Music blog

From classical and pop to world and traditional music


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

12 July 2014

Gertrude Stein the librettist: free event at the British Library

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On Monday 21 July the British Library's Eccles Centre for American Studies will be hosting a free lunchtime talk by Mary Chapman (University of British Columbia) on Gertrude Stein’s libretto for Virgil Thomson's opera The Mother of Us All. Her title is 'Gertrude Stein: Suffragist, Librettist, Modernist, or Nazi Collaborator?'

SteinGetrude Stein first collaborated with Virgil Thomson on the opera Four Saints in Three Acts, which remains the composer's most famous work. It was almost twenty years later that they worked together on a second opera, The Mother of Us All. The opera is ostensibly a portrait of the pioneering suffragist Susan B. Anthony in postbellum America, but in her talk Mary Chapman will argue that the opera also gave Stein an opportunity to consider her own political role in Vichy France prior to the enfranchisement of French women.

Susan B. Anthony

The talk is part of the Eccles Centre's Summer Scholars series, a series of free daytime events this summer where writers and scholars will discuss their work and forthcoming publications in an informal setting. Attendance is free and all are welcome. Tea and coffee will be provided. To reserve a place for any event, please email All events take place at the British Library Conference Centre, Chaucer Room. Mary Chapman's talk is on Monday 21 July, 12:30-14:00.

Mary Chapman is an Associate Professor of English at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada. She specializes in American literature and transnational American Studies; in particular, she works on intersections between cultural forms (parades, print culture, parlour theatricals, suffrage activism), literary production, and
politics in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America.

The full Summer Scholars leaflet is available here:


11 July 2014

Hugh Davies Experimental Music

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Hugh Davies b&w

Hugh Seymour Davies was only 61 when he died in 2005, but he had established himself as the leading British composer of experimental music. After completing his degree at Oxford, where he studied with Edmund Rubbra, Davies succeeded Cornelius Cardew as assistant to Karlheinz Stockhausen and later began to invent instruments, the most well-known being the Shozyg. This was in 1967, the same year in which Davies was asked to establish an electronic music studio at Goldsmith’s College in London. He later developed sound installations and sound sculptures.

The British Library was delighted to receive his collection of recordings which were donated by his wife Pam Davies and a selection of these are available to listen to here by permission of his estate. The remainder of the collection can be heard in the reading rooms of the British Library.

10 July 2014

It Was Fifty Years Ago Today...

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July 10th marks the fiftieth anniversary of the release of The Beatles’ third LP, A Hard Day’s Night. The LP was conceived as a soundtrack to the film of the same name, directed by Richard Lester, which had its UK premiere on July 6th and featured the first seven songs from the album in full.

The success of both the film and the album cemented the band’s status as a transatlantic, if not global, phenomenon. A Hard Day’s Night was the first Beatles LP to consist entirely of self-penned songs and many consider it (and the title track in particular) to mark the beginning of the band’s most productive and exciting period of creativity.

A hard day's night 7" single
The BL’s copy of the single is a rare pre-release demonstration copy.

July 10th 1964 also saw the release of the title track as a seven-inch single, with Things We Said Today appearing as the B-side. The song A Hard Day’s Night is famous both for its memorable opening chord and for its unusual title. The phrase ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ was believed to have come from an exhausted Ringo Starr, following a long day of filming on March 19th 1964 whereas, in fact, John Lennon had previously used it in his book, John Lennon In His Own Write. Lennon is said to have regarded this as a coincidence, affectionately referring to Starr’s utterance as a ‘Ringoism’. The phrase became popular within the group and Lester adopted it as the title of his film in mid-April, thus sparking off a friendly competition between Lennon and Paul McCartney as to who could come up with the title song.

On this occasion it was Lennon who got there first. He wrote the song very quickly; scribbling the lyrics on the back of his son’s birthday card (Julian Lennon had turned one the previous week). This birthday card has been on loan to the British Library for some time and is on display in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery at The British Library. The fact that the lyrics were written on the back of a birthday card is significant, for it suggests that the words came to Lennon so quickly that he wrote them down on whatever happened to be close to hand.

A hard day's night birthday card
John Lennon’s lyrics to A Hard Day’s Night are handwritten on the back of this birthday card on display at the British Library.

For those who study them, handwritten first drafts of song lyrics or poems have a special quality, in that they appear to record for posterity the instances of those initial creative sparks. Moreover, it could be argued that the more ephemeral the item on which the lines have been written, the closer the item seems to be to that now long-gone moment of inspiration. When we study the handwritten lyrics to A Hard Day’s Night, it is easy to imagine Lennon scribbling them down so as not to forget them.

Visitors to the British Library will notice that Lennon made an important revision to this initial draft. On the morning of April 16th (the day the song was recorded), Maureen Cleave, Evening Standard journalist and friend of The Beatles, picked Lennon up in a taxi and took him to the Abbey Road studios. Cleave recalls suggesting that Lennon reconsider the line ‘I find my tiredness is through’. Lennon, borrowing Cleave’s pen, crossed out the line and wrote ‘I find the things that you do’ in its place.

As has been the case with so many Beatles songs, A Hard Day’s Night has spawned an astonishing range of cover versions including, famously, Peter Sellers’s version from 1965 in which the actor and comedian recites the lyrics while impersonating Lawrence Olivier’s performance of William Shakespeare’s Richard III.

A hard day's night LP
The album A Hard Day’s Night was the first Beatles album where all the songs were composed by Lennon and McCartney

A Hard Day’s Night was the third Beatles single to go straight to Number One in the charts one week after release and by July 23rd had sold 800,000 before going on to become the group’s fourth million-selling single in the UK. The album entered the album chart at Number One and sold 600,000 copies in Britain by the end of the year.

Andy Linehan & David Fitzpatrick