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

20 August 2014

War, Women and Song: British Library, 30 August 2014

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On Saturday 30 August (6.30pm) the British Library Conference Centre will host the premiere performance of War, Women and Song, a unique theatrical recreation of the entertainments given for troops on the front line in the First World War.  Written and directed by Anna Farthing and Bea Roberts, the production is inspired by the remarkable story of the actress and acting manager Lena Ashwell (1872-1957) and her series of YMCA Concert Parties. 

 Lena Ashwell concert parties

During the course of the war more than 600 actors, musicians and entertainers – mostly young women – signed up for tours of duty as members of up to 25 companies, travelling throughout France and as far afield as Egypt to bring succour and morale-boosting diversion to war-weary soldiers.  War, Women and Song is inspired by the surviving programmes, photos, and archival materials that document the content and style of the entertainments, as well as the backgrounds and motivations of some of the performers themselves


The first concerts took place in France in early 1915, with support from the YMCA.  Concerts were given in tents, fields, or huts – often to hundreds of soldiers – with up to three performances per day (more than 5,000 concerts in total were given between 1915 and 1919).  A typical ensemble consisted of a soprano, contralto, instrumentalist, tenor, baritone or bass, entertainer, and accompanist, allowing scope for a mixed entertainment of classical works interspersed with readings from poetry, and popular WW1 classics still familiar to us today – such Roses of Picardy and Keep the Home Fires Burning


Ashwell later wrote about the concerts in her book Modern troubadours: a record of the concerts at the front (London: Gyldendal, 1922).  Music, she claimed, offered ‘the straightest road to the unseen world of spiritual beauty [and] fulfilled more than its tangible function of cheering up the men… Music ministers with magical results to minds distressed, destroying the seeds of despondent thoughts, the black moods that dullness, pain, or loneliness sow in the most gallant hearts, for “where music is, there can no ill thing be”’ (p. 8).

War, Women and Song was conceived by Harvest Heritage Arts and Media and features a professional cast including Samantha Barron, Nick Blakeley, Hannah Lee, Bryan Moriarty and Cassie Webb.  The performance on 30 August forms part of the international conference ‘The Music of War: 1914-1918’ (29-31 August), presented by the British Library to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. The conference is supported by the Royal Musical Association, Music & Letters, and the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities.

For tickets, please follow this link to the BL Box Office.


14 August 2014

Pax Aeterna (1917): silent film screening at the British Library, 29 August 2014

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On 29 August at 6.30pm the British Library presents an rare screening of the classic World War I silent film, Pax Aeterna.  Directed by Holger-Madsen, this feature-length film was first screened in Denmark in 1917.  Its message of peace was warmly received by war-weary audiences throughout Scandinavia and Europe in 1917 and 1918, but the film has long since fallen into obscurity. 

This exclusive performance reunites the film, which survives in the archives of the Danish Film Institute, with a musical accompaniment by the Viennese composer Franz Eber.  Eber’s score was composed for screenings at the Wiener Konzerthaus organised by the Red Cross to raise funds for tuberculosis relief in March 1918.  The musical accompaniment was originally performed by a full orchestra, but a piano reduction which survives in the archives of the Konzerthaus will form the basis for the reconstruction at the British Library, to be recreated by the renowned silent film pianist John Sweeney

Pax aeterna still

With stunning visual imagery, the film explores utopian themes of love and peace in the midst of conflict, charting the fate of the fictional King Elin XII, a peace-loving leader of a European nation, and his son Crown Prince Alexis.  The King has dedicated his life to the pursuit of eternal peace (pax aeterna) between nations, an ideal supported and propounded in the writings and lectures of the Professor Baron Claudius. Alexis is in turn in love with Claudius's daughter Bianca, but is unable to profess his love because of her lower social status.  The King's death on the eve of war with a neighbouring state thrusts Alexis into power and highlights the tragic personal consequences of war, as Claudius's son meets one of his friends (a student of Claudius) in battle.  The battle is duly won by the new King Alexis, but at great human cost. Instead of trying to take advantage of the fortunes of war, Alexis sends a peace expedition to the neighboring state as well as to all other European nations.  His ensuing popularity allows him to win public acclaim for his match with Bianca.

The British Library screening is presented by arrangement with the Danish Film Institute and the Wiener Konzerthaus.  It is made possible by the research and generous assistance of Anna Katharina Windisch and forms part of the international conference ‘The Music of War, 1914-1918’ (29-31 August), presented by the British Library to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.  The conference is supported by the Royal Musical Association, Music & Letters, and the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities

For tickets, please follow this link to the BL Box Office.


31 July 2014

Recordings from the Skamba Skamba Kankliai music festival, Lithuania

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The British Library has recently acquired  a collection of field recordings made at the Skamba Skamba Kankliai Festival in Vilnius, Lithuania. The recordings were made by field recordist and composer Yiorgis Sakellariou with support from World & Traditional Music at the British Library and the generous guidance of Dr. Austė Nakienė at the Lithuanian Institute of Folklore and Literature in Vilnius. The following text, written by Yiorgis Sakellariou himself, details his experience at the festival and features audio excerpts from the collection:   

The Skamba Skamba Kankliai recording project is more so the documentation of an intense listening experience rather than the result of thorough ethnomusicological research. When I arrived in Vilnius I was mainly motivated by the curiosity to see how traditional Lithuanian music is presented and staged at a large-scale festival. My previous knowledge on the subject was fragmentary. I had recently lived in Lithuania for about a year and during that time I became interested in the country's folk music, however I never developed an organized method of collecting or documenting it. Nonetheless, it was easy to discover that there is a big variety of songs and dances and, furthermore, a long history of recording and archiving Lithuanian music.

Since 1973, Skamba Skamba Kankliai has been held annually in Vilnius, Lithuania and currrently it is organized by the Vilnius Ethnic Culture Centre. Every year the festival welcomes a large number of folk ensembles that present a wide and diverse range of traditional music. The festival also hosts international ensembles. In 2014, ensembles from Azerbaijan, Italy, Iran and Georgia assisted and performed folk music from their countries.

Skamba Skamba

The concerts took place in several locations of the old town of Vilnius and many times they overlapped which made it impossible to record every single one. I tried to record music that was as diverse and representative as possible, documenting material on the basis of style, place of origin, instrumentation or age and gender of singers. Often the decision was purely practical (distance between stages, exhaustion, weather conditions etc.). The recordings attempt to capture not only the performed music but also the sonic atmosphere of the festival. The concerts took place in squares, parks, streets, alleys, theatres and churches and on several occasions the purely musical sounds are mixed with street and crowd noise or simply the recording location’s ambiance.

This collection can only document a small sample of Lithuania’s long musical tradition but hopefully the recordings will stimulate curiosity of listeners who are interested in world and traditional music. I do not consider the recorded material as a relic of a past that desperately tries to catch up with the present and secure a place in the future. These songs, which mostly originated in late 19th century’s rural life, are filtered through the new ideas and experiences of the people that currently perform them and afterwards through me, an observer/recordist of the performances. The recordings themselves act as another filter, substituting the physical experience of actually being present at the performance. Yet, despite the multiple layers of filters, the core of the music remains intact. My impression, or perhaps even wish, is that its truthfulness can still deeply affect the listener of the 21st century. 


Here are a few highlights from the festival selected and commented by Yiorgis Sakellariou.

Sasutalas folk ensemble performs Kas tar teka par dvarelį 

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The most significant form of Lithuanian singing is the polyphonic sutartinės (from the word sutarti meaning 'to be in agreement'). Each song includes short melodic patterns with few notes, which are sung independently following the polyphonic vocal music rules of heterophony, canon and counterpoint. On 1 June, the last day of the festival, Sasutalas folk ensemble performed a set of sutartinės at Adomas Mickevičius yard. A few children were playing games around the yard shortly before it started to rain.  

Toma Grašytė, Adelė Vaiginytė and Ieva Kisieliūtė perform Lioj saudailio, vokaro (sutartinė) 

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This sutartinė was performed by three singers at the opening of Nakties muzika (Night Music), a concert that was set in the atmospheric Lėlė theatre late on the evening of 30 May. A mesmerized audience of around forty people was in attendance.

Liucija Vaicenavičiūtė perform Vaikščiojo motulė po dvarų

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Earlier that day at the Lėlė theatre, Čiulba Čiulbutis (Little Bird Warbles), an event focusing on solos, duets and trios, took place. Liucija Vaicenavičiūtė is a member of the ensemble Vaicenavičių šeima (Vaicenavičius family). She sings a song about a mother who wakes her sweetest young daughter up and encourages her to go to the garden and look after their male guests.

Tatato folk ensemble performs Ar aušta rytas, ar diena?

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Tatato is the ensemble of the studio of the Ethnomusicology Department of Lithuanian Music and Theatre Academy. The ensemble director, Daiva Vyčinienė, has been devoted to the spreading and teaching of Lithuanian folk music for the past twenty years. 

You can listen to more recordings from the Skamba Skamba Kankliai Recording Project in British Library Reading Rooms by searching for C1661 on our catalogue. The British Library also has several CD publications documenting Lithuanian songs and music from 1908-1941 which were kindly donated by the Lithuanian Institute of Folklore and Literature. In addition, Yiorgis Sakellariou has also deposited environmental field recordings made in Lithuania at the British Library which you can find on our catalogue under collection number WA 2014/019.

Listen online to more collections from World & Traditional music!