In Concert

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

Handel’s ‘Little Journey’ to New York State — June 13, 2019

Handel’s ‘Little Journey’ to New York State

Before you wonder whether I’ve taken leave of my senses, let me explain. The composer himself never reached the New World; nor am I setting this post in some alternative universe. Instead, I’m going to look at slim, curious volume produced over a century ago in East Aurora, New York State.

Hubbard  Little journeys to the homes of great musicians: Handel (publ. 1902)

Hubbard  Little Journeys: Handel
The rather battered suede front cover

We stock a substantial quantity of material about Handel, ranging from general interest to scholarly studies on specific areas of his output. And that’s just the books. Our scores range from opera libretti and vocal scores published during his lifetime to the latest urtext editions. This booklet (a small A5 publication of 20 or so pages) stands out in a number of ways as something you might not expect to find in a public library.

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‘Life’s voyage’ and other musical New Year greetings — January 3, 2019

‘Life’s voyage’ and other musical New Year greetings

To welcome in the New Year, I went in search of something suitable. What I came back with, made me wonder yet again how we obtain some of the stock that sits on our shelves.

Neujahrsgrüsse empfindsamer Seelen, 1770-1800 (facsimile reprint 1922)

Neujahrsgrusse empfindsamer Seelen
The front cover – a little faded perhaps

Here we have a limited edition, hand-coloured facsimile printed in Germany not that long after the end of the first World War. Our copy is number 188 of 195 produced with a paper binding. The title is not that easy to translate: ’empfindsamer’ is given as ‘sensitive’ or ‘sentimental’, so it might be ‘New Year greetings to kindred souls’? My commentary will be limited, like my German. However, the illustrations and the design in this volume speak for themselves. Click on any of the images to get a more detailed view.

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An illustrated ‘Tristan and Isolde’ — October 4, 2018

An illustrated ‘Tristan and Isolde’

For this post, I’m going to look at an unusual illustrated libretto of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, published in Austria the year after the end of WWI. Once again it wasn’t what I thought I’d be writing about.

When I first started this blog, I set out the various headings which I thought covered the areas I’d be writing about. That lasted for the first few months, then my eye started wandering, finding all sorts of other things to look at. This book is a classic example. While debating a post about another local interest topic, I turned to the shelf opposite and came across this libretto.

Wagner  Tristan and Isolde (publ. 1919, Avalun Verlag)

Wagner Tristan und Isolde (Avalun Verlag) front cover
The front cover (notice the seahorse).

It’s not surprising it caught my eye. That this is no ordinary opera wordbook is apparent from the front cover, even before I opened it up.

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The Shocking Waltz – Johann Strauss I and Joseph Lanner — September 20, 2018

The Shocking Waltz – Johann Strauss I and Joseph Lanner

When the waltz was introduced as a new dance to early C19 Regency England, it was regarded as something quite scandalous. Unlike the group country dances of the times when the participants touched regularly, but only fleetingly, in the waltz, the two partners danced together exclusively. Not only that, they were touching all the time.

French caricature of the waltz
French caricature of the waltz from 1801. (Public domain)

Here’s what Lord Byron wrote at the time (anonymously) about the waltz:

Endearing Waltz! — to thy more melting tune
Bow Irish jig and ancient rigadoon.
Scotch reels, avaunt! and country-dance, forego
Your future claims to each fantastic toe!
Waltz — Waltz alone — both legs and arms demands,
Liberal of feet, and lavish of her hands;
Hands which may freely range in public sight
Where ne’er before — but — pray “put out the light.”
Methinks the glare of yonder chandelier
Shines much too far — or I am much too near;
And true, though strange — Waltz whispers this remark,
“My slippery steps are safest in the dark!”

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‘So extraordinary a spectacle’ – the 1784 Handel commemoration — June 28, 2018

‘So extraordinary a spectacle’ – the 1784 Handel commemoration

Handel has always held an especially prominent position in British classical music. Yes, his fortune has fluctuated over the years, but The Messiah , if nothing else, has kept him in the public eye.

Burney - View of the orchestra and performers ...
The apparently vertiginous staging for the performers in Westminster Abbey.

In 1784, it was decided to hold a series of three commemorative concerts in April for the twenty-fifth anniversary of Handel’s death. What we’re going to be looking at is the record of the concerts produced by the music historian, Charles Burney which was published the following year. 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.

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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.

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Fire survivor — June 15, 2017

Fire survivor

When the first Birmingham library burnt down in 1879, only a thousand items were saved. Today, I’m going to look at one of the possible survivors.

When exploring the historical printed music collections here, I was always curious as to why we stocked nothing prior to the 1880s. By this, I mean items which came into the collection at the same time as they were published. We have a large number of items published before the 1880s, but they all came into the collection through donations or later purchase. Then I learnt something of the history of public libraries in Birmingham.

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