In Concert

Get a flavour of the music collections of the Library of Birmingham – quirky, practical, historical, contemporary

Fly me to the moon! — July 17, 2019

Fly me to the moon!

I wonder how many posts and articles will bear this title over the next week or so? No surprise really, given how jaw-dropping it must have been to see humans walking on the surface of the Moon fifty years ago. I’m too young to remember it as it happened, but most people on Earth have probably seen the blurry, extraordinary footage at one time or another.

In celebration, I did a quick trawl through our songsheet collection. The moon features a lot in songs, either as itself or as moonlight. Here’s my selection. Continue reading

Summertime — June 27, 2019


Yes, summer is here, although I couldn’t help wondering where it was hiding this morning when I came to work in torrential rain. Or maybe that’s an expected part of summer in the UK? Anyway, a quick trawl through our song sheet collections produced a slew of songs from the movies with ‘summer’ in the title.

Gershwin and Heyward  Summertime (from Porgy and Bess) (publ. 1959)

Summertime - front cover
The front cover – based on the film publicity poster

To me, Porgy and Bess is an opera. Yet looking around, I quickly learnt it was first a novel, then a stage play. Gershwin took it on as an opera, and finally there was a push to make it into a film. It had a troubled gestation. One unsuccessful bidder for the rights (Harry Cohn) wanted to perform it in blackface. The Gershwin estate was determined that the cast should be African-American but that too had its problems. The story line of drugs, sexual violence, prostitution, and murder set in early twentieth-century South Carolina was problematical. Continue reading

Handel’s ‘Little Journey’ to New York State — June 13, 2019

Handel’s ‘Little Journey’ to New York State

Before you wonder whether I’ve taken leave of my senses, let me explain. The composer himself never reached the New World; nor am I setting this post in some alternative universe. Instead, I’m going to look at slim, curious volume produced over a century ago in East Aurora, New York State.

Hubbard  Little journeys to the homes of great musicians: Handel (publ. 1902)

Hubbard  Little Journeys: Handel
The rather battered suede front cover

We stock a substantial quantity of material about Handel, ranging from general interest to scholarly studies on specific areas of his output. And that’s just the books. Our scores range from opera libretti and vocal scores published during his lifetime to the latest urtext editions. This booklet (a small A5 publication of 20 or so pages) stands out in a number of ways as something you might not expect to find in a public library.

Continue reading

The Cottager’s Complaint: history in song — May 30, 2019

The Cottager’s Complaint: history in song

Single-sheet ballads (of the sort that rolled off presses all over the country) are fascinating. Over the centuries, people have written songs on all sorts of subjects – many commenting on the pressing issues of the time. They appear to be one way of getting a grievance out there, to solicit public support for a cause, or to celebrate something significant.

An earlier post, The Jolly Machine – Michael Raven and urban English folk song  looked at some local offerings through the lens of Michael Raven. This time, Roy Palmer is my guide.

Palmer  A Ballad history of England (publ. 1979)

Palmer  A ballad history of England
A different way of looking at England’s history

Our song sheet collections comprise publications aimed at a middle-class clientele, particularly so for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They (mostly) have a composer’s name on them and usually also one of a reputable publisher. This contrasts with ballad production: the words come from the people, with no one person attributed. The tunes are those already around, and the ballad sheets were sold on the street.

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Dancing ‘Tête-à-tête’: more on La Valse — May 16, 2019

Dancing ‘Tête-à-tête’: more on La Valse

Waltzes are Viennese in origin, right? Yes, unless they’re French. In an earlier post, The Shocking Waltz – Johann Strauss I and Joseph Lanner , we looked at the origins of the waltz in England. To fit in with the preconception, all the composers in that post were Austrian. This time around, the composers are French. As before, I’m going to be quoting from an excellent article by Cheryl A. Wilson.

Laurent  Satanella Valse (publ. 1850s)

Henri Laurent Satanella Valse
The dramatic cover which has been cropped at some point

Very little is known about Henri Laurent, but he obviously kept up with the current fashions. One way to make a set of waltzes up-to-date and immediately attractive was to base them on themes from the current hot opera. In this case, it was an offering from Michael Balfe. Satanella is a four-act, supernatural extravaganza involving she-demons, lightning strikes, a thwarted wedding, pirates, and redemption. It was this sort of opera that Gilbert and Sullivan set out to skewer so successfully in their Savoy operas.

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‘March, march, swing you along’ – Ethel Smyth’s life and music — May 2, 2019

‘March, march, swing you along’ – Ethel Smyth’s life and music

A while ago, I wrote our sole post about a female composer: Pretty as a picture? Songs by Liza Lehmann . It’s high time we had another one, so this time I chose to look at Ethel Smyth.

Ethel Smyth in 1901 – portrait by John Singer Sargent

As well as being composers at the start of the twentieth century, both women were members of the Society of Women Musicians . Since I posted the first essay, the fascinating linked article by Sophie Fuller came to light.  About the same time as the Society was formed (1911), Ethel Smyth was also heavily involved in the militant suffragette movement, Women’s Social and Political Union . When a call for direct action went out, Smyth responded and ended up serving two months in Holloway Prison.

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All Dressed Up … — April 18, 2019

All Dressed Up …

As may have already been said before, I’m amazed by some of the books and scores to be found on our shelves. They raise so many questions: who’s that composer; when and how did we buy that; and why. The book I’m going to look at in this post is definitely a ‘why’.

Fischer  Les Costumes de l’Opéra (publ. 1931)

Two sketches by Jean Berain
Two sketches by Jean Berain

It doesn’t take much knowledge of French to gather that it’s apparently something to do with opera costumes. However it’s not any old stage apparel; the subject is specifically geared to the wardrobe department of the Opera de Paris (the ‘l’Opéra’ of the title). So already a book with a limited readership. Add to this a scholarly, substantial text entirely in French, and my eyebrows are on the rise. Its saving grace is the illustrations and coloured plates which are scattered throughout. Continue reading

Is it that long? — April 4, 2019

Is it that long?

This blog is coming up to its second birthday! It doesn’t seem that long since I wrote our first anniversary post. While I’ve felt more relaxed about the topics featured, there have still been some distinct threads. Let’s have a look at some of the themes and popular posts over the past year.


all performers
All the performers (Jonathan Schoeps)

November saw a flurry of posts. Continue reading

Set Phasers To Stun — March 27, 2019

Set Phasers To Stun

A few weeks ago, I did a post about the composer, Gustav Holst called A Journey beyond ‘The Planets’ . In it, I looked at some lesser-known works Holst wrote. By a strange coincidence, Holst is our subject this time around as well. There’s no denying the long-lasting appeal of The Planets as a piece of music for listening to or performing. For many amateur orchestral players, having The Planets in their season’s schedule is something special.

Sometimes this isn’t possible though: if you play in a smaller orchestra, a tenor tuba,  double set of timpani, or a contra-bassoon won’t be part of your normal line-up. In that case, an inventive solution is necessary. In this post, we hear how Leamington Sinfonia  found theirs. Continue reading

Saturday Night: learning to play the guitar the BBC2 way — March 7, 2019

Saturday Night: learning to play the guitar the BBC2 way

How many ways are there to learn the guitar nowadays? Lots – ranging from online videos and virtual tuition, through CDs and sheet music, to actual teachers or learning from your peers. It seems odd now that 50 years ago, BBC2 ran two series of guitar lessons, broadcast on Saturday evenings. Unfortunately, it appears that none of the episodes survive.

The host / tutor on both occasions was John Pearse , a well-known guitarist and singer on the British folk scene. The first series was ‘Hold Down a Chord’ (broadcast 1965); the next, ‘Fingerpicking’. The book I’m going to look at was issued to complement the second series.

Continue reading

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