In Concert

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

Hard-hit People: Songs of the American Great Depression — May 17, 2018

Hard-hit People: Songs of the American Great Depression

If like me, you’ve read any of the Depression era novels by John Steinbeck, you can’t but remember the poverty, the difficulty of obtaining employment, and the world which his characters inhabit. This was the time of the ‘dust bowl’ environmental disaster which affected the marginal Southern Plains area of the United States (parts of Kansas, Oklahoma, and the Texas Panhandle), and also the resulting mass migration of people to California in search of jobs.

What I’m going to be looking at this time, is a collection of songs from the era, collected by Alan Lomax and others.

Hard-hittings Songs for Hard-hit People ed. by Alan Lomax, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger (publ. 1967)

Hard-hitting songs for Hard-hit people
The front cover

It’s a substantial book, containing numerous songs, their context, and a selection of sobering photos. The bulk of its content was ready for publication in the 1940s, but it took twenty years for it to be published. In fact, John Steinbeck provided the foreword for this collection. Here’s a sample: Continue reading

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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.

Continue reading

The ‘House of the rising sun’ blues … — April 5, 2018

The ‘House of the rising sun’ blues …

No, this isn’t a post about the Animals, or Bob Dylan, but rather one exploring the life of Huddie Ledbetter (better known as Lead Belly), a small book of ours, and some of the people who knew him.

As ever when I’m in search of something to write about for this blog, I went looking on our shelves for something that might grab my attention. This small American publication was the one that succeeded this time around.

The Leadbelly Songbook ed. Moses Asch and Alan Lomax (originally publ. 1962)

leadbelly songbook
The front cover

Of course, I knew the name Lead Belly (this is the generally preferred way of spelling his nickname), but beyond that my knowledge was very sketchy to say the least. When I mentioned to a colleague that I was featuring this artist, his first response was about Lead Belly’s prison record for murder. Next, the reason for his nickname – again concerning violence. When I went looking, a more complex story emerged about Lead Belly and his music. And yes, the book does contain his version of the House of the Rising Sun.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

New music, the Birmingham way — February 22, 2018

New music, the Birmingham way

Commissioning new music costs money. Sometimes a lot of money. Given the everyday financial pressures on arts organisations, finding money for commissions can be difficult. New thinking required, perhaps?

This is going to be rather a different post from usual, focussing as it will do on contemporary and avant-garde classical music. And that includes our part in helping people to realise that classical music doesn’t stop somewhere in the early C20, but is a living, breathing art form with much to offer.

Most live contemporary music performances in the city come from Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG).

bcmg logo
BCMG’s logo

BCMG has been a fixture on the Birmingham musical scene for over thirty years. From its start as an off-shoot of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), it has become one of the premier medium-sized ensembles in the UK. As an ensemble specialising in ‘new’ music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it could possibly have constructed all of its programmes from available, known music. Instead, it has made a name for itself by giving first performances of over 160 pieces of music, and counting.

Some seventy of these pieces were commissioned by BCMG. Which brings me back to my opening paragraph – how to fund these new pieces of music? Back in the 1990s, BCMG came up with a new, innovative scheme to involve ordinary music-lovers in the creation of particular works. Sound Investment is a cleverly-named scheme which invites individuals to donate money towards a particular composer’s work. Their investment allows new sounds to be created and performed. Without it, BCMG would have struggled to commission anything like that number of new pieces.

So, what has this got to do with Music Library? Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

The music’s live! — November 30, 2017
The Mayflower tercentenary song book — November 16, 2017

The Mayflower tercentenary song book

With the major American holiday of Thanksgiving just around the corner, I thought I’d look at something in our stock which commemorates the sailing of the Mayflower.

The Mayflower was the ship that transported the first group of Puritans from England to the New World. It sailed from Plymouth in the summer of 1620 with 102 passengers. They weren’t the first group of people aiming to settle in the New World, of course. But when they landed far from where they had intended to settle (Virginia), they had to form their own colony. The Mayflower carried not only people fleeing religious persecution, but also adventurers and traders. In trying to survive a bitter and snowy Massachusetts winter, it was thought necessary for all the surviving settlers to work together for the greater good.

The Mayflower Compact was signed on-board the vessel by all the male passengers before they were allowed ashore. It was what we would now call a social contract. Part of the text reads:

 [we] covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid … 

and can be seen as one of the founding documents of American democracy.

So, it is no surprise that the tercentenary celebrations in 1920 were marked in Plymouth, MA with considerable energy. There were some problems with raising funds (the First World War hadn’t long finished), trying to create a meaningful legacy, and trying to appeal to all sections of American society. These are all very contemporary concerns, but they didn’t, however, prevent a successful series of events. What might be slightly more surprising, was a series of celebrations in the UK, also centred around the original Plymouth. These weren’t organised by the national or local government, but rather by a Mayflower Council, under the chairmanship of J. Rendel Harris , a renowned biblical scholar and Quaker, who was born in Plymouth.

J. Rendel Harris  The Mayflower Song Book (publ. 1920)

Mayflower song book - front cover
The front cover

This wasn’t some commemorative tat, aimed at the casual visitor interested in the founding of the modern USA. Instead, it was a serious, religious publication

intended to be (i) an historical memorial of a great exodus of the people of God; (ii) such songs as the Pilgrims themselves might sing … ; (iii) such as we could ourselves sing with them … 

Mayflower song book - title page
The title page

The ‘Introductory Statement’ further reinforces the evangelical purpose of the book:

The men of the Mayflower stand out among English men of action. They thought deeply; they ventured in faith; they achieved what they sought, and far more. …  At the heart of the Pilgrim movement lay a passion for liberty, that led the Pilgrims, as it leads other men, further than they dreamed. It is the soul of progress, and it was first realised in the sphere of the Christian faith … 

Open the book at any page and you see a hymn on the LH page with a supporting text on the RH, either commenting directly on the history of the Mayflower and its passengers, or looking at other aspects of active, Christian faith. The hymn ‘Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah’ is paired with a quote from George Herbert’s The Church Militant:

Religion stands on tiptoe in our land, Readie to pass to th’ American strand.

Another well-known hymn, ‘Our God, our help in ages past’ is partnered with a passage giving the outline story of the Pilgrims.

Mayflower song book - list of publications for sale
List of publications for sale

Harris is connected to Birmingham, and the history of the city. A member of the Society of Friends, he was for many years the Director of Studies at Woodbrooke College in Selly Oak, a Quaker college founded by George Cadbury . A scion of the Cadbury family, also Quakers, their name is still synonymous with chocolate in Birmingham. George Cadbury founded the college (now a Quaker study centre) in 1903. It still occupies the same site, previously one of Cadbury’s own homes.

Plans are already under-weigh in the UK for the 2020 quatercentenary celebrations of the Mayflower’s sailing. I wonder what will appear this time?

 

‘Remember, remember the fifth of November …’ — November 2, 2017

‘Remember, remember the fifth of November …’

In the UK, what used to be called ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ and now more usually referred to as ‘Bonfire Night’ tends to be overshadowed these days by Halloween. If it is commemorated, it is usually billed as nothing more than an excuse to have a bonfire, some fun, and fireworks.

Just as well, really. Given that the story of Guido Fawkes and his fellow conspirators has its origins in religious intolerance, persecution, sedition, and a conspiracy to overthrow the Crown, it’s never seemed a good choice for a named ‘holiday’ in the British calendar. The persecution of anyone solely on the grounds of their religion has very uncomfortable resonances in today’s world. As has the attempt at a forced removal of a country’s head of state, or compromising the workings of democracy.

However, what I’m going to look at was published in the middle of the nineteenth century, when the social and political landscape was rather different. Although, by then, the situation for Catholics was finally starting to improve, after several centuries of either persecution, or being pushed to the margins of society. Catholic emancipation was enshrined in law in 1829, and here, in Birmingham, St. Chad’s Cathedral was the first Roman Catholic cathedral to be built in England since the Reformation, when it was completed in 1841.

Guy Fawkes – Sam Cowell’s Comic Songs (publ. ca. 1850)

Guy Fawkes - front cover
Front cover

I’ve left it as a rather larger illustration than usual, because there is just so much going on. It is a front cover that not only advertises the song within, but also alerts you, the buyer, to everything else in the same series that you might be persuaded to buy. And at the top, is a portrait of the song’s composer and singer. Almost like a trademark or a logo. I’ll look more closely at various elements as I go.

Sam Cowell

Sam Cowell
A portrait of Cowell

Sam Cowell (1820-1865) was a very famous singer and actor who spent most of his time performing in the early music hall and its forerunners. Obviously, his image on the title page is there to remind the buyer that the sheet contains one of his songs. It also serves as stamp of approval so that the buyer knew they were getting something good, something worth the three pence asking price. It is a promotional tool which is still very much in use today, and which is a powerful recommendation to any prospective buyer. Perhaps it also reminded the buyer to keep on going to hear Cowell singing live in the Song and Supper Rooms which preceded music halls, or indeed in the music halls themselves.

Alonzo the Brave

Alonzo the Brave
Promotional illustration

This is one of the promotional sketches which crowd around the outside of the main illustration. Alonzo the brave and fair Imogine is a Georgian gothic poem by Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis. I imagine that Cowell would have vamped up the horror elements, making something more comedic out of the poem, perhaps. That doesn’t offend my sensibilities particularly, but the next item does a little more …

Macbeth

Macbeth - promotional illustration
Another promotional illustration

Another of Cowell’s stage acts was apparently to take part in a burlesque version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. This form of entertainment was quite common in Victorian Britain – taking ‘serious’ plays or operas, and making parodies of them. Sending them up, essentially, poking fun at things and people which mainstream Victorian society regarded as sacrosanct.

Guy Fawkes

Guy Fawkes - the central illustration
The central illustration

The central illustration brings to mind a pantomime, with Guy Fawkes the villain of the piece being apprehended by a distinctly Victorian-looking officer of the state. The sword hanging off his belt clashes with the nineteenth-century whiskers. The tone of the piece is set by the sub-title: a no-Popery squib.

Guy Fawkes - opening bars
The opening bars

The use of the word ‘squib’ is quite clever, referring as it does to both a small, unspectacular firework, and a piece of satirical writing. The first line of the lyrics might use the words ‘doleful tragedy’, but the tone of musical writing isn’t – a bright, jaunty rhythm in F major. It’s not hard to imagine this on a stage of some kind, with Cowell in the centre, and a pianist off to the side. He tells the tale with all sorts of asides, jokes, and contemporary references to things like gas lighting, and people such as Daniel Whittle Harvey , the first Commissioner of the City of London Police.

If you’re going to a bonfire night, have fun.

Handel’s ‘Messiah’ – a C19 facsimile — October 19, 2017

Handel’s ‘Messiah’ – a C19 facsimile

Handel’s oratorio the Messiah occupies a very special place in British musical life. He wrote plenty of other dramatic, supremely tuneful choral works, but none of them have had the lasting impact of Messiah. Ever since the Dublin first performance in 1742, this oratorio has always featured in the repertoire. The nineteenth century saw most of Handel’s music falling into disuse, but performances of Messiah continued on. Some of them on a truly stupendous scale, particularly those in the Crystal Palace. In fact, the idolisation of this particular work does strike me as being a little bizarre, however wonderful it is. Even more so, the fascination with the Hallelujah Chorus.

We have all sorts of versions of the Messiah in the Music Library here – the whole work, or the odd aria or chorus, or arrangements of the best-known themes for all sorts of instruments. They date from the late eighteenth century through to the present day. That in itself shows how integral the work has been to musical life through the ages. One volume in particular, I find fascinating. It is a Victorian facsimile of Handel’s autograph manuscript (ie written in his own hand, not by a copyist).

Fac-simile of the autograph score of Messiah … by G.F. Handel (publ. 1868)

Messiah facsimile front board
Decorated front board of the facsimile
Messiah facsimile title page
Title page of the facsimile

Photo-lithography as a printing process for books is now synonymous with offset printing . This combination of photography and lithographic printing was invented in the 1850s. Amongst other uses, it allowed for accurate representations of historic documents. And so, which musical score appears early on? Messiah, of course, confirming its pre-eminence in the Victorian musical canon. And, as can be seen from the title page, the manuscript was owned at the time by the Crown. It is now one of the many jewels of the music collections at the British Library in London.

Let’s look at a few pages. It can take some time for your eye to adjust to Handel’s musical script, but once that’s happened, you can see quite clearly what is going on.

Glory to God

Handel Messiah-Glory to God
Glory to God – opening

This is one of the first big choruses involving the use of trumpets (shown at the top of the score). Handel associates them with angels and the glories of Heaven. Comparing this with a modern piano reduction gives some other pointers:

Glory to God

Trying to locate the vocal lines in the original is the first problem. My eye scanned down until it came to a line with text. This is obviously a line for the choir, but there should be three of them. In fact, the two lines above are also for the choir. Handel saved time and ink by not replicating the sung text. If you can read music, you will notice that the notes are placed differently compared to the printed version. This is because Handel employed a clef (soprano ‘G’ clef) which is no longer used. You can also see him making alterations – ‘High-est’, for example.

I know that my Redeemer liveth

I know that my redeemer liveth
I know that my Redeemer liveth – opening

This aria for soprano opens the third part of the oratorio. It is a very well-known solo. Again, trying to work what’s going on takes a little while. It’s easier than the chorus because there’s much less going on, and Handel helpfully divides the systems. Compare it with a modern printing.

Handel I know that my redeemer liveth

The blank line running through the first system is the line for the singer. It rather confusingly separates the two lines of the accompaniment. Again, the clef Handel uses makes the soprano line look as though it’s been transposed up a third. The accompaniment is in what we’d regard as normal clefs. So it looks confusingly as if the two lines, singer and accompaniment, are almost operating separately.

Hallelujah Chorus

Handel Hallelujah Chorus opening
Hallelujah Chorus – opening

Easily the most famous part of Messiah, the Hallelujah Chorus must also be one of the most well-known and ubiquitous pieces of classical music ever. Parodies, reworkings, faithful renditions – this piece of music permeates our lives. Nevertheless, it still gives me a buzz to see Handel’s manuscript.  The choir’s lines are the four above the bottom line. Handel’s saving time and ink once more, with the word ‘Hallelujah’ appearing sporadically. Here’s a modern piano reduction.

Hallelujah chorus

This wonderful manuscript doesn’t have the last word though, when it comes to determining an authentic, accurate score of Messiah. Handel altered and re-wrote things throughout his composing career, and Messiah was no exception. The current Novello publication, edited by Watkins Shaw, lists all manner of different versions, revisions, together with some transpositions. Still, this facsimile is a great thing to have.

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In Concert

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