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

23 May 2016

Meet Bert the Turtle

Did you know today is World Turtle Day? To mark the occasion, we'd like to introduce you to Bert the Turtle. He can be found on the front cover of a vocal score of Bert the Turtle's The Duck and Cover Song (shelfmark VOC/1953/CARR), which forms part of the British Library's extensive printed music collections.


The artwork and associated song formed part of a US Cold War campaign devised in 1951 to encourage children to ‘duck and cover’ should they see ‘the flash’ - an atomic explosion. You can hear the song here.


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