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We have around 100,000 pieces of manuscript music, 1.6 million items of printed music and 2 million music recordings! This blog features news and information about these rich collections. It is written by our music curators, cataloguers and reference staff, with occasional pieces from guest contributors. Read more

21 November 2017

Shostakovich at the V&A

    We continue our series of blog posts serving as accompaniment to the current V&A exhibition: ‘Opera: Passion, Power and Politics’ which features several items from our Music Collections. On this occasion we focus on ‘Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District’ Op 29 by the soviet composer Dimitri Shostakovich. The dramatic events surrounding this work compete with those taking place on stage.

G.1435. bDmitriĭ Dmitrievich Shostakovich, Ledi Makbet Mtsenskogo uezda…,( Moscow, 1935) British Library G.1435

    Lady Macbeth was composed between 1932 and 1934, with a libretto by Shostakovich and Alexander Preys. The story is based on a novel by Nikolai Leskov which takes place in the Russian pre-revolutionary days of serfdom. The unlikely heroine is Katerina Ismailova, the wife of a rich merchant from a bleak provincial town. Consumed with the crushing boredom of her empty life she becomes the mistress of one of her husband’s servants. When found out she murders her father–in-law and later, her husband. They are then sent to Siberia, where her lover forsakes her for another woman. In mad desperation, she kills her rival and then herself. 

G.1435. aTitlepage from the first edition of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District’, (Moscow, 1935) G.1435

    The British Library holds a rare vocal score of the opera, published in 1933 before its premiere and two years before the first regular edition shown in the image above.

D.337 aDmitriĭ Dmitrievich Shostakovich, Ledi Makbet Mtsenskogo uezda…,( Moscow, 1933) British Library D.337.

    Its rudimentary printing method and paper quality are indications that it may have been intended for limited rather than wide distribution. These were copies that perhaps circulated among musicians and collaborators during rehearsals for the Moscow production.

D.337 c“The corpse of Zinoviy Borisovich! Oh! Oh! Get the police!". Dmitriĭ Dmitrievich Shostakovich, Ledi Makbet Mtsenskogo uezda…,( Moscow, 1933) D.337.

    Lady Macbeth was premiered on 22 January 1934 in the Leningrad Malyi Opera Theatre with Samuil Samosud, who had been a close collaborator of Shostakovich in the latter stages of the production, as conductor. Two days later it opened in the Nemirovich-Dachenko Theatre in Moscow.

    The London premiere took place at the Queens Hall on the 18th of March 1936, under the baton of Albert Coates. Among the audience there was a 22-year-old Benjamin Britten who was especially impressed by the entreact music. One can only speculate whether he was equally impressed by the tenor singing the minor part of '2nd Foreman'. It wasn’t until later on that year that Britten formally met Peter Pears, who would become a lifelong personal and professional partner. 

Programme Programme of the Premiere in the Queen’s Hall, 18 March 1936, British Library X.0431/534.

    Our Music Manuscripts collection has a manuscript copy of the full score which appears to have been used in the preliminary stages of the London production. The music was copied by Soviet hands while the text was added later on in England. It follows the English translation prepared by the musicologist Michel Calvocoressi, while the music reflects earlier versions of the opera. Several pencilled cuts and annotations, probably by the conductor himself, are present throughout the score

148 3Dmitrii Dmitrievich Shostakovich, ‘Lady Macbeth (Katerina Izmaylova)’, op.29, British Library  MS Mus. 148

    While there was some initial criticism regarding the naturalist use of the music and the choice of subject, Lady Macbeth was a firm success. It was performed hundreds of times in its first two years, both in the Soviet Union and abroad. The Daily Herald called it ‘the Best modern opera since ‘Wozzeck’, while the Sovetskaia Muzyka praised it as “the chef d’ouvre of soviet creativity”. Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was hailed as the first great proletarian opera.

148 1Conductor cut mark. Dmitrii Dmitrievich Shostakovich,  ‘Lady Macbeth (Katerina Izmaylova)’, op.29,  MS Mus. 148

    Shostakovich’s fortunes would be dramatically reversed on the evening of 22 January 1936. The composer was requested to attend the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow for a production of the opera. Upon reaching his seat, he saw in the box across the stage were three of the most powerful men in the Soviet Union, Andrei Zhanov, Anastas Mikoyan and none other than Joseph Stalin himself. As the opera progressed, Shostakovich witnessed with horror how they winced and laughed every time a loud note emerged from the orchestra pit. Before the end of the third act, they had left the theatre.

    Two days later the Communist Party’s official newspaper, Pravda, published an article which has since been considered as one of the most prominent examples of art censorship.

PravdaPravda, (vol 27, no 6633), p3, 28 January 1936, British Library NEWS13616

    This page comes from the Pravda issue of 28th January 1936, a copy of which is in our Newspapers Collections. On the bottom left we can see the fateful article, which was titled 'Сумбур вместо музыки – Об опере Леди Макбет Мценского уезда’, or 'Muddle Instead of Music: On the Opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District'. Here Shostakovich is condemned as formalist, while giving in to bourgeois tastes. The music, on the other hand, “quacks, grunts, growls and suffocates itself.” His status as the foremost soviet composer rapidly dissolved into the paranoia and repression of the Great Purge, which unravelled that year.

    His peers from the Leningrad Composer’s Union unanimously voted to support the Pravda article. Shostakovich had no other choice than to buckle under party pressure and withdraw his Fourth Symphony shortly before its premiere. He would never write another opera again and it was not until 1963, after Stalin’s death, that Lady Macbeth was performed again, revised, and under a different name and opus number: Katerina Ismailova, op. 114

148 2Excerpt from the March of the Convicts. Dmitrii Dmitrievich Shostakovich,  ‘Lady Macbeth (Katerina Izmaylova)’, op.29,  MS Mus. 148

    This would be the first of two public denunciations of Shostakovich's music, the second of which took place in 1948. From both he was officially rehabilitated after managing to court back regime favour. This resilience and artistic conviction are captured in a 1943 letter to his friend Sir Henry Wood1

 (…) I am sure that the hour is near when our common enemy will be smashed and when our peoples will be able to resume their upbuilding of culture and art. With all my heart and soul I believe that after the war our art, to which we give all our efforts and abilities, will flourish with redoubled glory and magnificence.

With kindest regards

Yours very Sincerely,


Dmitry Shostakovich .



1 Letter from Shostakovich to Sir Henry Wood, 1 September 1943, British Library Add MS 56426

31 October 2017

Music Open Day 8 December 2017

Have you recently started a PhD in Music? Alternatively, are you Master's student thinking of going on to study at doctoral level? If so, the British Library's doctoral music open day on 8 December 2017 is for you.

Music Doctoral Open Day 2017 manuscripts show and tell

The music collections at the British Library are unparalleled in their scope and diversity, providing a wealth of material to aid and inspire researchers and performers. The Library’s holdings of written musical sources (printed music and music manuscripts) and related literature (books, journals, concert programmes) encompass all genres and countries from the Middle Ages to the present day. Equally valuable for researchers is the rich body of private papers, correspondence, and business archives relating to composers, performing musicians, music publishers and performing institutions.  Our sound and moving image collection is similarly extensive, covering commercial discs, pop videos and ethnographic field recordings from across the globe, as well as radio sessions, interviews, documentaries and live performances. These materials are relevant to students in music and many other disciplines.

With this amount of material on offer, it can be difficult to know where to start, which is where our open days come in.

Browse the draft programme (significantly revised from last year), and then book your place online.  

Comments from last year include:

“The day was excellent and demystified the British Library. ”

“It was not just about the library but also gave me lots of ideas. Very inspiring. Thank you.”

“Not to belittle the excellent and useful sessions, but the (carrot) CAKES!!!!”

We look forward to seeing you there!


13 October 2017

Verdi at the V&A

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A number of British Library collection items are on loan to the Victoria & Albert Museum at the moment for their blockbuster exhibition, Opera: Power, Passion and Politics. Based around seven operatic premieres, the exhibition explores the relationship between those works and the cultural and political events of their time. A selection of books, pamphlets, maps and manuscript scores recently made the short trip from St. Pancras to South Kensington and are now on display alongside an amazing selection of artefacts from collections around the world. To mark the exhibition we will be posting a series of short articles here over the coming months, delving further into our collections to find more related to each of the composers represented.

'The Ballet Scene from Meyerbeer's Opera Robert le Diable', Edgar Degas (1876). The famous painting, from the V&A's own collection, is also exhibited.

Verdi’s Nabucco, first performed in Milan in 1842, is one of the featured operas in the V&A's exhibition (as Verdi’s birthday was earlier this week it seems appropriate to focus on him in this first blog post!). The audience at that opening night may or may not have found resonances with their political situation in the famous ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ (Va, pensiero), but the piece's associations have certainly become well established since.

A handwritten copy of the vocal line appears in a collection of political songs used by the twentieth-century experimental composer Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981). The back of this single page reveals the chorus included in a set list of songs to be performed at an event in the 1970s, sitting alongside more overtly political songs such as the Red Flag and El Pueblo Unido.

Cardew set list
Set list, including 'Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves'. Cornelius Cardew Collection, British Library, Add MS 70772, f.1v

For a later performance Cardew talks of the piece being "an allegory of the plight of the modern composer, isolated from the broad masses (whose activity should be his main source of inspiration) in the Establishment's Ivory Tower for New Music".*1

Nabucco is often described as a key work in establishing Verdi’s reputation. That reputation grew relatively quickly – Ernani, his first opera to be performed in Britain, was given at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London in 1845. Nabucco followed the next year but theatre licensing rules of the time dictated that biblical characters were not allowed to be represented on the stage. This meant some changes to the story, and the name of the title character (and the whole opera) was altered from Nebuchadnezzar (/Nabucco) to Nino.

We are lucky to have performance materials from some of these nineteenth-century productions of Verdi’s operas in London. The image below gives some impression of the perils the scores and instrumental parts have faced over the years, most notably escaping a fire at the theatre in 1867.

Fire damage
Fire damage. Chorus score for Nabucco from the King's Theatre Archive. British Library, MS Mus. 1715/65/1

An annotated chorus part, possibly from those first London performances in 1846, shows some of the minor changes to text that Va, pensiero was given as a result of the plot and character changes: Giordano (Jordan) became Eufrate (Euphrates), while Sione (Zion) became Babele (Babel).  

Chorus part changed words
Chorus part for Nabucco. From the King's Theatre Archive. MS Mus.1715/65/1

A manuscript score for the chorus master, probably from a slightly later 1850s performance, gives intriguing insight into the personalities of musicians involved – this caricature appears throughout the score, but looms especially large at the opening of the chorus. 

Chorus caricature
Chorus master's manuscript for Nabucco. From the King's Theatre Archive, MS Mus. 1715/65/2

While Verdi’s operas were described as popular with the public in London, critical opinion seems to have been divided. Massimo Zicari’s book on Verdi’s reception in London at the time discusses plenty of examples of this, but a review of Nabucco from 1846 by James Davison, editor and owner of the influential periodical, The Musical World, is particularly eye catching:

“the choruses are nothing but the commonest tunes arranged almost invariably in unison – perhaps because the composer knows not how to write in parts”

Whatever the critics said, the popular appetite for Verdi’s operas helped feed a sub-industry of associated tie-in publications – arrangements of tunes from the operas for piano and other instruments in the form of paraphrases, pot-pourris and fantasies. Even, as in this case, arranged as a quadrille for dancing. 

Nabucco quadrilles
Quadrilles on tunes from Nabucco, by P. Pavini. British Library, h.937.(23.)

Franz Liszt’s operatic paraphrases are perhaps the pinnacle of the form. Below is a page from an autograph manuscript of his paraphrase on themes from Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. Liszt’s endless process of revision, rethinking and reworking of his pieces is particularly apparent in this score.

Liszt Verdi 2
Franz Liszt, Paraphrase on Verdi's 'Simon Boccanegra'. Egerton MS 2735

Last but certainly not least in this brief show-and-tell of Verdi-related items in the British Library collections is a complete opera in Verdi’s hand! This is his ninth opera, Attila, which was premiered in Venice the same year Nabucco was first given in London (1846). The manuscript was purchased by the British Museum in 1898 from Josef Coen, and an inscription inside tells us that at some point it was also owned by an F. Goring in Florence. Beyond that, its provenance - and the route it took from Verdi’s desk to us - remains something of a mystery.

Verdi Attila
Autograph score of Verdi's Attila. British Library, Add MS 35156

Chris Scobie, Curator of Music Manuscripts



*1 quoted in Tony Harris, The Legacy of Cornelius Cardew (London, 2016). ELD.DS.53926.