In Concert

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

Souvenirs? — June 1, 2017

Souvenirs?

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow famously said that Music is the universal language of mankind. It’s no surprise then, that we stock music from many countries of the world and in many different languages. However, for some of the scores we have, I do wonder how we came to have them here. My first example led me on a short journey of exploration round the internet, and does deserve the description of being a musical souvenir.

National Musik – The Hals album (publ. 1890s)

What caught my eye was the stamp beneath the decorative front cover. It says: Bennett’s Tourist Office with the names of several Norwegian cities and towns surrounding it, including Christiania (now Oslo ) and Trondheim . What, I wondered, was someone called Bennett doing running a tourist service in nineteenth-century Norway?

Thomas Bennett (1814-1898) was secretary to the British consul in Oslo. One of his duties was looking after any British travellers who came to Norway. In the 1850s, the country was new as a tourist destination. Bennett had travelled around Norway so he was in a good position to advise any travellers and answer questions. He could also organise transport for them, sell them maps, food, and anything else they might need. This soon turned into a full-time occupation and signalled the start of the Norwegian tourist industry. Bennett’s Tourist Offices grew rapidly and assumed a dominant position in Norwegian tourism. The company remained in business until the 1990s when it was taken over and the name lost.

The main attraction for tourists then as now, was the country’s natural beauty but as the century progressed, I wonder how much the fame of the composer Edvard Grieg might have contributed to this?  This music volume contains no original works by Grieg but rather a couple of arrangements of folk music. The standard of difficulty is such that it would have been well within the capacity of anyone with a reasonable musical education.

Spring Dance arranged by Grieg

My next example is much less obviously a souvenir but it came to the library as a donation, so I wonder whether its previous owner had bought it on a trip to Canada.

Chansons populaires du Canada (publ. 1880)

Chansons populaires du Canada

This cover is stunning with so much fine detail and depth. Whether it is an idealised or genuine scene of somewhere in Canada, I don’t know. However, this music score is very much more than just a decorative item. When the Canadian folklorist and composer Ernest Gagnon first compiled this collection in 1860s, it was done as a serious, scholarly study of French Canadian folk songs. It was also a way of capturing and promoting the French Canadian way of life and its heritage. He was way ahead of his time in presenting the music just as it was, without any elaborations, or being seen through a western, classical music lens.

A la claire fontaine

He introduced each of the one hundred melodies with a short essay before giving the music and words. His work was so good that it is today still a well-known and authoritative collection of Canadian folk music. Unfortunately, the fact that it is entirely in French, seems to have counted against it once it became part of our stock in 1919. Between then and 1951, it only had four issues.

I’ll leave you with the lovely image of a beaver on the back cover.

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Songs from across the centuries 2 — May 18, 2017

Songs from across the centuries 2

There’s been a lot written and said about World War 1 recently because of the various centenary commemorations, but very little has focussed on the music. By this, I mean popular songs and piano music, not the well-known works by Elgar, Butterworth and others. From the examples we have in our collection, there was no room for doubt about the progress of the war at all in the minds of the composers and publishers. The outcome was certain – it was just a matter of time. Relentlessly upbeat would be a good description of a lot of them and the patriotism was applied by the bucket load.

I’m going to spend most of this blog looking at one sheet with particular Birmingham connections but, as I was looking for it, I came across this, a good example of a music hall song published in 1914.

God bless my soldier Daddy

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Although it’s written as a girl talking to her mother, to me, it immediately suggests a male music hall performer. I can just hear him milking the pathos of the chorus:

God bless my soldier Daddy, To war he had to go, Protect him from all danger, Because I love him so, Take care of him when fighting, Don’t let me pray in vain, God bless my soldier Daddy … And bring him safe home again.

The next song sheet is a much more home-grown affair, and also very different in its tone and purpose.

Britannia’s Glorious Flag

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Throughout the war, those who remained at home were encouraged to raise money either for the general war effort or for the soldiers at the front. This sheet was the project of two people called Brookes (presumably related)  from Birmingham – one composed the music and the other wrote the words. Their objective was to raise money for their named causes:

As The AUTHOR was also the publisher ie a private individual, it was presumably only meant for local distribution and sale. Certainly, there are no other obvious library copies held elsewhere. I’m curious to know how many copies were printed and sold – you’d have to sell a large number to make any significant contribution. Ten percent of the profits on the 6d selling price wasn’t so very much.

I suspect that the printer the Brookes used wasn’t a regular printer of sheet music – the music engraving is decidedly amateur at times:

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but again, as private individuals, they wouldn’t have had access to the engravers used by the big London publishing houses. Nor would they have wanted to spend a large amount of money getting it printed if the principal object was to raise money.

The song text is very patriotic (as you’d expect) but interestingly, it isn’t particularly anti-German. In fact, apart from a couple of mentions of the Kaiser and some commentary in the first verse, it concentrates entirely on the people caught up in the war effort, both those fighting and those at home. Here’s a sample:

“England’s in danger” was the cry: a million men replied – “We’ll rally round the good old flag” in life, in death, in pride: Our watchdogs on the sea alert, their eyes turned to the foe, Our airmen in the skies above, our submariners below … 

I’ll close with their dedication  – it shows the Brookes’ serious intent compared with the first song I looked at.

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Pretty as a picture — April 25, 2017

Pretty as a picture

Old-style library bindings were never meant to be anything other than functional. This is a pity because they can conceal some very colourful and pretty covers. I’ve chosen three to look at, which I discovered by chance. It also gives me an opportunity to talk briefly about a female composer, Liza Lehmann.

Liza Lehmann (1862 – 1918)

Liza Lehmann was an English opera singer and composer – so it’s no real surprise that the music I discovered are songs. They’re mostly for one solo voice but some are scored for a vocal quartet. She was obviously aware of her position as a female composer and so, an outsider with limited influence in the mainstream of the classical music world of the time. Late in her life, she became the first president of the Society of Women Musicians . This grouping first met with the aim of improving their mutual chances within a male-dominated profession and continued until the early 1970s.

Nonsense songs from ‘Alice in Wonderland’, 1908

Nonsense songs

A delightful cover, showing all the non-human characters (as well as Alice) depicted in the various songs. Quite why the white rabbit is clutching a musical brass instrument isn’t clear.

Hips and Haws, 1913

Hips and Haws

Here, the typography is both part of, and complementary to, the illustration. This song cycle is notable for setting five poems by the writer and poet, Radclyffe Hall from her collection, ‘Songs of Three Counties and Other Poems’.

Henry Scott's Music Warehouse

The front cover also has a large, decorative advertising stamp of a Birmingham music retailer. Henry Scott must have been a successful businessman to have had three addresses in the city.

Songs of love and springtime, 1903

Songs of love and spring

A particularly lovely cover. showing spring blossoms. It’s interesting that Graves’ name is prominent – he’s not the poet but rather the translator of verses by the German poet and playwright, Emanuel Geibel.

Hope you’ve enjoyed these. As for the musical content – Lehmann’s work is rarely performed today, although a few performances can be found on the web.

Songs from across the centuries 1 — April 6, 2017

Songs from across the centuries 1

The Library of Birmingham has extensive music collections. One of them is our historical collection of song sheets. We have thousands and thousands of them – 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.

Here’s the first one:

Simon Squeers – the undertaker’s man (publ. 1878)

Music: Vincent Davies
Words: John Cooke Jnr
simon squeers

The words of the song can be found here: http://monologues.co.uk/musichall/Songs-S/Simon-Squeers.htm

The song is clearly one for the music hall. Sometimes, the covers of music hall songs sheets show the actual performers in costume – it’s not obvious from this cover whether that’s the case. Possibly not, as the performers enjoyed having their names in print as much as the composers and lyricists.

The most obvious local connection is the publisher – listed as H. Beresford of 99 New Street. Whether they had any particular reason for publishing this song, is not known. What is worth noting is the cost of the sheet – four shillings. This was a substantial proportion of the weekly wage for the working poor
http://www.victorianlondon.org/finance/money.htm ) so it was likely that it was bought only by the middle class.

The second sheet is:

The Bombardment of Alexandria (publ. 1882)

Music: Harry Fitter Ball
Words: Tom Browne
Bombardment of Alexandria

 

It was quite common for songs or other music to be composed to commemorate British military campaigns abroad – the title of this is self-explanatory to a degree. For more information see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bombardment_of_Alexandria . What is striking and funny about this, is the illustrator’s attempt to do Egyptian costume. The head wear looks relatively convincing, but, by the time you get to the footwear, the lace-up boots are entirely Victorian.

Again, the publisher is Birmingham-based but the address is missing because of the damage to the sheet. Loose music sheets like these are vulnerable to wear and tear, and were never meant to be long-term possessions. This is probably the main reason why there are apparently no other libraries or collections which hold this particular song.

I’ll be back soon with another selection of songs from the archives.

Kristen Twardowski

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