THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

Introduction

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

22 October 2018

Recording of the week: West Africa Lagos Digital Edition

This week's selection comes from Dr Janet Topp Fargion, Lead Curator of World and Traditional Music.

Visitors to the Ake Arts and Book Festival to be held in Lagos, Nigeria, from 25-28 October 2018 will be able to see a new digital edition of the British Library's West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song exhibition. Held in 2015-16 at the British Library in London, the exhibition focused on literature, written and oral, and music from West African countries, helping to '[explode] the myth of the dark continent' (Nigerian Watch).

Some of the many recordings from the Library's collections used in the exhibition will be included in the digital edition. This one features Josiah Jesse Ransome-Kuti, grandfather of Afrobeat legend Fela Anikulapo Kuti, singing a hymn in Yoruba. The hymn is called ‘Jesu olugbala ni mo f’ori fun ẹ’ (I give myself to Jesus the Saviour).

Jesu olugbala ni mo f’ori fun ẹ, performed by J. J. Ransome-Kuti [Zonophone 3394. BL Reference T8357W]

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More about the piece and other representation of the Ransome-Kuti 'dynasty' as displayed in the exhibition can be seen at https://www.bl.uk/west-africa/articles/the-ransome-kuti-dynasty.

Follow @BL_WorldTrad and @soundarchive for all the latest news. 

17 October 2018

Religious unbelief in the life of Professor Sir Fred Holliday

Over half of respondents in the most recent British Social Attitudes survey indicated that they have ‘no religion’. All evidence suggests that the majority of this group are also either atheist or agnostic. We are able to say, then, that religious unbelief affects a very significant proportion of British people, but what else can we say about it? Religious Unbelief is little studied and not well understood, a situation that the £2.3m Understanding Unbelief project at the University of Kent seeks to change.

In a partnership with the Understanding Unbelief project, National Life Stories at the British Library is examining some of its collections of oral history recordings, with unbelief firmly in mind. What do interviewees – recorded in projects with no particular focus on religion – say about their lack of religious belief? This blog reports on one discovery: the presence of unbelief in an interview with Professor Sir Fred Holliday, recorded in a number of sessions between 2009 and 2011, part of the collection ‘An Oral History of the Water Industry’.

Fred Holliday [1935-2016] was a marine biologist who served as founding Chairman of Northumbrian Water, Vice-Chancellor and Warden of the University of Durham, Director of Shell and of British Rail. His obituaries tend to comment on his interest in science as a child, usually mentioning the decomposing snake under his mother’s bed. None that I have seen refer to his equally longstanding interest in and engagement with religion, strongly present in his British Library interview. In this interview he explains that from “about the age of twelve” he became closely involved with the family of the local Methodist minister (“they more or less adopted me [...] I learnt so much from him”) and that, because of this, he began to “announce hymns in the chapel, even try my best at a sermon”. The interviewer asks how he felt about giving these sermons, and Holliday’s reply stresses that he treated them as intellectual projects and as performances:

Fred Holliday on writing sermons (C1364/5)

FredHollidayRiverDec1960Sir Fred Holliday on the River Dee in Scotland as a young researcher, December 1960

In this clip, Holliday is keen to explain that in writing and giving the sermons, he was driven not by religious belief of his own (or even a valuing of religious belief in general), but by the enjoyment of cerebral work (“I did enjoy taking a really tough, tough Old Testament passage and – what I now know to call an exegesis – [laughs] and really unpicking it”) and the enjoyment of being looked at and listened to (“I liked attention I guess”). Nevertheless, he was clearly a Christian unbeliever (rather than, say, a nonreligious unbeliever); his unbelief was experienced through engagement with Christianity.

As the interview moves forward, Holliday confirms that he was not affected “in any [laughs] spiritual or religious sense” by the experiences in the chapel and that he differed from the Minister who “had a very, very strong inner faith” and from members of the “working class” congregation who were imagined (by himself and the Minister) as simply ‘having’ “belief”:

Fred Holliday on belief and on his scientific training (C1364/5)

In line with observations in Lois Lee’s Recognising the Non-religious (2015), we might note that while Holliday sees the (religious) worldview of others as a source of psychological comfort, he does not seem to see his own “science training” and its associated worldview as offering him anything analogous.

Holliday took his own “belief or lack of it” forward in a life that included more sermon-giving: “I’ve preached in the Church of Scotland and I’ve preached, God help me, in York Minster and Durham Cathedral since”. As Warden of the University of Durham, he interacted with the then Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, who he says “agreed with me” on aspects of Christian non-belief but who “outraged the congregation at Durham cathedral, and he did what Mr Homer had told me never do: he attacked the widows and orphans, not willingly and knowingly but he was less willing to compromise than I was”. Holliday himself continued – at least until this first interview session in 2009 – to want to describe publically the shape of his Christian unbelief while not “upsetting” his audiences:

Fred Holliday on his belief in "Einstein’s god" (C1364/5)

FredHollidaybinocularsSir Fred Holliday

At this point in the interview, he expressed his opposition to the form of unbelief promoted by fellow biologist Richard Dawkins: “read his work, know it, sympathise with a lot of it, but why oh why does he become so evangelical in this atheism”. Two years later, in 2011, when he recorded the final interview session, his position may have shifted. A period of treatment for “quite an aggressive cancer”, involving hospitalisation, seems to have made him question the value of preserving conventional religious faith in others – an experience that runs counter to what is widely held to be the case, that personal crisis encourages religious belief (though this assumption is challenged in writing by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and others, as well as in emerging findings of research led by Christel Manning):

Fred Holliday reflects on his approach to religion (C1364/5)

Holliday’s generosity in giving up precious time to record a final interview session has afforded a relatively rare direct view of personal change over time. He shares the particular sights and sounds that unsettled a long-held combination of personal unbelief and valuing of religion. His reflections are detailed and multi-layered, but he certainly seems to have come to question the golden rule of his mentor: “don’t undermine the peace of mind of the widows and orphans”.

This blog is by Dr Paul Merchant, Oral History Interviewer, National Life Stories, The British Library. Alison Gilmour interviewed Sir Fred Holliday for An Oral History of the Water Industry. The complete interview can be listened to on BL Sounds.

16 October 2018

Black History Month - The Gold Coast Police Band

JZ 282 label

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

For Black History month in previous years I have highlighted the career and work of classical musicians such as Dean Dixon and Cullen Maiden.  While considering people for this year’s blog, I received a donation which included a fascinating disc.  The performers are The Gold Coast Police Band.

It used to be that many organisations in the UK had bands made up of employees.  It was a wonderful way of promoting a community spirit, a striving for excellence dependent on each individual’s hard work and commitment producing an end result of combined quality.  The Metropolitan Police Force had divisional bands, then a main band of officers drawn from the divisions.  Its demise due to cuts happened around 1997 and only a choir now remains.  One of the most famous bands from a motor works is Foden’s Motor Works Band (still extant), a large collection of whose discs recorded from 1914 to 1963 I acquired for the British Library in 2003.

The Gold Coast Police Band was formed 1917 in Ghana.  The first recruits were retired army bandsmen from the West African Frontier Force who had studied at Kneller Hall, the Royal Military School of Music in Whitton.  From 1926 to 1941 the first European bandmaster, Mr G. T. March, was in charge and in 1943 his place was taken by Thomas Stenning.  Enlisted in the 7th Dragoon Guards in 1905, Stenning went to France with the 6th Dragoon Guards in August 1914 and was granted a regular commission in the Royal West Kent Regiment in 1917.  He resigned from this in order to study at Kneller Hall to be trained as an Army bandmaster.  From 1923 to 1936 Stenning was bandmaster to the 11th Hussars (Prince Albert’s Own) stationed in India.  From there he went to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst as bandmaster.  It was in 1943 that he took up his post with the Gold Coast Police Band.  The bandsmen were all locally enlisted African men whose sole qualification upon enlistment was ‘a liking for music.’ 

The-Band-of-the-Gold-Coast-Police-at-the-Police-Depot-Accra-Gold-Coast (2)The Gold Coast Police Band at the police depot in Accra, Ghana (courtesy of Marlborough Rare Books)

The band of thirty-five African men arrived in London by air from Accra on Wednesday 7th May 1947 for a four month tour, departing the end of August.  Two days later they were rehearsing at Hounslow before setting off on the tour.  During their stay they played in many of the London parks including, Greenwich, Victoria, Hyde and Regent’s as well as Horse Guards Parade.  On 18th May the band performed at Jephson Gardens Pavilion, Leamington Spa and on the 24th May were back in London where they led the procession from the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields to the Cenotaph for the Empire Day ceremony.  A visit to Nottingham due earlier in May was postponed until the 27th from whence they travelled to Bath for a week of performances during the first week of June.  The highlight of the tour occurred on 10th June when the band played at a Buckingham Palace Presentation Party for 5,000 guests alternating with the Band of the Coldstream Guards.  Around this time a visit to Hendon was filmed by the newsreel cameras for Colonial Cinemagazine No. 9. 

Unfortunately the film is not in colour but the newspapers described the uniforms as scarlet and navy blue with white blouses.  The band wore black shorts braided with red and had matching black caps with red tassels and wore puttees on their feet.

It was in June that the band made the first of their HMV recordings in London for sale in West Africa.  The company began recording in Accra and Lagos in 1937 and these recordings were issued with the JZ prefix.  It appears that they had made one recording in West Africa for HMV which was issued as JZ 94 accompanying J. R. Roberts in songs from The Downfall of Zachariah Fee, a pantomime by Sir Arnold Hodson, Governor of the Gold Coast Colony (and previously the Falkland Islands).

On the 20th June 1947 they recorded six sides and, just before their departure on the 29th August, six more.  As these recordings were made for the West African market they were mainly of traditional songs, with some sides conducted by Sergeant Isaac Annam.  One side was recorded with a vocal trio sung in Fanti, but there is also a disc of marches and one of Rockin’ in Rhythm by Duke Ellington.  The first recording to be made was the one classical title, the Overture to Poet and Peasant by Franz von Suppé.  The instrumental playing is of a high standard, particularly the precision of the opening quietly played brass chords.

Poet and Peasant Overture

Two years later the Daily Mirror reported that compared to pre-war trade, dealers were now selling as many as three times the number of gramophones and four times the number of records in West Africa.  In big demand were the Gold Coast Police Band’s recordings of Duke Ellington’s Rockin’ in Rhythm and an African dance number, Everybody Likes Saturday Night.  

On 6th July the band broadcast on the BBC Home Service for a half hour programme and in the middle of the month travelled north where they were billeted at Crash Camp, Sandy Lane, Gosforth for performances in Newcastle.  On 16th July they lunched with the Lord Mayor of Newcastle and took afternoon tea with the Chief Constable.  A dance in their honour was given  at Albion Assembly Rooms, North Shields where a local dance band was hired to provide entertainment.  The next day, afternoon and evening performances at Exhibition Park were given before leaving for Edinburgh and an appearance at Pittencrief Park, Dunfermline on 22nd July.  The Band then headed south for a week at Warrior Square Gardens, Hastings and further performances in London and, one would hope, some time off to explore the city before their return to Accra at the end of August.

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

15 October 2018

Recording of the week: Montserrat Volcano Observatory

This week's selection comes from Emme Ledgerwood, Collaborative Doctoral Award student with the British Library's Oral History department and Leicester University.

“I think great science comes from this natural curiosity”

This recording for #EarthScienceWeek comes from Stephen Sparks, a volcanologist who describes how the Montserrat Volcano Observatory advised the government of Monserrat during the eruption of the island’s volcano in 1995. In this clip he reflects on the relationship between science, policy and decision-making, and the value of curiosity-driven science when providing scientific advice.

Stephen Sparks: the social benefits of volcanography (C1379/89) 

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This clip is featured on the Voices of Science website. The website draws clips from the National Life Stories Oral History of British Science project which includes over 100 life story interviews with scientists and engineers.

Follow @EmmeLedgerwood , @BL_OralHistory and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

08 October 2018

Recording of the week: from the days of the demo tape

This week's selection comes from Lucia Cavorsi, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

When you work in a sound archive it’s not uncommon to find yourself drawn into a listening experience which is both immersive and enriching. For me, one of these moments arrived with a demo tape from the Serious Speakout collection (taken from the name of a London-based  promotion company active during the 1990s).

At the end of the recording I scrutinize the inlay. Who is behind this band? What is their story? I realize that, in a collection of over 700 demo tapes, this is the only all-female band I have come across. I manage to contact one of them on Facebook. After twenty two years they kindly agree to gather together again and recount their past. A Skype call doesn’t feel right. Three weeks later I fly to Bologna to meet them: Daniela Cattivelli, Silvia Fanti, Filomena Forleo, Olivia Bignardi, Flavia D’angelantonio, Margareth Kammerer. Respectively, saxophone, accordion, piano, clarinet, bass, and vocals of ‘Fastilio’.

Fastilio 1Fastilio, soon after forming, rehearsing at the occupied School of Arts, Music and Theatre - University of Bologna. Photo by Nanni Angeli 

Formed in late 1991, the story behind this experimental band is one of genuine curiosity for sound and its potential, playfulness within rigour and commitment, and risk taking. All six were enrolled at the University of Bologna’s School of Arts, Music and Theatre, which was at the time under student occupation. They met when they joined, with little musical knowledge, Laboratorio di Musica e Immagine. This was a fourteen member group with a strong socialising energy, working on collective improvisation and composition to create music for silent films.

After a year and a half they decided to try and rehearse on their own to express themselves more freely, curious to see what type of sound would come from such a diverse group of people, with both different backgrounds and creative ideas. They called themselves ‘Fastilio’ from the Italian ‘Fastidio’, meaning nuisance. Although lacking in experience, their plans were both influenced and inspired by the thriving scene of the time: concerts of experimental music, festivals featuring musicians from the Rock in Opposition movement and the Canterbury Scene, and seminars with composer and improvisor Fred Frith.   

They had been rehearsing for around four months when their first concert opportunity cropped up in February 1992. Their bass player had only picked up her bass for the first time a few months earlier, and yet the festival they were invited to featured musicians like Robert Fripp and Michael Nyman. Fastilio were offered joint billing with experimental violinist Jon Rose on opening night. Amid hesitation and excitement, short in repertoire and training, they eventually accepted. And there they were on stage with Jon Rose who, seeing how nervous they were, made shoulder muscles stretching a part of the performance. This first concert was a breakthrough; it taught them to be brave.

Fastilio 2Flyer First concert. Photo by Francesca Ponzini

Over the next five years of their existence, this band of girls in their mid-20s, committed themselves to sound. Each with different skill levels and musical personalities, Fastilio put into music their wishes of sonority, through reciprocal listening, improvising, experimenting, composing and, essentially, choreographing sound. Fastilio define their music as ‘twisted’, because of the changes in perspectives, the circularity of themes and the odd succession of harmonic and contrasting sounds.

Gradually they found themselves opening concerts for renowned musicians like Steve Coleman, performed in international festivals, jammed in cultural centres throughout Europe, and collaborated with different artists in anarchist houses in the Slavic countryside.  

The following excerpts are from a live gig recorded in Imola, September 1993

Fastilio demo tape excerpts (BL shelfmark C728/117)

Follow @lcavorsi, @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news. Many thanks go to the members of Fastilio for their help with this piece.

UOSH_Footer with HLF logo

02 October 2018

Sound, stories and new perspectives: site-specific curated sound tours of the British Library

Have you ever wandered around the British Library in St Pancras and been intrigued the art, architecture and spaces? Perhaps you’ve enjoyed an exhibition at the Library and wondered how it may have inspired other visitors? Have you ever wanted to hear more voices from the many narrators in the sound collections? Want to make the most of Black History Month 2018?

Then lucky you – we have the perfect way for you to spend 40 minutes of your time this October!

As part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project and inspired by the Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land exhibition four talented young scholars have been exploring the British Library oral history collections to highlight voices from Caribbean migrants. The sound tour guides will lead tours through the St Pancras building – playing excerpts from the sound recordings in key locations to shed new light on the architecture and artwork on display.

Kings Library - courtesy clive sherlockKing's Library, St Pancras. Photo courtesy of Clive Sherlock.

The sound tour guides; Korantema Anyimadu, Amelia Francis, Ayomide Oluyemi and Shani Page-Muir, each give a tour based on their own research – focussing on a variety of themes including – ideas of ‘home’, arrival and reception in the UK, identity and politics, community organisation and mid-20th century awareness in Britain of life in the colonial empire.

Ayomide gives an insight into just one of the clips she selected and edited, from the life story interview with Donald Hinds, (b. 1934 in Jamaica) who, after his move to Britain, became a published author reflecting on the experiences of West Indian immigrants. Ayo commented, “I found it striking in this section of the interview that some of pieces of literature Hinds found significant growing up in Jamaica were books that we see as very 'British.' He also touched upon two important Jamaican figures, Marcus Garvey and Harold Moody, who immigrated to Britain in the earlier part of the twentieth century which highlights the role pre-Windrush migrants.”

Donald Hinds reflects on his favourite literature, and the books he read whilst at school (C1149/25)

During her Sound Tour, Ayo chose to play the audio by The King's Library. She explains, “George III's collection spanning almost four centuries and many forms of writing, feels like the core of the British Library to me. It's probably the British Library's most visible text collection to the visitor and it felt appropriate to hear Donald Hinds’ voice there – as he is well known as a writer.”

Designing and leading the sound tour was a new experience for Ayo, “Although talking about history is one of my favourite things and I was very excited at the idea of getting to create my own tour, at the start I was very nervous. Feeling more confident with practice tours, being trained in how to edit sound clips and learning about oral history have been wonderful skills to gain. I'm going to miss this project when it's completed!”

After spending 40 minutes on a tour we are confident that you will see the British Library building with fresh eyes and will want to revisit the excellent exhibition and find out more about Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.

Public tours are available for tours on:
Wednesday 10 October 2018 at 18.00
Saturday 13 October 2018 at 14.00; 15.00 and 16.00
Tours last approximately 40 minutes and are free of charge:
https://www.bl.uk/events/windrush-sound-tour

Written by the BL leads on this project: Mary Stewart, Oral History Curator & Chandan Mahal, Learning Projects Manager for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.

01 October 2018

Recording of the week: a Tamil lullaby

This week's selection comes from Christian Poske, AHRC Collaborative PhD candidate and Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

The English musicologist Arthur Henry Fox Strangways recorded this Tamil lullaby with the title Lālishrīta in South India during a recording trip through the Indian subcontinent in 1910-11. An outcome of his research in India was his book The Music of Hindostan (1914) which featured transcriptions and translations of many of the songs he recorded, bringing Indian music closer to European audiences. In the book, he translates the first stanza of the song as: "Baby mine, light of my eyes, here in thy cradle bright with flowers, through sunny hours I bring thee sleep, I rock thee and sing thee to sleep, on the wings of my melodies."

Fox Strangways C72/872, song 2: Lālishrīta

Lullabies transcription (Fox Strangways C72-872)

Fox Strangways also included a photo of the performer, a school teacher from Tanjore.

Schoolmistress  Tanjore (Fox Strangways C72-872)

Professor Martin Clayton (1999: 104-112) reanalysed the song and Fox Strangways’ transcription of it, noticing that the six-beat scheme of the notation did not correspond to the rhythm of the song, which appears to be sung in a free metre. Fox Strangways may have assigned this rhythm to the piece to improve understanding for Western readers familiar with lullabies in 3/4 and 6/8 time. His inclusion in the book of only the English translation of the lyrics may also be attributed to the same reason.

Additional recordings from the Fox Strangways collection are available at https://sounds.bl.uk/World-and-traditional-music/Ethnographic-wax-cylinders

[Footnote: Clayton, Martin (1999). 'A. H. Fox Strangways and the Music of Hindostan: revisiting historical field recordings'. Journal of the Royal Musical Association 124: 86-118.]

Follow @BL_WorldTrad and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

26 September 2018

What's that? Surely music - The Gerald Cavanagh Collection

IMG_0825Magid El-Bushra with the Gerald Cavanagh Collection

By Edison Fellow Magid El-Bushra,

counter-tenor and Assistant Content Producer at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Sudanese boys growing up in Willesden Green tend not to fall in love with opera. But an encounter with Miloš Forman’s classic film Amadeus was to awaken a passion which has, in many ways, guided my life. I searched out scraps of information for myself about the art form until eventually, in my early teens, I arrived at two cultural waterfalls – the Royal Opera House, and BBC Radio 3. So, when I recently discovered that there was a collection of recordings in the British Library of Covent Garden broadcast performances on Radio 3 from the Golden Age of opera, the 1960s-70s, I knew that I had to get my hands on it, and I am eternally grateful to Jonathan Summers and the British Library Edison Fellowship scheme for allowing me to do so.

Gerald (‘Gerry’) Cavanagh, the owner of this collection of recordings, was, like me, an opera fanatic. He died in 2016 at the age of 87, leaving behind a house, two bedsits and a storage unit crammed full of opera-related paraphernalia, which attested to a lifetime dedicated to music and concert-going. Stephen Conrad, a family friend who was charged with the unenviable task of clearing out these properties, told me that in disposing of Gerry’s collection, he had managed to sell 45 feet of LPs! He was an avid collector – what we might now call a hoarder – but we have to remember that Cavanagh was part of a generation starved of culture during the war; music was a vital means of relaxation – something to be held onto.

ROH-SOU-3-012 - Donald Southern - Midsummer Nights Dream - 555 folder - 29BThe Covent Garden Opera Company production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (1961) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1961. Photograph from the Donald Southern Photographic Collection © Royal Opera House. Used with permission.  Cavanagh was present at the first London performance on 2 February 1961

As a young man in the 1950s, Cavanagh would spend his evenings in his favourite seats in the Upper Slips, (high at the top of the Royal Opera House, but with the best acoustic), with a BOAC shoulder bag hiding a clunky reel-to-reel tape recorder at his feet. (I was desperate to get my hands on those recordings, but unfortunately they seem not to have survived the house clearance!) He loved the core German and Italian 19th century repertoire most of all, but was a child of his time, and took a great interest in the musical developments in opera which occurred during his era. After retiring from a career in scientific research at Imperial College, Cavanagh and his wife Flo increased their cultural excursions from East Croydon, seeing more operas and concerts in a month than most people probably see in a lifetime. If a performance they were attending was being broadcast, they would set their recorder to tape it from the radio.

The Cavanagh Collection (C1734) that has made its way to the British Library consists of 302 reels of such recordings, mainly of broadcasts of live opera performances. There are also a few broadcasts of song recitals and orchestral concerts. In any case, the majority are of performances given at the Royal Opera House, but there are also many from ENO, Sadler’s Wells, the Proms, and from much further afield.

I set about beginning to catalogue the collection over the winter, but with my fellowship coinciding with a busy new day job at none other than the Royal Opera House, I always knew I wouldn’t have time to log every reel. Therefore, I decided to set particular emphasis on the recordings of operas from the ROH itself, as well as the recordings of contemporary operas, and to see where and to what extent there was an overlap between the two. My aim was to get a picture of what the collection can tell us about the context in which Gerald Cavanagh was consuming this operatic content.

As the majority of the recordings are taken from BBC broadcasts, I knew that the possibility that some would already exist in the British Library archive would be quite high. There are duplicates, but this does not mean the exercise has been a waste of energy. For example, the ROH broadcast of Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten conducted by Georg Solti from 17 June 1967, which already exists in the archive under the shelf mark 1CDR0028477, notes that ‘[the] recording has heavy distortion’, so it’s gratifying to know that backup now exists in Cavanagh C1734/044-045 for anyone who, like me, loves this opera. 

ROH-SOU-4-038 Roll 4  Strip 2  Frame 4Donald McIntyre as Barak and Inge Borkh as Barak’s Wife in The Covent Garden Opera Company production of 'Die Frau ohne Schatten' (1967) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1967.  Photograph from the Donald Southern Photographic Collection © Royal Opera House. Used with permission.

With few exceptions, each reel is accompanied by a clipping from the Radio Times with details of the performance, and the date helpfully written in Cavanagh’s neat hand. I say helpfully, but sometimes one has to account for human error; for example, he dates the first broadcast performance of Peter Maxwell Davies’ Taverner (C1734/210) as 15 July 1962, when the opera wasn’t premiered for another 10 years.

To demonstrate the breadth of the collection, I have included some entries from further afield, such as Szymanowski’s Hagith (C1734/128), which appears rather exotically in a live performance in Italian with the RAI Symphony Orchestra. Finnish composer Aarre Merikanto’s modernist masterpiece Juha (C1734/252, previously unknown to me) is also in the collection. The latter sounds a bit like Schoenberg orchestrating an opera written by Bartók to a libretto that Janáček would have been drawn to (young woman in small town is married to lame old man but gets seduced by dishy merchant. Tragedy ensues).

There are also opportunities to hear broadcasts which one would expect either to already be in the archive, or to already have been released commercially, such as Turandot, starring Birgit Nilsson and James King, broadcast on 15 January 1971, (C1734/282), and the world premiere of Tippett’s King Priam from 29 May 1962 (C1734/018). This performance was given by The Covent Garden Opera Company at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, ahead of its subsequent premiere at Covent Garden, and I am delighted to have been able to identify these and add them to the Sound and Moving Image (SAMI) catalogue.  Indeed, the works of Michael Tippett feature prominently in the Gerald Cavanagh Collection.  Here is an extract from Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage from 22 April 1968 with the following cast - Alberto Remedios, Joan Carlyle, Raimund Herincz, Elazabeth Harwood, Stuart Burrows, Helen Watts, Stafford Dean and Elizabeth Bainbridge with the chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, conducted by Sir Colin Davis.

Whats that? Surely music

Equally prominent are the key works of the 19th century Italian operatic repertory.  This excerpt, from Bellini's La Sonambula, broadcast on 20 March 1971, has the cast of Renata Scotto, Stuart Burrows, Forbes Robinson, David Lennox, Heather Begg, George Macpherson and Jill Gomez with the chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden conducted by Carlo Felice Cillario.

La Sonnambula

But what was always most interesting to me in this venture was not so much the process of cataloguing the collection. What really captured my imagination was more what the collection itself says to us as a piece of historical evidence. Because C1734 is more than just a collection of old tapes – it’s actually a snapshot of a cultural attitude which speaks volumes about how the process of listening to opera is shaped by our cultural institutions, not only in the 1960s and 70s, but also today. Who gets to decide what we listen to?

Despite the many transformations BBC Radio has undergone since the BBC’s foundation in 1922, the guiding principle of Inform, Educate, Entertain is one which can still be perceived today. The decisions and cultural objectives of a handful of men during those early days (from BBC founder John Reith, to BBC Music Directors Percy Pitt and Adrian Boult) would go on to shape public attitudes towards music and culture for decades to come. The Third Programme (forerunner to BBC Radio 3) ran from 1946 – 1970, and quickly established itself as one of the major channels for the dissemination of culture in Britain, with its commitment to the erudite exploration of the fine arts for six hours every evening.

The period covered by Cavanagh’s collection of tapes broadly corresponds to that of William Glock’s tenure as BBC Controller of Music (1959 – 1972). Under Glock, the Third Programme sought to define the BBC as an internationally recognised central point, from which the very newest music at the cutting edge of compositional trends would be broadcast into the living rooms of ‘ordinary’ people just like Gerry. During Glock’s tenure, those six hours every evening were expanded by 100 hours a week to a full daily schedule, which provided fertile ground for Glock (avoiding what he referred to as “the danger of musical wallpaper”) to support and nurture new music and new artists. This fit in squarely with the BBC’s lofty educational goal of forming and edifying the cultural taste of the nation.

The Royal Opera House, on the other hand, was then, and is now a completely different kind of cultural institution to the BBC, and with a completely different set of objectives and values. While there had been a recognised need to establish an opera company of international calibre at Covent Garden after the Second World War, music publishers Boosey and Hawkes (who acquired the lease for the building in 1944) and new Chairman and economist John Maynard Keynes all agreed that the fledgling permanent ensemble had to be run above all by a businessman. That businessman was David Webster, who had started his career in retail. Although the utopian dream was to create “a national style of operatic presentation which would attract composers and librettists to write for it” (according to John Tooley, Webster’s successor), “there were factors at work which would inevitably take Covent Garden down other paths”. In other words – the business objective of selling tickets took over from the cultural objective of nurturing new, indigenous work.

“In the fifty years since reopening after the war”, wrote Tooley in 1999, “less opera has been composed for Covent Garden than was originally hoped for”. Indeed, although contemporary opera is given space in The Royal Opera’s annual programming, the list of operas given their premiere at the theatre reads like a roll call of works which either met with critical disapproval, or simply sank without trace. Britten’s Gloriana (C1734/010, the Coronation gala premiere of which Gerry attended in 1953) was played to a “largely uncomprehending and unsympathetic audience”. Henze’s The Bassarids (C1734/192) was touted as an option for The Royal Opera but never made it (instead being recorded by Cavanagh from a concert performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra), as Webster was unenthusiastic. Richard Rodney Bennett’s Victory (C1734/136) and Tippett’s The Knot Garden (C1734/227) were both premiered by The Royal Opera “and ideally should have been repeated, but unfortunately our limited resources made that impossible”. The commitment to contemporary opera during this period seems half-hearted, more like a secondary consideration.

ROH-SOU-1-0207 Roll 2  Strip 6  Frame 1Anne Howells as Lena and Donald McIntyre as Axel Heyst in The Royal Opera production of 'Victory' (1970) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1970. Photograph from the Donald Southern Photographic Collection © Royal Opera House.  Used with permission.

Although there is a great deal of traditional operatic fare in C1734, what is fascinating to me is the sheer breadth and range of new opera that leaps out from the collection, most of which we simply do not hear any more. In the selection I have catalogued, there are four versions of Tippett’s King Priam alone, not to mention the four separate recordings of Britten’s Billy Budd. Among many other examples, Robin Orr’s Hermiston (C1734/238), Henze’s beautiful and witty Elegy for Young Lovers (C1734/280), and Thomas Wilson’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner (C1734/213 – another new addition to the SAMI catalogue, I’m pleased to add) all rub shoulders with classics such as La Fille du Régiment, Otello and La Clemenza di Tito, painting a picture of a wonderfully eclectic and richly informed musical taste.

The irony is that Glock’s key policy of programming challenging, contemporary opera – the policy which seems to have done so much to shape Cavanagh’s musical interests – seems to have dwindled in recent decades. Conversely, since the refurbishment of Covent Garden, and the resulting addition of the Linbury Theatre nearly 20 years ago, The Royal Opera now has more space to devote to experimental work than it ever did. Glock’s idea that at the independent BBC, change should be preferable to stability, and that novelty guarantees value, has arguably been replaced by a ratings war with Classic FM, diluting the station’s content with what the Daily Mail calls “phone-ins and presenter chatter”.

The relationship between the two institutions, although necessarily symbiotic, has often been fraught by financial contretemps, usually, according to Tooley, when BBC budget constraints have forced the ROH to seek relationships with other broadcasters. But there still remain strong ties, with the BBC’s current chief Tony Hall having arrived direct from the equivalent position at Covent Garden being a prime example of this. These ties hint at my original question about who gets to decide what we listen to. It was a network of men from a certain background who assumed responsibility for curating the content which shaped Cavanagh’s musical horizons. Perhaps today we find something slightly distasteful in the idea of an Oxbridge-educated elite deciding what the cultural diet of an ‘ordinary’ listener should consist of, and yet it is possible to perceive that this is changing, and that people from more diverse backgrounds are now contributing, bit by bit, to the landscaping of the operatic ecology.

Nowadays, our musical resources exist digitally, to the extent that C1734 seems like an anachronism. I imagine most people under the age of 30 would regard one of Cavanagh’s reel tapes as an artefact from another planet. But there’s something hugely pleasurable about the process of setting up a reel-to-reel player, sitting back, and entering into Gerry’s analogue sound world. Maybe one day someone will catalogue the boxes of millennial minidisc recordings in my attic of the broadcast performances I used to record before the advent of online streaming. It’s comforting to know that there might be a place for them, in the same way that it’s comforting to know that Gerald Cavanagh’s collection – forged over a lifetime of discovery, shaped by a cultural landscape which valued investment both in operatic tradition and in operatic innovation – is now safe in the archives of the British Library, not surviving precariously in a damp storage unit in south London. The collection is a real treasure trove for anyone interested in opera, but more than that, it’s a window into another life, glimpsed through the prism of opera.

Gerald and Florence CavanaghGerald and Florence Cavangh at Glyndebourne.  Photo by Stephen Conrad

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