We’re back! It seems a long time since the last post, and it is – more than a month in fact. And hasn’t the landscape changed? Library staff are all now working from home and trying to find their way around the new normal.

This blog must also alter somewhat – I have no access to any of our stock now so the focus will change. Music will still be central of course.

A week or so ago, a BBC report caught my eye and got me thinking. The US Library of Congress hosts a National Recording Registry. Every year they select 25 recordings (music or speech) which they regard as ‘culturally, historically or aesthetically significant’ to life in the US. The one which caught the media’s eye this time was Village People’s YMCA. In the unlikely event, you’ve forgotten the song, here it is:

The link in the paragraph above will take you to the complete listing from the Library of Congress with descriptions and some annotations. I’m sure many a pleasant hour could be spent there whiling away time. Only some non-copyright entries have samples attached, but that means you can go searching elsewhere for your aural fix, disposing of more minutes.

Of course, that kind of thing sets the mind thinking of personal lists or lists connected to work or geographical situations. However, rather than a list, here’s my short selection of classical music and composers which have made an impact on the city of Birmingham through its Triennial Festivals.

Mendelssohn  Elijah (first performed 1846)

Manuscript_of_Mendelssohn's_Oratorio_'Elijah'
Copyist’s manuscript of Mendelssohn’s ‘Elijah’ (Library of Birmingham MS1721)

This oratorio is central to Birmingham’s classical music heritage. Commissioned by the city’s Triennial Musical Festivals, it was first performed in 1846 to huge acclaim. Mendelssohn wasn’t completely satisfied with the piece and worked on revisions. It was this reworked version that was performed at every subsequent Festival until the final one in 1912. The Library of Birmingham is home to a copyist’s manuscript of the original version which was used on the night by the organist, Henry Gauntlett, because Mendelssohn hadn’t brought the organ part with him.

Here’s a snippet of the revised version from YouTube. If you use Spotify, a recording of the original version may be found here.

Elgar  The Dream of Gerontius (first performed 1900)

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Elgar in the early 1900s (via Wikipedia)

Although the composer Edward Elgar is largely associated with Worcestershire, he is also claimed in part by Birmingham. He held the first music professorship at the University of Birmingham, earlier he was a jobbing violin player in the city’s orchestras, and he wrote four substantial choral works for the Triennial Festivals. The first, The Dream of Gerontius, is most well-known. There is another layer of Birmingham-ness in this work as the text Elgar set was part of a religious poem by John Henry Newman.

For a piece so well regarded in Birmingham, it got off to a very shaky start. Multiple difficulties in the rehearsal process led to an underwhelming performance. Elgar was distraught. The library here has some of the correspondence between Elgar and the Festival administrator George Hope Johnstone across this period. Unfortunately I lack the means to quote any of it currently. Never fear though, we’ll return to Elgar and the Festivals in the future.

What was clear was Elgar’s disappointment and his financial fears – he had no private income to fall back on. Johnstone did his best to bargain on Elgar’s behalf with his publisher and to assure the composer the work was sound. It took two performances in Germany the next couple of years to convince Elgar (and the musical world) that he had really written a masterpiece.

I had the good fortune to be in the audience for one of the centenary performances by the CBSO at Symphony Hall. It was stunning. I wouldn’t normally say I was a fan, but that performance would have won over almost anyone. Here’s a review to give you a flavour. Unfortunately, the CBSO’s plan to perform Gerontius for their own centenary celebrations has been cancelled due to the current situation.

Equally regrettably, I can’t find a free-to-stream version performed by the CBSO. Here instead, is one of the famous mezzo solos ‘Softly and gently, dear-ransomed soul’.

We’ll be back looking at other Birmingham classical greats. Stay tuned.