In Concert

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

Grant Us Peace! — November 15, 2018

Grant Us Peace!

Once again, we hand over the blog to another musical organisation. This time it’s Birmingham Festival Choral Society and their contribution to the Armistice commemorations. We met members of BFCS in an earlier post which talked about a weekend away rehearsing. As this post goes out, it falls between two concerts which BFCS and Nottinghamshire-based Ryton Chorale are presenting together on the theme of war and peace. The two works are Howard Goodall’s Eternal Light, and Ralph Vaughan William’s Dona Nobis Pacem.

Poppies in Flanders
Poppies flowering in Flanders

I know the VW well, having played in two performances, but I don’t know the Goodall. Both composers take ancient Latin texts from the church liturgy and add new words. In VW’s case, more poetry from his beloved Walt Whitman, and the Old Testament; and from various sources for Goodall’s work.

Here’s a piece from one of BFCS’ singers about her experience of performing in the first concert.

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The Jolly Machine – Michael Raven and urban English folk song — September 6, 2018

The Jolly Machine – Michael Raven and urban English folk song

When thinking about English folk song, it is all too easy to think of classic English folk music as collected by Cecil Sharp, Vaughan Williams, and others. Songs of an agrarian existence, sometimes idyllic, often times not, which harked back to the time when the majority of people made their living from the land. In fact, that was to be the subject of this blog post until I got distracted by a slim, home-made volume of much grittier, urban songs.

Michael Raven: The Jolly Machine (publ. 1974)

Jolly machine by Michael Raven
The front cover of the song book.

Already you get the sense of something completely different from the front cover. Here are no songs about farm labourers and pretty lasses, instead Michael Raven focusses on the ‘songs of industrial protest and social discontent’ from the area all around Birmingham. The photograph used is of four coal miners from Wednesbury, taken in the 1880s. The dirtied work clothes and the coal-blackened faces are testament to the men working in the area of the West Midlands known as the Black Country.

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Tangled Tunes – the music of Albert Ketèlbey — July 12, 2018

Tangled Tunes – the music of Albert Ketèlbey

Albert Ketèlbey was a phenomenally successful composer in the inter-war years of the twentieth century. Yet nowadays, this Birmingham composer’s music is little known, only rarely getting live performances or broadcast time.

Albert Ketèlbey (1875 – 1959)

Albert Ketelbey
Ketelbey with a quote from ‘In a Persian market’.

Ketèlbey was something of a musical prodigy, joining the Birmingham and Midland Institute School of music (now the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire ) aged eleven. Then he took up a place at London’s Trinity College of Music at the age of thirteen, entering the college at the same time as Gustav Holst. Studying composition and piano, Ketèlbey was a successful student, but on graduation he didn’t take quite the career path we might now expect.

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‘Magic mushrooms’ and other singing tips — June 14, 2018

‘Magic mushrooms’ and other singing tips

The music’s live! again, and this time we’re in the company of a local choir, the Birmingham Festival Choral Society (BFCS, for short).

A Bit of history

BFCS has a long history, stretching way back into the nineteenth century. Its history is intertwined with that of the Birmingham Triennial Music Festivals. The Festivals were held every three years to raise money for the Birmingham General Hospital. As the nineteenth century progressed, the Festival administrators spent a lot of time and effort attracting the best musical talent to compose and perform new choral music. These commissions composed by Mendelssohn, Dvorak, Sullivan, Gounod, Stanford, and later, Elgar, represented some of the best music of the time, and the BFCS was there, right at the centre. BFCS singers formed the core of each chorus used at the Festivals.

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‘Songs of the East’ – Granville Bantock and C19 exoticism — May 3, 2018

‘Songs of the East’ – Granville Bantock and C19 exoticism

I’ve been away on holiday so it’s going to be something quick this time – more visual than anything else. Don’t worry – the images are pretty stunning, and well worth a look.

Granville Bantock (1868-1946)

Granville_Bantock
Bantock as a youngish man (public domain image – artist unknown)

Bantock  is a composer with strong links to Birmingham – he was principal of the forerunner to the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, and he followed Elgar in holding the Peyton Professorship at the University of Birmingham. Unsurprisingly, we hold a lot of his printed scores, as well as some of his manuscripts. This collection is complemented by the one at the University.

Songs of Arabia

Bantock  Songs of Arabia
Songs of Arabia

These songs were composed and published at the end of the nineteenth century. As such, it’s not difficult to see that Bantock was one of many artists and musicians of that period who were fascinated by the mysterious East. The phenomenon of exoticism , the lure of the ‘otherness’ of far-off places continued in Bantock’s compositions into the next century. The texts of the songs were written by his first wife, Helen.

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Learning on the job … — March 22, 2018

Learning on the job …

Blogging isn’t something I was taught. Revisiting my first post a few days ago, I winced at the lack of information, and the things I evidently hadn’t got my head round. So here is the new, improved version to mark the first anniversary of this blog … 

The Library of Birmingham has extensive music collections. Both printed and audio. One of the least known is our historical collection of song sheets. We have thousands and thousands of them, dating from the start of the C18 through to the 1960s.  The main problem in featuring this collection is deciding which individual sheets to look at.

I’ve chosen a couple to look that which have local connections. They’re both from the nineteenth century and have pictorial covers which are wonderful and amusing to look at.

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Special delivery — December 14, 2017

Special delivery

Despite spending a lot of my life online, I still look forward at this time of year to getting Christmas cards through the post. It’s hard to make a display of e-cards and decorative emails – only the real, physical thing will do for me. In this post, I’ll be looking at one of our Victorian songs about the postman, and then sampling some of the Victorian Christmas cards which are part of the collections here in Birmingham.

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The music’s live! — October 5, 2017

The music’s live!

Music isn’t music really, until it’s sung or played. Otherwise, it’s just so many dots on a page. In the main, the Music Library exists to enable people to play, and sing, individually, or in groups. In the first of an occasional series of guest blogs, we hear from one of the groups that benefits from borrowing our performance materials.

The film Orchestra

The film Orchestra (TfO) is the UK’s first amateur orchestra to perform only original music for film, TV, and video games. Since its founding by Worcester-based musician Jane Whittle in 2013, it has developed into a self-funding project. This comprises currently of five Community Orchestras spread across the Midlands, feeding into TfO, plus concert/wind bands, brass band, sax ensemble, and choir.

The film orchestra 1
TfO’s conductor, Huw Thomas

TfO first used the Music Library of the Library of Birmingham for its 2015 season with concerts in Worcester and Kidderminster.

The Worcester floods of February 2014 wreaked havoc with TfO’s finances as their February 13th concert fell prey to the ‘Worcester City Centre – Closed’ signs which went up. Together with the TV news cameras that came in to film the flood tourists on the closed Worcester bridge. The Swan Theatre remained open however, and with the River Severn creeping up the lower road, 79 out of 81 musicians (plus guide dog) found their way on-stage to present their concert, ‘Movie Amore’. A brave audience of 119 were in attendance, many of whom had been accosted on Worcester bridge that afternoon by Jane, waving flyers, declaring that, “The film Orchestra is afloat and we will be playing Titanic this evening!” Unfortunately, the concert made a loss of £500 which very nearly sank TfO at only its second performance. The orchestra had hired-in professional scores from the music publishers at a cost of around £500: a costly mistake when half the audience was put off attending by the media reports of a ‘closed city’.

The film orchestra 2
The film Orchestra in performance

Hence we looked to Birmingham Music Library for our next season’s repertoire. The orchestra had begun to buy film, TV & video game music sets to build its own library in response to the February disaster, but there were still gaps to fill. The ability to hire sets of orchestral film music for a reasonable price from the Music Library, meant TfO was able to re-group, and re-structure. Then we were able to press on with this exciting project which brings musicians of all ages and levels of experience together in monthly rehearsals, to enjoy playing music composed for the screen.

In December 2016, TfO was able to appoint its first-ever professional conductor, Huw Thomas, who trained at Birmingham Conservatoire with TfO Manager, Edward Roberts-Malpass. Huw and Ed have guided the re-structuring of TfO, as we strive to create a specialist amateur orchestra to be proud of, one which people want to listen to, as well as participate in. The supporting Community Orchestras have given less-experienced musicians a chance to play the music they love. Whilst the professional musicians who support the project, have been given the opportunity to develop their skills in conducting TfO ensembles, and giving workshops.

The film orchestra 3
The film Orchestra in rehearsal

With light shows, back projections, actors and artists now getting involved with TfO in performances, the future is looking rosy and very exciting for TfO. We have been supported and advised by Worcestershire-based film composer Hilgrove Kenrick right from the beginning and the increasing interest from the film composers’ community around the world is a testament that The film Orchestra project is on the right track.

TfO and TfO Concert Band will perform their next concert ‘Out Of This World’ at Kidderminster Town Hall on Saturday, October 14th 2017. The concert will feature music from Hans Zimmer, John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith and Murray Gold with a special performance of ‘Trust me’ from the video game Titanfall 2 by composer, Stephen Barton who is hoping to attend the concert in person. Tickets are available from here . Be warned: we have a habit of selling out our concerts!

Birmingham Triennial Festivals 1 — July 13, 2017

Birmingham Triennial Festivals 1

Most of us are very familiar with summer music festivals, and benefit concerts. This is the tale of a benefit festival which lasted for over a century and involved some of the major British and European composers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, the town of Birmingham was expanding rapidly. The free thinkers and scientific explorations of the Lunar Society , the canal expansion, and the explosion of manufacturing drew in large numbers of people. One important facility in the town was the General Hospital. This wasn’t funded in any way by the government of the day, but instead, relied largely on charitable donations. This was where the Triennial Festivals came in.

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Fire survivor — June 15, 2017

Fire survivor

When the first Birmingham library burnt down in 1879, only a thousand items were saved. Today, I’m going to look at one of the possible survivors.

When exploring the historical printed music collections here, I was always curious as to why we stocked nothing prior to the 1880s. By this, I mean items which came into the collection at the same time as they were published. We have a large number of items published before the 1880s, but they all came into the collection through donations or later purchase. Then I learnt something of the history of public libraries in Birmingham.

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