In Concert

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

Lucille Corcos – illustrating the Savoy operas — July 7, 2021

Lucille Corcos – illustrating the Savoy operas

Not for the first time, a chance encounter with an item from our stock sparked the idea for this post.

A colleague approached, carrying a large, battered, evidently fairly elderly book. “What d’you think about this?” A hint of excitement in her voice warned me everything wasn’t quite as it appeared. It didn’t take me long to find out why. Join us in discovering Lucille Corcos, her art, and her love for the Savoy operas of Gilbert and Sullivan. Continue reading

Revisiting ‘King Kong’, the African jazz opera — June 2, 2021

Revisiting ‘King Kong’, the African jazz opera

A small, battered volume appeared on my desk one day with the title of King Kong – the  African jazz opera. As it was a title completely unknown to me, I went exploring. What I discovered is an eye-opening slice of South Africa’s cultural history.

King Kong the African jazz opera
Front cover of our volume

King Kong?

Not the gorilla of Hollywood fame, but rather a then well-known, Johannesburg African boxer of the 1950s, Ezekiel Dlamini, who liked to call himself ‘King Kong’. The volume we have is the text of the play used for a musical based on his life and times. There is a fascinating introductory essay by Harry Bloom , the author and an active journalist at the time. Part of his description of Dlamini pulls no punches:

He was a popular idol in the townships, yet he was a bully and a braggart who would thrash a man for giving an odd look or smiling at the wrong moment.

Continue reading

More than ‘Hiawatha’- exploring the music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor — May 12, 2021

More than ‘Hiawatha’- exploring the music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

Over the past few years, the music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor has been reassessed. A lot of it has effectively been rediscovered with numerous online performances greatly assisting those who want to explore more about this composer and his legacy.

Through the prism of some equally unknown scores, join us on a brief tour and see what you think.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, 1875-1912 

508px-Samuel_Coleridge-Taylor,_photographed_by_Henry_John_Kempsell_
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor photographed in 1901. (National Archives via Wikipedia)

Throughout his all-too-short adult life, Coleridge-Taylor made an impression as a composer. In 1898, Edward Elgar described him as

far and away the cleverest fellow amongst the young men.

This is all the more impressive when you think of the prejudice and barriers a mixed-race young man must have faced in late Victorian and Edwardian England. Continue reading

Musically Wilde — February 18, 2021

Musically Wilde

It’s LGBTQ history month here in the UK. Last year, we looked at Music and W.H. Auden – a taster. This time, how musicians have responded to Oscar Wilde and his writings is our subject. 

Wilde was a poet, playwright, and author. He is also a queer icon. A man who dared to live his own life in fin de siecle Victorian London. That he did so from a place of privilege was no protection when he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ and sentenced to hard labour in prison.

Wilde’s output ranged across a wide arena. If you know him only for society comedies such as Lady Windermere’s Fan, you may not know the children’s fables, poetry, or the decadence of The Picture of Dorian Gray. There’s also his writing from the period when his life fell apart.

Apart from the operatic reworking of his play, Salomé, I had no idea which of Wilde’s works might have made it into music. Here’s a selection of what I found. Continue reading

Made in Birmingham 3 – the music of Albert Ketèlbey — January 7, 2021

Made in Birmingham 3 – the music of Albert Ketèlbey

Albert Ketèlbey was a phenomenally successful, Birmingham-born composer of the inter-war years of the twentieth century. Yet nowadays, his 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.

Continue reading

Christmas post — December 15, 2020

Christmas post

Most of us have spent a lot of life online recently. At this time of year, I’ll look forward to getting Christmas cards through the post more than ever. It’s hard to make a display of e-cards and decorative emails – receiving the real physical thing makes such a difference. In this post, I’ll be looking at one of our Victorian songs celebrating  the postal service, and then sampling some of the Victorian Christmas cards which are part of the collections here in Birmingham.

Continue reading

New music, Birmingham’s way — July 28, 2020

New music, Birmingham’s 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?

I’m revisiting a post from two and a half years ago. Someone’s random view made me look at it again. The post needed an upgrade but it also fitted in with where I am right now. To save me rewriting most of the text, little account is taken of our current situation. Continue reading

Heavy metal? Brass bands and their music — July 15, 2020

Heavy metal? Brass bands and their music

We all have blind spots when it comes to music. That time when we stand listening to a friend or colleague wax lyrical about an artist or composer who leaves us cold. For me, Wagner and Delius are two such. It’s also possible to dislike whole genres. I plead guilty in this respect and point to brass bands. Daft really, because I’ve heard little of what they can do. Join me on a short exploration of British brass bands and their music. Will it change my mind? Continue reading

Classical music through a Caribbean lens — June 22, 2020

Classical music through a Caribbean lens

Today (June 22) is Windrush day in the UK. It commemorates and celebrates those individuals who arrived on HMT Empire Windrush from the Caribbean in 1948 and their descendants.

HMT_Empire_Windrush_FL9448
HMT ‘Empire Windrush’ (photo from IWM via Wikipedia)

If you’re interested in discovering the musical legacy of those people who came to the UK for a new life, this short series of videos look good.

The British Library has a considerable number of informative and thoughtful essays on Windrush topics including this one on Calypso and the birth of British black music.

For this post though, I’ve decided to feature five contemporary, British – Caribbean composers who also all happen to be female. Continue reading

Singing the score at home — June 3, 2020

Singing the score at home

Whether you’re a singer or instrumentalist, opportunities for making music are still limited. Lockdown may have eased, but in this, little has changed. You can practise on your own of course, (subject to your neighbours) but that soon palls. If other people in your household are also musicians, that’s good. However it’s a fortunate home that has a perfect line-up and sufficient material. Continue reading

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