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We have over 100,000 pieces of manuscript music, 1.6 million items of printed music and about 2 million music recordings! This blog is written by our team of music curators and features news and information about the British Library's rich collections of music and sound recordings. Read more

17 October 2016

Beethoven's Pastoral Sketchbook

One of the great treasures in the British Library’s extensive music collections is featured in the first instalment of the series ‘Treasures of the British Library’ (Sky Arts, Tuesday 18 October at 9pm).  Beethoven’s Pastoral sketchbook (shelfmark Add. MS 31766) was purchased by the Library in 1880.  It contains a wealth of musical material associated with the Pastoral symphony, one of Beethoven’s best-loved works and a staple of the orchestral repertory. 

Beethoven Pastoral Sketchbook 1

The sketchbook offers a fascinating insight into the composer’s creative mind as he worked on the symphony during the course of 1808.  An early title for the symphony, given on the first page of the sketchbook, was ‘Sinfonie Caracteristica oder Errinerungen an das Landleben’ (‘Characteristic symphony or Remembrances of country life’):

Beethoven Pastoral Sketchbook 2

While the symphony includes imitations of bird calls, babbling brooks and a thunderstorm, Beethoven stressed that it was not intended as a representation of particular pastoral scenes.  Writing to his publisher Breitfopf in Leipzig, he described it instead as an expression of the feelings evoked by the countryside.  In the sketchbook itself he states that ‘One leaves it to the listener to work out the situations’ (‘Man Ăźberlasst es dem zuhĂśren sich selbst die Situationen auszufinden’):

Beethoven Pastoral Sketchbook 3

Beethoven is well-known for the chaotic appearance of his musical handwriting, his manuscripts often being full of deletions, amendments and scribbles. The Pastoral sketchbook is no exception.  At first glance, it may seem impossible to decipher the hastily scribbled notation, seemingly applied to the page with little regard for intelligibility or precision.  Look more closely, however, and it becomes clear that the sketches represent a painstaking process of refinement and re-drafting, as each musical idea is developed in relation to the emerging structure for the work as a whole. 

Beethoven Pastoral Sketchbook 4

The first page of the sketchbook, discussed with Lord Winston in the first episode of the Sky Arts series, contains the building blocks for the symphony’s lyrical opening melody.  Beethoven described the first movement as ‘Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the countryside’ (‘Erwachen heiterer Empfindungen bei der Ankunft auf dem Lande’).  Each constituent part of the theme is represented here in various permutations, including (from the eighth stave onwards) an outline of the first 40 or so bars. 

Beethoven Pastoral Sketchbook 5

The theme is developed further in the following pages, as Beethoven fleshed out the accompanying parts in short score.  One forms the impression of an almost obsessive mind, as the composer repeatedly re-writes fragments of notation in different permutations.

Beethoven Pastoral Sketchbook 6

Describing his working method many years later in a letter to his patron and pupil the Archduke Rudolf, Beethoven described how it was important to position a small table next to the piano, so that one learns to ‘pin down immediately the most remote ideas’ (1823).  An idea captured on paper is in no danger of escaping and – unlike some composers – Beethoven was careful to preserve much of his sketch material, not least because they often contained a great detail of material that was not absorbed into the finished work.  Indeed, the need to keep a written record of his thoughts seems to have increased with age and encroaching deafness.  In the last 12 years of his life he also kept a pocket sketchbook with him at all times, allowing him to jot down musical ideas or melodies as they came to him. 

Some 30 volumes of Beethoven’s sketches survive in libraries around the world.  Deciphering and analysing this material has become almost a scientific discipline in itself, and started as long ago as the second half of the 19th century.  The British Library has digitised the Pastoral sketchbook and it is available to view via the Digitised Manuscripts website.  Now anyone can explore the intricacies of a great composer’s working method and marvel at the creativity of a musical genius in full flow. 


Further reading

David Wyn Jones, Beethoven: Pastoral Symphony (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)

Douglas Johnson, Alan Tyson and Robert Winter (ed.), The Beethoven Sketchbooks: History, Reconstruction, Inventory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985)

Philip Gossett, ‘Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony: sketches for the first movement’, Journal of the American Musicological Society 27 (1974), p. 248-84.

Alan Tyson, ‘A reconstruction of the Pastoral Symphony Sketchbook (British Museum Add. MS 31766)’, in Beethoven Studies 1 (New York: Norton, 1973), p. 67-96.


13 October 2016

Bob Dylan at the British Library

What was the first Bob Dylan song you ever heard - 'Blowin' in the Wind', 'The Times They are A-Changin', 'Like a  Rolling Stone', or something else entirely?

After the momentous news that the 75-year-old rock legend has won the Nobel Literature Prize, now is a great time both to revisit your old favourites and discover something new.


And with well over a thousand Dylan-related items in our collections, the British Library catalogue is a great place to start. Our latest Bob Dylan acquisition arrived only a few weeks ago in the form of the Bob Dylan ukulele chord songbook (British Library shelfmark E.1080.o) - proof that our music collections are not only about classical music. 


 British Library shelfmark E.1080.o


11 October 2016

"Symphonic boa-constrictors"?

Anton Bruckner died 120 years ago this week (11 October 1896).

A late starter, he only began to compose seriously at the age of 37. Arguably one of the most innovative composers of the second half of the 19th century, he is remembered primarily for his eleven symphonies and sacred compositions.


Johannes Brahms famously had no great love for his contemporary. In a veiled reference to their scale and uniqueness of harmony, he dubbed Bruckner's late works “symphonic boa-constrictors”. By contrast, Richard Wagner effused “I know of only one composer who measures up to Beethoven, and that is Bruckner”.

The affection was mutual. One of Bruckner’s best-known works, the Seventh Symphony, was written between 1881 and 1883 and revised in 1885. On 14 February 1883, however, work on the end of the second movement was interrupted by news of Wagner’s death. The closing bars went on to become Bruckner’s lament on the passing of the “Meister aller Meister”, who he had last seen in summer 1882 at the première of Parsifal in Bayreuth.

Performed by the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig on 30 December 1884, the première of the Seventh Symphony brought Bruckner the greatest success he had known in his life.  Pictured below is an extract from an early draft of the finale (British Library MS Mus. 1810).


Sketch of the Finale of Anton Bruckner's Seventh Symphony (British Library MS Mus. 1810) 

The sketch as a whole contains the equivalent of bars 71 to 104. We can learn something of Bruckner's compositional process from this fragment. The music for bars 71 to 92 is notated at twice the speed of the final version, and that corresponding to bars 89 to 92 occurs earlier in the position of 85 to 88.

The manuscript found its way into our collections as a result of the generosity of Oliver Neighbour (1923-2015), one of the outstanding music librarians of his generation. He devoted virtually his entire professional life to the British Library, where his major contribution was to build and develop the collections of printed music. However, “Tim”, as he was invariably known to friends, was also a private collector, assembling a personal collection of music manuscripts during his long life.

With characteristic modesty, he quietly gave this material to the British Library in 2007, saying it consisted of “odd pages or sketches” that would “fill a few gaps”. In fact, Tim’s collection contained some two hundred manuscripts of composers such as Clementi, Donizetti, Berlioz, Puccini, Debussy, Satie, Ravel, BartĂłk, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Stravinsky, Berio, Boulez and Stockhausen, as well as Bruckner. 

It is with gratitude that we showcase this fragment here to celebrate Bruckner’s anniversary.