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

21 September 2016

Digitisation: Delving Deeper

In July 2016, we announced the exciting news that we'd completed a three-year project to digitise our Handel autograph manuscripts. But how did this come about? And what exactly was involved? In this blog post, we delve deeper into the digitisation process to provide an insight into the practicalities of this fascinating and growing area of our work.

With just over one hundred volumes, British Library Music Collections holds the single largest autograph collection of Handel‚Äôs works in the world. The vast majority of these volumes form part of the Royal Music Library and are easily recognisable by their ‚ÄėR.M.‚Äô shelfmarks, the most famous being Messiah (R.M.20.f.2).  Aside from Messiah, which had been made available via the British Library‚Äôs popular Turning the Pages web pages back in 2008, no autograph Handel manuscripts had been made accessible digitally prior to the outset of the project. 

Image 1 - Messiah on Turning the Pages

Opening of the ‚ÄėHalleluja Chorus‚Äô from Handel‚Äôs Messiah (British Library, R.M.20.f.2), as displayed on Turning the Pages

The content was released in phases over the three years of the project, and the digitisation was generously supported by the Derek Butler Trust. Preservation of the originals and the resulting digital surrogates was a key consideration. The British Library has digitisation studios at both its London and Yorkshire sites. However, in order to minimise the risks associated with transportation, the manuscripts were digitised in London, where they are housed.

Image 2 - British Library Imaging Studio London

Digitisation studio at the British Library, London.

Prior to photography, each volume was assessed by a conservator.  Professional photographers then photographed each manuscript cover-to-cover, using the equipment and book supports recommended by the conservator. Following image capture, the photographer deposited a set of master images for each manuscript in both TIFF and JPEG formats on one of the Library‚Äôs secure servers. Staff in the Music Department then used image-processing software to convert the TIFFs into tiny tiled images, thereby facilitating zooming. 

  Image 3 - Zadok on Digitised Manuscripts

Digitised version of Handel‚Äôs ‚ÄėZadok the Priest‚Äô (British Library R.M.20.h.5) on the British Library Digitised Manuscripts website (

All of the British Library‚Äôs autograph Handel manuscripts are categorised as ‚Äėrestricted‚Äô. For visitors to the British Library‚Äôs Rare Books and Music Reading Room, this means that access to the originals is granted only with curatorial permission. The availability of the Handel manuscripts on the British Library Digitised Manuscripts website makes inconvenient microfilm a thing of the past. It also opens up a wealth of valuable primary source material to a much larger audience, free of charge, and from the comfort of a home or office PC.


13 September 2016

Arthur Sullivan and the English Opera Companies

Don't miss out on this special event in the British Library Conference Centre on Thursday 22 September 2016, 18.30-20.00.

New-York based playwright and theatre historian John Wolfson will explore the work of composer Arthur Sullivan, focusing on the time he spent with a number of opera companies during his lifetime.

Sir_Arthur_Seymour_SullivanSir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) 

Arthur Sullivan is well-known for his association with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, whose archive was recently acquired by the British Library. However, there were five other companies with which he was also connected during his lifetime. In his talk ‚Äď accompanied by readings by a guest actor ‚Äď John Wolfson will consider Sullivan's lifelong preoccupation with finding an opera company devoted to the production of grand opera in English.

For further information and online booking go to

06 September 2016

London's Burning!

Readers of our previous blog post will be aware that today is the last day of Shakespeare in Ten Acts, the British Library‚Äôs popular exhibition celebrating the 400th anniversary of the birth of the Bard.

As the exhibition draws to a close, our attention has turned to the Great Fire of London. After raging for several days, it was finally extinguished on 6 September 1666, 350 years ago today.

Here in Music Collections, we have one particular question in mind: what do Shakespeare, music and the Great Fire of London have in common?

The answer lies in the well-known song "London‚Äôs burning":

         London's burning, London's burning

        Fetch the engine, fetch the engine

        Fire, fire! Fire, fire!

        Pour on water, pour on water

Still popular in schools today, the song is often sung in a round, with each singer starting after the previous one has sung one line of text. The words are often considered to be about the Great Fire of London. However, the earliest known notated version actually dates from 1580 and bears the words ‚ÄúScotland it burneth‚ÄĚ. It forms part of the Lant Manuscript, held in the collections at King‚Äôs College Cambridge (King's College, Rowe MS 1), and is set to essentially the same music.

Rowe MS 1_item 36

‚ÄúScotland it burneth‚ÄĚ (King's College, Rowe MS 1). Reproduced by permission of the Provost and Scholars of King‚Äôs College, Cambridge


And now for the Shakespeare connection. The song is alluded to in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Act 4, Scene 1. Grumio asks Curtis to prepare a warm fire for guests:

        Curtis: Who calls so coldly?

        Grumio: A piece of ice. If thou doubt it, thou may'st slide from my shoulder to my heel, with no greater a run but my head and my neck. A fire, good         Curtis.

        Curtis: Is my master and his wife coming, Grumio?

        Grumio: O ay, Curtis, av; and therefore ‚Äúfire, fire; cast no water‚ÄĚ.

If you’re struggling to remember how the tune goes, here’s a version from our printed music collections for four-part choir arranged by one William Schaeffer and published in 1930. Enjoy!


British Library,  VOC/1930/SCHAŐąFFER