In Concert

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

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?

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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

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.

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