THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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108 posts categorized "Music"

05 December 2018

Concert cylinders and the first recording of the Queen’s Hall Orchestra

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Label close up

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

It was exciting to receive an Edison concert cylinder as a donation recently, but much more so to discover that it is probably the first recording by members of the Queen’s Hall Orchestra.  Cylinder box labels and the cylinders housed within often do not match, so until we were able to play the cylinder, with a special sized mandrel, we did not know if it was what the label declared.  Fortunately, there was an announcement and the strains of Weber’s Invitation to the Waltz were immediately recognizable. 

Pitching the recording and ensuring the correct playback speed was of paramount importance.  Our engineer had found discussion on the internet speculating that the speed should be 120 rpm for concert cylinders.  However, this pitched the music far too high.  The work was written in D flat major and I found in the British Library collections the score and parts of the edition that probably would have been used for this recording published by Boosey and Company in 1889.  Like the original work, the key of this arrangement is D flat major.  The cylinder had to be played at 102 rpm to give a satisfactory performance of the work.  Evidence that it is a copy (by the pantograph process) and not an original can be heard at the end of the recording where three thuds are heard as the master cylinder hits the end of the grooves, but the copy keeps running.  The first few grooves containing the announcement are damaged but once the music begins, the sound is surprisingly good for 116 years ago.

Weber Invitation to the Waltz

Sir-Henry-Wood-with-Promenade-Concert-Performers

Sir Henry Wood with the Queen's Hall Wind Quintet by William Whiteley Ltd  Albumen cabinet card, circa 1897 NPG P1837  © National Portrait Gallery, London

The Queen's Hall orchestra was founded in 1895 to inaugurate the new Promenade Concerts.  It was in 1902 that the Queen’s Hall Wind Quintet was founded. Trained and rehearsed by the orchestra’s conductor Henry Wood, who also played the piano in performances, the group was known as Wood Wind.  Lecture concerts were given in the Small Queen’s Hall in an effort to make works written for wind ensemble known to the general public.  The members were Albert Fransella (flute), Désiré Lalande (oboe), Manuel Gomez (clarinet), Frederick James (bassoon) and Adolphe Borsdorf (horn).  It is highly likely that some or all of these musicians are heard on this recording.  Most were born in the 1860s and Lalande died in 1904 at the age of thirty-eight.  Gomez, born in 1859, was a founding member of the London Symphony Orchestra while Borsdorf, born in 1854, performed in the English premiere of Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel under the baton of the composer in 1896.  The Queen’s Hall was destroyed in 1941 when it was bombed by the Germans.

Live on stage

Concert cylinders were developed to produce a louder sound so that recordings could ‘be clearly and distinctly heard throughout the largest halls, and in the open air.’  They were not commercially successful, no doubt due to the price and cost of playback equipment.  The A1 Concert Grand, which could play both standard size and concert cylinders retailed at £16 and 16 shillings.  

Edison Concert Cylinder player 1-page-001

The recording we have here was made around 1902 being priced at six shillings, equivalent to around £31 in today’s money.  The machines were very expensive with a complete package including horns, twelve cylinders and three blanks costing an amazing £40 in 1902.

The Phonograph and Talking Machine Exchange-page-040EDIT

A list of twenty recordings by the London Regimental Band augmented by members of the Queen’s Hall Orchestra appeared for the 1902 season advertised in the Phonograph and Talking Machine Exchange, so they could have been recorded the previous year.

London Concert Cylinders

Thanks to Jolyon Hudson for the donation of the cylinder and extra information.

 For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

 

26 November 2018

Recording of the week: Dungeons and Dragons' curious renaissance

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This week's selection comes from Jowan Collier, Preservation Assistant.

I have a confession. Every week or so, a few friends and I gather in a small living room to play Dungeons and Dragons. Or as the Dungeon Master’s mother puts it, “to roll dice and pretend”. My character’s name is Gurth Mandrake. He is an elf. Which makes Dungeons and Dragons seem like the kind of pastime practiced only by the dorkiest of dorks, alongside trainspotting or Mathletics. Except, after years in the excruciatingly uncool doldrums, D&D seems to be making a comeback.

Dungeon pic

More and more young (and youngish) people are similarly bandying together across the country, inventing characters and being led on giant quests by a storyteller, or Dungeon Master. Programmes like Stranger Things and Harmonquest have only inspired more and more groups to spring up. You may know someone who, despite their perfectly normal outward appearance, moonlights as a roguish orc every once in a while.

Sure, it’s still fairly nerdy. There are dice with more than six sides and character sheets so initially bewildering, some players tap out within the first few sessions. But for those who stick with it, rolling dice and pretending may just be the finest storytelling vehicle there is.

The following is our theme tune, a track that starts every one our D&D sessions composed by Tom Bennett. More can be found at Dungeons and Drag Queens part 1 (DD00014165).

Harmony Theme (Revised)


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12 November 2018

Recording of the week: a duet for Ugandan lyres

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This week's selection comes from Tom Miles, Metadata Coordinator for Europeana Sounds.

This song, recorded in Kamuli, Uganda in 1954 by the pioneering ethnomusicologist Klaus Wachsmann, is of two ntongoli players, Kaija and Isake Ibande, from the Soga culture.

Abe Waife (BL reference C4/39)

The ntongoli is a type of lyre, a stringed instrument. The Hornbostel Sachs musical instrument classification system defines the lyre as a “yoke lute” – that is, the strings are borne by a beam connecting two prongs that emerge from the resonator. Thus, the shape of the lyre generally resembles the head of a horned animal. But a search for “lyre” on Europeana shows that lyres come in many different shapes and sizes, some very simply made, some with ornate and colourful decorations.

The lyre is most closely associated with the mythological character of Ancient Greece, Orpheus, who played so beautifully that he charmed the animals who heard him.

Lyre (ntongoli) UofEdin CC-BY-NC-SAA late 20th century ntongoli (University of Edinburgh via Europeana, CC-BY-NC-SA)

Although the image of this beautiful ntongoli, held at the University of Edinburgh, is taken from an upright position, the instrument is actually played tilted over so that the strings are more or less horizontal, rather like a guitar. You can hear from this recording that the singing and playing is very intense and powerful, with rhythmic patterns from one instrument following the other in rapid succession.

Visit British Library Sounds to hear more recordings from the Klaus Wachsmann Uganda collection.

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

22 October 2018

Recording of the week: West Africa Lagos Digital Edition

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This week's selection comes from Dr Janet Topp Fargion, Lead Curator of World and Traditional Music.

Visitors to the Ake Arts and Book Festival to be held in Lagos, Nigeria, from 25-28 October 2018 will be able to see a new digital edition of the British Library's West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song exhibition. Held in 2015-16 at the British Library in London, the exhibition focused on literature, written and oral, and music from West African countries, helping to '[explode] the myth of the dark continent' (Nigerian Watch).

Some of the many recordings from the Library's collections used in the exhibition will be included in the digital edition. This one features Josiah Jesse Ransome-Kuti, grandfather of Afrobeat legend Fela Anikulapo Kuti, singing a hymn in Yoruba. The hymn is called ‘Jesu olugbala ni mo f’ori fun ẹ’ (I give myself to Jesus the Saviour).

Jesu olugbala ni mo f’ori fun ẹ, performed by J. J. Ransome-Kuti [Zonophone 3394. BL Reference T8357W]

A-1922-editorial-on-Jesses-music-source-dw.com_

More about the piece and other representation of the Ransome-Kuti 'dynasty' as displayed in the exhibition can be seen at https://www.bl.uk/west-africa/articles/the-ransome-kuti-dynasty.

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

16 October 2018

Black History Month - The Gold Coast Police Band

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JZ 282 label

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

For Black History month in previous years I have highlighted the career and work of classical musicians such as Dean Dixon and Cullen Maiden.  While considering people for this year’s blog, I received a donation which included a fascinating disc.  The performers are The Gold Coast Police Band.

It used to be that many organisations in the UK had bands made up of employees.  It was a wonderful way of promoting a community spirit, a striving for excellence dependent on each individual’s hard work and commitment producing an end result of combined quality.  The Metropolitan Police Force had divisional bands, then a main band of officers drawn from the divisions.  Its demise due to cuts happened around 1997 and only a choir now remains.  One of the most famous bands from a motor works is Foden’s Motor Works Band (still extant), a large collection of whose discs recorded from 1914 to 1963 I acquired for the British Library in 2003.

The Gold Coast Police Band was formed 1917 in Ghana.  The first recruits were retired army bandsmen from the West African Frontier Force who had studied at Kneller Hall, the Royal Military School of Music in Whitton.  From 1926 to 1941 the first European bandmaster, Mr G. T. March, was in charge and in 1943 his place was taken by Thomas Stenning.  Enlisted in the 7th Dragoon Guards in 1905, Stenning went to France with the 6th Dragoon Guards in August 1914 and was granted a regular commission in the Royal West Kent Regiment in 1917.  He resigned from this in order to study at Kneller Hall to be trained as an Army bandmaster.  From 1923 to 1936 Stenning was bandmaster to the 11th Hussars (Prince Albert’s Own) stationed in India.  From there he went to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst as bandmaster.  It was in 1943 that he took up his post with the Gold Coast Police Band.  The bandsmen were all locally enlisted African men whose sole qualification upon enlistment was ‘a liking for music.’ 

The-Band-of-the-Gold-Coast-Police-at-the-Police-Depot-Accra-Gold-Coast (2)The Gold Coast Police Band at the police depot in Accra, Ghana (courtesy of Marlborough Rare Books)

The band of thirty-five African men arrived in London by air from Accra on Wednesday 7th May 1947 for a four month tour, departing the end of August.  Two days later they were rehearsing at Hounslow before setting off on the tour.  During their stay they played in many of the London parks including, Greenwich, Victoria, Hyde and Regent’s as well as Horse Guards Parade.  On 18th May the band performed at Jephson Gardens Pavilion, Leamington Spa and on the 24th May were back in London where they led the procession from the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields to the Cenotaph for the Empire Day ceremony.  A visit to Nottingham due earlier in May was postponed until the 27th from whence they travelled to Bath for a week of performances during the first week of June.  The highlight of the tour occurred on 10th June when the band played at a Buckingham Palace Presentation Party for 5,000 guests alternating with the Band of the Coldstream Guards.  Around this time a visit to Hendon was filmed by the newsreel cameras for Colonial Cinemagazine No. 9. 

Unfortunately the film is not in colour but the newspapers described the uniforms as scarlet and navy blue with white blouses.  The band wore black shorts braided with red and had matching black caps with red tassels and wore puttees on their feet.

It was in June that the band made the first of their HMV recordings in London for sale in West Africa.  The company began recording in Accra and Lagos in 1937 and these recordings were issued with the JZ prefix.  It appears that they had made one recording in West Africa for HMV which was issued as JZ 94 accompanying J. R. Roberts in songs from The Downfall of Zachariah Fee, a pantomime by Sir Arnold Hodson, Governor of the Gold Coast Colony (and previously the Falkland Islands).

On the 20th June 1947 they recorded six sides and, just before their departure on the 29th August, six more.  As these recordings were made for the West African market they were mainly of traditional songs, with some sides conducted by Sergeant Isaac Annam.  One side was recorded with a vocal trio sung in Fanti, but there is also a disc of marches and one of Rockin’ in Rhythm by Duke Ellington.  The first recording to be made was the one classical title, the Overture to Poet and Peasant by Franz von Suppé.  The instrumental playing is of a high standard, particularly the precision of the opening quietly played brass chords.

Poet and Peasant Overture

Two years later the Daily Mirror reported that compared to pre-war trade, dealers were now selling as many as three times the number of gramophones and four times the number of records in West Africa.  In big demand were the Gold Coast Police Band’s recordings of Duke Ellington’s Rockin’ in Rhythm and an African dance number, Everybody Likes Saturday Night.  

On 6th July the band broadcast on the BBC Home Service for a half hour programme and in the middle of the month travelled north where they were billeted at Crash Camp, Sandy Lane, Gosforth for performances in Newcastle.  On 16th July they lunched with the Lord Mayor of Newcastle and took afternoon tea with the Chief Constable.  A dance in their honour was given  at Albion Assembly Rooms, North Shields where a local dance band was hired to provide entertainment.  The next day, afternoon and evening performances at Exhibition Park were given before leaving for Edinburgh and an appearance at Pittencrief Park, Dunfermline on 22nd July.  The Band then headed south for a week at Warrior Square Gardens, Hastings and further performances in London and, one would hope, some time off to explore the city before their return to Accra at the end of August.

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

08 October 2018

Recording of the week: from the days of the demo tape

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

When you work in a sound archive it’s not uncommon to find yourself drawn into a listening experience which is both immersive and enriching. For me, one of these moments arrived with a demo tape from the Serious Speakout collection (taken from the name of a London-based  promotion company active during the 1990s).

At the end of the recording I scrutinize the inlay. Who is behind this band? What is their story? I realize that, in a collection of over 700 demo tapes, this is the only all-female band I have come across. I manage to contact one of them on Facebook. After twenty two years they kindly agree to gather together again and recount their past. A Skype call doesn’t feel right. Three weeks later I fly to Bologna to meet them: Daniela Cattivelli, Silvia Fanti, Filomena Forleo, Olivia Bignardi, Flavia D’angelantonio, Margareth Kammerer. Respectively, saxophone, accordion, piano, clarinet, bass, and vocals of ‘Fastilio’.

Fastilio 1Fastilio, soon after forming, rehearsing at the occupied School of Arts, Music and Theatre - University of Bologna. Photo by Nanni Angeli 

Formed in late 1991, the story behind this experimental band is one of genuine curiosity for sound and its potential, playfulness within rigour and commitment, and risk taking. All six were enrolled at the University of Bologna’s School of Arts, Music and Theatre, which was at the time under student occupation. They met when they joined, with little musical knowledge, Laboratorio di Musica e Immagine. This was a fourteen member group with a strong socialising energy, working on collective improvisation and composition to create music for silent films.

After a year and a half they decided to try and rehearse on their own to express themselves more freely, curious to see what type of sound would come from such a diverse group of people, with both different backgrounds and creative ideas. They called themselves ‘Fastilio’ from the Italian ‘Fastidio’, meaning nuisance. Although lacking in experience, their plans were both influenced and inspired by the thriving scene of the time: concerts of experimental music, festivals featuring musicians from the Rock in Opposition movement and the Canterbury Scene, and seminars with composer and improvisor Fred Frith.   

They had been rehearsing for around four months when their first concert opportunity cropped up in February 1992. Their bass player had only picked up her bass for the first time a few months earlier, and yet the festival they were invited to featured musicians like Robert Fripp and Michael Nyman. Fastilio were offered joint billing with experimental violinist Jon Rose on opening night. Amid hesitation and excitement, short in repertoire and training, they eventually accepted. And there they were on stage with Jon Rose who, seeing how nervous they were, made shoulder muscles stretching a part of the performance. This first concert was a breakthrough; it taught them to be brave.

Fastilio 2Flyer First concert. Photo by Francesca Ponzini

Over the next five years of their existence, this band of girls in their mid-20s, committed themselves to sound. Each with different skill levels and musical personalities, Fastilio put into music their wishes of sonority, through reciprocal listening, improvising, experimenting, composing and, essentially, choreographing sound. Fastilio define their music as ‘twisted’, because of the changes in perspectives, the circularity of themes and the odd succession of harmonic and contrasting sounds.

Gradually they found themselves opening concerts for renowned musicians like Steve Coleman, performed in international festivals, jammed in cultural centres throughout Europe, and collaborated with different artists in anarchist houses in the Slavic countryside.  

The following excerpts are from a live gig recorded in Imola, September 1993

Fastilio demo tape excerpts (BL shelfmark C728/117)

Follow @lcavorsi, @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news. Many thanks go to the members of Fastilio for their help with this piece.

UOSH_Footer with HLF logo

01 October 2018

Recording of the week: a Tamil lullaby

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This week's selection comes from Christian Poske, AHRC Collaborative PhD candidate and Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

The English musicologist Arthur Henry Fox Strangways recorded this Tamil lullaby with the title Lālishrīta in South India during a recording trip through the Indian subcontinent in 1910-11. An outcome of his research in India was his book The Music of Hindostan (1914) which featured transcriptions and translations of many of the songs he recorded, bringing Indian music closer to European audiences. In the book, he translates the first stanza of the song as: "Baby mine, light of my eyes, here in thy cradle bright with flowers, through sunny hours I bring thee sleep, I rock thee and sing thee to sleep, on the wings of my melodies."

Fox Strangways C72/872, song 2: Lālishrīta

Lullabies transcription (Fox Strangways C72-872)

Fox Strangways also included a photo of the performer, a school teacher from Tanjore.

Schoolmistress  Tanjore (Fox Strangways C72-872)

Professor Martin Clayton (1999: 104-112) reanalysed the song and Fox Strangways’ transcription of it, noticing that the six-beat scheme of the notation did not correspond to the rhythm of the song, which appears to be sung in a free metre. Fox Strangways may have assigned this rhythm to the piece to improve understanding for Western readers familiar with lullabies in 3/4 and 6/8 time. His inclusion in the book of only the English translation of the lyrics may also be attributed to the same reason.

Additional recordings from the Fox Strangways collection are available at https://sounds.bl.uk/World-and-traditional-music/Ethnographic-wax-cylinders

[Footnote: Clayton, Martin (1999). 'A. H. Fox Strangways and the Music of Hindostan: revisiting historical field recordings'. Journal of the Royal Musical Association 124: 86-118.]

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

26 September 2018

What's that? Surely music - The Gerald Cavanagh Collection

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IMG_0825Magid El-Bushra with the Gerald Cavanagh Collection

By Edison Fellow Magid El-Bushra,

counter-tenor and Assistant Content Producer at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Sudanese boys growing up in Willesden Green tend not to fall in love with opera. But an encounter with Miloš Forman’s classic film Amadeus was to awaken a passion which has, in many ways, guided my life. I searched out scraps of information for myself about the art form until eventually, in my early teens, I arrived at two cultural waterfalls – the Royal Opera House, and BBC Radio 3. So, when I recently discovered that there was a collection of recordings in the British Library of Covent Garden broadcast performances on Radio 3 from the Golden Age of opera, the 1960s-70s, I knew that I had to get my hands on it, and I am eternally grateful to Jonathan Summers and the British Library Edison Fellowship scheme for allowing me to do so.

Gerald (‘Gerry’) Cavanagh, the owner of this collection of recordings, was, like me, an opera fanatic. He died in 2016 at the age of 87, leaving behind a house, two bedsits and a storage unit crammed full of opera-related paraphernalia, which attested to a lifetime dedicated to music and concert-going. Stephen Conrad, a family friend who was charged with the unenviable task of clearing out these properties, told me that in disposing of Gerry’s collection, he had managed to sell 45 feet of LPs! He was an avid collector – what we might now call a hoarder – but we have to remember that Cavanagh was part of a generation starved of culture during the war; music was a vital means of relaxation – something to be held onto.

ROH-SOU-3-012 - Donald Southern - Midsummer Nights Dream - 555 folder - 29BThe Covent Garden Opera Company production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (1961) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1961. Photograph from the Donald Southern Photographic Collection © Royal Opera House. Used with permission.  Cavanagh was present at the first London performance on 2 February 1961

As a young man in the 1950s, Cavanagh would spend his evenings in his favourite seats in the Upper Slips, (high at the top of the Royal Opera House, but with the best acoustic), with a BOAC shoulder bag hiding a clunky reel-to-reel tape recorder at his feet. (I was desperate to get my hands on those recordings, but unfortunately they seem not to have survived the house clearance!) He loved the core German and Italian 19th century repertoire most of all, but was a child of his time, and took a great interest in the musical developments in opera which occurred during his era. After retiring from a career in scientific research at Imperial College, Cavanagh and his wife Flo increased their cultural excursions from East Croydon, seeing more operas and concerts in a month than most people probably see in a lifetime. If a performance they were attending was being broadcast, they would set their recorder to tape it from the radio.

The Cavanagh Collection (C1734) that has made its way to the British Library consists of 302 reels of such recordings, mainly of broadcasts of live opera performances. There are also a few broadcasts of song recitals and orchestral concerts. In any case, the majority are of performances given at the Royal Opera House, but there are also many from ENO, Sadler’s Wells, the Proms, and from much further afield.

I set about beginning to catalogue the collection over the winter, but with my fellowship coinciding with a busy new day job at none other than the Royal Opera House, I always knew I wouldn’t have time to log every reel. Therefore, I decided to set particular emphasis on the recordings of operas from the ROH itself, as well as the recordings of contemporary operas, and to see where and to what extent there was an overlap between the two. My aim was to get a picture of what the collection can tell us about the context in which Gerald Cavanagh was consuming this operatic content.

As the majority of the recordings are taken from BBC broadcasts, I knew that the possibility that some would already exist in the British Library archive would be quite high. There are duplicates, but this does not mean the exercise has been a waste of energy. For example, the ROH broadcast of Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten conducted by Georg Solti from 17 June 1967, which already exists in the archive under the shelf mark 1CDR0028477, notes that ‘[the] recording has heavy distortion’, so it’s gratifying to know that backup now exists in Cavanagh C1734/044-045 for anyone who, like me, loves this opera. 

ROH-SOU-4-038 Roll 4  Strip 2  Frame 4Donald McIntyre as Barak and Inge Borkh as Barak’s Wife in The Covent Garden Opera Company production of 'Die Frau ohne Schatten' (1967) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1967.  Photograph from the Donald Southern Photographic Collection © Royal Opera House. Used with permission.

With few exceptions, each reel is accompanied by a clipping from the Radio Times with details of the performance, and the date helpfully written in Cavanagh’s neat hand. I say helpfully, but sometimes one has to account for human error; for example, he dates the first broadcast performance of Peter Maxwell Davies’ Taverner (C1734/210) as 15 July 1962, when the opera wasn’t premiered for another 10 years.

To demonstrate the breadth of the collection, I have included some entries from further afield, such as Szymanowski’s Hagith (C1734/128), which appears rather exotically in a live performance in Italian with the RAI Symphony Orchestra. Finnish composer Aarre Merikanto’s modernist masterpiece Juha (C1734/252, previously unknown to me) is also in the collection. The latter sounds a bit like Schoenberg orchestrating an opera written by Bartók to a libretto that Janáček would have been drawn to (young woman in small town is married to lame old man but gets seduced by dishy merchant. Tragedy ensues).

There are also opportunities to hear broadcasts which one would expect either to already be in the archive, or to already have been released commercially, such as Turandot, starring Birgit Nilsson and James King, broadcast on 15 January 1971, (C1734/282), and the world premiere of Tippett’s King Priam from 29 May 1962 (C1734/018). This performance was given by The Covent Garden Opera Company at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, ahead of its subsequent premiere at Covent Garden, and I am delighted to have been able to identify these and add them to the Sound and Moving Image (SAMI) catalogue.  Indeed, the works of Michael Tippett feature prominently in the Gerald Cavanagh Collection.  Here is an extract from Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage from 22 April 1968 with the following cast - Alberto Remedios, Joan Carlyle, Raimund Herincz, Elazabeth Harwood, Stuart Burrows, Helen Watts, Stafford Dean and Elizabeth Bainbridge with the chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, conducted by Sir Colin Davis.

Whats that? Surely music

Equally prominent are the key works of the 19th century Italian operatic repertory.  This excerpt, from Bellini's La Sonambula, broadcast on 20 March 1971, has the cast of Renata Scotto, Stuart Burrows, Forbes Robinson, David Lennox, Heather Begg, George Macpherson and Jill Gomez with the chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden conducted by Carlo Felice Cillario.

La Sonnambula

But what was always most interesting to me in this venture was not so much the process of cataloguing the collection. What really captured my imagination was more what the collection itself says to us as a piece of historical evidence. Because C1734 is more than just a collection of old tapes – it’s actually a snapshot of a cultural attitude which speaks volumes about how the process of listening to opera is shaped by our cultural institutions, not only in the 1960s and 70s, but also today. Who gets to decide what we listen to?

Despite the many transformations BBC Radio has undergone since the BBC’s foundation in 1922, the guiding principle of Inform, Educate, Entertain is one which can still be perceived today. The decisions and cultural objectives of a handful of men during those early days (from BBC founder John Reith, to BBC Music Directors Percy Pitt and Adrian Boult) would go on to shape public attitudes towards music and culture for decades to come. The Third Programme (forerunner to BBC Radio 3) ran from 1946 – 1970, and quickly established itself as one of the major channels for the dissemination of culture in Britain, with its commitment to the erudite exploration of the fine arts for six hours every evening.

The period covered by Cavanagh’s collection of tapes broadly corresponds to that of William Glock’s tenure as BBC Controller of Music (1959 – 1972). Under Glock, the Third Programme sought to define the BBC as an internationally recognised central point, from which the very newest music at the cutting edge of compositional trends would be broadcast into the living rooms of ‘ordinary’ people just like Gerry. During Glock’s tenure, those six hours every evening were expanded by 100 hours a week to a full daily schedule, which provided fertile ground for Glock (avoiding what he referred to as “the danger of musical wallpaper”) to support and nurture new music and new artists. This fit in squarely with the BBC’s lofty educational goal of forming and edifying the cultural taste of the nation.

The Royal Opera House, on the other hand, was then, and is now a completely different kind of cultural institution to the BBC, and with a completely different set of objectives and values. While there had been a recognised need to establish an opera company of international calibre at Covent Garden after the Second World War, music publishers Boosey and Hawkes (who acquired the lease for the building in 1944) and new Chairman and economist John Maynard Keynes all agreed that the fledgling permanent ensemble had to be run above all by a businessman. That businessman was David Webster, who had started his career in retail. Although the utopian dream was to create “a national style of operatic presentation which would attract composers and librettists to write for it” (according to John Tooley, Webster’s successor), “there were factors at work which would inevitably take Covent Garden down other paths”. In other words – the business objective of selling tickets took over from the cultural objective of nurturing new, indigenous work.

“In the fifty years since reopening after the war”, wrote Tooley in 1999, “less opera has been composed for Covent Garden than was originally hoped for”. Indeed, although contemporary opera is given space in The Royal Opera’s annual programming, the list of operas given their premiere at the theatre reads like a roll call of works which either met with critical disapproval, or simply sank without trace. Britten’s Gloriana (C1734/010, the Coronation gala premiere of which Gerry attended in 1953) was played to a “largely uncomprehending and unsympathetic audience”. Henze’s The Bassarids (C1734/192) was touted as an option for The Royal Opera but never made it (instead being recorded by Cavanagh from a concert performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra), as Webster was unenthusiastic. Richard Rodney Bennett’s Victory (C1734/136) and Tippett’s The Knot Garden (C1734/227) were both premiered by The Royal Opera “and ideally should have been repeated, but unfortunately our limited resources made that impossible”. The commitment to contemporary opera during this period seems half-hearted, more like a secondary consideration.

ROH-SOU-1-0207 Roll 2  Strip 6  Frame 1Anne Howells as Lena and Donald McIntyre as Axel Heyst in The Royal Opera production of 'Victory' (1970) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1970. Photograph from the Donald Southern Photographic Collection © Royal Opera House.  Used with permission.

Although there is a great deal of traditional operatic fare in C1734, what is fascinating to me is the sheer breadth and range of new opera that leaps out from the collection, most of which we simply do not hear any more. In the selection I have catalogued, there are four versions of Tippett’s King Priam alone, not to mention the four separate recordings of Britten’s Billy Budd. Among many other examples, Robin Orr’s Hermiston (C1734/238), Henze’s beautiful and witty Elegy for Young Lovers (C1734/280), and Thomas Wilson’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner (C1734/213 – another new addition to the SAMI catalogue, I’m pleased to add) all rub shoulders with classics such as La Fille du Régiment, Otello and La Clemenza di Tito, painting a picture of a wonderfully eclectic and richly informed musical taste.

The irony is that Glock’s key policy of programming challenging, contemporary opera – the policy which seems to have done so much to shape Cavanagh’s musical interests – seems to have dwindled in recent decades. Conversely, since the refurbishment of Covent Garden, and the resulting addition of the Linbury Theatre nearly 20 years ago, The Royal Opera now has more space to devote to experimental work than it ever did. Glock’s idea that at the independent BBC, change should be preferable to stability, and that novelty guarantees value, has arguably been replaced by a ratings war with Classic FM, diluting the station’s content with what the Daily Mail calls “phone-ins and presenter chatter”.

The relationship between the two institutions, although necessarily symbiotic, has often been fraught by financial contretemps, usually, according to Tooley, when BBC budget constraints have forced the ROH to seek relationships with other broadcasters. But there still remain strong ties, with the BBC’s current chief Tony Hall having arrived direct from the equivalent position at Covent Garden being a prime example of this. These ties hint at my original question about who gets to decide what we listen to. It was a network of men from a certain background who assumed responsibility for curating the content which shaped Cavanagh’s musical horizons. Perhaps today we find something slightly distasteful in the idea of an Oxbridge-educated elite deciding what the cultural diet of an ‘ordinary’ listener should consist of, and yet it is possible to perceive that this is changing, and that people from more diverse backgrounds are now contributing, bit by bit, to the landscaping of the operatic ecology.

Nowadays, our musical resources exist digitally, to the extent that C1734 seems like an anachronism. I imagine most people under the age of 30 would regard one of Cavanagh’s reel tapes as an artefact from another planet. But there’s something hugely pleasurable about the process of setting up a reel-to-reel player, sitting back, and entering into Gerry’s analogue sound world. Maybe one day someone will catalogue the boxes of millennial minidisc recordings in my attic of the broadcast performances I used to record before the advent of online streaming. It’s comforting to know that there might be a place for them, in the same way that it’s comforting to know that Gerald Cavanagh’s collection – forged over a lifetime of discovery, shaped by a cultural landscape which valued investment both in operatic tradition and in operatic innovation – is now safe in the archives of the British Library, not surviving precariously in a damp storage unit in south London. The collection is a real treasure trove for anyone interested in opera, but more than that, it’s a window into another life, glimpsed through the prism of opera.

Gerald and Florence CavanaghGerald and Florence Cavangh at Glyndebourne.  Photo by Stephen Conrad

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