THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Music blog

Music news and views

Introduction

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

13 April 2017

The man who found the straight banana

Did you know that bananas first went on sale in London in April 1633?

Inspired by this fact, we’ve been delving into our printed music collections, and have discovered that the humble fruit has inspired a surprisingly large number of songs.

These include the romantically-titled 'When the banana skins are falling, I’ll come sliding back to you' (1926), the evocative World War 2 song 'When can I have a banana again?', and the catchy 1920s number 'Yes, we have no bananas'.

When the banana skins are falling

Published 1926. British Library VOC/1926/FRAZZINI

In our quest for banana-inspired music, we also came across a song entitled 'I’ve never seen a straight banana'. This piqued our curiosity, particularly in light of recent press coverage surrounding Brexit.

Apparently, one voter was swayed to vote in favour of leaving the European Union on account of regulations relating to banana shape. As a BBC news article explains, according to European Commission Regulations:

Bananas must be "free from malformation or abnormal curvature". In the case of "Extra class" bananas, there is no wiggle room, but Class 1 bananas can have "slight defects of shape", and Class 2 bananas can have full-on "defects of shape”.

As our music collections reveal, though, concerns over banana shape, be they light-hearted or official, are not a new phenomenon. The comic song ‘I’ve never seen a straight banana’ dates from 1926 and was written by the elusive British music hall comedian Ted Waite. Our copy is an arrangement for banjo and ukulele – described as “banjulele” on the edition.

I've never seen a straight banana

Published 1926. British Library VOC/1926/WAITE

In 1927, it was made popular by American bandleader Fred Waring whose band, Waring's Pennsylvanians, recorded it.  The chorus runs:

I’ve seen bananas standing up,

And seen them lying down.

I’ve tried everywhere to find one,

Africa, Jamaica and Havana,

But I’ve never seen a straight banana.

Waite’s song was quickly “answered” by one Waff Walker. Setting words by Harry Arthur, he composed ‘I’m the man who found the straight banana’ in 1927. This went on sale the same year for the modest sum of sixpence.

I'm the man who found the straight banana

Published 1927. British Library VOC/1927/WALKER

Described as a “chorus song”, suggesting it could be sung by a group rather than as a solo, the final lines boldly declare:

I went and done a something

Millions of others couldn’t do

I’m the man who found the straight banana.

To explore these and other banana-related music items in our collections, visit our Explore catalogue and search for “banana music”.

11 April 2017

New folk-dance arrangements discovered

Imogen Holst, who was born on 12 April 1907, is well-known, among her many accomplishments, for her folk-song and folk-dance arrangements. Many of these published volumes, written for a variety of educational and recreational purposes, are available in the printed music collections here at the British Library.

 

 

Recently, however, we have come across a collection of Imogen Holst's folk-dance arrangements in her own hand which never made it into print. The manuscript, along with related correspondence, is contained within our recently-acquired Boosey & Hawkes archive, and gives further insight into Imogen Holst’s editorial approach to folk-song and dance, as well as her tireless commitment to the promotion of British music.

Imogen Holst folk dances

Newly-discovered Imogen Holst folk-dance arrangements in the British Library Boosey & Hawkes Archive. Reproduced with permission of the Holst Foundation

In June 1944, while she was busy running the music course at Dartington Hall, Imogen Holst received an invitation from the music publisher Boosey & Hawkes to edit and arrange two volumes of British folk-songs and dances for piano. She accepted with enthusiasm - ‘I cannot tell you what pleasure your suggestion gave me’ - and within 6 weeks had completed the manuscripts for both volumes.

The intention of Boosey & Hawkes was to promote the works internationally, capitalizing on pro-British sentiments in countries ‘where everything British will be much more appreciated after the war’. Imogen Holst replied that this was ‘a practical piece of internationalism that appeals to me very strongly’. Proofs for the first volume of folk-songs, complete with French and Spanish (but notably, not German) translations, were ready by January 1945, and publication followed in 1947.

However, the second volume of folk-dances remained in manuscript form. Languishing in the Boosey & Hawkes archive ever since, it contains piano arrangements for around 35 folk-dances from around the British Isles, along with handwritten introductions to both volumes. Imogen Holst had clear ideas about how folk-song and dance should be presented and was assertive about these in her correspondence with the company: ‘I feel very strongly indeed that most editions of traditional tunes are cluttered up with a lot of “expression” marks which might be all right in elaborate “composed” music of the 19th and 20th centuries but which are hopelessly out of place in simple tunes that sing themselves’.

Her keen stylistic sense, along with her understanding of traditional dance forms, also comes across in the introduction to the folk dances: ‘In the following piano arrangements the left hand has to supply the light, rhythmical accompaniment of the missing drum. Instead of providing solid harmonies it must let in the air between each rise and fall of the phrase, lifting the imaginary dancers off their feet’.

The related correspondence in the Boosey & Hawkes archive does not indicate why this second volume was never published. In 1951 Imogen Holst returned the volumes of folk-songs loaned to her by the publisher for the purposes of the project and a rather formal reply from Dr Rosen denied all knowledge of the current state of play regarding her work. By then Imogen Holst was set to leave Dartington and, after a period of travel in India, would soon become assistant to Benjamin Britten. Her subsequent dealings with Boosey & Hawkes were mostly concerned with this new creative partnership.

Emma Greenwood, Music Manuscript and Archival Cataloguer, British Library

 

Note

Imogen Holst, composer, conductor, writer, and administrator, was born on 12 April 1907 and died at Aldeburgh on 9 March 1984. Her archive is held at the Britten-Pears Library and has recently been catalogued as part of the Holst Archive Project. Please note that cataloguing of the Boosey & Hawkes archive at the British Library is ongoing and that access to the archive is limited until the project is complete.

 

 

28 March 2017

Beethoven's tuning fork

Recently, we've been working hard to digitise autograph manuscripts relating to major composers found in our extensive music collections. These include a number of manuscripts in the hand of Beethoven, who died 190 years this week (26 March 1827).

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler 1820Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820

Amongst our digitised Beethoven treasures are the sketchbook for the Pastoral symphony (Additional MS 31766), sketches for the third and fourth movements of the Sonata in A major for 'cello and piano, op. 69 (Zweig MS 6), and the score for 'Der Kuss', op. 128 (Zweig MS 10).

We also hold a number of more unusual Beethoven-related items. His laundry list (Zweig MS 210) is featured elsewhere on this blog, and is complemented by a set of kitchen accounts (Zweig MS 209).
 
Zweig_ms_209_beethoven_kitchen_accounts_f001rBeethoven's kitchen accounts (before 1827). British Library Zweig MS 209, folio 1 recto
 
In addition, we are the proud owners of Beethoven's tuning fork (Additional MS 71148 A). But how did we come to acquire this unusual item?
 
In 1802, the virtuoso violinist George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower (1780-1860) travelled to Dresden. He gave concerts there on 24 July 1802 and 18 March 1803. These were so successful that, having obtained an extension of leave from his duties in England, he went to Vienna in April 1803.
 
In Vienna, Prince Lichnowsky, a Polish aristocrat and Beethoven's patron, introduced Bridgetower to the great composer. Beethoven  had already begun sketching the first two movements of what was to become the Sonata for Pianoforte and Violin in A opus 47, otherwise known as the 'Kreutzer' sonata. 
 
KreutzerlgeFirst edition of the Beethoven’s 'Kreutzer' sonata, opus 47. British Library Hirsch IV.287

The work received its first performance at a concert given by Bridgetower at the Augarten-Halle in Vienna on 24 May 1803, with Beethoven himself playing the piano part. Bridgetower's own memorandum of the event records an alteration he introduced in the violin part. This pleased Beethoven so much that he jumped up exclaiming "Noch einmal, mein lieber Bursch!" ("Once more, my dear fellow!"). He also presented Bridgetower with his tuning fork. 

Tuningforklge
Beethoven’s tuning fork. British Library Additional MS 71148 A 
 
Documentation acquired with the tuning fork allows us to trace its history in more detail. It seems it passed from Bridgetower to one Ulysses Bolton, then from Bolton to Paul Waddington and then from Waddington to John H. Balderstone. Balderstone went on to give the fork to the composer Gustav Holst in 1921. Holst then passed it to composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose widow, Ursula, went on to present it to the British Library in 1992.

The fork is preserved in a wooden box with walnut veneer. Tests have shown that it resonates at 455.4 Hertz, somewhat higher than today's standard of 440 Hertz.