In Concert

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

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.

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‘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.

‘Sing, Belgians, sing!’ – Elgar and Belgium — August 10, 2017

‘Sing, Belgians, sing!’ – Elgar and Belgium

The recent WW1 centenary commemorations in Belgium brought the English composer Edward Elgar to mind, together with three largely unknown works he composed in support of that beleaguered country.

The invasion of Belgium, at the start of the war in 1914, generated a substantial wave of sympathy in the UK. A range of artistic individuals contributed to an homage called King Albert’s Book which was published by The Daily Telegraph at Christmas 1914. Elgar’s contribution was Carillon, a work for narrator and orchestra. This was the first of three works using the same scoring.

Carillon, op.75 (version for piano and optional narrator)

Elgar Carillon front cover

In it, Elgar sets a highly patriotic text by the Belgian author and poet Emile Cammaerts . The carillon of the title refers to the Belgian bell towers (as depicted on the cover), and I can imagine them, still standing, amongst the ruins and devastation of the German offensive. It’s noticeable that none of the impact of the invasion is shown in the cover design. The work was hugely popular in the UK, playing in London and on tour.

Le Drapeau Belge, op.79 (version for piano and optional narrator)

Elgar Le drapeau belge front cover

Again setting a text by Cammaerts, Elgar composed Le Drapeau Belge in 1917. The last of three works, it is also the slightest – a meditation on the colours of the Belgian flag. It is interesting that the cover art by Frank Dicksee is dated 1914. To me, the stirring, heroic image is so redolent of the opening months of the war. Of course, the intervening two and a half years had seen much fighting, horror, loss, and a distinct change in the public’s mindset. The reception given to Carillon wasn’t repeated when the new work was premiered in April 1917.

Une Voix dans le Désert, op.77 (version for piano, soprano, and optional narrator)

Elgar Une voix dans le desert

This stark, dramatic cover for the second of Elgar’s compositions is in such contrast to the other two. Here is no patriotic or sentimental fervour, but instead, a hint of the awful, bleak reality of Flanders’ fields. A desert indeed, but a man-made one. An artillery piece in the centre of the page reminds us how it was created. As do the crosses marking makeshift graves. The reddish pink is what? Reflected light from the sun, burning fires, or a reminder of blood?

The text by Cammaerts is the same. The opening stanza of Carillon is proud and patriotic in defeat:

Sing, Belgians, sing!
Although our wounds may bleed,
Although our voices break,
Louder than the storm, louder than the guns,
Sing of the pride of our defeats
‘Neath this bright Autumn sun,
And sing of the joy of honour
When cowardice might be so sweet.

Contrast this with the opening text from Une Voix (both in translation):

A hundred yards from the trenches,
Close to the battle-front,
There stands a little house,
Lonely and desolate.

Not a man, not a bird, not a dog, not a cat,
Only a flight of crows along the railway line,
The sound of our boots on the muddy road
And, along the Yser, the twinkling fires.

John Pickard in his notes for a Hyperion recording, calls it ‘a haunting, miniature masterpiece of great restraint and delicacy’. He also quotes a contemporary review of a staging:

It is night … [a] cloaked figure of a man, who soliloquises on the spectacle to Elgar’s music. …  the voice of a peasant girl is heard …  singing a song of hope and trust in anticipation of the day the war shall be ended. … he comments again on her splendid courage and unconquerable soul.

Other works that Elgar composed during the war included Starlight Express, which was performed at Christmas 1915, and The Spirit of England, first complete performance of which took place in Birmingham in 1917.

 

 

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.

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.

IMG_20170523_174232

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

IMG_20170503_160051

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

IMG_20170503_160146

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:

IMG_20170503_160337

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.

IMG_20170503_160351

 

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.

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In Concert

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