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

29 April 2016

Sonatas with feline accompaniment

As followers of the BL’s medieval manuscripts blog will know, marginal illustrations are a common feature of medieval manuscripts, with fantastical specimens of wildlife, flora, and fauna often to the fore. They are much less likely to be found in musical sources after 1500 and examples in the BL’s extensive collection of printed music are almost non-existent.  However, one such example came to light in a recent acquisition of music by the Italian composer Gasparo Visconti. 

Born in Cremona in 1683 to a noble family, Visconti apparently studied with Corelli before travelling to London in about 1702, where he found some success as a violinist. Very few works of his are known to survive.  He did, however, publish several works, including a collection of airs for two flutes, an instruction manual for young violinists, and a set of sonatas for violin and continuo issued as his opus 1.  The last of these was first published in Amsterdam by the firm of Estienne Roger in 1703, before being reprinted in London in the same year.  Both editions bear a dedication to William Cavendish (1640-1707), first Duke of Devonshire.


Visconti’s connection to the Duke is not made clear in either edition, but it seems likely that Cavendish supported the composer in some way. Little further information is supplied in the dedicatory preface by the composer, dated 3 March 1703 in the Dutch edition (shelfmark e.565.k.), in which Visconti extols the Duke’s ‘heroic virtues’ in the florid language that was customary in such epistles at that time. 


By 1703, engraving was the preferred technology for printing music in many parts of Europe. A key advantage over letterpress printing lay in the ability to print off copies from a set of plates according to demand.  According to the musicologist Rudolf Rasch, the Visconti edition was reissued at some point between 1708 and 1712, after the Duke’s death, with a seventh sonata appended to the original set of six.  It is this issue that contains scurrying mice at the beginning and end of the music, with a cat in hot pursuit at the end.  


Were they included at the express wish of the composer? Do they have some programmatic significance in relation to the dedication?  Or were they simply added at the whim of the engraver of publisher?  It is impossible to know for sure, although it seems most likely (given the fact that they appear only in the reissue) that they serve a decorative function only. 



Whilst there have been more distinguished depictions of mice and cats over the centuries, this one is especially notable for its musical context.  It is certainly highly unusual in the history of music publishing, but the hunt now begins for other examples.



22 March 2016

Handel's Messiah

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An illustrated talk by John Butt, Musical Director of the Dunedin Consort, British Library, Saturday 14 May

Handel’s Messiah is one of the most familiar works in the choral repertory, a moving and varied celebration of Christ’s divinity using texts specially selected from the Bible. Yet its huge popularity doesn’t automatically mean that we know it as well as we think we do. Following its premiere in Dublin in 1742, Handel himself performed the piece many times in London in the 1740s and ’50s, and on each occasion made extensions, cuts and voice reassignments to suit the performing circumstances on hand, with the result that most Messiah performances we hear today are composites mixing and matching those various different versions.


Handel’s original score for the Dublin premiere of Messiah is held by the British Library, and the morning after conducting the Dunedin Consort in a performance of it at St John’s Smith Square as the opening concert of the 2016 London Festival of Baroque Music, Professor John Butt comes to the Library to give a talk on the significance of original texts, and what Handel’s manuscripts have to tell us about his oratorios. The talk – which takes place in the Foyle Suite on Saturday 14 May at 11.00am – will include a chance to view Handel scores and performance material from the British Library's collection. Tickets cost £15 and are available from the St John’s Smith Square box office.

This event forms part of the 2016 London Festival of Baroque Music, with its theme of ‘The Word’ exploring the intimate relationship between music and language. Running from 13-19 May, the Festival will also include a performance in Westminster Abbey of Handel’s other scriptural oratorio, Israel in Egypt, a staging of Monteverdi’s mini-drama Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, 17th-century Hebrew psalm-settings, song recitals by Iestyn Davies, Roberta Invernizzi and Olivia Chaney, and instrumental programmes by harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani and cornettist Bruce Dickey.

For more details of Festival concerts, visit



07 March 2016

Once upon a time in Bengal....

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TuT- Invitation Card (4)

On the 7th March 2016 ‘Time upon Time’, an exhibition of field recordings from Bengal curated by The Travelling Archive, opens at the Nandan Gallery in  Santiniketan. The exhibition focuses on the work of the ethnomusicologist Arnold Adriaan Bake (British Library collection C52), and includes materials from the archives of the British Library, alongside materials from the University of Leiden, ARCE, Rabindra Bhavan, Visva Bharati and the private collections and field recordings of The Travelling Archive. 

Moushumi Bhowmik describes the exhibition in this guest blog:

In the early twentieth century, a time when the discipline of ethnomusicology was still in its infancy, Arnold Bake (1899-1963) was among the first of the researcher-collectors who found their way to South Asia. Trained in Sanskrit and Indology at the Dutch universities of Leiden and Utrecht, Bake took up residency at Santiniketan in 1925 in order to study Damodar Misra’sSangitadarpana for his doctoral research. In addition, his love for folk music led him to making recordings of the folk music of Bengal, of which the baul and kirtan traditions in particular appealed to him. Furthermore, Bake worked closely with Rabindranath Tagore, in an attempt to study, collect, preserve, and distribute his songs and poetry. Between 1925 and 1956, Bake lived for extended periods of time in the Indian sub-continent, the first decade mostly in and around Bengal; he also travelled widely and made extensive recordings of music and dance from across many other parts India, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

Bake’s work very much constitutes the creation of an archive. The Travelling Archive, a project created by singer and writer Moushumi Bhowmik and sound recordist Sukanta Majumdar involving field recording in Bengal and its dissemination, first encountered Arnold Bake’s recordings in the archives of the British Library in 2003, and have remained connected to his work ever since. ‘Time upon Time’, an exhibition of field recordings from Bengal, explores the nature and depth of this connection. There are large overlaps between Arnold Bake and The Travelling Archive’s areas of work, both from a topographical and an archival perspective. This exhibition is an attempt to unravel the threads of archival material to demonstrate how past, present and future are intertwined.

The exhibition also draws attention to the future of archiving by commenting on the very concept of the archive. With support of the IFA through their Archival and Museum Fellowship, and a Scaliger Fellowship from Leiden University, the exhibition explores resources from several archives within India and abroad, including British Library, ARCE-AIIS, SOAS and Rabindra Bhavan. In so doing, the exhibition strives to layer archive upon archive as a way to examine the way archives are constructed. Furthermore, by employing the language of art, this exhibition is also a venture into some of the ways in which archival material can be used and interpreted. Finally, this exhibition is not only about Arnold Bake but also about the time in which he lived, people who surrounded him, their sounds, and silences, too. It is also about this present time when we are trying to listen to him and, in him, listen to the ‘future of our past’.

Thus, ‘Time upon Time’ is meant to be an interactive experience of a work in progress. The Travelling Archive is interested in studying sound and image as historical material. Seeing and listening can trigger memory and thus lead to the further unravelling of history. Therefore, visitors to the exhibition are encouraged to contribute their own memories and experiences to The Travelling Archive. Words, voices, sounds, images, and other contributions will be recorded on site by The Travelling Archive in their ‘studio’ set up within the space of the exhibition.

7-15 March 2016. Nandan gallery, Kala Bhavan, Visva Bharati, Santiniketan. (Closed on Wednesday and Thursday)

The event opens with a presentation by Tagore singer Chitralekha Chowwhdury, recorded by Arnold Bake in 1956.

 Bake recording of Chitra Choudhury's Tagore song

Recording reference: C52/NEP/70

For further information please visit: www.travelling