Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library


Discover more about the British Library's 6 million sound recordings and the access we provide to thousands of moving images. Comments and feedback are welcomed. Read more

28 September 2016

Anna Pavlova and the Swans of Abbotsbury

When it comes to dancing legends, the Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova (1881-1931) is up there with the best of them. Her unique style, infinite charm and forward-thinking attitude towards ballet cemented her place in the annals of classical dance.  

As with many ballerinas, swans played an important part in Pavlova’s repertoire. One of her most revered performances was The Dying Swan, a solo set to Saint-Saëns' Le Cygne and choreographed, at her request, by Michel Fokine. The piece was first performed by Pavlova in St Petersburg in 1905 and quickly became known as her signature role.

  Anna Pavlova The Dying Swan_Library of Congress

Photograph of Anna Pavlova in The Dying Swan, n.d., no photographer (retrieved from the Library of Congress)

Saint-Saëns' sombre composition symbolises the final moments of a dying swan, a scenario which lent itself well to ballet. Pavlova’s expressive technique, coupled with Fokine’s experimental nature, produced a dance that was full of emotion. As the dance critic André Levinson reported:

“Arms folded, on tiptoe, she dreamily and slowly circles the stage. By even, gliding motions of the hands, returning to the background from whence she emerged, she seems to strive toward the horizon, as though a moment more and she will fly—exploring the confines of space with her soul. The tension gradually relaxes and she sinks to earth, arms waving faintly as in pain. Then faltering with irregular steps toward the edge of the stage—leg bones quiver like the strings of a harp—by one swift forward-gliding motion of the right foot to earth, she sinks on the left knee—the aerial creature struggling against earthly bonds; and there, transfixed by pain, she dies.”

Le Cygne_Camile Saint-Saens

(Performed by the violinist Albert Spalding, 1914, Blue Amberol 28185, British Library reference 1CYL0001658) 

In preparation for the role, the ballerina apparently spent time observing the movements of swans found in the parks of her native St Petersburg. This desire to draw inspiration directly from nature was something that Pavlova carried with her throughout her career.

After performing with leading companies such as the Imperial Russian Ballet (Mariinsky Ballet) and Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, Pavlova decided to form her own ballet company. The move gave the ballerina complete control over her performances as well as the freedom to choreograph and tour without restriction.

While preparing for her production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, Pavlova turned once again to the natural world. The ballerina and her dancers travelled to the small Dorsetshire village of Abbotsbury to visit the only managed colony of Mute Swans in the world. First mentioned in the written record towards the end of the 14th Century, Abbotsbury Swannery is believed to have been formed by Benedictine monks three centuries earlier. With up to 1500 individuals descending on the swannery during the breeding season, the location was the perfect spot for Pavlova and her troupe to come and watch the comings and goings of these graceful birds.

Abbotsbury Swannery was the focus of Keeper of the Swans, a BBC Radio 4 programme broadcast on 17th March 1969which featured an in-depth interview with Fred Lexster, the man tasked with caring for the swans. Following in the footsteps of his ancestors, Lexster had been the swannery's official swanherd for over 50 years and had many a tale to tell. When quizzed about famous visitors, Lexster spoke of encounters with luminaries such as Sir Thomas Lipton, George Bernard Shaw, Augustus John and, of course, Anna Pavlova:

Anna Pavlova visit

Pavlova tragically died in 1931, at just 49 years of age, yet her legacy as one of the most captivating and influential ballerinas lives on to this day. Soon after the Second World War, members of the Continental Ballet came to the swannery to perform a piece from Swan Lake in memory of the legendary Pavlova. Lexster had been instrumental in securing the visit so, when the necessary publicity had been concluded, the company's director, Molly Lake, invited the old swanherd to dance with her swans:

Fred Lexster dancing with the ballerinas

When the pioneering wildlife sound recordist Ludwig Koch came to Abbotsbury to record the vocalisations of the Mute Swan, he too was struck by their courtship dance:

“I left Abbotsbury towards the end of May with an unforgettable memory of two swans dancing round and round in the Fleet estuary. Their grace is unique among creatures, and I can understand the immortal Pavlova’s fondness for watching swans at Abbotsbury.”

Despite performing the piece over 4,000 times around the world, very little footage of Pavlova dancing The Dying Swan survives. In the brief segment that remains however, one can perhaps see traces of the swans that so fascinated this most fascinating of ballerinas.

26 September 2016

The future of radio: no. 1 - Charlie Phillips

The British Library is working with the UK radio industry to develop a national radio archive and has invited experts from across the radio and music industry to consider what the future of radio might look like. 

Charlie Phillips
Charlie Phillips

Charlie is the Head of Legal and Commercial Affairs for the Association of Independent Music (AIM) in the UK and the Worldwide Independent Network of music companies globally. He was formerly Music Manager for Napster UK and Head of Music for Capital Radio’s DAB stations.

The future of radio from the independent music sector's perspective

Today there’s so much choice for listeners and music fans, both from multiple ways to access music, and from other pulls on our entertainment and leisure time outside of music. Radio listening has declined over the last few years, but overall use of music has grown hugely. So radio has a challenge ahead if it’s to stay relevant.

From the independent sector’s perspective, indie record labels love radio. We are very supportive of all broadcasters, with a particular relationship having developed with the BBC. However there are always concerns over access to playlisting and actually getting music on air. This is becoming more transparent, and AIM has helped develop relationships with the indie sector and the BBC and other broadcasters over several years. But it’s still a crowded place with only so many hours in the day for radio to be able to fill with music. Concerns about the proportion of independent music that makes it onto radio is a permanent agenda point in AIM’s work with its members.

So what does the changing music landscape mean for the future of radio? As the amount of music released increases, the challenge radio faces to ensure the ‘best’ music gets airplay will only get harder. Some radio stations are broadening out their services and launching narrower, more focussed, stations, for example Absolute Radio’s ‘decade’ stations on DAB. But by doing so the audience for each station may decrease, perhaps moving away from flagship stations. Is there a paradox in offering a range of services that risk taking audience away from ‘flagship’ stations?

Indies are concerned that commercial radio is under more pressure than ever to deliver audiences to satisfy ‘mainstream’ corporate advertisers and sponsors. This seems to have narrowed the playlists of many commercial stations (although not all), and has led to access only being available to those with the capacity to support high level plugging and media campaigns for obviously mainstream, ‘commercial’ music.

Access to radio is easier for the larger labels with deeper pockets, who tend to champion more mainstream music. Airplay can be harder to achieve for many indies, and especially those who produce more specialist music. Mainstream music is an expensive and crowded place, with a lot of very large players chasing the next big airplay hit.

Most independent labels are not so focused on the mainstream but more interested in seeing choice and discovery develop, such that traditional radio can happily exist alongside today’s very broad on-demand digital music services. If narrowing of playlists is happening, this means narrowing of choice and discovery for listeners, and this in turn means a less attractive radio offering, and perhaps fewer listeners listening for less time. This can’t be good for radio, audiences or music producers. Add to this the fact that streaming services offer almost the opposite experience (access to millions of tracks whenever you want rather than linear programming) and you have a situation where many indies are thriving on streaming services and have in some cases left ‘traditional’ radio behind.

From a purely commercial perspective, the successes of collective licensing organisations like PPL in the UK and its counterparts overseas in extracting real value from broadcasters’ use of music is very much something to applaud. In fact in most years since 2000, global revenues from performance rights as a whole (including broadcast and public performance together) have seen double-digit growth year on year, according to IFPI figures.

Broadcast usage of music is now a key revenue stream for music companies, and when independent labels do achieve airplay, the financial rewards can be significant. The downside is, as mentioned already, that bigger players are able to deploy significant resources to achieve and sustain airplay of their repertoire, which smaller players are less capable of doing. As a result, the bigger players go on to take the lion’s share of the available licensing revenues.

To ensure future sustainability of audiences, radio will need to work with music companies to manage music selection carefully, in order to prevent stagnation and ‘copy paste’ music programming policies which favour bigger players, and which may risk turning audiences off. Radio needs to remain fresh and exciting, and the independent sector is the home of the freshest and most exciting music around.

Looking ahead to the future, radio will have to deal with a number of challenges. Radio is not set to disappear any time soon, but it will need to change to keep up with a very fast moving digital marketplace. Developing offerings to compete with the breadth of other music and non-music services will be critical. Ensuring music programming is relevant and not too narrowly focused will also be essential, to allow for competitive differentiation as well as a fresh and interesting offerings to serve and maintain audiences, and in turn to enthuse advertisers and sponsors.

Radio needs to recognise that there are commercial drivers on the music industry producing the music they play. This requires radio to be vigilant and attentive to ensure broadcasters are doing all they can to find the best music, rather than favour what is directly offered to them. This is happening, and there’s cause for optimism as the industry develops better relationships with radio, be that through AIM for the indies, or on an individual basis.

The question of ensuring enough independent repertoire makes it onto radio is not set to disappear any time soon. The independent music sector is keen to keep working with the radio industry to develop this, and hope that the future of radio, whatever this looks like, will bring increased opportunities for independent music. This will be the best outcome for listeners, broadcasters and producers of music.


The views and opinions in these blog posts are those of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the British Library.


Recording of the Week returns!

After a bit of a career break, Recording of the Week returns to the Sound and Vision blog! Every fortnight we'll be shining the spotlight on some of our most treasured recordings, from poets to politics and everything in between. Specially selected by experts from across the sound archive, these recordings will offer tantalising glimpses into a much larger collection of over six million items

We'll be keeping these selections short and sweet so, without further ado, let's kick off the new season with some singing steel, courtesy of National Life Stories interviewer Paul Merchant.

Metallurgist Sir Harry Bhadeshia tells the story of a steel that cried out. Its crystals sang as they formed themselves into the shapes that make 'Super Bainite' the strongest armour in the world.

Sir Harry Bhadeshia and the Crying Steel - Voices of Science

Harry Bhadeshia_021I-C1379X0100XX-0001M0

You can hear more stories about environmental science, British technology and engineering from 1940 to the present day by visiting the brilliant Voices of Science website.

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