the UCL Department of Phonetics and Linguistics.

Blogpost by Giulia Baldorilli, Sound and Vision Reference Specialist, British Library

[1] Shackleton, E. (1909). The Heart of the Antarctic, etc.

[2] Riffenburgh, B. (2004). Nimrod: Ernest Shackleton and the extraordinary story of the 1907-09 British Antarctic Expedition, Beau Riffenburgh. London: Bloomsbury.

[3] British Newspaper Archive, Globe - Wednesday 10 November 1909.

[4] Shackleton, E. (1909). The Heart of the Antarctic, etc.