Music blog

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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

27 January 2015

Mozart in London talks at the British Library

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To celebrate the 250th anniversary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s childhood visit to London, the British Library presents a series of three illustrated talks in association with Classical Opera.  The eight-year-old Mozart arrived in London in April 1764 with his mother, father and sister, and they were to remain for fifteen months. During this time Mozart composed his first symphonies and arias, gave numerous performances and heard a wide range of music by other composers. London was a thriving musical centre, and this visit had a formative influence on the development of Mozart’s compositional voice.

© De Agostini/British Library Board
Pietro Antonio Lorenzoni (1721-1782), Portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Leading Mozart scholar Cliff Eisen – Professor of Music at King’s College, London – presents three different facets of Mozart’s London in dialogue with three other experts. They cover the people Mozart met, the places he visited and the music he heard, and contextualise the crucial early years of a composer who even at the age of eight was being called a ‘Prodigy of Nature’. 

Friday 6 February 2015, 6.30pm
MADE IN CHELSEA: The Music of Mozart’s London
Cliff Eisen and Ian Page assess Mozart’s musical development and influences during his stay in London. The talk is followed by the first performance in modern times of a recently re-discovered ‘Mozartian’ sonata by J.C.Bach, played by harpsichordist Steven Devine.

Friday 13 February 2015, 6.30pm
Cliff Eisen and the acclaimed historian Lucy Inglis unveil a London which had recovered from The Great Fire a hundred years previously to become the largest and most affluent city in the world.

Monday 2 March 2015, 6.30pm
DIVINE WARBLING: The London Pleasure Gardens
Cliff Eisen discusses social and musical aspects of London’s Pleasure Gardens with Steven Devine, who also accompanies soprano Kate Semmens in a programme of songs by Arne, Boyce and others.

Tickets are available from the British Library Box Office (; 01937 546546)

This series forms part of the launch of Classical Opera’s ground-breaking MOZART 250
programme, which over the next twenty-seven years will follow the chronological
trajectory of Mozart’s life and career.   For more details visit 

© De Agostini/British Library Board
Vauxhall Garden, London, by Thomas Rowlandson, 1784



18 December 2014

'Earliest' polyphonic music discovered in British Library

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Alamire initial letter
This blog has been quiet for a while, but plenty has been going on in the meantime. See the BBC News website for a report on a BL music manuscript presented to Henry VIII by the famous music scribe, spy and double agent Petrus Alamire, which has been recorded complete for the first time - and which reached no. 2 in the charts in the week it was released! We've just published the complete choirbook on our Digitised Manuscripts site, and you can read more about it on the BL Medieval blog. Also see our European Studies blog for a fascinating account of the circumstances surrounding the first performance of Offenbach's La Belle Hélène, exactly 150 years ago.


Harley_ms_3019_f56v detail

Meanwhile, reports emerged yesterday in the press (including here and here) of the discovery in the British Library of the earliest piece of polyphonic music. Can this strange coded message really rewrite the history of choral music by shifting the earliest known harmony back by more than a century? Let’s take a closer look…

Harley MS 3019, fol. 56v

The music consists of a brief inscription written in the blank space at the end of a short manuscript of the life of the fourth-century bishop Maternianus of Riems, written down in the early tenth century. When the manuscript was received as part of the Harley Collection in 1753, nobody paid any attention to these scribblings: the fact that our predecessors chose to deface them with the British Museum stamp is regrettable, but also provides clear evidence that they were not thought to have any significance.

The music was discovered by Giovanni Varelli, a doctoral student at Cambridge, while he was working at the British Library on an internship under the Leonardo da Vinci Programme from the University of Pavia. Giovanni was systematically working along the shelves looking for medieval
musical notations in order to add details to the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts when he stumbled upon this page completely by chance. At the bottom of the page, on either side of a tear in the parchment which was already present before the text was written, are two short chants notated with neumes characteristic of the early tenth century, in a style known to modern scholars as Palaeofrankish notation. Harley_ms_3019_f56v Palaeofrankish neumesThe first chant is an antiphon in honour of St Boniface, an English missionary who established Christianity in many parts of Germany. The second, 'Rex caelestium terrestrium', is a more generic plea for salvation. This in itself was an exciting discovery, as the number of surviving manuscripts of this very early notation is very limited.

More interesting, though, are the strange patterns of vertical lines with dashes on their tops and circles on their bottoms:

Harley_ms_3019_f56v detail 2

Closer inspection reveals that these symbols represent two separate voice parts - the upper part (shown with horizontal dashes) is the melody of the first chant notated at the bottom of the page, and the lower part (shown with circles) is a separate melody to be sung in harmony with the chant melody - a practice known as organum. The pitches are shown in much the same way as modern notation, by their height on a stave: the only difference is that the stave-lines have been ruled in the parchment with a dry point, so are virtually invisible. The letters on the left show the height at which each note is written, from a up to g, and the vertical lines link the two notes to be sung together. When both voices sing the same note, the two lines converge. The curved sign, on the third note from the right in the excerpt above, shows a liquescent syllable in the text, signifying that the letters m and n should be hummed with the mouth closed: these signs are also found in conjunction with the letters r, t and -gn-, showing some sort of semi-vocalised performance. So in fact this newly invented notation of the tenth century conveys some details which are more subtle and sophisticated than can be shown in the standard modern staff notation of more than a millennium later. Giovanni Varelli has succeeded in transcribing this piece into modern notation:

Organum in modern notation
Everything suggests that these unusual signs were written at the same time as the chant along the bottom of the page, in the early decades of the tenth century. In fact, as Giovanni has shown in a more detailed article about this discovery, this invented system of notation is very similar to a scheme found in a contemporaneous music theory treatise, in a manuscript at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS lat. 7202 (images available on the Gallica website). Other comparable schemes for showing two- and three-part polyphony are found in other music theory manuscripts of the tenth century, and even the ninth. What makes this discovery in the British Library manuscript so exciting is that it does not form part of a theoretical treatise: it is direct evidence of an actual tradition of performance, rather than being presented as a theoretical possibility. And in that respect, it stands a century earlier than the manuscript formerly considered to represent the beginnings of polyphonic music outside theoretical writings, the Winchester Troper.

So, within this very particular frame of reference, this is the very first music manuscript in the history of harmony in the Western tradition, and draws our knowledge of the practice of this tradition back from around 1000 to around 900.




13 November 2014

Calling all PhD students with a music-related topic!

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The British Library's Music Open Day for Doctoral Students will take place on 30 January 2015.

Starting your PhD? Our Doctoral Open Days are a chance to discover the British Library's unique collections. Meet our curators and network with researchers in your field

These Open Days allow students to learn about our collections of printed and manuscript music and sound recordings (including classical, pop, world and traditional music), to find out how to access them, and to meet our curatorial staff as well as other researchers in their field. In addition to an understanding of the Library’s collections, students gain a wider introduction to the information landscape in their field, and research opportunities opening up in the digital information environment.

This event is aimed at new PhD students, as well as Masters students who are planning to continue their research at doctoral level.  Numbers are limited and, as these events are very popular, we do encourage early booking. Places cost £5.00 and this includes lunch.

Book directly using this link or see our website for details of all events taking place at the British Library.   

The Institute of Musical Research will provide discretionary travel bursaries, up to £20, for students coming from outside London – further details will be provided nearer the time.