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

King Kong – the African jazz opera — January 25, 2018

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 was 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 (book) which was the basis of a musical based on his life and times. There is a fascinating introductory essay by Harry Bloom , the author of the musical’s book and an active journalist at the time. I’ll be regularly quoting from the essay as it is a first-hand record of the musical’s background, development, and its subsequent fame. 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

‘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

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.

Wrighton: The Postman’s Knock (publ. 1855)

Wrighton The Postman's knock
The front cover

The first thing that strikes me, is how smart he looks. He could be any city clerk in his waistcoat and top hat, apart from his red coat. The rest of the front cover is black and white with a single tint, but the all-important coat is proudly displayed in all its bright red glory. He must have really stood out in the crowd.

Close-up of front cover
The uniform coat in close-up

In 1839, the imposition of a uniform penny charge for sending post led to greater usage, which then also led to the first pillar boxes in the 1850s. Later in the century, London residents could expect several collections and deliveries a day, almost as good as email …

The song is dedicated to Rowland Hill , the man usually credited with the reform of the postal system into something we’d recognise today. He allowed pre-payment by the sender (rather than payment on delivery) through what became adhesive postage stamps. As you’d expect with a music hall song, it is hardly profound or informative, but it does give an idea of how quickly the postman had become part of the everyday landscape in the capital, at least.

Wrighton: The postman's knock - opening
Opening of the song

Christmas cards

An official at the Post Office, Henry Cole, was responsible for starting the fashion for sending Christmas cards . It was partly a publicity ploy to get more people to use the new one penny postal service. It was successful – from the 1860s onwards, it gradually became a significant part of the British Christmas traditions.

Here at the Library of Birmingham, we have a large number of these cards in our collections. I shall be looking at just a few of them, selected from an online gallery we host.

Every good wish for your Christmas 

Every good wish for your Christmas. Victorian greetings card
A card from c. 1885

I love this one – it is so bizarre, yet still appealing. What have four booted toads (frogs?), carrying pink umbrellas, got to do with Christmas? It reminds me of those very odd Victorian installations with duelling stuffed animals.

A merry Christmas 

A Merry Christmas
A card from the 1880s

This is a cut-out of a fan attached to a card. I love the main part of the fan – so pretty – but the cat border, not so much. I’m not a great cat fan. Again there’s none of the imagery we normally associate with commercial Christmas cards.

The merry dance when dinner is done

A Happy Christmas. Victorian greetings card (1881)
A card from 1881

This very pretty card is one of a series by the famous children’s illustrator  Kate Greenaway . There’s such a wonderful sense of movement and joy. And the colours are lovely  – vibrant and rich, without being loud or brash.

Farewell heat, and welcome frost!   

Farewell heat and welcome frost! Victorian Christmas card
A card from 1880

This final card, with its quote from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, is perhaps more what we’d expect from a Christmas card. A snowy scene with plenty going on, full of people (though no females). It’s a skating rink, whether natural or manufactured. The man in the green overcoat has the unenviable task of sweeping the snow off, so keeping the surface clean for the skaters. He partially obscures two people in the process of falling over.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. Merry Christmas to one and all.

The music’s live! — November 30, 2017

The music’s live!

Here is another of our guest blogs about musicians making music. This time, we hear from the Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra, one of our local orchestras with whom we work closely. They borrow a lot of material from us, but on this occasion, Ursula tells us about a special performance which didn’t involve the library.

Film: The Battle of the Somme (originally released 1916)

Still from the film
A still from the film. (Public domain image accessed via Wikipedia).

This film from World War 1 is a silent documentary and propaganda production, shot by two government-sanctioned cinematographers, Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell. It shows the opening weeks of the Battle of the Somme, mostly for real, with only a few staged elements. When it was released in the UK in August 1916, it was seen by twenty million people within six weeks of its release. A phenomenal number of viewers who must have been shocked by its depictions of real war and all that entailed. As the then Prime Minister, Lloyd George’s quote below gives some idea of the impact the film had.

Somme film advertisement from 1916
Advertisement from The Yorkshire Evening Post. Public domain image sourced via Wikipedia

In 2006, the Imperial War Museums commissioned Laura Rossi to compose a new score to accompany the digitally-restored film for the ninetieth anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. The score was revived in 2016 as part of a plan for one hundred screenings with live orchestral performances to take place in 2016/17 as part of the rolling centenary commemorations of all aspects of the Great War.

The Performance

BPO silent film concert in progress
The BPO accompanying ‘The Battle of the Somme’ in Walsall Town Hall.

The Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra took part in an live performance / screening at Walsall Town Hall on Saturday 15 July 2017. The building is an appropriate venue as it contains two large paintings by Frank Salisbury to commemorate the ‘never to be forgotten valour of the South Staffordshire Regiments in the Great War 1914 – 1918’.

To play film music as part of a standard concert is very different from playing a score to accompany the moving image. Orchestral musicians ( and conductors) are used to playing music in their own time, varying tempos as the conductor directs, pausing in between movements, taking time to regroup. None of this is possible when the music is written to be played with a silent film. There is a very interesting  interview  with Laura Rossi about her job of composing the score to go with what is sometimes a very disparate film. The composer wrote the music to fit with the film precisely, and it is then the musicians’ job to make sure it happens. Most of the burden falls on the conductor who is largely reliant on an audible ‘click’ track to ensure that they, and their musicians, keep to the correct tempos.

We were fortunate that the film was shown on a raised screen in Walsall, allowing the orchestra to keep to its usual positions. Another performance in the West Midlands wasn’t so lucky, meaning the orchestral layout had to be rearranged somewhat, adding in another layer of difficulty.

The Orchestra

Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra logo
The orchestra’s logo

The Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra was founded during the early 1940s. It is now one of the country’s leading non-professional symphony orchestras, drawing its members from all walks of life throughout the West Midlands. For most of its members, playing in the BPO is a recreational activity, but for others, it is a stepping stone in their musical careers.

The BPO engages professional conductors and leaders, aiming to achieve the highest possible standards of performance. Artists who have appeared with the orchestra in recent years include Peter Donohoe (the orchestra’s Patron), Jane Eaglen, Jonathan French, Aled Jones, Piers Lane, Arturo Pizarro, Eduardo Vassallo, Peter Thomas, and Sir Willard White.

Recent guest conductors have included Richard Laing (our Principal Guest Conductor), Marco Romano, Michael Seal, Paul Spicer, Jason Thornton, and Jonathan Tilbrook. The BPO has also worked with choirs such as the City of Birmingham Choir, South West Festival Chorus, Birmingham Festival Choral Society, and the Warwick and Kenilworth Choral Society.

Michael Lloyd, principal conductor
Michael Lloyd, Music Director and Principal Conductor

Under the baton of current Musical Director and Principal Conductor, Michael Lloyd, the BPO has completed its long-term cycle of Mahler symphonies, explored the music of Elgar in some depth, and has diversified into ballet and opera, including performances of complete acts of works by Tchaikovsky and Wagner.

The orchestra is based in the Bramall Music Building at Birmingham University, where it rehearses for its regular concerts, which are given every couple of months at venues in Birmingham and elsewhere across the Midlands.

Music for silent cinema

Rodde & Galifer  L'Ile enchantee
One of the many scores in the collection

Another connection with the Music Library is through its collection of music for use with silent films. Some of the blogs in this thread look at various aspects of the collection. It would be intriguing if one day, the orchestra accompanied another silent film using the scores from the Music Library.

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 - 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.

Manuscript Notes

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In Concert

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