In Concert

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

A Visual Recapitulation — March 8, 2018

A Visual Recapitulation

It’s a little short of this blog’s first birthday, but as we’re currently closed for work on our flooring, I thought I’d have a wander through the posts. I have learnt a lot about blogging on the job, and I suspect the earlier posts won’t stand up to much scrutiny. However, I’m going to concentrate on the images I’ve used instead. Perhaps you missed some? Or you’d like to read the post they come from again? I’ll make sure to include all the links, though it would be easy enough to flick back through the archive.

June 2017  Souvenirs

Chansons populaires du Canada
Chansons populaires du Canada – the glorious front cover.

This post  was the first one where I really started to explore what was in front of me. I discovered fascinating pieces of information about both items featured.

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

‘Burlington Bertie’: C19 male fashion through song sheet covers — February 8, 2018

‘Burlington Bertie’: C19 male fashion through song sheet covers

Song sheets contain masses of information beyond just their musical content. Social commentary, religious, political themes, and yes, matters related to fashion. Three songs from the nineteenth century caught my eye as I was flicking through our collection, looking for inspiration. As we’ll discover, they also give us information about the performers who brought the songs to life.

Burlington Bertie – words and music by Harry B. Norris (publ. 1900)

Burlington Bertie - Harry Norris
Burlington Bertie – front cover

The first thing you notice is that the men’s clothes are being worn by a woman,  Vesta Tilley. Born in Worcester, she was one of the most famous male impersonators of the music hall era. She started performing on the stage when she was still a child, most of the time in male clothes. She’s reported as saying: I felt that I could express myself better if I were dressed as a boy.

Continue reading

‘Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy’ and ‘Shachiapang’- 2 revolutionary operas — January 11, 2018

‘Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy’ and ‘Shachiapang’- 2 revolutionary operas

As part of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) in Mao Zedong’s China, only eight approved stage works (operas and ballets) were allowed. The number of these ‘model plays’ (bāgè yàngbǎnxì) did increase over time, but the original eight continued to dominate the few productions allowed. These revolutionary operas were there not to glorify the usual characters of Peking opera (the aristocracy and courtiers). Instead they concentrated on people and happenings from China’s recent revolutionary past. Of course, they also highlighted Mao Zedong’s thoughts. Not that surprising perhaps, given his wife, Jiang Qing was the power behind the new operas.

So why am I writing about this? Continue reading

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.

Harriet Beecher Stowe in song — September 21, 2017

Harriet Beecher Stowe in song

When Uncle Tom’s Cabin was first published as a complete novel in 1852, it quickly became a sensation. As with any sensation, there are always plenty of people who want their own slice of the action. In the 1850s, one way of jumping on the bandwagon, was to write songs featuring characters from the book. At this period, it was thought no permission was needed from the author, so both people and publishers made free. Whether Harriet Beecher Stowe approved, or even knew, is anyone’s guess.

Both in the pre-civil war USA, and in the UK, the book sold heavily, although the novel’s focus on the abolitionist cause meant it didn’t sell in the Southern states of the USA. There, it tended to be vilified. and also resulted in numerous anti-Tom publications. Today, the novel’s perceived role in promoting stereotypes of its African-American characters, together with its sentimental writing style, has meant that it draws a considerable amount of negative criticism with only some praise for its anti-slavery stance. However, I think it is interesting to look at a couple of items in our collections which are related to the craze which followed the initial publication.

George Linley (1797-1865) was one such lyricist and composer who took the opportunity offered. A composer of fashionable and popular ballads, Linley wrote and composed six songs in all, based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The title illustration, and a quotation from the book, set the scene, but everything else was by Linley.

Back cover of Evangeline
Back cover of ‘Evangeline’ showing all six songs

The title page illustrations were all by John Brandard (1812-1863), a Birmingham-born lithographic artist and designer of sheet music covers. His subjects were usually opera or ballet, so I wonder if he did these as a favour to the composer. That impression is given more weight in my mind, because the illustrations here are only tinted in one colour, rather than the full colour covers he was famous for designing. They’re well produced (going on the two specimens we have), but marred by excessive sentimentality, to my modern eye.

Evangeline – ballad (publ. 1852?)

Evangeline - front cover illustration

Our copy of the songsheet has been cropped at both top and bottom. As far as the image goes, the best thing about it to my mind, is the background. It’s meant to depict a scene where Eva (Evangeline) meets Uncle Tom on a Mississippi steamboat. The excerpt from the novel quoted in the songsheet, is vague:

Evangeline - showing quote from the novel

and could be seen as simply an excuse for a sentimental ballad. The song text starts:

Sportive and free As the summer air, Bright as a ray on the mountain stream, Glides she along, Like a spirit fair, Happy and blest, as in some sweet dream.

I suppose one of the first words is ‘free’, but set to a grazioso waltz, there is nothing to suggest a great involvement in the issues of slavery. The only other thing is perhaps, to compare it to other songs in the collection. Maybe that was what Linley intended?

Emmeline and Cassy – duet (publ. 1852?)

Emmeline and Cassy - decorated front cover

Emmeline and Cassy are two minor figures in the novel, but important ones in that the author uses them to illustrate the sexual exploitation of female slaves. In doing this, Stowe was departing from the sentimental tone of the rest of the novel. None of this subject makes its way into the song setting – that would have been completely beyond the pale for amateur Victorian singers. Instead, the quote from the novel focusses on Cassy’s desire for freedom, and her relationship with Emmeline:

Emmeline and Cassy - showing quote from the novel

And here, Linley makes rather more effort with his words:

Oh! what to me, a careworn slave, Would freedom’s gift now be? Can it my children e’er restore, Or yield past joys to me?

Although, the final 6/8 duet section returns squarely to the realm of Christian sentimentality. In that, of course, it keeps in tune with Stowe’s novel.

It’s not clear at all how popular these songs were. One of the reasons for jumping on the bandwagon must have been for the possibility of making money? Or, at least, that’s how I think. However Linley’s fortunes were changed in the 1850’s by these six songs, the two copies we have are now quite rare in the UK. There’s only one other copy of Evangeline evident, and no other obvious copies of Emmeline and Cassy.


‘All for the cause’ – the labour songs of William Morris — September 7, 2017

‘All for the cause’ – the labour songs of William Morris

Hiding amongst the rest of our stock, is a small pamphlet with a faded, almost illegible spine title. Getting it off the shelf, a small front cover label declared: All for the cause, words by W. Morris. This intrigued me, and led me to find another similar publication which has many links with the first.

All for the cause (publ. 1890?) Music: E. Belfort Bax, Words: W. Morris

All for the cause by William Morris

Both William Morris and Ernest Belfort Bax were members of the Socialist League . This organisation (formed in 1885) was a splinter group which split off from another grouping, the Social Democratic Federation of Henry Hyndman . Although Morris and Belfort Bax were active, paying members, the organisation remained very small (well under a thousand members), and was very diverse in its outlook – argumentative and disputatious would perhaps be a better description. Those members who were on a working class wage, were exempted from paying their dues.

William Morris edited the League’s journal, The Commonweal, and also made good its losses out of his own pocket. Of course, Morris is better known now for his design business, and his book decorations. However, his socialism was very important to him. The words he wrote for this song are very stirring, as you might expect:

Hear a word, a word in season, for the day is drawing nigh, When the Cause shall call upon us, some to live, and some to die! (from the start of the first verse.)

Life or death then, who shall heed it, what we gain or what we lose! Fair flies the life amid the struggle, and the Cause for each shall choose, and the Cause for each shall choose.  (from the end of the fourth verse.)

All for the cause - page 4
‘All for the cause’ page 4

Looking at the music, it is not the sort to be sung on a march, or at a demonstration, but more by eager supporters, gathered round the piano in someone’s front room. I can imagine the pianist thumping out the bass line, thoughtfully written in octaves by Belfort Bax, the composer. He was a barrister by profession, with an interest in socialism, and men’s rights. Whoever was expected to buy this publication, it wasn’t going to be the average working man – six pence for four smallish sides of music wouldn’t have been high on the priority list for someone earning less than two pounds a week.

Chants of Labour (5th edition, publ. 1912) Edited by Edward Carpenter

Chants of Labour front cover

This ‘song book of the people’ was first published in 1888 – so, about the same time as All for the Cause.  Edward Carpenter was another associate of Henry Hyndman. He also became a member of the SDF, and then followed Morris into forming the Socialist League. Carpenter was more an anarchist in his outlook, rather than supporting the kind of organised socialism Hyndman was looking for. This individualistic attitude within the Socialist League (together with its many factions) was one of the reasons Morris became disillusioned with it. Carpenter is more known now for his writings, and for openly living his life as a gay man in late Victorian Britain. Walter Crane , the famous children’s book illustrator, was another active socialist. He was a friend of Morris, and provided the illustrations for The Commonweal. Here, he provides the front cover design above, together with a much more idealised frontispiece:

Chants of Labour frontispiece by Walter Crane
Frontispiece by Walter Crane

This is very heavily influenced by William Morris’ book designs. Morris also contributed to the substance of the collection by writing more verses.

The voice of toil, words by William Morris

Perhaps not the best fit for Ye banks and braes, but it works, mostly. The second verse, in particular, focusses on Morris’ dislike of fast-spreading industrialisation, and his yearning for a return to some elements of the mediaeval world:

Where fast and faster our iron master, The thing we made, for ever drives, Bids us grind treasure and fashion pleasure For other hopes and other lives.

And, guess what? All for the Cause makes another appearance, this time set to an English air:

All for the Cause - second settingIMG_20170902_152533

It’s not clear when exactly either item entered our collections, but the stamp on the first All for the Cause makes it likely that it was added soon after publication. Chants of Labour is noted as being bound in 1917. This might be seen as a reflection of Birmingham’s industrial base and its many workers.

The not-so-silent movies 3 — August 24, 2017

The not-so-silent movies 3

To say that French people are more passionate, is a cultural stereotype. Looking at the French publications in this collection certainly reinforces that. Even more so, when I compare them with the bland, twee, or merely prosaic titles from UK composers and publishers.

Last time in this thread, I looked at American and German publications, and their differences – both in their presentation, and how they were used by their owners. I find it fascinating to get some sense of which titles were used, and which weren’t, or, at least, not so much.

Take these two publications, one French, the other British:

They both use imagery from the ancient classical world, yet they’re very different. The clean, restrained background framing, and the female muse, contrast starkly with some of the titles listed: Extase langoureuse, Sur une tombe, Douce intimité. It’s very difficult to imagine any British published title from the period including the word Ecstasy in the title. Extase langoureuse is the set of parts in our collection, so Harry T . Saunders, the then owner, must have found some use for it. Or, perhaps, he hoped to find some use for it, because the set looks in suspiciously good condition.

Compare that with the British published set of parts next to it. Reginald Somerville was an actor and composer, mostly known for his drawing room ballads and a handful of operas. Passion flowers is an example of a piece of music which wasn’t written for cinema use, but found its way into a soundtrack simply because it fitted. A large number of sets in the collection come under this heading. I love the way both the figures on the cover, while trying to appear classical, instead look like a bored husband and wife, sitting on either side of the hearth.

It’s all too easy to be dismissive of a popular melody called Passion flowers, but Saunders evidently found it very much to his taste. And useful. The melody is sweet and tuneful, but hardly the epitome of passion. Although the restless accompaniment does suggest emotional unease of some kind. Take a look at this piano conductor score, protected with copious amounts of brown paper tape:

Somerville Passion flower - section of score

This has the appearance of a score that was employed often, and was an essential part of Saunder’s working collection.

Looking at our collection, it appears that French publishers were more likely to employ images on their front covers. Take a look at this one on the left:

L’ile enchantée, indeed, although it does look a bit more like a jungle as well. Not that French publishers were against series covers, which listed all available titles. In a competitive market, this sort of cover made commercial sense – if you’d bought one title and liked it, seeing a list from the same publisher would hopefully make you buy more. But once again, just the simple list with its French titles seems much more exciting, and visceral, than its British equivalent – with its talk about hurricanes, ambushes, revolution …

Drammafilma closeup of listings

A rather unfair comparison might be made with this listing from the famous British publisher Hawkes:

Hawkes photo-play series front cover

Notice that Reginald Somerville makes an appearance again, this time writing music specifically commissioned for use with silent films. Often, it appears that this was a young man’s game, their first foray into composing music, and earning a living. Somerville, as an older man, was writing music for what purpose? A new experience, perhaps? Or, a comparatively easy way to make some money – certainly easier than trying to get an opera staged.

Take a look at the listed titles by one Frederick Noyes:


Agitato is a word that appears in three titles. Although is it descriptive to a certain extent, a Heavy agitato has nothing on the Guet-apens (Ambush), L’assassinat (Murder) or Violence of the Dramafilma listing. As for Jollifications – I’m afraid my eyes roll in a particularly twenty-first century way.

Sun, moon, and stars — July 27, 2017

Sun, moon, and stars

Browsing through our songsheets, I quickly became aware of how many songs refer to heavenly bodies in one way or another. So many, in fact, that I had to narrow down my selection for this post. I settled for classical composers, and it helped if the cover was attractive. I’m a sucker for a colourful, well-designed cover.

Johannes Brahms  Mondnacht, WoO 21 (publ. late C19)

Brahms Mondnacht front cover

This setting of an Eichendorff poem talks about the sky kissing the earth, and the illustrations show this with its ethereal light and those strange blue / silver shadows you get from moonlight. The illustrator shows the bleached look very well. What they don’t capture well is the sense of movement that the poem talks about: a breeze wafted, rustling … Everything seems frozen, somehow. The figure sitting centre-stage is the poet, presumably. Brahms wrote his version a number of years after one by his friend and mentor, Robert Schumann. Looking at the music, it is very Schumannesque and deliberately so, as a tribute to his friend.

Richard Strauss  An die Nacht, op. 68 no. 1 (publ. 1919)

Richard Strauss An die Nacht front cover

This design is so different from the one for the Brahms, but the moon still dominates. Everything possible is silvered and it’s amazing that the colour of the border particularly, still gleams so brightly after almost a century. The poem by Clemens Brentano is one of a set of six set by Strauss – a major achievement in lieder writing not surpassed until his much later Vier Letzte Lieder. Some years earlier, Gustav Mahler had set a number of Brentano’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn collection of folk poetry. Here, Strauss avoids that collection and sets some of Brentano’s original poetry. The publisher issued each song of the set separately, each with a different flower on the cover. These lilies (I’m not quite sure if they are lilies) would be appropriate, both for their colour and their association with bridal bouquets – the poem has references to the image of a bride.

Camille Saint-Saëns  Vénus (publ. 1896)

Saint-Saens  Venus front cover

This little-known duet for male voices is a setting of one of Saint-Saëns’ own poems. Composed for two singers from the Paris Opera (see the dedication at the top of the image), it is an impassioned plea to Venus, both as goddess of love, and as the evening star. Both singers ask the goddess not to be late, so that they might visit their girlfriends with her shining down upon them. The minimalist backdrop of the illustration beautifully suggests the light of the star shining on the sea. And again, the colours are those of starlight or moonlight.

Frédéric Chopin  So deep is the night (Tristesse) (publ. 1939)

Chopin  So deep is the night front cover

This songsheet is rather different. It’s not a song by Chopin at all. Instead, it’s new words set to the theme of one of his most famous piano etudes, op.10 no.3, nicknamed ‘Tristesse’. In looking through it, I’m amused at how different the English lyrics are from the original French. The opening line, for example: Reviens, mon amour. J’attends ce jour de tout mon coeur, plein d’infinie douceur. The English rendering is, So deep is the night, no moon tonight, no friendly star to guide me with its light. I have the impression of two different songs going on here. Still, for a high volume, popular song, the cover art is very effective and is obviously inspired by the opening line of the English lyrics. I wonder what the French publication looked like?

No room for the sun in this post, unfortunately. Next time, perhaps.

The not-so-silent movies 2 — June 29, 2017

The not-so-silent movies 2

Looking through our collection of silent movie music, it’s fascinating to see which titles got used many times, and then coming across sets which still look pristine. The two main owners of the material, Harry T. Saunders, and Louis Benson, both bought widely. Whereas the main collections in the US have mostly American publications, our collection has a greater proportion of scores from continental Europe than either the UK or the US. The differing ways that the publishers produced their wares is also interesting, although I have to say, it does sometimes feed into perceptions of national stereotypes as well.

 Ludwig Siede Der erste Kuss

Siede Der erste Kuss

To me, in fact, to anyone, it should be entirely unsurprising that this set looks rather the worse for wear. How many hundreds, thousands of films across the years have featured a first kiss? It’s probably a set that hardly left the musicians’ stands. This impression is confirmed by looking at the part for the first violin.

Siede Der erste kuss - showing cues

The cue written on it is only the most recent of many. Louis Benson’s sets are frequently marked with cues – apparently from the intertitles of whichever film the music was being used for. The boss is away – that, to me, suggests some kind of office setting where his (at this period, it almost has to be a man) employees are free to ignore their work in favour of a more tempting and delicious occupation.  The flirtatious, teasing nature of the possible scene is evoked beautifully by the music. The skittish trills and fast staccato scales fit exactly.

Ludwig Siede was a German composer with a very long list of compositions similar to this one – characteristic intermezzos which could be used for films, or simply for background music to all sorts of events. Other titles in our collection include Glückliche liebe  (Happy love) and Padischah – Turkisches charakterstück. Somebody equally prolific in this area was the American composer J.M. Zamecnik .

J.M. Zamecnik Samarkand

Zamecnik Samarkand - series front cover
Samarkand – series front cover

This sort of branding gives the impression that photoplay music was big business – as it was for a few short years. The whole cover sheet here has listings of four different series available from Sam Fox. The listing for the Paramount series makes an interesting claim: A musical interpretation for every motion picture situation … Really? Every available space has an advertisement, wanting to sell the cinema musician more and more music.

Zamecnik wrote a vast amount but it’s interesting that the collection here only has a small quantity (30 sets out of 850). This particular series was obviously written for news reels, so the music had to set the atmosphere almost immediately. No room for an introduction or building up themes. It was more for reinforcing the images were on the screen rather than suggesting or highlighting the drama – other titles include Oriental scene, Head of the parade, In the stirrups.

Zamecnik Samarkand excerpt

Compared with the Siede set, this looks unused. It was part of Harry Saunder’s collection and it’s easy to tell those sets which he used regularly. Maybe he didn’t have much call for Turkish scenes, or, more likely, he had something else which he preferred to use. The music does suggest what might be loosely termed Middle Eastern music by the use of the key in particular. The actual music might be termed a parody by our standards but it was quite common to write like this in the early C20.

I’ll look at French and English publications next time.

Manuscript Notes

Bringing classical music closer to you

Kristen Twardowski

A Writer's Workshop

Step into classical...

The Cross-Eyed Pianist

Frances Wilson blogs on pianism, classical music and culture

A Brummie Home and Abroad

Part-time Traveller, Full-Time Brummie

Yeah, Another Blogger

An Arts-Filled, Tasty And Sometimes-Loopy Jaunt Through Life


A repository of the music in my head...

In Concert

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