Music blog

Music news and views


We have around 100,000 pieces of manuscript music, 1.6 million items of printed music and 2 million music recordings! This blog features news and information about these rich collections. It is written by our music curators, cataloguers and reference staff, with occasional pieces from guest contributors. Read more

17 October 2019

Upcoming Elgar events at the British Library

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We are holding two events in November to celebrate Elgar’s music and the rich collections of his works at the Library.

On Friday 8 November there will be an evening concert with pianist Iain Farrington, featuring works by Elgar that are represented in the Library’s collection, throwing light on the composer’s creative process and unearthing some surprises! 

To find out more details and to book a place please visit the British Library website here:

On Monday 25 November there will be a study day focussing on the sources of Elgar’s works.

Photograph of Edward Elgar composing music at his desk
Edward Elgar. Photo by May Grafton

Elgar’s sources, ranging from manuscript sketches and scores, printed music, letters and recordings, reveal important information about his compositional practices and the origin of some of his most famous works, such as the Enigma variations, his concertos, symphonies, and oratorios. They also tell us important stories about his personal and professional life, his close family relationships and friendships, as well as his remarkable personality. Speakers specialising in the music of Elgar and Music curators will discuss his compositional practices and aspects of his life and reception.


10.00-10.20: Registration 

10.20-10.30: Welcome and Introduction to the day – Richard Chesser (Head of Music, British Library)

10.30-11.15: Keynote – Julian Rushton (Professor Emeritus, University of Leeds)

11.15-11.45: The Elgar Birthplace Museum – Michael Messenger

11.45-12.00: Comfort break 

12.00-12.45: The Elgar Sources: an overview – Professor Dan Grimley (University of Oxford)

12.45-14.00 – Lunch [not provided]

14.00-14.40: Elgar recordings – Jonathan Summers (British Library)

14.40-15.30: Discoveries in Elgar Sources – Speakers: John Norris, David Lloyd-Jones

15.30-15.50: Comfort break 

15.50-16.30: Biographical Issues in Elgar Scholarship – Chair: Dr Jo Bullivant (University of Oxford)

Speakers: Jo Bullivant, Dr Sophie Fuller (Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance), Dr Nalini Ghuman (Mills College), Julian Rushton

16.30-17.00: Future plans on the Elgar sources at the British Library – Richard Chesser and Chris Scobie (British Library)

To book a place please visit the British Library website here:

We hope to see you there!


10 October 2019

Additional Discovering Music content published!

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We recently published additional content on our Discovering Music: early 20th century space:


Three additional articles are now featured on the space: Shadow and light in war and peace: Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time written by Oliver Soden, Holst and India written by Nalini Ghuman and Promoting New Music in Britain written by Annika Forkert.

Opening of Discovering Music article Promoting New Music in Britain

Collection items

Nine additional collection items have been created to accompany the newly published articles and three further ones have been added to the existing articles on British Composers in the early 20th century, The Second Viennese School and Music and the Creative Process: Elgar’s Third Symphony. The collection items feature autograph manuscripts and letters by Michael Tippett, Gustav Holst, Anton Webern, Alban Berg, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Edward Elgar.

The title page of the published vocal score of Berg's Wozzeck
Alban Berg: Wozzeck. Vocal score. Shelfmark: H.3455.d. © Public domain.


Titlepage of Holst's autograph manuscript of Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda
Gustav Holst: Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda. Shelfmark: Add MS 57873, f.2r. © Public domain.

People pages

An additional People page has been added to the space for the composer Michael Tippett.

Discovering Music People page of Michael Tippett

About Discovering Music

Discovering Music: early 20th century is a free online learning resource that provides unprecedented access to the Library’s music collections.

This phase of the project features over 100 20th-century treasures from the British Library’s collection including sketches, first editions, letters, concert programmes, sound recordings and photographs. 

Reflecting a period of intense musical development, the site reveals the ways in which key musicians of the period captured the world around them by rejecting inherited traditions and experimenting with new forms and themes. The site includes fascinating manuscripts by, among others, Benjamin Britten, Edward Elgar, Frederick Delius, Maurice Ravel, Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern. Users can also browse articles, information on specific musical works, and teachers’ notes designed to support the study of music at GCSE and A Level. With this material the Library hopes to illuminate the social, political and cultural context in which this music was written.

28 August 2019

From Music to Meme (1): Musical Expressions of National and Regional Identity on Postage Stamps

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The word ‘stamp’ certainly brings music to a Philatelist’s ear, yet they are also literally a musical medium for the masses!  Postal authorities worldwide have issued countless postage stamps incorporating reproductions from musical manuscripts, or notations into their designs. Including other stamps depicting instruments, composers and famous musicians, the British Library’s Philatelic Collections are an invaluable resource for cultural historians, manuscript specialists and musicologists.

In  ‘Banal Nationalism’ (Sage, London 1996) Michael Billig argues that an underlying, non-extremist, endemic type of national identity is formed by everyday encounters with representations of authority on official and consumable objects including coins, stamps, paper money and flags. This phenomenon stems from their mechanical mass reproduction, widespread dissemination and consumption making stamps an excellent meme-complex for transmitting multiple memes or units of cultural expression from one person or group to another. National anthems are a popular way for nations to eulogise their history, traditions and struggles musically since the nineteenth century, a period coinciding with the ‘invention’ of adhesive postage stamps. Consequently, it should come as no surprise to learn that anthems form a very popular design theme on stamps.

Many designs juxtapose the music and lyrics alongside a range of national symbols to create a multi-tiered symbolic identity. On 6 June 1983, the People’s Republic of China issued a 20f stamp commemorating the Sixth National People’s Congress designed by Wan Weisheng depicting music and Chinese text by Tian Han and Nie Er for the national anthem, ‘Yìyǒngjūn Jìnxíngqǔ’ below the national flag (Figure 1). Taiwan adopted a similar format for its $2.50 stamp commemorating the country’s 60th National Day issued on 10 October 1971. Designed by Yen Ki Shih and printed by the Government Printing Works in Tokyo, it depicts the music and lyrics for Taiwan’s national anthem, ‘Zhōnghuá Mínguó guógē’ beside the national flag overlaying a map of the island overlaid by the music and text (Figure 2).

1983 stamp depicting music and Chinese text
Figure 1. Henke Collection. China.
1971 stamp depicting the music and lyrics for Taiwan’s national anthem
Figure 2. Universal Postal Union (UPU) Collection: Taiwan.

Uruguay issued a 15p stamp designed by A. Medina on 19 May 1971 to commemorate the National Anthem depicting a few bars of music by Francisco Jose Deballi with Francisco Acuna de Figueroa’s lyrics beside the nation’s armorial bearings. The stamp’s selected colour scheme is identical to those adopted upon Uruguay’s flag (Figure 3).

1971 stamp depicting music and lyrics from the Uruguay's national anthem
Figure 3. UPU Collection: Uruguay.

On 25 October 1980, Costa Rica issued two stamps commemorating the national anthem. On this occasion, each design incorporates a portrait to embed the artist and music into the national symbolic and ritual narrative. The 1c stamp depicts a portrait of lyric writer, Jose Maria Zweledon Brenes (Figure 4) whilst the 10c stamp depicts the composer Manuel Maria Gutierrez whom President General Juan Rafael Mora allegedly imprisoned until he had completed the anthem score (Figures 5)!

1980 stamp depicting the music of Costa Rica's national anthem with the portrait of Jose Maria Zweledon Brenes in front of it
Figure 4. UPU Collection: Costa Rica.
1980 stamp depicting the music of Costa Rica's national anthem with the portrait of Manuel Maria Gutierrez in front of it
Figure 5. UPU Collection: Costa Rica.

Liberia issued a 6c stamp commemorating the inauguration of the Antoinette Tubman Child Welfare Foundation on 25 November 1957, depicting a group of children singing in the foreground, symbolising the nation’s future. Behind them is a song-sheet with Olmsted Luca’s music for the national anthem, juxtaposed next to a depiction of the Foundation’s headquarters (Figure 6)

1957 stamp depicting a group of children singing in the foreground and the music for Liberia's national anthem in the background
Figure 6. UPU Collection: Liberia.

K. K. Karmacharya’s designs for Nepal’s 18 February 1974 National Day Issue incorporate elements of the national anthem. The 25p stamp illustrates the Devanagari script for the old national anthem ‘Rastriya Gaan(Figure 7), whilst the 1r stamp depicts the musical score overlaying a Nepalese instrument, possibly a Sarangi (Figure 8). The anthem changed in 2006 following political unrest culminating in the abolishment of the monarchy consequently stamps depicting the old anthem are very political.

stamp from Nepal illustrating the Devanagari script for the old national anthem ‘Rastriya Gaan’
Figure 7. UPU Collection: Nepal.
stamp depicting music overlaying a Nepalese instrument
Figure 8. UPU Collection: Nepal.

On 1 December 1976, Barbados issued a set of four stamps celebrating the 10th Anniversary of Independence, all designed by PAD Studios. The 25c value depicts the anthem’s musical score and text with a range of wind and percussion instruments indicating the music should be performed (Figure 9). The $1 stamp design portrays musicians at the Independence Day Parade where the national anthem would have been part of the performance, demonstrating how anthems are an established component of state performance and ritual (Figure 10).

1976 stamp depicting the Barbados national anthem score with wind and percussion instruments surrounding it
Figure 9. UPU Collection: Barbados.
1976 stamp depicting musicians at the Barbados Independence Day Parade
Figure 10. UPU Collection: Barbados.

On 16 May 1972, Venezuela released a 5b stamp as part of their ‘Venezuela in the Americas’ Issue. It illustrates the anthem’s music overlaying flags for every nation in the Americas and Caribbean (Figure 11). The design uses the anthem’s music to reinforce national identity whilst forming part of a wider international community. Some national stamps incorporate music in their designs recognising regional identities. On 28 April 1981, Spain issued a 12p stamp commemorating Galician Autonomy, depicting the music from the ‘Himno Galego’ overlaying a map of the region above Galicia’s armorial bearings (Figure 12).

1972 stamp from Venezuela illustrating the anthem’s score overlaying flags for every nation in the Americas and Caribbean
Figure 11. UPU Collection: Venezuela.
1981 stamp depicting music from the ‘Himno Galego’ overlaying a map of the region above Galicia’s armorial bearings
Figure 12. UPU Collection: Spain.

Finally, in 1973 the Kingdom of Bhutan issued a set of seven ‘talking stamps,’ which are playable miniature records comprising the national anthem, folk music and historic narratives. Predominantly designed for the collecting community, this issue provides an excellent example of how manufacturing technologies are able to incorporate audio recordings into stamp design (Figure 13).

1973 stamp from the Kingdom of Bhutan depicting a miniature record
Figure 13. UPU Collection: Bhutan.

Postage stamps are therefore an important research resource illustrating the cultural transmission of national anthems across the national and international stage.  The design elements also incorporate a range of visual and mnemonic techniques to represent sound, music and national identity. The majority of them are musically accurate, leading one to query whether developments with MEI, OMR, TEI, Geo-Referencing and cataloguing technologies can be utilised on stamps to generate big data to support such a thesis. One hopes specialists reading this blog will be stimulated enough to develop these ideas further.

Richard Scott Morel

Curator, British Library’s Philatelic Collections

30 July 2019

Talking about research collaboration: the first British Library Digital Musicology day

On Monday 1 July, the British Library held the study day Digital Musicology and Libraries: Challenges and Opportunities. The aim of the study day was to present different perspectives on Digital Musicology projects, developments and needs, and explore ways Librarians, Musicologists and Digital Musicologists can work together to support each other. The day also intended to inspire attendees to consider collaborating with the British Library on future research projects.

Digital Musicology study day welcome slide
Digital Musicology study day. Photo by Amelie Roper

The keynote lecture was given by Dr Kevin Page, Senior Researcher, Oxford e-Research Centre. In an overview of the methods, temptations and experiences of digital musicology, he emphasised the importance of knowing your sources, knowing your methods, and recognising that there is information that will not be retrieved because of the limitations of these. He urged us to "embrace imperfect data"! The desire for perfect data is a temptation, but the perfect dataset does not exist. Instead we should use what exists, being wise to its limitations, and embrace simultaneous perspectives and encodings, rather than expecting one approach to give all the answers.

Speakers at the Digital Musicology Study Day
Digital Musicology study day. Photo by Amelie Roper

Throughout the day speakers introduced their specific projects or general approaches to working with different types of digital musicological data.

The Libraries’ perspective session opened with Richard Chesser, Head of Music at the British Library, who gave an overview of projects that the British Library has been involved with in Digital Musicology, including Early Music Online, A Big Data History of Music, The Delius Catalogue of Works and Discovering Music, as well as content the Library is making available through digitisation and other routes that can be used in Digital Musicology research.

Dr Andrew Hankinson, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford talked about Digital Musicology activities at the University of Oxford and specifically about the advantages of the IIIF technology (International Image Interoperability Framework) for conducting research with digitised images of Libraries’ collection items.

Speakers at the Digital Musicology Study Day
Digital Musicology study day. Photo by Amelie Roper

Dr Christopher Hilton of the Britten-Pears Foundation described the archival cataloguing system used by the Archive & Library, which includes work-level information, and the plans to open this up to a wider audience by making archival descriptions available as linked data. He gave interesting insights into the kind of information held: for example, the financial records of Britten and Pears, usually the dullest part of a personal archive, are revealing about how carefully and creatively the financial affairs of a gay couple had to be managed in the era before the de-criminalisation of homosexuality.

Speakers at the Digital Musicology Study Day
Digital Musicology study day. Photo by Amelie Roper

Katharine Hogg, of the Gerald Coke Handel Collection, The Foundling Museum, gave an overview of digital activities undertaken, and of planned collaborations. One type of material which the Gerald Coke Handel Collection is keen to acquire is datasets and preparatory material brought together for PhDs and publications; valuable research data which tends to disappear once the work based on it has been published.

Speakers at the Digital Musicology Study Day
Digital Musicology study day. Photo by Amelie Roper

The Academic Partners’ perspective session included presentations by Dr Emmanouil Benetos (Queen Mary, University of London), Dr Joanna Bullivant (University of Oxford), Professor Stephen Rose (Royal Holloway, University of London), and Professor Tim Crawford (Goldsmiths, University of London). Speakers talked about Digital Musicology projects they undertook in collaboration with the British Library (Digital Music Lab, Digital Delius, A Big Data History of Music, and F-Tempo respectively), and gave their perspective on the challenges and benefits of collaborative projects.

The session on Digital Archives explored challenges and opportunities around born-digital archives, as well as the Library’s digitised sound archives. Music Curators discussed recent steps that the department has undertaken to acquire born-digital archives of composers, whilst Jonathan Pledge, Curator, Contemporary Archives, Politics and Public Life at the British Library, described the methods recently developed in the Library for acquiring and making available personal digital archives of writers and scientists. Born-digital files are acquired and processed via a six-stage workflow[1].

Amelie Roper, Research Development Manager at the British Library talked about the British Library’s annual research report and the ways academics and researchers can collaborate through outlining the Library’s research collaboration process.

Some themes emerged from the day. Recurring challenges were rights clearance, sustainability of projects, differing priorities and expectations of libraries, researchers and funding bodies, technical and institutional challenges (for example difficulty in hosting non-standard software), and staff skills gaps and time constraints.

It was inspiring, however, to hear from projects exploiting opportunities. For example, IIIF technology can bring images and datasets together, so a digital copy of a manuscript can be viewed side by side with an interpretation or commentary coming from a completely different source. MEI (Music Encoding Initiative) and OMR (Optical Music Recognition) techniques can be used to enable semantically meaningful full-text analysis of certain types of digitised music, for example 16th-century lute and vocal music, resulting in new work identifications. Other opportunities arise from combining the researchers' ability to focus on a single project with libraries' expertise in the curation of metadata.

Anecdotal evidence was that libraries and researchers can work positively together to overcome challenges, and unlock new musical knowledge.

Caroline Shaw, British Library

[1] Further information in: Jonathan Pledge and Eleanor Dickens (2018): ‘Process and progress: working with born-digital material in the Wendy Cope Archive at the British Library’, Archives and Manuscripts Volume 46, Issue. 1, pages. 59-69.

05 July 2019

The Susan Bradshaw Papers: Archive of an Insightful Communicator

The archive of Susan Bradshaw (1931-2005) is now catalogued and available for consultation in the Library’s Rare Books and Music Reading Room. Proceeds from the British Library's purchase of the archive went towards the Royal Philharmonic Society's establishment of the Susan Bradshaw Composers’ Fund, as arranged by Brian Elias, composer and Bradshaw's close friend.

Susan Bradshaw at the piano_MS Mus.1755-6-1
Susan Bradshaw, London, September 1971. © Unknown photographer
(BL MS Mus. 1755/6/1, f. 30)

Susan Bradshaw pianist, teacher and writer on music, was born in Monmouth on 8 September 1931. After spending time in India and Egypt during her childhood, where her father’s work in the army had taken their family, Bradshaw embarked on learning piano and violin. She later studied at the Royal Academy of Music with Harold Craxton (piano) and Howard Ferguson (composition). Then, in 1957, Bradshaw seized the chance to expand her musical world, taking up a French Government Scholarship to study composition with modernist figurehead, Pierre Boulez, and Max Deutsch in Paris.

Bradshaw’s student ID card_MS Mus.1755-4-3
One of Susan Bradshaw’s student ID cards for her French Government Scholarship year
(BL MS Mus. 1755/4/3, f. 259)

That year in France proved a catalyst for melding musical partnerships and alliances. Bradshaw formed a piano duo with her close friend Richard Rodney Bennett, and the Mabillon Trio with Philip Jones (oboe) and William Bennett (flute). However, the year in France signalled the decline of her activity as a composer, and on her return to the UK, Bradshaw moved her energy to accompaniment and performance.

Bradshaw was an ardent advocate of new music. She helped contemporary composers by including them in ensemble programming, promoting new works with first performances and using broadcasts to share what she recognised as important and progressive about such music. Concert ephemera, cuttings from radio show advertisements and draft programme scripts in her papers record her efforts and enthusiasm.

Composers’ Guild of Great Britain award_MS Mus.1755-4-4
The Composers’ Guild of Great Britain presented Susan Bradshaw with a special award of Instrumentalist of the Year, for her services to the music of living British composers. (BL MS Mus. 1755/4/4, f. 209)

Inside Bradshaw’s Archive

Bradshaw’s archive reflects the breadth of her own musical experience and contains:

  • Draft scores of over thirty of Bradshaw’s compositions, largely from the period 1951-1958
  • Drafts of her writings on music, on individual composers/works/musical aesthetics
  • A collection of printed materials compiled by Bradshaw into composer information files
  • Scrapbooks and collected programmes, tracing Bradshaw’s musical career
  • Select correspondence from composers and friends
  • A box of 60th birthday tributes: musical compositions, letters and cards
  • Publicity photographs and documents relating to her wider musical involvements.
The Mabillon Trio by Milein Cosman_1755-4-3
The Mabillon Trio, drawn by Milein Cosman (Susan Bradshaw, piano; Philip Jones, oboe; William Bennet, flute). (BL MS Mus. 1755/4/3, f. 3: Mabillon Trio programme)

Related Resources at the British Library

Many items in the British Library Sound Archive complement and enhance the vibrant resource of Bradshaw’s paper archive. Examples include:

  • A recording of Bradshaw’s Eight Hungarian Folksongs, broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 1978. Catalogue reference: M7663.
  • Susan Bradshaw’s talk with recorded illustrations, In search of Pierre Boulez, given at the National Sound Archive in their Spring Lectures, 1985. Catalogue reference: B627/1.
  • A recording of an event dedicated to the music and literary work of Lord Berners, Lord Berners: an entertainment in words and music, 1972. Susan Bradshaw and John Betjeman both performed at this. Catalogue reference: T706, M5087.
  • William Bennett and Susan Bradshaw performing Boulez’s Sonatine for flute and piano. Catalogue reference: 2LP0048923; 1LP0073897.

Translating the ‘Shapes and Sounds’ of Composers’ Imaginings [1]

Bradshaw was well-positioned to act as a mediator between composers and audiences. She had a deep understanding of musical composition, performance and analysis, and used her knowledge of all three to interpret the works she encountered and to bring composers’ imaginings to life. Bradshaw believed that these three strands of musical endeavour were inter-related, and mutually nourishing. She appreciated that each was essential for advanced musical understanding, and furthermore, that the true product of this understanding was the communication of meaning. Whether that communication was musical (in performance), linguistic (for example, in academic writing), or pedagogical, Bradshaw saw the need to balance emotional experience with enquiry:

Passionate involvement precedes – must precede – cool appraisal; but when narcissistic pleasure starts to cancel out enquiry, when the sense of striving to understand and to reveal ceases to be the outcome of delight, when wonder becomes complacency, then great art becomes commonplace in the mind of the beholder and creation and recreation lapse into mere repetition. [2]

Bradshaw’s influence on the musical world can be seen in the archive. To trace it, one might begin with her scrapbook programmes (signalling, for example, her involvement with the Darmstadt International Summer Courses) and move to the exchange of ideas with fellow musicians in her correspondence, before visiting the vividly-expressed opinions in her writings.

New Ways of Hearing: “Untuning the Tempered Scale” [3]

The catastrophic destruction brought about by two world wars permeated all aspects of social existence; many composers felt that the old musical systems were inadequate for the development of the art. In a parallel to the destruction of societal structures through war, it was as if the hierarchies of the diatonic tonal system had to be broken down also. Composers looked to expand the resources available to them – the boundaries between music and noise blurred, and the number of notes in the conventional system increased with experiments in microtonality.

As musical modernism turned from the tradition of western diatonic tonality, it wrenched audiences from their familiar sound worlds. To the modernist composers, the rules and patterns of diatonic harmony represented predictability and constraint. Bradshaw’s broadcasting demonstrates her use of radio as a medium to promote modern music but also to challenge audiences to question the nature of listening: Why do we listen to music? What function does it have in our lives? She strove to help listeners navigate contemporary music, pointing out features and techniques, and highlighting composers’ search for truth in music.

As an individual whose influence and reach in the contemporary classical music scene was extensive, and well-evidenced in her archive, it is fitting for her papers to sit alongside those of many composers and musicians who so appreciated her support, here at the British Library.


Sarah Ellis, Archivist and Cataloguer of the Susan Bradshaw Papers (MS Mus. 1755)


[1] Susan Bradshaw, untitled (London, British Library, MS Mus. 1755/2/3, f. 152, undated).

[2] Susan Bradshaw, draft letter to the editor of Music Analysis journal (London, British Library, MS Mus 1755/2/3 ff. 45-46, undated).

[3] Susan Bradshaw, untitled (London, British Library, MS Mus. 1755/2/3, f. 152, undated).

26 June 2019

Scratch Music

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Scratch Music I Scratch Music II

This is music for a scratch orchestra - this is Scratch Music!

On Tuesday 9 July we are holding an event exploring some of the musical scores created for and by The Scratch Orchestra. We are very pleased indeed to welcome several of the founding members of the ensemble, Michael Parsons, Howard Skempton and Carole Finer. They will be sharing some of their insights, and personal experiences of composing and performing in the group with Late Junction’s Max Reinhardt. Before that, Dr Jane Alden will introduce examples of the scores, and help us understand them in the context of experimental music making in the 1960s and 70s. What's more, there will also be plenty of opportunity to hear the sounds they represent, as pieces are performed in the foyer of the Knowledge Centre by the Vocal Constructivisits before, during and after the event - you will even have a chance to try things out for yourself!

Scratch orchestra scores-full spread
Compositions and Scratch Music


It’s 50 years this year since the Scratch Orchestra was founded, initiated in part by a rather ostentatious ‘draft constitution’ published by Cornelius Cardew in the pages of The Musical Times (the June 1969 issue). In that he set out a vision for an ensemble that would pool the resources (not necessarily, or even primarily, musical) of a large number of enthusiasts: “assembling for action (music-making, performance, edification)”. It grew out of the experimental music class that Cardew taught at Morley College, and it aimed for a democratic approach to music making, where trained musicians and people from non-musical backgrounds could take part in performances on an equal footing. The idea certainly attracted people from a range of different backgrounds, including visual artists, dancers and writers. Indeed many of the scores are striking as visual art works in their own right; some even create musical pieces that don’t involve sound!


Finer Magic Carpet
Part of Carole Finer's 'Magic Carpet', 1971.


Much of this built on movements in experimental music at the time, especially the work of John Cage, Christian Wolff, Karlheinz Stockhausen (at least in part - his text score for Aus den Sieben Tagen, for example) and the cross-disciplinary, performance-art work of the Fluxus community. But it was perhaps the democratic, communal and slightly anarchic element in the Scratch that made it distinctive, especially in the context of Britain at the time. They appeared (thanks to Victor Schonfeld’s ‘Music Now’ concert series) at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and even at the Proms in 1972, but they also visited village halls, arts centres and civic buildings up and down the country. They received a call from the police (and perhaps more significantly the local press) in Newcastle, who were reacting to and, presumably inadvertently, realising Greg Bright’s Sweet FA which instructed performers to “act as obscenely as you can until the authorities arrive” - this eventually grew into a Scratch Orchestra opera, also called Sweet FA, that told the story of those events.

Ultimately the Scratch Orchestra was relatively short-lived, but its influence and something of its ethos have lived on into the present day. Several of the scores and pieces are now iconic examples of their kind – not least Cardew’s own The Great Learning, but also Howard Skempton’s Drum No. 1 and John White’s Drinking and Hooting Machine. The list of names involved with the group at different times is equally impressive: from Cardew himself, to Howard Skempton, Michael Nyman, Brian Eno, Gavin Bryars, John Tilbury, and Tom Phillips.  


Great Learning Ode Machine 2
Part of 'Ode Machine 2' from The Great Learning, by Cornelius Cardew


Knowledge of the Scratch Orchestra will live on in the form of the archive it leaves behind - albeit in a way that is missing the crucial lived experience of what it was like to be there and take part. Here at the British Library we have an extensive collection of material relating to Cornelius Cardew in particular, including:

  • 48 volumes of manuscript scores from all periods in his life (Add MS 70727-70774)
  • sketches for some of the ‘Ode Machines’ that formed part of The Great Learning (Add MS 59799)
  • five notebooks and some loose manuscript leaves (MS Mus. 1741)

We also have a substantial set of papers currently being catalogued as MS Mus. 1817 (an update on that to follow soon…). This includes correspondence from throughout Cardew’s life, but especially around the time of the Scratch Orchestra.

In addition to all that, the Sound & Vision collections here have a number of interviews with former members of the Scratch Orchestra, all full of fascinating insights into the realities of the group.

In the end questions about the nature of these scores - how they convey musical ideas, and how they are interpreted - also raise more, even more fundamental, considerations about what it means to compose music, what a musical work is, and what parameters can be ‘fixed’ and conveyed for others to interpret. The Scratch’s democratic approach to communicating ideas, and empowering everyone to explore sound, seems to get to the heart of this ideas.

So, come along on the 9th July to find out more!



23 May 2019

Music notetaking and composers' thematic catalogues in the 18th century

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The Library’s current exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark features a famous Music collection item in the sub-section on Notetakers in the People and Writing section: Mozart’s catalogue of his own works, listing works he composed between 1784 and 1791 ─ just weeks before his death (Zweig MS 63). The manuscript is titled: Verzeichnüss aller meiner Werke vom Monath Febrario 1784 bis Monath 1…  (Catalogue of all my works from the month February 1784 until the month 1…)

The catalogue was used as a notebook by Mozart for recording his music compositions, which he even carried with him when he travelled. Apart from the dates and titles Mozart also recorded other information about the works he listed, such as the instrumentation, the movements they consisted of, performers they were written for or first performed by, dedicatees, dates of first performances and other details.

The entries for each work listed were written on two pages. On the left-hand page Mozart would list the year, month, and even day a work was completed, in addition to the title of the work and any associated information. On the right-hand page he would write the opening bars of music for the corresponding entry on the left-hand page. The music was noted in order to aid the identification of each work, as most works had generic titles such as aria, sonata, quartet etc. making it impossible to distinguish between them from their titles alone. Even today it remains standard practice for scholars compiling composers’ thematic catalogues retrospectively, to record the opening bars of each musical work wherever possible. In addition, composers’ thematic catalogues today also include a unique identifier for each musical work, which for Mozart’s works, whose thematic catalogue was compiled by Ludwig von Köchel (1800-1877), consists of the letter K. from Köchel’s surname plus a number.

Each page in Mozart’s catalogue usually listed five works. The music for each work was written on two staves. In manuscript music notation staves were drawn using a tool called rastrum (plural rastra), which was a five-nibbed pen that was used for centuries for drawing music staves on paper. There also existed multi-nibbed rastra for drawing multiple staves at once.

The image below shows the pages that are currently on display at the Writing: Making Your Mark exhibition, which list entries for works composed between 16 December 1785 and 10 March 1786, namely Mozart’s Piano Concerto, K.482; his comic opera Der Schauspieldirector, K.486; his Piano Concerto K.488; a duet for the revised version of his opera Idomeneo, K.489; and two vocal pieces also for the revised version of Idomeneo, K.490.

Two pages from Mozart's thematic catalogue
British Library Zweig MS 63, f. 6v-7r

Also shown here are entries made a few years later, between December 1788 and April 1789 for comparison (f. 20v-21r). Note the slight difference in ink colour for each entry which reflects the difference in time of writing, and also the less carefull or hastier appearance of Mozart’s handwriting. The entries here are for his 12 Minuets for Orchestra, K.568; the aria Ohne Zwang, aus eignem Triebe, K.569 (a lost work); The Piano Sonata K.570; the 6 German Dances, K.571, and the Variations for piano on a Minuet by the cellist Jean Pierre Duport, K.573. At the end of the page Mozart also made a note for the arrangement that he made of Handel’s Messiah, K.572.

Two pages from Mozart's thematic catalogue
British Library Zweig MS 63, f. 20v-21r

The manuscript has been digitised and is available to view online on the British Library Digitised Manuscripts: Further information about this manuscript is also available on the British Library Turning the pages:

Other important items in our collection from this time which complement the one on display are a notebook belonging to Beethoven (Zweig MS 14) and another thematic catalogue in the hand of the composer Luigi Boccherini (Zweig MS 18). Both collection items have been digitised and can also be viewed on Digitised Manuscripts at: and

Beethoven’s notebook was used by him to record his expenses during his trip from Bonn to Vienna in November 1792 where he travelled in order to study with Haydn, and where he was to remain the rest of his life. Beethoven’s handwriting is notoriously difficult to read, especially in his sketches and documents that he kept for his personal use, but scholars have been able to fully transcribe the contents of this impressive volume.

In this notebook the 22-year-old Beethoven listed detailed expenses for food, drinks, clothing and other expenditure incurred during his journey (some of these are written in a different hand) and also after his arrival in Vienna, including expenses for lessons taken with Haydn which can be seen in the image below:

A page from Beethoven's notebook listing expenses
British Library Zweig MS 14, f.5v

There are two further entries in the notebook that mention Haydn. In the image below the last two lines that are written in pencil list expenses for coffee, presumably during a music lesson: ‘Kaffee 6 x für haidn und mich’ i.e. ‘Coffee 6 x [6 kreutzer] for Haydn and myself’. How extraordinary to have a record of Beethoven and Haydn discussing music over coffee!

A page from Beethoven's notebook listing expenses
British Library Zweig MS 14, f.10r

The final collection item shown here is another partial thematic catalogue of works written by the composer Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805).

The first page of Boccherini's autograph thematic catalogue
British Library Zweig MS 18

In contrast to the previous two collection items which were created for personal use this is an official business document, stamped at the top and accompanied by a notarial certificate. The catalogue was prepared as part of Boccherini’s dealings with the publisher Ignace Pleyel (1757-1831) in 1796. Pleyel had demanded Boccherini draw up this legal document in order to secure himself as the rightful owner and publisher of the works listed in the catalogue which Boccherini had sold to him. This document was meant to secure his exclusive rights to publish Boccherini’s works, as piracy in music publishing was not uncommon in the 18th century.

Here too Boccherini lists the opening bars of each work, though as this is not a personal document it lacks further details about works as we find in Mozart’s thematic catalogue. Note that opera (plural opere) in Italian means work, so opera 44 in the first entry means work no.44.

These three collection items, which where created only years apart, are unique examples of records that composers made in the 18th century in order to manage their professional affairs, whether these were for personal or official use. Composers’ thematic catalogues in particular are also invaluable today for the identification and dating of composers’ works.

Loukia Drosopoulou, Curator, Music


Further reading:

Mozart’s Thematic Catalogue: a facsimile. Introduction and transcription by Albi Rosenthal & Alan Tyson (London: British Library, 1990).

Dagmar von Busch-Weise, ‘Beethoven’s Jugendtagebuch: mit Tafel’, in Studien zur Musikwissenschaft, 25 Bd., Festschrift für Erich Schenk (1962), pp. 68-88.

Marco Mangani and Federica Rovelli, ‘Boccherini’s Thematic Catalogues: a reappraisal’, in Understanding Boccherini’s Manuscripts, ed. Rudolf Rasch (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014), pp. 109-128.

Arthur Searle, The British Library Stefan Zweig Collection. Catalogue of the Music Manuscripts (London: British Library, 1999).


17 February 2019

‘For Jean on her Birthday’: Vaughan Williams’s String Quartet in A minor

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Ralph Vaughan Williams’ inscription 'For Jean on her Birthday’ on the autograph score of his String Quartet No.2
'For Jean on her Birthday’: Ralph Vaughan Williams’ inscription on the autograph score of his String Quartet No. 2 (MS Mus. 1842/1).

Seventy-six years ago today, a remarkable present arrived for Jean Stewart’s birthday: the first two movements, in manuscript, of a string quartet, newly composed and dedicated to her. ‘Alas – the scherzo refuses to materialize and will have to wait for next birthday!’ read the accompanying message, signed ‘Uncle Ralph’. [1]   And Ralph Vaughan Williams kept his word: he actually completed the third and fourth movements of the work, his String Quartet no. 2 in A minor, before 1943 was out.

The opening of the first movement of Ralph Vaughan Williams' String Quartet No.2
The viola, Jean Stewart’s instrument, opens the first movement (MS Mus. 1842/1). 
String Quartet (No. 2) in A minor by Ralph Vaughan Williams © Oxford University Press 1947. Reproduced by permission. All rights reserved.

Jean Stewart (afterwards Hadley) was a violist, and had come to know Vaughan Williams through Ursula Wood, her close friend and later the composer’s second wife. Stewart had played under Vaughan Williams’s baton in the Leith Hill Festival Orchestra, and also in the first performance of his Double String Trio, an early incarnation of the Partita for Double String Orchestra, in 1938.  Three years later she joined the Menges Quartet, which the violinist Isolde Menges had founded in 1931, and it was this ensemble that Vaughan Williams had in mind when he wrote his Second String Quartet. [2]  The music is not only dedicated to Stewart but written to be played by her: the viola, which opens each movement, is given particular prominence. [3] 

The first four bars of the third movement (Scherzo)
The first four bars of the third movement (Scherzo). In the first bar Vaughan Williams notes the theme’s origin in his music for the 1941 film ‘49th Parallel’ (MS Mus. 1842/1).
© Oxford University Press 1947. Reproduced by permission. All rights reserved.

The Second String Quartet occupies an interesting position in Vaughan Williams’s music, having emerged between the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, with their shockingly different characters. The Fifth Symphony, which had received its première in June 1943, during the quartet’s gestation, is a dappled modal meditation, a Pilgrim’s Progress out of war’s madness towards a refuge of sanity and peace, and it won Vaughan Williams much gratitude.  Michael Kennedy detected some of the same ‘sustained rapture’ in the Quartet, which he saw (along with the Oboe Concerto of 1944) as a ‘satellite’ [4] or a ‘side-shoot’ of the symphony. [5]  Yet the Quartet can also ‘be seen to share the same mood’ as the Sixth Symphony – a remorseless, vein-freezing utterance astonishingly unlike the Fifth – which was begun the following year: Jeffrey Richards perceives a ‘bleak, anguished and jagged’ character in the first three movements, though they do not make quite the same terrifying plunge as the symphony into a world of rage and ruin from which, even as we listen, the last of beauty is wrenched away.  It is also significant that in the score of the Scherzo Vaughan Williams explicitly notes his re-use of a theme originally written for the war film ‘49th Parallel’, specifically for scenes in which the Nazis appear. [6] This is not an untroubled soundscape, and yet the Epilogue – marked ‘Greetings from Joan to Jean’ because of its origin in music for an abandoned film about St. Joan of Arc – is rest and benediction. [7]  If the Fifth is Vaughan Williams’ symphony of consolation, and the Sixth his symphony of desolation, the string quartet lies bittersweetly in between.

Bars 20-22 from the first movement
First movement, bars 20-22 (MS Mus. 1842/1).
© Oxford University Press 1947. Reproduced by permission. All rights reserved.

‘I am longing to get my teeth into it & for you to come & hear it with the [Menges] Quartet, and then to work it & really get to know it,’ Stewart had written to Vaughan Williams on receiving the final two movements. ‘Oh we are going to have a great time with “my” Quartet bless you!’ [8] The Second String Quartet was heard privately at the White Gates, Vaughan Williams’s house in Dorking, in July 1944, and then given its first public performance by the Menges Quartet on the 12th October that year: Jean Stewart’s present to the composer on his birthday. [9]  (The occasion of the première was one of the lunchtime concerts at the National Gallery organised by Myra Hess and Howard Ferguson, which ran from the outbreak of war in 1939 until 1946). [10]  After some revisions, and including, at Vaughan Williams’ request, the musicians’ markings, the score was published in 1947 by the Oxford University Press (with the dedication ‘For Jean on her Birthday’ clearly stated, as instructed by the composer). [11]

Letter by Vaughan Williams to Jean Stewart
Vaughan Williams writing to Stewart in around 1947: ‘I want it set out as String [Quartet] in A minor (“For Jean on her birthday”)’ (MS Mus. 1842/2)
Reproduced by permission of the Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust.

The British Library has been looking after the manuscript score for some years, but has recently been enabled to purchase it outright, thanks to a generous financial contribution by the Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust. The manuscript (MS Mus. 1842) now belongs to the nation – but of course it shall always remain Jean Stewart’s birthday present. ‘Without exaggeration this Quartet is the most lovely thing that has happened to me in my life,’ was her verdict, ‘& it will continue to be a joy to me as long as I live’. [12]  It is a special manuscript to have in the Collections. 


Dominic Newman

Manuscripts Cataloguer


[1] Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Jean Stewart, 16 February 1943. []

[2] Butterworth, Neil, Ralph Vaughan Williams: A Guide to Research (London: Garland, 1990). 4072.280000 vol. 779.

[3] Mark, Christopher, ‘Chamber music and works for soloist with orchestra’ in Alain Frogley and Aidan J. Thomson (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Vaughan Williams. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 194.

[4] Kennedy, Michael, The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), p. 286.

[5] Kennedy, Michael, Fluctuations in the response to the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams in Alain Frogley and Aidan J. Thomson (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Vaughan Williams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 284.

[6] Richards, Jeffrey, Vaughan Williams and British Wartime Cinema in Alain Frogley (ed.), Vaughan Williams Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 151, quoted in Christopher Mark, Chamber music and works for soloist with orchestra in Alain Frogley and Aidan J. Thomson (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Vaughan Williams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[7] Mark, Christopher, ibid. p. 194.

[8] Letter from Jean Stewart to RVW, 18 December 1943. []

[9] Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Jean Stewart, (undated; July 1944?). []

[10] Bosman, Suzanne, The National Gallery in Wartime (London: National Gallery, 2008), p.35.

[11] Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Jean Stewart (undated, 1947?). []

[12] Letter from Jean Stewart to Ralph Vaughan Williams, 18 December 1943. []